Christopher Nolan: a showman’s odyssey

The multiple Oscar nominations for Oppenheimer, together with box office of $1 billion, have confirmed the director’s unique ability to sell complex, cerebral themes to a mass audience. As he prepared to receive a BFI Fellowship for his outstanding contribution to cinema, he talked about filming physics, creative collaborations and the filmmakers who were his own greatest influences.

Christopher NolanMagnus Nolan

Christopher Nolan was eight years old when he first picked up a film camera. Spotting their middle son’s unusually focused enthusiasm for cinema, his American mother and English father gave him a Super 8 camera for his birthday, and the obsession that followed was immediate and all-consuming.

Nolan was soon directing his own small movies – stop-motion shorts which made resourceful use of his action-figure toys, and the assistance of family and friends. A child of the 70s, his imagination had been fired by science-fiction films like Star Wars (1977) – the movies themselves, but also the accompanying excitement: the posters, the trailers, the inescapable merchandise.

What captivated Nolan above all, though, was the craft and process that went into making a film: the alchemy that occurred when two shots were edited together to create something entirely new in the mind of the viewer; the control it gave him to steer an audience through a narrative of his own creation, slowing or accelerating the impression of time passing; and most of all the unique effect of seeing an image captured on physical, tangible film stock itself – precious and fragile, something that he could hold in his hands, manipulate and gaze at, frame by frame.

Four decades on, that obsession remains undimmed. The Super 8 film stock may have given way to large format 65mm Imax film, the roped-in family and friends replaced by the most accomplished and creative craftspeople in cinema, and the toy action figures by some of the most renowned actors in the world, but sitting at the centre of it all, Nolan remains the same passionate, deeply committed film lover that he was at the beginning; someone who has used his considerable influence to ensure the survival of the very things that so inspired him as a child – physical film itself and the irreplaceable magic of the cinema experience.

The critical praise and astonishing commercial success that greeted Oppenheimer (2023) have only confirmed Nolan’s unique position in cinema today. Who else could have written, got financed and then directed a three-hour, $100 million studio film about the life of the brilliant but flawed ‘father of the atomic bomb’? A film that explores the reverberations of Oppenheimer’s life through American politics and the world of science – not to mention the profound implications of atomic weaponry for humankind. And who but Nolan would have seen that film become an unprecedented box-office hit, taking $1 billion worldwide (and counting)?

Drawing from American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 biography, Nolan’s film is in many ways a summation of his career to date, even as it seems to promise a fascinating move into new territory. It exemplifies the combination of virtuoso filmmaking technique, inventive narrative structures, and uncompromised but popular appeal that have distinguished all of his films.

Christopher NolanMagnus Nolan

The rapid ascent of Nolan’s career is dizzying to consider. After his ‘no-budget’ debut Following in 1998, Nolan had a breakout indie hit with Memento in 2000, a modern noir with an intricate, fractured structure and brilliant play with time and memory that established ‘Nolan-esque’ as an adjective. The reworking of the Norwegian thriller Insomnia followed in 2002, the success of which convinced Warner Bros to entrust Nolan with its Batman property, on which he surpassed any expectations over three films – Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – which not only reinvented the superhero movie, but shattered many of Hollywood’s assumptions about what a summer blockbuster could be.

Alongside those, Nolan also proved that ambitious, distinctively original ideas – often co-written with his brother, Jonathan Nolan – could still be made at scale in Hollywood, with The Prestige (2006), Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017) and Tenet (2020). Unusually for a Hollywood filmmaker, Nolan has worked repeatedly with a loyal group of actors and crew throughout his career, none of whom have been more important than his wife Emma Thomas, who he first met at university over 30 years ago, and who has co-produced every one of his films since Following.

We meet at Nolan’s smart, light-filled office building in Hollywood, the day after Oppenheimer has triumphed at the Golden Globes. Framed posters of Nolan’s films proudly adorn the walls, and if the previous night’s celebrations had run into the early hours, he shows little sign of fatigue, and is unfailingly attentive and engaged throughout. Hollywood may have been home for Nolan and Thomas for more than two decades now, but there are some giveaway English habits that clearly remain hard to break, and he jumps up repeatedly to refill cup after cup of Earl Grey tea as we talk.

James Bell: I saw Oppenheimer again a couple of nights ago at the BFI Imax in London. It was completely sold out, with all different ages in the audience. The usher at the start said, “Hands up, who’s seen it twice, three times, four, five, six?” and the hands kept going up.

Christopher Nolan: It’s broken the house record there, which is shocking. As it also has playing on Imax at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater, down the road from here, which is the most famous cinema in the world. And we didn’t just break it, we doubled it. It’s mad.

It’s surely a surprise for this film particularly?

One hundred per cent a surprise. I’ve had the good fortune in my career of having things catch fire a couple of times, and you ride that wave, but there’s something special with this project. I had a lot of confidence in the interest of the story, but no, I never imagined a popular hit on this level.

Why do you think it has resonated so widely? Are there themes that have captured the times?

It’s dangerous to ‘Monday morning quarterback’, as the expression goes, but I was convinced this story was the most dramatic I’d ever encountered. When I would talk to the marketing people at Universal, I kept coming back to something I referenced in Tenet [2020], of these scientists saying, “We’re going to detonate the first nuclear device, and we can’t completely eliminate the possibility that it might destroy the entire world.” There’s never been another moment like that, and you couldn’t make a credible moment like that in fiction either – nobody would believe it. But this really happened.

I pushed them to back it as a blockbuster, because we knew we were pulling out in the summer, and wanted to open it widely. There’d been a gap in movies: there’s the Roland Joffé film from 1989 that Bruce Robinson wrote, but even with the title Fat Man and Little Boy, its focus was a little wider. The idea of looking at Oppenheimer as a Promethean or Faustian figure, and using that to access this pivot point in world history, was waiting to be done.

Did you consciously avoid looking at other films about Oppenheimer?

You do. I didn’t look at Fat Man and Little Boy, or at the [1989] TV movie Day One, with David Strathairn as Oppenheimer. I have to pretend that no one’s ever looked at this before. What I’ve found dealing with real material is I find a point where I have to treat it as if I’m making it up. So, I did my research, read American Prometheus, but then when I sit down and write the screenplay, I have to imagine I’m inventing it all, otherwise it would slip into docudrama. We’re not making a documentary; I have to interpret it.

Did the idea of making a film about Oppenheimer pre-date your reading of American Prometheus?

It’s a tough one to answer, things do sneak up on you. We included the Oppenheimer reference in Tenet, and people seemed to grab hold of it. Then as a wrap gift on Tenet, Robert Pattinson gave me a book of speeches that Oppenheimer had made in the early 50s, trying to deal with the consequences of what he’d done. It was very dramatic reading.

Chuck Roven, who produced the Dark Knight trilogy with Emma and myself, suggested I read American Prometheus. Any time you’re dealing with real-life material, it’s so much easier if you have a credible source, even from a legal or a copyright perspective. Knowing that you’ve got 700 pages of the finest possible research, that suddenly becomes a practical proposition. And the way Kai [Bird] and Marty [Sherwin] wrote this book is beautiful. It seems to be chronological, then as you adapt it, you realise it’s a lot more subtle and sophisticated in the way it interweaves different elements of his life.

