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Ultimate Guide to Christopher Nolan and His Directing Techniques

Nolan has built a reputation in the film industry as a grand showman and visual magician firmly in command of his craft.

He’s infamous for assembling his complex and intricately layered plots like a puzzle, presenting them in such a way that respects the audience’s intelligence while simultaneously indulging their desire for exhilarating escapist entertainment.  He tells stories on a tremendously large scale, and it’s all too easy to be swept away the sheer scope of his vision and ambition.

Best known for his record-shattering, paradigm-shifting DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, Nolan’s meteoric rise to consistently unprecedented heights of financial and cultural success has established him as one of those rare filmmakers who are able to harness the full power of the Hollywood studio system to his benefit.

It wasn’t always this way, however– Nolan’s ascent to the stratosphere of visionary directors was preceded by a long period of obscurity and rejection that any aspiring filmmaker can relate to.

Christopher Nolan was born in 1970 in London, the 2nd of 3 boys born to a British advertising executive and an American teacher.  The jarring culture split that the Nolan boys experienced through their childhood is perhaps best exemplified by the difference in accents between Nolan and his younger brother, Jonathan– who would go on to become his writing partner and a close professional collaborator.

Also, check out Chris Nolan’s Screenplay Collection for PDF Download

Nolan speaks in an elegant British lilt, while Jonathan’s all-American speech patterns reflect the fact that the Nolan boys spent a great deal of time living in Chicago as well as the UK.

From an early age, Nolan found himself enamored with cinema, and after seeing George Lucas’ STAR WARS at age 7, he was inspired to make Super 8mm stop-motion movies with his father’s film camera.  He would go on to attend University College London, where he studied English literature in the absence of a film program.

In lieu of a formalized education in filmmaking, he established an on-campus cinema society with Emma Thomas– his classmate, future producing partner, and future wife– in addition to devouring the works of key influences like Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Orson Welles, and Michael Mann.

At age nineteen, he made his first film, TARANTELLA– an 8mm short that was eventually shown on English television.  That development encouraged the burgeoning director to make another short called LARCENY, which debuted at the 1995 Cambridge Film Festival.

For quite some time afterwards, Nolan toiled in obscurity, paying the bills with corporate and industrial films he was able to commission.  All the while, he was applying to various British film organizations in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain grant money for another narrative effort.

Perhaps disheartened by the rejection, and emboldened by the take-no-prisoners, do-it-yourself attitude of the 90’s indie scene, Nolan decided to take matters into his own hands.


THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational/editorial collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl, dedicated to appreciating and deconstructing the work of contemporary and classic film directors.

5.1: THE NON-LINEAR NEO-NOIRS is the first chapter of THE DIRECTORS SERIES’ examination into the films and careers of director Christopher Nolan, covering his pair of breakout independent neo-noirs:


DOODLEBUG (1997)

After marrying Emma in 1997, Christopher Nolan enlisted her help to produce his third short film, DOODLEBUG.  The three minute piece– the earliest of Nolan’s publicly-available works– stars the British actor Jeremy Theobald, who would go on to headline Nolan’s first feature a year later.

Shot on grainy 16mm black and white film, Nolan imbues the film with a kinetic energy at odds with the claustrophobic setting.  Nolan’s idea of a man chasing a bug around his apartment, only to find out the bug is a smaller version of himself, foreshadows the narrative sleight of hand he’d bring to his feature work as well as his inventiveness with practical visual effects.

Also check out: Christopher Nolan’s Micro-Budget First Films: Doodlebug & The Following


FOLLOWING (1998)

Around the time of the making of his short DOODLEBUG (1997), director Christopher Nolan found himself the victim of a burglary.  Whereas most people would be understandably distraught if their apartment had been broken into and their belongings stolen, Nolan’s chief reaction was curiosity.

He wondered what the burglars were thinking as they rifled through his things– what conclusions could they come to about his life based solely on the artifacts and totems of his existence?  In time, he would shape these musings into a story for a feature-length film he called FOLLOWING.

Having learned his lesson not to rely on the favor of unsympathetic British film institutions, Nolan fashioned the film as a lean, mean, razor-taut little thriller he could shoot for as little money as possible.

Taking the idea of a low-budget production to its very extreme, Nolan self-financed the film with the earnings from his day job– stretching the value of his dollar by shooting on weekends, employing friends and family as cast and crew, and commandeering their homes and flats as free locations.

This approach naturally caused the shoot to drag on in fits and starts over the course of a year, but when all was said and done, Nolan had his first feature film in the can– and it only cost him six thousand dollars.

Jeremy Theobald’s protagonist is not given a name– a fitting choice for a lonely writer who lives vicariously through the strangers he follows around his grimy London neighborhood.

Owing to the down-and-dirty nature of the film’s production circumstances, Theobald’s performance isn’t exactly the most natural or convincing, but it’s compelling enough to sustain the audience through the breathlessly-brief 70 minute runtime.

It helps that he’s given a charming and enigmatic antagonist in the form of Alex Haw’s Cobb.  Cobb is an impeccably-dressed, charismatic thief– his cavalier philosophy towards burglary as a cathartic form of human connection is presented as seductive and cool, almost like a boarding school Tyler Durden.

FOLLOWING borrows many elements from the well-trod noir genre, not the least of which is the inclusion of a blonde, morally-ambiguous femme fatale– played here by Lucy Russell.  There’s a photograph by Theobald’s character’s desk of Marilyn Monroe, and one can’t help but notice Russell’ eerie resemblance to the iconic movie star.

Like Theobald, Russell also isn’t given a name– she’s credited only as The Blonde, a conceit that lends some fuel to critiques that Nolan’s female characters on the whole are not particularly well-developed.

Russell is perfectly convincing within the film’s framework, but the stock-character nature of The Blonde’s personality doesn’t afford her many opportunities to transcend the material. Funnily enough, however, Russell would be the only member of FOLLOWING’s cast to go on to a larger acting career.

Nolan has pioneered the use of large-format film mediums like IMAX to create a super-sized canvas for his high-stakes narratives, but even within the square confines of FOLLOWING’s 16mm frame, he’s able to convey a palpable, larger-than-life approach.
While the scope of his later work would command some of the highest budgets the industry has ever seen, the single largest expense for FOLLOWING’s scrappy production was the 16mm film stock itself. Nolan and his crew conserved as much of their precious stock as possible, rehearsing extensively prior to shooting so they could nab what they wanted in one or two takes.

Indeed, his insistence on celluloid is what separates Nolan from his peers, most of whom got their own no-budget projects off the ground by embracing the relative cheapness of digital video.

FOLLOWING’s photochemical cinematography points to Nolan’s purist attitude towards the medium, and foreshadows his eventual position as one of the industry’s most vocal defenders of celluloid in the face of digital’s unstoppable advance. In shooting FOLLOWING, Nolan acted as his own cameraman, utilizing mostly natural light to expose his grainy black and white images.

The majority of Nolan’s camerawork is handheld, which gives the film a kinetic and swift energy thanks to the fluid mobility and quick setup time afforded by the technique.

While Nolan used handheld camerawork primarily as a way to keep costs down, he was concerned that his choice might also lead to the impression that the film was amateurish, or that he didn’t know what he was doing.  To counter these concerns, he employed the smooth, polished movement of a dolly track during the interrogation scene that opens the film as a way to communicate to the audience that the predominant use of a handheld camerawork was a deliberate, stylistic choice.

While Nolan essentially acted as a one-man crew during production, he used post-production as an opportunity to enlist the collaborative efforts of musician David Julyan, who provides FOLLOWING with a pulsing, grimy score comprised of droning synths and jittery staccato tones.

By virtue of its shoestring budget, FOLLOWING’s aesthetic is easily the most radical within Nolan’s canon.  It speaks in a language born of necessity and deprivation, a world apart from the style that he’d solidify in his studio work.  However, FOLLOWING does establish techniques and ideas that Nolan would further develop in the years to come.

For instance, he’s gained a bit of a reputation as a meticulous dresser, showing up to set in a business-casual wardrobe he’s refined into something of a uniform.  This aspect of his personality makes its way into his films, as many of his characters are given a palpable sartorial sensibility that’s high on functional style and low on extraneous embellishment.

Even in the context of a no-budget film like FOLLOWING, Nolan still places an emphasis on his characters’ costuming, using it as a story tool to highlight the strategic advantages of a presentable appearance in the world of burglary.

The structuring of FOLLOWING’s narrative signals another key component of Nolan’s aesthetic: the non-linearity of time.  Simply put: time is never a straight line in Nolan’s films– whether it’s BATMAN BEGINS utilizing a recurring flashback motif, MEMENTO unfolding entirely in backwards chronological order, INCEPTION playing out against multiple parallel planes of space-time connected by a relativistic relationship, or INTERSTELLAR exploring gravity’s ability to warp our perception of time itself.

Christopher Nolan cites this aspect of his aesthetic as being inspired at a very young age by Graham Swift’s novel “Waterland” and its parallel structuring of time.  FOLLOWING pays tribute to this conceit by jumbling the order of its scenes non-sequentially– a decision made in large part to disguise the story’s major twist.

Indeed, the only visual clue Nolan gives to clue us on in which shard of the fractured timeline we’re in is via Theobald’s changing appearance from scraggly slacker to polished businessman and then to his final form as a defeated mound of ground-up beef.

While presented as something of a random shuffling of loosely connected scenes, Nolan’s ordering of the narrative is actually rather surgical, meticulously designed to enhance the impact of the mounting drama while constantly challenging our assumptions about what’s going on.

And just to show that the integrity of his story isn’t dependent on the gimmick of its nonlinear presentation, he even goes as far as assembling the scenes into proper chronological order in a completely separate linear that’s no less surprising or structurally sound and including it on the Criterion Collection’s 2012 Blu Ray release.

Just as the Batman logo on Theobald’s apartment door foreshadows his eventual cinematic involvement with the Caped Crusader, FOLLOWING’s unique structure portends the puzzle-like, revelation-based storytelling style that Nolan would build his career on.

Like so many no-budget films of its kind, the completion of FOLLOWING in 1998 wasn’t greeted with instantaneous acclaim or a great deal of attention.  It almost even didn’t get finished in the first place, had it not been for the saving grace of indie producer Peter Broderick, who secured completion funds after screening Nolan’s rough cut.

Thanks to its lack of star power and technical polish, FOLLOWING was shut out from several major film festivals– event those devoted to truly independent cinema like Sundance or Slamdance (in Slamdance’s defense, however, they would eventually accept the film into their festival after Nolan submitted his completely re-tooled final cut a year after his rejection).

FOLLOWING would ultimately premiere at the San Francisco Film Festival, gathering modest (yet consistent) praise as an engaging, if obscure, little thriller.  The film would find a distributor in Zeitgeist Films, who would release it to a tepid box office haul of fifty thousand dollars.

Nolan didn’t have much cause for concern though– by the time FOLLOWING had wound through its interminable festival circuit and theatrical release window, he had already optioned the script for a follow-up that would give him the breakthrough he needed and desired.

As Nolan’s career has since played out, the thematic similarities between FOLLOWING and his 2010 dreamscape thriller INCEPTION have become more pronounced.  In his essay “‘Nolan Begins”, former chief film critic for Variety, Scott Foundas, goes so far as to dub FOLLOWING a first draft for INCEPTION, citing that both films are in effect “a heist of the mind” masterminded by a slickly-dressed career criminal named Cobb.

On its own merits, FOLLOWING is a fascinating insight into the early voice of a massively influential contemporary filmmaker and the raw directorial powers he could exert with minimal resources and a tireless drive.


MEMENTO (2000)

As if shooting and releasing his first feature film (1998’s FOLLOWING) wasn’t momentous enough an undertaking, around this time director Christopher Nolan was also undergoing a big move across the Atlantic to pursue his aspirations as a filmmaker in Los Angeles.  He stopped first in Chicago to meet up with his brother Jonathan, who would be accompanying him on the cross-country drive.

As they drove west, Jonathan pitched an idea for a short story called “Memento Mori”, about a man suffering from acute short-term memory loss.  Instantly taken with the idea, Nolan encouraged his brother to continue developing it even as he repurposed the concept into an entirely separate story. The brothers worked independently from each other for some time afterward, giving each other notes on their respective stories while not directly adapting what the other was doing.

As such, the two finished works are very dissimilar.  Nolan’s finished screenplay– simply titled MEMENTO– was taken by Emma Thomas to Newmarket Films, where executives reportedly hailed the script as one of the most innovative they had ever read.  With a greenlight to make MEMENTO for $4.5 million over 25 shooting days,  Nolan finally had a chance to make his big break– but in order to make the best of it, he had to move quickly.

MEMENTO marks the first time that Nolan would work with established talent, but very few know just how big of a name he almost had.  Before scheduling conflicts caused him to drop out, none other than Brad Pitt was originally attached to star in the role of protagonist Leonard Shelby, a former insurance claims investigator suffering from anterograde amnesia.

The role was eventually filled by Guy Pearce, who delivers a breathlessly fierce performance as a man out to avenge the brutal rape and murder of his wife, despite the fact that he can’t remember what he did two minutes ago.  The character of Leonard Shelby is one of the more peculiar protagonists in American cinema– driving a Jaguar he doesn’t remember how he obtained, and wearing an ill-fitting suit that he’s pretty sure he didn’t buy.

Incapable of storing memories in his mind, he instead tattoos his flesh as a way to remember the clues he needs to find his wife’s killer.  As such, he’s vulnerable to the designs of others with malevolent intentions, and the nature of his illness means that he can’t fully trust any relationship he has.  One of these ambiguously-defined allies is Carrie-Ann Moss’ Natalie, a cocktail waitress whose boyfriend troubles might have more to do with Leonard than he realizes.

Fresh off the breakout success of THE MATRIX, Moss was imaginably quite helpful in securing her co-star Joe Pantoliano for the role of Teddy, an undercover cop whose eagerness to help Leonard find his wife’s killer can’t shake a profound sense of suspiciousness about him.

Seasoned character actors Stephen Tobolowsky and Mark Boone Junior also appear, with the former as a case study of Leonard’s with a similar condition and the latter as a self-advantageous motel clerk who is surprisingly honest about how he profits off Leonard’s memory loss.

MEMENTO represents a huge step up for Nolan in the visual department, thanks to a budget that’s quite generous by indie standards. On the most basic level, Nolan graduates from the square 16mm frame to the anamorphic 35mm gauge– an upgrade boosted by his first collaboration with cinematographer Wally Pfister, who would go on to become an integral creative partner for Nolan throughout his subsequent work.

Pfister’s eye for stark contrast, subdued color, and naturalistic lighting mesh perfectly with Nolan’s gritty vision of a slightly-heightened reality.  MEMENTO’s use of color informs its innovative and distinct non-linear structure, alternating between color and monochromatic sequences in an effort to orient the audience as to where they currently stand in the timeline.

The color blue in particular becomes a potent visual signifier, appearing on doors, hotel room walls, bars, and even Leonard’s suit, almost as if they were signposts for him to follow.

Nolan scraps FOLLOWING’s shaky handheld camerawork in favor of an elegant, fluid approach that favors dollies, cranes, and steadicam shots and signals his desire to merge classical filmmaking techniques with radical, almost-Cubist storytelling structures.  Returning composer David Julyan serves as one of the few stylistic carryovers from FOLLOWING, crafting a brooding suite of Vangelis-style synth cues that manages to evoke old-school film noir despite its inherent electronic modernity.

MEMENTO is perhaps best-known for being “that film that plays in reverse order”, but the conceit is far from a gimmick employed to sell tickets.  Building from FOLLOWING’s earlier innovations with the idea, MEMENTO solidifies the use of nonlinear storytelling devices as a major component of Nolan’s artistic aesthetic.

Just as FOLLOWING’s deceptively-random ordering of scenes proves an effective way to navigate its labyrinth of deception, so too does MEMENTO’s unique structure become a key factor in the successful telling of its story.

In order for the audience to empathize with his protagonist’s condition, Christopher Nolan felt the most appropriate course of action would be to tell the story in backwards chronological order– thus emulating, in a cinematic sense, what it would be like to have no short-term memory; deprived of crucial orientating information and context that we usually take for granted.  It’s a radical idea– one that requires a delicate balance of finesse that a lesser filmmaker could easily stumble over.

Nolan wisely uses the opening titles as an opportunity to prep his audience for his unconventional storytelling, lingering over a closeup shot of a hand shaking a developing Polaroid picture — or rather, un-developing, as the audience slowly realizes they’re watching the action unfold in backwards motion.

He then shows us the immediate aftermath of Teddy’s cold-blooded execution before showing us the crucial moment itself.  Its also worth noting that this opening sequence wasn’t simply shot and and then reversed in the edit suite.  Nolan and company actually ran the film backwards through the camera on set– an act that reinforces his career-long commitment to capturing special effects in-camera as much as possible.

Discontent with simply presenting the film in backwards order, Nolan takes an extra step: the insertion of a parallel, forward-moving storyline that sees Leonard languishing in his motel room while talking into a telephone about his condition.

Nolan separates these scenes from the A-plot by rendering them in expressionistic black and white handheld photography, in effect creating a bridge between FOLLOWING’s scrappy shoestring style and the ambitious classical style he’d adopt for the rest of his career.

These brief, recurring interludes give us crucial bits of backstory and context about Leonard’s memory loss without subjecting us to tedious or unnecessary exposition.

However, its within these scenes that Nolan plants the seeds for MEMENTO’s big narrative twist.  This pair of parallel timelines almost-effortlessly converges at the story’s apex– a transition point that Nolan marks with a color fade so subtle that many viewers tend to miss it entirely.  As he did with FOLLOWING, Nolan would subsequently assemble an alternate, aprochryphal cut of MEMENTO in proper chronological order, including it as an easter egg on the film’s home video release.

MEMENTO premiered at the 2000 Venice Film Festival to widespread critical acclaim.  Executives from the major studios echoed the festival circuit’s warm embrace of the film, yet they were reluctant to claim it for distribution.

The sheer power of Nolan’s vision was undeniable, but they feared that audiences would be too confused by the backwards ordering of the film.  Eventually, Newmarket Films took it upon themselves to distribute– a risky move that paid off in spades when MEMENTO debuted to healthy box office and rave reviews that hailed it as one of the most original and refreshing films in years.

Come awards season, MEMENTO took home several Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director, Best Feature, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Female.  It would also go on to score Academy Award nominations for Nolan’s screenplay and Dody Dorn’s groundbreaking edit.  All these plaudits earned Nolan the attention of fellow indie maverick Steven Soderbergh, who would soon become instrumental in helping him transition into studio pictures.

Simply put, Nolan was on the map– in a big way.  He was leaving behind the independent sphere on a high note, with MEMENTO demonstrating his taut sense of control and vision while avoiding the distractions and indulgences that come with a significant leap in budgetary resources.

FOLLOWING and MEMENTO– Nolan’s breakout pair of non-linear neo-noirs— may be small in size and scope, but Nolan’s desire for larger-scale filmmaking is already apparent In their DNA.  It would only be a matter of time until he made his mark in the studio realm, but no one– not even him– could’ve ever predicted just how big that mark would be.

INSOMNIA (2002)

MEMENTO caught the eye of many established Hollywood players– most notably, actor/director George Clooney and indie iconoclast Steven Soderbergh.  Their frequent collaborations together, especially as producers, cultivated a shared taste in talent, and they both saw in Christopher Nolan the perfect candidate to helm a project they had in development over at Alcon Entertainment– a remake of a Norwegian film from 1997 named INSOMNIA, about a detective investigating a grisly murder in an isolated town located so far north that the sun doesn’t set for months at a time.

Alcon’s development deal with Warner Brothers effectively meant that INSOMNIA would become Nolan’s first studio film– a testing ground to see if he really had what it took to play in the big leagues.  As such, he would have to make a few concessions on the production methods he was predisposed to; namely, working from a script that was not his own.

While he would ultimately perform his own pass on credited screenwriter Hilary Seitz’s draft just prior to shooting, INSOMNIA was, more or a less, a work for hire.  Nevertheless, Nolan finds plenty of artistic common ground with Seitz’s prose– enough that his first big budget effort would feel apiece with the puzzle-esque nature of his earlier work and empower him to deliver a uniquely captivating thriller on par with its Swedish counterpart.

The wet evergreen mountains of British Columbia stand in for the majestic landscape of Alaska, where a pair of LAPD detectives have been sent in to investigate the murder of a young local girl.  Nolan’s successful collaboration with the likes of Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss and Joe Pantoliano in MEMENTO begets here a cast with a higher industry profile and a sterling pedigree.

Indeed, INSOMNIA begins Nolan’s enviable habit of attracting award-winning talent, boasting no less than three Oscar winners among its ensemble. Al Pacino headlines the film as Detective Will Dormer, a driven yet compromised cop besieged by an internal affairs investigation back home.

Pacino plays the part liked a subdued, run-ragged version of his character from Michael Mann’s HEAT– an aspect that no doubt wasn’t lost on Nolan, a self-styled disciple of Mann’s.  A big city cop in a small frontier town, Dormer is literally and figuratively adrift in a mental fog, isolated from any semblance of a familiar surrounding and lost in a perpetual state of exhaustion thanks to a winter sun that never sets and refuses to let him sleep.

To further complicate matters, his inability to think coherently leads to the tragic accidental killing of his own partner during a raid on on the suspected killer’s hideout. The local Nightmute police investigate the circumstances of the accident, led by the doggedly determined and fiercely insightful Ellie Burr.

Hilary Swank imbues the character with a palpable sense of independence cultivated by a life lived on the outermost boundaries of civilization; the alpha to Nicky Katt’s beta– a fellow Nightmute police officer with a wispy mustache named Fred Duggar.  Meanwhile, Dormer pursues his suspect, a local crime novelist named Walter Finch.

Played to chilling effect by the late Robin Williams in one of his rare serious turns, Finch uses his occupational insights into the law enforcement profession to become a formidable and unpredictable adversary to Dormer.  He’s a killer, yes, but he’s not barbaric– Williams projects the same warm sense of paternal authority he had in Gus Van Sant’s GOOD WILL HUNTING, albeit turned on its ear to emphasize its innately creepy undertones.

Finch differs from other murder-thriller heavies in that his guilt is never in question– he admits his deed to Dormer openly and without shame, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  Williams’ performance is the standout of the film and, in light of his recent passing, stands as a somber reminder of the great talent we lost far too soon.

INSOMNIA is arguably Nolan’s most overlooked major work, but the impeccable quality of its craft lets it to stand toe to toe with his best efforts.  It certainly helps that the lush, pristine Alaskan wilderness provides a stunning and majestic backdrop entirely unique within the larger canon of crime thrillers.

The production values afforded by studio backing amplifies the scope of Nolan’s stylistic choices, which begin to coagulate here into an identifiable aesthetic.  He brings back MEMENTO’s cinematographer, Wally Pfister, in the second of what would be many more subsequent collaborations; filling the 2.35:1 35mm film frame with sweeping panoramas and earthy texture.

Working in conjunction with production designer Nathan Crowley, who would also become a key collaborator in Nolan’s filmography, they cultivate a distinct color palette comprised of stark whites, blacks, and earth tones– with the surrounding evergreens in particular evoking that particular blue-green color characteristic of the lush Pacific Northwest. Warm colors are typically avoided, concentrated mostly within the interior hotel sequences to convey a cozy, hearth-like atmosphere.

The overall effect is one of majestic beauty pervaded by gloom and unease, especially so when a heavy fog envelopes Dormer during the pivotal raid sequence.  Nolan’s camerawork here is much more ambitious, perhaps even a little incongruous considering the staggering sense of scope he imposes on what’s otherwise a relatively grounded story.

His films frequently employ lofty aerials, and INSOMNIA marks the point in which Nolan’s camera finally takes flight, soaring through the dramatic vistas via a combination of helicopter mounts and cranes.

On the ground, Nolan alternates between handheld camerawork and classical dolly moves, making full use of his new toys to convey an epic scope as well as the unique cultural character of his setting.

Editor Dody Dorn and composer David Julyan round out Nolan’s returning crew, with Dorn’s expressionistic approach reprising MEMENTO’s quick-cutting technique as a means to jar the protagonist’s thoughts with flashes of violence, while Julyan’s last collaboration with Nolan moves away from the electronic nature of their earlier work to embrace a big-budget orchestral sound reminiscent of a brooding Hitchcock film.

INSOMNIA may not have initially sprung from Nolan’s mind, but his artistic character permeates every aspect of the film.  As previously noted, Michael Mann is a key influence on Nolan’s aesthetic, and INSOMNIA allows the burgeoning director to play in his idol’s wheelhouse.

Aside from the shared casting of Pacino in a similar character archetype used by Mann, Nolan also evokes his spirit in the detailed and tactical accuracy imposed on even the most minute aspects of policework.

For all his virtues as a man of justice, Dormer is also profoundly corrupt; he plants evidence to justify his own version of events, and even goes so far as to cover up his role in the accidental killing of his own partner.  Nolan’s interest lies in Dormer’s struggle to achieve his objectives without sabotaging himself, continuing the tradition he established in both FOLLOWING and MEMENTO where the fundamentally-compromised nature of his protagonists allows him to better access the psychological underpinnings of their actions.

The twisting nature of INSOMNIA’s plot also evokes the revelatory, puzzle-like character of Nolan’s storytelling, which allows him to turn time itself into a compelling narrative and structural device.

Perhaps rightfully so for his first mainstream Hollywood film, INSOMNIA is the first of Nolan’s features to unspool in linear, chronological order.  Nevertheless, time still plays an important factor in the drama– by setting the story in a place where the sun doesn’t set for months at a time, the circadian day-to-night rhythm is utterly disrupted.

In other words, Dormer is literally removed from the dimension of time itself.  This wreaks havoc on his ability to function, which, in a profession that’s entirely dependent on clear-eyed critical thinking and razor-sharp reflexes, becomes a formidable antagonist in and of itself.

Just like he did for the home video releases of FOLLOWING and MEMENTO, Nolan would also assemble an alternate, apocryphal cut of INSOMNIA– rearranging his scenes in the order that they were shot and overlaying his commentary.

Unlike those prior alternate cuts however, the narrative and logical cohesion of the story completely falls apart in this particular version of INSOMNIA.  Thankfully, clarity isn’t Nolan’s purpose here– rather, this version marries its disjointed order with his astute commentary to provide a unique glimpse into the day-by-day challenges of mounting his first big studio effort.

The commentary also yields intriguing insights into his personal growth as a filmmaker. If his increasing directorial confidence wasn’t palpable enough in the film itself, he reveals that, during the shoot, he didn’t use crucial preparation tools like storyboards, shot lists, or video monitors.  Instead, he let the choices of his actors organically block the scene for him, which he’d then think up coverage for on the fly while he stood by the camera and watched their performances directly instead of behind a screen.

Indeed, these techniques require an astonishingly high degree of confidence to embrace, and aren’t typical of a director on only his third feature… but yet, there he was, pulling it off quite effortlessly.

That gamble of confidence paid off when INSOMNIA debuted in May of 2002 to critical and financial success as one of those rarest of remakes that managed to match, if not transcend, its original material.

Roger Ebert perhaps summed up the sentiment best in his review, hailing it not as “a pale retread, but a re-examination of the material, like a new production of a good play”.
INSOMNIA may have been easily and overwhelmingly eclipsed by anything Nolan’s made since, but it’s nonetheless a strong and notable addition to his canon– and an important one, too, as it would serve as an audition for his next high-profile film, setting the stage for the crowning achievement of his career thus far.

BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

After the completion of INSOMNIA, Christopher Nolan used his newfound access to studio resources to develop an ambitious project on the life of Howard Hughes.  The film would purportedly have starred Jim Carrey as the reclusive billionaire, if he hadn’t scrapped it following his discovery that Martin Scorsese was about to embark on shooting THE AVIATOR with Leonardo DiCaprio.

It was around this same time that he learned Warner Brothers was looking to make a new Batman picture– the property was one of the studio’s crown jewels, but had lain dormant ever since Joel Schumacher effectively bludgeoned it into a coma with 1997’s BATMAN & ROBIN, a two-hour consumer products department memo and toy masquerading as a movie.  Various pitches had already been made by other such high-profile directors as Darren Aronofsky, and spanned a wide range of ideas from Schumacher’s continuation of his run with a third film titled BATMAN TRIUMPHANT, to a live-action adaptation of the animated television series BATMAN BEYOND.

The closest any of these pitches came to reality was Aronofsky’s own riff on the iconic BATMAN YEAR ONE graphic novel, which explored Batman’s origins and early forays into crimefighting from the perspective of the future Gotham City police commissioner Jim Gordon.

Aronofsky’s take would have dramatically reworked some of the most iconic aspects of Batman lore, to the point that executives ultimately got cold feet and abandoned his vision.  Nolan, like many others of his generation, had grown up adoring the Caped Crusader and his surrounding universe of villains, so his interest in the vacant director’s chair was more or less a foregone conclusion.

He wasn’t interested, however, in making a quote/unquote “comic book movie” — indeed, he made no effort to conceal his lack of knowledge with the medium.  Rather, he was interested in imbuing the character of Batman with what he called a “cinematic reality”, giving the story the weight and gravitas of a real-life event.

His initial pitch meeting with Warner Brothers apparently lasted a mere ten minutes, but so confident in his vision of a realistic superhero film was he, that the executives cast aside their doubts about his relative inexperience as a studio filmmaker and hand over their most valuable piece of intellectual property to his control.

Nolan’s next move would pave the way for his eventual reputation as a Hollywood trendsetter.  He did away entirely with the continuity of the previous Tim Burton and Schumacher films, opting to reboot the story from square one so he could tell it his way with no compromises or obligations.

Rebooting a failing franchise has now become the go-to trick for frustrated development executives (especially those assigned to the Spider-Man franchise), so it’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking of an idea this was in the early 2000’s.

This decision, combined with the fact that money was essentially no object, allowed Nolan to envision a boundless Gotham City against which he could stage an epic story exploring Batman not just as a character, but as an idea.

Ridley Scott had always served as a chief influence in Nolan’s artistic development, and Scott’s seminal classic BLADE RUNNER became a key reference in imagining a new kind of cinematic Gotham — a living, breathing city densely populated by diverse subcultures desperately in need of a hero.

Whereas Gotham City had generally been understood in previous iterations to be a fictional version of Manhattan, Nolan modeled the soaring architecture of his Gotham after Chicago, the city in which he’d spent a great deal of his upbringing.

With its deep ties to the colorful history of organized crime and bureaucratic shadiness, Chicago would prove an inspired fit for Nolan’s grandiose vision of a once-great city mired in corruption and decay.

By grounding the action in a tangible place, he could inject the necessary gravitas into his story while immediately differentiating his Gotham from the crumbling Art Deco spires of Burton’s Gotham or the garish day-glo labyrinth of Shumacher’s.

Developing a  project as high-profile as Batman, with so many rabid fans angling for a big scoop, naturally required a high degree of secrecy — a requirement that dovetailed quite harmoniously with Nolan’s own showman-like penchant for strategic opaqueness.
He adopted Stanley Kubrick’s late-career practice of working from home, developing the story in his garage with a small team that included returning production designer Nathan Crowley, Nolan’s producing partner and wife Emma Thomas, and seasoned superhero genre screenwriter David S. Goyer.

Indeed, Nolan and company were so insistent on their veil of secrecy that Warner Brothers executives had to travel to them, forced to read the script on Nolan’s couch in an effort to prevent unwanted copies from leaking.  When the necessities of the pre-production process finally required him to send out physical copies of the script, he did so under a fake title — “The Intimidation Game — to avoid any unwanted scrutiny.

This unconventional process, while admittedly unwieldy, ultimately proved fruitful, empowering him with a dream cast and crew and a budget in the hundreds of millions to help realize the majestic vision he would come to call BATMAN BEGINS.

Christian Bale essentially beat out every eligible actor in the business for the title role by formulating his approach based on, what seems now in retrospect, the obvious concept of the character’s dual nature.  Far from the elegant and assured playboy embodied by Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney, Bale’s Bruce Wayne is a tortured young man whose psyche was profoundly fractured by the murder of his parents when he was a small boy.

The hoarse growl he adopts as Batman is the object of frequent parody now, but Bale’s choice to differentiate the speaking voices of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego came as something of revelation to Nolan during the casting process, immediately setting Bale apart from the pack of candidates.

Bale brings his signature commitment to the role, fully inhabiting the character in mind, body, and soul to arguably create the definitive screen version of the iconic hero. As the newly-orphaned son of a billionaire industrialist and philanthropist, Bruce grows up in his parents’ mausoleum-like mansion, his every need and desire attended to by his caretaker and butler, Alfred.

In his first of several collaborations with Nolan, esteemed British actor Michael Caine effortlessly also creates a definitive version of the character, giving his young charge the necessary warmth and support he needs to one day take take over the reigns of his late father’s business empire, Wayne Enterprises.

Whereas prior Batman movies had audiences simply counting the minutes between the Caped Crusader’s crimefighting forays, Nolan makes the radical choice of delaying our first glimpse of Bruce in full Bat regalia until the halfway mark.

Instead, he traces Bruce’s formative years as his restless desire for justice prompts him to drop out of college and travel the world, giving himself a firsthand education in the nature of crime so that he can deliver said justice himself.  After landing himself in a Chinese prison, he is approached by Ducard, the urbane and charismatic face of a secret vigilante syndicate known as The League Of Shadows.

Liam Neeson proves an inspired choice in the role, becoming a firm yet compassionate mentor to Bruce while dispensing sage advice and virtuous platitudes that slowly reveal their inherently malevolent nature.

He presents himself as an underling to Ken Watanabe’s Ra’s Al Ghul, the enigmatic and Sphinx-like figurehead of The League Of Shadows– but appearances can be deceiving, and Bruce’s refusal to complete his final test (the execution of a common thief) brings his ideological compatibility with Ducard into urgent question.

Ducard’s lessons nevertheless prove influential when Bruce returns to Gotham and begins to formalize his own vigilante identity.

Of all Ducard’s teachings, Bruce’s biggest takeaway is that he is more powerful as a symbol than as a man– a key concept of Nolan’s vision that would fundamentally inform the remainder of the trilogy.  For Bruce, that symbol takes the form of a bat, inspired by a formative moment of fear from his childhood.

Combining his flinty determination for justice with the nigh-bottomless technological resources of Wayne Enterprises at his disposal, Bruce sets out into the night as Batman, intent on eradicating the cancer of organized crime that has infected the Gotham Police Department with corruption.

Batman’s will to act inspires clandestine partnerships with a cop named Jim Gordon and Bruce’s childhood friend, Rachel Dawes, who has grown up to become an ambitious district attorney.  Renowned for his many villainous turns, Gary Oldman initially seemed an unusual choice to portray Gordon, the only decent cop in a police force besieged by compromise and corruption, but he would deliver a brilliant performance that cuts straight to the core of the character.

The character of Rachel Dawes, played by Katie Holmes, is an original creation of Nolan’s with no comic book counterpart.  She’s an ambitious district attorney and the love of Bruce Wayne’s life, stretching all the way back to their childhood.  As such, she is the only person besides Alfred who can penetrate his veneer of AMERICAN PSYCHO-style narcissism and nonchalance to access the broken little boy at his core.

The Batman universe has always been known for its rich world of well-developed allies and enemies, a grand tradition in which BATMAN BEGINS easily follows.  In his performance as Wayne Enterprises R&D head Lucius Fox, Morgan Freeman takes one of the most underappreciated characters in Batman comic lore and transforms him into one of the property’s most indelible personalities and a key ally on par with Gordon or Alfred.  By supplying Bruce with the gear he needs to function as Batman, he becomes analogous to “Q” from the James Bond series, and a vital tool for Nolan to ground Batman’s fantastical tech in the real world.

Nolan is gracious enough to give Freeman his own character arc, as well as his own nemesis in the form of the smug chairman of the Wayne Enterprises board, played memorably by Rutger Hauer in yet another nod to BLADE RUNNER’s key influence on the picture.

MEMENTO’s Mark Boone Junior embodies the Gotham PD’s shameless corruption as Gordon’s slovenly partner, Flass, while Tom Wilkinson’s Carmine Falcone serves as the refined face of the city’s organized crime epidemic.

With his appearance here as the psychopathic psychiatrist Dr. Crane, Cillian Murphy would join Caine and Bale as a recurring collaborator in Nolan’s larger body of work.  Crane, of course, is better known by his supervillain alter ego The Scarecrow– a rogue who employs fear as a weapon, imposing terrifying hallucinations on his victims.

Like Ra’s Al Ghul, Scarecrow is one of the more fantastical villains in the Batman canon and doesn’t necessarily lend himself to a grounded cinematic reality, but Christopher Nolan creates a highly effective adaptation while staying true to the character’s comic roots.  His ability to incite fear stems not from a supernatural source, but from a chemical that he’s weaponized into a spray that paralyzes his targets with debilitating waking nightmares.

Whereas prior BATMAN films chose their villains first and forced the script to twist itself into narrative pretzels to accommodate their pairing, Nolan avoids marquee villains like The Joker or Penguin to place the focus squarely on Batman himself.

Besides the obvious benefit of using villains never before seen on the big screen, Nolan’s emphasis on story allows him to create a rather harmonious pairing between Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul, linking the former’s fear spray directly to the latter by revealing its active ingredient to be a mysterious blue flower that grows in the mountains where The League Of Shadows has established their temple.

This unique pairing also allows the ideological concept of fear to emerge as the central theme of BATMAN BEGINS, a pillar upon which every narrative decision can revolve around.  Part of what makes THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY so resonant is Nolan’s ability to distill each individual installment into a singular, unifying theme.

In the case of BATMAN BEGINS, that theme is fear, and it doesn’t just make for a convenient justification of Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul’s master plot– it’s also an entirely appropriate prism through which to explore the genesis of Batman himself.

Indeed, BATMAN BEGINS is the first Batman film to truly understand and portray the character’s nature as something that strikes genuine fear in the hearts of criminals. Finally, Nolan uses the opportunity to include a few minor cameos that are nonetheless notable in the context of his artistic growth.

For instance, FOLLOWING’s Jeremy Theobald and Lucy Russell make fleeting appearances, the former being a technician for the Gotham Water Board and the latter being the elegant foil of a heated political discussion at a fancy restaurant.

GAME OF THRONES fans will also recognize the inclusion of King Joffrey himself, Jack Gleeson, as a small boy growing up in the Narrows who encounters Batman outside his back porch.

If INSOMNIA’s majestic cinematography hinted at Nolan’s ambitions towards classic Hollywood spectacle, then BATMAN BEGINS makes those designs clear for all to see.  Nolan is something of an iconoclast in the film industry, in that he vigorously bucks modern trends in favor of old school techniques.

He’s become a valiant defender of celluloid film, resistant to the relentless advances of digital filmmaking.  He endeavors to ground his stunts and set-pieces in practical effects as much as possible, where the vast majority of his peers prefer the surgical precision of computer-generated imagery.

He dismisses Hollywood’s convictions about 3D as the way to attract modern audiences to the theater, presenting an alternate argument for larger 2D formats like IMAX that are capable of staggering clarity.

This aspect of his artistic profile is why the release of a new Nolan is regarded as such a cultural event– his methods simply give his films the kind of weight and gravitas we accord to monuments.  BATMAN BEGINS is the first instance of this, harnessing the full power of a nine figure budget and putting it all up on the screen in a way that would popularize the concept of the “dark and gritty reboot”.

Cinematographer Wally Pfister returns for his third collaboration with Nolan, capturing the action on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and coming away with an Oscar nomination for his trouble.

Deep wells of inky shadow, low-hanging clouds of impenetrable fog and torrents of rain conjure up an appropriate film noir look that’s less THE THIRD MAN and more BLADE RUNNER in its rendering of a dystopic urban landscape.

Nolan packs his story with epic compositions and soaring camerawork, further peppering his signature helicopter aerials throughout to find Batman’s majestic silhouette amidst Gotham’s towering spires.  A color palette of earth & metal tones further grounds BATMAN BEGINS’ aesthetic in realism while immediately differentiating itself from prior cinematic iterations of the Caped Crusader.

While Nolan actively avoids replicating the frenetic handheld camerawork typical of action films of the time, he works with editor Lee Smith to bring a chaotic quick-cut approach to the film’s action scenes, especially in fights that aim to convey Batman’s mastery of hand-to-hand combat as an unstoppable and disorienting force, doling out a barrage of street justice in handy bite-size form.

The challenge of reinventing Batman goes much further than overhauling his iconic cape and cowl.  It also means redefining all the other little things that make Batman “Batman”: Wayne Manor, the Batmobile, his grappling hook, and the fantastical theatricality of his villains amidst a myriad of other aspects.

It’s a very intimidating task, but production designer Nathan Crowley proves up to the challenge, reinforcing Nolan’s grandiose vision of a cinematic reality.  All of Batman’s gear is based off real military tech in some capacity, the Batmobile (referred to within the film as The Tumbler) is completely overhauled into the bastard lovechild of a Hummer and a Lamborghini, and the sheer size of the practical sets — indeed, spanning the size of multiple city blocks — would require one of the largest aircraft hangars in the world to house them in.

Composing team Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard tackle the unenviable task of following Danny Elfman’s Batman theme, one of the most instantly recognizable music cues in recent film history, but their efforts result in a score that obliterates our musical memories of Dark Knights past and provides the necessary lift for Nolan’s interpretation to soar.

Zimmer and Howard are excellent composers with highly celebrated individual careers, so their pairing here must’ve seemed very unusual in theory.  In practice, their partnership —  an idea brought to the table by Zimmer when Nolan initially approached him —  proves quite inspired, reflecting Batman’s fragmented psyche with a bifurcated approach that sees Howard tackling dramatic sequences with sweeping strings and mournful brass instruments, while Zimmer fuels the action with an urgent orchestral staccato and atonal electronic rhythms inspired by flapping bat wings.

The score has since become widely recognizable and imitated in the wake of the success of the larger DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, so one could be forgiven for failing to remember just how visionary it truly is — it’s so radical in its adherence to the story’s key themes and willingness to experiment that it’s something of a minor miracle that Warner Brothers ever allowed it anywhere near their most prized property.

BATMAN BEGINS, and the larger DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, is not content to simply detail the exploits of the iconic hero as he romps through Gotham fighting crime.  It aspires to something greater, using its pulp framework to explore heavy ideological concepts.

Indeed, BATMAN BEGINS often plays like a law school thesis paper masquerading as a summer blockbuster.  While this has an unintentional side effect of forcing its characters to contort themselves into unwieldy “idea delivery machines” rather than sound like living, breathing people, the overall effect is nonetheless one of profound resonance that must have felt quite relevant at a time when news headlines were dominated by overreaching surveillance measures and the controversy of pre-emptive war.

With its exploration of of the urban landscape’s relationship to crime and justice,  BATMAN BEGINS provides an opportunity for Nolan to fully inhabit the wheelhouse of a key influence, Michael Mann.

He uses Batman as an entry point into a philosophical deconstruction of justice itself– what is justice, especially when delivered outside the bounds of conventional law enforcement or the court system?

When it comes to vigilantism, do the ends ever justify the means?  The justice system is just one of many that Nolan utilizes to tell BATMAN BEGINS’ story, taking inspiration from HBO’S THE WIRE in detailing how corruption spreads its tendrils into the various infrastructural systems that support a city.

This can be seen most immediately in the villains’ plot to use Gotham’s water supply as a delivery mechanism for an inert chemical agent that, once activated, causes anyone who ingests it to go insane with fear.

Gotham’s transportation system is also utilized, with an elevated subway car being another delivery mechanism for the machine that will catalyze Scarecrow’s fear drug upon reacting Wayne Tower. We also see social systems, represented by diverse economic castes and the varying appearances of different districts, giving Gotham a tangible, realistic quality that eluded Burton or Schumacher’s rather theatrical interpretations.

There’s an elegant, modern financial district anchored by Wayne Tower and inhabited by Gotham’s privileged class, while the poor and other undesirables are condemned below ground to a seedy, forgotten underbelly that appears to have been, at one point, the street-level Gotham before it was built over by the current one.

There’s also the Narrows, a densely-populated island of slums and abject poverty set apart from the mainland; home to Arkham Asylum and the majority of Gotham’s criminal population.

The inclusion of such a destitute neighborhood as the setting for the film’s climax contrasts directly with the mask of privilege and wealthiness Bruce bears to the public, further illustrating the extent to which he must depart from a life of luxury in order to purge himself of his interior demons.

BATMAN BEGINS’ exploration of urban systems and the malleability of the built environment has come to be a prominent theme in his subsequent work, culminating in INCEPTION and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES with characters physically re-sculpting cities to their own singular designs.

A common image throughout Nolan’s filmography is that of imposing architectural monoliths brought to rubble by a fundamental weakness, an aspect of his artistic character no doubt profoundly affected by 9/11.

BATMAN BEGINS establishes this conceit rather literally, defacing the city streets around Wayne Tower by crashing a runaway subway train into it.  The fact that The Narrows is an island is also important– its isolation from the mainland becomes a critical flaw when Scarecrow’s fear gas is unleashed, instantly transforming the island slum into a confined labyrinth of terror.

In an oblique way, this aspect of BATMAN BEGINS also hits on the magician-like, puzzle-esque nature of his artistic persona, in that he takes something exceedingly mundane like the subway or an urban island and turns it into something of a spectacle.

That same nature also causes him to take what might otherwise be a fairly linear story and jumble up the timeline into a highly strategic non-linear order.  BATMAN BEGINS ostensibly covers Bruce Wayne’s long transformation into Batman, from his first encounter with bats in an old well as a child, to his first victory as a vigilante, and finally to the solidification of his new identity after saving Gotham from an insidious crime syndicate.

However, Nolan doesn’t quite tell the story in that order– at least, not during the first half.  We first meet Bruce as an inmate in a Chinese prison, detailing the circumstances leading up to his meeting Ducard and becoming involved in The League Of Shadows.

While he trains to become one of them, Nolan peppers in flashbacks that fill out the backstory, showing how Bruce’s parents were murdered and how his frustration over being unable to avenge their killer himself led to his travels abroad.

The ordering of these sequences is quite deliberate, calculated in such a way so as to maximize the emotional power of BATMAN BEGINS’ first half by feeding us visceral nuggets of backstory that underscore the context of the scene at hand.

This is what director Guillermo Del Toro is referring to when he calls Nolan an “emotional mathematician”– he evokes emotion by structuring his stories in a way that’s precise and measured– almost to a fault, as his detractors tend to find his films devoid of organic warmth, akin to the gut level revulsion of encountering the uncanny valley.

As Nolan’s filmography has grown, there indeed appears to be a formula for how he structures his stories for maximum emotional impact.  One of the most evident products of this formula is the specific manner in which he ends most of his films, riding an emotional wave conjured by a cathartic montage and swelling score before smash cutting to the film’s title (which is usually the first time we actually see the title itself onscreen).

BATMAN BEGINS marks the first time that Christopher Nolan employs this formula, a choice that’s quite apt for the subject matter and, in particular, the closing scene at hand.

The film naturally accommodates other thematic fascinations of Nolan’s, both established and emerging. BATMAN BEGINS continues a tradition seen in all of his work since FOLLOWING by positioning the protagonist as profoundly flawed.  Admittedly, this has always been a core aspect of the character since his creation by Bob Kane in 1939, but previous Batman pictures mostly chose to overlook it in favor of highlighting his heroic qualities.

Nolan’s Bruce Wayne is a man haunted by a horrible tragedy and desperately in need of a guiding purpose in his life.  His solution to dress up as a bat and fight crime, then, requires an intimidating amount of philosophical reflection in order to combat the sheer psychosis of the idea.

Even then, Bruce knows his quest is doomed– he’s well aware that no amount of crimefighting can bring back his parents or heal his psychological wounds, yet he can’t help but become utterly consumed by his desire for justice.

Nolan’s sartorial fascination with functional style finds plenty of opportunity for indulgence in BATMAN BEGINS, not just in the various utilities of the Batsuit’s design but also in the amount of screentime he allocates to the discussion of what the suits means on a symbolic level.

Finally, BATMAN BEGINS’ expansive, almost operatic scope allows Bruce to be seen travelling the world before settling back in Gotham, whereas previous Batman films never left the city limits.  Nolan would bring this same globetrotting sensibility to his subsequent work, orchestrating his stories so as to require frequent travel to exotic locales that help to convey a larger-than-life scale.

As his career has grown, his travels have extended beyond the confines of Earth itself, venturing to entirely new worlds in INTERSTELLAR’s outer space as well as the lucid unconscious of INCEPTION’s inner space.  BATMAN BEGINS has its sights set on far more modest horizons, employing the dramatic and almost-alien vistas of Iceland as a stand-in for the majestic Himalayan Mountains of Asia.

All of this led up to what was easily the most ambitious film of Nolan’s still-fledgling career.  His ability to convey scale had grown from FOLLOWING’s modest back-alley origins to that of a sweeping overview of an entire city under siege.

His self-confidence as a director, evidenced by his refusal to storyboard or sit in video village during the production of INSOMNIA, enabled him to execute his vision with awe-inspiring clarity while further bucking long-established studio filmmaking practices– indeed, he felt that every shot was so vital to telling his story that he dispatched with a second unit altogether, gathering every single action beat, establishing shot, or insert himself.