There were two things that hooked me immediately. One was that the communist associations were real. I mean, he wasn’t a member of the Communist Party, but he was absolutely buried in communism. I’d heard the story of Oppenheimer and McCarthyism. No, actually he was very much exploring communist ideas, but that only makes the story richer. And then the fact that he and his brother liked to go camping in Los Alamos – it’s so personal. There’s a tendency to reject the ‘great man of history’ idea. Certainly, when I made Dunkirk, I didn’t want generals pushing things around maps, I didn’t want Churchill, I wanted the collective experience of that historical event. But would the bomb have happened without Oppenheimer? Maybe it would have, but that’s a different world. In the one we live in, he went to Leslie Groves [the lieutenant general in charge of the Manhattan Project, played by Matt Damon in the film] and said, “Put me in charge, and let’s make it in New Mexico.”

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer (2023)Universal Pictures

It required an individual to bring the atomic bomb into the world – he’s the father of it, whatever that means. He was like a director in a way, bringing different talents and resources to bear. It’s that personal focus with the magnitude of the historical event that is unusual about the story. It’s probably one of the reasons for the financial success of the film, because an individual’s relatable, and Cillian’s performance pulls you in.

In terms of Oppenheimer’s structure, it’s in fact not so far from many of your other films, in that you have central protagonist/antagonist figures, but here the telling is refracted through the subjective recollections of each. You’ve spoken about how genre conventions interest you, in that you enjoy working with but exploding audience expectations. Was this an opportunity to take the biopic and explode it?

What I’ve found is that the biopic doesn’t really exist as a genre, or doesn’t have a set of conventions if it’s done right. It’s something said about a movie when it’s not quite working. No one looks at Lawrence of Arabia [1962] and calls it a biopic. When you look at what the so-called conventions of the genre are, it’s things that people carry in their heads from the bad movies that they didn’t like.

But I said, OK, at the start I see an origin story. Then I see this heist movie in the middle – the Manhattan Project is the ultimate ‘putting the team together’ race against time. And the third act, which becomes the framing of the entire project, is a courtroom drama. I found while making Inception that there are two genres in which words are particularly powerful for the audience, that make them sit forward. One is the heist movie, where people want to hear the plan, the jargon. The other is the courtroom drama. Anything framed in that context will immediately make you listen to every nuance of what a person’s saying. Those genres together are very winning. It was an interesting combination.

You often screen films as reference points for the crew going into production. On this, were there films that you referred to?

As is often the case, you screen prints [for the crew] and you think it’s for one thing and it becomes another. So, we watched [some] black and white films because we were shooting large-format black and white for the first time. We screened Sidney Lumet’s The Hill [1965], an extraordinary piece of work. But it wasn’t just the black and white, it was the way he moves the camera. It’s pre-Technocrane, pre-Steadicam. It has what [Nolan’s regular cinematographer] Hoyte van Hoytema wonderfully referred to as “people with a heavy camera and a dolly and a lot of ambition” in how it finds a way to get the camera in places. We decided to shoot that way – we have no Steadicam, everything was on the track or hand-held, which actually proved to be freeing in its limitations.

And then we screened Orson Welles’s The Trial [1962], also for the black and white; the way Welles uses the trial scenario – the balconies of people jeering – informed a lot about the use of architecture to portray bureaucracy and the machine under whose wheels you get crushed. What I realised from that is that the contrast [in Oppenheimer] between the 1954 security hearing and the 1959 senate hearing had to be massive. One has to be absolutely tiny and claustrophobic – we shot it with an IMAX camera in a room seven feet wide – and the other was a big balcony, lots of extras, flash bulbs, out in the grandeur of the theatrical political machine.

Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Amadeus (1984)

Amadeus [1984] was also a big inspiration, the duality in it. Its writer, Peter Shaffer, played fast and loose with Mozart and Salieri’s dynamic. Now, with Lewis Strauss [Robert Downey Jr] and Oppenheimer, I didn’t really have to play so fast and loose, because their most petty misunderstandings are all so well documented. But this almost taking of sides between the atomic bomb and hydrogen bomb was a wonderful help when you’re looking for the personal and relatable expression of complex scientific ideas.

The hydrogen bomb and the atomic bomb work with completely opposite mechanisms – one is smashing stuff together, one is blowing stuff apart – but the effect of releasing nuclear energy at different scales is the same. But because Oppenheimer had fought the hydrogen bomb and Strauss and Edward Teller [the ‘father of the hydrogen bomb’, played in Oppenheimer by Benny Safdie], once the atomic bomb was a reality, wanted it to move to the hydrogen bomb, it set up these two threads. You get a rivalry story. It opened up how I could dramatise otherwise quite esoteric arguments. Everyone can relate to Oppenheimer being a bit of a dick to Strauss and think, that’s maybe not a great idea.

In the introduction to the published script, Kai Bird says the film should reignite – his word – the debate around nuclear weapons. He also says that one consequence of the 1954 hearings was that scientists were scared away from that kind of involvement in the political machinery, to the detriment of us all. In making the film, did you feel it could have a real-world impact?

Well, there are a lot of issues wrapped up in that question. I’ve told this story a lot, but when I mentioned to one of my teenage sons what I was working on, he said, “Dad, nobody worries about that. Nobody my age thinks about nuclear weapons.” I was shocked, then I thought, well no, the focus on what we can worry about is finite. Climate change and the difficulties that poses have taken people’s attention off the threat of nuclear war. It seemed to me that the stakes of the story were so dramatic, I didn’t agree there’d be a problem, and in fact maybe that’s a reason to make the film, not in a self-righteous way – I don’t believe in films carrying a message, you have to make a film for the story – but it did make me mindful of the fact that the unique threat to mankind of nuclear weapons would have to be conveyed within the text of the film. We couldn’t just assume it was something people worry about as much as I worry about it.

I’m 53, I grew up in the 80s in the United Kingdom, when the threat of nuclear weapons was throughout pop culture, from Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows [1982] to Threads [1984]; Sting’s song ‘Russians’ [1985] is where I first heard the name Oppenheimer. But you get later generations who haven’t been exposed to that level of pop-cultural fear of Armageddon. It made the story more dramatic to not assume that everybody in the audience would be worried about it, but to try and infect them with that through the way the characters act. You’re in Oppenheimer’s head as you start to realise the beautiful potential of quantum physics, but there’s also the fear of reappraising reality in the radical way that they did, and the destructive power it led to.

Might people have also responded to the theme of the cynical manipulation of bureaucratic power, which feels all too timely?

I think it is. Kai’s right, the security hearings had a chilling effect, but it has to be understood within the context of what Hiroshima and Nagasaki had meant to the position of science in the world. Because scientists had never before won a war, they had never been the absolute heroes of the day. The bombings were understood to have had appalling consequences for the people of Japan, but it was also seen as enabling the victory and the end of World War II. So, scientists suddenly had a seat at the table in politics and in the popular imagination. They were the people with answers. People like Oppenheimer were going to tell us how to manage the thing that they had discovered. But it didn’t last long.

And the fact that Oppenheimer became inconvenient to the policy makers meant he needed to be taken out. And, yes, I don’t think there’s ever been a moment since then where scientists were quite so able to capture popular imagination – after the moon landings, possibly. It’s a much longer conversation, but what that’s meant to the current world is that the relationship between scientists and government plays out in the public arena, which is awful. It drags science down, because scientists feel they have to dumb down what they’re talking about because they’re appealing to the masses rather than trying to give expert advice on policy matters.

Are we at a similar “lifting the rock without being ready for the snake that’s revealed” moment with AI, to quote Oppenheimer in the film?

I think we are. Some AI researchers refer to this as their ‘Oppenheimer moment’, and I think they’re right to be looking at his story for at least a warning, even if there aren’t many answers. But I’m also concerned about the reductive nature of the parallels, because when push comes to shove the biggest fear with AI is that it would launch nuclear weapons. My personal opinion is that nuclear weapons are a singular threat to humankind.

As I’ve talked more about the film, I’ve become aware of the fact that the note of dramatically necessary despair at the end is a little at odds with what I consider the reality of policy-making in the post-nuclear age. If you look at arms reduction from 1967 to the present day, almost 90 per cent of warheads have gone away. There are plenty of things that have to be done and can be done with managing the threat of nuclear weapons, so despair is not the appropriate response. But it is very dramatic.

Rather like Powell and Pressburger with the Archers, you’ve worked consistently with many of the same actors and key creative crew over many years on your films – with some changes over your past three, such as the introduction of production designer Ruth De Jong, composer Ludwig Göransson and editor Jennifer Lame. How do you approach those kinds of creative collaborations?

It’s different with different people and different crafts and disciplines. So even though Hoyte [van Hoytema, cinematographer on Nolan’s films since Interstellar] and I have worked together for years, for example, we try to evolve our relationship on each film in unforced ways – like pushing forwards with black-and-white Imax photography [Nolan worked with Kodak to develop brand new large format black-and-white Imax film].

I hadn’t worked with Ruth before, though I’d admired her work. She came up under Jack Fisk, who’s one of the great naturalistic designers. She worked on There Will Be Blood [2007] with him. I was very excited to bring somebody on who had a different set of references and a different way of looking at things than I did. Hoyte had just worked with Ruth on Jordan Peele’s film Nope [2022]. She just didn’t put a foot wrong. On every set we walked on to, or every location, every place was dressed perfectly. She created a world that you could lose yourself in.

Oppenheimer (2023)Universal Pictures

One of the most interesting cinematic experiences I’ve ever had was working with Andrew Jackson on the visual effects for Oppenheimer. He was the first person I showed the script to after Emma, because I knew I wanted to use analogue methods, and I knew it would take him time to figure it out. It was this very pure, experimental collaboration where he went off for months by himself, and then worked with Scott Fisher, the special effects supervisor.

They had to find how to make these shots showing potential energy within dull matter, and the Trinity Test is obviously the ultimate example. But rather than doing everything post production, the visual effects department were there the whole way through. So, if we were all shooting in Room 2022 [the office where Oppenheimer’s security clearance interviews took place], which was this tiny Portakabin factory, they had a giant tent set up in the parking lot. We bounced back and forth.

His in-camera analogue visual effects reminded me of Douglas Trumbull’s work on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life [2011], or Kubrick’s 2001 [1968]. Was Trumbull an influence?

Those were the kind of models we were looking at. Certainly 2001, where there was a lot of work done at the very beginning by Kubrick and Trumbull on the more abstract elements, before they got into the specific miniatures. And Tree of Life, and a lot of experimental cinema, Tarkovsky… But ultimately it was about looking internally rather than at previous references.

When I went to the Institute for Advanced Study [at Princeton] for the first time, I met with the director, Robbert Dijkgraaf, who holds what had once been Oppenheimer’s job. He asked about the project and we talked about quantum physics and trying to convey this radical shift in the way you look at the world. He said this alarming thing, which was: “A lot of physicists were resistant to it, because they could no longer visualise the atom,” which to a filmmaker about to make a film about splitting the atom is terrifying. He said, “ You’re looking at overlaying energy fields. You’re looking at wave-particle duality. It’s not ping-pong balls spinning around each other. It’s impossible to visualise.” I started thinking, what could cinema do? And I realised editing is the key. So, Eisenstein’s shot A plus shot B equals thought C – you don’t get that in physics, you don’t have that in pure logic terms. That’s a thing that movies can do that other artforms can’t.

So, for example, with particle-wave duality, if Andrew were to find a way to create images that were suggestive of one or the other, then by cutting them together, they can live as one thing in the audience’s mind, and start to suggest a solution to this impossible problem. I can talk about it for hours because it really was one of the most exciting cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. It’s more important than a lot of people realise. I said to Andrew at the beginning of the shoot, there will be very few visual effects shots, but they’re the crux of the whole thing.

You’ve spoken before, particularly with reference to Memento and Insomnia, about how characterisation in those films, because they’re essentially modern noirs, is signalled by plot and action. Did you approach the actors differently here? Was it a move to a kind of interiority in the psychology of the characterisation?

In some ways it’s different because it is about interiority. But you’re not completely abandoning the noir association, because yes, character is defined through action in noir, but you also have characters dissembling a lot, so there are layers of motivation behind behaviour. If one looks at Oppenheimer very carefully from a narrative point of view, you find narrative payoffs to the ambiguities in a relatively conventional sense, and that was important to me, because I wanted a mainstream audience to be able to enjoy layers of meaning, layers of ambiguity, but also fuse them together with something that you can grab hold of. So, the contrast between Oppenheimer’s apparent loss of the [1954] security hearing and then the idea of Strauss’s [1959 Senate] hearing, that Oppenheimer actually winds up winning – he is ahead of the game and has decided there’s intentionality in the idea that by being a passive martyr, history will remember him more kindly, which was an unqualified success in his reasoning. That’s my interpretation of Oppenheimer.

Did you encourage Cillian Murphy towards that interpretation?

I think Cillian saw it in slightly different terms than I did, but that’s the way interesting movies get made. He had to view him as a human being, he couldn’t view him as just a genius and a mastermind. But to me one of the most interesting moments of the film is when Kitty [Oppenheimer’s wife, played by Emily Blunt] says to him, “Did you think if they tarred and feathered you, the world will forgive you?” And the way Cillian says, “We’ll see” manages to nail it in a way I didn’t know was possible, because it’s very pure to the truth of the character, but it’s also a wink to the audience, asking “So, how do you feel about him?” And he manages to do that without breaking the fourth wall. For some people the moment may slide by unnoticed, but hopefully you feel it, at least.

Do you recall a formative childhood film experience when you came to love going to the cinema itself – the audience, the atmosphere, the whirring of the projector?

Many. The first film I can remember seeing is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs [1937], and hiding terrified under the seat when the evil queen turns into the old crone. The physicality of being behind the seat, of being in an audience, I remember vividly. I also remember going to see 2001 in the then Leicester Square Theatre with my dad, which would have been a 70mm projection. I remember the scale of the image. They rereleased it after Star Wars [1977], so it would have been 1978, when I was eight years old – such was my interest in science fiction. I can’t claim to have understood it when I was eight, though in a way, perhaps I understood it more.

I also remember becoming aware of the sound of movies, particularly after the wider introduction of Dolby SR in the mid-80s, when sound got more and more physical. Sound has got more powerful in movies over my lifetime. You started to get those wonderful, metallic low-end sounds that you get in war films, of machinery and those things. How they create a sense of physicality is unique to the medium and very important.

Robin Williams and Al Pacino as Walter Finch and Will Dormer in Insomnia (2002)

That’s interesting, because as with all of your films, the sound design in Oppenheimer is very layered and striking. Is the role of sound design something that isn’t fully appreciated or understood?