While not without its fair share of criticisms, BATMAN BEGINS debuted in the summer of 2005 to very positive reviews, many of which claimed that the Caped Crusader had finally been done cinematic justice.  The film also established Nolan’s enviable ability to create box office juggernauts, earning $373 million in worldwide receipts.

Far from simply being just another summer blockbuster, BATMAN BEGINS has proven highly influential, causing a chain reaction of events still being felt across the cinematic landscape nearly fifteen years later.

Hollywood’s trend of comic book adaptations had truly begun with the success of Bryan Singer’s X-MEN in 2000, but BATMAN BEGINS showed the world that these properties could be something more than just escapist fare– they could be legitimate forums in which to explore complex social and political issues.

Furthermore, it pioneered the now-stale trend of “rebooting” a dormant or failed property as a way to restore its freshness– indeed, CASINO ROYALE and the Daniel Craig-era of the James Bond series was a direct reaction to BATMAN BEGINS.

The success of its limited IMAX run also established a viable market for large format presentations of narrative features, offering a technical advantage suited to huge spectacle that conventional theaters or television simply couldn’t match.  Nolan himself would become enamored of the format previously best known for short-form nature documentaries, beginning a love affair that would fundamentally shape his career.

For audiences, BATMAN BEGINS would begin their love affair with Nolan himself– the character of Batman became, for many, an entry point into the burgeoning director’s particular style of filmmaking and created a whole new wave of Nolan admirers and acolytes.

For the Nolan faithful who had already seen the light with MEMENTO, the massive success of BATMAN BEGINS reinforced their convictions in his formidable technical skill-set and narrative dexterity.

In one fell bat-swoop, Nolan had gone from indie maverick to the biggest VIP on the Warner Brothers lot, well on his way towards a destiny as a director who would revolutionize and revitalize old-fashioned spectacle filmmaking for a new generation of audiences around the world.  The Hollywood machine demanded a sequel, and quickly, but a return trip to Gotham wasn’t on Nolan’s itinerary just yet.


THE PRESTIGE (2006)

Director Christopher Nolan didn’t have to search very far to find the subject material for his follow-up to BATMAN BEGINS– his fifth feature film had already been in development since MEMENTO, and would have been his fourth after INSOMNIA, had Gotham City not beckoned so urgently.

Nolan and his brother Jonathan had been working intermittently over the previous five years adapting Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel “The Prestige”, a tale about dueling magicians in London at the turn of the twentieth century.

The brothers no doubt felt an enormous amount of pressure to deliver a fitting adaptation, considering that they had been chosen by Priest directly over higher-profile filmmakers like Sam Mendes, who wished to make the picture as his own follow-up to the Oscar-winning AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999).

Nolan benefited from Priest’s preference for up-and-coming filmmakers, wowing the author off the strength of FOLLOWING alone, as MEMENTO was still in post-production at the time.  The Nolan brothers attributed the length of their writing process to the complexity of their ambitions, wishing to reshape the form of their screenplay to the thematic structure of the book in a bid to become the cinematic embodiment of the magic trade’s core principles.

Capturing these ideals proved teasingly elusive, to the extent that the brothers delivered the final shooting script only three days before the start of production.  Thankfully, their efforts didn’t go unnoticed– THE PRESTIGE has gone on to become one of Nolan’s most closely-scrutinized efforts, regarded not just as a compelling and complex dramatic thriller, but also as a revelatory expression of Nolan’s own artistic character via the philosophies that inform his craft.

THE PRESTIGE continues Nolan’s symbiotic working relationship with Warner Brothers, who co-produces with Touchstone Pictures, but it also sees him reuniting with Newmarket Films, the entity that launched his career with MEMENTO.

The story is concerned with the sustained game of one-upmanship between rival magicians– the aristocratic American, Robert Angier, played by Hugh Jackman, and the coarse, working-class Englishman, Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale.

Bale’s casting, as well as Michael Caine’s as a paternal stage engineer named Cutter, reflects how quickly THE PRESTIGE came together once BATMAN BEGINS got off the ground: both actors are able to parlay the creative momentum of their prior collaboration with Nolan into compelling performances that bring the period alive with fresh immediacy.  As the game of wits between Borden and Angier escalates, they draw their friends and family into the fray to increasingly devastating results.

Rebecca Hall fares better than her role as Borden’s increasingly put-upon wife might otherwise suggest, taking what very little she has to work with in terms of dramatic meat and chewing it vigorously.

Scarlett Johansson pulls heavily from the “femme fatale” archetype in her performance as Olivia Wenscombe, a double-crossing magician’s assistant whose allegiance is– to put it politely– fickle.

David Bowie, Andy Serkis, and Ricky Jay round out Nolan’s cast of note;  an inspired trio, considering all three are illusionists in their own right.  Jay is a magic enthusiast in real life, and helped to coach Bale and Jackman in the trade while serving in his role as a fellow magician named Milton.

Serkis is well-known for his innovations with motion capture performance, using digital effects to transcend what the human body can physically do, or transform it into something else entirely.  However, he gets no such opportunity to practice that trade in THE PRESTIGE, in which he plays Nikola Tesla’s decidedly human assistant, Alley.

Bowie plays Tesla himself, the eccentric real-life inventor who is fictionalized here as something of a reclusive wizard of the electric occult– the mastermind behind a mysterious technology that allows Angier to harness a power far beyond his ability to truly understand it.

Returning cinematographer Wally Pfister and production designer Nathan Crowley cement their status as core members of Nolan’s inner collaborative circle, each scoring a respective Oscar nomination for their efforts here.

THE PRESTIGE expectedly reinforces Nolan’s reputation for impeccable cinematography and unrivaled production value– but this time, it almost comes in spite of the significant budgetary resources at his disposal.  Stylistically-speaking, the film has more in common with his earlier independent work than his two recent studio efforts, often employing a handheld camera that finds the 2.35:1 frame organically instead of imposing precise and deliberate compositions on his subjects.

Nolan and Pfister complement this approach by avoiding artificial light whenever possible, which works in unison with the handheld camerawork to bring Nolan’s first recreation of a historical period to vivid life.

Whereas Nolan’s prior reliance on natural light on FOLLOWING was born of practical necessity, his adoption of it here exhibits his supreme confidence as a filmmaker, in that he’s actively choosing to deprive himself of the luxury of a controlled lighting scheme.  It also serves as thematic reinforcement for the story itself, being set in a world that was coming out of the industrial revolution and into a bold new era of electricity.

All this being said, Nolan doesn’t quite fully embrace his indie roots– he still delves regularly into the studio toybox, pulling out dolly tracks, crane arms, and helicopter mounts to imbue his picture with a majestic, classical sense of scale.  Angier’s journey to see Tesla in his isolated compound at Colorado Springs also allows Nolan to dabble with the iconic visual language of the western genre.

Just as he had done with BATMAN BEGINS, production designer Nathan Crowley spent a great deal of THE PRESTIGE’s development process working out of Nolan’s garage, working intimately with the director to establish the physical aesthetic as manifest in the sets, props, and costumes.

THE PRESTIGE utilizes a similar color palette to BATMAN BEGINS, rendering the 35mm film image in earth & metal tones, warming up interior sequences with a cozy amber hue while lathering exteriors in a cold, cobalt veneer.

The color red is used sparingly, saved for the interiors of the majestic theatres or Angier’s Colorado stagecoach so as to better evoke the romanticism of their profession while contrasting it against the grimy working-class environs from which their shows provide a fantastical escape.

Unlike his work on BATMAN BEGINS, Crowley built only one set for THE PRESTIGE– the under-stage section of the theatre where Angier, Borden, and Cutter congregate after a hard day’s work of amazing the unwashed masses.

With the exception of the Universal backlot subbing in for the muddy streets of London, much of THE PRESTIGE was shot on location, giving the film a smoky, industrial texture that simply can’t be replicated on a soundstage.

Some might be surprised to learn that the majority of THE PRESTIGE was shot in Los Angeles, utilizing well-chosen locales that handily pass for 1900’s-era London, like Greystone Mansion– a grand oil tycoon’s estate in Beverly Hills often seen in a variety of other films like The Coen Brothers’ THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1988) or Paul Thomas Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007).

The various theatres seen throughout the film were found amidst the opulent, forgotten auditoriums and movie palaces of downtown LA’s Broadway Theatre District– many of which had been sitting unused for years, ready to play the part with little need for additional set dressing.

Post-production offers yet another opportunity for Nolan to reteam with previous collaborators.  BATMAN BEGINS’ editor Lee Smith reprises his duties here, effortlessly juggling the complicated machinery of Nolan’s narrative.

Composer David Julyan also returns for his fourth collaboration with Nolan after sitting out the scoring job on BATMAN BEGINS.  Julyan’s suite of cues for THE PRESTIGE bears a heavy resemblance to his prior work for Nolan, foregoing any sort of melodic shape in favor of a brooding, orchestral drone.

Of all the creative aspects that make up THE PRESTIGE, most critics agreed that Julyan’s work here was the weak link, content to be regularly overwhelmed by Nolan’s visuals while offering up very little in the way of its own character.

Indeed, the most interesting aspect of THE PRESTIGE’s music is the fact that Nolan uses the Thom Yorke track “Analyse” over the credits– notable by its rare exception to Nolan’s otherwise-established preference for original score over licensed needledrops.

As of this writing, THE PRESTIGE marks the last time Nolan would work with his oldest collaborator, with the consensus of critical disappointment surrounding Julyan’s score perhaps solidifying Nolan’s burgeoning partnership with Hans Zimmer as a more appropriate fit for the big-budget studio filmmaker he was becoming.

THE PRESTIGE may have been overshadowed in the wake of the larger success of his subsequent films, but it stands to reason that it’s also a highly personal work that most intimately convey’s Nolan’s artistic worldview towards his own profession.  He clearly sees undeniable similarities in the stagecraft behind both magic and filmmaking, like a shared emphasis on sleight of hand and visual trickery to make the audience believe in something unreal, or impossible.

The central philosophy of magic that gives the film its title consists of three prongs– The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige.  Nolan weaves this philosophy into the structure of the screenplay itself, assigning each prong to its corresponding act.  The Pledge presents the audience with a seemingly normal object, just as Act 1 introduces the status quo of a particular story’s setting and characters.

The Turn finds the illusionist doing something extraordinary with that object, like making it disappear– a fitting allusion to Act 2’s need to present the protagonist with a problem that must be solved.

But as the film continually reminds us, it’s not enough to make something disappear; you have to bring it back.  Act 3 and The Prestige serve the same purpose: to return to the status quo via extraordinary, and sometimes even supernatural, effort.

In typical Christopher Nolan style, however, THE PRESTIGE doesn’t present it sequence of events in such a simple or linear fashion.  The story rests on a series of key revelations, many of which become more effective or intriguing when the audience doesn’t yet have full context.

Just as he did in his previous films, Nolan and editor Lee Smith chart the rise and fall of both Angier and Borden out of sequence, jumbling up the chronology for strategic effect much like a magician will employ distraction techniques and sleight of hand to conceal the machinery that makes the trick possible.

Angier and Borden also follow in Nolan’s grand parade of profoundly flawed protagonists– both men are consumed by their ambition and competitiveness, driven to do great things that give them renown and acclaim, but also horrible deeds that tarnish their careers with infamy.

Their shared desire for greatness, no matter the cost, becomes their Achilles heel, forcing them to new lows even as they struggle to one-up each other.  Nolan’s interest in functional style takes a necessary turn towards opulence in THE PRESTIGE, dressing his protagonists in peacocking threads that reinforce their strategic need to dazzle their audiences with flash and elegance.

Their garb even serves to conceal complicated undersuits vital to executing dramatic, impossible tricks; best seen in a primitive, mechanical contraption of Cutter’s design that looks like something Batman would have worn had he been born a century earlier.

Nolan’s direction clearly benefits from the confidence and wealth of experience he accumulated on the set of BATMAN BEGINS, navigating the labyrinthine twists and turns of THE PRESTIGE’s narrative with effortless ease and dexterity.

Interestingly enough, THE PRESTIGE was one of three films released in 2006 to deal with the world of magic, the other two being THE ILLUSIONIST and Woody Allen’s SCOOP (which also starred Jackman and Johansson).

The film enjoyed a robust run at the box office and a slew of positive reviews from critics, attaining a level of success it might not have had otherwise, had interest in Nolan’s artistic character not been fueled by the monster hit that was BATMAN BEGINS.

In the years since its release, THE PRESTIGE has only grown in critical and cultural regard, continuing to reveal new layers of thematic complexity and technical mastery with each repeat viewing.


THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

The runaway success of BATMAN BEGINS in 2005 revitalized the flagging Batman movie franchise, leaving fans clamoring for more of director Christopher Nolan’s expansive and groundbreaking vision.

A sequel was inevitable, but rather than capitalize off the resurgent Batmania by pushing out the next chapter as fast as possible, Warner Brothers executives did something quite unimaginable by today’s standards– they gave Nolan the space and time he needed to regroup and refresh his artistic approach.

THE PRESTIGE served as an effective palette cleanser in this regard, its warm reception further consolidating Nolan’s influence and bolstering his directorial profile as a breakout visionary.  Now that his artistic deck had been cleared, Nolan was ready to consider what a return trip to Gotham City might entail.

There were certain expectations, of course– a sequel would no doubt find Batman operating at the apex of his powers, and BATMAN BEGINS’ ending teaser scene suggested he would finally do battle with his arch-nemesis, The Joker.

Beyond that, Nolan had near-limitless creative and financial freedom to realize his vision.  As it would turn out, that vision would grow to become so complex and ambitious, it would require a canvas no less than four stories tall to properly contain it.

In crafting a fitting follow-up to BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan once again looked to classic graphic novels for inspiration– specifically, THE KILLING JOKE and THE LONG HALLOWEEN, which respectively detailed the origin stories of two iconic Batman villains The Joker and Two-Face.

While he didn’t adapt those stories outright, certain aspects of these comics nevertheless served as touchstones for Nolan’s second foray into the wider Batman universe.  Receiving another story assist from David S. Goyer, Nolan set about crafting the screenplay with his writing partner and brother, Jonathan.

The brothers were intent on using this opportunity to depart significantly from established Batman lore and remake the Caped Crusader in their image, to the extent that they dropped the word “Batman” from the title of their screenplay entirely– a first in the property’s cinematic history.

The title they would use instead — THE DARK KNIGHT –simultaneously invoked one of Batman’s alternate mantles while signaling their intention to transcend the confines of the character’s comic book origins.

To make a Batman movie without “Batman” in the title is an admittedly risky move, and the fact that Warner Brothers allowed this to come to pass speaks volumes about the total trust they placed in Nolan as the current steward of their most-prized property.

As we all know now, their faith would be rewarded many times over, with THE DARK KNIGHT becoming a financial and critical juggernaut that not only installed Nolan as one of Hollywood’s preeminent directors, but fundamentally changed the course of American studio filmmaking for the foreseeable future.

THE DARK KNIGHT picks up roughly nine months after BATMAN BEGINS left off, with the revelation of Batman’s existence compelling the citizens and bureaucrats of Gotham City to build a better, more-just society.

The cobwebs of organized crime that once riddled the city with corruption have been largely swept away to the fringes, held in check by a debilitating fear of an unexpected appearance by Batman (or one of his many knockoff impersonators).

From his vantage point in a spartan penthouse high above the city, Bruce Wayne overlooks a cleaner Gotham and eagerly anticipates the day when Batman’s brand of vigilante justice can be replaced by legitimate agents, like the ascendant District Attorney, Harvey Dent.

Christian Bale reprises his role from BATMAN BEGINS, finding the iconic hero at the peak of his powers.  As this particular incarnation of Bruce Wayne, Bale appears much leaner– gaunt, even–  than he did previously.  This Bruce is a man who is deep into his obsession with justice, burdened by the philosophical weight of his calling and the growing realization his work may never be done.

His best hope for retirement lies in the efforts of Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart in a performance that draws heavily from the legacy of tragic political idealists like Robert F. Kennedy.  Hailed as a “White Knight” and a legitimate response to Batman’s shadow campaign,  the city’s new top cop sets about ridding Gotham of corruption through the court system and a relentless zeal for prosecution.

The relationship between Batman and Harvey Dent is the emotional backbone of THE DARK KNIGHT’s story, with both men bound to each other by principle, ambition, and their love for Rachel Dawes.

Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces BATMAN BEGINS’ Katie Holmes, arguably delivering a superior performance that ably evokes the nuanced heartbreak of loving two men who aren’t just willing, but eager to risk their lives in the name of justice.  She continues to be a key figure in Bruce Wayne’s life, with the switch in performers hardly registering thanks to the compelling and unexpected way in which Nolan expands and develops the character’s arc to its logical — and tragic —  endpoint.

BATMAN BEGINS closed on a triumphant, albeit cautious note– taking great pains to warn of the perils of escalation.  Naturally, THE DARK KNIGHT details how this manifests in a world where the good guys dress like bats and leap off of rooftops.  As the city’s various criminal factions are squeezed to their breaking point, they turn to a man they don’t understand– a psychotic criminal with no allegiances or backstory and known only as The Joker.

Easily the most recognizable and influential of all Batman’s various villains, The Joker as manifest in Nolan’s universe is, first and foremost, an agent of chaos.  He matches Batman’s theatricality even as he positions himself as the Dark Knight’s philosophical antithesis.  He spreads his nihilistic worldview by finding and using the weaknesses that lie in his opponents, turning them against themselves and each other.

After teasing his presence at the end of BATMAN BEGINS, there was much anticipation as to just how exactly Nolan would portray The Joker through the prism of his grounded, real-world approach.

The casting of Heath Ledger, then, was met with a significant amount of premature criticism from the blogosphere– here was a good-looking actor who, while generally regarded as a talented thespian, was so completely outside the physicality expected of someone entrusted to play Batman’s most iconic nemesis.

On top of that, Ledger had to compete with Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the character in Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989)– a performance that many considered to be the definitive screen depiction of The Joker.  To prepare, Ledger reportedly locked himself away in an isolated motel room for six weeks, keeping a journal he wrote in character and drawing inspiration from figures like Sid Vicious and Alex DeLarge from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as he developed and perfected a slithery, serpentine energy all his own.

Topped off by a mop of greasy green hair, smeared face makeup, and a sinister Glasgow Smile, Ledger’s performance immediately silenced the critics the moment he appeared on screen and performed his now-infamous Magic Pencil Trick.

A budding director in his own right, Ledger  went as far as directing the Joker’s hostage videos himself– a rare instance of Nolan ceding total directorial control, and an illustratration of both Ledger’s complete command of the character and Nolan’s unwavering trust in him as a collaborator.

The collective interest in Ledger’s depiction of the Joker was no doubt magnified by his untimely death in January 2008, which fueled something of a morbid fascination considering he was playing such a ghoulish character.

When the final product was unveiled, Ledger’s last complete performance was met with unanimous praise by critics and audiences alike, generating a wave of appreciation that culminated in a posthumous Oscar win for the late actor in the Best Supporting Actor category– a first for the superhero genre.

Since then, Ledger’s depiction of The Joker has gone on to invade our collective consciousness, leaving behind a legacy of anarchic iconography that’s been used in anything and everything: from political protest memes, to Halloween costumes and, most unfortunately, real-world copycat killers.

Nolan’s handling of the equally-iconic villain Harvey Two-Face was also fraught with peril– a rogue made infamous by the grotesque disfigurement covering half his body and his penchant for flipping a coin over his murderous decisions, the character as established in the comics was already a far cry from Nolan’s vision of a grounded reality.

Tommy Lee Jones’ hamball depiction in Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN FOREVER (1995) was essentially Diet Joker, so Nolan and Eckhart had a low hurdle to clear when it came to molding an adversary who could hold his own against Ledger’s dominating performance.

As mentioned previously, Harvey Dent’s fall from grace is the major dramatic through-line of THE DARK KNIGHT, with his death having profound implications for Gotham’s future that will resonate through the remainder of the trilogy.  Nolan takes great care to establish the monster already lying within before Dent’s fateful transformation, showing how his passion for justice and his friends can be perverted and twisted in a way that betrays his core principles.

The loss of Rachel Dawes and the burning of half his body in a gasoline fire orchestrated by The Joker doesn’t drive him to evil, it only brings out the evil that was there all along– simmering beneath his good looks and cool confidence.  Nolan and Eckhart wisely imbue Harvey Two-Face with a tragic sympathy that allows the audience to swallow the more outlandish aspects of his character, and more crucially, mourn for the loss of Gotham’s bright future during his brief reign of terror.

Owing to the film’s epic sense of scope and vision of a city gripped by crisis, a large  supporting cast anchors Nolan’s core players while serving as a testament to his ability to attract prestigious talent.  Familiar faces like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Cillian Murphy reprise their respective roles from BATMAN BEGINS, their loyalty rewarded with compelling dramatic arcs all their own.

Caine’s Alfred is the same dependable old butler he’s always been, but the burden of keeping Bruce’s secrets is clearly beginning to take its toll on him.  Freeman’s Lucius Fox continues to balance supplying Batman with updated crime-fighting gear while running Wayne Enterprises, but we also find him grappling with the ethical dilemmas inherent in assisting a vigilante unbound by the constraints of legitimate justice systems.
In order to find and combat The Joker, Batman has to resort to ever more-precarious methods of surveillance that blur the line between right and wrong– in this context, Fox becomes something of a cypher for 2008 audiences grappling with their own ideological standing on The War On Terror’s overreaching domestic surveillance measures.  Oldman’s Jim Gordon is more grizzled and battle-hardened since we last saw him, and his continued immunity against corruption sees him finally elevated to his character’s classic rank of Commissioner.

As Jonathan Crane and his villainous alter-ego Scarecrow, Murphy finds his character having fallen on hard times since the failure of his plot in BATMAN BEGINS– his influence reduced to that of a lowly drug dealer hawking his toxic fear compound as a recreational hallucinogen.

A few new faces join the fray, such as Eric Roberts, Nestor Carbonell, Anthony Michael Hall, and William Fichtner.  Roberts plays the smug heir to the Falcone crime empire, Salvatore Marone; his general ineffectiveness symbolizing organized crime’s waning grip on the city.

Carbonell draws influence from real-world bureaucrats like then-Los Angeles Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, in his performance as Gotham City’s mayor, Anthony Garcia — a confident and idealistic politician who is eager to usher in a new age of prosperity for his beloved city.

Hall, better known for his turns in various John Hughes movies as a gangly awkward teenager, appears all grown-up here as a prominent news anchor who finds himself ensnared by The Joker’s masterful manipulation of the media.  Fichtner is the first of Nolan’s many nods to Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995), cast as a feisty bank clerk during the Joker’s robbery sequence that opens the film.

Whereas BATMAN BEGINS used the idea of fear as its thematic backbone, THE DARK KNIGHT organizes its narrative around the central theme of chaos.  The Joker’s chief objective is to break down the established order by calling attention to the fragility of the ideological pillars that hold it up.

A rigid structure that won’t bend will break instead, rendering itself ineffective against a force that needs no structure whatsoever.  He sows the seed of doubt in his victims, calling into question their inherent natures, and then simply sits back and enjoys the ensuing fireworks as they do the destruction for him.

A perfect example of this is the chaos that ensues when The Joker calls on the citizens of Gotham to murder a Wayne employee who is threatening to reveal the identity of Batman.  If the man isn’t dead within an hour, he’ll blow up a hospital– the identity of which he strategically declines to divulge.  Faced with the prospect of losing their loved ones, the citizens of Gotham turn out en masse to eliminate the employee, besieging the police with an overwhelming and unpredictable wave of opposition.

THE DARK KNIGHT’s expansive canvas allows for the exploration of several other core concepts that inform the greater scope of the trilogy, such as escalation and various sociopolitical systems.  Foreshadowed by Gordon at the end of BATMAN BEGINS, escalation becomes a major driving force of THE DARK KNIGHT’s story– in their desperation, Gotham’s criminal underworld takes on a theatricality to match Batman’s, while their efforts become more pronounced and destructive.

Batman’s vigilantism inspires a slew of copycat wanna-be’s decked out in hockey pads and armed with shotguns.  Even Batman’s crime-fighting techniques become more invasive and unethical as he’s forced to lower himself to combat The Joker’s unconventional campaign.

Indeed, Christopher Nolan uses THE DARK KNIGHT to explore how the cost of justice is higher when doing combat with an agent of chaos– the sheer unpredictability and absence of a pattern necessitates the blurring of the thin blue line that stands between criminality and law & order.  While these ideas resonate regardless of time or context, THE DARK KNIGHT felt profoundly resonant in 2008, drawing clear parallels to the Bush Administration’s use of overreaching measures like the Patriot Act to combat terrorism at home and abroad.

Critics were divided on whether Nolan’s treatment of the subject matter was critical or actually supportive of these policies, which reflects not on Nolan’s ability to convey a stance on the subject, but rather the ethical quandaries that such a complicated subject engenders.  Rather than simply retread his exploration of the justice system from BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan finds new avenues to wander, showing how the system is limited by the arbitrary boundaries of jurisdiction.

A city cop in New York simply can’t go and arrest someone in Boston, for example– only an agency with federal jurisdiction like the FBI can do that.  However, a vigilante unaffiliated with an official law enforcement agency has no such limitation.  THE DARK KNIGHT finds Batman venturing outside of Gotham for the first time on-screen, traveling to Hong Kong to forcibly extraditable a corrupt accountant back to Gotham to answer for his crimes there.

As Batman, he can do things the Gotham PD can’t– a power that serves him well when needed, but also casts the nature of his heroism into doubt.  One of the film’s most memorable lines belongs to Harvey Dent: “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to become the villain”.

The legality of Batman’s crimefighting forays has always been a grey area, but can usually be justified on an ethical level.  The nature of The Joker’s antagonism forces Batman to compromise his ethics, building a giant array of networked cell phones that visualizes signals into a kind of sonar so that he can better track his nemesis.

Indeed, the manipulation of communications systems like cell phones, satellites, and transmission towers as weapons to use against the populace echoes BATMAN BEGINS’ use of water & transportation systems for similar ends.

The blatant privacy invasion of spying on the city’s population via their cell phones has profound implications for the righteousness of Batman’s quest, setting the stage for his self-imposed exile at the end of the film.

The Joker’s self-proclaimed “ace in the hole” is his turning of Dent into a homicidal maniac– a development that stands to destroy the morale of Gotham’s citizens and tear down everything Batman and Gordon have worked so far to build.  In order to beat The Joker, Batman realizes he must take the fall for Dent’s crimes, sacrificing his heroic standing so that the dream of a better Gotham can survive.

THE DARK KNIGHT represents a major turning point in the development of Nolan’s visual aesthetic, establishing a super-sized approach to cinematic spectacle that’s since become his dominant artistic signature.  The bulk of the picture was shot on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but in his pursuit of higher image quality over technical gimmickry, Nolan chose to shoot crucial action sequences and other select shots with IMAX cameras.

A longtime tenant in the nature documentary realm, IMAX had never been used to shoot all or even a portion of a conventional Hollywood feature, and for good reason: the cameras were gigantic, bulky, and cumbersome, and the mechanical noise produced by the 70mm film running horizontally through the camera meant that any sound captured on-set was often unusable.

Shooting a simple dialogue scene, let alone an ambitious action sequence, posed enormous logistical problems that would scare away any filmmaker– but Nolan was undeterred; he reasoned that if an IMAX camera could be lugged up into space, then there’s no reason it couldn’t be used for studio filmmaking.

This understandably caused no shortage of skepticism and trepidation on the part of Nolan’s crew — especially the Steadicam operator, who had to physically mount that monster onto his body on a regular basis — but Nolan’s supreme confidence and eagerness to innovate pushed them through their initial wariness to deliver an awe-inspiring cinematic experience the likes of which had never been seen before.

Nolan and returning cinematographer Wally Pfister found they had to adjust certain aspects of their style accordingly, such as designing their IMAX compositions to leave a significant amount of dead space at the top of the frame.

This was done to compensate for their discovery that audiences faced with a four-story screen had to keep their eyes trained towards the center out of sheer necessity.  While the use of IMAX is vital to conveying the truly epic scale of Nolan’s vision, its intermixing with the Cinemascope 35mm footage makes for an admittedly disorienting viewing experience at first– especially on home video.

While he uses IMAX mostly for self-contained sequences like the opening bank heist, he also employs it for select aerials and individual “statement” shots, which causes an abrupt change in the aspect ratio, filling out the screen at one moment and then compressing into the letterbox form factor in another.

To Nolan’s credit, however, one becomes quickly accustomed to the shift, and it ultimately doesn’t detract from the power of his storytelling.  It is a testament to Nolan’s reputation as a visionary that his use of IMAX has only seldomly been adopted by other directors– indeed, shooting a large portion of his films in the format has become a high-profile artistic signature of his, to the degree that anyone else who tries it risks being seen as a copycat or a pale imitation.

Rather than simply replicate the general aesthetic of BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan and returning collaborators, Wally Pfister and Nathan Crowley, expand upon its conceit of a cinematic reality by further embracing an air of immediate and visceral realism in the sequel.  Pfister’s cinematography departs from the amber-toned look of BATMAN BEGINS in favor of a colder, steel & stone color palette that consists primarily of greys, blues, and greens.

Nolan maintains his use of classical, spectacle-oriented camerawork, covering Batman’s crime-fighting forays with a mixture of grandiose dolly shots, majestic cranes, and sweeping helicopter aerials while also sprinkling in the occasional handheld move, speeding Russian arm maneuver, or circular dolly.

The circular dolly in particular is an admittedly overused technique in contemporary filmmaking — a quick and easy way to add stylistic flair — but Nolan finds the perfect use for it in a sequence where the Joker taunts Rachel Dawes at a high society political fundraiser, unmooring the audience’s sense of safety and building the suspense with a dizzying loss of control.

In a rather surprising move for a Batman film, Nolan chooses to stage a great deal of THE DARK KNIGHT in the cold light of day.  As such, the film’s aesthetic deals in bright washes of natural light instead of the sculpted theatricality of BATMAN BEGINS’ noir-influenced lighting scheme.

Crowley’s production design echoes this sentiment, foregoing the control of a soundstage for the tactile realism of a location shoot.  Nolan and his team once again use Chicago as the base for their particular conception of Gotham, but refrain from obscuring it behind layers of exaggeration and stylistic artifice as they did on BATMAN BEGINS.

As a result, the Gotham City of THE DARK KNIGHT feels like a real world location, and not one from a comic book.  Just look at the dramatic differences in the facade of Wayne Tower between the two films– BATMAN BEGINS features Wayne Tower as a grand Art Deco spire anchored to the center of Gotham, whereas THE DARK KNIGHT’s rendition is simply just another hulking slab of concrete and glass rendered in a generic, corporate style of architecture.

This isn’t Nolan and Crowley’s only major departure from established BATMAN lore– the sacking of Wayne Manor in the previous installment gives the filmmakers an excuse to relocate Bruce to a spartan penthouse high above the city, which makes for a compelling change of scenery while adhering to the core themes of Nolan’s story.

Gone too is the iconic Batcave, replaced by a minimalist bunker hidden underneath a shipping yard and accessed via an elevator hidden inside an unassuming container.  It’s here that Batman temporarily stores his computers, suits, and his Tumbler, which Nolan has the audacity to destroy during a major chase sequence.

In doing so, he reveals a secondary vehicle hidden inside: the Batpod, which is essentially a futuristic motorcycle built from the machinery around the Tumbler’s oversized front tires and gifted with the kind of supernatural maneuverability that the Hell’s Angels could only dream of.

The major risk in developing Batman’s world out to include more toys and tech is the power it gives to the merchandising department — it is, after all, the original sin that sunk Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN & ROBIN and put the franchise into a coma for nearly a decade.

Thankfully, Nolan’s expansion of Batman’s crime-fighting tools is done first and foremost in service to story, merchandising needs be damned.  This kind of artistic integrity strengthens his overall vision, giving it a palpable weight and gravitas that commonly eludes other comic book adaptations.

On the postproduction side, Nolan retains key collaborators like editor Lee Smith and composing team Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.  Grandiose but understated at the same time, Lee’s work often gets lost in the conversation, upstaged by the more immediate aspects of THE DARK KNIGHT’s craftsmanship.

However, Lee proves himself a crucial contributor to Nolan’s aesthetic, his ability to trace and intercut multiple parallel lines of action across one sustained sequence dovetailing effortlessly with Nolan’s epic scope and penchant for orchestrating the action like a symphony– each character thread becoming, in effect, its own instrument; played in harmony with the others and swelling to a climactic crescendo.

A prime example of this is the fateful sequence where Batman must choose to save Rachel Dawes or Harvey Dent, only for his choice to be foiled by The Joker’s tricky manipulations.

There’s several different threads going on here that Nolan and Smith must track– Rachel and Harvey being held captive, each in a separate location that’s primed to explode at the same time; Batman, racing across the city to save Rachel; Gordon with the assist, racing to the other end of the city to save Harvey; and The Joker, stuck in custody at the MCU and taunting his captors even as he puts his escape plan into action.

Nolan and Smith expertly orchestrate a cascading series of events towards their stunning conclusion, cross-cutting between the various threads so as to wring out the maximum amount of suspense.

The original score by Zimmer and Howard works overtime in this regard, driving the action with a thundering orchestral sound that develops and expands upon the themes introduced in BATMAN BEGINS.  A brand new theme for The Joker was to be expected, but Zimmer and Howard manage to produce a unique sound that no one could have expected.

Foregoing any sort of symphonic sound entirely, the composing team captures the anarchic essence of The Joker by distilling his theme down to a single, solitary note.  A mix of string instruments are electronically manipulated to produce an unconventional sound, their pitch seemingly escalating in perpetuity without breaking.

The effect is profoundly — and appropriately —  unsettling, like dancing on the edge of a razor.  The Joker’s theme mirrors the minimalism of Batman’s theme even as it becomes its ideological counterweight, musically reinforcing THE DARK KNIGHT’s emphasis on Batman’s and The Joker’s yin-and-yang relationship in an inspired and wholly unexpected manner.

With its ambitions and successful execution as a sprawling urban crime drama, THE DARK KNIGHT owes a profound debt to the influence of Michael Mann’s 1995 masterpiece, HEAT.  A self-styled acolyte of Mann’s, Nolan finds in THE DARK KNIGHT a prime opportunity to make his own HEAT equivalent, albeit one where the bank robbers wear clown masks instead of ski masks.

Indeed, there are many direct connections to Mann’s film that we can draw from THE DARK KNIGHT.  In both its conception and execution, the opening bank heist sequence reads as a comic book twist on HEAT’s centerpiece scene, right down to the tactical minutiae and precision timing the criminals employ to successfully carry out the operation.

It’s not a coincidence that William Fichtner cameos in this scene, his presence serving as a playful nod to his Van Zandt character from HEAT.  While Van Zandt was a fairly meek criminal banker predisposed to hiding out in his office when the going got rough, here he’s empowered with the braggadocious confidence that only a high-powered shotgun can provide.

HEAT’s influence continues to course through THE DARK KNIGHT, whether it’s the latter inheriting the former’s signature cobalt & steel color palette, or Bruce’s spartan penthouse echoing Neil McCauley’s infamously empty beachside condo.

The fateful interrogation sequence between Batman and The Joker riffs on HEAT’s iconic coffee shop scene, with both staging themselves respectively as a battle of wits between two men sitting around a table and psychoanalyzing each other until they realize they have met their ideological inverse and intellectual equal.

Additionally, Gordon is shown heading up Gotham’s Major Crimes Unit, the same department that Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna commanded in HEAT.  Indeed, Nolan lavishes a substantial amount of attention on the inner workings of the law enforcement complex as it pertains to government and the maintaining of order.

Naturally, they have their work cut out for them in regards to The Joker, and must respond in a far more dramatic fashion than Hanna’s crew in HEAT ever did.  Among its many praises during release, critics marveled how THE DARK KNIGHT had transcended the trappings of the superhero genre to become a truly great urban crime drama– even then, the comparisons to HEAT were admittedly immediate, but the fact remains that, by applying HEAT’s storytelling template to the world of Batman, Nolan showed that a comic book movie could be so much more than its source material, and that the character of Batman was more relevant to our current political climate than ever before.

THE DARK KNIGHT echoes Tim Burton’s sequel BATMAN RETURNS, in that both he and Nolan found their sensibilities somewhat constrained on their respective first films by the nature of the property and the expectations of the fans.  In other words, they were compelled to deliver fairly straightforward takes on the Caped Crusader while suppressing certain aspects of their artistic signature.

The opportunity of a sequel repays their good faith, giving them more creative control as a reward for their responsible stewardship.  In this regard, THE DARK KNIGHT is first and foremost a Christopher Nolan film, and a Batman movie second.

The character provides a natural conduit for the exploration and development of many of Nolan’s directorial signatures, to the extent that THE DARK KNIGHT becomes a defining work in his filmography.

Nolan’s narratives have always concerned the personal and intimate plights of profoundly-flawed male protagonists, but BATMAN BEGINS marked the turning point where these plights began to play out on an epic, monumental scale.  The grief and rage that drives Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter-ego had been well-established in BATMAN BEGINS and the decades of comic book lore prior, and those same scars continue to inform the character in THE DARK KNIGHT.

His psychological issues remain unresolved, even after delivering Gotham into a period of relative peace and prosperity– his parents are still dead, and his love for Rachel Dawes remains unrequited.  The events of THE DARK KNIGHT compound his trauma by shattering his hopes for a better life with Rachel, as well as his dream of the day when he can give up the mantle of Batman entirely.

Indeed, Bruce’s emotional trajectory throughout the film revolves around his questioning the necessity of Batman’s existence and the devastating consequences he’s wrought upon the city he swore to protect.  The two and a half-hour running time provides ample room for Bruce’s arc to play out on Nolan’s largest scale yet, showing how his actions reverberate throughout the whole of Gotham.

As mentioned previously, Nolan even finds the time and a justifiable narrative reason for Batman to travel to Hong Kong, further expanding the scope of his story while satisfying his own directorial fondness for globetrotting narratives.  While many other blockbuster spectacles can lay claim to a similar epic scale on running time or narrative sprawl alone, very few deliver it with the visceral weight and tangible physicality that THE DARK KNIGHT and Nolan’s larger filmography does.

His pursuit of practical effects wherever possible is undoubtedly a key contributor to this effect, grounding THE DARK KNIGHT’s astonishing cascade of spectacle with the gravity of real-world physics.

The world of computer-generated imagery allows us to destroy entire star systems or bring back actors long since dead, but as impressive as those visual feats are, they somehow pale in comparison to the visceral physicality of flipping a Freightliner upside-down on an actual city street or physically blowing up the entirety of a full-scale building.

Of course, one simply can’t make a movie like THE DARK KNIGHT without a generous dose of CGI, but by choosing practical in-camera effects wherever possible, Nolan successfully imbues the film with the kind of monumental gravitas that marked the classic epics from which he drew inspiration.

The bulk of Nolan’s larger filmography takes place in urban environs– as such, man’s relationship with architecture and the built environment forms an integral component of his artistic aesthetic.

THE DARK KNIGHT surveys the tapestry of urban life and its various social systems from a birds-eye view, encompassing so much of the city’s sprawl that many critics at the time argued a better title for the film would have been, simply, “GOTHAM CITY”.

Just as he examines how the contours of Gotham shape the flow of his narrative, so too does Nolan use THE DARK KNIGHT to explore the malleability of the urban landscape, and how those same contours can be actively reshaped for the purposes of criminality or justice.

Batman’s ability to glide between rooftops allows him to navigate the urban labyrinth of Gotham in a manner far different than the civilians below.  He can create doors and entrances for himself where there were none previously.

He can take advantage of negative space within a building’s design, turning it into a shortcut accessible only to him. An arsenal of equipment and a re-tooled Batsuit facilitates these abilities, giving him an edge by navigating Gotham in ways that conventional law enforcement officials cannot.

The Joker enjoys similar advantages, albeit through lower-tech tools like gunpowder and gasoline, but his use of them nonetheless positions him as Batman’s equal and a formidable counterweight.

Their mutual ascent to this elevated plane naturally manifests in a palpable theatricality, which Nolan balances with his artistic interest in functional style.  A common complaint shared by previous Batmen like Michael Keaton and Christian Bale’s current iteration alike is the sheer discomfort of Batman’s latex rubber suit– the outfit was a single, heavy piece that was hot, stuffy, and greatly restricted mobility and vision.

Bale famously channeled the anger and the crippling headaches he felt inside the suit into his performance for BATMAN BEGINS, using the pain and discomfort to his benefit.  For THE DARK KNIGHT, the filmmakers wanted to design a new, functional Batsuit that would reduce these problems, and so replaced the latex with individual plates of armor conjoined by a mesh undersuit.

The final result is a dramatic reinterpretation of Batman’s iconic outfit that maintains the classic silhouette– a design that Nolan actively works into the narrative by having Bruce communicate to Lucius Fox his desire for a more functional suit that can stand up to the elevated threat posed by The Joker.  The Clown Prince of Crime’s sartorial sensibilities also echo the conceit of functional style– his scraggly purple suit pays homage to the character’s classically campy appearance from the comic books while staying within the confines of Nolan’s grounded reality.

As evidenced by the fact that his handmade clothing contains no labels, The Joker’s choice of outfit appropriately conveys his anarchic identity, but it also serves a tactical use– whether it’s the cavernous pockets of his overcoat hiding an array of explosives rigged to his person, or a stinger blade hidden in his boots that can pop out at will.

Finally, one cannot talk about THE DARK KNIGHT as a definitive work in Nolan’s canon without mention of what is arguably the core component of his directorial identity– time, and the manipulation thereof.  BATMAN BEGINS unspooled in somewhat non-linear fashion, incorporating flashbacks at strategic story junctures as Bruce gradually became Batman.

With his vigilante alter-ego firmly established, THE DARK KNIGHT naturally inhabits a constant forward flow of time; its story progressing in linear order.  That being said, the manipulation of time does serve an important narrative function.  The trope of the “ticking clock” is about as cliched as they come, but it’s nonetheless a vital tool to generate suspense for the audience.

The Joker incorporates this tool into his own arsenal, using “the ticking clock” as a way to persuade his victims to act against their self-interests or compromise their principles.  The best instance of this is also one of the highlights of the entire film– a nail-biting suspense sequence where two ferries carrying a load of law-abiding civilians and incarcerated felons respectively are revealed to be rigged with explosives.

The Joker’s characteristic twist on the situation is that he’s given both boats the detonator to the other bomb, challenging them each to blow the other sky-high before a predetermined time– if neither side hits the button before time runs out, then he’ll personally blow both boats with his own detonator.  This sets up an agonizing moral quandary for the occupants of either boat: do they destroy the other boat to save their own lives?  The fact that one of the boats is filled with convicted criminals adds another wrinkle to the dilemma– the law-abiding civilians would be justified in hitting the button, citing their fear that the criminals would not have the same respect for human life as they do.

However, to do so would be to pass blind judgment on the inmates, denying their humanity and capacity for compassion and, in effect, making them more inhuman than the killers and rapists they stand to destroy.

This sequence, which could have made for a captivating feature film in its own right, uses the pressure of a ticking clock to effortlessly distill THE DARK KNIGHT’s core conflict between civilized society and anarchy to its ideological essence.

Additionally, Nolan’s fondness for cross-cutting between parallel threads of action allows him to manipulate time himself, compressing it into one cosmic instance across sprawling distances.  Naturally, this does away with the objective truth that real time provides, but Nolan inherently understands that cinema has the unique ability to subvert the flow of time while uncovering the emotional truth hidden underneath.

To Nolan, time is not an unstoppable, forward-marching force beyond our control — it is merely another storytelling tool; a dimension that can be stepped outside of and manipulated to his will.  THE DARK KNIGHT makes frequent use of this technique, structuring its story around several nexus points of action like the opening bank heist, the Hong Kong extradition, the Wacker Drive chase, or the hostage situation in the unfinished tower, and subsequently compressing time and space into tidy narrative blocks that each build to a cathartic emotional release.

The end result is an experience that some critics decried as a breathless succession of 3rd-Act climaxes– an admittedly reductive judgment, to be sure, but one that aims to convey the impression that a lot happens in THE DARK KNIGHT.

Simply put, Nolan’s vision for the film is exhaustive; his epic ambitions and his tackling of some of the most iconic aspects of Batman lore combine to make what is arguably the ultimate screen adaptation of the Caped Crusader.  Nolan’s ability to compress long narrative distances over short spans of time is a key aspect of his artistic skill set, and in the case of THE DARK KNIGHT, it is a major driving force behind the film’s critical and commercial success.

Indeed, to call THE DARK KNIGHT “a success” is an extreme understatement– it’s essentially THE GODFATHER PART II of superhero films in both execution and critical standing.  By any reasonable metric, the film’s release and reception proved a watershed moment in mainstream studio filmmaking, the effects of which are still reverberating across the cinematic landscape nearly a decade later.

Just as BATMAN BEGINS sparked the trend of the “dark and gritty” reboot, THE DARK KNIGHT inspired a countless wave of bombastic imitators that drew the wrong lessons from Nolan’s success, like equating an epic scope with bloated running times or reveling in misguided dramatic beats masquerading as “bold” storytelling.

Produced for $185 million dollars and scoring over a billion dollars in ticket sales to become the 26th highest-grossing film of all time, THE DARK KNIGHT was a box office success of biblical proportions.  To put this into perspective, it only took six days for THE DARK KNIGHT to surpass the numbers posted by BATMAN BEGINS’ entire domestic run.

The film’s monumental success was the result of a perfect storm of factors: it belonged to an iconic franchise with a rabid global fanbase, it was a highly-anticipated sequel to a well-received predecessor, and it was film by a director known for his riveting storytelling and impeccable technical craftsmanship, to name just a few.

The X factor, the one thing it had that other films of its caliber did not, was Ledger’s tragic death– and the morbid curiosity it fueled at the prospect of witnessing the final performance of an actor as such a ghoulish character.

Nolan’s desire to transcend the confines of the comic book genre propelled THE DARK KNIGHT all the way to the Oscars, where it was nominated in eight categories and would win for Best Sound Editing and Best Supporting Actor.

The Academy obviously leaves a tangible impression on the films it honors, but rarely does it happen the other way around– THE DARK KNIGHT’s failure to score a nomination for Best Picture or Best Director was seen by many in the industry as an injustice (if not an outright travesty), and the ensuing chatter was so loud that, the following year, the Academy doubled the number of nomination slots in the Best Picture category from five to ten in a bid to be more inclusive of well-received films that didn’t quiet meet the conventional expectations of an “Oscar-worthy” picture.

It may have failed to enshrine itself in Oscar glory, but THE DARK KNIGHT is a triumph from every conceivable angle.

It’s not hyperbole to call THE DARK KNIGHT the most quintessential mainstream American film of the 2000’s– its identity is profoundly shaped by the ideas and anxieties that drove the course of history around it.

As for Christopher Nolan himself, the film is arguably his most definitive work– the capstone to a towering and influential body of work that still has several decades yet to play out.


INCEPTION (2010)

With the staggering success of THE DARK KNIGHT, director Christopher Nolan was in a prime position to make whatever he wanted.  Rather than capitalize off his momentum with a third Batman film, he turned instead to a long-gestating passion project he’d been thinking about since he was a teenager.

He’d always been fascinated by the experience of dreams, drawing many parallels between the nonlinear logic of dreamscapes to his professional practice as a filmmaker.

He pitched his initial kernel of this idea to Warner Brothers after the completion of INSOMNIA, describing it as something of a horror film set within the architecture of the mind.  With the studio’s approval, he went off to write it as a spec that he would simply deliver as soon as he finished it.

That process would ultimately take eight years, its slow pace dictated by the rigorous mind pretzels required in formulating its plot as well as his expansive and time-consuming forays into the Batman universe.  Given the name INCEPTION, the script that Nolan delivered to Warner Brothers in 2009 was a far cry from what he had initially pitched– indeed, he had orchestrated an action thriller so complex and stunningly inventive that it could be thought of as the ultimate “high concept” movie.

Naturally, the price tag to realize such an effort would be enough to stop other filmmakers in their tracks, but INCEPTION’s $160 million budget was an easy ask considering Nolan had just delivered one of Warner Brother’s most successful films in its century-long history.

Even then, the studio had to partner with Legendary Pictures just to cover it all.  In relatively short order, Nolan and his producing partner / wife, Emma Thomas, were off shooting his seventh feature film– one of the most ambitious and original visions cinema had ever seen.

INCEPTION is structured as a fantastical heist set, in Nolan’s words, within the architecture of the mind.  While the story is packed with an overwhelming amount of fantastical imagery, arguably the most outlandish aspect is the proposed existence of experimental military technology that allows people to enter and act within an individual’s dreams.  Nolan’s story focuses on a rogue group that has repurposed this technology to extract information from a target’s subconscious in the name of corporate espionage.

As mentioned in a previous episode, Nolan’s microbudget indie debut FOLLOWING can be read as something like a first draft of the story that would ultimately become INCEPTION.  Both films are structured as heists of the mind, and both feature a slickly-dressed character named Cobb.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the latter iteration– a major score for Nolan personally, as he had endeavored to work with the actor many times before and had thus far been unable to secure his participation.

It’s interesting, then, to note that DiCaprio’s portrayal of protagonist Dom Cobb seems to be a fictionalization of Nolan himself, from his unique intellectual acuity down to the external aspects like a shared hairstyle, goatee, and buttoned-down sartorial sense.

The latest tortured hero in Nolan’s grand parade of them, Cobb is a reluctant expat with a tragic past, and is given the chance to return to his children in the States by a wealthy Japanese businessman named Saito.

Played by BATMAN BEGINS’ Ken Watanabe in a role that makes full use of his refined talents, Saito offers Cobb this last shot at redemption in exchange for a journey into the mind of a business rival with the aim to plant the idea of dissolving his company into his mind.
To help him achieve this task, Cobb recruits a crew of professionals, each with their own specialty.

In determining what particular talents would translate to the manipulation of the dream state, Nolan used the roles he knew best:  the various positions of a film crew.  As such, each member of Cobb’s team possesses expertise and experience analogous to the filmmaking process. If Cobb is the director, then his manager / researcher, Arthur, is his producer.

Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Arthur is cool, calm, and collected under pressure, but finds himself frequently tangling with Cobb over things he couldn’t have accounted for.  The production designer finds her analogue in Ellen Page’s Ariadne, a graduate architecture student who puts her talents to work designing the worlds of these dreams.

A charismatic master of disguise, Tom Hardy’s character, Eames, describes himself as a “forger”, embodying any role needed to manipulate the target much like an actor does.  Saito acts much like a studio, bankrolling the entire operation and insisting on overseeing the process so that he can ensure his funds are spent wisely.

All of the crew’s efforts are focused towards manipulating the emotions of Robert Fischer, the petulant heir to a vast business empire.  Played by Cillian Murphy in his third of many appearances throughout Nolan’s work, Fischer becomes aware of the crew’s attempts to deceive and incept him.

They must suspend his disbelief while appealing to his emotion, to the extent that they eventually bring him into the heist himself as an active participant.  Knowing all this, it becomes clear that Fischer is akin to the audience, albeit a particularly savvy one that’s seen it all before and stands resistant to cinema’s transcendent charms.

Nolan’s supporting cast doesn’t quite deal in the same clear-cut filmmaking metaphors as Cobb’s crew, but they nevertheless turn in compelling performances that reinforce the director’s ability to attract some of the finest talent around. Since BATMAN BEGINS, Michael Caine has become a stalwart presence in Nolan’s work.

His performance here as university professor and Cobb’s father-in-law, Miles, amounts to little more than a cameo in terms of screentime, but his presence injects a profound emotional resonance to the story by making him the last living link Cobb has to his own children.

Marion Cotillard plays Cobb’s deceased wife, Mal, who killed herself over her inability to separate her dreams from her reality and now lives on as a malevolent projection of Cobb’s subconscious, sabotaging his efforts at every turn.

The character is arguably more of a plot device than a full-fledged entity, but Cotillard nevertheless gives it her all, creating a beautiful, menacing ghost who haunts not just Cobb’s dreams, but every aspect of his waking life.

Lukas Haas, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, and Pete Postlethwaite round out INCEPTION’s cast of note: Haas as the original architect on Cobb’s crew who’s given up to Saito’s colleagues when he bungles a mission; Rao as the chemist who creates the specialized sedative that enables shared dreaming; Postlethwaite, in one of his final roles, as Robert Fischer’s bedridden father; and Berenger as Fischer’s business partner and an advisor of sorts to Robert.

Visually speaking, INCEPTION is arguably Nolan’s most audacious work, filled to the brim with wild, impossible imagery.  Nolan continues his creative partnership with cinematographer Wally Pfister, who would go on to win the Academy Award for his efforts here.

INCEPTION reinforces Nolan’s commitment to film, as well as his preference for large formats over marketing gimmickry like 3D– indeed, the studio had initially approached him to shoot the film in 3D, but thankfully Nolan had the clout to flat-out deny their request.  Instead, he and Pfister capture their preferred 2.35:1 frame on good, old-fashioned 2D 35mm film.  Despite his positive experiences shooting on IMAX cameras for THE DARK KNIGHT, Nolan doesn’t employ the format here, but he does use the 65mm film gauge for select shots.

For an action thriller taking place entirely inside the mind, INCEPTION boasts a staggering, monumental scope consistent with his previous work.  Towards that end, Nolan blends classical and modern camerawork, mixing grandiose crane and helicopter aerial shots with visceral handheld setups and smooth Steadicam runs.

The story also provides ample opportunity to explore varying frame rates, availing Nolan of techniques like speed-ramping and extreme slow motion to better convey the varying speeds of time across parallel tiers of dream space.

A somewhat-neutral stone & steel palette drives the overall color theory behind INCEPTION, but Nolan and Pfister take great pains to establish distinct looks for the various dreamscapes– especially during the climactic sequence, as a means for the audience to better track their orientation across a relentless cascade of cross-cuts and parallel action.

The first tier, in which Yusuf wildly drives a van to evade his pursuers, uses a torrential downpour of rain to justify a foggy, cold look with a heavy cobalt color cast.  The next tier down is the hotel, rendered in a warm amber patina and pools of concentrated light.

Going another level down, a snowy mountainscape topped by a concrete fortress deals in stark monochromatic tones, with little else but the crew’s skin tones to provide color.  Finally, we come to limbo–raw, unstructured dream space where decades can pass in a span of minutes in real time.  Nolan and Pfister use varying shades of gray here, as if to suggest the pure building blocks of the subconscious before we color them in with our experiences and our environment.

Expectedly, a considerable amount of computer-generated imagery is necessary to fully realize limbo, as well as some of the more outlandish visuals the film presents.

However, Nolan stays true to his convictions regarding the supremacy of practical effects, always using an in-camera element as the foundation of the shot and employing digital wizardry only when absolutely necessary.

As such, INCEPTION boasts far fewer digital effects shots than most spectacle epics of its ilk– 500 compared to today’s standard of 2000 plus.

Christopher Nolan goes to great lengths to reinforce his legacy as a visual magician of the highest order– where other filmmakers would simply let computers digitally insert a train ramming through downtown traffic, Nolan drops a physical train onto a real street, rigging it up in the precise manner needed to achieve the shot.

In his pursuit of delivering the impossible through practical effects, he even manages to one-up director Stanley Kubrick by expanding upon the techniques he developed for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s mind-bending space station sequences.

In order to realize a stunning hallway fight sequence in varying degrees of gravity, Nolan builds the entirety of the set on a massive gimbal capable of tilting every conceivable angle while also rotating a full 360 degrees.

By fixing the camera’s perspective to the set and not the actors’, he’s able to create breathtaking images of fighting on ceilings and walls.  This drive to shoot as much in-camera as possible informs Nolan’s overall visual approach, making us believe in the impossible while safeguarding his creation from the inevitable advances in digital effects technology that otherwise might date INCEPTION’s visuals as crude and primitive.

Nolan’s longtime production designer Nathan Crowley is absent here, leaving Guy Hendrix Dyas to act in his stead.  The rest of Nolan’s core team of collaborators remains intact, with returning editor Lee Smith expertly navigating the labyrinthine and intellectually-dense plotting, and composer Hans Zimmer providing yet another instantly-iconic original score.

Zimmer’s innovative, minimalist inclinations would not only score him an Oscar nomination, but would also go on to influence pop culture in surprising ways.  A blend of old and new sounds, the score finds Zimmer recruiting The Smiths’ Johnny Marr to perform a moody electric guitar riff that recalls the midcentury cool of the James Bond films.

This element serves as the base of a larger electronic and orchestral texture, with thundering brass and lush strings that also would not be out of place in a Bond film.  Nolan doesn’t employ needledrops often, so when he does, the audience would do well to pay close attention to its importance to the narrative at hand.

In this regard, Nolan incorporates an Edith Piaf song directly into the storyline, becoming an audio cue that Cobb’s crew employs to sync up their timescales across multiple tiers of dreamscape.

Zimmer takes this idea and runs with it, slowing down the track to the point where it becomes an unrecognizable texture of raw sound and throbbing percussion.  In the process, he achieves what is easily one of INCEPTION’s biggest contributions to pop culture– the brassy “BRAHM” blasts that countless movie trailers have since copied to the point of parody.

A film stuffed to the brim with the themes and imagery that Nolan has spent a lifetime exploring, it’s not inconceivable to see INCEPTION as the director’s most definitive work– even more so than THE DARK KNIGHT, when considering its original storyline, unencumbered by the constraints of any pre-existing intellectual property.

The narrative affords Nolan the opportunity to explore and indulge in his fascination with the mechanics of time in a comprehensive and integral manner– befitting their place in a heist film, Cobb’s crew naturally races against a ticking clock, but they are uniquely positioned to alter the bounds of the race itself.

The relativistic relationship of time across several parallel tiers of the subconscious becomes their ace in the hole.  By venturing deeper into a dream-within-a-dream, into a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream, and so on, Cobb’s crew finds that time slows down in proportion to the tier above it.

What passes for a minute of real time would be an hour in tier 1 of the dreamscape, while decades will pass in limbo during that same span.  Likewise, when Saito is shot early on during the heist, he’s able to regain some of his health, his wounds working slower and slower as he descends the various tiers.

INCEPTION’s unique take on the mechanics of time is a singular signature of Nolan’s– only he could stage a twenty-minute action sequence within the time it takes for a van to plunge off a bridge into the water.

The heist format enables Nolan’s further exploration of functional style, evidenced in the slick, well-tailored suits that Cobb’s crew wear throughout the film as a manifestation of their professional attitude.

The constant presence of suits, tactical combat gear, and even tuxedos can’t help but remind one of the James Bond films– no doubt an intentional move on Nolan’s part as a lifelong fan of the series.  Indeed, INCEPTION at times feels like Nolan’s audition for the director’s chair on the Bond franchise, right down to the snow fortress ski chase designed to pay tribute to his favorite 007 film, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE.

The globetrotting nature of Nolan’s aesthetic, and INCEPTION in particular, reinforces this notion, featuring the characters jetting around to exotic locales like Mombasa, Paris and Tokyo as well as abstract interior spaces like limbo.  Nolan even structures the climactic heist so that it takes place while his characters are flying over the Pacific.

Like THE DARK KNIGHT before it, INCEPTION also draws considerable influence from Michael Mann’s HEAT, in that Nolan stages his own version of that film’s iconic downtown LA shootout– albeit with a degree of restraint that keeps his efforts in service to the story and firmly out of the territory of full-blown homage.

As evidenced by the logo of Nolan’s production company, Syncopy, the iconography of mazes and puzzles have become a defining feature of his artistry– a conceit that INCEPTION revels in with its labyrinthine plot structures that turn the world around its characters into a giant Rubik’s Cube.

Architecture and the malleability of the urban environment plays a big role in this regard, as the characters are empowered via lucid dreaming to actively reshape the environment around them.

This leads to some of the film’s most iconic imagery, such as the scene where Ariadne peels back the horizon as if it were on a hinge, causing whole city blocks to fold over on themselves.  The plane of limbo becomes a veritable playground as the characters build entire cities for themselves, spending decades in an endless sprawl of imposing monoliths that grow more faceless and abstract as they extend outwards.

It is here that architectural styles can clash together, achieving a strange harmony in their impossible pairings.  One need look no further than Dom and Mal’s earthy, craftsman-style home situated high above the city inside a sleek modern tower.  INCEPTION makes brilliant use of this idea of paradoxical architecture, exploring the strategic value of impossible structures like the Penrose stairs, which only become possible from a singular point of view.

No discussion of INCEPTION would be complete without addressing its infamous ending, the implications of which are still hotly debated across internet forums and college dorms.

In a film loaded with symbolic imagery, the closing image of a top spinning on the table– wobbling ever so slightly before abruptly cutting to black– is arguably INCEPTION’s most provoking one.  The audience finds itself left on a sharply ambiguous final note, and an extremely frustrating one for those who prefer their movies to spell everything out for them.  Is Cobb truly free of his dreams, or is he still trapped somewhere in his unconscious?

The question has inspired numerous armchair detectives to suss out an objective truth– most investigations point to Cobb’s wedding ring as his personal totem, and the film’s key signifier as to whether or not we are currently in a dream state.  Cobb sports his ring in the dream sequences, but in his waking reality he appears without it.  When he lands in Los Angeles at the end of the film, he’s not wearing his ring.

This, along with the presence of Michael Caine– who had only appeared previously in a scene ostensibly set in waking reality– should be our chief clue that Cobb has ultimately woken up and joined the objective timeline.  However, even this is a deception– Nolan explicitly states via Arthur that one cannot use another’s totem, for fear of losing touch with reality.  Despite Cobb’s constant use of a spinning top, we know that it is actually Mal’s totem.

This raises the question of whether Cobb has been lost in his own subconscious from the very start.  To Nolan, the question is irrelevant– he’s gone on record to express his sentiment that it’s whether or not the top is going to topple that’s important, but rather, for the first time in the film, Cobb isn’t watching it.  After spending much of the film obsessing over this little spinning top, he has moved on emotionally, finding happiness in his reunion with his family.

Far from a final “gotcha” twist, INCEPTION’s ending arguably hits a precise note, cementing the film’s murky ambiguity between dreams and waking reality while challenging his audience with the notion that our own realities can be just as subjective.
Billed on its release as “the new Matrix”, a staggering $100 million marketing budget endeavored to convey INCEPTION as an explosive head-trip that played fast and loose with the laws of physics.

The number is all the more remarkable considering its release in an era where franchise filmmaking is king– in the absence of any pre-existent intellectual property, Warner Brothers leveraged the success of BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT to present Nolan himself as the franchise.  The strategy worked beautifully, driving worldwide box office receipts north of $800 million and generating a wave of critical acclaim.

INCEPTION’s top-flight craftsmanship earned itself a small collection of golden statues come Oscar season, with the Academy celebrating the film’s technical innovations in categories like Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects.  If THE DARK KNIGHT established Nolan as one of mainstream American cinema’s most valuable filmmakers, then INCEPTION chiseled it in stone and enshrined it in gold.


DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

Despite the record-shattering success of 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT, the promise of an early retirement-enabling payday and a higher budget than the GDP of most small countries, the prospect of Nolan returning to the world of Batman a third time initially inspired hesitance.  There was no ill will or negative experience fueling his reluctance, but rather, the demons of artistic integrity.

“How many good third movies of a franchise can people name?”, Nolan reportedly asked of himself; indeed, he was all too cognizant of the hard and simple truth that, more often than not, threequels turn out to be the worst entry of a given franchise.  Case in point: THE GODFATHER PART III, or  SPIDER-MAN 3– even RETURN OF THE JEDI was arguably disappointing in relation to the episodes before it.  THE RETURN OF THE KING, Peter Jackson’s third chapter of his LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY, seemed the exception to the rule, what with its several Oscar wins including Best Picture.

Even then, THE LORD OF THE RINGS is usually regarded as a single, unified narrative rather than three separate installments.  Simply put, Nolan valued his artistic integrity over a dump truck full of cash, and if he was going to return to Gotham City for a third time, there needed to be a great — and necessary — story to tell.

He kept the opportunity in the back of his mind as he shot INCEPTION, even going so far as sketching out rough outlines as to what a third Batman film might entail.  His initial plan, which would have seen Two-Face become the main villain after The Joker throws acid on his face during his trial, was no longer an option considering Heath Ledger’s death and his earlier decision to fold Two-Face’s villainous arc into the climax of THE DARK KNIGHT.

Once Nolan hit on the idea of using a third film to definitively end his rendition of Batman, the necessary elements that would ensure his return began to come together.

As they had done for their previous Batman films, Nolan and his screenwriting partner and brother, Jonathan, looked for inspiration in classic graphic like KNIGHTFALL, NO MAN’S LAND, and Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

The brothers also drew from unexpected literary sources like Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”, braiding its themes of violent revolution and massive social upheaval into their massive script– the first draft of which apparently ran four hundred pages long.

Titled THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the project quickly asserted itself as Nolan’s most ambitious effort to date, with a story containing no less than the fall of modern civilization and the potential death of millions within its staggering scope.

Thankfully, Nolan had a crack team of producers at his disposal– his wife Emma Thomas and Atlas Entertainment’s Charles Roven, both of whom had been invaluable allies in making Nolan’s previous Batman visions possible.

Given that this was as close to a surefire billion-dollar blockbuster one could possibly get, Warner Brothers saw little problem in greenlighting Nolan’s massive epic despite a price tag upwards of $200 million.

Their unwavering faith in Nolan’s ability– a faith that’s practically unheard of in modern commercial filmmaking– gave him the creative freedom and near-unlimited funds he needs to fill in his largest canvas yet while ending his groundbreaking DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY on his own terms.

Escalation has been a key foundational principle in Nolan’s take on Batman.  As the stakes of his crusade have intensified, so too has Nolan expanded the scope of the Dark Knight’s world.

With each successive installment, the narrative scale has ballooned exponentially, so where else can THE DARK KNIGHT RISES go but the uppermost strata of epic spectacle?

Eight years have passed since Harvey Dent fell to his death and Batman took the blame, going into exile to protect Gotham’s citizens from the devastating revelation that their White Knight had been twisted into a murderous psychopath named Two-Face.

In that time, Gotham has entered a period of relative peace and prosperity– a city no longer in need of a vigilante savior.  So too has Bruce Wayne gone into exile, sealing himself away in the newly-rebuilt Wayne Manor like a Howard Hughes-style recluse.

Christian Bale returns for his third and final appearance as Bruce, bearing the signs of significant wear and tear as he hobbles around on a cane throughout his mausoleum of a mansion.

Without Batman, he’s a sad, lonely figure– a man without a purpose, and after the death of his beloved Rachel Dawes, a man with very little left to live for.  He’s finally shaken from his long stupor when a prized personal memento — his mother’s pearl necklace — is stolen by a crafty cat burglar posing as a caterer during a gathering for the anniversary of Harvey Dent’s death and the passing of sweeping anti-crime legislation in his name.

This development coincides with a number of others simultaneously swirling around Gotham, like clouds gathering for a massive storm that will make Bruce’s return as the Caped Crusader not only inevitable, but necessary.

Indeed, Christopher Nolan has many masters to serve in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES– not only does he have to cook up compelling narrative arcs for a suite of new characters; he has to service lingering threads from the previous two installments while bringing everything to a satisfying close.

As a result, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES clocks in at a truly monumental two hours and 45 minutes long– every second being essential to the advancement of Nolan’s narrative.  Naturally, there’s a lot of story to cover, and Nolan doesn’t have the luxury of dwelling on huge developments.

The startling revelations and showstopping sequences come so fast and furious that the audience must race just to catch their breath, but that is the magnitude of scale that, unwittingly or not, Nolan has set up for himself.  Indeed, nothing less than the threat of Gotham City’s full-stop annihilation will satisfy Nolan’s narrative and thematic requirements.

This necessary existential threat is embodied in the figure of Bane, an ideological zealot excommunicated from The League of Shadows (previously embodied in Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul in BATMAN BEGINS).

A relatively new figure in Batman’s rogue gallery, Bane became a high-profile villain instantly upon his comic book debut in the early 1990’s by breaking Batman’s back and putting him out of commission for several years.

The character had made a filmic appearance before, in Joel Schumacher’s disastrous 1997 film, BATMAN & ROBIN, but the filmmakers had stripped him entirely of his formidable intellect and reduced him to a one-note, brutish henchman of Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy.

He had been so badly mishandled that the revelation of his inclusion in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES was initially met with profound skepticism by fans, if not outright derision.  However, Nolan’s choice of villain had always been informed by the story’s key ideas and formative themes first– he reportedly rejected early pressure from Warner Brothers to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as The Riddler, refusing to build his narrative around a predetermined villain.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES required an adversary who could match Batman on both the physical and mental level, and Bane — at least in his comic-book incarnation — fit the mold.

Like The Scarecrow or The Joker before him, Nolan’s rendition of Bane is informed by a grounded reality that ditches his usual mutant-luchador aesthetic in favor of a militaristic, revolutionary edge complete with a monstrous mask that delivers san analgesic gas to quell crippling chronic pain from a prior injury.

He arrives in Gotham to finish Ra’s Al Ghul’s mission to annihilate the city, although his strategy — to cut Gotham off from the outside world and use the threat of a nuclear bomb to turn the city’s economic classes against each other — is decidedly more sadistic than his predecessor’s.

He plans to nuke the city anyway, but first he wants to systematically break down the people’s confidence in their own civilization while figures like Batman and Commissioner Gordon are forced to helplessly watch their beloved city tear itself apart.

Tom Hardy, one of three cast members to make the jump from INCEPTION to Nolan’s Batman saga, reportedly gained thirty pounds for the role, transforming himself into a hulking brute with a brilliant, tactically-oriented intelligence.

Hardy faced a considerable challenge in playing Bane, considering the cumbersome mask that covers half his face– all that intellect and unhinged megalomania had to be conveyed entirely with his eyes.

As such, Hardy infuses Bane’s eyes with the quiet intensity of conviction, his piercing stare commanding his small army of mercenaries like a brutish cult leader.  One of the more peculiar aspects of Hardy’s performance is the particular voice he uses, affecting a high-pitched musicality inspired by the voice of Bartley Gorman, a Romani gypsy and Irish bare-knuckle boxing champion.

The choice, while unnervingly effective, wasn’t without controversy– audiences in early screenings of the film’s opening prologue complained they couldn’t understand Bane’s dialogue at all.  The final product alleviated those concerns, thankfully, allowing the full power of Hardy’s showstopping performance to shine through and achieve a pop culture infamy similar to the type enjoyed by Heath Ledger and his interpretation of The Joker.

Nolan also brings back INCEPTION’s Marion Cotillard, who plays a new character named Miranda Tate.  An enchanting member of Wayne Enterprises’ Board of Directors, Miranda is initially positioned as Bruce Wayne’s best hope for the continued operation of his profit-draining fusion energy program.  Cotillard brings her signature elegance to the role, presenting herself as a potential love interest for Bruce who can help soothe the lingering pain of Rachel Dawes’ death.

However, Miranda has other plans in store– namely, using Bruce’s trust and her corporate credentials to gain access to a nuclear fusion reactor underneath the city.  At the risk of spoiling one of the film’s biggest twists, Miranda eventually asserts herself not only as the true mastermind behind Bane’s evil plan, but also as a key figure that links THE DARK KNIGHT RISES directly to BATMAN BEGINS.

With only so much screen-time left to realize the vast universe of Batman characters and plot lines, Nolan risks painting a picture that feels, at best, incomplete. His grounded interpretation of the property naturally would exclude some of Batman’s more fanciful villains like The Penguin, Killer Croc, or Clayface, but there are some characters that are so iconic that any version of the Caped Crusader would feel lacking in their absence.

Thankfully, Nolan is able to smuggle in two more just under the wire, albeit radically reimagined from their comic book counterparts.  The character of Catwoman is integral to Batman’s universe, but is admittedly too theatrical for Nolan’s take on the property.

He strikes a satisfying middle ground in casting Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, downplaying the slinky cat burglar’s feline affectations to the point where the name “Catwoman” is never even uttered.

Instead, Nolan and Hathaway rely on the character’s duplicitous mystique to convey her comic book heritage (in addition to subtle visual cues like a pair of night vision goggles that resemble cat ears when flipped up on top of her head).

Drawing from the classic femme fatale archetype, Hathaway further honors Catwoman’s origins by basing her performance on the Hollywood Golden Age starlet Hedy Lemarr, the original inspiration for Catwoman in the comics.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES finds Selina Kyle attempting to obtain a secret device that will erase her criminal history and allow her to start over with a clean slate– a path that conveniently crosses Batman’s while communicating her murky moral compass.  Additionally, her self-aware cynicism allows Nolan to infuse an otherwise somber and bleak storyline with crowd pleasing moments of natural levity.

The other iconic character whose absence would make for an incomplete depiction of the Batman universe is his sidekick, Robin.  It’s admittedly difficult to imagine how the plucky Boy Wonder would fit into Nolan’s grim and grounded approach– indeed, Bale has gone on record to say that he would leave the franchise if Nolan ever brought Robin into the storyline.

With the inclusion of INCEPTION’s Joseph Gordon Levitt as a driven young cop named John Blake, Nolan gets to have his cake and eat it too.  The fresh-faced rookie doesn’t just share Batman’s burning passion for justice– he also feels a direct kinship with him, having also grown up as an orphan and felt the need to hide his emotions behind a figurative mask.  Indeed, it is this quality that allows him to deduce Batman’s secret identity when no else can.

While he doesn’t become Batman’s sidekick in the traditional sense, Blake’s tireless ambition nevertheless positions him both as a crucial ally in the quest to take back Gotham from Bane’s vice grip as well as an ideal successor to the Batman mantle itself– playing beautifully into Nolan’s vision of Batman as an incorruptible symbol beyond the reach of death or decay.

Nolan throws a brief nod to Robin’s place in the annals of Batman lore by revealing Blake’s real name to actually be “Robin”, thus bringing all of the character’s thematic and functional qualities to his vision of Batman while dropping the sillier, distracting elements.

Nolan’s sprawling supporting ensemble is marked by faces both familiar and new, with the one consistent quality among them being an impeccable pedigree.  Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman all return as Bruce’s triptych of mentors, allies and father figures– their own respective arcs reaching their logical ends in a satisfying manner.

Caine’s reprisal of Bruce’s trusty butler, Alfred, finds an unexpected degree of emotionality, having reached a breaking point in his relationship with Bruce where he can no longer abide his reckless risks.  He regrets indulging his master’s whims, fearing he’s created a monster while betraying his sworn duty to Bruce’s parents.

Oldman’s third turn as Commissioner Gordon sees his character on the verge of retirement– a war hero rendered useless and irrelevant by a prolonged peace.  He too is disillusioned and burdened, deeply ashamed of his role in the cover-up of Harvey Dent’s death and the lies he has perpetuated since.

The events of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES gives Gordon one last chance at redemption, enlisting him to serve his beloved Gotham City as he never has before.  Freeman, as the usually-jovial head of Wayne Enterprises, Lucius Fox, also finds that his association with Batman has dug him into a deep hole, forced by Bane to pervert a miraculous nuclear fusion device into a devastating atom bomb that will decimate the city.

Nestor Carbonnel returns as Gotham’s mayor, Anthony Garcia, and although he doesn’t have much in the way of a compelling character arc, he nevertheless serves as a vital embodiment of civilized law & order– everything that Gotham has to lose when Bane takes the field.

Two major characters from BATMAN BEGINS also make fleeting appearances in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, helping to tie Nolan’s trilogy together into a unified whole.

Cillian Murphy returns as Dr Jonathan Crane — better known as The Scarecrow– and while he doesn’t don his signature mask here, he does find a suitable role for himself in Bane’s new world order as the merciless judge of a kangaroo court, gleefully sentencing his enemies to an icy grave.

Ra’s Al Ghul also appears in two iterations: one being Liam Neeson in a brief cameo as Bruce’s hallucination in the pit, and the other being Josh Pence as the younger Ra’s in a revelatory flashback sequence.

Finally, a handful of faces unfamiliar to Nolan’s Batman series portray notable new characters.  Matthew Modine, best known for his leading role in Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET, plays Foley– a petty, vindictive police officer positioned to take the reins from Gordon.  He manages to just barely fit in a compelling arc within THE DARK KNIGHT RISES’ sprawling narrative, ultimately finding the courage and conviction within himself to join the fray against Bane’s forces of destruction.

Australian character actor Ben Mendelsohn plays Daggett, a smug billionaire and a petulant business rival who thinks he can use Bane for a hostile takeover of Wayne Enterprises, only to find that Bane serves no one unless it also serves himself.  Finally, Juno Temple plays Jen, a low-level thief and Selina’s partner in crime.

From a thematic standpoint, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES must contend with the un-enviably tricky balancing act of fashioning a narrative that resonates with distinct, clear-cut themes within the confines of its running time, while also paying off the themes set up in the previous two installments.

BATMAN BEGINS dealt with the concept of fear, while THE DARK KNIGHT focused on the idea of chaos.  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES’ primary theme is pain– embodied not just in Bane’s brutal methods, but also in Bruce’s quest to overcome his own pain and complete his life’s work as Batman.

Up until this point, Bruce’s pain had been mostly internal– anguishing over the deaths of his parents and Rachel Dawes.  Throughout the trilogy, Nolan has taken great care to show the physical toll that the life of a vigilante takes on Bruce’s body.  Indeed, the success of Nolan’s entire take on the Batman universe rests on the fact that Batman is not a superhero; that he’s flesh and blood like the rest of us.

THE DARK KNIGHT shows bruises and scars pockmarking his body, while THE DARK KNIGHT RISES establishes that Bruce’s knee has basically been destroyed, necessitating the use of a cane.  Bane simply finishes the job, breaking Batman’s back and throwing him down into a pit halfway across the world.  Pain defines the limits of Bruce’s physicality, with each successive installment in the trilogy finding those limits constricting ever-tighter.  In order to meet the extraordinary challenge of Bane, Bruce must fight through his pain and rise above his physical limits.

In this light, ascension also becomes a defining theme of the story– Bruce’s internal quest is externalized by his attempts to climb out of a pit that had only been previously conquered by Bane himself.

An ascent naturally implies a lower starting point, and Bane’s own rise to power begins in Gotham’s labyrinthine sewer system– the perfect vantage point from which to observe the deep social divisions that roil beneath the fabric of the city.  Even with a team of crack mercenaries at his disposal, Bane knows he doesn’t have the manpower to mount a successful siege against the whole of Gotham.

Instead, he turns the population into his unwitting agents by inciting class conflict between the have and the have nots.  He encourages the Gotham rabble to lay siege to the penthouses of the wealthy elite, as righteous punishment for their greed and gluttony.  He also advocates open anarchy, prompting the citizens to liberate criminals unjustly imprisoned by sweeping legislation passed in the wake of Harvey Dent’s death.
Indeed, he does away with conventional justice systems entirely, instituting kangaroo courts that make a mockery of due process in a bid to quickly condemn his enemies to death.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES paints a vivid– and perhaps extreme– picture of what modern life might look like following the violent overthrow of society;  a picture that resonated far more than Nolan could have enter anticipated, considering the film’s release during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In provoking the simmering resentment between the various economic classes of society, Bane is able to expose the fragility of the institutions that keep us from the brink of madness.  THE DARK KNIGHT was released a few months prior to the bottom falling out of the economy at the start of the Great Recession, which sparked a widespread conflagration pitting the poor, working and middle-class population against the wealthy elite class.

In drawing inspiration from this conflict, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES becomes something of a cathartic experience for those hit hardest by the recession.  Nolan allows audiences to revel in sequences like Bane’s stock exchange heist and images of wealthy Gothamites being forcibly pulled from their penthouses and thrown out onto the street.

This plot point also makes for compelling character development on the part of billionaire Bruce Wayne, whose ability to maintain his superheroic exploits has always rested in his immense wealth.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES finds Bruce stripped of that wealth, forced to save Gotham with whatever meager resources  remain at his disposal– only at this point is Bruce able to ascend to the realm of the “superhero”,  transcending the limits of his mortal physicality and securing the legacy of Batman as an incorruptible and enduring symbol.

As the conclusive chapter of the trilogy, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES also uses its thematic foundation to connect directly with BATMAN BEGINS.

The first film painted Gotham as a dark, filthy, and crime-ridden city where the police force was universally corrupt– an environment primed for a solitary vigilante intent on taking justice into his own hands.  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES comes full circle, with Batman’s efforts having inspired the police to clean up their city and act out en masse against the tyranny of evil.

It’s noteworthy that Batman — a character often depicted as operating only at night and in the shadows — faces Bane for a final standoff in the bright light of day.  The various forces that have been swirling around Gotham all these years are finally out in the open, fighting with the crystal clarity of conviction and purpose.

Batman finally fights side by side with his comrades in blue, united in their effort to pull Gotham back from the brink.  Nolan had taken great care with his previous Batman films to flesh out the urban tapestry of Gotham via its various infrastructural systems– the villains of BATMAN BEGINS repurposed water and transportation systems towards their own ends, and Batman harnessed the power of communications systems in his fight against The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT.

When combined with Bane’s utilization of underground sewer systems as a hidden staging ground and his perversion of a fusion-based energy system into an atomic bomb, we as an audience stand to know exactly what Batman and the citizens of Gotham are fighting for.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES furthers Nolan’s exploration of IMAX in the narrative realm, shooting in the format as much as possible.

Emboldened by the substantial punch it gave THE DARK KNIGHT, Nolan and returning cinematographer Wally Pfister employ IMAX frequently– essentially, any shot that doesn’t require dialogue due to the operating noise of the camera itself.

That being said, the filmmakers are well aware of the format’s visceral impact and are careful not to dilute it, carefully staging full action sequences and select shots in order to play to IMAX’s strength as an immersive experience. As it did on THE DARK KNIGHT, this makes for a viewing experience that frequently switches between the full IMAX frame and the standard 2.35:1 35mm film frame– many times from shot to shot.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES would be, at least as of 2017, the last collaboration between Nolan and his longtime cinematographer, with Pfister graduating to the director’s chair himself in 2014 with his debut, TRANSCENDENCE.

This final collaboration finds Nolan and Pfister building upon the aesthetic they developed for THE DARK KNIGHT, adopting a neutral, desaturated color palette dominated by steel and stone tones.

With the trilogy now complete, it becomes evident that the filmmakers have fashioned a transitory lighting scheme that gradually moves from the darkness of BATMAN BEGINS to the snow-capped brightness of day in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, echoing Batman’s deliverance of Gotham from moral decay to virtuous law & order.

So too has Nolan’s scope expanded appropriately, ballooning to stakes that are nothing less than apocalyptic as Bane mounts his revolutionary siege on an entire city.

Nolan’s camerawork ably conveys the sweeping scale of his narrative, employing a mix of classical dolly and crane moves with handheld maneuvers and majestic aerials to capture stunning images like the movement of huge crowds doing battle in the streets, or a series of coordinated explosions detonating across the city.

As we’ve come to expect by now, Nolan captures most of these astonishing visuals in-camera via practical effects, supplementing with CGI only when absolutely necessary.  The plane hijacking sequence that opens the film serves as a prime example, with Nolan and company painstakingly staging an high-altitude heist over the Scottish countryside.

Visually speaking, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES represents the aesthetic apex of Nolan’s particular style– since his lo-fi debut with 1998’s FOLLOWING, he has steadily built upon his visual skill set and developed his ability to realize epic spectacle while managing the intimidating logistics that such efforts entail.

While critics may argue over the logical integrity of an admittedly overstuffed narrative, the excellence of Nolan’s technical craftsmanship is never in question. Returning production designer Nathan Crowley marks his seventh consecutive collaboration with Nolan by partnering with Kevin Kavanaugh.

The art department maintains aesthetic continuity with the previous two entries while subtly building upon them, giving a slight update to THE DARK KNIGHT’s iteration of Wayne Tower and the corporation’s cavernous R&D department.

Crowley and Kavanaugh update other iconic aspects of Batman lore like Wayne Manor and The Batcave, giving each a fresh appearance that feels nonetheless similar to how they looked in BATMAN BEGINS.  For instance, Wayne Manor retains its familiar Gilded Age architectural flourishes while expanding upon the mausoleum concept from BATMAN BEGINS.

In the first film, the idea of Wayne Manor being in a constant state of mourning was communicated chiefly by the white sheets draped over the furniture.  With THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the lack of color has seeped into the walls themselves, as if happiness and passion have left Wayne Manor entirely.

Indeed, the appearance of Wayne Manor is a manifestation of Bruce’s initial interior state, which is one of aimless despair and endless sorrow.  The Batcave has been upgraded to include a computer platform that rises up from its hiding spot underneath a natural pool of water.

No doubt installed shortly after the events of THE DARK KNIGHT, it’s evident that this equipment hasn’t been used in several years.  Crowley and Kavanaugh’s fresh-but-familiar approach extends to Batman’s fleet of vehicles, which now includes a revisionist take on the classic Batplane that transmogrifies its usual sleek silhouette into that a steroid-addled bat crossed with a military helicopter.

Ever true to form, Nolan chiefly uses CGI to augment what is predominantly a practical effect– production footage reveals the Batpod to be a full-size anchored atop a truck that would later be digitally scrubbed from the shot.  The filmmakers had even built an animatronic Batman to sit in the cockpit, giving their illusion that much more of a tactile believability.

The Batpod from THE DARK KNIGHT makes an encore appearance, becoming Batman’s vehicle of choice after the Tumblr was destroyed in the previous installment.  Indeed, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is the first Batman film in which his signature Batmobile is absent entirely, save for the desert camo R&D models owned by Wayne Enterprises and later stolen by Bane’s mercenaries.

The appearance of Gotham City also evolves, with Nolan’s vision of the fictional city changing rather radically from the one that drove its design in the previous two films.

The influence of Chicago, so deeply felt in the bones of BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT, here gives way to the iconic spires of New York City.  Since the conclusion of BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan has been steadily chipping away at the layers of stylistic artifice he’d initially imposed on Gotham.

THE DARK KNIGHT  RISES envisions an entirely new Gotham– one that drapes a thin veil of fiction over famous Manhattan landmarks like Wall Street, the Brooklyn Bridge, and 1 World Trade Center (then still under construction).

This particular rendition of Gotham also incorporates sections of other cities like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, which editor Lee Smith seamlessly cuts together to form one cohesive urban environment.  In addition to other key sequences, the concrete arteries of LA’s downtown host the concluding beat of Bane’s Wall Street heist– which, thanks to the magic of editing, began 3000 miles away in New York.  Here, LA’s multi-level network of highways provides Batman a convenient escape route when he’s cornered by an armada of police cruisers.

The urban interior of Pittsburgh is the stage for the film’s climactic battle, while Heinz Field doubles as the home stadium for the Gotham Rogues football team before it becomes the unwitting site for Bane’s explosive debut.

When blessed with a virtually-bottomless production budget, one might wonder why Nolan and company saw fit to disguise their locales as the fictional city of Gotham by simply spraying a little fake snow on the streets and calling it a day.

However, those who might feel disappointed or even cheated by their perceived lack of imagination fail to realize that this was Nolan’s endgame all along.  As far back as his initial pitch to Warner Brothers executives, Nolan’s take on Batman was always built upon the notion of the character existing in reality.

Rather than build an elaborate, fantastical world to draw the audience into, he means to draw Batman into our world.  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES achieves this aim once and for all, juxtaposing the Caped Crusader against a landscape we can very much recognize as our own.

In regards to the film’s score, one could be forgiven for expecting the composing team of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard to finish what they started with BATMAN BEGINS.  However, after Nolan paired with Zimmer exclusively on INCEPTION, Howard reportedly felt he would be a third wheel, and decided to bow out.

While this act arguably streamlines the score’s creative process, Howard’s absence is palpable– gone are the romantic swells of strings that find Batman or Bruce in a quiet moment of introspection, depriving the score of a crucial emotional resonance.

This isn’t to say Zimmer fails to deliver of his own accord, however– the dynamic of the score simply shifts to favor the militaristic and intense nature of his prior contributions.

He appropriately builds on the themes established in the previous entries, developing them towards their logical conclusions.  Naturally, new characters mean new themes, and Zimmer once again manages to embody the characters of Bane and Selina Kyle in musical form.

Expectedly muscular and percussive, Bane’s theme immediately communicates an overwhelming sense of strength and power, his background in the League of Shadows and his apocalyptic ambitions conveyed through a hypnotic male chorus chanting the Moroccan word for “rise”.

Selina Kyle gets a slinky, playful theme that echoes her comic book heritage as Catwoman, employing light flutters on a piano bolstered by quietly urgent strings.  While not as well-rounded as the scores for BATMAN BEGINS or THE DARK KNIGHT, Zimmer’s efforts here nevertheless close out Nolan’s trilogy on an epic, triumphant note.

Nolan’s artistic signatures as a filmmaker are on full display throughout THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, from its massive scope to its jet-setting narrative that takes his crew to far-flung locales like Morocco or Scotland.

His take on Bruce Wayne and Batman has always been informed by his penchant for extremely-flawed male protagonists.  The character’s development as seen in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES continues the trajectory Nolan established with BATMAN BEGINS, all the while uncovering new angles of his psyche.

We first find Bruce so disheartened by the loss of Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent that he’s exiled himself and Batman away from the world for almost a decade.  He’s lost heart in the myth that he spent so much time, energy, and money building up.

When he decides to once again put on the cape and cowl, his regaining of his life’s purpose ironically makes him too proud.

His conviction about the righteousness of his mission has been warped to such a degree that he drives Alfred, his closest ally and friend, away from him entirely.  This also leads to his merciless beating at the hands of Bane, having failed to do his homework on his opponent beforehand.

Bruce’s story in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is one of re-earning the mantle of Batman, of gaining a renewed conviction for justice that will enable him to finally fulfill his lifelong quest.

The conceit of functional style that runs through Nolan’s filmography maintains its presence here through Batman’s iconic suit, in addition to other aspects like Bane’s militaristic garb and mask, Selina Kyle’s jet-black burglar outfit, and even a wearable device that allows Bruce to regain the power lost to destroyed cartilage in his knee.

The plot affords Nolan ample opportunity to explore his fascination with architecture and the malleability of the urban environment, with Bane exploiting the inherent vulnerabilities of Gotham’s civic infrastructure.

The underground sewer system allows him to move throughout the city undetected while staging his massive operation.  This position allows him to penetrate fortified structures like Wayne Enterprises’  R&D department by tunneling up from below.

The strategic placement of explosives on bridges and other key points throughout the city allow him to effectively shut down Gotham in one fell swoop, cutting it off from the outside world and effectively creating his very own kingdom to rule as he sees fit.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES isn’t as concerned with the manipulation of time as his previous work, opting for a linear narrative that progresses steadily forward– save for a massive time jump in the middle that sees several months pass under Bane’s occupation.

More so than he did in THE DARK KNIGHT before it, Nolan structures his climax around a literal ticking clock: that time-honored movie trope of a bomb counting down to detonation. Considering the inspired turns of story that drove Nolan’s previous two Batman entries, it isn’t difficult to see why some critics felt let down by his use of an admittedly-cliche narrative device.

That being said, the ticking clock nonetheless provides a propulsive framework for Nolan to employ his signature cross-cutting techniques, nimbly tracking multiple threads of action and character as they race to save or destroy Gotham.

A purist attitude towards the supremacy of celluloid film over digital acquisition has always been a crucial aspect of Nolan’s artistic character, but his reputation for active advocacy really begins here, with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

Thanks to the monumental success of films like THE DARK KNIGHT and INCEPTION, he had enough industry clout to gather a number of high-profile directors like himself for a private IMAX screening of the film’s plane hijacking prologue shortly before this film’s release.

With some of Hollywood’s most-celebrated luminaries as his captive audience, he proceeded to make his case about the importance of keeping celluloid alive as a vital option for filmmakers to employ.  In this bold new digital age, film has taken on an inherently nostalgic quality– one that’s easy to romanticize, or take for granted.

Nolan used his platform to underscore the dangers that digital poses towards the continuance of celluloid, the least of which being its appeal to the studio’s bottom line.

Digital may now have the capability to match (and even surpass) the resolution of film pixel-for-pixel, he argued, but there’s a lot that digital couldn’t replicate and that they thus stood to lose– qualities like a wide latitude, an organic texture, and its strength as a long-term archival format immune to the ravages of memory rot and data corruption.

In the wake of major manufacturers like Fuji closing their doors and leaving Kodak as the only game in town, they faced the imminent risk of losing the choice to shoot on film altogether.  Thankfully, his pleas didn’t fall on deaf ears; his colleagues and contemporaries agreed that the preservation of celluloid as an acquisition option was of urgent artistic and cultural importance.

This alliance proved instantly formidable, with their efforts leading to several studios agreeing to a processing partnership with Kodak that would guarantee film’s immediate survival.  Of all of Nolan’s contributions to the art of cinema, his active advocacy to preserve the availability and the magic of photochemical film for future generations stands to become one of his most important and enduring.

Thanks to the bar set by THE DARK KNIGHT and the passing of four years when most sequels aim for two, expectations were understandably sky-high for Nolan’s trilogy capper.  It was, simply put, the most anticipated film of 2012.

It’s box office dominance was a foregone conclusion, with the marketing campaign aptly positioning the film as a major cultural event that was not to be missed.  The moviegoing public responded in kind, the most dedicated of whom turned out en masse across the country for midnight screenings on release day: July 20, 2012.

The overwhelming excitement of the film’s release was immediately tempered by tragedy, however, when a young man named James Holmes dressed up, in his words, as The Joker and opened fire on an audience at a midnight screening in Aurora, Colorado.

Twelve people lost their lives, with fifty-eight more injured.  Nolan and his collaborators immediately issued statements about the massacre, expressing their profound heartbreak.  This unfortunate brush with history no doubt must have deeply affected Nolan– to him, the movie theater was a sacred space, akin to a cathedral.  It was a forum where people could gather and share a communal dream-like experience, and once that bubble had been popped, it was like innocence lost– there was no going back.

Whatever the purpose might have been, Holmes’ barbaric act couldn’t keep audiences away– perhaps inspiring some to go to the theater as an act of righteous defiance against fear and terrorism.

This defiance, coupled with the overwhelming popularity of the Batman property, quickly propelled THE DARK KNIGHT RISES past the billion dollar mark to become the 19th highest-grossing film of all time.  Critics admired the film for the most part, lavishing praise on Nolan’s technical craftsmanship and command of vision while conceding that the narrative was overlong and rather unwieldy.

Individual criticisms aside, critics and audiences alike mostly agreed that Nolan had closed out his trilogy in satisfying fashion. Nobody, however, could deny the impressiveness of his achievement: not only had he shepherded one of the most successful and well-regarded trilogies of all time, he had capably (and seemingly effortlessly) executed THE DARK KNIGHT RISES on the largest and most challenging scale of mainstream studio filmmaking.

In completing THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, Nolan had formed the bedrock of his cinematic legacy, and a solid platform upon which to build his towering works to come.


INTERSTELLAR (2014)

Mankind is a race of explorers– from the governmental level on down to the individual family unit, we’re constantly pursuing the expansion of our domain into uncharted territory.

The fundamental desire that drove us across entire continents and oceans has also given birth to the tribal mind-set of nation-states, drawing up arbitrary borders in a bid to separate ourselves and our natural blessings from the nebulous “other”.  It wasn’t until the dawn of space flight in the mid-twentieth century that mankind was able to ascend high enough to observe the entire planet within their field of view.

Up there, they realized that there were no borders, no nations, no distinct divisions of heritages and cultures— there was only, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, a single blue marble suspended in a black void.  The planet Earth is a lifeboat in the middle of a vast, turbulent ocean… completely at the mercy to the fickle whims of the fates.

It is hard for those of us stuck here on terra firma to grasp just how precarious our cosmic existence is.  Thanks to our relatively short lifespans, we are cursed with abysmal foresight– we don’t worry about tomorrow because there’s already too much to deal with today.  But what if there was no tomorrow?

What if the mounting effects of industrialization and civic “progress” had turned our fragile blue marble into a dusty wasteland of blight, drought, and decay?  What if we had to find out the hard way that, unlike our fancy electronic gadgets, there was no cloud backup for humanity?

“Mankind was born on Earth.  It was never meant to die here”.  This phrase, while admittedly devised as an unusually-eloquent bit of marketing tagline copy, is the fundamental sentiment that drives Nolan’s ninth feature film, INTERSTELLAR.  The film dares to show The Last Frontier as it really is: an experience beyond the limits of our wildest imaginations.

While INTERSTELLAR’s heritage harkens back to the tactile innovations of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), its actual development history began much more recently, when theoretical physicist Kip Thorne and producer Lynda Obst hatched the initial seed of the story and set it up for further development at Paramount.  In 2006, the studio hired Jonathan Nolan to write the script as a directing vehicle for Steven Spielberg.

Six years later, Spielberg had departed the project for greener pastures and Christopher was in search of his next film after wrapping up his DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY.  He was intimately familiar with Jonathan’s aspirations for and frustrations with INTERSTELLAR by virtue of his familial relation, but over time he found that he too had become interested in the project from a directorial standpoint.  When he learned the director’s chair was open, he simply placed a call to Paramount and offered his services.

Having made all his previous studio features at Warner Brothers, Nolan had forged warm relationships with the top executives there.  Unwilling to miss out on the next project from one of their most valuable talents, Warner Brothers took the unorthodox step of co-financing INTERSTELLAR with Paramount.

As such, two of the largest studios in Hollywood threw their combined weight behind Nolan to the tune of $175 million dollars– an astronomical sum considering that Nolan also enjoyed a $20 million salary, a 20% profit share of the film’s gross and carte blanche control over the execution of his vision.

That kind of creative freedom– nearly unheard of at this budgetary level– was a testament to the faith that studio executives had in the significant commercial appeal of Nolan’s aesthetic. The fact that Christopher Nolan ultimately brought the picture in $10 million under budget is, conversely, a testament to Nolan’s disciplined work ethic and goodwill towards his financiers.

INTERSTELLAR finds Nolan working with the largest canvas he’s ever had, which is pretty damn big considering the overwhelming scale of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.  Funnily enough, Nolan’s first foray into science fiction succeeds almost in spite of its limitless scope, finding its profound emotional resonance in the simple, intimate theatrics of human connection.

Drawing from iconic sci-fi works like the aforementioned 2001, METROPOLIS, BLADE RUNNER, STAR WARS, and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as well as offbeat sources like Ken Burns’ documentaries on the Dust Bowl, Nolan infuses INTERSTELLAR with a Spielbergian wonder towards the mysteries of the cosmos.