The thing with sound is people are less consciously aware of how it works than they are with other narrative elements, or music, so there’s a lot to be played with. Right back to Insomnia [2002], I remember asking the sound mixers to take the sound to absolute silence at a particular moment, just for half a beat, and they wouldn’t do it. It took days to convince them. It was something that just wasn’t allowed to happen in a Hollywood film. The worry – and they weren’t wrong – was that it made people uncomfortable to hear complete silence, because the sound of the cinema itself can’t be the sound of the movie.

Sound design is actually a very conservative force in movies, which is why so much money is spent on it in Hollywood. It’s a wonderful playground with incredibly talented people, but when you mess with it, it unsettles people. With Interstellar [2014], for example, a lot of people were very uncomfortable with the sound. I was pleased that the crew wound up getting nominated for Oscars on it because their work was amazing. Hoyte and I shot the film in a very stripped down and realistic way. There was a lot of handheld camera and jamming into tight corners, to try to let it live in the real world.

The sound designer Richard King, who I worked with for several years, came with a whole array of multi-layered science-fiction sounds – of doors that hissed, and so on. And I said, “What if we don’t use any of that, just use the production sound and enhance it a little bit?” So, you’re hearing the footsteps on set, it’s not all cleaned up and it’s very grubby, very real. He’d designed this incredible sound kit for Tars, the robot, and I made him replace it with a couple of filing cabinet drawers! But that had the right sort of ‘non-sound-designed’ quality.

It actually came from a remark that Hans Zimmer made to me. He was working with temp visual effects on some other movie, and he said, “ The sounds keep getting bigger and bigger, which makes the images look faker and faker.” I realised that, if you’re going to go to all the trouble of having Hoyte hand-hold the camera, have the lighting be natural, not use green screen, surely you should be doing the same with the sound. That was a big reason that the Interstellar track got under people’s skin, but over time, it’s come to be more accepted.

Going back to formative film experiences. Scorsese talks about seeing Citizen Kane [1941] when he was young, and it being a moment that he realised a film was ‘directed’ – that there was a guiding intelligence behind a film. Did you have a similar encounter, and with your interest in narrative structure, was there something you saw or read that first made you consider those elements?

I had a very specific moment where I had watched Blade Runner [1982] – at home on VHS, not in the cinema because I was then too young. I became obsessed with it, the beauty of the density and layering of the imagery. And then, when I was old enough, I watched Alien [1979], and as when you hear two pieces by the same musician, or read two books by the same writer, I distinctly remember realising it was the same mind behind these two different movies. I had been making my own films, just shooting things and cutting them together, but suddenly, at the age of 13 or 14, I understood directing – the closest thing to what defines filmmaking for me. Realising that there was a mind controlling that aesthetic, that feeling at the end of the film. And it wasn’t any one thing: it was photography; it was sound; it was costumes… It was control over the whole mise en scène. My realisation was very particular to Ridley Scott, and my love for his films and obsession with the way he was doing things.

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien (1979)

From a narrative point of view, that was slightly later. There were a number of different influences, some literary. Graham Swift’s novel Waterland [1983] was a book we had to read in school. It has multiple timelines, and the way it cuts between them and how effective that was, combining history with the present. I happened to read that around about the same time as I watched Alan Parker’s Pink Floyd: The Wall [1982], which is a truly remarkable, impressionistic film. Like, what the fuck is that movie? It’s quite marvellous. The way he uses the production design, the different timelines, the intermingling of memory, dream, things like that, it was very influential on me. And the cinema of Nicolas Roeg, in particular, the editing rhythms and the way he used things other than narrative and chronological progression, that all started to click with me.

You didn’t go to film school, but instead studied English literature at University College London [UCL], where you encountered Jorge Luis Borges’s stories, but in fact you already had an interest in the kind of playfulness with time and narrative found in his writing?

I wouldn’t call it playfulness, I would call it an instinctive, organic understanding that you get from those works that you don’t have to just tell a story from beginning to end. It’s really only in the cinema of a number of years before the 1980s and 90s that it’s demanded. My personal theory, which I’ve never bothered to research academically, is that television is what straightens out the narrative of Hollywood films for thirty-odd years, and it’s when VHS comes along that it starts to get freed up again.

Because what happens in the television era is, TV is the big ancillary market, linear television becomes the way Hollywood films are paid for, and so they demand a narrative that you can follow even as the world’s distractions come upon you. So, the pizza deliveryman comes, you’re watching a film at home in 1975, you go and pay for the pizza, you sit back down. You don’t just pick up right where you left off, so you can’t have missed some fundamental thing, and the more linear the story, the better. Post-1982 or ’83-ish, you hit pause, you go pay for the pizza and you hit play again – you don’t miss anything.

I think Disney were the first studio to realise that home video changed the nature of the films they were putting out. They weren’t doing it in a narrative sense, but they started layering the animation more and more, because they knew that kids would watch these films again and again. So, there’s also a visual density that comes in right about then – at the same time, Ridley Scott was making Blade Runner and stuffing the frame with all these different things; there’s too much to take in on one viewing.

Then when Tarantino comes in in the early 90s, you start getting that same density in narrative. And a lot of that is because you can now own a film in the way you own a piece of music, you can control it in a way; it doesn’t just pass across you the way it does on television. That’s a big reason why, when I started in films with Following and Memento, it was still seen as radical or unusual not to tell the story chronologically, which has never been the case in literature. You go back to The Odyssey, it’s never been the case that you’re supposed to tell a story from beginning to end. That’s been the exception in every other narrative medium, it’s really only in movies that that was for a time demanded, and I don’t think it is any more.

With your own emergence in the late 90s, you were in some ways quite anomalous to the moment, and yet…

No, I was very much of it, actually, the way filmmakers always are. Someone interviewed me for a book they published about the films that came out in 1999, because Following came out in the UK in 1999, and in the same year there was Being John Malkovich and The Matrix and The Sixth Sense… which tells you everything you need to know. We’re all of the same world and we’re reacting against it, trying to bring something new to it. One of the things about being a filmmaker, in Hollywood in particular, is that you have to make peace with the fact that however different and radical you feel you’re trying to be, in the fullness of time you will be seen to have been part of the era. You’re part of a community, particularly in a craft that involves so many people, and so much in the way of resources, so you’re going to be taking influences from everyone.

When you were at UCL you were president of the Film Society. How much of a film education was that? Were you programming and screening films, or was it more about making them?

It was a great environment. It was in the basement of the Bloomsbury Theatre, where the Film Society still is. You go through the coffee bar and down a couple of floors and there’s this wonderful windowless basement. The way the economics of it worked, you’d screen 35mm films in the Bloomsbury Theatre, which is a beautiful 400-seat cinema. And that was for the student body. You’d sell tickets at a reduced price, and use the profits from that to finance 16mm production, so it was a combination of programming and production.

Richard E. Grant as Withnail in Withnail & I (1987)

What would you be screening?

It was pretty straight second-run distribution. So, it was Hollywood movies, two, three months after they hit the West End, and you could see them at student prices. Mostly we were trying to show things that we thought the students would be interested in, and then we’d do an all-night film show, things like that. The first time I saw Withnail and I [1986] was at a UCL all-night film show. That one stuck with me forever. It’s a great favourite of Emma’s and myself. UCL didn’t have any full film courses, it was entirely student-run, it was just the students passing on knowledge to each other.