Indeed, Nolan strives to evoke the artistic sensibilities of Spielberg by structuring INTERSTELLAR as an ode to spaceflight, a paean to the romanticism of adventure, and a portrait of the special and complex bond shared between a father and his children.  If THE DARK KNIGHT RISES heralded the end of the world with a bang, then INTERSTELLAR sees it arrive with a whimper.

The world, simply put, must be saved– but this time, the responsibility falls not to superheroes but to scientists and mathematicians.  We begin in the back half of the twenty-first century, where the mounting effects of  pollution, industrialization, and other byproducts of modern civilization have ravaged the earth.

Crops are failing, water is growing scarce, society is stagnating. A desperate and hungry world has discouraged frivolous pursuits like space exploration in favor of raising more farmers to till the increasingly-infertile fields.

Short-sighted bureaucrats have even gone so far as to formally disband NASA and publish textbooks that assert the moon landing was faked in order to bankrupt the Soviet Union and win the Cold War.  There’s a pervading sense that our future is decidedly earthbound.

In America’s blight-plagued heartland, where a new Dust Bowl rages with increasing intensity, an ex-pilot turned corn farmer named Cooper is trying to eke out a hardscrabble existence with his two children and father-in-law.

When Cooper examines the curious phenomena of patterned dust in his daughter’s bedroom, he manages to decode it as geographical coordinates.  Cooper and his daughter, Murph, follow the coordinates to a secret underground bunker, only to discover a secret refuge for the remnants of NASA– an underground facility in which to build the next generation of starships and ferry mankind off the dying planet.  The mission has been spurned on by the discovery of a wormhole near Saturn, placed there by an unknown intelligence.

Almost overnight, an entirely new galaxy has been placed within their reach– complete with three potentially habitable planets orbiting a supermassive black hole named Gargantua.

One of the few pilots qualified to lead a mission of this importance, Cooper is duty-bound to leave his family behind and command an interstellar reconnaissance mission to find a new home for the human race– before we lose the only one we’ve ever known.

The consistent pedigree of Nolan’s work naturally attracts (and retains) high-caliber talent, and INTERSTELLAR serves as yet another prime example.  It’s tempting to assume that the casting of Matthew McConaughey as Cooper was a reactive action on Nolan’s part– jumping on the “McConnaissance” bandwagon and securing the talents of a performer operating at the peak of his prestige.

If the study of Nolan’s filmography yields only one insight, however, it’s that any artistic choice he makes is never a reaction to current trends in filmmaking or Hollywood at large.  Indeed, he’d been aware of McConaughey’s flinty, blue-collar physicality for quite some time– over the years he’s proved himself to be one of the few actors capably of truly embodying the “everyman” persona Nolan felt was so crucial to the proper conveyance of his protagonist.

McConaughey succeeds Guy Pearce, Al Pacino, Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio as the latest in a long line of tortured and haunted male heroes within Nolan’s work.  Cooper’s story so far has been one of quiet tragedy; he’s a former pilot who had to give up dreams of spaceflight for an unglamorous life growing a failing crop and raising a family doomed to do the same.

Like MEMENTO’S Guy Pearce, INCEPTION’s DiCaprio, and, to a certain extent, Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, Cooper is a widower; cursed to wander the rest of his life without his mate.  Also like those characters, he’s whip-smart and resourceful; a natural-born leader with bottomless reserves of courage and a ferocious commitment to his family.

The loss of his wife in and of itself does not make Cooper a tortured protagonist in the typical Nolan mold, however– it’s the fact that he must leave his beloved family behind if he’s to save them, along with the very real possibility that he may never see them again.
As Cooper’s absence stretches from months, to years, to decades, his children grow into disillusioned, bitter adults.

They’re angry at the father who abandoned them, the most vindictive sibling being Murph– ripped from her father’s warmth and guidance at a fragile young age.  Jessica Chastain continues her winning streak of strong performances for prestigious directors here as the adult Murph, a brilliant and driven scientist working for NASA.

Her insightful ability to see patterns where others do not allows her to successfully receive messages sent by the universe and employ them towards the salvation of the human race, all while communicating with her long-lost father in a way that transcends both space and time.

Casey Affleck is even more humorless and bitter as Cooper’s grown son, Tom.  In his father’s absence, the work of maintaining the family farm has fallen to him, and the hard, fruitless work and tragic death of his firstborn son has left him an angry and hollow shell of the optimistic and eager boy he once was.

Well known for his gangly, boyish physicality, Affleck instead conveys an imposing corn-fed frame and a pragmatic coldness that puts him at odds with Murph’s good intentions.
Ever since THE PRESTIGE brought back several members of the cast from BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan has made a habit of retaining key actors for multiple successive collaborations.  Michael Caine is easily the most visible example of this aspect of Nolan’s career, having appeared in all of the director’s films since 2005.

In INTERSTELLAR, Caine plays Cooper’s mentor Professor Brand, the weary NASA scientist in charge of the Endurance mission.  The character is a variation on the archetype he typically plays in Nolan’s work– that of the sagely mentor and charming bearer of exposition– but where the Professor Brand character diverges the most from prior performances is in his intentional misleading of Cooper and his crew about the ultimate impossibility of their primary mission objective.

Anne Hathaway, hot off her first collaboration with Nolan in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, plays Professor Brand’s daughter, also named Brand. As a character who finds herself caught at the intersection of faith and reason, Hathaway capably conveys her character’s vulnerable intelligence and idealistic confidence.

More than just a potential love interest for Cooper, Brand is a conduit through which Nolan presents one of INTERSTELLAR’s key ideas– the idea of “love” as a powerful, quantifiable cosmic concept.  In other words: the idea of “love” being a separate dimension unto itself that can transcend and influence time, space, and gravity.

The rest of INTERSTELLAR’s supporting players are comprised of faces well-known, obscure, and surprising.  Shielded from all marketing materials prior to the release of the film, Matt Damon unexpectedly turns up halfway through the film in a major role as Mann, a team member from a previous reconnaissance mission who is discovered on a desolate, icy planet ensconced in his hypersleep pod.

Upon waking, Mann is initially grateful and overwhelmed that someone came to find him, but as the realization dawns that his planet is ultimately not suitable for Earth’s new home, he reveals the ruthless and cowardly survivalist side of his nature.  His name is no doubt a nod on Nolan’s part to director Michael Mann, a filmmaker who has served as a profound influence on Nolan’s particular aesthetic.

Following the casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in INCEPTION and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, Nolan’s casting of Topher Grace and John Lithgow here evidences what could seen as a curious fascination with 90’s sitcom stars, with Grace making his way from THAT 70’s SHOW and Lithgow well-known from his stint on THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN (which also starred Gordon-Levitt).

Grace plays Getty, adult-Murph’s NASA colleague, while Lithgow eases into a grizzled seniority to play Donald, Cooper’s father-in-law and grandfather to Murph and Tom.  One of the more interesting aspects of Lithgow’s character is his age in relation to the timeline of Nolan’s story, which would place him as a member of the contemporary Millennial generation.

Veteran character actress Ellen Burstyn is a poignant presence as the elderly Murph, having eclipsed her own father in age thanks to the relativistic aspects of time and space travel.  Wes Bentley and David Gyasi play Doyle and Romilly, respectively– two fellow astronauts on the Endurance mission who help explain the film’s brain-twisting concepts about relativity to the audience.

Bill Irwin makes the best of a thankless task by providing the voice and puppetry for TARS, a non-humanoid, artificially-intelligent robot that accompanies the Endurance crew.  Despite having his presence painted out of the frame entirely, Irwin ably injects a genuine sense of lively humanity into TARS, resulting in a memorable silver screen robot in the mold of HAL-9000 and C-3PO.

Nine features into his career, Nolan has solidified a core group of trusted craftspeople in service to his vision: producer/wife Emma Thomas, production designer Nathan Crowley, composer Hans Zimmer, and editor Lee Smith.  However, INTERSTELLAR forces Nolan to make a radical change in a key department.

Wally Pfister, who had shot all of Nolan’s films since MEMENTO, was unavailable to shoot INCEPTION because of the production of his own directorial debut, TRANSCENDENCE.  Understandably, Pfister leaves big shoes to fill, but Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema proves a more-than-capable replacement, reinvigorating Nolan’s outsized aesthetic by virtue of his fresh perspective.

He ably replicates the muted earth and metal color palette of Nolan’s previous films while infusing INTERSTELLAR with a gritty, documentary-style immediacy uncommon to most sci-fi films.  He achieves this by shooting a majority of the film handheld, which results in naturalistic compositions that evoke an organic, lyrical nature not unlike the late-career aesthetic of Terrence Malick.

Hoytema employs other tools like blown highlights and Spielbergian and Abrams-esque lens flares that fan out into concentrated horizontal bands of light– a visual artifact unique to anamorphic lenses.

From the cinematography on down to the final sound mix, Nolan intended for INTERSTELLAR to be his most technically ambitious work to date.  The lion’s share of his attention is lavished on the visuals, building on his innovative use of large-format film gauges in a narrative setting.

If its staggering runtime of 2 hours and 49 minutes wasn’t enough, Nolan projects the unprecedented scale of INTERSTELLAR’s narrative by shooting his largest ratio of IMAX to 35mm film yet.  The supersized IMAX format betters conveys the infinite depths of space, restoring a sense of grandeur and wonder to a genre that’s otherwise been lost in recent years to an orgy of flimsy CGI-fests.

Indeed, when Nolan juxtaposes the microscopic insignificance of human spacecraft against the massive backdrop of Saturn, it’s hard to imagine any other format that can better communicate the awe-inspiring scale of the heavens.

With each successive film, Nolan further innovates and strengthens IMAX’s capabilities for narrative storytelling, and INTERSTELLAR provides him with the opportunity to use it in conventional dialogue scenes or handheld in cramped quarters in addition to grandiose moments of spectacle.

The use of IMAX also highlights Nolan’s preference for celluloid, allowing him to better demonstrate film’s strengths while combating the ballooning resolution of digital formats fast approaching their ten-thousandth pixel.

In a way, Nolan achieves a poetic sublimity in his use of IMAX on INTERSTELLAR– one of his primary motivators for using the format in the first place was his reasoning that if an IMAX camera can be lugged into space, it can be used to shoot a narrative feature film.  With INTERSTELLAR, this reasoning comes full circle, finding Nolan employing the format in service to the depiction of space.
One of the core operating principles of Nolan’s approach to INTERSTELLAR was that anything that could be captured in-camera would be captured in-camera.  Granted, Nolan typically avoids CGI wherever he can, but the particular challenges of making INTERSTELLAR presented special consideration.  As he had done for select scenes in INCEPTION, Nolan once again looked to the model of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, a science fiction masterpiece whose groundbreaking practical effects are still convincing after half a century.

While one could certainly make the case that Kubrick would have preferred the control and precision afforded by digital techniques had they been available to him, 2001’s practical, in-camera effects are nevertheless a major component of its longevity.

Following Kubrick’s lead, Nolan mandated that INTERSTELLAR would resort to computer-generated imagery only when necessary.  As such, a grand majority of the film’s spaceships, costumes, sets, and non-human characters are physical builds or miniatures.

INTERSTELLAR’s two robot characters, TARS and CASE, were achieved through a mix of computer graphics and physical puppetry, with actor Bill Irwin giving life to the bulky slab of inanimate metal via an elaborate counterbalance system.

Rather than juxtapose green-screened astronauts against a computer-generated alien landscape, Christopher Nolan simply flew the production to the real-life alien landscape of Iceland, which stood in for the film’s water and ice planets.

This approach also extended to sequences set on Cooper’s farm back on Earth, where he had his team actually build a functional full-scale house and plant fields of corn out in the Canadian province of Alberta.

The spaceship sets, built on a soundstage in LA by returning production designer Nathan Crowley, were designed to be as realistically functional as possible in a bid to emulate the harshly utilitarian conditions of space travel.

This meant foregoing the luxury of breakaway walls while projecting high resolution images of space onto a giant cyc, enabling the cast to look out the windows of the Endurance and actually feel like they were in space.

Even the four-dimensional tesseract sequence– one of the most abstract concepts ever presented in a mainstream Hollywood film– was, surprisingly, built as a practical set.  This isn’t to say that INTERSTELLAR doesn’t contain its fair share of computer-generated imagery, but rather that Nolan’s conscious decision to capture as much as he could in-camera should be celebrated, and has arguably created a piece of work that will hold up considerably well in the years to come.

INTERSTELLAR further echoes 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in striving to depict the challenges and logistics of space travel as accurately as possible.  Towards this end, Nolan brings on Kip Thorne not just as an executive producer, but as a key creative partner on the level of a cinematographer or production designer.

Thorne is one of the leading minds in his field, which makes the ideas presented in INTERSTELLAR not only scientifically accurate, but exceedingly cutting-edge.  These ideas aren’t just limited to technical aspects like the conceivably-realistic spaceship interiors or the accurate approach to sound design in the vacuum of space; every development in the story bases itself upon the established laws of physics and relativity, no matter how fantastical or impossible it may seem.

Admittedly, the film does deviate dramatically from hard science when Cooper allows himself to drop into a black hole, but the ultimate impossibility of knowing what lies beyond the event horizon is an appropriate enough excuse for a little dramatic license.

To Nolan and Thorne’s credit, the depiction of the black hole itself is derived as accurately as possible from our current understanding of them– Thorne worked out complicated relativity equations for the computer graphics team so they could accurately recreate the warping and luminescence of Gargantua’s accretion disk.

Even the simulation itself was an immense undertaking, generating over 800 terabytes of information and some frames taking a hundred hours or more to render.  In the process, Thorne and the visual effects team managed to make actual, quantifiable scientific breakthroughs in our understanding of the heavens’ most mysterious phenomenon.

INTERSTELLAR goes to great lengths to explain how black holes entwine the forces of gravity and time, using the relativity of time as a major source of emotional conflict.  Each time the Endurance mission faces a delay or unexpected problem, years or decades go by on Earth– and Cooper’s chance of ever seeing his family again drops precipitously.

Naturally, this is a very heady concept that isn’t easily grasped, necessitating frequent expositional and jargon-laden monologues that lay out the challenge our characters face in no uncertain, unsubtle terms.

Yet, these moments never feel like a chore or a burden to struggle through.  Nolan deals with mind-bending plot devices so frequently that he’s made the delivery of bulky exposition into something of an art form.   

Since their first collaboration on BATMAN BEGINS, composer Hans Zimmer has played an increasingly important part in shaping Nolan’s artistic identity.  After spending several years working as something of a journeyman composer for big-budget action films, Zimmer’s collaborations with Nolan have increasingly steered him towards an avant-garde minimalism.  Nolan has pushed Zimmer to reinvent the wheel with each successive project, and INTERSTELLAR just might be the veteran composer’s most ambitious score to date.

Having grown weary of the conventional director/composer collaborative relationship, Nolan employed an inspired tactic: rather than scoring off of the edited film, Zimmer was given a one page brief before the start of production.

The brief did not outline the story of the film, describe the character, or give any indication of the scale– it didn’t even state that this was a science fiction film.  Instead, the brief described abstract sentiments about family, parenthood, and time that zeroed in on the beating heart of the film’s emotional core.

From this barest of sketches, Zimmer generated a beautifully atmospheric, mysterious, and hopeful suite of music.  Advised by Nolan to stay away from the tried-and-true orchestral string arrangements, Zimmer sourced his sounds from a palette of ticking clocks, melancholy piano chords, and most notably, an urgent church organ.

Indeed, the organ (and the particular acoustic resonance gained by recording it inside an actual cathedral) is the defining characteristic of INTERSTELLAR’s score, perfectly evoking the religiosity of the celestial heavens as well as our tireless search for a higher meaning to our existence.

By not tailoring his score to the expectations of the science fiction genre, Zimmer is able to tap directly into universality of the human experience at the center of the story and deliver one of the finest works of his career.

INTERSTELLAR dovetails quite naturally and cohesively with several of the core thematic fascinations that comprises Nolan’s artistic identity.  Time (and the manipulation thereof) consistently shapes the structure of his films, and INTERSTELLAR posits that time is a spatial dimension unto itself– one that can be stepped outside of and looked in on as it stretches and warps in a relativistic relationship with gravity.

Whereas MEMENTO played with the lateral direction of time, or INCEPTION explored how a single action’s effect could compound along multiple parallel timelines, INTERSTELLAR goes one step further by turning time into a physical dimension, embodied in the four-dimensional tesseract that allows Cooper to interact with his daughter across multiple points of her lifespan.

It’s immediately apparent that Nolan sees great dramatic potential in the relativity of time as it pertains to gravity– one of the film’s most emotionally resonant sequences finds Cooper and Brand marooned on a water planet closely orbiting the gravity-dense black hole.

Because the individual perception of time differs according to the strength of gravity’s pull, they perceive themselves as being on the surface for only a few hours.  When they return to the ship in orbit, however, they learn that twenty-three years have passed on Earth, and Cooper has an inbox with a lifetime’s worth of messages from his kids, who have grown up in his absence and have reached the same age he had been when he left home.

Nolan’s fascination with time is also represented by his usage of montage and cross-cutting in pursuit of a subjective emotional experience and the building of dramatic intensity.

Looking over his series of collaborations with regular editor Lee Smith, it’s not uncommon for Nolan to employ cross-cuts that span great distances of time and space, but INTERSTELLAR’s cross-cuts compress whole decades and unfathomable light-years within the space of a single frame.

One memorable sequence late in the film cuts between Murph diverting her brother’s attention by burning his corn crop, while on an icy world in a separate galaxy, McConaughey battles for his life against Damon’s attacks.  They are separated by untold millions of miles and several dozens of Earth-years, but they are united in their singular, cosmic struggle to save the human race.

Nolan’s films explore and subvert our perception of time in pursuit of a greater, unified statement about the subjectivity (and fragility) of our individual realities–  there is no single objective truth in his films, no matter how hard his characters search for it.

Perhaps that’s why his protagonists are always so tortured or burdened with regret… they’ve devoted the entirety of themselves to the pursuit of something they ultimately can never attain.

Nolan has sometimes been called an “emotional mathematician”, most notably by fellow director Guillermo Del Toro.  Beyond his championing of technical precision and a tendency to manipulate the emotions of his audience through calculated technique instead of raw artistic ingenuity, the phrase also alludes to his use of academic disciplines like geometry and science in his storytelling.

In other words, a large portion of his life’s work has been a celebration of the magic of data.  This is true in INTERSTELLAR more so than any of his previous films, with entire plot points hinging around the conveyance of ideas and messages via morse code, binary coordinates, flight path equations, and even gravity as a form of interdimensional communication.

A considerable amount of screentime is dedicated to Cooper and his crew figuring out how to best conserve their limited fuel supply, which isn’t as boring as it sounds when it means we get to see him pull daredevil spin maneuvers to slow down his lander rather than using fuel-consuming air brakes.  This conceit folds in well with Nolan’s reputation for structuring his plots as puzzles his characters must solve.

INTERSTELLAR’s astronauts must summon all their intellect and resourcefulness in order to solve the biggest puzzle of all: gravity.  Architecture plays a significant role in this regard, most notably in the design of NASA’s cavernous underground bunker.

The space is shaped like a massive centrifuge, and for good reason– once Brand solves the problem of gravity, he plans to physically lift the building into space as a 21st century ark that will ensure humanity’s survival.  Its circular shape will allow the station to spin in orbit, generating artificial gravity for its inhabitants.

The exotic world of space travel allows Nolan to indulge in his continued exploration of functional style.  Great consideration was given to the film’s spacesuit costumes, with Nolan striving for a sleeker silhouette than the cumbersome suits employed by modern astronauts.

As a piece of equipment designed to sustain an astronaut’s life systems in hostile environments, these suits are inherently functional, and Nolan finds the opportunity to enhance their functionality towards the film shoot itself by building microphones directly into his actors’  helmets.

Classic literature has also played an increasingly prominent role in Nolan’s work, stemming from his college years as an English Lit major and most recently evidenced in the inspiration that Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” served in the development of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

In INTERSTELLAR, Professor Brand routinely recites Dylan Thomas’ classic poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” as a propulsive mantra, continually reminding us of the ultimate cost humanity will pay should the mission fail.

Though Nolan is very mechanically-minded in both the thematics and execution of his story, INTERSTELLAR’s ultimate message is surprisingly organic and optimistically abstract: that love is a higher dimension than both space and time; that we all draw from an interconnected, cosmic soul; that our love for each other gives the human race meaning and significance in the face of a cold, endless oblivion.

By the time of INTERSTELLAR’s release in November of 2014, Paramount had completely ceased the distribution of celluloid release prints in favor of an all-digital delivery to theaters.  However, Nolan harnessed his considerable clout and convinced the studio to make an exception for him, even going so far as providing an incentive to see the IMAX, 70mm and conventional 35mm film prints over digital by making them available a full two days before the film’s official release.

INTERSTELLAR scored mostly-positive critical reviews, most of which praised Nolan’s considerable technical showmanship and awe-inspiring ambition even as they found some faults in the overall cohesiveness of his story.

While the film’s box office performance didn’t post BATMAN kinds of numbers, Nolan’s rabid fanbase and INTERSTELLAR’s buzz as “the most anticipated film of 2014” all but guaranteed a healthy haul.

INTERSTELLAR’s legacy as a technical triumph was confirmed at the Academy Awards, where it was nominated for Best Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Production Design.

It would go on to win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects– the same category that Kubrick won for his work on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.  While INTERSTELLAR may not end up as timeless a classic as Kubrick’s masterpiece, it will nevertheless go down as one of the most audacious and ambitious science fiction epics ever made.


QUAY (2015)

As a noted champion of practical effects and technical craftsmanship, director Christopher Nolan has a vested interest in supporting similarly-minded filmmakers.  As the director of some of the biggest blockbusters in recent memory, Nolan also has the power to shed light on underexposed voices by using the pedigree of his own name to help them find a new audience.

In 2015, Nolan did just for that the Quay brothers, two masters of imaginative puppet animation celebrated for their handcrafted gothic aesthetic that’s less Walt Disney and more David Lynch.

The 8-minute QUAY is Nolan’s first documentary effort, and the first short he’s made since 1997’s DOODLEBUG.  Working with co-producer Andy Thompson, Nolan acts as a one-man crew like he did on his feature debut FOLLOWING (1998), serving as director, producer, cinematographer, and editor as he documents the Quay brothers giving a tour of their cavernous shop and their myriad creations.

Ever true to his purist approach towards celluloid cinema, Nolan shoots QUAY on 35mm film in the 1:85:1 aspect ratio, conforming his high-contrast, desaturated earth-tone aesthetic to a handheld, observational tone.  Nolan is content to simply let the Quay brothers riff on the nature of their work without inserting himself into the conversation or imposing any sort of contrived narrative, ultimately creating an intimate portrait of two artisans and the lo-fi, handmade artistry behind their inimitable body of work.

QUAY screened at the Film Forum in New York before being made available on a boutique Blu Ray release collecting several of the brothers’ iconic shorts.  Nolan’s reverence and appreciation for the Quays is palpable; there’s no question he regards their work as a formative influence on his own approach to filmmaking.

Naturally, the Quays were renowned long before Nolan turned his lens on them and didn’t necessarily need a documentary like QUAY to expose their work to a wide audience, but the film does however reach a different audience– the kind whose diet consists only of mainstream Hollywood spectacles and isn’t particularly inclined to seek out the eccentric deep cuts of indie animation.

In showing us a key influence in his advocacy for practical effects in the face of digital wizardry, Nolan reveals a deeper insight into his own artistic character while suggesting the beginning of a more-intimate and experimental phase in his professional development.

QUAY is available in high definition on the The Quay Brothers Collected Short Films Blu Ray via Zeitgeist Films and Syncopy.


Dunkirk (2016)

Along with the mass devastation and the loss of millions of lives, World War 2 brought about something positive: a recognition of the innate heroism in every person.  It wasn’t just a conflict fought by unseen general and soldiers on some distant field by– it was a harrowing ordeal that quite literally hit home for countless civilians around the world.  The European theater, in particular, saw no shortage of battles play out within the confines of its urban centers; no one could say their personal lives weren’t directly affected by the war.

You can read all of Christopher Nolan’s Screenplays here.

When we hear about stories of courage in combat, we tend to remember these episodes with a veneer of romanticism, and rightly so– World War 2 is often painted as a necessary “good” war, in which the forces of freedom and righteousness waged a battle against the evil and inhumane virtues of fascism for the soul of the twentieth century.  However, the people actually living these episodes of courage — soldiers and civilians alike — most likely didn’t view their experiences through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.  Indeed, many of these courageous moments were a result of terrified men and women simply trying to survive.

This sentiment– a complex fusion of bittersweet heroism, desperate self-preservation, and corrosive survivor’s guilt —  drives director Christopher Nolan’s tenth feature film, DUNKIRK (2017).  Structured less as a conventional war film and more like a harrowing survival thriller, DUNKIRK recreates the evacuation of Allied forces from the eponymous coastal town in France as an awe-inspiring story of unfathomable courage and frenzied survival, despite the event itself serving as a tactical loss for the good guys.  This snatching of an emotional victory from the jaws of strategic defeat is precisely the sort of peculiar irony that attracted Nolan to the story when he initially conceived of the project in the mid-’90s, while sailing across the English Channel along the evacuation route with his wife and producing partner, Emma Thomas.

He envisioned an immersive experience that expanded upon the war genre’s rather simplistic emotional dynamics with a wider range of color, thus achieving a different kind of reverence towards Dunkirk’s participants– one that didn’t reduce their memory to cheap, two-dimensional patriotism.  The idea stayed with Nolan through the subsequent decades, even as his career exploded into the stratosphere following the breakout success of films like MEMENTO (2000) and BATMAN BEGINS (2005).  After the completion in 2014 of his sprawling space epic, INTERSTELLAR, Nolan finally felt he had accumulated enough experience and artistic clout to tackle DUNKIRK as his next feature-length project.

Admittedly, this is something of an absurd sentiment on its face– how could the director of gigantic films like THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, INCEPTION, and INTERSTELLAR not feel ready or experienced enough to helm a $100 million film about a real-world event?  One only needs to look at the finished product to see the answer lies not in Nolan’s confidence towards his technical mastery, but rather in the amount of creative goodwill he needed in order to take so experimental a tack with such an expensive effort.

Indeed, DUNKIRK stands as something of a culmination of the many artistic strands that Nolan had been developing and perfecting throughout his career and only now was it possible for him to tie these strands together into a cohesive, singular experience.  Here was a director at the apex of both his technical powers and his cultural relevance, empowered to make whatever he wanted at whatever scale he wanted thanks to a long-standing relationship with Warner Brothers that had reached the rarefied air of total creative trust and financial backing previously reserved for such heavyweights as Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, or even Cecil B. DeMille.

Their partnership had been so fruitful that, at this point, he could have asked for $100 million to direct an adaptation of the phone book and they would’ve cut a check in the room.  Thankfully for the studio —and for audiences —it wasn’t the phone book that Nolan wanted to direct, but rather a harrowing, minimalist story about courage under fire that would showcase the director’s staggering technical prowess while pushing his artistic inclinations in bold, new directions.

In retelling the story of DUNKIRK, Nolan couldn’t escape the fact that the event was technically a retreat— at this point of the war in 1940, Axis forces had taken so much of France that the Allies felt their best course of action was to pull back and regroup for a better defense against the German’s inevitable attack on the British homeland.  In the small coastal town of Dunkirk, close to the Belgian border, this evacuation was met with a relentless assault by well-supplied German forces, intent on decimating their numbers before they could set foot off the European continent.

Having cultivated an effective cross-cutting technique throughout his previous work, Nolan desired to employ it towards the whole of a feature-length narrative, in effect creating one long note of sustained suspense that he described as, in his words: “the story of immediate tension in the present tense”.  Right away, this suggested that the director would have to eschew his tendencies towards increasingly-inflated runtimes and zero in on the most concise, succinct version of the narrative at hand.  Indeed, at an hour and 45 minutes, DUNKIRK is Nolan’s shortest film since his 1998 debut feature, FOLLOWING.

The film is split up into three distinct planes of action: the air, the sea, and the ground (referred to in the film as “the mole”, so named after the dock jutting out from the beach).  Each of these separate strands ducks and weave through each other, only to converge at the end as the battle reaches a fever pitch.

DUNKIRK takes a decentralized approach to its plot, trashing the idea of a singular protagonist in favor of enigmatic figureheads; fictional composites instead of historical accounts.  They have names, to be sure, but we as an audience don’t have the luxury of time to learn them when our very survival is at stake.  I say “our survival” because Nolan intends for these characters to simply serve as windows for the audience to immerse themselves in the harrowing sweep of history as it unfolds.  We never see beyond this limited, subjective perspective— we’re stuck with the Allied forces on the ground, forced to flee with them as chaos and destruction surrounding us.

We rarely even see the attackers, save for the occasional German plane.  In casting DUNKIRK, Nolan mostly ignores his reputation as a director of prestigious, Academy Award-nominated talent in favor of young unknowns like Fionn Whitehead, who anchors the mole sequences as the boyish and doggedly determined grunt, Tommy— so-named not for a specific person, but for the era’s slang term for a rank-and-file British soldier.

Whitehead’s story is one of sheer survival, desperately grabbing for any toehold to safety like a rat fleeing a flood.  His companion in this regard is a fellow soldier named Alex, played by world-renowned pop singer Harry Styles in his first major acting role.  Interestingly enough, Nolan reportedly wasn’t aware of Styles’ fame at the time, having thought he had cast a young unknown like Whitehead off the strength of his talents.

Styles nevertheless proves more than capable, readily eschewing any pretense of rock star glamor or vanity in order to fit in with the desperation and grit that surrounds him.  The sea-based sequences illustrate one of England’s crowning moments of the entire war, in which a small fleet of civilian pleasure cruisers sailed across the English Channel and directly into harm’s way to help evacuate their countrymen in uniform.

DUNKIRK zeroes in on the journey of The Moonstone, a tiny boat captained by Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson.  He courageously charts a treacherous course to Dunkirk with both his son and his son’s best friend in tow, only to find himself in a contained chamber drama when he picks up a lone, PTSD-riddled soldier caught adrift in open water.  Played by longtime Nolan collaborator Cillian Murphy, the Shivering Soldier (as he’s credited in the titles) is hellbent on getting back to London, and his combative response to Dawson’s insistence on keeping course to Dunkirk leads to drama just as unpredictable and dangerous as the battle they’re sailing into.

The last third of DUNKIRK’s triptych of narratives finds Tom Hardy as a hyper-focused RAF pilot named Farrier, expertly blasting German fighter planes out of the sky in his Spitfire— that is, until he runs low on fuel and risks having to ditch out behind enemy lines.  Another member of Nolan’s loyal repertory of performers, Hardy was no doubt selected in part because of his uniquely expressive eyes— an absolute necessity when the character’s face must be hidden behind a bulky flight mask for the majority of the picture.  Hardy had previously accomplished this same task for Nolan as the menacing masked brute, Bane, in 2012’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and achieves in DUNKIRK a similar effect, albeit one that’s better calibrated to his character’s stoic heroism.  It’s also in Hardy’s storyline that one finds the film’s most cleverly-disguised cameo: Michael Caine, who just barely manages to add another link in his unbroken chain of successive performances for Nolan since BATMAN BEGINS by lending his iconic voice to the role of an officer dispatching commands over the two-way radio.  Out of a cast of literally hundreds, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, and fellow director Kenneth Branagh deliver standout performances, with Branagh’s turn as Commander Bolton serving as a particularly compelling reminder of the dignified composure exhibited by the Allied brass even as the world was falling down around them.

With INTERSTELLAR, Nolan borrowed liberally from the Steven Spielberg school of filmmaking, adopting several of his predecessor’s stylistic affectations to imbue the unknowable majesty of space and our cosmic connectivity with a sense of overwhelming wonder and awe.  Spielberg has similarly influenced the war genre, with his 1998 classic SAVING PRIVATE RYAN providing the aesthetic and emotional benchmark for subsequent war pictures to follow.

While DUNKIRK shares inevitable similarities to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN in a stylistic sense, Nolan charts his own course, fashioning a visceral experience that speaks to his impeccable technical pedigree as well as his desire to reinvent the visual language of whatever genre he’s working in.  This is evident in the initial references he drew inspiration from— one might expect to see a list of iconic war films, but Nolan draws from a wider, more disparate pool of sources: ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS appropriately conveyed the chaos of battle to his collaborators, but other works like THE WAGES OF FEAR, ALIEN, SPEED, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, and SUNRISE asserted themselves as exercises in sustained suspense or unique applications of montage.

SUNRISE, a 1927 silent classic by German director F.W. Murnau, a 1927 silent classic by German director F.W. Murnau, proved to be a key reference for DUNKIRK, with the narrative challenges inherent in the absence of sound demonstrated for the benefit of the film’s ambitions as an almost-exclusively visual work.  Towards this end, Nolan also looked to the influence of other silent-era directors like Cecil B. DeMille for his handling of epic spectacle and large crowds.

DUNKIRK retains the stark, austere visuals that Nolan is known for, adopting his signature metal & earth tone color palette while photochemically boiling his chromatic spectrum down to a limited range of cold blues, teals, and greys.  The gloomy daylight that hangs over the English Channel takes on a creamy tinge as it provides the key light for a naturalistic, yet foreboding presentation.  It’s only a matter of time until Nolan succeeds in making an entire picture with large format photography like IMAX, and DUNKIRK naturally represents Nolan’s most ambitious effort to date towards that goal.

Working once again with his INTERSTELLAR cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, Nolan uses conventional 35mm celluloid film only when he has to— most notably in dialogue-intensive scenes that take place in cramped quarters like the Moonstone’s cabin below deck.  For the vast majority of DUNKIRK — about 70-75% of the finished product — Nolan, and Hoytema use a blend of large format 65mm and IMAX film.

While this approach retains the abrupt, somewhat-jarring shifts of aspect ratio between the CinemaScope 35mm and the larger full-frame gauges, DUNKIRK’s visceral command of its massive scale keeps the audience fully immersed with a minimum of distraction.

Nolan captures this overwhelming, all-consuming chaos with his signature epic flair, blending majestic classical camerawork with urgent handheld photography that ably evokes the “war is hell” tonality of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN while still asserting an aesthetic character all its own.  Nolan’s love of aerial photography works particularly well in this regard, bringing seasoned and enthusiastic energy to DUNKIRK’s Dramamine-necessitating dogfight sequences.

The film as a whole naturally acts as the latest showcase for Nolan’s advocacy for the supremacy of celluloid’s organic grit over digital’s glossy sheen, putting the format’s resiliency to the test many times over.  One particular instance would involve the loss of an IMAX camera when the plane it was mounted to accidentally sunk to the bottom of the sea.  While the camera was understandably toasted, the film inside was not.  Indeed, the hardy archival qualities of celluloid meant that not only was the footage useable— it was pristine.

While the film is stuffed to the brim with the epic spectacle we’ve come to expect from Nolan’s filmography, there’s also a curious tonal intimacy at play; a touch of the avant-garde that allows DUNKIRK to function as both a compelling dramatization of a historical event as well as an abstract meditation on industrial-scale survival and courage under extreme fire.

The bulk of DUNKIRK was shot in the locations where it actually happened— most notably, the same beach where soldiers lined up to board evacuation boats while bombs fell around them.  Nolan’s longtime production designer, Nathan Crowley, even rebuilt the mole from the original blueprints.  Even when the production moved to the waters off of Holland or a water tank in Los Angeles for select sequences, the crew dedicated themselves to historical accuracy in the details— right down to the last steel rivet.  At the same time, his treatment of landscape reduces his backdrops to two planes of action: above and below.

The shared horizon line that bisects his frames ties the mole, sea, and air narratives together with a thematic uniformity, but it also has the effect of abstractifying the action into an interior realm.  This impression goes a long way towards explaining why Nolan felt he needed to accumulate more experience & clout before embarking on production— especially in the calculated cynicism of today’s studio climate, he wouldn’t have been able to make DUNKIRK as the impressionistic survival & courage allegory that he did, at the level of production value he did, and with a mostly young and unknown cast… unless he himself was the brand that guaranteed a healthy return on investment.

It takes a great deal of experience and confidence to under-develop his characters in the manner he does here; it goes against every grain in our artistic bodies and everything we’ve been taught about writing stories.  However, Nolan recognized that the Battle of Dunkirk was a much bigger story than any one person and that the most effective version of any film recreation would be the one that captured the shared humanity of its participants while installing key avatars through which the audience could immerse itself fully and share in the experience.

This is something that cinema does better than almost any other established or emerging medium, and Nolan recognizes this.  It’s why he eschews cheap gimmickry like 3-D in favor of large film formats that quite literally fill the audience’s field of view.  It’s why he avoids the uncanny plastic sheen of digital and embraces the organic warmth and texture of celluloid.  Immersion demands as few barriers between the image and the audience as possible, and DUNKIRK succeeds in this regard due to Nolan’s artistic precision as well as the subtle abstract touch he brings to the proceedings.

Nowhere is Nolan’s avant-garde touch more evident than DUNKIRK’s original score, composed by longtime music collaborator Hans Zimmer in partnership with Benjamin Wallfisch and Lorne Balfe, among others.  Zimmer and Wallfisch’s foreboding suite of cues is anything but subtle, evoking the dark belly of the military-industrial beast that was World War 2.  Limited melodies compete for air against an expressive industrial texture, with an arrangement of string and brass instruments manipulated so as to recall the alarming whine of an approaching fighter plane or the listless whir of a ship engine as it teeters onto its side.

Simply put, the score is a harrowing, unrelenting juggernaut of abstract musicality, made all the more intense by Zimmer’s deployment of the “Shepard Tone”— an auditory illusion that Zimmer previously used to similar effect on THE PRESTIGEand in The Joker’s theme for THE DARK KNIGHT, wherein a sense of escalating danger is implied by a tone whose pitch seems to escalate towards infinity without breaking.

The effect is one of squirming tension on the part of the listener; an auditory twisting of the knife that corkscrews the anxious feelings in our stomachs, like waiting for the beat to drop in Hell.  As he did previously on INTERSTELLAR, Zimmer also synthesizes the sound of Nolan’s ticking pocket watch and lays it down it as the bedrock of DUNKIRK’s score.  As if the music wasn’t intense enough, the tick-tick-tick sound of time literally dripping away amplifies the desperate intensity of DUNKIRK’s tone while conveying to the audience just how close the world came to an Axis occupation of the United Kingdom— if it hadn’t been for the courageous spirit and dogged resistance of its people.

Indeed, time — the device of the ticking clock  — unifies the thematic whole of DUNKIRK, placing the film as an exploratory apex within Nolan’s career.  Again, the story essentially functions as one large escape sequence, with the Allied forces racing against the clock from the encroaching German menace as they try to get off the beaches of Dunkirk and safely across the English Channel.  In the capable hands of Nolan’s longtime editor, Lee Smith, this exercise in narrative minimalism becomes another forum in which Nolan can actively manipulate the bounds, indeed the very shape, of time itself.  Since his very first feature, Nolan has actively utilized cinema’s unique ability to convey sophisticated storytelling through nonlinear structure.  His primary tool in this regard is the cross-cut, which he’s employed throughout his filmography to tremendous effect.

Whereas Nolan’s previous films tend to use the cross-cut to add emotional heft to key narrative sequences, DUNKIRK basically functions as a feature-length string of cross-cuts.  Rather than numbing his audience to its effects, Nolan instead seems to reach a new level of complexity and sophistication with his approach to montage.  Each component of the story’s organizational triptych — the mole, the sea, and the air — takes place over a different time span: a week, a day, and one hour, respectively.

By dovetailing these sequences into each other as one seemingly-continuous event, Nolan effortlessly compresses and expands time at will.  Admittedly, this is a rather large leap of artistic license on Nolan’s part, especially when so much attention is otherwise paid to historical accuracy within the frame, but Nolan’s approach nonetheless captures the harrowing emotional truth of the battle.  The fractured chronological presentation also allows the story to revisit key moments from earlier in the film, revealing different perspectives that deepen our understanding of the big picture.

One such moment is the scene where Farrier’s co-pilot ditches into the sea.  From Farrier’s perspective in the air, it looks like a stable, almost peaceful water landing; assured of his colleague’s safety, he jets off to another part of the battle.  From the co-pilot’s perspective, however, it’s a very different story: beyond the initial impact of the crash landing, the cabin quickly fills up with water, and he can’t open the cockpit glass to escape.  DUNKIRK is filled with moments like these; moments that convey a complex, dueling subjectivity that amplifies as the various timelines intersect and collide with each other.

Nolan’s creative subversion of chronology is easily the most visible signifier of his authorship, but it’s far from the only one.  DUNKIRK abounds with displays of Nolan’s secondary artistic signatures, like his fascination with functional style as embodied in the military uniforms seen throughout, or Farrier’s on-the-fly calculations about his fuel consumption pointing to the director’s use of math and physics as a storytelling tool.  However, what immediately sets DUNKIRK apart from other films of its ilk is the sheer weight of the picture.

Nolan’s previous films all boast a visceral heft to their impact — a palpable gravity to match their monumental ambitions.  This impression is due in large part to Nolan’s dogged insistence on practical, old-fashioned filmmaking that demands everything that can be captured in-camera will be captured in-camera.  Famously averse to the reliance on CGI that stains the films of his contemporaries,  Nolan commands an intimidating array of practical resources that give DUNKIRK its distinct feeling of inescapable danger.

Make no mistake— the ability to make a film at this scale with the resources he demands is a luxury; a direct benefit of his status as a certified moneymaker and pop culture icon.  Fortunately, Nolan makes these demands always in service to his story, and not his vanity.  DUNKIRK finds Nolan’s deployment of practical FX reaching new levels of challenge, necessitating the director to alter how he conducted his own set in order to create a truly immersive environment for the audience.

For instance, he went so far as to have members of his own crew dress up in the military costumes worn by the extras so that they could hide in plain sight within the shot as he shot in all directions.  He also incorporated old-school techniques to amplify the size of his crowds; whereas now one can simply copy and paste any number of digital extras into a scene, he went to the trouble of creating detailed cardboard cutouts of soldiers to put in the far distance of his frames.

This pursuit of the analog over the digital permeates DUNKIRK, creating no shortage of technical challenges for his crew, like: “how exactly does one mount an IMAX camera to a vintage fighter plane?”.  We should know the answer by now: by quite literally bolting the camera mount to the wing of a specially-modified plane, attaching some specialty periscope lenses and taking that sucker up into the air.  DUNKIRK’s aerial dogfighting sequences boast some of the film’s most gripping moments; we can quite literally feel the G-forces pulling on our guts as we bank, roll, and dive with Farrier’s Spitfire. A substantial portion of these scenes were actually shot up in the air, with the actors in the cockpit.

Most filmmakers of Nolan’s ilk would be happy to throw up a mock cockpit in front of a green screen and call it a day, but his desire to capture as much of his shot in-camera as possible makes for footage that drips with hyperrealism.  In Nolan’s hands, the mounted camera becomes a powerful tool of visual storytelling, generating intense POV shots as well as the kind of surreal images that only cinema can conjure— a standout shot finds the camera mounted sideways to the deck of a ship as it rolls over towards the water, but since the deck is fixed to a stationary point within the frame, the sea appears to coalesce into an intimidating wall of water that rises up to swallow the boat wholly.

In a filmography devoted to the study of heroes in action, DUNKIRK offers a very different portrait of heroism— earnest, quiet courage and hopeful resilience that stands in stark contrast to the theatrical superheroics of THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY.  In this way, DUNKIRK represents something so much more than the director’s latest technical tour de force.  Rather, it represents an evolution; an artistic maturation of an intensely-cerebral filmmaker at the peak of his powers.  Despite possessing the monumental scope and bid-budget pyrotechnics we’ve come to expect from Nolan, DUNKIRK’s confidence to experiment with narrative structure and concise abstraction make for an unexpectedly intimate and personal experience.  It is, in essence, an art film masquerading as a summer blockbuster.

The reception to DUNKIRK’s theatrical release would reconcile these competing halves of the film’s psyche, with critics like The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy hailing it as an “impressionist masterpiece” (5) and audiences flocking in droves to make it the highest-grossing World War 2 film of all time; generating half a billion dollars in worldwide box office receipts.  A slew of accolades and nominations would single out DUNKIRK for its direction, score, and cinematography come awards season, but as of this writing, its final fate in the prestige circuit has yet to be fully determined.

Regardless of its awards season success, DUNKIRK stands as yet another major achievement in Nolan’s intimidating filmography.  Its maximalist production values attain a unique harmony with his minimalistic narrative approach, making for a gripping cinematic experience that stands as one of the best of its genre.  DUNKIRK evidence that, after a lengthy string of mega-successful blockbusters, Nolan seems to be exploring beyond conventional narrative structures and presentations in order to find some kind of intimate, yet universal, emotional truth— a subversive purity that uses modern visual grammar to reinforce timeless artistic ideals.

In a time where critics and audiences alike conflate movies with television and vice-versa as one indistinguishable medium, Nolan’s lifelong quest to preserve the sanctity of the movie house and extoll its superiority to the home theater has never been more urgent.  DUNKIRK is nothing less than a shot across the bow— a slap upside the head that compels us to remember what makes the communal moviegoing experience such a special one.

For all his pop culture significance and ambitious storytelling, DUNKIRK reinforces the idea that Nolan’s greatest legacy of all may be as the man who dedicated his life to saving to the movies, wielding his considerable clout with industry suits and mainstream audiences alike to show that thought-provoking, challenging cinema can be a universal language that is accessible and enjoyable to all.


Nolan: Tenet (2020)

Director Christopher Nolan has spent most of his career imagining and entertaining various apocalypses, manifesting them onscreen via a series of big-budget action spectacles. He probably never imagined that the 2020 release of TENET, his eleventh feature film, would arrive in the midst of a very real one— an all-consuming “end of days” scenario for movie theaters and the medium of cinema, brought about by the devastating, still-ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, the world that Nolan released TENET into was not dissimilar to one he might have devised for his own work. Early on in the crisis, empty grocery store aisles were a common sight, echoing the famine that brought about a dust-choked existence in INTERSTELLAR (2014). As weeks stretched into months, a collective sense of pulling together to overcome a shared challenge splintered into a bitter divide drawn along political lines, eventually culminating in a failed siege on the US Capitol that — at the risk of making of a reductive comparison to one of the darkest days in American history — was strangely reminiscent of the mass street brawls that marked the climax of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012).

TENET, then, would become not unlike one of his own protagonists: an individual possessed of elite skill and considerable financial resources, tasked with nothing less than saving the world. In this case, the world needing saving was the conventional theatrical experience— the megaplex. When health restrictions ruled out the ability to sit in a dark, enclosed room with hundreds of strangers for several hours, the beloved ritual of moviegoing collapsed overnight. Theaters around the world closed their doors; some, like LA’s cherished Arclight cinema chain, unwittingly shuttering forever. Even as case numbers dropped in the summer, prompting several chains to open back up and test the waters, auditoriums remained empty. Desperate for revenue and starving for a government bailout that wouldn’t come for several more months, theater chains (and studios) came to see TENET as their last great hope. After all, if Nolan’s latest effects spectacle couldn’t lure audiences back to the cinema, what could?

As if saving the cinema wasn’t enough pressure, TENET also faced a challenge that Nolan hadn’t experienced since 2002’s INSOMNIA: making its money back. At $205 million, it wasn’t just Nolan’s most expensive original film, it was also one of the most expensive original films in history (1). Furthermore, it was the most expensive film ever produced featuring a person of color in the lead role. The stakes had never been higher, and theatrical distribution was the only way a budget this high could hope to recoup its expenses. Rather than dump the film directly to streaming services as other studios had done, Warner Brothers repeatedly delayed the film’s theatrical release in hopes that case numbers would improve enough for audiences to feel comfortable returning en masse. This prospect seemed increasingly unlikely as 2020 slumped over the finish line and the numbers of the infected were higher than ever. Unable to wait a year or more (as other high profile releases like FAST 9 or NO TIME TO DIE had done), Warner Brothers had no choice but to put the film in theaters and let it play to an empty house. Thus, it would seem TENET was doomed to be Nolan’s first financial failure before it even had a chance to prove itself.

Nolan could take some consolation in the fact that the film had lived up to his own exacting creative standards. As an intensely-cerebral, time-bending spy thriller, TENET possesses a Nolan-esque pedigree that verges on the quintessential. The ideas contained within had been percolating in Nolan’s mind for twenty years, only manifesting themselves as an actual screenplay in the last six (1). After the comparatively narrow focus of 2017’s DUNKIRK, he harbored a desire to return to the expansive, globe-trotting scope of his previous epics (2). TENET — inspired by the James Bond franchise and other spy thrillers that had so formative an influence on his youth — would suggest itself as an ideal fit. However, this was not to be Nolan’s take on a Bond movie; this was to be, rather, what he described as a “memory” or a “feeling” of the genre. Not a direct homage per se, but a pure intuiting of its mechanics from a broader exposure, with each of his key collaborators bringing their subjective experiences to the table in pursuit of something more original.