You and Emma Thomas met at UCL, and have had a personal and professional relationship ever since [Thomas has produced all of Nolan’s features]. How does the dynamic work, in a creative sense?

I’ve never really analysed it; we’ve just always worked together since the early days. We ran the film society together, we made short films together… we have different skill sets, I suppose. She’s interested in facilitating and trying to be practical about combinations of people and places. It’s not that I’m the crazy dreamer and she pours cold water on things; I have a very practical sensibility too. But she’s a people person, she’s got an incredible understanding of film craft and technique, and… she’s the best producer around by far.

But producing’s a difficult job to pin down, everybody does it differently. She’s the first person I show a script to when I finish, but she doesn’t like to see pages at a time. And then we start some hard conversations about how it’s going to work. For me, it’s the joy of working with somebody who has a wealth of hands-on knowledge, but no agenda. The problem with the politics of films, particularly when you start spending huge amounts of money, is that you get a lot of people who can’t be completely straightforward about what they think. So having somebody that you have a totally honest communication with is so important.

On the subject of money, André Gide once said “art is born of constraint, thrives on struggle, and dies in freedom”. As your own budgets have got bigger, have you faced a challenge reconciling…

…an excess of freedom, as it were?


Oh, no. The wonderful thing about large-scale filmmaking, in my experience, is it’s exactly the same as a tiny-scale independent movie: you never have enough time, you never have enough money for whatever it is you’re trying to do. It’s the nature of budgeting: you chase your own tail, so if they give you more money, you try and do more. Everything Emma and I have ever done, our philosophy’s always been to take the money and put it on the screen. So, we don’t waste money pampering movie stars, or whatever. We’ve always taken the view that you back into a budget, so Emma’s very good at looking at what we want the film to cost relative to how we think we can sell it. And then we take that to the studio as a package.

When you’re making a film like Dunkirk, for example. To do that for under $100 million at the time was sort of inconceivable, when you’ve got, I don’t know, five different ships that keep sinking. But you take the challenge to your department heads. So, Scott Fisher, the special effects guy I’ve worked with for years, would say “OK, what if when the torpedo hits, water floods it and the lights go out?” And I’m like, “ That’s great.” Talk to Hoyte about it. Talk to the stunt guys. I remember very clearly going to production with Emma and facing situations where we thought, “How are we going to do this?” At one stage she said to me, “Maybe we should have asked for more money?” And I said, “No, I now see this. Even if you gave me more money, I don’t want the lights on.” What the team has come up with, knowing we can’t show everything, is way more dramatic. Constraints are always useful, they’re part of the process.

That principle of responding to the demands of each project and the means available to you goes back to your first feature, Following, where you deliberately leaned into the uncanny quality a low budget can bring, in order that the audience weren’t distracted by the production limitations.

Yes. That was one of the smarter things I’ve done in my life, because I was fascinated by low-budget films and the eerie, uncanny quality they have, and I tried to go with a story that wouldn’t suffer from that. That’s very self-conscious in some ways, but there’s a hard-headed realism to that decision that has stood me well ever since. It’s not unlike the kind of decision-making process that Emma and I go through when we look at budget today.

Too often people divorce the film from the theatre. If you’re putting on a West End production of Guys and Dolls, you’re not thinking about the singing and dancing independently from the proscenium in which it will appear, and that’s filmmaking for us; we’re not thinking of it as something that streams here or there, or comes up on your phone. The information of the narrative isn’t separate from the form in which it goes out in the world, which for us has long been 15,000 screens around the world at the same weekend. Not to say there aren’t different formats, different sizes of screen, different sound systems… but we’re ready for that moment when marketing and distribution come together. We’re putting on a show, and the projectionist has final cut, as it were. The theatres, the popcorn and the seats, all the rest of it, it’s part of what the film is, and we have that in mind from the very beginning.

The cultural imprint a film makes includes so much more than just the film itself. Kubrick, to take one example, was extremely involved in overseeing the trailers and marketing material for his films. How involved are you in that kind of work?

Oh, massively. My father worked in marketing, and I’ve always been interested in it. To me you can’t look at Oppenheimer separate from its marketing campaign. It’s back to the way Emma and I look at how our films go out to the world: we are putting on a show, and the marketing campaign is part of that. No one sees a film in a vacuum, and it’s unrealistic to think that they can or should.

It’s a complicated balance, because when you’re doing studio films, you need the marketing department owning the campaign. I’ve worked with some wonderfully creative people at the studios, but they need help and guidance – they’re trying to figure out what the film is, because they’re working before the film has even been finished. Emma and I make a lot of contributions, then when they start producing materials, I’ll look at them and we’ll make changes, but we don’t produce them ourselves. It also helps me as I’m making the film, because it reminds me of the things the audience is going to need, and what the narrative spikes need to be.

Your breakthrough came with Memento. It was independently produced, but nevertheless a big step up from Following. Did you envisage yourself one day working in the studio system, or imagine that you would continue to make films independently?

Every film I’ve ever done is a complete experience in itself. I’m not thinking about how making one film will affect the making of another. In the case of Memento, I felt I had an idea for how to tell a story in a way that I hadn’t seen before. And the value of that is evident in a business sense. That is to say, if you look at what the studios are doing, the role of the independent filmmaker is to do something that couldn’t get made through the studio system. I don’t think anyone goes to see low-budget independent films to see a cheap version of a studio film. They go to see something that’s fundamentally different in the DNA of the project. And that’s absolutely what we tried to offer with Memento.

Guy Pearce as Leonard in Memento (2000)

But one interesting thing about large-scale Hollywood filmmaking is that those are usually the films that we first engage with as kids. So, from loving Star Wars and 2001 and The Spy Who Loved Me [1977] – these films from my youth – the potential of the Hollywood blockbuster was always there.

Insomnia marked your step into studio filmmaking. It’s sometimes cited as an outlier in your filmography. Does it feel that way to you?

Not at all. One of the reasons people might look at it that way is because I didn’t take a screenwriting credit on it. Hillary Seitz wrote the screenplay, and I did a lot of rewriting on it, but I felt it was appropriate for her to have the credit. But people shouldn’t misunderstand from that that I wasn’t as fully invested in it as every other film I’ve ever done.

And whilst it was a studio project, I was able to get on it through the intervention of Steven Soderbergh, the original Sundance kid. He helped me transition to the world of studio filmmaking in as independent a way as possible. It’s a film that I look back on with great fondness. Working with Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank was an incredible experience. Sometimes, when people look for connections in your work, they look more at things like budget level than at the filmmaking itself. If you compare it to Oppenheimer, for example, there’s a similar attempt to try and convey the subjective experience of the protagonist. In the case of Pacino’s character, he’s suffering from a distortion of perception due to lack of sleep, and it’s not a million miles away from what I’m trying to do with showing Oppenheimer’s internal process, particularly at the beginning of the film.

Soderbergh was an early champion of Memento, and you’ve been friends since. He’s always been excited by the possibilities that different mediums afford in terms of narrative, and has made films, TV series, web series, that experiment with the medium itself. Given your own interest in narrative and form, is that something that interests you?