Indeed, there’s never been a spy picture like TENET, what with Nolan’s signature manipulation of chronology as a core plot point. It’s easy to make light of the general concept— “Nolan just discovered Avid’s ‘reverse’ button” — but it’s clear that he is after a much more complicated understanding of time as it relates to physics. Despite soliciting guidance from his INTERSTELLAR consultant and Nobel-prize winning astrophysicist Kip Thorne, Nolan is the first to admit that scientific accuracy is not the goal. Nor is TENET about the concept of time travel in the way that pop culture understands it, grounding its central idea in the concept of reverse entropy as a way to assign backwards chronological travel to individual objects rather than our timeline as a whole. The end result is as intellectually elusive as it is viscerally engaging; a two-and-a-half hour embodiment of an expositional character’s exhortation to TENET’s hero: “don’t try to understand it. Feel it”.

Like a true spy film, TENET zips around the world in its chronicle of The Protagonist, a rather cheeky moniker given to John David Washington’s elite field operative who is tasked with preventing a future war his handlers only know about because its detritus is peppering our present. Washington, son of the great Denzel, plays down his celebrity lineage to deliver a star-making turn all his own as the unflappably cool, enigmatic hero. He’s emotionless, but not cold; the embodiment of the word “spook”, he seemingly has no personal life to speak of, having devoted the entirety of his existence to the shadows. When a counter-terrorist operation at a Ukrainian opera house results in his capture, The Protagonist attempts suicide by cyanide capsule to avoid giving up crucial information to his captors. The afterlife that awaits him on the other side is a bit unexpected, to say the least: after waking up in a tanker in the middle of the ocean, the mysterious stranger at his bedside (INSOMNIA’s Martin Donovan) recruits him for a top secret mission with an enigmatic code word: “tenet”. The word is also the name of an equally-secret organization that has been collecting various objects evidencing a state of reverse entropy; that is, they move backwards. The organization believes these objects to be the detritus of a devastating war in the future, and the only way to avert it is for The Protagonist to track down a Russian oligarch named Sator.

Played with an icy intelligence by fellow director (and DUNKIRK performer) Kenneth Branagh, Sator is a nasty piece of work— a cruel, abusive, nihilist with the financial means to satisfy any earthly desire. There’s two things his fortune can’t buy him, however. One is time, as he’s slowly being consumed from within by terminal cancer. The other is love; unable to earn the affection of his wife, Kat, he’s opted for her fear instead. As the film’s chief feminine presence, the 6’3 actress Elizabeth Debicki quite literally towers over her co-stars as Sator’s kept companion. She’s a professional art appraiser who effortlessly glides through high society circles, none of whom have any idea about the bitter abuse she endures for the sake of her son. She proves a valuable partner in The Protagonist’s mission, granting him access to Sator’s inner circle at great risk to her own life. Robert Pattinson’s Neil is another valuable asset to The Protagonist. Cavalier, laidback, and rakishly disheveled, Neil is an elite agent for Tenet who seems a little too well-equipped to follow along with the mind blowing revelations of the mission at hand. His laidback attitude balances rather nicely with The Protagonist’s buttoned-up focus, leading to the warmth of unexpected friendship that counters the aesthetic coldness frequently levied against Nolan by his critics.

As the gargantuan scope of The Protagonist’s mission becomes clear, Nolan’s supporting cast responds in kind, giving the audience a handful of additional characters who each contribute another piece of the central puzzle. Aaron-Tyler Johnson goes full commando as Ives, a brusque, hipster-bearded special ops officer who helps The Protagonist acclimate to the unworldly working conditions of a reverse entropic state. Dimple Kapadia, a prominent Hindi actress making a rare appearance in an American studio picture, plays Priya, a wealthy, Mumbai-based arms dealer who counters the moral bankruptcy of her profession with a warm elegance and matronly demeanor. Nolan mainstay Michael Caine makes a brief cameo as the bespectacled Crosby, a British intelligence officer who conveys early intel about Sator. Jeremy Theobald, the protagonist of Nolan’s lo-fi debut FOLLOWING (1998), also makes a brief cameo in the same sequence, playing a buttoned-up concierge and waiter at Crosby’s dining club.

TENET reunites Nolan with his INTERSTELLAR and DUNKIRK cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, with those prior works becoming a platform upon which to further experiment with large-format filmmaking. The pair switch confidently between 65mm and IMAX film, the latter deployed primarily for action sequences and awe-inducing establishing shots. Also like all of Nolan’s prior films since THE DARK KNIGHT, the mixing of formats would require a constant switching of aspect ratios— 2.39:1 CinemaScope for the 65mm and 1.43:1 for IMAX (further matted to 1.78:1 for home video). Beyond setting a personal record for the most amount of IMAX footage shot at 1.6 million feet (1), TENET doesn’t attempt to expand Nolan’s stately technical aesthetic beyond the reverse conceits required by the narrative, choosing instead to deliver the weighty big-screen experience that we’ve come to expect (and demand) from him. Whether mounted to a crane, a helicopter, or atop the operator’s shoulders, the camera maintains its dogged focus on spectacle and scope as the characters push the story forward. The familiar stone & steel color palette of Nolan’s previous films gives TENET a washed-out, earthy feel, while pops of red & blue are used as visual signifiers of the flow of time— a reference to the Doppler shift, which points out how light moving away from the observer takes on a reddish quality due to longer wavelengths, whereas the shorter wavelengths of incoming light reads as blue.

There’s a case to be made for TENET as Nolan’s ugliest film, which isn’t necessarily a criticism. Though the desaturated color palette certainly doesn’t offer much in the way of vibrant color, the deliberate choice to shoot primarily in the Eastern European city of Tallinn, Estonia (1) imbues the film with a grey, Brutalist quality reminiscent of the utilitarian edifices of the Soviet era. Supplementary locales like Mumbai further add to this feeling, with a sweaty, overcrowded populace laboring underneath the shadow of Priya’s looming residence— a needle-like high-rise built for a single family that serves as a physical embodiment of globalism’s treacherous side effect: runaway income inequality, which has paved the way for a handful of billionaires like Sator to bend society to their exploitative whims. Nolan’s longtime production designer Nathan Crowley uses these unfamiliar locations to his advantage, subsequently fashioning a kind of abstract urbanity that anonymizes their surroundings akin to INCEPTION’s monolithic cityscapes. This particular aspect finds particular resonance in TENET’s climax, which finds The Protagonist and his colleagues undertaking a massive operation in both conventional and reverse chronology amidst the towering ruins of a decimated ghost city that was once Sator’s home.

Though TENET benefits from the expected pedigree of longtime collaborators like Crowley, Hoytema, and Emma Thomas, Nolan’s partner in production as well as life, two other key figures — editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer — abstain from the proceedings, the former already committed to Sam MENDES’ 1917 and the latter turning Nolan down so as to score Denis Villeneuve’s DUNE (1). Rather than lament the temporary loss of valued colleagues, Nolan would take this opportunity to inject some young blood into the film, replacing Smith with Jennifer Lame and Zimmer with Ludwig Göransson. Known previously for her work on Kenneth Lonergan’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and Ari Aster’s HEREDITARY, Lee proves her editing chops are just as capable in the action arena as they are in drama or horror. She deftly handles TENET’s display of reverse entropy in action, helping us make sense of where (and when) we are in sequences that could just as easily be a cumbersome and confusing succession of images.

Göransson further cements his reputation as arguably the fastest-rising star in film composing, creating a rather stunning original score that favors percussion and experimental electronic textures over conventional orchestration. Composed of crashing synth waves, aggressive drums, sirens, and dubstep-adjacent rhythms, the overall effect is not unlike having a bad trip at a warehouse rave… but in a good way. Indeed, the score’s most conventional element is a guitar accent that evokes James Bond without emulating John Barry’s iconic theme. The massive character of Görannson’s sound is even more impressive considering that its orchestral elements were recorded separately by individual musicians working around strict lockdown measures (1). For the character of Sator specifically, Göransson employs an inspired leitmotif that sounds like someone gasping for breath, musically reinforcing his terminal condition as well as the story’s conceit that one must rely on an oxygen mask while in an inverted state. The effect was reportedly achieved through heavy electronic distortion of the original recording, which funnily enough, featured Nolan himself breathing heavily into a microphone (1). To cap things off, Göransson repurposes the score’s unique sound as the backing track to a collaboration with rapper Travis Scott, resulting in an original single titled “The Plan” which boasts the distinction of not only being the first hip-hop song to be used in Nolan’s filmography, but also the first time that the director had used a companion single in conjunction with any of his works (1). Though it’s tempting to imagine what Zimmer might have contributed to Nolan’s latest opus, Görannson’s Herculean efforts keep us from dwelling too much on the elder maestro’s absence.

Beyond his demonstrable mastery of filmmaking’s technical conceits and the visual grammar of epic spectacle, the aura of “timeliness” that envelopes Nolan’s storytelling seems to be rooted in his ability to harness our modern anxieties and transpose them onto a gigantic apocalyptic canvas. Unlike the shock-and-awe, landmark-destruction porn engineered by disaster-movie contemporaries like Roland Emmerich, Nolan’s apocalypses are rather intimate, the sharp end of their spears angled directly at the individual even as the rest of the world hangs in the balance. Even without the threat of coronavirus looming over its release, TENET’s central macguffin — the so-called “algorithm” that Sator seeks to reassemble from pieces sent to our present by mysterious agents from the future — evokes the rapidly-destabilizing nature of the social media age. Just as Sator’s efforts are veiled under the guise of benevolent climate change reversal, so too are the data-based algorithms that build our timelines and newsfeeds being twisted away by bad actors from their original community and relationship-cultivating purposes in order to mislead, disinform, and divide; instead of connection, these algorithms are ultimately fostering isolation, siloing us off into our respective echo chambers and alternative realities. The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem, subsequently imbuing TENET with an eerie prescience that seems to predict the age of sickness to come. Images of The Protagonist wearing an oxygen mask that serves to sustain him in the face of an inhospitable reverse entropic state unwittingly transcend Nolan’s personal artistic fascinations to coincide with our new masked reality. Likewise, the aforementioned gasping leitmotif that Göransson builds into the score loses its impressionistic storytelling quality as it transforms into a breathless dispatch from hospitals overwhelmed by respiratory failure on an unimaginable scale. Furthermore, the isolating effects of a year in lockdown served to obliterate our collective perception of time, robbing it of meaning while entombing us in a suspended state of waiting— waiting for case numbers to decline, for vaccines to arrive, for our lives to resume. It was almost as if we had been “incepted” into one of Nolan’s films, with the strings that constitute our sense of temporal continuity and progression being manipulated by some unseen puppetmaster for reasons beyond our comprehension.

TENET’s exploration of reverse entropy, the latest snaking tendril in Nolan’s careelong fascination with the manipulation of time, also finds an oblique relevance in the broader cultural obsession with nostalgia. It seems in recent years, the comfort of looking back on supposed “better times” has become a kind of drug, and media conglomerates its dealer. Popular shows like STRANGER THINGS, or reboots/remakes/reimagining of beloved properties from our youth consume the media landscape, delivering continual hits of pleasure and dopamine. In recognizing and profiting off our collective desire to travel back in time, they have effectively weaponized our nostalgia against us, lulling us into willing complacency as the world burns; they keep us jonesing for the next entry, the next installment… the next hit. TENET recognizes this danger, building its backwards-moving story progression around the idea of reverse radiation as a byproduct of nuclear fission. In short, what’s promised to be the next great technological leap forward in civilization — the achieving of cheap, clean, and infinite energy via the replication of the sun’s natural processes on earth — is a double-edged sword that threatens to destroy our past & present even as it promises to save our future. The film repeatedly makes clear the perils of moving backward in time; it could be argued that our desire to do so is rooted in wanting to return to a simpler state than our complicated present allows. What TENET tells us, then, is that the past contains the seeds of said present; nostalgia is a false illusion that, while admittedly pleasurable, ultimately inhibits growth— and as the protagonists of our own stories, forward movement is the only way we will achieve our various objectives.

In the context of Nolan’s own growth, TENET is another prime example of the unique artistic traits that distinguish him as an undeniably compelling voice. The use of entropy as a means of manipulating time speaks to his reputation as a kind of “emotional mathematician”. He roots the fantastical in the practical, turning to physics, science and data as storytelling tools in their own right. At times, TENET is a touch too dense for its own good — I’m no rocket scientist, but I’ve at least been able to follow along with the various plot convolutions of Nolan’s previous films until now. The climatic “temporal pincer movement”, in which one team moves forward in conventional time using intel derived from a second team simultaneously moving backward, requires the closest of attention be paid to fully understand its narrative intricacies. To his credit, Nolan understands the intellectual unwieldy-ness of his setup, and the aforementioned scene in which the Protagonist is urged to “feel” the reverse entropic state instead of understanding it serves as an urging of his audience to do the same. It’s an acknowledgment that TENET is far more enjoyable as a visceral experience than an intellectual exercise, and the film is all the better for it.

This loosened, near-self-aware approach extends to other signature aspects of Nolan’s artistry, such as the functional style of his characters. Though The Protagonist is well-dressed to the extent that anyone wouldn’t hesitate to call him stylish, his sartorial sensibilities are nevertheless muted and utilitarian; they favor shape and structural integrity over color or flash. His clothes speak to his singular focus on his profession and strategic advantage (a key plot point sees him need to wear an expensive designer suit to even gain an audience with Sator). At the same time, another beat sees The Protagonist casually dismiss a Tenet operative’s urging to wear tactical protective clothing before venturing outside in his reverse entropic state. It’s Nolan’s way of telling us to not take things too seriously, and it’s advice directed as much towards himself as it is his audience; a self-regulating bid to prevent TENET from being too obtuse for its own good.

It likely wouldn’t have mattered whether or not TENET was too convoluted or conceptually dense; it was the latest Nolan film, after all, and it would be the biggest hit of the year outside of Marvel. But this wasn’t a normal year. This was the pandemic year— the year of global crisis that affected all of humanity and yet seemed perfectly-engineered to imperil the most personal aspects of our individual lives. To Nolan, champion and defender of the theatrical experience, the forced closure of cinemas across the world was a direct attack against the core of his artistic being. “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to become the villain”, Harvey Dent famously intones in 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT, and a figure who insists on audiences seeing his work in his preferred viewing experience while putting them at risk of exposure to a deadly, out-of-control virus could certainly be described as something of a villain. As other studios and filmmakers shifted gears, embracing a gradual shift towards streaming that had only intensified in lockdown, Nolan insisted that the cinema was the only place his new film could be seen. As such, the release was delayed no less than three times while case numbers ebbed and surged in relentless waves. In the end, TENET was indeed released theatrically, but only to the handful of theaters that were still open— most of them in international markets that had done a much better job controlling case numbers than the US. Considering all of that, its $363 million worldwake box office take should be impressive, but pales in comparison to Nolan’s billion-dollar track record. A disappointment, even one with several caveats, is still a disappointment, and the occasion of Nolan’s first true professional disappointment is cause for reflection on mainstream filmmaking’s high-stakes, unsustainable addiction to immense returns… which requires ever-higher production and advertising budgets to generate.

As the pandemic began to recede into the rearview of history, TENET has enjoyed the opportunity to be seen by more people, and for its many positive qualities to be embraced. A collection of generous reviews would sing the film’s praises, with The Ringer’s Keith Phillips notably proclaiming that its bungled release actually positioned it well as a future cult favorite (3). Nevertheless, the occasion of TENET’s release came coupled with an unexpected development. In their haste to embrace the newfound flexibility of the streaming age, Warner Brothers announced that their entire 2021 release slate would be available to subscribers on their proprietary streaming platform, HBO Max, the same day the films would hit theaters. In so doing, they ran afoul of the talent they otherwise proclaimed to value, robbing them of significant shares of theatrical revenue they had previously negotiated for. While this development came too late for Nolan to be personally affected, Warner Brothers’ spurning of the theatrical window was nevertheless a bridge too far— and presumably the end of the road with the studio that had been his home for most of his career. He publicly eviscerated their decision, even going so far as to call HBO Max “the worst streaming service”. It remains to be seen whether feathers can be unruffled, and the question of his next move is a rather large one. Whatever his next project may be, it will undoubtedly emerge into a profoundly-changed exhibition landscape; his lifelong quest to “save the movies” will face its biggest challenge yet. From our current vantage point, it’s unclear whether or not he will ultimately succeed, but one thing is certain: in trying, he is ready to risk everything.

Menento Analysis Transcription

Well my brother told me the story verbally before he finished writing it and the screenplay is an extrapolation of his basic idea which I was fascinated by. He told it to me while we were driving cross country between Chicago and Los Angeles and we both decided right away that by far the most interesting way of approaching that concept was subjectively to tell a story in the first person. So he went off to write his short story.

I went off to write the screenplay and my solution to telling the story subjectively was to deny the audience the same information that the protagonist is denied. And my approach to doing that was to effectively tell the story backwards that way when we meet a character we don’t know just like the protagonist how he’s met that person whether he’s even met that person before and whether or not they should be trusted, that kind of thing.

So the story is basically told back which is basically told as a series of flashbacks that go further and further back in time. What’s similar to my brother story as he finally finished it. It’s being published next month actually in Esquire magazine and in the States and the similarity in structure is both the film and the short story deal with repetition and internal echoes and also both alternate between the objective in the subjective.

So in the screenplay what I did as I said I need a way of breaking up the flashbacks so that we separate the scenes in our mind and feel this progression further and further back in time. So what I did is I alternated between these color sequences that are intensely subjective, everything in the color sequences is from caller’s point of view, we’re always in his head at least to begin with. We alternate with these black and white sequences that at least to begin with our objective.

They present a little bit more filmy black and white, it’s grainy the shots are sometimes the overhead a little bit more distance it’s a more objective. We don’t hear the voice of the other end of the telephone; we’re not really in his head. The voice overs and the color sequence in the Black wants it was a very different and the color sequence is the voice of the mind.

It’s the first person it’s very much his thoughts as he’s thinking them in the black and white scenes they sound a bit like interview grabs you know a bit like this kind of interview edited and laid over pictures of him in this room going about his life.

So I wanted to introduce this almost documentary style element at the beginning to give the audience a little bit of information, objective information about how this guy lives his life and what he thinks and to break up these scenes. So the black and white sequences, the chronology is forward, they run forward in time as we realize as we go further and further along with film. As the film progresses the color sequences become a little bit less intensely subjective.

I think towards the end of the film we really start to step outside his head a little bit and start to question some of the things we’ve been told about this character or some other things he’s told us himself. The black and white scenes on the other hand as the movie progresses, they become less and less objective.

We start to get more and more into his head as he exists in this my tower. And in fact when the black and white and the color scenes actually meet towards the end of the movie and I think these two perspectives, the objective, the subjective of the backwards running narrative in the forwards running narrative they actually meet at what is the end of the movie chronologically I guess you could call it the middle of the movie.

It’s confusing because I don’t think pictorially diagrammatically. OK you have the beginning of the film here. The best way to draw it is as a hairpin like that, that’s basically the end of the movie, this stuff is the black and white stuff, this is color and this is running backwards as a series of jumps and what we do is we cut tween the two the whole way through, so we alternate scene here scene, scene here and here and they meet towards the end of the film.

But then within this you have flashbacks to a different timeline which is actually even earlier somewhere around there. Also within this you have flashbacks to an earlier time, some in there.

So I guess you could use the heap in shape to represent the bulk of the film. With the black and white with the color meeting in the last reel, the end of the film being sort of their after it turns really color and kind of lead us into the beginning of that proceeding scene.

But you have other material that actually precedes the beginning of the black and white scenes and the gap between the beginning of the black and white scenes and this long term memory stuff, some of which is color some of which is black and white. That gap is unspecified. The lead character because of his particular condition he can never know how long that’s been he’s cut loose in time effectively.

So we never wanted to specify for the audience. We imply a length of time to it because it’s the time in which he’s had these tattoos put on, he’s been living this life so forth. So that gap to me is where the most interesting ambiguity of the film is the end you know we never wanted to step fully outside of his head and you know specify too many of these things in terms of an objective reality because to me one of the interesting things about the film and what we were trying to do is essentially present an idea of the tension between our subjective view of the world, the subjective way in which we have to experience life and then our faith in an objective reality beyond that.

And most movies present a quite comfortable universe where we’ve given an objective truth that we don’t get in everyday life, it’s one of the reasons we go to the movies. In this film, we don’t want to do that, we don’t want to step outside his head. We wanted to present the audience with that problem effectively and say ‘he can’t ever get outside his head and recognize what the objective truth is’ So I think the audience at the end of the film is left to make certain of the same judgments that he is the invited to believe or disbelieve certain elements of what is supposed to have happened in his life much as he is.

And I think the way that we try and focus on this end of the film and making that as extreme as possible is by taking this subjective view on this objective view and effectively having them meet at the end, so that what we achieve is still subjective but with enough objective information built into it that we start to question the point of view that we’ve been given for the whole film.

Well within the hip and structure, we have different elements of his past life that we want to introduce and we the way we divided them is that some of them are presented in black and white and those are the ones that relate to a parallel story that runs parallel to his life. But it’s a story of another character who has the same condition. And that is all presented chronologically and cuts into the black and white scenes not into the color scenes.

The memories of his longer time life, his own life the life within his own head therefore also to me you know that the subjective experience these sort of memories of his wife, these images of his wife are all shot in color and I will present in the color sequences not in a black and white sequences, so we keep those separate.

But as you may have noticed towards the end of the movie there is a certain amount of joining of these images and confusion of these images and some of the things we’ve only seen it in color are presented in black and white and vice versa. So certainly once again we’re trying to basically merge the subjective and the objective, the memory versus the sort of narrative that he has in his head of this other this other character.

So the other thing we want to be doing in the end in terms of the way in which we mix images and reinterpret images is to suggest the complex relationship between Imagination and Memory. And we see him towards the end, we present certain images that we’ve seen from his past life within a different context and in a different context they have slightly different meaning and I think the suggestion there is that he like all of us is able to manipulate the meanings of certain memories or manipulate his own interpretations of certain memories according to his present circumstance.

Yes the way in which we cut between these two things is will take a color scene and then we’ll cut to a black and white scene that’s shorter in length and then we come back to the colors here and we basically, as these are going essentially backwards in time, we sort of leap frogging and we wind up repeating the beginning of a scene at the end of another scene vice versa. And in that way we use repetitions of certain parts of scenes to clear the audience in to where they are chronologically.

So essentially what we’re always doing is we’re beginning every scene with something a cliffhanger, something of an unusual situation or a memorable image and then in our later seen we’re explaining how that situation has been arrived at and that’s the rhythm of the film over the entire course of the movie. So it’s in a way taking a familiar cinematic rhythm. You know the rhythm of the cliffhanger orthe question and then the answer and it’s presenting that as an alternating rhythm the whole way through the film.

Yeah, the black and white stuff is all derived from a forward running sequence. So if you take these individual Black and White sequences, they run forwards. If you stick them together they actually overlap in the same way that the backwards scenes overlap. It’s not quite so obvious when you’re watching the movie but you know it begins with him sort of shaving his thigh and answering the phone and everything and in fact these actions overlap.

So there is a suggestion that in fact and it is the case that you can stick our scenes together and achieve one sort of long scene effectively. And that episodic structure was one that I wanted to employ because the overlapping flashbacks of the color sequences for complex structure, the black and white stuff is actually pretty simple to follow because it follows the basic episodic structure was very familiar with me from watching T.V.

You know it’s like you break something up with T.V. commercials, very easy to just keep following a very simple forward progression in this case it’s him on his own in a room speaking on a telephone, so it’s a very simple sequence of forward progression and it’s not too difficult as we return to it to just tap into it and say OK this is where we are we’re back here on familiar ground we’re just going to get a bit more information about you know who he is and what he’s discussing on this telephone call.

The overlaps become shorter as the film progresses because the assumption is that it seems to work that the audience gets into the kind of rhythm they begin to understand that the structure is backwards. We in fact begin the film with a literally backward scene at the head; I mean we’re literally running reverse action. The rest of the film is forward action but in a series of backward steps, it’s kind of you know one step forward two steps back the whole way through.

But at a certain point those repetitions are able to be a little bit shorter because the audience isn’t rhythm and then there is a point at which in certain scenes we actually don’t achieve the same repetition we actually make an illusion. You know we make a complete jump the same way in a conventional movie they will do that. You know when you reach a point with two scenes so obviously connect chronologically so you don’t have to explain the chronological relationship.

So there’s a point sort of midway through the film where we begin to do that a little bit. But then we come back to the repetitions because some of the repetitions later in the film I think are important for their own sake, not just for explaining to the audience where we are but also for hammering home this in notion that it’s the context of a scene, it’s the context within which a particular action happens like there’s a point at which he’s searching for a pen and he’s trying to write some down to remember something and all the rest and we see that once so we don’t really understand and we see it again has a rather different meaning.

So there’s repetition start to take on a more substantial role I think in the narrative other than just orienting in time they actually start to suggest the way in which the narrative context in which a particular action happens is changing what that action represents. And that relates once again to his subjective view of what he’s doing in the room and how that’s actually affected by what’s going on around him which becomes I think very important to the overall theme of the movie.

At the beginning of the movie I was looking for a way into this structure, the way into this storytelling. So what I wanted to do was to show something in reverse to suggest that the backwards movement of the film. But the way in which the Polaroid is used through the film is as a replacement for short term memory.

It seemed like showing a Polaroid picture on developing, showing the picture on developing and showing this information being lost. It seemed like a very useful way of suggesting the problem that he’s having to deal with which is you know this faulty short term memory and this information dribbling away and in fact the opening shot is you know it’s a Polaroid of what that body.

I think the significance of that becomes clear later in the movie in terms of how I was interested in looking at his relationship of his perception of revenge versus the notion of whether it has any objective reality or has any value outside his out head. So this achievement of revenge, the satisfaction of that body, this gruesome image fading and actually I’m developing and losing itself from his mind.

That actually is pretty much of the whole movie; in fact you can just watch opening shot you to the movies. Thank you.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———

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David Fincher: The Ultimate Guide to His Films & Directing Style

1999 was a watershed year for people in my generation, as it no doubt was for other generations as well. On the eve of the new millennium, we were caught in a place between excitement and apprehension.

The 21st century loomed large with promises of technological and sociological innovations, yet we were beset by decidedly 20th century baggage, like an adultery scandal in the White House or the nebulous threat of Y2K.

This potent atmosphere naturally created its fair share of zeitgeist pop culture work, but no works had more of an impact on the public that year than The Wachowski Brothers’ THE MATRIX and David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB. I was only in middle school at the time, but FIGHT CLUB in particular captivated my friends and I with the palpable substance behind its visceral style.

As a kid already consumed by a runaway love for movies, FIGHT CLUB was one of the earliest instances in which I was acutely aware of a director’s distinct voice. As such, the films of director David Fincher were among the first that I sought out as a means to study film as an art form and a product of a singular creative entity.

His easily identifiable aesthetic influenced me heavily during those early days, and despite having taken cues from a much larger world of film artists as I’ve grown, Fincher’s unique worldview still shapes my own in a fundamental way.

David Fincher was essentially the first mainstream feature director to emerge from the world of music videos. Ever the technological pioneer, David Fincher innovated several ideas about the nascent music video format that are still in use today. This spirit of innovation and a positive shooting experience on the set of 2007’s ZODIAC eventually led to him becoming a key proponent of digital filmmaking before its widespread adoption.

A student of Stanley Kubrick’s disciplined perfectionism and Ridley Scott’s imaginative world-building, David Fincher established his own voice with a cold, clinical aesthetic that finds relevancy in our increasing dependency and complicated relationship with technology.

David Fincher was born in 1962, in Denver, Colorado. His father, Howard, worked as the bureau chief for LIFE Magazine and his mother, Claire Mae, worked in drug addition facilities as a mental health nurse.

David Fincher spent most of his formative years in northern California’s Marin County (a setting he’d explore in his features THE GAME (1997) and ZODIAC), as well as the small town of Ashland, Oregon. Inspired by George Ray Hill’s BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969), an 8 year-old David Fincher started to make little movies of his own using his family’s 8mm film camera.

Having grown up in a time when film schools were well established, David Fincher—rather interestingly—opted against them in favor of going directly into the workforce under Korty Films and Industrial Light and Magic (where we would work on 1983’s RETURN OF THE JEDI).

It was David Fincher’s time at ILM specifically that would shape his fundamental understanding of and appreciation for visual effects, and his incorporation of ILM’s techniques into his music videos no doubt led to his breakout as a director.

AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY: “SMOKING FETUS” (1984)

At the age of 22, David Fincher directed his very first professional work, an anti-smoking ad for the American Cancer Society called“SMOKING FETUS”. Anti-smoking ads are infamous for being shocking and transgressive as a means to literally scare people out of lighting up.

“SMOKING FETUS” was the spot that undoubtedly started it all by featuring a fetus in utero, taking a long drag from a cigarette. The crude puppetry of the fetus is horrifying and nightmarish—an unholy image that delivers a brilliant whallop.

David Fincher has often been called a modern-day Kubrick because of his visual precision and notoriety for demanding obscene numbers of takes—a comparison made all the more salient when given that both men shared a thematic fascination with man’s relationship (and conflict with) technology.

David Fincher’s modeling of his aesthetic after Kubrick’s can be seen even in his earliest of works. Shot against a black background, the fetus floating in space resembles the Star Child of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). “SMOKING FETUS” brought David Fincher to the attention of Propoganda Films, who subsequently signed him on in earnest, effectively launching his career.


RICK SPRINGFIELD: “DANCE THIS WORLD AWAY” (1984)

Due to the strength of “SMOKING FETUS”, 80’s rock superstar Rick Springfield enlisted David Fincher to direct his 1984 concert film, THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM. The responsibility also entailed the shooting of four pre-filmed music videos to incorporate into the live show.

“DANCE THIS WORLD AWAY” features three vignettes: a man dancing amongst the ruins of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a happy-go-lucky TV show for kids, and a ballroom filled with socialites oblivious to the nuclear missile launching from underneath the dance floor. The piece establishes several traits that David Fincher would incorporate into his mature aesthetic like stylized, theatrical lighting, an inspired use of visual effects and elaborate production design.


RICK SPRINGFIELD: “CELEBRATE YOUTH” (1984)

“CELEBRATE YOUTH” is presented in stark black and white, punctuated by bright pops of color like the red of Springfield’s bandana or the indigo of a child’s sneakers. This conceit further points to David Fincher’s familiarity with special effects, as such a look requires the shooting of the original footage in color and isolating specific elements in post production.

The look predates a similar conceit used by Frank Miller’s SIN CITY (both the 2005 film and the comic it was based upon), so it’s reasonable to assume that David Fincher’s video very well could have served as an influence for Miller. “CELEBRATE YOUTH” also highlights David Fincher’s inspired sense of camera movement, utilizing cranes and dollies to add energy and flair to the proceeds.


RICK SPRINGFIELD: “BOP TIL YOU DROP” (1984)

“BOP TIL YOU DROP” tells David Fincher’s first narrative story in the form of a slave revolt inside of a futuristic METROPOLIS-style dystopia. This is Fincher’s earliest instance of world-building, using elaborate creature and set design, confident camera movements and theatrical lighting (as well as lots of special visual effects) to tell an archetypal story of revolution.


RICK SPRINGFIELD: “STATE OF THE HEART”(1984)

Rounding out David Fincher’s quartet of Rick Springfield videos is “STATE OF THE HEART”, which compared to the others, is relatively sedate and low-key in its execution. While the piece takes place inside of a single room, David Fincher still brings a sense of inspired production design in the form of a cool, metallic color palette. Indeed, “STATE OF THE HEART” is the first instance within Fincher’s filmography of the cool, steely color palette that would later become his signature.


THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM (1984)

All of the aforementioned music videos, while capable of acting as standalone pieces, were produced for eventual incorporation into Rick Springfield’s larger concert film, THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM.

With his first feature-length work, David Fincher more or less follows the established format of concert films—performance, audience cutaways, wide shots that give us the full scope of the theatrics, etc. He makes heavy use of a crane to achieve his shots, partly out of necessity since he can’t exactly be on-stage, yet it still shows a remarkable degree of confidence in moving the camera on David Fincher’s part.

And while it probably wasn’t Fincher’s idea or decision, THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM contains a pretty blatant Kubrick nod in the form of a guitarist wearing Malcolm McDowell’s iconic outfit from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971).

The concert film format doesn’t allow much room for David Fincher to exercise his personal artistic voice, but he does manage to add a few stylistic flourishes in the form of visual effects that were added in after the live filming.

He adds a CGI blimp hovering over the stage, as well as fireballs that erupt from various places throughout the stadium (several audience cutaways appear blatantly staged to accommodate the inclusion of these effects).

Despite being something of a time capsule for ridiculous 80’s hair rock, it’s a high quality romp through Springfield’s discography that briskly clips along its brief 70 minute running time without ever really sagging.

Fincher’s involvement with THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM wasn’t going to net him any opportunities to transition into features, but it did generate a significant amount of buzz for him in the music video and commercial world, where he’d spend the better part of a decade as one of the medium’s most sought-after directors.

The success of THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM (1984), director David Fincher’s feature-length concert film for Rick Springfield, led to a very prolific period of music video assignments for the burgeoning auteur. In three short years, David Fincher established himself as a top music video director, held in high regard and higher demand by the biggest pop artists of the era. It was the golden age of music videos, and Fincher was the tastemaker at the forefront developing it into a legitimate art form.


THE MOTELS: “SHAME” (1985)

In his early professional career, Fincher’s most visible influence is the work of brothers Ridley and Tony Scott, two feature directors who were quite en vogue at the time due to blockbuster, high-fashion work like BLADE RUNNER (1982) and THE HUNGER (1983). Tony in particular was a key aesthetic influence, with David Fincher borrowing the English director’s love for theatrical lighting and the noir-ish slat shadows cast by venetian blinds.
For The Motels’ “SHAME”, Fincher makes heavy use of this look in his vignette of a woman stuck in a motel room who dreams of a glamorous life outside her window. Because computer-generated imagery was still in its infancy at the time, Fincher’s penchant for using special effects in his music video work is limited mostly to compositing effects, like the motion billboard and the fake sky behind it.


THE MOTELS: “SHOCK” (1985)

David Fincher’s second video for the Motels features lead singer Martha Davis as she’s chased by an unseen presence in a dark, empty house late at night. The concept allows Fincher to create an imaginative lighting and production design scheme.“SHOCK” also makes lurid use of Fincher’s preferred cold color palette, while a Steadicam rig allows David Fincher to chase Martha around the house like a gliding, ominous force. This subjective POV conceit echoes a similar shot that David Fincher would incorporate into his first feature, 1992’s ALIEN 3, whereby we assume the point of view of a xenomorph as it chases its victims down a tunnel. The piece also feature some low-key effects via a dramatic, stormy sky.


THE OUTFIELD: “ALL THE LOVE IN THE WORLD” (1986)

By 1986, David Fincher’s music video aesthetics were pretty well-established: cold color palettes, theatrical lighting schemes commonly utilizing venetian blinds, and visual effects. While The Outfield’s “ALL THE LOVE IN THE WORLD” was shot on film, David Fincher embraces the trappings of the nascent video format by incorporating tape static and a surveillance-style van.


THE OUTFIELD: “EVERY TIME YOU CRY” (1986)

David Fincher’s second video for The Outfield in 1986, “EVERY TIME YOU CRY”, is a concert performance piece a la THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM. Like the latter’s incorporation of rudimentary visual effects, here Fincher uses the technology to replace the sky with a cosmic light show and add in a dramatic moonrise.


HOWARD HEWETT: “STAY” (1986)

In “STAY”, a piece for Howard Hewett, David Fincher makes use of another of Tony Scott’s aesthetic fascinations—billowing curtains. He projects impressionistic silhouettes onto said curtains, giving his cold color palette some visual punch.


JERMAINE STEWART: “WE DON’T HAVE TO TAKE OUR CLOTHES OFF” (1986)

While Jermaine Stewart’s “WE DON’T HAVE TO TAKE OUR CLOTHES OFF” is a relatively conventional music video, David Fincher’s direction of it is anything but. The core aesthetic conceit of the piece is the playful exploration of aspect ratio boundaries. David Fincher conceives of the black bars at the top and bottom of your screen as arbitrary lines in physical space, so when the camera moves to the side, those lines skew appropriately in proportion to your perspective. He takes the idea a step further by superimposing performance elements shot in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio over the main 2.35:1 anamorphic footage, giving the effect of visuals that transcend the constraints and the edges of their frame.

You can watch the video here.


COMMERICALS & MUSIC VIDEO (1988-1990)

Throughout the 80’s, David Fincher became a director in high demand thanks to his stunning music videos. As he crossed over into the world of commercials, his imaginative style and technical mastery began to command the attention of studio executives, who desired to see his visceral aesthetic to features. During the late 80’s and early 90’s, Fincher churned out some of his most memorable music video work and worked with some of the biggest stars around.


YM MAGAZINE “HER WORLD” (1988)

While his “SMOKING FETUS” spot for the American Cancer Society in 1984 was his first commercial, Fincher’s “HER WORLD”, a spot commissioned by Young Miss Magazine, kicked off his commercial directing career in earnest. The spot stars a young, pre-fame Angelina Jolie walking towards us, clutching a copy of YM Magazine as several cars painted with the words “sex, “love”, “work”, “family”, and others zip and crash around her in a ballet of violence. Even when working in the branding-conscious world of advertising, Fincher is able to retain his trademark aesthetic (indeed, you don’t hire someone like Fincher if you want a friendly, cuddly vibe). His characteristic cold color palette is accentuated by stark lighting and slick streets. An eye for stylized violence that would give 1999’s FIGHT CLUB its power can be glimpsed here through the jarring collisions of the cars.


Alien 3 (1992)

The runaway success of director James Cameron’s ALIENS sequel in 1986 turned the property into a major franchise for Twentieth Century Fox. Executives wanted to strike with a third ALIEN film while the iron was hot, but coming up with the right story proved tricky.

Adding to the threequel’s film’s development woes, a revolving door of writers and directors experienced immense frustration with a studio that was too meddlesome with its prized jewel of a franchise.

In a long search for an inexperienced, yet talented, director that they could control and micromanage, Fox settled on David Fincher—a rising star in the commercial and music video realm with a professed love for the ALIEN franchise and its founding director, Ridley Scott.

Fincher jumped at the offer to direct his first feature film, but in retrospect it was a naïve move that almost destroyed his career before it even began. His supreme confidence and bold vision clashed with the conservative executives, causing a long, miserable experience for the young director.

He eventually disowned ALIEN 3, abandoning it to flail and die at the box office. However, as Fincher has grown to become recognized as one of America’s major contemporary auteurs, his debut has undergone something of a reappraisal in the film community, with fans choosing to see the good in it instead of the bad.

More than twenty years after its release, ALIEN 3’s legacy to the medium is that it makes a hard case against the kind of filmmaking-by-committee that meddlesome studio executives still impose on gifted visionaries to this day.

ALIEN 3 picks up where ALIENS left off, with Lt. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Hicks (Michael Biehn), and Newt (Carrie Henn) resting in cryosleep as their ship, The Sulaco, drifts peacefully through space.

However, in their hibernating state, they are unaware of the fact that an alien facehugger has stowed away onboard their craft. Its attempts to penetrate and impregnate our heroes leads to a fire on deck and the cryosleep chambers are jettisoned away in an escape pod that crash lands on nearby on Fiorina 161, a sulfurous industrial prison planet colloquially known as Fury.

Tragically, Hicks and Newt don’t survive the crash, but Ripley does when she’s discovered by a group of inmates and nursed back to health. Once restored, Ripley finds herself thrust into an all-male, religious extremist culture that hasn’t seen a woman in decades.

Ripley quickly toughens up to counter the sexual aggression of the inmates, but her problems multiply when its discovered that one of the alien xenomorphs has followed her to Fury 161 and is picking off the inmates one by one.

A distress signal is dispatched to a rescue ship, but Ripley and the inmates still have to contend with the xenomorph before help arrives, a task made all the more difficult by the lack of conventional weapons anywhere in the prison facility, as well as the discovery that Ripley is hosting the embryo of a new egg-laying Queen alien inside of her.

In her third performance as Ripley, Weaver yet again transforms the character via a radical evolution into a tough, resilient survivor. Her arc throughout the three films is compelling, and for all the controversies over the film’s storyline, Weaver deserves a lot of credit for never phoning it in when she very easily could have.

Hers is the only familiar face in this hellish new world, save for the mutilated visage of Lance Henriksen’s android Bishop (and his flesh-and-blood counterpart that appears towards the end of the film).

Among the fresh blood, so to speak, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance and Pete Postlethwaite stand out as the most compelling inmates on Fury 161. Dutton plays Dillon, a tough, righteous voice of spiritual authority that the other inmates can rally behind.

Dance plays Clemens, the sensitive, intellectual medical officer who helps Ripley acclimate to this harsh world and harbors a dark secret of his own. The late, great character actor Postlethwaite plays David, an observant prisoner with a high degree of intelligence.

David Fincher’s collaborations with director of photography Jeff Cronenweth in the music video realm led to Fincher hiring his father, the legendary Jordan Cronenweth, as ALIEN 3’s cinematographer. Best known for his work on Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 masterpiece, BLADE RUNNER (itself a huge influence on Fincher’s aesthetic), Cronenweth was being slowly consumed by Parkinsons Disease during filming.

The earliest of ALIEN 3’s several considerable production woes, Cronenweth’s condition deteriorated so quickly that cinematographer Alex Thomson had to step in and replace him only two weeks into the shoot. Despite this setback, ALIEN 3 is a visual stunner that firmly established David Fincher’s uncompromising style in the feature realm.

Fincher’s stark, grungy aesthetic translates well into the theatrical anamorphic aspect ratio format, with the smoky, industrial production design by Norman Reynolds giving Fincher plentiful opportunities to incorporate artful silhouettes and his signature cold, desaturated color palette (only David Fincher can make a palette that deals heavily in oranges and browns feel “cold”).

Fincher’s emphasis on architecture and world-building manifests in a subtle, surprising way—he chooses to shoot a great deal of the film in low angle shots that look up at the characters and expose the ceiling. This creates an air of helplessness that pervades the film, like we’re way over our heads and drowning in despair.

While this hopeless mood ultimately might have contributed to the film’s failure at the box office, it’s an inspired way for David Fincher to communicate a real, tangible world that draws us into it—most sets are built without a ceiling so a lighting grid can be easily installed overhead, but by showing the audience the existence of a ceiling, it subconsciously tells us we are in a place that exists in real life… and that the events of the film could very well happen to us.

Fincher and Thomson’s camerawork in ALIEN 3 is also worth noting. Fincher has always had a firm, visionary command of camera movement, and the considerable resources of studio backing allows him to indulge in sweeping, virtuoso moves that bring a fresh, terrifying energy to the film.

A particular highlight is a tunnel sequence towards the end of the film, where the xenomorph chases the inmates through a huge, twisting labyrinth. David Fincher uses a steadicam that assumes the POV of the Xenomorph as it rages through the tunnels, twisting and spinning at seemingly impossible angles to communicate the alien’s terrifying agility and speed.

The industrial, foreboding nature of Fincher’s visuals are echoed in composer Elliot Goldenthal’s atmospheric score. Instead of using traditional symphonic arrangements, Goldenthal blurs the line between music and sound effects by incorporating non-instruments and electronic machinations into an atonal blend of sounds.

In many ways, this approach proves to be even scarier than a conventional orchestral sound could conjure up. To reflect the medieval, religious nature of Fury 161’s inhabitants, Goldenthal also adapts haunting choral requiems that weave themselves into his tapestry of ominous sounds and tones.

ALIEN 3’s infamous production disasters are well documented, hopefully as a means to ensure that the film industry as a collective learns from the production’s mistakes. These woes began during the earliest stages of pre-production which saw the hiring and resigning of director Renny Harlin before Vincent Ward came onboard for a short period to realize his vision of a wooden cathedral planet populated by apocalyptic monks.

While a semblance of this conceit remains in the finished film, the script was changed radically several times before cameras started rolling, and even then the filmmakers didn’t have a finished version to work from. The ramifications of this were numerous, from actors being frustrated with constantly-changing character arcs, plot inconsistencies, and even $7 million being wasted on sets that were built and never used.

The process was particularly hard on David Fincher, who was constantly fighting a losing battle against incessant studio meddling that overruled his decisions and undermined his authority. Fed up with the lack of respect his vision was being given, the young director barely hung on long enough to wrap production, and walked off entirely when it came time for editing. The fact that he ever decided to make another feature film again after that ordeal is something of a miracle.

Despite constant challenges to his control of the film, Fincher’s hand is readily apparent in every frame of ALIEN 3. A science fiction film such as this is heavily reliant on special effects, a niche that David Fincher’s background at ILM makes him well suited for.

Computer-generated imagery was still in its infancy in 1992, so Fincher and company had to pull off ALIEN 3’s steam-punk vision of hell and the devil through a considered mix of miniatures, puppets, animatics and matte paintings. Some of the earliest CGI in film history is also seen here in the film, in the scene where the skull of the hot-lead-covered Xenomorph cracks under the sudden onset of cold water before exploding.

Fincher’s fascination with technology plays well into the ALIEN universe, where the complete absence of technology—and for that matter, weapons—is used as a compelling plot device to generate suspense and amplify the hopelessness of the characters’ scenario. In order to vanquish the monster, they ultimately have to resort to the oldest form of technology known to mankind: fire.

ALIEN 3 fared decently at the box office, mostly due to franchise recognition and the considerable fan base built up by the film’s two predecessors, but was mercilessly savaged by critics (as was to be expected).

Long considered the worst entry in the series until Jeanne-Pierre Jeunet gave David Fincher a run for his money with 1997’s ALIEN: EVOLUTION, ALIEN 3 has become something of a cult classic as Fincher’s profile has risen. Fans forgave the film of its transgressions because they knew Fincher’s vision had been hijacked and tampered with. They knew that somewhere out there, in the countless reels of film that were shot, David Fincher’s original vision was waiting to be given shape.

In 2003, Fox attempted to make amends by creating a new edit of the film, dubbed the Assembly Cut, for release in their Alien Quadrilogy DVD box set. Fincher refused to participate in the re-edit, understandably, so Fox had to go off his notes in restoring the auteur’s original vision.

The 2003 Assembly Cut differs markedly from the 1992 original, restoring entire character arcs and adding a good 50 minutes worth of footage back into the story. There’s several key changes in this new cut, like Ripley being discovered on the beach instead of her escape pod, the Xenomorph bursting out of an ox (and not a dog), and the removal of the newborn alien queen bursting out of Ripley’s chest as she falls to her death.

The end result is a much better version of the film, giving us greater insight to the characters and their actions. While it doesn’t quite make up for the studio’s stunning lack of respect for Fincher during the making of the film, it ultimately proved that their concerns that the untested young director didn’t know what he was doing were completely unfounded, and were the film’s ultimate undoing.

The experience of making ALIEN 3 would be enough for any director to quit filmmaking forever, but thankfully this wasn’t the end for David Fincher. He would go back to the music video and commercial sector to lick his wounds for a while, but his true feature breakout was just on the horizon.


COMMERICALS & MUSIC VIDEO (1992-1995)

The abject failure of ALIEN 3 was director David Fincher’s first high-profile disappointment. It nearly made him swear off filmmaking altogether and he publicly even threatened as much— but when the dust settled, Fincher was able to slip back into commercial and music video directing with ease. Working once again in his comfort sphere, David Fincher churned out some of his best promotional work between the years 1992 and 1995.

NIKE: “INSTANT KARMA” (1992)

1992 saw sports gear giant Nike commission Fincher for a trio of commercials. The most well-known of these is “INSTANT KARMA”, which mimics the energetic pace of music videos. David Fincher’s touch is immediately evident here, with his high-contrast look that incorporates key components of his style like silhouettes and a cold color scheme.


NIKE: “BARKLEY ON BROADWAY” (1992)

Nike’s “BARKELY ON BROADWAY” is shot in black and white, a curious choice for a high-profile spot like this. The central conceit of a theatrical stage show lends itself quite well to Fincher’s talent for imaginative production design and lighting. Like “INSTANT KARMA”, “BARKLEY ON BROADWAY” has taken on something of a cult status, especially because of Charles Barkley’s cheeky persona.


NIKE: “MAGAZINE WARS” (1992)

The third spot, “MAGAZINE WARS”, revolves around the conceit of sports magazine covers in a newsstand coming to life and causing a mess. The idea is heavily reliant on visual effects, which comes naturally to David Fincher. While it’s a brilliant idea, it’s one that’s most likely inspired by a similar scene in Gus Van Sant’s feature MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, which had come out only a year earlier.


NIKE: “BARKLEY OF SEVILLE” (1993)

In 1993, Fincher once again collaborated with NBA superstar Charles Barkley on another spot for Nike called “BARKLEY OF SEVILLE” that makes use of some potent old world imagery that David Fincher’s prime influence Stanley Kubrick used so excellently in 1975’s BARRY LYNDON (while also foreshadowing the eerie Illuminati imagery that Kubrick would depict inEYES WIDE SHUT six years later). The piece is textbook Fincher, featuring a dueling orange and blue color palette, theatrical lighting that highlights some excellent production design and casts artful silhouettes.


BUDWEISER: “GINGER OR MARIANNE” (1993)

Also in 1993, Fincher took on two spots for Budweiser beer. The first, “GINGER OR MARIANNE” features young adults playing pool and debating their preferences of old TV character crushes. The pool hall is lit in smoky, desaturated warm tones with high contrast, as per Fincher’s established aesthetic.