I always pay close attention to everything he does. He’s a wonderful filmmaker, and an incredibly accomplished, creative person. Where he and I differ is, I’m less interested in challenging the frame around the film, if you like. I’m happy with the cinema screen and the potential that affords you. Steven has tried all kinds of different ways to literally reinvent the medium itself. And whilst I find that exciting to watch from the outside, as a filmmaker myself, I feel such a limitless set of possibilities in what can go on the cinema screen that I feel I’ve got my work cut out filling that, let alone trying to smash through it the way he does.

The success of Insomnia led to Warners entrusting you with the Batman property. In taking on an existing franchise with Batman Begins, did you worry that your identity could be subsumed?

The question of my identity being subsumed by a franchise is a very different one in 2024 than it was in 2003, when I started talking to Warners about it. Back then, doing a large-scale studio project with a property like Batman was a way to express your personality as a filmmaker – it was an outlet for that creativity. I saw it as an opportunity to dive into the world of action filmmaking that I loved growing up, and put my stamp on it. Franchise filmmaking has changed a lot in the years since. As with every other type of film that a studio makes money from, over time, there’s an increasing attempt to control it and minimise the role of the director. But that wasn’t the case then. The way films were being made in the early 2000s, the danger of subsuming my identity would have been far greater if I had taken on a large movie-star project. Those were the films that the studios were managing very closely at the time.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)

Batman Begins was successful, but The Dark Knight became a cultural phenomenon. You shot it in Chicago, where you had lived with your parents when you weren’t at boarding school in England, and it has a thrilling sense of being contained in an urban geography. As well as those personal resonances, Chicago also, of course, has cinematic associations as the city of the mob. Would you describe it as a city film?

I knew the architecture of Chicago very well and felt it had been underutilised in movies. I saw opportunities for it to contribute to what Gotham could be. It was a very conscious decision with The Dark Knight to view the city as the playground of the film, but the city on a global scale. So just as with Batman Begins, we do leave Gotham at the beginning – we go to Hong Kong. It was important for us to contextualise Gotham as a world city, so that it didn’t have the expressionist, ‘villagey’ feel that Tim Burton had so brilliantly brought to life in his Batman films.

We were looking for something more like the Los Angeles of Michael Mann’s Heat [1995] – the modern American city. And Gotham is the modern American city on steroids. So, we pushed further in the direction of modernism, of location shooting. Nathan Crowley, my designer on those films, had actually pushed for a more modernist approach to Batman Begins, but I restrained that because we were new to the character, and we didn’t want to alienate the existing audience. You’re challenging the boundaries of familiarity, so we focused on reinventing things like the Batmobile, and giving a more realistic edge than had been attempted with the character.

But going into The Dark Knight, we were able to push further into a modernist, location-based approach to portraying Gotham. It’s interesting you use the word contained, because I don’t actually feel the film’s contained. The scale of the film is massive, but it’s achieved in a different way than it was in Batman Begins, which is a globetrotting film with a lot of different environments and expressive elements.

The Dark Knight is very much a city film – and it’s a film noir. It was heavily influenced by Michael Mann, but also Fritz Lang – The Testament of Dr. Mabuse [1933] and M [1931]. It’s the architecture of the city as a character itself. I had Jonah [Nolan’s brother Jonathan, co-writer of the film] look at The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in regards to the Joker, and the way in which the criminal mastermind would integrate with the architecture of the city. He brought that into the modern era in a way that I was really able to get my teeth into.

Did you point Heath Ledger to cinematic references like the Dr Mabuse character for how he would craft his performance as the Joker?

It was cinematic references somewhat, but also literary and artistic. So, we talked about the novel of A Clockwork Orange as well as the film – the character Alex as he is in the novel, as well as [Malcolm] McDowell’s portrayal [in Kubrick’s film]. Also the art of Francis Bacon in terms of the distortion of the face that the make-up and the scars could bring. We had a lot of wide ranging conversations. I certainly didn’t want to view the Joker – and Heath didn’t – in terms of existing cinematic tropes. We tried to be broader than that.

There can be the tendency after the fact to view the success of any film as inevitable, but Emma Thomas spoke recently about how making Inception after The Dark Knight felt at the time like a huge gamble.

It was mad as a box of frogs! The studio got the script, and saw it as challenging. But coming off the success of The Dark Knight and us wanting to do it next, they took a leap of faith. But this was the Warner Bros of The Matrix [1999], so we were able to give them some context for the potential success of it – to say, what if it captured the popular imagination the way The Matrix had?

Inception (2010)

Of any of the films we’ve done, until Oppenheimer, Inception was the most improbable success. It certainly felt that way at times in the edit suite. I remember being a few weeks in, and Lee Smith, my editor, and myself, felt like we’d made an enormously expensive art film that would never work for an audience. We had a couple of tense weeks where we could not figure out how to make it comprehensible. In the end we did, but it was a lot of sleepless nights.

Michael Powell used to say that for every project he made, he had ten that remained unmade. Has that been true for you? Is there a filing cabinet full of abandoned scripts? At one stage in the 2000s you were working on a project about Howard Hughes.

It’s hard to know what Powell was referring to exactly. I certainly don’t have drawers full of fully realised ideas for films that I’ve not been able to make. I’ve got a lot of stillborn ideas, or things that just didn’t sustain, and I have others that I worked on for years – Inception, for instance, was something that I took with me for decades. The tricky thing with the development of ideas is if you pour too much into them, and this is slightly the case with my Howard Hughes project. I was happy with the script, but in a way the process of writing it became the creative fulfilment of it. I’m actually happy that, in a way, it found its ultimate expression in Oppenheimer. It taught me a lot about how to approach that material.

You’ve said in the past that you don’t want people to have you in mind as they watch your films, but the success of Oppenheimer is surely due in part to the fact that your name is now the draw, and that the ‘Nolanesque’ has become an adjective, so is that unavoidable?

When you talk about becoming an adjective, as it were, that’s not the specific fear, because having stylistic connections is not my concern. I love filmmakers like Ridley Scott or Terrence Malick or, of course, Kubrick, who have a very strong sense of style and authorship to what they’re doing. I love the fact that all Fritz Lang’s films feel connected. To me it’s about not having who I am as a person distract.

That’s why I don’t really love doing interviews, I don’t really love being out in front. I want the work to speak for itself. But having identifiable tropes within the work, I don’t have a problem with at all. Also, I don’t want to be self-conscious about what I do, so if I’ve found something in The Dark Knight that works for an audience, if it’s also the right tool for Tenet, then I’m not going to avoid using it. But myself, as a person, that’s nothing but a distraction.

When you recently accepted an award from the New York Film Critics Circle, you spoke about the value of film criticism. When you were starting out, how much did you engage with schools of film criticism, or particular magazines?

I was always very mainstream in my approach to reading about film, I didn’t get too much into film theory or the more esoteric side. I did read Sight and Sound but, you know, I also read… what’s the free one we used to get in cinemas?

Was it Flicks?

Yes, Flicks and then there was Film Monthly, all of those. Then in America when I was in my teens Premiere was a fantastic film magazine. I remember watching Siskel and Ebert when I was living in Chicago when I was nine or ten, and they started on the local station with the show called Sneak Previews. It was those kinds of mainstream critics, I wasn’t reading Pauline Kael books at the time, but as I say, I did read Sight and Sound, although sometimes I got stuck trying to figure out what words like hermeneutics meant! I still don’t know what it means, come to think of it.

Was there a film studies or film history component to your studies at UCL?