BUDWEISER: “CLASSIC ROCK” (1993)

The second Budweiser spot, “CLASSIC ROCK”, features a handful of middle-aged dudes golfing and arguing over their favorite acts. David Fincher utilizes the high contrast natural light on the scenic golf course, supplementing it with a subtle gliding camera as it follows the characters. The result is a pretty conventional, but no less well-crafted, piece of advertising.


CHANEL: “THE DIRECTOR” (1993)

Fincher’s spot for Chanel, called “THE DIRECTOR”, is an excellent example of his “grunge-glam” aesthetic. The piece makes evocative use of its cold, blue color palette and smoky, European urban setting, with the director’s high contrast lighting bouncing off the wet streets and old-world architecture. Fincher’s fondness for revealing the artifice of the shooting process is incorporated into the narrative, as his opening vignette is revealed to be the shoot for a large movie, with the titular director being shown mostly in abstract, silhouette form.

COCA-COLA: “BLADE ROLLER” (1993)

Fincher’s filmography owes a lot to the work of Ridley Scott and his brother, Tony Scott. Ridley’s influence in particular is deeply felt in the fundamental building blocks of David Fincher’s aesthetic, and Fincher’s “BLADE ROLLER” spot for Coca-Cola seems to be directly lifted from Ridley’s visionary sci-fi masterpiece BLADE RUNNER (1982).

We see a dystopian city of the future, characterized by neon lights and Asian architecture, bathed in perpetual smoke and soaked through to the bone. Fincher’s signature high contrast, cold look plays directly into the BLADE RUNNER style, which the young director builds upon by adding his own flourishes like artful silhouettes and a high-energy camera that screams through the cityscape.“BLADE ROLLER” is one of David Fincher’s most well-known commercials, and easily one of his best.


AT&T: “YOU WILL” CAMPAIGN (1993)

It’s not uncommon for advertisers to create entire campaigns with multiple spots centered around a singular idea. In 1993, AT&T wanted to communicate how their technologies were going to be at the forefront of the digital revolution, which would have long-term ramifications for how we live our lives and connect with others.

To convey this message, AT&T hired Fincher—a director well known for his fascination with technology—for their “YOU WILL” campaign. The campaign is a series of seven spots that actually predict many of the things that are commonplace today, albeit in a laughably clunky, primitive form that was the 90’s version of “hi-tech”.

The spots show us various vignettes of people connecting with others through AT&T’s theoretical future tech: GPS navigation, doctors looking at injuries over video-link, video phone calls, sending faxes over tablets, and more. Fincher’s high contrast, cold palette serves him well with this campaign, further enhancing the appeal of this promising technology that aims to transform our lives.

Looking back at these spots over twenty years, it’s easy to laugh at the clunky tech on display, but it’s remarkable how much of it they actually got right.


MADONNA: “BAD GIRL” (1993)

David Fincher’s output during this period of his career was heavily weighted with commercials, but he did make a few music videos, one of which was another collaboration with pop diva Madonna for her track “BAD GIRL”.

The video incorporates some Hollywood talent in the form of Christopher Walken who plays a silent, watchful guardian angel of sorts and supporting character stalwart Jim Rebhorn, who would later appear in Fincher’s THE GAME four years later.

The look of“BAD GIRL” is similar to Fincher’s previous collaborations with Madonna, featuring high contrast lighting, diffused highlights and a smoky, cold color palette. The video is very cinematic, no doubt owing to a large budget afforded by the combined clout of Madonna and David Fincher (as well as Walken’s goofy dancing, seen briefly towards the middle).


LEVI’S: “KEEP IT LOOSE” (1993)

The first of several spots that Fincher would take on for jeans-maker Levi’s, “KEEP IT LOOSE” features the director’s iconic blue color palette as a static background, with a variety of actors composited into the scene dancing wildly and expressing themselves in their hilariously baggy 90’s jeans.


LEVI’S: “REASON 259: RIVETS” (1994)

1994 saw several more Levi’s spots put on Fincher’s plate, with “REASON 259: RIVETS” being the standout. The piece features the cold, blue high contrast look David Fincher is known for, along with a premise centering around tech—in this instance, a machine that is able to punch a single jeans rivet into someone’s nose as a decorative stud. The spot as it exists online currently can’t be embedded, but you can watch it here.


THE ROLLING STONES: “LOVE IS STRONG” (1994)

Fincher’s video for The Rolling Stones’ “LOVE IS STRONG” is shot in high contrast black and white, featuring grungy bohemian types in a smoky, urban setting.

The video shows off Fincher’s natural talent for visual effects, as he composites his actors as giants against various NYC landmarks, using the dwarfed city below them as their own personal playground. It’s a pretty simple concept, but extremely well-executed and staged—a credit to Fincher’s meticulousness.


SE7EN (1995)

In the mid-90’s, a script by newcomer Andrew Kevin Walker called SE7EN (a stylization of “seven”) was making the rounds and generating excitement all over town. Readers and creative executives alike hailed its bold, original storyline and that ending.

That audacious, coup-de-grace ending that nobody saw coming. That ending that could possibly never be put into the finished film and thus had to be rewritten and castrated into oblivion for fear that its inclusion could break cinema itself. Indulgent hyperbole aside, it was the ending that cajoled a young David Fincher back into the director’s seat that he had so publicly sworn off after a catastrophic experience with his debut, ALIEN 3 (1992).

While David Fincher didn’t have enough clout on his own to drop mandates that the original ending would remain as written, his stars (Hollywood heavyweights) Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman did, and they used that clout to back up this untested auteur. As such, Fincher was in an enviable position to infuse this hauntingly original story—free from the baggage of franchise—with his unflinching style and uncompromising vision.

SE7EN takes place in an unnamed, crumbling metropolis of perpetual precipitation and endless blight—an oppressive environment where hope goes to die. Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman), a longtime member of the city’s police force, is in his last week of retirement, with a young, headstrong detective named Mills (Brad Pitt) arriving in town to take his place.

On their first day together, they are called to a murder scene where an obese man has been forced to literally eat himself to death.

Initially assuming it to be another one of the city’s routine murders—business as usual—, a similar scene at a lawyer’s office the next day (where the victim was forced to carve up his own body and the word “greed” is painted on the floor in his blood) prompts a second look at the fat man’s murder scene (where Somerset finds “gluttony” written in grease behind the fridge).

This discovery prompts the detectives to realize that they are in the midst of a killing spree perpetrated by a psychopath who carries out his murders in accordance with the seven deadly sins and leaves behind grisly scenes that taunt and challenge his pursuers. With the days passing and the bodies piling up, Somerset and Mills must race against time to deduce the killer’s identity and stop him before his grand plan reaches its shocking and grisly conclusion.

Morgan Freeman is pitch perfect as the insightful, bookish Detective Somerset—a man haunted by the mistakes of his past and the city that threatens to consume him. His presence lends a great deal of gravitas and authority to the film, grounding the outlandish story developments in reason and logic and making them all the more scarier because of their realism.

Brad Pitt’s performance as the hotheaded, impatient Detective Mills is interesting in that the performance itself tends to be wooden at times but we as the audience are still pulled into his swirling emotional whirlpool.

Perhaps it’s only because Pitt has become such a sublimely subtle actor in the twenty years since that his forcefulness in SE7EN reads now as a younger man struggling with inherent talent but an unpolished craft. Mills’ impatience and stubbornness is well set-up throughout the film—when assigned a handful of heavy philosophical books by Somerset, he opts instead to read the Cliff Notes versions.

Because he takes shortcuts and is quick to action without necessarily thinking things through, he’s in a prime position to be manipulated by Spacey’s John Doe and play into his twisted, murderous scheme.

Speaking of John Doe, Kevin Spacey absolutely murders it as SE7EN’s creepy, calculating killer (puns!). Spacey imbues this psychopath with a degree of intelligence and brilliance that one doesn’t necessarily expect in their garden-variety serial killer.

For Doe, his life’s work IS his life—he has no job or relationships to speak of, only a single-minded focus to complete his grand plan and etch himself permanently into the criminal history books. As evidenced by Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS series, Spacey is at his best under Fincher’s direction, and their first collaboration together in SE7EN results in the actor’s most mesmerizing performance in a career stuffed with them.

While the potency of SE7EN’s story hinges on this trifecta of brilliant performers, Fincher doesn’t skimp in the supporting department either. He enlists Gwyneth Paltrow (who coincidentally was dating Pitt at the time) to play Pitt’s supportive, sweet wife, Tracy.

Paltrow has something of a bland reputation of an actress, but collaborating with auteurs like David Fincher, James Gray, or Paul Thomas Anderson bring out the very best in her and remind us why she’s an excellent actress.

Paltrow takes what could easily be the standard non-confrontational, supporting house wife stock character and infuses it with a creeping pathos and dread— grappling with moral conflict over bringing a child into the dark, overbearing world that Fincher has created on-screen.

In another nod to director Stanly Kubrick’s profound influence on Fincher, FULL METAL JACKET’s (1987) fire-and-brimstone drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey shows up here as Somerset’s weary precinct captain. Additionally, John C McGinley shows up against-type as a militaristically macho SWAT commander, as does Mark Boone Junior as a shady, scruffy informant to Somerset.

To accomplish his stark, pitch-black vision, Fincher enlists the eye of cinematographer Darius Khondji, who is able to translate David Fincher’s signature aesthetic (high contrast lighting, cold color palette, silhouettes and deep wells of shadow) onto the 35mm film image.

The film is presented in the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, but in watching some of the film’s supplemental features (and with no other evidence to go on), I’m convinced that Fincher and Khondji didn’t actually shoot anamorphic.

It appears the 2.35:1 aspect ratio was achieved via a matte in post-production, which plays into Fincher’s reputation as a visual perfectionist who uses digital technology to exert control over the image down to the smallest detail. This control extends to the camera movement, which uses cranes and dollies for measured effect, echoing John Doe’s precise, predetermined nature.

In fact, the only time that Fincher goes handheld is during the foot-chase sequence in Doe’s apartment complex and the finale in the desert, both of which are the only moments in the film that the balance of control is tipped out of any one person’s favor, leaving only chaos to determine what happens next.

While SE7EN was filmed in downtown Los Angeles, David Fincher intended for it to stand in for an unnamed East Coast city, which he successfully achieved via a mix of careful location selection and production designer Arthur Max’s vision of oppressive decay.

A never-ending, torrential downpour of rain amplifies Fincher’s signature grunge aesthetic, although its presence was initially less about thematics and more about creating continuity with Pitt’s scenes (who had to film all of his part first before leaving to work on Terry Gilliam’s 12 MONKEYS).

Howard Shore crafts an ominous score that utilizes a particular brassy sound evocative of old-school noir cinema, but its’ in Fincher’s source cue selection that SE7EN’s music really stands out.

He uses a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” for the opening credits, foreshadowing David Fincher’s later collaborations with NIN frontman Trent Reznor on the scores for THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011).

Other standout cues include a Marvin Gaye track playing in the Mills apartment, and—in another nod to Kubrick—classical arrangements that waft through the cavernous library Somerset conducts his research in.

It’s also worth highlighting SE7EN as Fincher’s first collaboration with Ren Klyce, who would go on create the visceral, evocative soundscapes of Fincher’s subsequent films.

Overall, SE7EN is a supreme technical achievement on all fronts— a fact realized by the studio (New Line Cinema), who then mounted an aggressive awards campaign on the film’s behalf. Only Richard Francis-Bruce’s crisp editing was nominated at the Academy Awards, with neither David Fincher nor his stellar cast getting a nod.

Despite the cast turning in great, truly original performances, it’s apparent that Fincher’s emphasis on the visuals and the technical aspects of the production came at the expense of devoting as much energy and attention to the performances as he probably should have.

The result is a visually groundbreaking film with slightly wooden performances, despite the cast’s best efforts and a first-rate narrative.

An oft-mentioned aspect of SE7EN is its haunting opening credits sequence, designed by Kyle Cooper. The sequence acts as a preview of John Doe’s meticulous psychosis, with jittery text trying to literally crawl away from the disturbing images that we’re shown in quick, rapid succession.

Shot separately from the main shoot after the original scripted opening credits sequence was trashed, the piece both pulls us into this sick, twisted world and prepares us for what comes next. The sequence was shot by late, great cinematographer Harris Savides—who would go on to lens Fincher’s THE GAME (1997) and ZODIAC (2007)—and edited by Angus Wall, who has since become one of David Fincher’s key editors.

Fincher, more so than a great deal of his contemporaries, uses the opening credits of his features to set the mood and the tone of his story in a highly creative and stimulating style. His incorporation of the technique began in earnest with SE7EN, but the practice hails back to the work of Alfred Hitchchock, who pioneered the idea of opening credits as part of the storytelling and not just an arbitrary device to let the audience know who did what.

SE7EN is one of the earliest instances in Fincher’s feature filmography in which his aesthetic coalesces into something immediately identifiable—no small feat for a man at bat for only the second time. The film places a subtle, yet strong emphasis on architecture—specifically, an early twentieth-century kind of civic architecture seen in noir films and old New York buildings (a mix of classical and art deco).

There’s a distinct claustrophobic feeling to the city David Fincher is portraying, which is reinforced by his framing of several shots from a low angle looking up at the ceiling (implying that the walls are closing in around our characters).

Fincher’s fascination with technology is also reflected in a mix of cutting-edge forensic tools and outdated computer systems that are used by the protagonists to find their man. Lastly, a strong air of nihilism marks Fincher’s filmography, with the incorporation of its philosophy giving SE7EN its pitch-black resonance.

Several story elements, like the moral ambiguity of Detective Mills, the rapid decay of the city aided and abetted by uncaring bureaucrats, and the darkly attractive nature of John Doe’s crimes cause a severe existential crisis for our protagonists.

SE7EN was a huge hit upon its release, and put David Fincher on the map in a way that ALIEN 3 never did (or could have done)—precisely because it was an original property in which Fincher could assert himself, free from the excessive studio needling that plagued top-dollar franchises back then (and still today).

This freedom resulted in one of the most shocking thrillers in recent memory, jolting audiences from apathy and re-energizing a fear response that had been dulled by the onslaught of uninspired slasher films during the 80’s.

SE7EN, along with Fincher’s other zeitgeist-y film FIGHT CLUB (1999), is frequently cited as one of the best pictures of the 90’s, perfectly capturing the existential, grungy essence of the decade. Above all, SE7EN is a gift—for David Fincher, another chance to prove himself after the failure of ALIEN 3, and for us, a groundbreaking new voice in the cinematic conversation.

That, my friends, is what was in the box.


THE GAME (1997)

Director David Fincher had built up quite a career for himself in the commercial and music video realm through his association with Propaganda Films. After the breakout success of his feature SE7EN (1995), Fincher was able to leverage this newfound clout into a collaboration with Propaganda for his third feature, a suspenseful puzzle thriller in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock called THE GAME (1997).

THE GAME’s origins are interesting in and of itself, with Fincher actually being attached to direct the script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris as his return to features after his abysmal experience onALIEN 3 (1992). The sudden availability of SE7EN star Brad Pitt forced the production of that film to go first and delayed THE GAME by several years.

Ultimately, this proved to be a good thing, as SE7EN’s runaway success set THE GAME up for similar success with a built-in audience hungry for the visionary director’s next work.

Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is a wealthy investment banker who lives by himself in a huge mansion outside of San Francisco. His solitary existence keeps him at an emotional distance to those around him, a result of some deep emotional scarring that stemmed from his father’s suicide during childhood.

On a particularly fateful birthday (having reached the age his father was when he killed himself), Nick’s brother Conrad (Sean Penn) shows up with an unusual present: the opportunity to participate in a live-action game, organized by an enigmatic entertainment company called Consumer Recreation Services.

Nick ventures over to the CRS offices to indulge his curiosity, but after a rigorous mental and physical evaluation, he’s ultimately deemed unfit to take part in the game.

So imagine his surprise when he arrives home that night to find a clown mannequin in his driveway (placed in the same position that his father was found after jumping off the mansion’s roof), and the nightly news anchor interrupts his television broadcast to address Nick personally and announce the beginning of his “Game”.

Trying to ascertain just what exactly is going on, Nick follows a series of perplexing and macabre clues, eventually encountering a waitress named Christine (Deborah Kara Unger) who may or may not be a part of this Game.

As his life is manipulated to increasingly dangerous degrees, Nick loses control of his orderly lifestyle and begins to question CRS’ true intentions for him—- is this really just a game, or is it an elaborate con designed to drain his considerable fortune and rub him out in the process?

With THE GAME, Fincher has constructed an intricate puzzle for the audience to solve, wisely placing the narrative firmly within Nick’s perspective so that we’re taken along for his wild ride. Because the story is so dependent on shocking twists and turns, subsequent re-watchings can’t replicate the exhilarating experience of seeing it for the first time.

However, Fincher does a great job of peppering clues throughout that are so subtle I didn’t even notice them until my fourth time around, such as Unger’s character being on the periphery of the first restaurant scene without so much as a close-up or wide shot of her face to announce her presence.

Likewise, Nick’s first visit to CRS contains a strange interaction wherein the receptionist appears to give an order to the Vice President of Engineering (played by recently-diseased character actor James Rebhorn)—- why would a receptionist be telling a VP what to do?

These are only two subtle clues in a story that’s absolutely stuffed with them, which makes for something new to find with each re-watching.

Douglas turns in a fine performance as a cold, lizard-like Scrooge archetype. Nicolas Van Orton plays like a subdued, less flamboyant version of WALL STREET’s Gordon Gekko, which works because the distant, calculating aristocrat archetype is one that Douglas can pull off better than anyone.

David Fincher’s casting of Douglas also adds reinforcement to the idea of Fincher as Stanley Kubrick’s heir apparent (Douglas’ father, Kirk Douglas, was also a famous film star who headlined Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY (1957) and SPARTACUS (1960).

As the cold, cynical waitress Christine, Deborah Kara Unger is a great foil to Douglas’ character, as well as an inspired female part that resists becoming a conventional “love interest” trope. Her ability to mask her feelings and intentions is crucial to the success of THE GAME, leaving Douglas and the audience constantly trying to figure out where her loyalties lay.

Sean Penn’s role as younger brother Conrad is smaller than his usual performances, but he is no less memorable as a disheveled, mischievous agent of chaos. The late character actor James Rebhorn may have never held the spotlight in his own right, but every one of his performances was never anything less than solid, as can be seen in his performance as the disorganized, CRS VP of Engineering Jim Feingold. Rebhorn’s talents get a chance to truly shine in THE GAME, becoming the human face of the ominous CRS entity and, by extension, the film’s de facto antagonist.

David Fincher also throws in some small cameos in the form of fellow Propaganda director Spike Jonze as a medic towards the conclusion and SE7EN’s Mark Boone Junior as a private investigator tailing Nick.

THE GAME is also Fincher’s first collaboration with the late, great cinematographer Harris Savides in the feature world (they had previously shot a number of commercials together). The anamorphic 35mm film frame is awash in steely blues and teals, accentuated by high contrast lighting that signifies David Fincher’s signature touch. Flashback sequences filmed on 8mm provide a dreamlike nostalgia that appropriately dances along the line of sentimentality and melancholy.

Savides is well-suited to translate Fincher’s vision to screen, ably creating a push-and-pull dichotomy between the sleek polish of Nick’s old money world and the slick CRS offices and the seedy grunge of the back alleyways and slums that Nick’s Game takes him to.

The film is essentially about Nick’s loss of control, which juxtaposes his confused flailing against deliberate, observational compositions and precise dolly movements as a way to echo CRS’ forceful herding of Nick along a predetermined path.

This visual precision is highly reminiscent of Kubrick’s work, and very well may be what it would have looked like if Kubrick had ever decided to make an Alfred Hitchchock thriller. Another nod to Kubrick can see in the video slideshow that Nick watches as part of his initial evaluation, which in and of itself highly resembles its infamous counterpart in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971).

SE7EN’s Howard Shore returns to create the score for THE GAME, crafting an intriguing, brassy sound to reflect the propulsive mystery and peppered with a tinge of melancholy piano that hints at Nick’s inability to move past his father’s death.

David Fincher’s stellar ear for needle drops also results in the incorporation of the White Rabbits’ iconic “Somebody To Love” as a psychedelic taunting mechanism in the scene where Nick arrives at his mansion to find it’s been vandalized with black light graffiti.

All of these elements are tied together by Ren Klyce’s sound design into an evocative sonic landscape that draws us further into the puzzle.

Fincher’s music video work often explored the boundaries of the film frame, transgressing arbitrary lines to see what was being hidden from view. Most of the time, this meant that the artifice of the production process (crew, set facades, equipment, etc.) was made known to the viewer.

THE GAME is an appropriate avenue to explore this idea in feature form because the story concerns itself with what happens when Nick is essentially placed inside of his own movie. This plays out in the form of any close inspection of a given object or development by Nick reveals its inherent fakery and connection to filmmaking.

Christine’s apartment is revealed as a fake set via various set dressing techniques Nick stumbles upon. The hail of gunfire directed at Nick and Christine by masked gunmen is comprised of harmless blanks. Nick’s iconic plunge from the top of a San Francisco skyscraper is cushioned by a giant stunt airbag.

The game Nick has been thrust into is an elaborate, deliberate manipulation of actors and events designed to take him on a film-like character arc and transformation.

To this effect, architecture (another of David Fincher’s thematic fascinations) plays a huge role in the proceedings. Fincher’s locations and sets are always architecturally impressive, and THE GAME doesn’t disappoint in the classical style seen in Nick’s mansion and San Francisco’s financial district, as well as the sleek modernity of CRS’ futuristic offices.

David Fincher often frames his subjects from a low angle in order to show the ceilings—this accomplishes the dual effect of establishing the realism of the space as well as conveying a subtle sense of claustrophobia (a sensation very important to THE GAME’s tension).

Production designer Jeffrey Beecroft makes great use of lines as a way to direct your eye (especially in the CRS headquarters set). These lines subtly point Nick (and by extension, us) in the right direction to go despite the orchestrated chaos around him.

Fincher is able to find several instances within the story to indulge in other fascinations. THE GAME uses technology to striking ends in advancing the plot, like the television magically talking to Nick in his own home, or the hidden video camera lodged inside the clown mannequin’s eye.

A distinct punk aesthetic runs through Fincher’s filmography, with the most literal examples being found in FIGHT CLUB (1999) and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011), but even in a cold-Scrooge-turned-good tale such as THE GAME, David Fincher is able to incorporate elements of punk culture in a natural way (the aforementioned mansion break-in and black light graffiti vandalism sequence).

And finally, Fincher’s approach to the story is informed by a nihilistic sensibility, in that Nick is inherently a cynical, selfish person, along with the prominent theme of suicide and the ultimate revelation of the film’s events as orchestrated manipulations and inherently false.

THE GAME was a modest hit upon its release, bolstered by a compelling story and strong performances that were, in this author’s opinion, much better than those seen in SE7EN. By achieving a balance between engrossing performances and superb technical mastery, Fincher shows off huge growth as a director with THE GAME.

Ultimately, the film itself was somewhat lost in the sea of late 90’s releases, and for the longest time it languished on a bare-bones catalog DVD with a neglected transfer. Thankfully, THE GAME has undergone something of a cultural reappraisal with the release of The Criterion Collection’s outstanding Blu Ray transfer.

Now, THE GAME is often referenced among film circles in the same breath as his best work, and is fondly remembered as one of the best films of the 1990’s (alongside SE7EN and FIGHT CLUB). For David Fincher, THE GAME cemented his reputation as a great director with hard edge and reliable commercial appeal.


FIGHT CLUB (1999)

1999’s FIGHT CLUB was the first David Fincher film I ever saw, and it became a watershed moment for me in that it was absolutely unlike any movie I had ever seen. Granted, I was only in middle school at the time and hadn’t quite discovered the world of film at large beyond what was available in the multiplex.

FIGHT CLUB was one of the earliest experiences that turned me on to the idea of a director having a distinct style, a stamp he could punch onto the film that claimed it as his own. My own experience with FIGHT CLUB was easily dwarfed by the larger reaction to the film, which has since become something of an anthem for Generation X—a bottling up of the 90’s zeitgeist that fermented into a potent countercultural brew.

Coming off the modest success of 1997’s THE GAME, director David Fincher was in the process of looking for a follow-up project when he was sent “Fight Club”, a novel by the groundbreaking author (and Portland son) Chuck Palahniuk.

A self-avowed non-reader, David Fincher nonetheless blazed through the novel, and by the time he had put the book down he knew it was going to be his next project. There was just one problem—the book had been optioned and was in development at Twentieth Century Fox, his sworn enemies.

Their incessant meddling and subterfuge during the production of Fincher’s ALIEN 3(1992) made for a miserable shooting experience, ultimately ruined the film, and nearly caused Fincher to swear off feature filmmaking forever.

This time, however, he would be ready. He was now a director in high demand, having gained significant clout from the success of SE7EN (1995), and he used said clout to successfully pitch his vision of FIGHT CLUB to Laura Ziskin and the other executives at Fox.

The studio had learned the error of its ways and was eager to mend relations with the maverick director, so they allowed him a huge amount of leeway in realizing his vision. Armed with the luxury of not having to bend to the whims of nervous studio executives, David Fincher was able to fashion a pitch-black comedy about masculinity in crisis and the battle between modern commercialism and our primal, animalistic natures.

The novel takes place in Wilmington, Delaware (home to the headquarters of several major credit card companies), but Fincher sets his adaptation in an unnamed city, mostly because of legal clearance reasons (which would have been a nightmare considering how much FIGHT CLUB disparages major corporations and institutions).

Our protagonist is the unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton), an insomniac office drone obsessed with Swedish furniture and support groups for serious, terminal diseases he doesn’t have. He finds in these support groups an emotional release and a cure for his insomnia, achieving a stasis that props him up while pushing down the nagging feeling that he’s wasting his life away.

His world is up-ended by the arrival of the acidic Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), a fellow support group freeloader that confounds his perceived progress at all turns.

Constant travel because of his job as a recall analyst for a major car manufacturer provides some relief, and it is on one particular flight home that he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), whose effortless cool is unlike anything the Narrator has found in his so-called “single-serving” flight companions. Upon returning home, he finds his apartment has blown up due to mysterious circumstances. With nowhere else to turn, the Narrator calls up Tyler on a whim, who offers him a place at his ramshackle squatter mansion on the industrial fringes of town.

As the two men bond, they discover a cathartic release from an unexpected source: fighting. They channel this release into the founding of an underground brawling organization called Fight Club, where similarly culturally disenfranchised men can get together and unleash their primal side in bareknuckle grappling matches.

Soon, the duo’s entire outlook on life and masculinity changes, with the Narrator in particular taking charge of his own destiny and liberating himself from his perceived shackles at work.

In Fight Club, they have tapped into something very primal within the male psyche—a psyche subdued in the wake of rampant commercialism, feminism, and political correctness, just itching to be unleashed.

Fight Club grows larger than Tyler or The Narrator had ever hoped or expected, with satellite chapters popping up in other cities and the purpose of the secretive club evolving to include acts of domestic terrorism and anarchy.

When The Narrator finds himself losing control of the monster that they’ve created, he comes into mortal conflict with Tyler, who has gone off the deep end in his attempts to fundamentally and radically change the world.

Norton brings a droll, dry sense of humor to his performance as the Narrator, a medicated and sedate man who must “wake up”. In what is one of his most memorable roles, Norton ably projects the perverse, profoundly morbid thoughts of his character with sardonic wit and a sickly physicality. This frail, scrawny physicality is all the more remarkable considering Norton had just come off the production of Tony Kaye’s AMERICAN HISTORY X (1998), where made him bulk up with a considerable amount of muscle.

In his second collaboration with David Fincher after their successful team-up in SE7EN, Brad Pitt also turns in a career highlight performance as Tyler Durden, a soap salesman and anarchist with a weaponized masculinity and radical, seductive worldview that he is fully committed to living out.

His character’s name and persona have entered our pop culture lexicon as the personification of the unleashed, masculine id and the grungy, counter-commercial mentalities that defined the 1990’s.

Helena Bonham Carter counters the overbearing masculinity of David Fincher’s vision while oddly complementing it as Marla Singer, the very definition of a hot mess. Marla is a cold, cynical woman dressed up in black, Goth affectations.

Her aggressive feminine presence is an appropriate counterbalance to Tyler Durden’s roaring machismo, as well as serves to highlight the film’s homoerotic undertones. Meat Loaf, a popular musician in his own right, plays Bob—a huge, blubbering mess with “bitch tits” and a cuddly demeanor, while Jared Leto bleaches his hair to the point of anonymity in his role as a prominent acolyte of Durden’s (and thorn in the side of The Narrator).

To achieve FIGHT CLUB’s oppressively grungy look, David Fincher enlists the eye of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, the son of legendary DP Jordan Cronenweth (who had previously worked with Fincher on ALIEN 3). The younger Cronenweth would go on to lens several of Fincher’s later works due to the strength of their first collaboration on FIGHT CLUB.

The film is shot on Super 35mm and presented in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio, but it wasn’t shot anamorphic—it was instead shot with spherical lenses in order to help convey the gritty tone Fincher intended. Indeed, FIGHT CLUB is easily David Fincher’s grungiest work to date—the image is coated in a thick layer of grime and sludge that’s representative of the toxic philosophies espoused by its antihero subjects.

The foundation of FIGHT CLUB’s distinct look is built with Fincher’s aesthetic signature: high contrast lighting (with lots of practical lights incorporated into the framing), and a cold, sickly green/teal color tint. David Fincher and Cronenweth further expanded on this by employing a combination of contrast-stretching, underexposing, and re-silvering during the printing process in order to achieve a dirty, decaying look.

The production of FIGHT CLUB also generated some of the earliest public reports of Fincher’s proclivity for shooting obscene numbers of takes—a technique also employed by David Fincher’s cinematic forebear, Stanley Kubrick.

Both men employed the technique as a way to exert control over their actors’ performances and wear them down to a place of naturalistic “non-acting”. While this earns the ire of many a performer, it also earn as much respect for a director willing to sit through the tedium of dozens upon dozens of takes in order to really mold a performance in the editing room.

In a career full of visually dynamic films, FIGHT CLUB is easily the most volatile and kinetic of them all. Fincher employs a number of visual tricks to help convey a sense of surrealist reality: speed-ramping, playing with the scale of objects (i.e, presenting the contents of a garbage can as if we were flying through the Grand Canyon), and Norton’s Narrator breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly (a technique he’d later use to infamous effect in Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS series).

Production designer Alex McDowell supplements David Fincher’s grimy vision with imaginative, dungeon-like sets in which to house this unleashed sense of masculinity, all while countering the sterile, color-less environments of the Narrator’s office and apartment.

Interestingly enough, the Narrator’s apartment is based almost exactly off of Fincher’s first apartment in (soul-suckingly bland) Westwood, an apartment he claims that he had always wanted to blow up.

THE GAME’s James Haygood returns to sew all these elements together into a breathtaking edit with manic pacing and psychotic energy, creating something of an apex of the particular sort of music-video-style editing that emerged in 90’s feature films.

FIGHT CLUB might just be the farthest thing (commercially-speaking) from a conventional Hollywood film, so it stands to reason that a conventional Hollywood score would be ill-fitting at best, and disastrously incompatible at worst. This mean that Howard Shore, who had scored David Fincher’s previous two features, had to go.

Really, ANY conventional film composer had to go in favor of something entirely new. In his selection of electronic trip-hop duo The Dust Brothers, Fincher received a groundbreaking score, comprised almost entirely of drum loops and “found” sounds. I have almost every note from that score memorized—I used to listen to the soundtrack CD almost every day during high school as I did my homework.

And then, of course, there’s The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”: a rock song that will live in infamy because of its inclusion inFIGHT CLUB’s face-melting finale. Sound and picture are now inextricably linked in our collective consciousness— I defy you to find someone whose perception of that particular song has not been forever colored by the image of skyscrapers imploding on themselves and toppling to the ground.

The music of FIGHT CLUB is further heightened by the contributions of David Fincher’s regular sound designer Ren Klyce, who was awarded with an Oscar nomination for his work on the film.

A main reason that Fincher responded so strongly to his initial reading of Palahniuk’s novel is that it possessed several themes that David Fincher was fascinated by and liked to explore in his films.

On a philosophical level, the story contains strong ties to nihilism with Tyler Durden’s enthusiastic rejection and destruction of institutions and value systems, and the subsequent de-humanization that stems from Fight Club’s evolved mission objective (which extrapolates nihilistic virtues to their extreme).

The novel’s overarching screed against commercialism also appealed to Fincher, who gleefully recognized the inherent irony in a director of commercials making a film about consumerism as the ultimate evil. David Fincher plays up this irony throughout the film by including lots of blatant product placement (there’s apparently a Starbucks cup present in every single scene).

This countercultural cry against commercialism and corporate appeasement is inherently punk, which is yet another aesthetic that Fincher has made potent use of throughout his career.

With FIGHT CLUB, David Fincher also finds ample opportunity to indulge in his own personal fascinations. His background at ILM and subsequent familiarity with visual effects results in an approach that relies heavily on cutting-edge FX.

This can be seen in the strangest sex sequence in cinematic history, which borrows the “bullet-time” photography technique from THE MATRIX (1999) to turn Pitt and Carter into enormous copulating monuments that blend and morph into one single mass of biology.

The idea of stitching numerous still photographs to convey movement (where the traditional use of a motion picture camera would have been impractical or impossible) also allows Fincher to rocket through time and space, such as in the scene where we scream from the top of a skyscraper down to find a van packed with explosives in the basement garage.

Architecture also plays in important role, with Durden’s decrepit (yet organic) house on Paper Street resembling the grand old Victorian houses in LA’s Angelino Heights juxtaposed against the faceless, monolithic city skyscrapers that are destroyed in the film’s climax.

Here, as in his earlier features, David Fincher tends to frame his subjects from a low angle looking up—this is done as a way to establish the realism of his sets and locations while imbuing the subjects themselves with an exaggerated sense of power and authority.

FIGHT CLUB also contains Fincher’s most well-known opening credits sequence: a dizzying roller-coaster ride through the Narrator’s brain.

Beginning with the firing of impulses in the fear center, the camera pulls back at breakneck speed, with our scale changing organically until we emerge from a pore on Norton’s sweat-slicked forehead and slide down the polished nickel of the gun barrel lodged in his mouth.  It’s an incredibly arresting way to start a film, and prepares us for the wild ride ahead.

Finally, FIGHT CLUB allows David Fincher to really play with the boundaries of his frame and reveal the inherent artifice of the film’s making. This conceit is best illustrated in two scenes. The first is the “cigarette burns” projection-room scene where the Narrator reveals Tyler’s fondness for splicing single frames of hardcore pornography into children’s films by explaining the projection process to the audience in layman’s terms.

This scene is present in the novel, but Fincher’s approach of it is further informed by his own experience working as a movie projectionist at the age of 16, where he had a co-worker who collected random snippets of a given film’s most lurid moments into a secret envelope.

The second scene in question is Tyler’s infamous “you are not your fucking khakis” monologue to camera, whereby his intensity causes the film he is recorded onto to literally wobble and expose the film strip’s sprocket holes. The effect is that of the film literally disintegrating before our eyes—the story has gone off the rails and now we’re helpless to do anything but just go along for the ride.

David Fincher’s terrible experience with the studio on ALIEN 3 directly contributed to FIGHT CLUB being as groundbreaking and shocking as it was. When studio executives (most notably Laura Ziskin) inevitably bristled at the sight of David Fincher’s bold, uncompromising vision in all its glory, their attempts to tone it down were blown up in their faces by a director who had already been burned by their tactics once before and was one step ahead of their game.

A great example of this is Ziskin asking David Fincher to change a controversial line (Marla Singer telling Tyler Durden that she wants to have his abortion), which David Fincher responded to by agreeing to change the line under the condition that it couldn’t be changed any further after that. Ziskin quickly agreed, because how could anything be worse than that?

Imagine her outrage, then, when Fincher came back with Marla’s line changed to “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school” and she couldn’t do anything to change it back. Once David Fincher knew how to play his meddlesome executives to his benefit, he became truly unstoppable.

FIGHT CLUB made its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and its worldwide theatrical run was met with polarized reviews and box office disappointment. Quite simply, audiences were not ready for Fincher’s abrasive vision.

However, it was one of the first films to benefit from the DVD home video format, where it spread like wildfire amongst eager young cinephiles until it became a bona fide cult hit. It probably couldn’t have been any other way— FIGHT CLUB was made to re-watch over and over again, to pore over all the little details and easter eggs that David Fincher and company peppered throughout to clue us into the true nature of Tyler Durden’s existence.

FIGHT CLUB’s release also had real-world implications in the formation of actual underground fight clubs all across the country. In mining the dramatic potential of a fictional masculinity crisis, FIGHT CLUB tapped into a very real one that was fueled by a noxious brew of feminism, political correct-ness, the new millennium, metrosexuality and frat-boy culture (a subgroup that glorified the carnage and violence while ironically failing to recognize the film’s very palpable homoerotic undertones and thus assuming them into their own lifestyle).

Fifteen years removed from FIGHT CLUB’s release, the film stands as the apex of the cynical pop culture mentality of the 1990’s, as well as a defining thesis statement for a cutting-edge filmmaker with razor-sharp relevancy

If you want more inside info on the making of Fight Club, take a listen to the IFH Interview with FC screenwriter Jim Uhls.


PANIC ROOM (2000)

The expansive, sprawling nature of FIGHT CLUB’s story meant that director David Fincher spent a great deal of the film’s production in a van traveling to and from the film’s four hundred locations. Naturally, he wished to downscale his efforts with his next project and find a story that took place in a single location.

He found it in a screenplay by David Koepp called PANIC ROOM, inspired by true stories of small, impenetrable fortresses that New York City’s wealthy elite were building for themselves inside their homes. Because the story lent itself so well to an overtly Hitchockian style of execution and form, David Fincher approached PANIC ROOM (2002) as an exercise in pure genre, refusing to “elevate” the material with the infusion of potent allegory and subtextual thematics like he had done with FIGHT CLUB or SE7EN (1995).

The film is expertly constructed in a way that only Fincher could have envisioned, with top-notch filmmaking on par with any of his best work. However, PANIC ROOMwas somewhat lost in the noise of 2002’s other releases, and thus doesn’t enjoy the same cherished status of David Fincher’s higher-profile work (despite the argument that it should).

Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) is a recently divorced single mom, looking for a new home in Manhattan for her and her young daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart). They are shown a beautiful, expansive brownstone complete with cathedral ceilings, original crown molding, and a panic room—a hidden concrete room outfitted with survival and communications tech and designed as a refuge in the event of a home invasion.

Despite Meg’s misgivings that the property is simply too much house for the two of them, she buys it anyway. As Meg and Sarah sleep during their first night in the house, three burglars—Junior (Jared Leto), Burnham (Forest Whitaker), and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) break inside.

Meg and Sarah are awakened by the commotion, and instinctually barricade themselves in the panic room. Any assurance of safety soon vanishes when Meg realizes that she never hooked up the panic room’s dedicated phone line, along with the revelation that what the burglars are after—millions of dollars in US bonds—is hidden in a floor safe underneath their feet.

What ensues is a suspenseful, contained thriller that would make Hitchcock green with envy as Meg and Sarah fend off this trio of unpredictable male intruders who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

Jodie Foster is compelling as lead heroine Meg Altman, a fiercely maternal woman whose initial mild-mannered-ness gives way to a resourceful, cunning bravery. Interestingly, Foster replaced original actress Nicole Kidman, who had to leave the production due to the aggravation of an earlier injury (she still has a voice cameo as Meg’s ex-husband’s new girlfriend).

Despite the short notice, Foster exhibited enormous dedication to the role by giving up her chair on the Cannes Film Festival Jury as well as working through the pregnancy of her second child. Kristen Stewart, who was only eleven at the time of filming, turns in a great performance as Sarah, Meg’s punk-y daughter with a cynical attitude and intelligence beyond her years.

Stewart provides a nice balance to Meg’s refined femininity with a rough, tomboyish and androgynous quality (something which Foster had herself at Stewart’s age). In making the character of Sarah a diabetic, Stewart is able to become an active participant in the suspense and engage us on a personal, visceral level.

The three burglars prove just as compelling as our female protagonists due to a complex combination of values and virtues that causes conflict between them. The most accessible of the three is Forest Whitaker as Burnam, a professional builder of panic rooms and a sensitive, honorable man who projects a warm, authoritative presence.

This complex physicality is essential to the success of the role, and Fincher’s choice of Whitaker, who he previously knew not as an actor but as a fellow director at Propaganda Films, is an inspired one. Burnham is compelled not by greed but by obligation to his family, meaning that while he’s misguided in his attempts to right his wrongs, he’s not beyond saving.

His antithesis is Raoul, a mysterious, volatile man who quickly asserts himself as the group’s dangerous wild card. Raoul is played by Dwight Yoakam, a country singer turned actor who injects a great deal of menace to the proceedings.

Jared Leto, who previously appeared in David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB in a small role, benefits from the expanded screen presence that the character of Junior affords him. Junior is the self-designated leader of the operation, but he quickly finds control of the situation slipping from his grasp as the night unfolds.

Leto finds an inspired angle into what would otherwise be the stock hotheaded, impatient villain archetype by turning Junior into a trust-fund kid who’s ill-advised attempts at giving himself some edge (take those atrocious dreadlocks, for instance) only lead to the hardened criminals he’s trying to impress taking him less seriously.

PANIC ROOM, like all of Fincher’s pre-ZODIAC (2007) feature work, was filmed in the Super 35mm film format. While shot open-matte in the full-frame Academy aspect ratio, the finished film is presented on the widescreen 2.40:1 aspect ratio so that David Fincher had total freedom to compose the frame as he saw fit. He did it this way, as opposed to shooting in the anamorphic aspect ratio, because he apparently hates the limited lens choices and shallow depth of field that plagues the anamorphic process.

Fincher hired Darius Khondji, who had previously shot SE7EN, but Khondji left the production two weeks into the shoot due to creative differences with David Fincher’s meticulously planned and extensively pre-visualized approach (which stifled any on-set spontaneity). Cinematography duties were then passed on to Conrad W. Hall (not to be confused with his father, the legendary Conrad Hall who shot ROAD TO PERDITION (2002) and COOL HAND LUKE (1967)).

Hall Junior proves adept at replicating Fincher’s signature aesthetic via a high-contrast lighting scheme and a cold color palette whereby traditionally warm incandescent bulbs glow a pale yellow and the harsh fluorescents of the panic room take on a blue/teal cast. Fincher’s mise-en-scene is dotted with practical lights, creating an underexposed, moody image that is bolstered by a “no light” approach—meaning that David Fincher and Hall sought as much darkness as they could get away with, primarily using the extremely soft light afforded by kino-flo rigs.

A highlight of PANIC ROOM’s look is a constant, fluid, and precise camera that glides and floats through the house, as if unfettered by the limitations of human operation. This technique is achieved through the combination of the Technocrane and CGI that stitches multiple shots into one, seamless move.

The best example of this in the film is the virtuoso long take that occurs as the burglars break into the house. We first see them arrive, and swoop through the house as they try various entry points, all the while taking the time to show us Meg and Sarah asleep and unaware of the impending danger.

This shot would have been impossible to achieve before the rise of digital effects, a revolution that Fincher helped usher in due to his familiarity with the process from his days at ILM.

Because of his natural grasp on digital filmmaking tech, he is able to turn this incredibly complicated shot into a “thesis” money shot that condenses his entire visual approach to the film into a single moment while effortlessly establishing the geography of the house and orienting us for what’s to come.

As I mentioned before, the extensive location shoots and setups required by FIGHT CLUB resulted in Fincher desiring a singular, contained scenario for his next project. In developing PANIC ROOM, he realized he wanted to create the entire house as a studio set (a la Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (1954) so that he could exert complete control.

Toward that end, he hired SE7EN’s production designer, Arthur Max, to construct the full-featured house inside a large soundstage as one continuous structure whose walls could be flown out to accommodate a camera gliding through the set.

Max’s work here is nothing less than masterful, as nary a seam of the complicated construction exposes itself throughout the entire film. The same could be said of the fluid edit by Fincher’s regular editor James Haygood, working in collaboration with Angus Wall.

Wall had previously edited bits and pieces of David Fincher’s commercial work, as well as the opening credits to SE7EN, but PANIC ROOM is Wall’s first feature editing job for David Fincher, and his success here has to led to continued employment in Fincher’s later features.

After a brief hiatus taken during the production of FIGHT CLUB, composer Howard Shore returns to David Fincher’s fold with a brassy, old-school score that oozes intrigue and foreboding.

During this time, Shore was consumed with scoring duties for Peter Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, so PANIC ROOM was an assignment taken on precisely because of its low musical demands.

As it turns out, Shore’s work in PANIC ROOM is generally regarded as some of his best and most brooding. The score is complemented by a superb sound mix by David Fincher’s regular sound designer, Ren Klyce.

When done right, genre is a potent conduit for complex ideas and allegory with real-world implications. PANIC ROOM is essentially about two women fending off three male home invaders, but it is also about much more: the surveillance state, income equality, the switching of the parent-child dynamic…. the list goes on.

A visionary director like David Fincher is able to take a seemingly generic home invasion thriller and turn it into an exploration of themes and ideas. For instance, PANIC ROOMaffords Fincher the opportunity to indulge in his love for architecture, letting him essentially design and build an entire house from scratch.

The type of architecture that the house employs is also telling, adopting the handsome wood and crown molding of traditional brownstone houses found on the East Coast.

Architecture also serves an important narrative purpose, with the story incorporating building guts like air vents and telephone lines as dramatic hinging points that obstruct our heroes’ progress and build suspense.

Again, David Fincher employs low angle compositions to reveal the set ceiling in a bid to communicate the location’s “real-ness” as well as instill a sense of claustrophobia.

Fincher’s fascination with tech is woven directly into the storyline, which allows him to explore the dramatic potential of a concrete room with a laser-activated door and surveillance cameras/monitors.

The twist, however, is that despite all this cutting-edge technology (circa 2002, provided), both the protagonists and the antagonists have to resort to lo-fi means to advance their cause. Another aesthetic conceit that David Fincher had been playing with during this period is the idea of micro-sized objects sized up to a macro scale.

In FIGHT CLUB, this could be seen with the shot of the camera pulling back out of a trashcan, its contents seemingly as large as planets.

Fincher echoes this conceit in PANIC ROOM via zooming in on crumbling concrete until it’s as big as a mountain, diving through the gas hose as the burglars pump propane gas into the panic room, and jumping inside the glass enclosure of a flashlight to see a close up of the bulb spark on and off.

David Fincher ties this visual idea in with another signature of his films—imaginative opening credits sequences.  With PANIC ROOM, he places his collaborators’ names against the steel and glass canyons of New York City, as if the letters themselves were as big as skyscrapers and had always been a part of their respective structures.

As interesting of an idea it is, I’m not sure the large scope that these credits imply fully gels with a movie that’s so self-contained and insular.  And finally, the punk/nihilistic flair that hangs over David Fincher’s filmography has a small presence in Kristen Stewart’s androgynous punk stylings, as well as the appearance of The Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious on one of her t-shirts.

Fincher’s desire to exert total control of the shoot via meticulous set-building and extensive computer pre-visualization ended up working against him, making for a long, strenuous shoot bogged down by technical difficulties and slow advancement.

However, the effort was worth it—PANIC ROOM became a box office hit upon its release, receiving generally positive reviews.  As a lean, mean thriller, PANIC ROOM is incredibly exhilarating and well-made; perhaps even one of the best home invasion films ever made.

More importantly, PANIC ROOM would be the last feature that David Fincher ever shot on celluloid film (as of this writing).  The 2000’s would bring the swift rise of digital filmmaking, a technology that Fincher—as a noted perfectionist and control-freak—would swiftly embrace.

PANIC ROOM closes the book on the first phase of David Fincher’s feature career (marked by gritty, subversive fare shot on film), heralding the arrival of a new phase that would solidify Fincher’s legacy amongst our most prestigious filmmakers


COMMERICALS & MUSIC VIDEO (2002-2007)

After the release of director David Fincher’s fifth feature, PANIC ROOM (2002), he took a five-year hiatus from feature work. However, this doesn’t mean he was lounging poolside with margaritas for half a decade.

He was hard at work in other arenas: prepping a sprawling film adaptation of the infamous San Francisco Zodiac murders during the 70’s, as well as taking on select commercial and music video work. During this five-year period, David Fincher created some of his highest profile (and most controversial) short-form work.

Fincher’s 2002 spot for Adidas, called “MECHANICAL LEGS” is a great little bit of advertising done in the classic David Fincher visual style: high contrast lighting, steely color palette and a constantly-moving camera.

The entire piece is a digital creation, featuring a pair of disembodied robot legs exhibiting superhuman agility and speed as they test out a new pair of Adidas sneakers. Fincher’s flair for visual effects and dynamic compositions really makes the spot effective and, more importantly, memorable.


COCA-COLA: “THE ARQUETTES” (2003)

I remember this particular ad, Coca-Cola’s “THE ARQUETTES” when it came out, as it received a lot of airplay based on the popularity of the titular couple following Courtney’s successful run on FRIENDS as well as their combined appearances in Wes Craven’s SCREAM films.

Of course, I had no idea David Fincher was behind the spot when I first saw it, but having grown accustomed to his aesthetic, I can easily spot it now. It’s evident in the desaturated warm tones that favor slightly colder yellows instead of typical oranges, as well as the high contrast lighting. The spot’s tagline, “True Love”, is poetically tragic now after the couple’s divorce in 2011.


XELEBRI: “BEAUTY FOR SALE” (2004)

In 2004, Fincher was commissioned by Xelebri to realize a stunning concept in the spot for “BEAUTY FOR SALE”. The piece takes place in a futuristic world, filled with the imaginative production design and world-building Fincher is known for, and bolstered by the visually arresting conceit of normal people wearing supermodel bodies as costumes (achieved through clever CGI and other visual effects). A cold color palette and high contrast lighting wraps everything up into a neat little David Fincher package.


HEINEKEN: “BEER RUN” (2005)

Fincher’s spot for Heineken called “BEER RUN” is also a commercial that I remember quite well from its initial run, primarily due to the fact that it was a big, lavish Super Bowl ad. The piece stars Fincher’s regular feature collaborator Brad Pitt as himself, adventurously trekking out into the urban night for a case of Heineken while avoiding the hordes of paparazzi.

Visually, a green/yellow color cast is applied over the image which accentuates the high contrast lighting and evokes not only the color branding of Heineken itself, but David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB (1999). Dynamic camera movement and the inclusion of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” over the soundtrack further point to Fincher’s confident vision.


NINE INCH NAILS: “ONLY” (2005)

Fincher’s only music video during this period was created for Nine Inch Nails’ single “ONLY”. Fincher had already been associated with NIN frontman Trent Reznor due to the inclusion of a remix of Reznor’s “Closer” in the opening credits toSE7EN (1995), but this is the first instance of the two men working together directly. This is notable because Reznor would go on to become a regular composer for David Fincher, beginning with 2010’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK and continuing to the present day.

Interestingly, the video is presented in the square 4:3 aspect ratio, but the look is classic Fincher: high contrast lighting, a steely/sterile grey color palette and a constantly-moving camera that gives the simple concept a dose of electric energy.

The concept serves Fincher’s fascination for tech, with a Mac laptop acting as the centerpiece to this 21st century orchestra. CGI is used to inspired effect in incorporating sound waves on the surface of coffee, as well as conveying Reznor’s face and performance via those needle-art slabs that were popular during the era.


MOTOROLA: “PEBL” (2006)

In 2006, David Fincher reteamed with his cinematographer on THE GAME (1997), the late Harris Savides, to shoot a commercial for Motorola called “PEBL”. The spot tracks the long, slow erosion of a rock until it becomes so smooth that is adopts the form factor of Motorola’s Pebl mobile phone.

Fincher uses CGI in the form of meteors, craters, and weather to portray eons of time in only sixty seconds. This spot was filmed with digital cameras, and is credited with giving Fincher and Savides to adopt the format for the production of their next feature collaboration, 2007’s ZODIAC.


ORVILLE REDENBACHERS: “REANIMATED” (2007)

A commercial recently started airing that digitally recreates the late Audrey Hepburn, and understandably caused a lot of furor. There’s a huge ethical debate about using CGI advancements to bring long-dead celebrities back to life, a debate that more or less began in 2007 when David Fincher and Orville Redenbachers had the audacity to bring Orville himself back from the dead to hawk some popcorn.

I understand advancing the technology so that it can be used for necessary purposes (i.e, finishing the performance of an actor who died during production like Paul Walker), but the final effect is never truly convincing. It’s mildly upsetting at best, and pants-shitting horrifying at worst.

Here, Fincher’s familiarity with effects works against him, with his excitement at bringing dear old Orville back from the dead perhaps blinding him to the resulting “uncanny valley” effect. “REANIMATED”is easily one of Fincher’s most controversial videos, and for good reason.


LEXUS: “POLLEN” (2007)

Another spot that’s heavily-reliant on CGI, Lexus’ “POLLEN” is set inside of a greenhouse that was created entirely in the digital realm. Here, David Fincher is able to exact total control over his image and dial in a high contrast, steely color palette that highlights the car’s streamlined design.

The main takeaway from this period of Fincher’s career is his experimentation with digital cameras and acquisition would result in his overall confidence in the format and its future. Once he shot the majority of ZODIAC on digital, his film days were basically over.

His early adoption transformed him into the poster boy for the cinematic potential of the nascent digital format on a large, blockbuster scale.


ZODIAC (2007)

I’ve written before in my essays on Paul Thomas Anderson and The Coen Brothers about how 2007 was a watershed year in modern cinema. That specific year saw the release of three films that are widely considered to be the best films of the decade, the apex of efforts by specialty studio shingles like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent.

Mid-level divisions like these flourished during the Aughts, with studios putting up considerable financial backing into artistic efforts by bold voices in an attempt to capture the lucrative windfall that came with awards season prestige.

It was a great time to be a cinephile, but it was also ultimately an unsustainable bubble—a bubble that would violently pop the following year when these shingles shuttered their doors and studios turned their attention to blockbuster properties and mega-franchises (ugh) like the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

As an eager student in film school, 2007 was a very formative year for me personally. It was the year that Anderson’s THERE WILL Be BLOOD and The Coens’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN were released, but those films are not the focus of this article. This particular essay concerns the third film in the trifecta, David Fincher’s masterful ZODIAC.

When the film was released, I was already a David Fincher acolyte and had been awaiting his return to the big screen five years after PANIC ROOM. As I took in my first screening of ZODIAC on that warm, Boston spring afternoon, I became acutely aware that I was watching a contender for the best film of the decade.

ZODIAC’s journey to the screen was a long, arduous one—much like the real-life investigation itself. The breakthrough came when writer James Vanderbilt based his take off of Robert Graysmith’s book of the same name.

From Graysmith’s template, Vanderbilt fashioned a huge tome of a screenplay that was then sent to director David Fincher—helmer of the serial-killer-genre-defining SE7EN (1995)—basically out of respect.

Fully expecting Fincher to pass, Vanderbilt and the project’s producers were quite surprised to learn of the director’s interest and connection to the material— but Fincher himself wasn’t surprised in the least. He remembered his childhood in the Bay Area, where Zodiac’s unfolding reign of terror was the subject of adults’ hushed whispers and his own captivated imagination.

In an oblique way, ZODIAC is an autobiographical and sentimental film for David Fincher—a paean to an older, more idyllic San Francisco whose innocence was shattered by the Zodiac murders and ultimately lost to the negative economic byproducts of rampant gentrification.

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ZODIAC spans three decades of San Francisco history, beginning in 1969 and ending in 1991. The focusing prism of this portrait is the sense of paranoia and panic that enveloped the city during the reign of terror perpetrated by a mysterious serial killer known only as The Zodiac. Simply murdering people at random is a scary enough prospect to shake any city to its foundations, but Zodiac’s command of the media via chilling correspondence sent to newspaper editors and TV stations allowed him to disseminate his message and strike mortal fear into the heart of the entire state of California.

At the San Francisco Chronicle, crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) takes up the Zodiac beat and finds an unlikely ally and partner in plucky cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose familiarity with pictorial language and messages aids in the endeavor to decode the Zodiac’s cryptic hieroglyphics.

Meanwhile, Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) is breathlessly canvassing the populace and questioning hundreds upon hundreds of suspects in an effort to crack the Zodiac case, only to find frustration and confusion at every turn.

As the months turn to years, Zodiac’s body count continues to rise—until one day, it stops entirely. Time passes, nobody hears from the Zodiac for several years and the city moves on (including the increasingly alcoholic Avery).

That is, with the exception of Graysmith and Toschi, whose nagging obsession continues to consume them whole. With each passing year, their prospects of solving the case drastically decreases, which only amplifies their urgency in bringing The Zodiac to justice before he slips away entirely.

What sets ZODIAC apart from other serial-killer thrillers of its ilk is its dogged attention to detail. Fincher and Vanderbilt built their story using only the facts—eyewitness testimony, authentic police documentation and forensics evidence.

For instance, the film doesn’t depict any murder sequence in which there weren’t any survivors to provide accurate details about what went down. Another differentiating aspect about the film is the passage of time as a major theme, conveyed not only via on-screen “x months/years later” subtitles but also with inspired vignettes like a changing cityscape and music radio montages over a black screen.

ZODIAC’s focus lies in the maddening contradiction of factual accounts that stymied real-life investigators and led to missed clues and dead-end leads. The true identity of The Zodiac was never solved, and the film goes to painstaking lengths to show us exactly why that was the outcome.

ZODIAC attempts to deconstruct the larger-than-life myth of its namesake, but it also can’t help exaggerating him in our own cultural consciousness as the serial killer who got away—a modern boogeyman like Jason or Freddy that transcends the constraints of time and could pop up again at any time to resume his bloody campaign.

ZODIAC centers itself around a triptych of leads in Gyllenhaal, Downey and Ruffalo. The author of the film’s source text, Robert Graysmith, is depicted by Gyllenhaal as a goody-two-shoes boy scout and single father who throws himself into a downward spiral of obsession.

His sweet-natured pluckiness is the antithesis of the hard-boiled, cynical detective archetype we’ve come to expect from these types of films. Downey, per usual, steals every scene he’s in as the flamboyant, acid-witted Paul Avery. Ruffalo more than holds his own as the detail-oriented police inspector in a bowtie, David Toschi (whose actions during the Zodiac case inspired the character of Dirty Harry).

These three unconventional leads ooze period authenticity and help to immerse the audience into the story for the entirety of its marathon three hour running time.

By this point, Fincher had built up such an esteemed reputation for himself that he could probably cast any actor he desired. With ZODIAC’s supporting cast, Fincher has assembled a, unexpected and truly eclectic mix of fine character actors. John Carroll Lynch plays Arthur Lee Allen, the prime suspect in Toschi and Graysmith’s investigation.

Lynch assumes an inherently creepy demeanor that, at the same time, is not overtly threatening. Lynch understands that he has a huge obligation in playing Allen responsibly, since the storyline effectively convicts him as the Zodiac killer posthumously (when it may very well be not true at all).

When the Zodiac killer is seen on-screen, you’ll notice that it’s not Lynch playing the role. David Fincher wisely uses a different actor for each on-screen Zodiac appearance as a way to further cloud the killer’s true identity and abstain from implicating Allen further than the storyline already does. Additionally, this echoes actual survivor testimonies, which were riddle with conflicting and mismatching appearance descriptions.

Indie queen Chloe Sevigny plays the nerdy, meek character of Melanie. As the years pass in the film, she becomes Graysmith’s second wife and grows increasingly alienated by his obsession. She possesses a quiet strength that’s never overbearing and never indulgent.

Brian Cox plays San Francisco television personality Melvin Belli as something of a dandy and honored member of the literati. His depiction of a well-known local celebrity oozes confidence and gravitas. Elias Koteas plays Sergeant Mulanax, an embattled Vallejo police chief, while Dermot Mulroney plays Toschi’s own chief, Captain Marty Lee.

PT Anderson company regular Phillip Baker Hall appears as Sherwood Morrill, an esteemed handwriting analyst whose expertise is thrown into question as he succumbs to an escalating alcohol problem. Comedian Adam Goldberg appears in a small role as Duffy Jennings, Avery’s sarcastic replacement at The Chronicle, and eagle-eyed Fincher fanatics will also spot the presence of Zach Grenier, who played Edward Norton’s boss in FIGHT CLUB (1999).

ZODIAC is a very important film within Fincher’s filmography in that it marks a drastic shift in his style, ushering in a second act of creative reinvigoration fueled by the rise of digital filmmaking cameras and tools that could match celluloid pixel for crystal.

Fincher’s early adoption became a tastemaker’s vote of confidence in a fledgling technology and substantially bolstered the rate of adoption by other filmmakers.

Having shot several of his previous commercials on digital with THE GAME’s cinematographer Harris Savides, David Fincher was confident enough that digital cameras could meet the rigorous demands of his vision for ZODIAC and subsequently enlisted Savides’ experience as insurance towards that end.

Shooting on the Thomson Viper Filmstream camera in 1080p and presenting in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio, Fincher is able to successfully replicate his signature aesthetic while substantially building on it with the new tools afforded to him by digital.

Because of digital’s extraordinary low-light sensitivity, Fincher and Savides confidently underexpose their image with high contrast, shadowy lighting—many times using just the available practical lights, which resulted in moody, cavernous interior sequences and bright, idyllic exteriors. Fincher also is able to create something of a mundane, workaday look that stays within his established color space of yellow warm tones and blue/teal cold casts.

The procedural, methodical nature of the story is echoed in the observational, objective camera movement and editing. David Fincher’s dolly and technocrane work is deliberate and precise, as is every cut by Angus Wall in his first solo editing gig for Fincher having co-edited several of his previous features.

Wall’s work was certainly cut out for him, judging by Fincher’s well-documented insistence on doing as many takes as required in order to get the performance he wanted (it’s not uncommon in a David Fincher film for the number of takes to reach into the 50’s or 60’s).

To my eyes, ZODIAC is quite simply one of the most realistic and authentic-looking period films I’ve ever seen, owing credit to Donald Graham Burt’s meticulous production design. Burt and Fincher aren’t after a stylized, exaggerated vintage look like PT Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997), but rather a lived-in, well-worn, and low-key aesthetic.

Absolutely nothing feels out of place or time. Fincher’s borderline-obsessive attention to historical detail extended as far as flying in trees via helicopter in one instance to make the Lake Berryessa locale look just as it did at the time.

Practical solutions like this were augmented by clever, well-hidden CGI and digital matte paintings that never call attention to themselves. Funnily enough for a film so predicated upon its historical authenticity, David Fincher also acknowledges a surprising amount of artistic license taken with the film’s story— compiling composites of characters and re-imagining real-life events in a bid for a streamlined, clean narrative.

In developing the film, Fincher initially didn’t want to use a traditional score, instead preferring to incorporate a rich tapestry of popular period songs, radio commercials, and other audio recordings.

Toward that end, he used several different styles of music to reflect the changing decades, such as jazz, R&B and psychedelic folk rock like Donavan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, which takes on a pitch-black foreboding feel when it plays over the film’s brilliantly-staged opening murder sequence.

Once the film was well into its editing, Fincher’s regular sound designer Ren Klyce suggested that the film could really use some score during key moments.

David Fincher agreed, and reached out to David Shire—the composer of Alan J. Pakula’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), a film that served as ZODIAC’s tonal influence.

Shire’s score is spare, utilizing mainly piano chords to create a brooding suite of cues that echoes the oblique danger and consuming obsession that the story deals in.

The story of ZODIAC is perfectly suited to Fincher’s particular thematic fascinations. Architecture plays a big role, with Fincher depicting San Francisco as a city in transition. He shows cranes on the skyline, holes in the ground waiting to be filled, and most famously, an impressionistic timelapse of the TransAmerica tower’s construction.

This approach extends to his interiors, specifically the Chronicle offices, which slowly transform over the years from a beige bullpen of clacking typewriters and cathedral ceilings to a brighter workspace with low-slung tile ceilings and fluorescent light fixtures (as seen in the well-composed low angle shots that pepper the film).

Nihilism— another key recurring theme throughout David Fincher’s work— pervades the storyline and the actions of its characters. Because they’re unable to solve the mystery and tie things up with a neat Hollywood ending, they either fall into an existential crisis about all their wasted efforts, or they simply lose interest and move on.

Fincher’s exploration of film’s inherent artifice is present here in very meta stylings: film canisters and their contents become promising leads and clues, and the characters get to watch movies about themselves on the screen (Fincher makes a big show of Toschi attending the Dirty Harry premiere). ZODIAC’s unique tone and subtext is perfectly indicative of David Fincher’s sensibilities as an artist, and frankly, it’s impossible to imagine this story as made by someone else.

ZODIAC bowed at the Cannes Film Festival to great views, its praise echoed by a cabal of prominent critics stateside. They hailed it as a masterpiece and Fincher’s first truly mature work as a filmmaker—the implication being that the maverick director was ready to join the Oscar pantheon of Great Filmmakers.

The critics’ high praise hasn’t eroded since either; it consistently ranks as one of the best films of the decade, if certainly not the most underrated. I wish the same could be said of the box office take of its original theatrical run, which was so poor that it only made back its budget when worldwide grosses were accounted for.

Thankfully, the release of Fincher’s director’s cut on home video managed to bring the film a great deal of respect and attention. As a reflection of David Fincher’s strict adherence to facts and eyewitness testimony in making the case for Arthur Lee Allen as the Zodiac, the long-dormant case was actually re-opened by Bay Area authorities for further investigation. When the pieces are put all together, the evidence clearly points to ZODIAC as Fincher’s grandest achievement yet.


THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008)

With some films, there’s an intense connection that you can’t fully explain. It resonates deep inside of you, in that cloud of unconsciousness. At the risk of sounding a little hippy-dippy, director David Fincher’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008) is one such film for me. It feels like a life that I’ve already lived before, despite the fact that I’ve never been to the South and I was born too late in the twentieth century to remember most of it.

Yet, there’s something about the film’s eroded-paint interiors in particular that reminds me of a distinct time in my life, a time when I was re-discovering my hometown of Portland, Oregon with new eyes during summer breaks from college.

I only realized it after my most recent viewing, but the film also sublimely foreshadows major developments in my own life: The treasured tugboat upon which Benjamin Button spends a great deal of his early adult years is named The Chelsea (coincidentally the name of my fiancée), and the love of his life is an elegant dancer (again, the soon-to-be Mrs.).

I can’t make it through the film without tearing up a little bit (or a lot), especially during the last montage where David Fincher shows us the smiling faces from Button’s life as Button himself opines in voiceover about how relationships are life’s biggest treasure. The scene utterly slays me. Every. Single. Time.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is based off the F. Scott Fitzgerald book of the same name, published in 1922. A film adaptation had been in development since the 1970’s, associated with a wide variety of big-time Hollywood names like Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, and Jack Nicholson.

Due to the storyline of a man aging in reverse, which would require 5 different actors playing Button at various stages of his life, the idea never picked up much steam. A leading role split up between five men wouldn’t appeal to any one movie star, and the studio couldn’t justify the required budget with unknowns. After a while, most executives considered it to simply be one of those great screenplays that never got made.

By the early 2000’s, executives began to realize that CGI technology had caught up with the demand for a single actor to portray Button throughout the ages. They brought FORREST GUMP scribe Eric Roth aboard to try his hand at a new draft, but the project really began generating momentum when Fincher, fresh off his success with 2002’s PANIC ROOM, became involved.

Working with Spielberg’s producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall (in addition to his own regular producer, Cean Chaffin), he developed the film simultaneously with his 2007 feature ZODIAC, which ended up going before cameras first. David Fincher’s creative steerage was instrumental in securing the participation of Brad Pitt, and with the decision to forsake the novel’s original Baltimore setting in favor of New Orleans and its generous post-Katrina tax incentives, the project was finally given the greenlight after decades of development.

Within Fincher’s filmography, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is just that—a curious case. It’s his most honored film, and certainly his most emotionally resonant and powerful. However, the film is not well-liked amongst the film community at large, let alone his devoted fanbase. It is commonly accused of maudlin sentiments, which at the time of its release were at odds with a cynical American mentality wrought by terrorism and an unpopular war abroad.

However, as the long march of time strips the film of the context of its release, its fundamental integrity increasingly reveals itself. Like its sister project ZODIAC, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON makes a strong case for one of the best films of its decade.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is bookended with a framing narrative that concerns an elderly woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett) lying on her deathbed in a hospital while Hurricane Katrina approaches. She implores her daughter to read her a series of journal entries she’s saved in a box, all of them written by a mysterious man known only as Benjamin Button.

His story begins on the eve of World War 1’s end in New Orleans, where a baby is born with quite the defect: severely wrinkled skin and a frail condition that’s consistent with an old man at the end of his life.

The baby’s mother dies during labor, and the father, wealthy button manufacturer Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), flees with the baby in horror, abandoning him on the back steps of a nursing home. The home’s caretaker, a fiercely maternal soul named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) discovers the baby and takes him in as her own, giving him the name of Benjamin.

The child confounds all expectations as he continues growing up into an elderly-looking little boy, appearing better and healthier every day. Benjamin (Brad Pitt) fits right in with the residents of the creaky old nursing home, and they become something of an extended family around him. One day, Benjamin meets a precocious little girl named Daisy, who sense just how different he is, and they begin a lifelong friendship.

As the years give way to decades, Benjamin continues to age in reverse, becoming more youthful and virile as he sets out into the world on a grand adventure that places him against the backdrop of the 20th’s century historical moments.

He becomes a master sailor, battles Nazi submarines in open waters, and even experiences a secret love affair with an old married woman (Tilda Swinton) in Russia. When Benjamin returns home from his adventures, he finds Daisy has grown into a beautiful young woman as well as a successful ballet dancer in New York.

Their attraction towards each other alternates erratically, never overlapping until Daisy’s career is cut short after getting hit by a taxi in Paris. Middle age sets in, and as Daisy becomes acutely aware of her mortality, she and Benjamin finally give in to each other and start a grand romance.

When Daisy announces she’s pregnant, Benjamin becomes withdrawn emotionally—he’s reluctant about becoming a father because as the child grows, he’ll only get younger still and, as he puts it, “(she) can’t raise the both of us”.

As Benjamin’s singularly unique life plays out, the film reveals itself to ultimately be about the heartbreak of age and time. It plays like a melancholic yearning for youth, while at the same praises the experience of life and living it to the fullest with the time you have.

Brad Pitt’s third collaboration with David Fincher is also his most sophisticated. As Benjamin Button, Pitt needs to be able to convey a complex life through all its various stages and differing attitudes. The main through-line of Pitt’s performance is that of a curious innocent, who soaks in everything around him with wide-eyed glee because he was never supposed to live long enough to see it anyway. The majority of Pitt’s performance is augmented by CGI, but his characterization is consistent and his physicality is believable across the spectrum of age. Simply put, Pitt’s performance is a career-best that takes advantage of his off-kilter leading man sensibilities.

Blanchett’s Daisy is an inspired counterpart as a complex character who is both tender and cold, idealistic and practical. Like Pitt, Blanchett must convey the full spectrum of womanhood with her performance, and does so entirely convincingly (with a little help from CGI “youth-inizing” techniques and conventional makeup prosthetics).

Tilda Swinton plays Liz Abbott, Benjamin’s mistress and lover during his short residency in a grand, old Russian hotel. Swinton, like Blanchett, is capable of playing a wide variety of age ranges, and here performs beautifully as an older, sophisticated and worldly woman who introduces Benjamin to the world of caviar and secret love affairs.

As Benjamin’s adopted mother Queenie, Taraji P. Henson is a revelation. She projects a strong, resilient dignity that allows her to essentially run the show at the old folks home Benjamin lives in. Mahershala Ali, better known for his role in Fincher’sHOUSE OF CARDS series, works for the first with the director here as Tizzy, Queenie’s lover and a distinguished, mild-mannered father figure to Benjamin.

Jason Flemyng plays Benjamin’s real father, Thomas Button, as a man besieged by melancholy over how his life has turned out. He’s a rich man, but all of the money in the world couldn’t have prevented his current situation, so he keeps Benjamin at an emotional distance until its time to pass his legacy and wealth on.

And last but not least, Elias Koteas— in his second consecutive performance for Fincher following ZODIAC—plays Monsieur Gateau, a blind clockmaker. Consumed by grief after losing his son to the Great War, Gateau constructs a clock that hangs in the New Orleans train station and runs backwards—thus paralleling Benjamin Button’s own life.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON furthers David Fincher’s foray into the digital realm. Working with a new visual collaborator in cinematographer Claudio Miranda, Fincher once again utilizes the Viper Filmstream camera to establish an all-digital workflow. Indeed, not a single frame of the film was ever printed to film before the striking of release prints.

Acquisition, editing and mastering was done entirely with bits and pixels— ones and zeroes. Presented in David Fincher’s preferred 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the film is easily the director’s warmest-looking picture to date. The frame is tinged with a slight layer of sepia, while the warm tones veer towards the yellow part of the color spectrum and a cold blue/teal cast defines the current-day Katrina sequences.

The incorporation of practical lights into the frame creates a high contrast lighting scheme while making for moody, intimate interiors that evoke the old world feel of New Orleans.
Fincher’s color palette deals mainly in earth tones, which makes the presence of red (see Daisy’s dress during their first romantic date) all the more striking when it finally appears.

Red in general seldom makes an appearance in David Fincher’s work (except for blood, of course), a phenomenon that can be chalked up to Fincher’s self-avowed aversion to the color as it appears on film due to its distracting nature. However, with Daisy’s dress in particular, the costume designers were able to convince Fincher that the distraction served a legitimate story purpose.
For a director well known for his dynamic sense of camera movement, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is a surprisingly sedate affair.

While certain key moments are punctuated with dolly or Technocrane movements, for the most part David Fincher is content to let the frame stay static and allow the performances to take center stage. This approach is bolstered by returning production designer Donald Graham Burt’s exceptional period reconstructions (themselves augmented with CGI and digital matte paintings).

Fincher’s regular editor Angus Wall stitches everything together in a deliberate, meaningful fashion that eschews flash in favor of truth and emotion. Kirk Baxter joins Wall, and would go on to become part of Fincher’s core editing team himself.

For the film’s music, David Fincher collaborates with Alexandre Desplat, who creates an elegiac, nostalgic score that sounds lush and romantic. Desplat’s work stands in stark contrast to the moody, foreboding scores that Howard Shore or David Shire created for Fincher’s earlier films.

Fincher supplements Desplat’s whimsical suite of cues with several historical needledrops that fill out the period: southern ragtime, R&B crooner hits like The Platters’ “My Prayer”, and even The Beatles’ “Twist And Shout”. Above all of these, the incorporation of Scott Joplin’s Bethena waltz stands out as the most powerful and cutting of cues (in my mind, at least). The song is as Old Time Dixie as it comes, but it’s a nostalgic little tune that resonates with me on a very strange level.

I can’t hear it without tearing up a little, and I can’t figure out why besides the obvious beauty of the song. The best way I can describe it as if it’s some remnant from a previous life that only my unconscious soul recognizes—which is an odd thing to say coming from a guy who doesn’t believe in reincarnation.

For a lot of people, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON doesn’t feel like a David Fincher film, mainly because of its overall optimistic and sentimental tone that stands at stark odds with the rest of his emotionally cold, nihilistic filmography. However, the film is right in line with the trajectory of Fincher’s other thematic explorations.

While the passage of time is a key theme specific to the film’s story, it builds upon the foundation that Fincher established in ZODIAC (a story that also took place over the course of several decades). The old world New Orleans setting allows for lots of Victorian/classical architecture in the form of ornate southern mansions and municipal buildings that, as the years tick by, give way to a distinct midcentury modern feel (see the duplex where Benjamin and Daisy’s daughter is born).

And finally, despite being shot on digital, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON plays with the artificial constructs of the film medium. Flashback sequences, like the blind clockmaker scenes and a man getting struck by lightning seven times are treated to look like old silent pictures from the Edison era—jittery frames, contrast fluctuations, and heavy scratches, etc.

These filters, applied in post-production, serve to differentiate the flashbacks from the sumptuously-shot main story, but they also clue in to a curious phenomenon that has risen out of the industry’s quick shift into digital filmmaking: the treating of digital footage to look like film, which is akin to a vegetarian trying to make a soy patty taste just like the chicken he refuses to eat in the first place.

To my memory, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is one of the earliest instances of applying filmic artifacts onto a digitally “pure” image, along with Robert Rodriguez’s PLANET TERROR in 2006.

It’s a commonly held tenet that age softens even the hardest of personalities. The production of THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON saw David Fincher enter middle age and come to grips with his own mortality after the death of his father. As such, the film stands as a testament of an artist looking back on life and softening his edge without sacrificing who he is.

The film’s release in 2008 was met with modest commercial success and polarized reviews, with some deriding it as aFORREST GUMP knockoff while an equally vocal contingent hailed it as a technical triumph and a masterpiece of storytelling.

Fincher had his first real brush with the Oscars after the film’s release, with his direction receiving a nomination in addition to a nomination for Best Picture amongst a slew of actual Oscar wins for its groundbreaking visual effects work in seamlessly mapping a CG face onto a live-action body performance.

The cherry on top of the film’s success was its induction into the hallowed Criterion Collection, which—while met with scorn by Criterion fanboys for its perceived maudlin mawkishness— earned Fincher his place in the pantheon of important auteurs. It is an admittedly easy film to dismiss for cynical reasons, but THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON holds many treasures for those who choose to embrace it.

Like its unique protagonist, the film will persist through the ages precisely because of its poignant insights into the meaning of our fragile, fleeting existence on this earth.


COMMERICALS & MUSIC VIDEO (2008-2010)

The release of 2008’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON found director David Fincher without a follow-up project immediately in the pipeline. His search for new material would eventually lead him to Aaron Sorkin and 2010’s masterful THE SOCIAL NETWORK, but due to the fact that the story wasn’t nearly as development-intensive as his previous film, Fincher was able to squeeze in a few commercials. His most notable work from this brief period consisted of multiple spots done for Nike and Apple, both giants in their respective fields.

NIKE: “SPEED CHAIN” (2008)

One of several spots that Fincher created for Nike in 2008, “SPEED CHAIN” is simply masterful in concept and execution. It depicts the evolution of speed, starting with a snake coming out of the water, morphing into a man, a leopard, a car, and finally a speeding bullet train. The piece is presented in David Fincher’s preferred 2.40:1 aspect ratio, as well as his signature cold color palette and dynamic camera movements that are augmented by CGI.


NIKE: “FATE: LEAVE NOTHING” (2008)

“FATE: LEAVE NOTHING” is yet another exceptional piece of advertising, set to a trip-hop remix of Ennio Morricone’s score for THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966) as two young boys grow and develop essential football skills like agility and strength. It all culminates in a key confrontation between the two on the field as they collide with explosive force. Alongside the ever-present visual signatures, the piece is indicative of a major fascination of Fincher’s from this period in his career—the passage of time.


NIKE: “OLYMPICS FILMSTRIP” (2008)

Fincher’s third spot for Nike, “OLYMPICS FILMSTRIP” is heavy on the post-production, framing Olympians in film frames as the strips themselves run and twist through the frame. Shot by THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON’s cinematographer Claudio Miranda in David Fincher’s characteristic steely color palette, the piece also falls in nicely with Fincher’s continued exploration of the film frame’s boundaries and the mechanics of film itself as an artificial imaging medium.


STAND UP 2 CANCER: “PSA” (2008)

Stand Up 2 Cancer’s “PSA” spot features several vignettes in which celebrities (and scores of regular people too) stand up and face the camera—an admittedly literal concept. Several of Fincher’s previous feature collaborators make an appearance here: Tilda Swinton, Morgan Freeman, Elle Fanning, and Jodie Foster. Others, like Susan Sarandon, Keanu Reeves, Casey Affleck, and Tobey Maguire also pop up.


SOFTBANK: “INTERNET MACHINE” (2008)

David Fincher’s “INTERNET MACHINE” is a spot for a foreign cell phone company that, to my knowledge, never aired stateside. It’s a strange piece, and so dark that we almost can’t see what’s going on at all. Cast in a heavy, David Fincher-esque green color tint, Brad Pitt walks down the street and casually talking on his phone— all while CGI cars are blown away by apocalyptic winds behind him.


APPLE: “IPHONE 3G” (2009)

In 2009, Fincher did two spots for Apple’s iPhone line of products. The first, “IPHONE 3G” teases the secrecy that usually surrounds the release of a new iPhone by depicting the complicated security process of accessing the prototype stored within Apple’s laboratories.

The sleek, high contrast and steely look is characteristic of Fincher, but fits in quite sublimely with Apple’s own branding. The colorless set is full of various security tech and looks like something out of a Stanley Kubrick movie, which is fitting for a director whose work is profoundly influenced by him.


APPLE: “BREAK IN” (2009)

“BREAK IN” advertises the imminent release of the 3G’s successor, the iPhone 3GS. This spot echoes the look of “IPHONE 3G” with a similar steely color palette and Kubrick-style set piece, but this time around David Fincher has a little more fun with the storyline and technology on display.


LEXUS: “CUSTOM CAR” (2009)

“CUSTOM CAR”, done for Lexus, is simple in concept and execution, featuring Fincher’s steely, cold, urban aesthetic and fascination with mankind’s relationship to technology—seen here via the convenience of custom car settings that help identify ownership in the absence of visual differentiation.

The piece isn’t available to embed as far as I can tell.


NIKE: “TRAIL OF DESTRUCTION” (2009)

Fincher’s 2009 spot for Nike, “TRAIL OF DESTRUCTION” is incredibly artful in its high contrast, black and white approach. It might be one of the most expressionistic depictions of football I’ve ever seen.

David Fincher’s characteristic use of CGI as a storytelling tool (not just for visual flash) can be seen at the end, where the football player/protagonist retires to the locker room and exhibits a lizard-like skin pattern of scales.


NIKE: “GAMEBREAKERS” (2010)

“GAMEBREAKERS” is all computer-generated, and as such it hasn’t aged as well. It looks more like an old videogame, but perhaps that was the intent. Fincher once again works with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who shot live-action face elements that were then mapped onto CG bodies. The idea is similar to the tech employed for THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, but reversed and applied to a dynamic action sequence.


THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)

Facebook is easily the biggest, most transformative development of the early twenty-first century. It completely revolutionized how we communicate with each other, how we keep in touch with old friends and family, and even how we use the Internet on a fundamental level. It single-handedly ushered in the era of “Web 2.0” that experts spent most of the 90’s predicting and theorizing about.

The fact that Facebook was born in the dorm room of some Harvard kid meant we had entered a brave, new digital age. We were now in a world that benefitted the young and the savvy, the likes of who didn’t wait to “pay their dues” or obtain a blessing from the old guard before going about casually changing the world.

At the end of the day, however, Facebook is a tool. A product. A collection of ones and zeroes organized just so and projected onto our monitors. So, when it was announced that THE WEST WING creator Aaron Sorkin had written a screenplay based off “The Accidental Billionaires”, Ben Mezrich’s book on Facebook’s turbulent founding, the question on everyone’s minds (as well as the film’s own marketing materials) was: “how could they ever make a movie out of Facebook?”

As Mezrich’s book revealed (and Sorkin’s screenplay built upon), the inside story of Facebook’s genesis was fraught with a level of drama, intrigue, and betrayal normally reserved for Shakespeare.

Sorkin’s script, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, was a high-profile project from day one. It attracted the efforts of top producers like Scott Rudin, in addition to well-known personalities like Kevin Spacey, who signed on to executive produce the film. Directing duties were eventually handed to David Fincher—- the right decision, given that literally nobody else could’ve made this film as masterfully as he has done here.

When THE SOCIAL NETWORK debuted in October of 2010, it enjoyed very healthy box office receipts, mostly due to the name recognition of Facebook as well as a collective curiosity about its eccentric founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Others—like me—simply came to worship at the altar of David Fincher, subject matter be damned.

Because life is unfair, THE SOCIAL NETWORK came close to Oscar glory but was ultimately robbed by some movie about a cussing monarch or whatever that nobody will remember in ten years. There’s a strong case to be made that THE SOCIAL NETWORK is the best film in Fincher’s entire body of work, but that’s a hard case to argue considering the strength of the rest of his filmography.

One thing is for certain: we hadn’t even completed the first year of the Teens before David Fincher had given us a strong contender for the best film of the new decade. THE SOCIAL NETWORK uses Zuckerberg’s deposition hearings as framing devices, allowing for the bulk to story to occur as flashback while the “present-day” sequences orient us in time and space and help keep us on the same page as the characters.

We see Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) under fire from two fronts—Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) are suing him because they believe Facebook was an original idea of theirs that Zuckerberg stole, while Zuckerberg’s former best friend and Facebook CFO is suing him because he cheated him out of millions of dollars that were rightfully his. Fincher then transports us to Cambridge, Massachusetts during the mid-2000’s where Zuckerberg was an undergrad at Harvard.

When his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) dumps him for being a cold, cynical little twerp, Zuckerberg goes home and creates Facemash—a website that compares randomly-generated portraits of female students. The ensuing traffic crashes Harvard’s computer network and gains him a large degree of notoriety among the student body as well as disciplinary action from Harvard’s board.

Word of his antics reach the Winklevoss twins (henceforth known as the Winklevii), who hire him to realize their idea of a Harvard-exclusive social networking site called Harvard Connect while dangling the vague possibility of an invitation to their prestigious Final Club in front of him like a carrot.

But in bouncing their idea off of his friend Saverin, Zuckerberg realizes he has a much better one, disregarding his commission to build Facebook with Saverin instead. The popularity of Facebook explodes around the campus, turning Zuckerberg and Saverin into local celebrities. It’s not long until the site expands its user base to other Ivy League schools as well as Stanford, located right in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Understandably, the Winklevii finds themselves humiliated and infuriated by Zuckerberg’s deceit, and so begin building a nasty lawsuit against him.

Having left Boston for the warmer climes of Palo Alto for the summer, Zuckerberg and Saverin hustle to find more capital for their successful little business, eventually starting a partnership with Napster founder Sean Parker, who helps set them up with meetings with big-time investors as well as some primo office space.

As Facebook is launched into the stratosphere, Zuckerberg finds himself accumulating enemies faster than friends. Much is made in the film about the inherent irony of the creator behind the world’s most successful social networking endeavor losing all of his friends in the process.

This idea is most potent in the major conflict between Zuckerberg and a scorned, exiled Saverin who rages back with venomous litigation after he’s deceived out of hundreds of millions of dollars in potential earnings.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK would live or die on the strengths of its performances, a notion that the technically-minded Fincher recognized and applied to his strategy by putting an unusual amount of focus (for him) on the performances.

Beginning with a generous three weeks of rehearsal time prior to the shoot, and following through with consistently demanding obscene numbers of takes (the opening scene had 99 takes alone), David Fincher led his cast into delivering searing, career-best performances.

The lion’s share of the attention and the film’s only acting nomination at the Oscars went to Jesse Eisenberg’s pitch-perfect performance as Mark Zuckerberg, or rather, the fictional version of the real-life Facebook founder that Sorkin had created. Eisenberg portrays Zuckerberg as a cold genius with sarcastic, antisocial tendencies. He is regularly absent from the present—his mind is elsewhere, preoccupied by his duties back at the office.

At the same time, he can be calculating and ruthless when he needs to be. As Eduardo Saverin—the initial investor and embattled ex-CFO of Facebook—Andrew Garfield delivers a breakout performance. Decent, passionate, and perhaps a little squirrely, Saverin is Zuckerberg’s closest friend and confidant; a brother. But their relationship is a Cain and Abel story, and because of his blind trust that Zuckerberg will do the right thing and look out for him, he inevitably assumes the Abel position.

Pop icon Justin Timberlake— in a performance that legitimized his status as a capable actor— plays Sean Parker, the creator of Napster and Silicon Valley’s de facto “bad boy”. Timberlake easily channels a flashy, cocky, and flamboyant physicality that’s at once both undeniably attractive to Zuckerberg and duplicitously sleazy to Saverin.

Fincher’s casting of Timberlake is quite playful, and he doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to pointing out the irony of a pop star playing a man who single-handedly transformed (some might say ruined) his industry.
Fincher’s eclectic supporting players serve as rock-solid satellites that orbit around the film’s three titanic leads. David Fincher’s series of collaborations with the Mara clan begins here with the casting of Rooney Mara as Erica Albright, Zuckerberg’s ex girlfriend. She’s patient and honest, but in a no-bullshit kind of way that’s not afraid to tell people off and put them in their place.

Mara’s character is presented as a major driving force behind Zuckerberg’s actions, with their breakup becoming the inciting event that drives him to create Facemash in the first place. Mara turns in a spectacular low-profile performance that would lead to high-profile roles in other films, not the least of which was as the lead in Fincher’s next project, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011).

Rashida Jones, better known for her work on PARKS & REC, plays the admittedly thankless role of Marilyn Delpy, an insightful young lawyer in Zuckerberg’s deposition. Her knack for comedy is well documented in her larger body of work, but in THE SOCIAL NETWORK she shows off a fantastic serious side that is consistently realistic.

Armie Hammer’s dual performance as the Winklevoss twins was yet another of the film’s many breakouts. Hammer’s portrayal of the film’s primary set of antagonists required the dashing young actor to not only change his physicality between Tyler and Cameron by mere degrees, but also to undergo the arduous process of motion-capturing his face for its later digital compositing onto the body of actor Josh Pence.

Pence, it should be noted, is the great hero of the piece, as he valiantly forfeited his own performance in service to Fincher’s vision. And last but not least, Joseph Mazzello turns up in his highest-profile role since 1993’s JURASSIC PARK as the anxious, nerdy Dustin Moskovitz— Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard and one of Facebook’s founding fathers.

As I’ve grown older and more entrenched in Los Angeles’ film community, I’ve found that my connections to major studio films have become increasingly personal, and my degrees of separation from the prominent directors and actors I admire decreasing exponentially. THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a personal flashpoint then, in that a lot of my friends and acquaintances are a part of the film.

I suppose this is due to the story’s dependence on talent in their early twenties, as well as just being associated with the larger Los Angeles film community at the right time. For instance, my co-producer on my 2012 feature HERE BUILD YOUR HOMES, Josh Woolf, worked on the film as a production assistant and was there during the filming of the aerial title shot with Zuckerberg running across Harvard Square (a shot we’ll address in detail later).

Additionally, an actor friend of mine who I shot a short film with in January 2014, Toby Meuli, plays one of the more-prominent Harvard students during the Facemash sequence. A member of my group of friends from University of Oregon makes a brief appearance during a Final Club party sequence in which he chugs from a bottle of liquor and hands it off to Andew Garfield standing behind him.

I even went to a party in Los Feliz in 2010 that was thrown by the young woman with a pixie cut who was featured prominently during the opening frat party sequence. And finally, Mike Bash—a very close friend of mine—was cast in a great scene that followed the Bill Gates seminar. He was originally the guy who didn’t know that it was actually Bill Gates who was speaking. The scene was initially shot in Boston, but his role was cut when David Fincher eventually decided that he didn’t like how he directed the scene.

Rather than live with what he had, David Fincher reshot the scene in LA with new actors. Naturally, Bash was pretty despondent over his exclusion from the finished product, despite my assurances that he achieved a dream that eludes the grand majority of aspiring (and successful) actors: receiving direction from David Fucking Fincher.

David Fincher’s foray into digital filmmaking soldiers on in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, but this time he swaps out the Viper Filmstream camera with its maximum resolution of 1080 pixels for the glorious 4k visuals of the Red One camera.

His FIGHT CLUB cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, returns to shoot THE SOCIAL NETWORK in Fincher’s preferred 2.40:1 aspect ratio, ultimately bagging a Cinematography Oscar nomination for his trouble. Fincher and Cronenweth convey an overall cold tone without relying on the obvious blue side of the color spectrum. Warmer shots are dialed in to a yellow hue, with a prominent green cast coating several shots.

David Fincher’s visual signature is immediately apparent, once again utilizing high contrast lighting and practical lamps that make for dark, cavernous interiors. In shooting the film, Fincher and Cronenweth pursued a simple, unadorned look. Combined with the digital format’s increased sensitivity to light, most lighting setups were reportedly completed in twenty minutes or less.

The camerawork is sedate and observational, containing none of the flashiness of its kindred tonal spirit, FIGHT CLUB. When the camera does move, the name of the game is precision—meaning calculated dolly moves or the motion-controlled perfection of the Technocrane. There’s only one handheld shot in the entire film, when Timberlake’s Parker drunkenly approaches a bedroom door at a house party to find police on the other side.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK marks production designer Donald Graham Burt’s third consecutive collaboration with Fincher—and third consecutive period piece. Thankfully, reconstructing the mid-2000’s isn’t as arduous a process as recreating the 70’s or large swaths of the twentieth century.

The major challenge on Burt’s part was replicating a well-known campus like Harvard in an authentic manner when the school refused to let the production film on their grounds. Shots filmed at Johns Hopkins University, as well as various locations in Los Angeles are unified in time and space by David Fincher’s editing team of Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter.

The director’s adoption of digital techniques extends well into the post-production realm, with any promise of the technology’s ability to make editing easier going right out the window because of Fincher’s preferred shooting style.

Fincher had routinely used two cameras for each setup, effectively doubling his coverage, in addition to regularly demanding dozens upon dozens of takes until he was satisfied. At the end of it all, Wall and Baxter were left with over 268 hours of raw digital footage to sift through—a momentous task made all the more complicated by David Fincher’s tendency to mix and match elements from various takes right down to individual syllables of audio to achieve the cadence of performance he desired.

The new tools that digital filmmaking affords have certainly unleashed Fincher’s control-freak tendencies, but when that same obsession results in his strongest work to date and Oscar wins for his editing team, it can hardly be called a bad thing.

One of the most immediate and striking aspects of THE SOCIAL NETWORK is its unconventional musical score, written by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor in his first scoring job after a series of casual collaborations with Fincher (SE7EN’s opening credits and the music video for Reznor’s “ONLY”).

Partnering with Atticus Ross, Reznor has managed to create an entirely electronic sound that not only evokes his own artistic aesthetic, but also complements the film’s tone perfectly. Reznor’s Oscar-winning suite of cues is quite spooky, incorporating a haunting droning sound that unifies all the disparate elements. It almost sounds like someone dancing upon a razor’s edge.

The now-iconic main theme uses melancholy piano plunks that recall nostalgia and childhood, slowly getting softer and lost to audio buzz and droning as Zuckerberg strays from innocence. Another standout is a rearrangement of the Edvard Grieg’s classical masterpiece “In The Hall Of The Mountain King” that appears during the Henley Regatta rowing sequence, which sounds as through it were filtered through the manic, electric prism of Wendy Carlos (Stanley Kubrick’s composer for THE SHINING (1980).

Fincher’s go-to sound guy Ren Klyce layers everything into a coherent audio mix that would net him his own Oscar nomination. Klyce and David Fincher’s approach to the sonic palette of THE SOCIAL NETWORK is quite interesting, in that they don’t shy away from mixing in loud music and ambience during crowded scenes like the opening tavern sequence or the midpoint nightclub sequence.

The dialogue is almost lost amongst the loud din of activity, becoming a counterintuitive strategy to invest the audience and signal to them that they’ll really have to listen over the next two hours. Despite being a primarily talky film, the experience of watching THE SOCIAL NETWORK is anything but passive.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK takes all of Fincher’s core thematic fascinations and bottles them up into a singular experience. The director’s opening credits are always inspired, and THE SOCIAL NETWORK is no different (despite being relatively low-key).

Echoing Zuckerberg the character’s composed, plodding nature, David Fincher shows us Eisenberg running robotically through the Harvard campus late at night, which not only establishes the setting well, but also introduces us to the lead character’s relentless forward focus. Treating the text to disappear like it might on a computer screen and laying Reznor’s haunting theme over the whole thing are additional little touches that complete the package.

The title shot in this sequence, where we see Zuckerbeg run through Harvard Square from an overhead, aerial vantage point, also shows off Fincher’s inspired use of digital technology in subtle ways. The shot was achieved by placing three Red One cameras next to each other on top of a building and looking down at the action below.

This setup later allowed Fincher to stitch all three shots into one super-wide panorama of the scene that he could then pan through virtually in order to follow Zuckerberg. It’s insane. It’s genius.

Mankind’s relationship to technology has always been a major staple of David Fincher’s films, a thematic fascination influenced by his forebear Stanley Kubrick. In THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Fincher’s career-exploration of this theme comes to a head as the story’s main engine. The saga of Mark Zuckerberg is inherently about computers, the Internet, our complicated interactions with it, and its effect on our physical-world relationships.

Whereas Kubrick painted technology as dehumanizing and something to be feared, Fincher sees it as something to embrace—- something that distinctly enhances humanity and differentiates one person from the other. In David Fincher’s work, the human element tends to coalesce around the nihilistic punk subculture.

Our protagonist is inherently nihilistic and narcissistic, willing to burn whatever bridge he needs to advance his own personal cause, despite his actions not being fueled by money or power. The story hits on Fincher’s punk fascinations with Zuckerberg’s rebelliousness and devil-may-care attitude, in addition to the overt imagery of antisocial computer hackers and the inclusion of The Ramones’ “California Uber Alles”.

Finally, Fincher’s emphasis on architecture helps to evoke a sense of time and place, mixing in the old-world Harvard brownstones with the sleek modernism of the Facebook offices and deposition rooms that echoes the film’s subtext of the old guard stubbornly giving way to a new order.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK is easily David Fincher’s best-received film. When it was released, it scored high marks both in performance and critical reviews, going on to earn several Oscar nominations and even taking home gold statues for some of the big categories like Editing (Wall & Baxter) and Adapted Screenplay (Sorkin).

Ultimately, Fincher himself lost out on its deserved Best Director and Best Picture awards to THE KING’S SPEECH, but anybody could tell you which of the two films will be remembered in the decades to come. THE SOCIAL NETWORK again finds Fincher operating at the top of his game —a position he’s held since SE7EN even though he only broke through into true prestige with 2007’s ZODIAC.

It may not be an entirely accurate reflection of its true-life subject, but THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a pitch-perfect reflection of what Zuckerberg left in his wake: a society that would never be the same, fundamentally changed by a radical new prism of communication.


THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)

The late 2000’s was a golden era for young adult fiction in both the novel and film mediums. Just look at the runaway success of the TWILIGHT series or THE HUNGER GAMES—books or films. Doesn’t matter, because they both are equally prominent within their respective mediums. Despite your personal stance on these properties (trust me, I want them gone and buried just as much as you), you can’t deny their impact on pop culture.