I only recall taking one class, and hearing my fellow English literature students apply the tools of literary criticism to movies, which didn’t sit very well for me. I already at that point was pretty aware of the craft and the technology that went into it, if you like, and I was a little uneasy with applying those modes of literary criticism. But over time I’ve come to appreciate it more.

Maybe I don’t necessarily fully understand the symbols I might grasp in my work, but as I’ve matured, I’ve learned to trust that, and that validates the more esoteric interpretations of my work. I certainly don’t in any way try to invalidate somebody’s interpretation. I like the work to speak for itself, and that’s because it speaks differently to different people. When I was at UCL, I had the mindset of, if a filmmaker didn’t exactly intend it to be that, how can you put that interpretation on it? How can you be presumptuous about the subconscious of the filmmaker? But over time I’ve made peace with that idea – and I’d get much more out of a film studies course today.

Donald Sutherland as John Baxter in Don't Look Now (1973)

You started your career in Britain, but have been in Hollywood since your second feature. Do you consider yourself to be a British filmmaker?

It’s a difficult question, because I do and I don’t. Not to compare myself to these figures, but the filmmakers who spring to mind are people like Hitchcock and David Lean, who worked in both places. I view myself as a Hollywood filmmaker – I happen to live in Hollywood right now, but that’s beside the point; I’ve always viewed Hollywood filmmaking as a language. So, I view David Lean as a Hollywood filmmaker, I view Alfred Hitchcock as a Hollywood filmmaker, I even view Nicolas Roeg as a Hollywood filmmaker. My influences are very international, and always have been, but I’ve always gravitated towards, I suppose I could say, the most universal filmmaking language. So even taking on a very British subject like Dunkirk, I tried to make that film to appeal to an international audience.

Who are some of the key British filmmakers who have most inspired you? You’ve already mentioned Ridley Scott, Alan Parker and Nicolas Roeg.

The filmmakers I grew up with who have never had enough attention paid to them are the group of five British directors who came from advertising in the 1970s: Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson and Adrian Lyne. They transformed Hollywood, and were utterly British in their formation, their upbringing, their sensibilities. They all came to Hollywood and absolutely transformed it. They became Hollywood directors, but their Britishness is undeniable. Those guys defined what the visual language of Hollywood movies was going to be from the 1980s onwards, and their influence is still seen and felt.

Do you consider yourself to be in a lineage with them?

Yes. There’s an interesting relationship between Dunkirk and [Hudson’s] Chariots of Fire [1981], for example. It’s British, but it also clearly works for an international audience. But ultimately, it’s reductive to speak in terms of national characteristics when you’re talking about films. Because of the English language, it’s been easier for British filmmakers to work in both worlds. Things are not easy to define and nor are the films themselves: this is a British film, this is an American film. I mean, where do you put Orson Welles? Money from here, there and everywhere, started off in Hollywood as an absolute Hollywood filmmaker, got two movies in and was booted out! Almost everything else is shot elsewhere, the money’s from other places, the distribution…

Has that pool of inspirations remained faithful through your career, or have there been more recent artistic encounters that have impacted you as deeply? Does it become harder to have that kind of response to films as you get older?

I think it does. The clearest way to explain that to somebody who isn’t themselves a filmmaker is to talk about what music you liked when you were a teenager, and how it got into your heart and your brain in a way that it’s difficult for subsequent music to do. There’s something about those teenage years where you’re figuring out the world and your place in it, where those things are very near and powerful as influences. Subsequently, the world we all live in is equally powerful in its influence, but it tends to be less immediately identifiable to you as an individual.

Harry Styles as Alex in Dunkirk (2017)

We’re living in the streaming age. How do you see your place in that new landscape, and where do you see your work heading from this point?

It would have been a more open-ended question a few years ago. As of now, sitting here on the other side of a billion-dollar box office on Oppenheimer, the idea that theatrical is under threat… it’s put in perspective. I intend to keep doing what I love doing in whatever form seems the most appropriate. But I love the medium of film, and I love the medium as it exists. Streaming ultimately is only going to enhance that because it provides alternative licensing opportunities, alternative revenue funding. I think streaming will be to theatrical film what VHS and then DVD was.

But do you see streaming having an impact on film form, in the way that you were describing television’s impact on cinema between the 1950s and the 1980s?

That’s not something I see at the moment because the most important thing about streaming is individual control over the timeline, and that’s existed since the birth of VHS. It’s greatly affected form in television, though, so the idea of continuous binge-watching is changing the way TV makers approach what they do in radical ways. I haven’t become conscious of any particular effect on theatrical film because it operates in a different way. Then again, ask me in ten years, I’ll probably have a better perspective on it.

Given the breadth of the audience you now have, is there a sense of responsibility to use your position to open up aspects of film history to people who otherwise wouldn’t encounter it?

Definitely. I’m on the board of the Film Foundation with Scorsese, and both Emma and myself are very involved with the BFI, in photochemical restoration. But I’ve never dived with quite such vigour into the history of film. A lot of our time and effort has gone into advocating for film and photochemical work. For example, Emma and I were instrumental in keeping Kodak making film ten years ago, when they were about to stop production. And also supporting the theatrical experience, which has been under such threat in the last few years – and frankly has always been under threat since television came along. Look back at old film magazines from the 1950s, you’ll find exactly the same.

Has the situation with film improved since you first did the series of events spotlighting the issue at film festivals in 2015, with [the British artist filmmaker] Tacita Dean?

It’s massively improved. With Emma’s help, and Tacita and other filmmakers – I worked with Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, among others who love film – we were able to ring the alarm bells and say, it’s now or never, you’ve got to stand up for what you want to be able to continue making. They all came together quite marvellously. The situation’s vastly improved. The head of Kodak was telling me the other day that they’re making a good profit in 35mm, and are running their machines 24/7.

Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal as Sophie and Calum in Aftersun (2022)

Lot of young people are using film, like Charlotte Wells [the director of Aftersun, 2022]. I want to keep pushing. I’d love to see filmmakers cutting negative again and printing photochemical, because it’s such a beautiful way to make a film. When you saw Oppenheimer at the BFI Imax, that’s a first-generation photochemical print, and there’s just nothing like it. The thing that damaged film and the Filmmakers Alliance was the DI [digital intermediate], because once you start crushing all that lavish information through a digital pipe and then recording it out, it’s not quite the same; you’re simplifying the information to a degree. When you get to see a pure photochemical print, it’s really wonderful.

As in music, with compressed digital audio files, it’s remarkable that we as an audience have accepted the drop-off in quality.

Well, it’s invisible to begin with. I talk about the developing perception but human perceptions are always developing. The fact that a technical trick fools you, does not mean that it will always fool you. People don’t necessarily understand it until you point out visual effects, and say, look at the way in which they fooled audiences of the time and then they had to invent new tricks, and more new tricks. Every time they say this is the most photo-real creature and it has more hairs per square inch than any other computer graphic, whatever – ten years later it will look ridiculous.

Our eyes are ruthless, and so when you allow engineers to set the agenda for what’s the highest frequency human beings can hear, what number of colours will fool the eye, they’re not taking into account overtones in sound, or… I sometimes liken it to a rather esoteric comparison, but this is for Sight and Sound! Are you familiar with Brownian motion? Brownian motion is when you see sunlight streaming in a window and you see dust mites and they move in these random patterns. They’re moving because the air molecules are vibrating and they’re hitting the dust particles. So, in other words, you’ll never see the movement of an air molecule, but you can see the movement of dust particles affected by molecules. And imagery and sound technologies are full of these things that to an engineer are considered invisible or inaudible.

I’ve come to believe over the years that photochemical imagery will never actually convert to digital – they’re just different, so they’re always going to feel different. And the emotional quality of film and the way it mimics the way the eye sees is a really powerful tool creatively, so I’m passionate for new generations of filmmakers to be able to use that, to see what they will do.

In terms of its uses as a creative tool, do you mean the way the practical implications of using film impacts on the aesthetic choices you make?

Tacita Dean calls it “the resistance of the medium”, which is, if you’re sculpting in clay and the clay pushes back and speaks to your hands, it changes and affects the way you make the object. I’m talking about dolly tracks and camera, and forcing yourself into particular modes of creativity. Those do become defining characteristics of the work and you have to trust them. They’re always going to be different for film than they are for digital or any other format, just as location shooting is to stage.

Another term Tacita taught me from the art world is ‘medium specificity’, which is about distribution and it’s very specific. It basically says, if you hang a print of a Picasso in a gallery, you can’t tell people it’s a painting, so why should you be able to show a DCP [digital cinema package] of a Powell and Pressburger film and pretend that’s the original work – it’s not. Both concepts have become incredibly important to me.

Shooting and then releasing on film also requires an exhibition sector that can screen it. Certainly, in the UK there has been an encouraging revival of interest in seeing films on film, with independent programming collectives organising events, and of course what is done at BFI Southbank and other independent cinemas, and with the first edition of the BFI Film on Film festival last summer, where it wasn’t just about seeing a feature on a 35mm print, it was about seeing different film stocks: nitrate, 16mm, 8mm, dye-transfer Technicolor – all this variety of experience.

They’re all unique to the way in which a film is made. It’s back to medium resistance: if you know the particular way the film stock and print stock is going to work, the DP will light in a particular way. They’re always looking for the end quality. I have my own film projector, so I view prints all the time, and the emotional quality of a work is subtly but importantly enhanced by watching it in its true meaning – they’re just different, they really are. It’s not to dismiss digital: digital acquisition, digital presentation, it’s good for different things. But it’s important that people realise the difference that watching well-projected film can give you. Another point Tacita makes so clearly is that film is not a technology, it’s a medium, and a medium is timeless. The medium is a set of choices you have to work with at a particular thing – stone-carving, wood-carving, whatever it is. Whereas technologies get superseded, so, one digital camera gets superseded by another.

Oppenheimer (2023)

It’s heartening to me that, certainly on Oppenheimer, the performance of our film prints were so successful compared with any other distribution format, and that young people in particular really sought out and enjoyed the film experience. It’s easy to blame cinema chains or cinema owners, but the truth is they keep being sold on how you can save costs, so everything about movies gets chipped away. The fact that there isn’t a projectionist in a digital multiplex is not a good thing: I went to a showing of a film last year and the projector broke down, there was no one who could fix it, no one who could reboot it; they have no one there.

We need to invest in training projectionists to make that a viable career.

Totally. And that’s the studios and the theatre chains together. They’ll talk about projectionists now as if you were talking about brain surgeons or the most obscure sort of linguistics professor, because it suits them to say no one knows how to use machines any more. It’s not true at all. There are all kinds of projectionists out there, and people willing to learn and get trained. It’s a lot of fun, it’s a great job, but they just don’t want to pay for it.

The position of film archives here is crucial. What are your views on what archives should be doing?

I have very strong feelings, which I’ve been presenting through my position on the National Film Preservation Board in the US. I always talk about the photochemical backbone of film preservation, and I have been trying to encourage experts and archivists for years to say what they really need and really think. Because for too long they have been in a mode of digital: we want to digitise the collection, the collection’s decaying to vinegar and we need to digitise it. And you say, OK, are you going to throw your negatives away? No, that’s not really what you want to be doing.

Digitising is for access, and that’s great. And the kind of access that digital has given to the history of film is unlike anything in the last few decades. But it’s a separate thing. You need to maintain a photochemical infrastructure to maintain the elements, but also to be able to print new elements that can present the film the way it was, or be used to digitise effectively.

For too long – between the early 2000s until about ten years ago – archivists around the world were either discouraged or afraid to talk about film; everything was about digitisation, because that was what was getting the money. And what I’ve been trying to say to archivists any time I get the chance, is, you have a responsibility to tell the truth, and the truth is we need labs, we need photochemical, we need film stocks. We have to be able to maintain this infrastructure. It can’t go away because digital can’t replace it. It can give us wonderful access, but you’ve also got to point out the irreducible fact of film assets being the precious part of any argument.

The other thing that I think is very important to mention is what the art world terminology, through Tacita, has brought to restoration projects. One of the key rules in the art world is that restorations be reversible, because the manner of restoration changes over time. So, there are a lot of early 2000s restorations of old films that have been done with too much noise reduction, something that’s very apparent now on higher definition monitors, and they need to be redone. What that tells you, which I think most archivists know anyway, is that when you scan out a new 4K negative, that can never be the authoritative version of the film; it’s just the latest restoration. You have to be able to go back to the original source and make it an 8K or a 12K or an 18K, because there’s never going to be a defining resolution for an analogue format.

What’s encouraging is that the shift is aligning with the revival of interest in actually seeing prints.

Exactly, it’s essential. It’s much easier for a body like the BFI to make the case for film when people are actually able to see it and enjoy it. That was why money for digitisation was flowing reasonably well, because people could see the results: “It can go on our website, we can make a DVD.” So, it’s very important to be continually projecting film, and continuing to print things. It helps people understand the value. And the more that new young filmmakers can be exposed to print film, the better. People feel the difference when they see it.

Do you feel that, as with a unique museum object, audiences should have access to their cinematic heritage in the form of original prints?

I feel very strongly that that’s the case. But I also feel we should be making new prints from the best elements possible as often as possible. What I liked about the 100 film prints project, for instance [the BFI has just completed the ‘Keep Film on Film’ project to make 100 new film prints of classic titles], was that it gave an achievable goal and really focused attention on the idea of producing these prints so people could see the films the way they were originally intended.

I was involved in a project to make a new print of 2001 – Ned Price [former vice president of restoration] at Warner Bros, myself and Hoyte. It came about when Ned said to me that the 50th anniversary of 2001 was coming up. He knew of an IP [interpositive] that had been struck in the 90s, because he’d been responsible for it for a home video release, but they had pulled the funding, so they hadn’t made the IN [internegative]. But he said we could take the IP and make an IN, put the original Metrocolor, MGM lab timing lights on it and make a print that would be close to what audiences at the time would have seen. We call it the ‘unrestored version’.

I pitched that to the brass at Warners and they let us do it, and we took it to Cannes. It was just amazing to see. No digital this, no digital that, just straight photochemical. And because we made a couple of INs, we were able to make a number of prints that went out to different archives – so the branching network of photochemical isn’t to be underestimated. This is why IP and IN stock is so important because, yes, you don’t want to make multiple prints off an original camera negative, but if you’ve got a good element, and if you can then make two of it and then 20 prints from that, you’re making as many prints as the world is going to need of a 50-year old film for the foreseeable future. I do feel really strongly about it all.