During this time, another book series and subsequent set movie adaptations captivated an admittedly older set—Stieg Larsson’s MILLENNIUM trilogy. Named after the muckracking news magazine that central character Mikael Blomvkist works for, the books (and movies) comprise three titles: “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, “The Girl Who Played With Fire”, and “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest”. In 2009, the first of the Swedish film adaptations came out based on “Dragon Tattoo”, featuring newcomer Noomi Rapace in a star-making turn as the series’ cyper-punk heroine, Lisbeth Salander.

As the Swedish film trilogy proved successful both at home and abroad, it was inevitable that the major US studios would remake the property for American audiences. The task fell to Sony Pictures, who set up THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO with super-producer Scott Rudin overseeing a screenplay by esteemed writer Steve Zaillian.

Rudin’s natural choice for a director was David Fincher, who he had previously worked on the very successful THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) with. Fincher was drawn to the story of two mismatched misfits trying to solve a decades old murder, despite his misgivings that he had become the go-to guy for serial killer films after the success of SE7EN (1995) and ZODIAC (2007).

The tipping point came in Fincher’s realization that he would be at the helm of one of the rarest projects in mainstream studio filmmaking: a hard R-rated franchise. As expected, David Fincher delivered a top-notch film with Oscar-caliber performances and effortless style. For whatever reason, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO didn’t connect with audiences, and its lackluster box office performance probably aborted any further plans for completing the trilogy.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is structured differently than most other thrillers, in that it eschews the traditional three-act design in favor of five acts. This might be perhaps why the film floundered in the United States, where audiences have been subliminally conditioned to accept the ebb and flow of three acts as acceptable narrative form.

The film’s first half tells a two-pronged story, with one thread following Mikael Blomvkist (Daniel Craig)—a disgraced journalist who has recently lost a high-profile lawsuit against wealthy industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. After taking some time off from his co-editor gig at news magazine Millennium, he is approached by Henrick Vanger (Christopher Plummer), a rival of Wennestrom’s and a wealthy industrialist in his own right. Vanger brings Blomvkist to his sprawling estate in rural Hedestat under the auspices of authoring a book of his memoirs.

However, the true purpose of Blomvkist’s employment is much more compelling—to try and solve the decades-old case of Henrick’s granddaughter Harriet, who went missing in the 1960’s and is presumed killed.

Blomvkist takes up residence in a guest cottage on the property and dutifully begins poring over the family records and taking testimony from the various relatives, some of who have shady ties to the Nazi Party in their pasts.

Meanwhile in Stockholm, a young computer expert named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) grapples with the fallout of her foster father’s debilitating stroke. She’s forced to meet with state bureaucrats for evaluation of her mental faculties and state of preparedness for life on her own.

Her case worker—a portly, morally-bankrupt man named Yils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen)—forces her to perform fellatio on him in exchange for rent money, his abuse eventually culminating in Salander’s brutal rape.

However, he doesn’t expect Salander’s ruthlessness and resolve, made readily apparent when she returns the favor and rapes him right back.
Blomvkist requests the help of a research assistant, and in an ironic twist, is paired with Salander—- the very person who performed the background check on him prior to Vanger’s offer of employment.

They make for an unlikely, yet inspired pairing—both professionally as well as sexually. Together, they set about cracking the case, only to discover their suspect is much closer—and much deadlier—than they could’ve imagined.

James Bond himself headlines David Fincher’s pitch-black tale, but it’s a testament to Daniel Craig’s ability that we never are actually reminded of his secret agent exploits throughout the near-three-hour running time.

Craig has been able to avoid the sort of typecasting that doomed others like Mark Hamill or Pierce Brosnan before him, simply because he refuses to let his roles define him. As disgraced journalist Mikael Blomvkist, he projects a slightly disheveled appearance (despite still being an ace fucking dresser). It may not be the most memorable role of his career but he turns in a solid, faultless performance regardless.

The true spotlight goes to Rooney Mara’s cold, antisocial hacker punk, Lisbeth Salander. Mara underwent a radical transformation for the role, even so far as getting real piercings, tattoos, dye jobs, even having her eyebrows bleached.

Considering her previous collaboration with David Fincher was as the squeaky-clean girl-next-door Erica Albright in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Mara’s appearance in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is gut-level arresting.

The depth of Mara’s talent is evident in her unflinching confrontation with the most brutal aspects of her character arc. By giving herself over to the role entirely, she’s able to take a character that was already so well-defined by Rapace in the Swedish versions and make it completely into her own. Her Best Actress nomination at the Oscars was very much deserved.

Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, and Robin Wright round out Fincher’s compelling cast. Plummer is convincing as Henrick Vanger, depicting the retired industrialist as a good-natured yet haunted old man, as well as a bit of a dandy.

Skarsgard’s Martin Vanger is the current CEO of the family business, and his distinguished-gentleman persona cleverly hides his psychopathic, murderous inclinations. Wright plays Erika Berger, Blomvkist’s co-editor at Millennium and his on-again, off-again lover. Wright is by her nature an intelligent and savvy woman, as evidenced not just here but in her subsequent collaboration with Fincher in HOUSE OF CARDS as Kevin Spacey’s Lady MacBeth-ian spouse.
In keeping with David Fincher’s affinity for digital filmmaking technology, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO takes advantage of the Red Epic digital cameras, the next generation of the type that THE SOCIAL NETWORK was shot on.

The film is presented in Fincher’s preferred 2.40:1 aspect ratio, but again it is not true anamorphic. Besides being a reflection of David Fincher’s general distaste for the limitations of anamorphic lenses, the shooting of the image in full-frame and the later addition of a widescreen matte in postproduction is a testament to Fincher’s need for control.

This method allows him to compose the frame exactly as he wants, and the Red Epic’s ability to capture 5000 lines of resolution allows him an even greater degree of precision in zooming in on certain details, blowing up the image, or re-composing the shot without any loss in picture quality.

This technology also affords better image stabilization without any of the warping artifacts that plague the process.

Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth returns for his third collaboration with Fincher, having replaced original director of photography Fredrik Backar eight weeks into the shoot for reasons unknown.

Despite his initial position as a replacement DP, Cronenweth makes the picture his own, with his efforts rewarded by another Oscar nomination. David Fincher’s signature aesthetic is very appropriate for the wintery subject matter, his steely color palette of blues, greens and teals evoking the stark Swedish landscape— even warmer tones are dialed back to a cold yellow in Fincher’s hands.

The high contrast visuals are augmented by realistically placed practical lights that suggest cavernous interiors. Fincher’s sedate camera eschews flash in favor of locked-off, strong compositions and observant, calculated dolly work. When the camera moves, it really stands out in an affecting way.

Nowhere in the film is this more evident than in the shot where Craig’s Blomvkist is in the car approaching Vanger’s extravagant mansion for the first time. Presented from the forward-travelling POV of the car itself, the mansion grows larger in the center of frame— the symmetrical framing conceit suggesting ominous perfection.

The fact that the camera is stabilized makes for a smooth foreboding shot that takes any sort of human element out of the equation and replaces it with a fundamentally uneasy feeling. In the commentary for the film, David Fincher cites a favorite book from childhood, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”—the sequence in which Harker approaches Dracula’s Castle serving as inspiration for his approach to this particular shot.

The connection is certainly not lost on this writer. Like several key shots in Fincher’s larger filmography, the Vanger Estate Approach (as I like to call it) would become a tastemaker shot that has not only been copied in his successive project HOUSE OF CARDS, but in subsequent pop culture works by other artists as well.

Production designer Donald Graham Burt returns for his fourth Fincher film, artfully creating an authentic sense of place in the Swedish locations while showing off his impeccable taste and eye for detail.

Editing team Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter are key collaborators within David Fincher’s filmography, and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO would become their second consecutive Oscar win for editing under the director’s eye.

Their work for THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO really utilizes the advantages that digital filmmaking has to offer in realizing David Fincher’s vision and creating a tone that’s moody but yet unlike conventional missing-person thrillers.

Angus and Wall establish a patient, plodding pace that draws the audience deeper into the mystery before they’re even aware of it, echoing Blomvkist’s own growing obsession with the case.

Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and his music partner Atticus Ross reprise their scoring duties, giving the musical palette of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO an appropriately electronic and cold, wintery feeling.

Primarily achieved via a recurring motif of atonal bells and ambient soundscapes, the score is also supplemented by a throbbing, heartbeat-like percussion that echoes Salander’s simmering anger as well as the encroaching danger at hand.

One of Reznor’s masterstrokes is his reworking of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” for the opening credits and trailer, featuring vocals by Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O. Given a new coat of industrial electronic grunge, the rearrangement instantly conveys the tone and style of the film.

Fincher’s needledrops are few and far between in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, but one sourced music track stands out because of the sheer audaciousness of its inclusion. In the scene where Skarsgard’s Martin Vanger tortures Blomvkist in anticipation of butchering his prey, he fires up the basement’s stereo system and plays, of all songs, Enya’s Orinoco Flow.

I remember the moment getting a huge laugh in the theatre, and rightfully so—the song is just so cheesy and stereotypically Nordic that it acts as a great counterpoint to the sheer darkness of the scene’s events.

The laughter instead becomes a nervous sort of chuckle, the kind we employ to hide a certain kind of fundamental unease and anxiety. Fincher’s go-to sound guy Ren Klyce was nominated for another Oscar with his standout mix, taking this noxious brew of sounds and turning it into a razor-sharp sonic landscape that complements David Fincher’s visuals perfectly.

On its face, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO doesn’t seem like it would call for a substantial amount of computer-generated visual effects. Fincher’s background in VFX results in the incorporation of a surprisingly large quantity of effects shots.

Almost every exterior shot during the Vanger sequences has some degree of digital manipulation applied to it in the way of subtle matte paintings, scenery extensions and weather elements that blend together seamlessly in conveying Fincher’s moody vision and desire for total control over his visuals.

His affinity for imaginative opening title sequences continues here, in what is arguably his most imaginative effort to date. Set to the aforementioned “Immigrant Song” cover, the sequence plays like a dark nightmare version of those iconic James Bond title sequence, depicting key moments from the film in abstract, archetypical form as a thick black ooze splashes around violently. The choice to incorporate a black on black color scheme is undeniably stylish.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO sees David Fincher at the peak of his punk and technological aesthetic explorations. While not Fincher’s creation, the character of Lisbeth Salander fits in quite comfortably within his larger body of work—the culmination of a long flirtation with punk culture.

She is most certainly the product of the cyberpunk mentality, which values not only rebelliousness but technological proficiency as well. Unlike other depictions of this subculture in mass media, it’s easy to see that Fincher obviously respects it for what it is and aims to portray them in a realistic manner.

He builds upon the downplayed foundation he laid in THE SOCIAL NETWORK here by refusing to generate fake interfaces for Salander to use. He shows Salander actively Googling things, looking up people on Wikipedia, etc—he doesn’t shy away from showing corporate logos and interfaces as they appear in real life.

While a lot of people have a problem with blatant product placement, I can respect a director who doesn’t go out of his way to hide (or aggressively feature for that matter) brands and logos when depicting a realistic world. After all, we live in a world awash with corporate branding, so why pretend it doesn’t exist?

David Fincher’s body of work is defined by a distinctly nihilistic attitude towards story and character, even though I don’t believe he’s nihilistic himself. With THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO in particular, these sentiments are a prominent part of the storytelling.

These protagonists are morally flawed people who aren’t afraid of doing bad things to get ahead. They’re mostly atheists, and they don’t care whether you like them or not. The themes of abuse that run through the narrative also reflect this overarching mentality, playing out in the form of authority figures exerting their influence and selfish desires over the women that depend on them.

We see this reflected both on the bureaucratic level with Salander’s lecherous case worker, as well as on the familial level in Harriet Vanger’s repeated rape and abuse at the hands of her brother and father.

Architecture plays a subtle, yet evocative role in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. One of the core themes of the story is the clash between new Sweden (Salander’s weapons-grade sexual ambiguity and technical proficiency) and old Sweden (the Vanger family’s moneyed lifestyle and sprawling compound).

This clash is echoed in the architecture that Fincher chooses to present. The Vanger estate consists of classical Victorian stylings and rustic cottages; compare that to the harsh lines and modern trappings Martin Vanger’s minimalist cliffside residence (all clean lines and floor-to-ceiling glass), as well as the whole of Stockholm—very much the model of a modern European city. In showing us this duality of place and time, Fincher is able to draw a line that also points us directly to the narrative’s major emphasis on the duality of man.

Despite THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO’s impeccable pedigree and unimpeachable quality, it was a modest disappointment at the box office. It opened at a disadvantage, placing third on its debut weekend and never rising above it during the rest of its run.

There were, of course, the inevitable comparisons to the original series of film adaptations, with purists preferring them over David Fincher’s “remake”.

Having seen Fincher’s version before I ever touched the originals, I quickly found that I couldn’t get through the first few minutes of the Swedish opening installment—Fincher’s execution, to me, was so much more superior in every way that it made the originals look like cheap TV movies of the week.

Unfortunately, we will probably never get to see what David Fincher would have done with the remaining two entries in the series, as the poor box office performance of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO most likely put the kibosh on further installments.

But, as I’ve come to discover again and again since I’ve started this essay series project, time has a way of revealing the true quality of a given work. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is only three years old as of this writing, but the groundswell of appreciation is already growing—hailing the film as the most underrated in Fincher’s filmography and an effort on par with his best work.


HALO 4 “SCANNED” TRAILER (2012)

In 2012, the long-awaited, highly anticipated HALO 4 was released for the Xbox 360. During the buildup to the release, the game-makers enlisted director David Fincher to craft an unconventionally long commercial/teaser trailer.

Titled“SCANNED”, the piece takes on the POV of Master Chief, showing us flashbacks from his life as he was selected for the Master Chief program, surgically enhanced, and let loose into the galaxy to protect Earth. The flashbacks are triumphant in nature, which only underscores the severity of the situation when we cut to the present and reveal Master Chief in captivity, facing off against what appears to be a greater threat than he’s ever encountered.

“SCANNED” is a combination of live-action and all-CG elements, evoking the slick commercial work of David Fincher’s earlier advertising career as well as reiterating his confident grasp on visual effects. The high contrast, cold/blue color palette is one of the piece’s few Fincher signatures, in addition to the focus on the futurist technology required to make Master Chief in the first place. At two minutes long, “SCANNED” is a supersized spot and must have been incredibly expensive. Considering that both the HALO video game series and Fincher have huge fan bases between them, it’s a bit surprising to see that their collaboration here wasn’t hyped more than it was.
There’s not a lot of growth to see on David Fincher’s part here, other than the observation that his long, successful commercial career has made him the go-to director for only the highest-profile spots and campaigns.


HOUSE OF CARDS “CHAPTER 1 & 2” (2013)

Director David Fincher has long been a tastemaker when it comes to commercial American media. His two pilot episodes for Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS, released in 2013, are simply the latest in a long string of works that have influenced how movies are made, how commercials are engineered, and how music videos have evolved.

Due to HOUSE OF CARDS’ runaway success, he has played a crucial part in making the all-episodes-at-once model the indisputable future of serialized entertainment and reinforcing the notion that we’re living in a new golden age of television.

HOUSE OF CARDS had originally been a successful television series in the United Kingdom, so of course it had to be re-adapted for American audiences, who presumably have no patience for British parliamentary politics.

On principle, I think this is a terrible practice that discourages us from learning about other cultures based off the assumption that we’re too lazy to read subtitles. But like Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011) before it, once in a while the practice can create an inspired new spin on existing work that distinctly enhances its legacy within the collective consciousness.

HOUSE OF CARDS’ origins stretch back to 2008, when David Fincher’s agent approached the director with the idea while he was finishing up THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. Fincher was interested in the idea, and enlisted hisBENJAMIN BUTTON writer Eric Roth to help him executive produce and develop the series.

After shopping it around to various cable networks around town, they found an unexpected home in streaming movie delivery service Netflix, who was in the first stages of building a block of original programming in order to compete with the likes of HBO and Showtime while bolstering their customer base. Along with LILYHAMMER and the revived ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, HOUSE OF CARDS formed part of the first wave of this original programming, which took advantage of Netflix customers’ binge-watching habits by releasing all episodes at once instead of parsing them out over the space of several weeks.

It was (and still is) a groundbreaking way to consume television, and despite the naysayers, the strategy worked brilliantly. Funnily enough, the reunion between Fincher and SE7EN (1995) star Kevin Spacey didn’t occur out of their natural friendship, but because Netflix found in its performance statistics a substantial overlap between customers who had an affinity for David Fincher and Spacey, respectively.

As such, executives at Netflix were able to deduce and mathematically reinforce the conclusion that another collaboration between both men would generate their biggest audience. This also gave them the confidence to commit to two full seasons from the outset instead of adhering to traditional television’s tired-and-true practice of producing a pilot before ordering a full series.

Admittedly, the use of metrics and numbers instead of gut instinct might be a cynical way to approach programming, but in HOUSE OF CARDS’ case, the idea really paid off. Under Fincher’s expert guidance, Spacey has delivered the best performance of his career and HOUSE OF CARDS has emerged as one of the best serialized dramas around, rivaling the likes of such heavyweights as MAD MEN, THE WIRE, and BREAKING BAD.

Fincher directed the first two episodes in the series, which takes place during the inauguration of fictional President Garrett Walker. Walker wouldn’t even be taking the oath of office if it weren’t for the substantial canvassing done by House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in exchange for the coveted position of Secretary of State.

After taking office, however, Walker has a change of heart and reneges on his promise. Underwood shows grace and discipline in accepting the President Elect’s decision, but immediately begins scheming how to manipulate his way to the top. He’s simultaneously challenged and reinforced by his wife Claire (Robin Wright), the CEO of a prominent nonprofit and a strong-willed leader in her own right.

On the President’s first day in office, Underwood targets the new nominee for Secretary of State, Michael Kern, via an education reform bill— which is revealed to be radically left-leaning and unacceptable to the public’s interests.

Underwood leaks the bill to the press through Washington Herald reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), whose story on the matter lands on the Herald’s front page and prompts the education reform chairman to step aside and designate Frank himself to head up the authorship of a new bill.

It isn’t long until Underwood manages to unseat Kern by exploiting his handicaps via hardline questions from the press, subsequently installing a pawn of his own as the new candidate. Over the course of the first season, Underwood’s machinations and orchestrations will whisk him up into the upper echelons of power and within a heartbeat of the highest office in the land.

Kevin Spacey has always been a well-respected actor, but his performance as Frank Underwood reminds us of his unparalleled level of talent. Underwood is an unconventional narrator, straddling a line between an omniscient and personal point of view.

A southern gentleman from South Carolina first, a Democrat second, and currently the House Majority Whip (a temporary position, to be sure), Underwood is a ruthlessly calculating and manipulative politician—but at the same time he’s endlessly charismatic and armed with an endless supply of euphemisms and folksy proverbs.

Although Spacey and David Fincher haven’t worked together on this close a scale since 1995, it seems they’re able to slip right into the proceedings with a great degree of confidence and comfort.

Robin Wright, also on her second collaboration with Fincher after THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, plays Underwood’s wife, Claire. Every bit as strong and calculating as her husband, the character of Claire adds a distinctly Shakespearean air to the story by channeling the insidiously supportive archetype of Lady Macbeth.

The CEO of a successful nonprofit firm, Claire pulls her weight around the Underwood household and becomes Frank’s rock during difficult times. Wright does a great job of making Claire inherently likeable and relatable, despite her outwardly cold characterization.

With HOUSE OF CARDS, the Mara family has established something of a dynasty in their collaborations with Fincher. After Rooney’s career-making performances in THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, older sister Kate proves every bit her equal as Zoe Barnes, a wet-around-the-ears journalist for the Washington Herald. Plucky, street smart and ambitious, Barnes is able to use her intelligence as a tool of empowerment just as well as her sex.

Corey Stoll and Mahershala Ali, as Peter Russo and Remy Denton respectively, prove to be revelations that stick out amidst the clutter of David Fincher’s supporting cast. Stoll’s Russo is a politician from East Pennsylvania who has problems with alcohol and drug abuse. He’s severely disorganized and impulsive, despite his promising intelligence and ambition.

Ali’s Denton is almost the exact opposite—super focused, disciplined, and exceedingly principled. Denton is a high-powered lawyer who serves as a great foil to Underwood’s scheming. Ali’s performance also benefits due having worked with Fincher on THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON.

Like all of Fincher’s late-career work, HOUSE OF CARDS is shot entirely digitally, taking advantage of the Red Epic’s pure, clean image to convey the series’ sterile, almost-surgical tone. Instead of hiring a cinematographer he’s worked with before, David Fincher enlists the eye of Eigil Bryld, who ably replicates the director’s signature aesthetic.

The cold, steely color palette has been desaturated to a pallid monotone in its treatment of blues, teals, and greys. Warm tones, like practical lights that serve to create a soft, cavernous luminance in interior chambers, are dialed into the yellow side of the color spectrum.

The aesthetic deviates from Fincher’s style, however, in opting for a much shallower focus—even in wide shots. Curiously, the aspect ratio seems to be fluid from format to format. When streamed on Netflix, HOUSE OF CARDS is presented in 1.85:1, but watching it on Blu Ray, the image appears to be cropped to Fincher’s preferred 2.40:1 aspect ratio, making for an inherently more-cinematic experience.

HOUSE OF CARDS plays like an old-school potboiler/espionage thriller, featuring shadowy compositions and strategic placement of subjects in his frame that are reminiscent of classic cloak-and-dagger cinema.

The camera work is sedate, employing subtle dolly work when need be. The effect is a patient, plodding pace that echoes Underwood’s unrelenting focus and forward-driven ambition. Perhaps the most effective visual motif is the inspired breaking of the fourth wall, when Spacey pulls out of the scene at hand to monologue directly to camera (which makes the audience complicit in his nefarious plot).

Spacey delivers these sidebar moments with a deliciously dry wit, enriching what might otherwise be a stale story of everyday politics and injecting it with the weight of Shakespearean drama. The foundation of this technique can be seen in 1999’s FIGHT CLUB, where David Fincher had Edward Norton address the audience directly in a few select sequences. HOUSE OF CARDS fully commits to this idea, doing away with conventional voiceover entirely.

While it’s been used in endless parodies since the series’ release, the very fact that the technique is commonly joked about points to its fundamental power.

Another visual conceit that has been copied by other pop culture works like NONSTOP (2014) is the superimposition of text message conversations over the action, rather than cutting to an insert shot of the message displayed on the cell phone’s screen.

Considering that characters have been texting each other in movies for almost ten years now, I’m frankly surprised it took us this long for the on-screen subtitle conceit to enter into the common cinematic language. It’s an inspired way to dramatize pedestrian, everyday exchanges that act as the modern-day equivalent of coded messages in cloak-and-dagger stories.

Behind the camera, Fincher retains most of his regular department heads save for one new face. Donald Graham Burt returns as Production Designer, creating authentic replicas of the hallowed halls and chambers of Washington DC. Kirk Baxter, who normally edits Fincher’s features with Angus Wall, goes solo in HOUSE OF CARDS and weaves everything together in a minimalist, yet effective fashion.

The ever-dependable Ren Klyce returns as Sound Designer, giving an overly-talkie drama some much-needed sonic embellishment. The only new face in the mix is Jeff Beal, who composes the series’ music. Beal’s theme for HOUSE OF CARDS is instantly iconic, fueled by an electronic pulse that bolsters traditional orchestral strings and horns— echoing the romantic statues of fallen heroes that dot the DC landscape with a patriotic, mournful sound.

The series doesn’t rely on much in the way of needledrops, so David Fincher’s inclusion of two pre-recorded tracks is worth noting. The first episode features an inaugural ball where we hear Dmiti Shostakovich’s “Second Waltz”, which cinephiles should recognize as the main theme to Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT (1999).

Additionally, the second episode features Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” when Russo goes to visit a conspiracy theorist in rural Massachusetts. While not exactly the most original choice of music, it’s appropriate enough.

For visionary directors like Fincher, television is tough because of the need to work within a strictly defined set of aesthetic boundaries. While this is changing and becoming a better stage for visually dynamic work every day, the basic rule of thumb is to direct the pilot in order to set the style in place and make the entire series conform around it.

In that regard, HOUSE OF CARDS as a series absolutely oozes Fincher’s influence, despite 24 of the (to-date) 26 episodes being helmed by different directors. This phenomenon can be ascribed to the fact that David Fincher’s episodes dovetail quite nicely with several themes and imagery he’s built his career on exploring.

Take the opening titles for instance—while they are usually part and parcel with the conventional television experience, Fincher makes them his own by showing time-lapse footage of Washington DC locales, suggesting the bustling scope of his stage while further exploring the passage of time as a thematic idea— also seen in earlier work like ZODIAC (2007) or THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON.

This theme is also reflected in Fincher’s depiction of DC’s iconic architecture. Like he did in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, his compositions and location selections when taken as a whole suggest a clash between the old Washington and the new.

Old DC, marked by classical, colonial structures like The White House and The Lincoln Memorial, face off against the growing tide of steel and glass towers, or the modern infrastructural design of subway stations. A key takeaway of HOUSE OF CARDS is that Washington DC, a city defined by its romantic memorials to the past, is increasingly modernizing into a world city of the future.

This transition is aided by mankind’s increasing dependence on— and complicated relationship with—technology; another core idea that David Fincher has grappled with throughout his career. HOUSE OF CARDS’ focusing prism is communication: cell phones, text messages, the Internet, Apple computers, CNN, etc.

The series goes to great lengths to depict how information is disseminated in the digital age, with government and the media forming a complex, symbiotic relationship.

In asking the audience to root for, essentially, the bad guy, HOUSE OF CARDS echoes the strong undercurrent of nihilism that marks Fincher’s stories. Underwood is less of a protagonist than he is an antihero.

Objectively, he’s a bad person who’s scheming to outright steal the Presidency to rule the world as he sees fit. In real life, we’d react to this sort of notion with outrage—just ask anyone who’s ever irrationally obsessed over a particular birth certificate of a certain standing President. However, we can’t help but root for Underwood to succeed, simply because he’s just so damn attractive and charismatic (on top of actually being, you know, a fully-fleshed out, relatable person with moral shades of grey and not a stock villain archetype).

HOUSE OF CARDS’ groundbreaking release was met with quite the warm reception. It was nominated for several Emmys (a big deal for a series that hadn’t been broadcast first on television), and launched Netflix into HBO’s orbit in terms of compelling original content.

For Fincher as a director, HOUSE OF CARDS served as a great comeback after the disappointment of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. The series, whose third season is scheduled to premiere in February 2015, is a confident, near-flawless exploration of man’s lust for power and our complicated governmental structure—and wouldn’t be nearly as successful without David Fincher’s guiding hand. My one regret with HOUSE OF CARDS is that he didn’t direct more episodes.


COMMERICALS & MUSIC VIDEO (2013-2014)

Director David Fincher barely had any time to notice the modestly-disappointing performance of 2011’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, what with the continuing development of several projects he was attached to make. It would be 3 years before he was back in cinemas with another feature, but the years between 2011-2014 were by no means a fallow period.

His sheer love for directing and for being on set couldn’t keep him away for long— and so in 2013 he returned to the arena that first made his name, armed with a new commercial and a new music video.

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: “SUIT & TIE” (2013)

You couldn’t go anywhere in the Summer of 2013 without hearing Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie” on the airwaves. As Timberlake’s own bid for Michael Jackson’s pop throne, the song’s broad appeal couldn’t be denied.

The inevitable music video for the song couldn’t be trusted with just any filmmaker—it was too high-profile to go to anyone but the biggest directors in town. Most likely due to their successful collaboration in 2010’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Timberlake chose Fincher as the director for “SUIT & TIE”—their union begetting one of the better music videos in many, many years.

Fincher’s visual aesthetic proves quite adept at its translation into the world of high fashion and style. He uses black and white digital cinematography and a 2.40:1 aspect ratio to echo the polished, sleek vibe of Timberlake’s song.

While a lot of his earlier music videos were shot in black and white to achieve a sense of grit, David Fincher’s use of it here echoes the crispness of a black tuxedo against a white shirt.

There’s a great interplay between light and dark throughout the piece, both in the broad strokes like the dramatic silhouettes he gets from his high contrast lighting setups, as well as smaller touches like Timberlake’s white socks that peek out from between black pants and shoes (another homage to Michael Jackson).

Despite being primarily a for-hire vehicle for Timberlake and a selling tool for his single, “SUIT & TIE” manages to incorporate a few of Fincher’s long-held thematic fascinations.

Fincher’s exploration of our relationship with technology sees a brief occurrence here as Timberlake and Jay-Z utilize state of the art recording equipment in the studio, as well as employing iPads as part of the songwriting process.

David Fincher features Apple products in his work so much more prominently than other filmmakers that I’m beginning to think he has a secret product placement deal with them. Architecture also plays a subtle role in the video, seen in Timberlake’s slick, modern bachelor pad as well as the Art Deco stylings and graceful arches of the stage he performs on.

One strange thing I noticed, though: the size of the stage itself doesn’t match the venue it’s housed in. For example, when the camera looks towards Timberlake, the stage extends pretty deep behind him like it was the Hollywood Bowl.

But when we cut to the reverse angle and see the audience, the venue is revealed to be disproportionally shallow and intimate. If you were to draw out the geography onto a blueprint, you’d realize it was a very unbalanced auditorium. Most likely, these two shots were shot in separate locations and stitched together with editing.

As his first music video in several years, “SUIT & TIE” finds Fincher working at the top of his game in familiar territory. It’s easily one of his best music videos and will no doubt serve as a taste-making piece and influencer for many pop videos to come.


CALVIN KLEIN: “DOWNTOWN” (2013)

Later the same year, Fincher collaborated with his THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO star Rooney Mara in a spot for Calvin Klein perfume called “DOWNTOWN”. Also shot in digital black and white, the spot finds David Fincher and Mara eschewing the punk-y grunge of their previous collaboration in favor of an edgy, glamorous look.

Mara herself is depicted as a modern day Audrey Hepburn—being adored by the press as she attends junkets and does photo shoots—but is also seen engaging in daily urban life and riding the subway (while listening to her iPod, natch). Fincher’s love of architecture is seen in several setups, the most notable being a shot prominently featuring Mara framed against NYC’s George Washington Bridge. The whole piece is scored to a track by Karen O, a kindred spirit of Mara’s and Fincher’s who provided the vocals for Trent Reznor’s re-arrangement of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” for THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Overall,“DOWNTOWN” is a brilliantly executed and stylish spot that sells its product beautifully.


GAP: “DRESS NORMAL” CAMPAIGN (2014)

2014 marked director David Fincher’s return to cinema screens with his domestic thriller GONE GIRL, following a three year hiatus from feature filmmaking.  It also saw the infamous provocateur release a series of four commercial spots for the blandest clothing label in the business: Gap.

In a transparent bid to regain some cultural relevancy, Gap released a campaign entitled “DRESS NORMAL”, a move that could be construed as the struggling brand capitalizing on their sudden popularity amongst the emergent “normcore” crowd– arguably one of the more idiotic non-trends in recent memory.

To his credit, Fincher achieves Gap’s goals brilliantly, creating four effortlessly cool and stylish pieces (despite what some of the more-cynical voices in the blogosphere might say).  Titled “Golf”, “Stairs”, “Kiss”, and “Drive”, all are presented in stark shades of black and white, rendered crisply onto the digital frame.

Fincher eschews a sense of modernity for a jazzy mid-century vibe, with the old-fashioned production design and cinematography coming across as a particularly well-preserved lost film from the French New Wave.  Each spot pairs together a couple (or groups) of beautiful urbanites living out the prime of their youth in generic urban environs.

David Fincher’s hand is most evident in the sleek, modern camerawork that belies the campaign’s timeless appeal.  He employs a variety of ultra-smooth dolly and technocrane movements that effortlessly glide across his vignettes while hiding the true complexity of the moves themselves.

All in all, Fincher’s “DRESS NORMAL” spots are quite effective, injecting some much-needed style and sex appeal into Gap’s tired branding efforts.


GONE GIRL (2014)

Since the beginning of time, men and women have been at odds with each other.  One of the grand ironies of the universe is that testosterone and estrogen act against each other despite needing to work in harmony in order to perpetuate the species.

We scoff at the term “battle of the sexes”, like it’s some absurdly epic war over territory or ideology, but the fact of the matter is that, no matter how hard we try to bridge the gap, men and women just aren’t built to fully comprehend each other like they would a member of their own sex.

Yet despite these fundamental differences of opinion and perspective, we continue coupling up and procreating in the name of love, family, and civilization.  In this light, the institution of marriage can be seen as something of an armistice, or a treaty– an agreement by two combative parties to equally reciprocate affection, protection and support.

Naturally, when this treaty is violated in a high-profile way like, say, the murder or sudden disappearance of someone at the hands of his or her spouse, we can’t help but find ourselves captivated by the lurid headlines and ensuing media frenzy.  Names like OJ Simpson, Robert Blake, or Scott Peterson loom large in our collective psyche as boogeymen symbolizing the ultimate marital transgression.

The treacherous world of domesticity serves as the setting of director David Fincher’s tenth feature film, GONE GIRL(2014).  Adapted by author Gillian Flynn from her novel of the same name, the film marks David Fincher’s return to the big screen after a three year absence following the disappointing reception of 2011’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.

In that time, he had refreshed his artistic energies with Netflix’s razor-sharp political thriller HOUSE OF CARDS (2013), with the serial’s warm reaction boosting his stock amongst the Hollywood elite.

Fincher’s oeuvre trades in nihilistic protagonists with black hearts and ruthless convictions, so naturally, the churning machinations and double crosses of Flynn’s book were an effortless match for his sensibilities.

Working with producers Joshua Donen, Arnon Milchan, Reese Witherspoon, as well as his own producing partner Cean Chaffin, Fincher manages to infuse a nasty undercurrent of his trademark gallows humor into GONE GIRL, making for a highly enjoyable domestic thriller that stands to be included amongst his very best work.

GONE GIRL begins like any other normal day for Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck).  But this day isn’t like any others– it’s the fifth anniversary of his wedding to wife Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), a privileged New York socialite and the real-life inspiration for “Amazing Amy”, the main character in a series of successful children’s books authored by her parents.

He leaves home to check in on the bar he runs in the nearby town of North Carthage, Missouri, expressing his dread of the occasion to his twin sister Margot, who mixes drinks there.  When he arrives back at the generic suburban McMansion he shares with Amy, he finds a grisly scene– overturned furniture, shattered glass, streaks of blood… and no Amy.

The police launch an investigation into Amy’s whereabouts, with her status as minor literary celebrity causing a disproportionate stir in the media.  He’s taunted at every turn by deceitful talk show hosts and news anchors, as well as clues from Amy herself, left behind in the form of letters that are part of gift-finding game that’s become their anniversary tradition.

In her absence, the clues have taken on a more much foreboding aura– channeling similar vibes and imagery from David Fincher’s 1997 classic mystery THE GAME.  The media’s increased scrutiny on Nick’s life and the history of his relationship with Amy drags his flaws as a husband out into the light, where they’re subsequently used against him to raise the possibility that he just might be responsible for her disappearance.  But did he kill his wife?  Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t… but the truth will be more surprising than anyone could’ve expected.

Ben Affleck headlines the film as Nick Dunne, skewering his real-life image as a handsome leading man by bringing to the fore a natural douchebag quality we’ve always suspected he possessed.  Dunne covers up his supreme narcissism and anger issues with a thin layer of charm, finding the perfect balance between a sympathetic protagonist who is way in over his head and a slick operator who thinks he’s got his game on lock.

Affleck proves inspired casting on Fincher’s part, and it’s nice to be reminded that besides being a great director in his own right, he’s still a great performer.  As Amy Dunne, Rosamund Pike conjures up one of the most terrifying villainesses in screen history.

An icy, calculating sociopath, Amy will do anything and everything necessary to carry out the perfect plot against her husband– even if the physical harm she deals out is on herself.  Pike’s skincrawling performance resulted in the film’s only Academy Award nomination, but it’s a well-deserved one that will be remembered for quite some time.

If the pairing of Affleck and Pike as GONE GIRL’s leads seems a bit odd or off-center, then Fincher’s supporting cast boast an even-more eclectic collection of characters.  Neil Patrick Harris– Doogie Howser himself– plays Amy’s college sweetheart Desi Collins.

A rich pretty boy and pseudo-stalker with bottomless reserves of inherited funds, he’s so intent on dazzling Amy with his high-tech toys and spacious homes that he’s completely oblivious to her machinations against him.  Primarily known for his comedic roles in TV and film, NPH makes a successful bid for more serious roles with a performance that’s every bit as twisted as the two leads.

Beating him in the stunt casting department, however, is maligned director Tyler Perry, whose films are often derided by critics as patronizing and shamelessly pandering despite their immense popularity amongst the African American population.  The news of his involvement in GONE GIRL with met with gasps of disbelief and confusion by the blogosphere, but here’s the thing– Tyler Perry is great in this movie.

He effortlessly falls into the role of Tanner bolt, a high-powered celebrity lawyer from New York, soothing Nick with his seasoned expertise and wearing expensive designer suits so comfortably they might as well be sweatpants.  He’s extremely convincing as a whip-smart, cunning attorney, never once hinting at the fact this is the same man who became rich and famous for wearing a fat suit under a mumu.

Emily Ratajkowski and Patrick Fugit are great as Nick’s jiggly co-ed mistress Andie and the no-nonsense Officer Gilpin, respectively, but GONE GIRL’s real revelation is character actress Kim Dickens.

Calling to mind a modern, more serious version of Frances McDormand’s folksy homicide investigator in FARGO (1996), Dickens’ Detective Boney is highly observant and sly– almost to a fault.  The joy in watching Dickens’ performance is seeing her internal struggle against the growing realization that none of her prior experience or expertise could ever prepare her for Amy’s level of scheming.

GONE GIRL retains David Fincher’s signature look, thanks to the return of his regular cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth.  As a team, they’ve built their careers out of using new filmmaking technologies to fit their needs, and GONE GIRL isn’t one to break the tradition.

One of the earliest features to shoot on Red Cinema’s new Dragon sensor, GONE GIRL was captured full-frame at 6k resolution and then thrown into a 2.35:1-matted 4k timeline in post-production.

This allowed Fincher and his editing partner Kirk Baxter to re-compose their frames as they saw fit with razor-precision and minimal quality degradation.  This circumstance also afforded the ability to employ better camera stabilization in a bid to perfect that impossibly-smooth sense of movement that Fincher prefers.

As one of the medium’s most vocal proponents of digital technology, David Fincher inherently understands the advantages of the format– an understanding that empowers him with the ability to make truly uncompromised work.

Appropriate to its subject matter, GONE GIRL is a very dark film.  Fincher and Cronenweth use dark wells of shadow to convey a foreboding mood, while Fincher’s signature cold color palette renders Nick’s trials in bleak hues of blue, yellow, green, and grey.

Red, a color that David Fincher claims to find too distracting on film, rarely appears in GONE GIRL, save for when he specifically wants your attention on a small detail of the frame– like, say, a small blood splatter on the hood over the kitchen stove.

Despite the consistent gloom, the film does occasionally find short moments of warm, golden sunlight and deeply-saturated color.  Fincher’s slow, creeping camerawork leers with omniscience, placing its characters at an emotional arm’s distance.

Knowing Fincher’s background as a commercial director, it’s not surprising to see GONE GIRL throw around nonchalant product placement for flyover-country conglomerations like Walmart, KFC and Dunkin Donuts.

Looking back over his other features, it’s clear that David Fincher has never been one to shy away from the presence of well-known brands in his frame– indeed, a large chunk of his bank account is there as a direct result of his interaction with brand names and logos.

Product placement is a controversial topic amongst filmmakers, with many seeing the intrusion of commerce as an almost-pornographic sacrilege towards art, but Fincher’s view seems to be that reality is simply saturated with corporate logos, branding, and advertisements, so why should a film striving for realism be any different?

In Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and his musical partner Atticus Ross, Fincher has found a kindred dark soul, and their third collaboration together after 2010’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO doesn’t surprise in its aim to bring something entirely unexpected to the proceedings.

Working from David Fincher’s brief that the music reside in the space between calm and dread, Reznor and Ross’s electronic score for GONE GIRL is characterized by soothing ambient tones interrupted by a pulsing staccato that conveys the razor-sharp undercurrents of malice that Amy so effortlessly hides behind her statuesque facade.

Outside of John Williams and Steven Spielberg, it’s hard to think of a composer/director partnership where each artist’s aesthetic is so perfectly suited towards the other.  Reznor, Ross, and Fincher have cultivated a symbiotic relationship that, together with Fincher’s regular sound designer Ren Klyce and his consistently excellent and immersive soundscapes, elevates any project they undertake into a darkly sublime experience.

A nihilistic sentiment abounds in the style of GONE GIRL, falling quite effortlessly into David Fincher’s larger body of work.  The same attention to detail and insight into the banal side of law enforcement (paperwork, legal red-tape, etc.) that marked 2007’s ZODIAC is present in GONE GIRL’s almost-clinical depiction of the day-to-day process of investigating such a luridly mysterious crime.

Two of David Fincher’s most consistent fascinations as a director– architecture and technology– play substantial roles in the drama, but never at the expense of story and character.  The architecture that Fincher concerns himself with in GONE GIRL is the domestic structures in which we house our families, or to put it another way, the castles in which we shelter our charges.

However, as seen through the perspective of David Fincher’s particularly dark and ironic sense of humor, our suburban castles instead become prisons.  The neutral tones of upper-middle-class domesticity that pervade Amy and Nick’s McMansion are almost oppressive in their blandness, while the structural elements on which they’re painted bear no characteristics of the values of those who inhabit them.

Fincher reinforces this idea by shooting from low angles to expose the ceiling, suggesting that the walls are figuratively closing in on his characters.  Likewise, Desi Collins’ grandiose, rustic lakeside retreat is simply too spacious to ever feel constricting or claustrophobic, what with it’s cathedral-height vaulted ceilings and oversized windows letting in an abundance of sunlight.

However, Desi has rigged his well-appointed home with an overblown array of security cameras and other surveillance, effectively trapping Amy inside if she wishes to remain under the auspices of “missing, presumed dead”.  And speaking of technology, David Fincher places a substantial focus on Nick’s distractions with video games, cell phones, oversized televisions and robot dogs.

This “boys with toys” mentality is quite appropriate to Fincher’s vision, as it is crucial to the authenticity of Amy’s convictions that Nick has fallen prey to that all-too-common suburban phenomenon of men turning to the stimulation afforded by electronics and gadgets after growing tired of their wives.

The dangers of growing complacent in your marriage– whereby we distract ourselves with screens instead of with each other– is a key message in GONE GIRL, and Fincher’s career-long exploration of mankind’s relationship to technology makes him a particularly suitable messenger.

Thanks in part to GONE GIRL’s high profile as a bestselling book as well as David Fincher’s own profile as a highly skilled artist with a fervent cult following, the film was a strong success at the box office.  As of this writing, it actually holds the records for Fincher’s highest-grossing theatrical run in the United States.

Critical reviews were mostly positive, and while it received only one nomination for Pike’s performance at the 2015 Oscars, it’s generally regarded as one of the best films of the year.  The tone and subject matter of GONE GIRL may not feel particularly new for Fincher (a notion that may have played into the film’s lack of Oscar nominations), but this well-trodden ground provides a solid platform for David Fincher to perfect what he already does best: delivering taut, stylish thrillers with razor-sharp edges.

Now firmly into middle age (52 as of this writing), Fincher could be forgiven for what so many other artists his age do: slowing down, mellowing out, looking backwards, worrying about legacy, etc.  It’s pretty evident however that he has no intention of doing any of those things.  While his next feature has yet to be announced, he’s deep in development on several projects running the gamut from theatrical to television.

Fincher’s skill set may have become more refined and sophisticated in its taste, but that doesn’t mean he’s gone soft on us.  Indeed, he’s actually grown much sharper.

He’s cleaved off extraneous waste from his aesthetic, and in return he’s able to focus his energies to the point of laser precision.  One only needs to look at GONE GIRL’s gut-churning sex/murder sequence to see that he hasn’t lost his unflinching eye for the macabre and his affinity for stunning his audience out of complacency.

He may be older, yes, but in many ways, he’s still that same young buck eager to shock the world with Gwyneth’s head in a box.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. 

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. 


David Fincher’S FILMOGRAPHY

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Ultimate Guide to Darren Aronofsky and His Directing Techniques

Darren Aronofsky

STUDENT FILMS (1991-1994)

Few filmographies are as uncompromisingly independent and fiercely original as director Darren Aronofsky’s.  From his scrappy lo-fi debut in 1998 with PI, to the release of his revisionist biblical epic NOAH in 2014, each of Aronofsky’s feature films convey an artist with an insatiable intellectual curiosity and a deeply-sympathetic view towards the terrors of the human experience.

His strength of vision is both his greatest asset and his greatest liability– for instance, the unconventional spirituality that shaped the unforgettable images of 2006’s THE FOUNTAIN is also what caused mainstream audiences to stay clear for fear of having their fragile horizons broadened.

His willingness to court controversy might have held him back from bigger directing opportunities (he was once attached to direct a Batman film in the early 2000’s, only for his profoundly revisionist take to get canned in favor of Christopher Nolan’s famously “dark and gritty reboot), but it has nevertheless allowed him to accumulate a cultish fanbase just the same.

To some, the study of his career might be read as a cautionary tale; to others, a thorough deconstruction of one of the most vital voices in contemporary independent cinema.

Aronofsky was born February 12, 1969 in Brooklyn, to Charlotte and Abraham Aronofsky.  Both parents were public school teachers who no doubt influenced his intellectual curiosity from an early age.

Growing up in Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach neighborhood, Aronofsky was continually exposed to a mix of Italian and Russian & Orthodox Jewish cultures– the future director himself was raised in the cultural aspects of his Jewish heritage, although the religious and spiritual aspects were not as emphasized.

Aronofsky’s early hunger for intellectual enlightenment soon led him beyond the confines of Brooklyn, supplementing his education at Edward R. Murrow High School with brief stints at the The School For Field Studies in locations as far away as Alaska and even Kenya.

His studies in Africa proved particularly influential, an experience Aronofsky cites as paradigm-changing and that led him to further journey on through Europe and the Middle East with nothing more than a backpack.

SUPERMARKET SWEEP (1991)

Aronofsky’s voracious appetite for knowledge eventually led to his enrollment at Harvard University in 1987, where he majored in social anthropology.  It was here that he met an animation student named Dan Schrecker and aspiring actor Sean Gullette, who would later go on to star in his debut feature, PI (3).

Aronofsky credits these two with stoking his dormant interest in filmmaking, leading to his eventual formalized studies in the craft (4).  In studying the history of the medium, he founds himself particularly enamored of the work of Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski, amongst others.

These studies would culminate in his senior thesis film, SUPERMARKET SWEEP (1991).  Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information to be found about the film, let alone a viewable copy, but it featured Gullette in a leading role and went on to become a finalist at the National Student Academy Awards.

This experience no doubt proved highly influential for Aronofsky, solidifying his desire to pursue filmmaking as a career.

FORTUNE COOKIE (1991)

After Aronofsky’s graduation from Harvard in 1991, he moved to Los Angeles to obtain his MFA in directing from the prestigious American Film Institute.  The two-year program resulted in the creation of two short films, the first of which is 1991’s FORTUNE COOKIE— an absurdist comedy inspired by the Hubert Selby Jr story of the same name.

Thankfully, an old VHS dub of the film has been made available in its entirety online, giving us our earliest glimpse at Aronofsky’s artistic development.  Written by Aronofsky and produced by Jody Teora, FORTUNE COOKIE concerns a middle-aged salesman who comes to believe his recent string of successes are the result of the good luck contained with an old fortune cookie he keeps in his pocket.

The short follows his highs and lows, forcing him to contend with the pushy aggressions of a rival salesman intent on figuring out his secrets, and a strange pervert who follows him around and makes unwanted romantic overtures from the cabin of his gigantic Cadillac.

Aronofsky’s broadly humorous approach strikes a curious tone, exemplified by literal fart jokes and purposely weird performances that would be almost Lynchian if they weren’t so over the top.  To his credit, Aronofsky casts the film entirely with middle-aged actors or older– a notable aspect in the world of student filmmaking, where the casts are typically comprised of the director’s friends or fellow students.

A distinct, albeit half-hearted, midcentury aesthetic defines the production design, with the characters dressed in baggy suits from the 1950’s and affecting a rapid-fire Transatlantic vernacular to match.  Aronofsky even sprinkles a vintage car or two in the background, but beyond that he makes no effort to hide the trappings of contemporary life.

Nevertheless, a degree of deliberate design choice evidences itself in the locations, which juxtapose sleepy, pastel-colored suburban environs with crumbling, graffiti-riddled industrial areas (perhaps as a comment on the breakdown of the American Dream myth, or something similarly heavy-handed in an appropriately film-school way).

Working with credited director of photography Usa Stoll, Aronofsky captures FORTUNE COOKIE in the square frame of analog video, which no doubt was less of an artistic choice than it was a mandate from his first-year directing professor at AFI.

His approach to coverage mostly eschews conventional over-the-shoulder compositions and reverse shots, in favor of having his actors continually break the 4th wall by addressing the camera directly.  A recurring visual motif finds Aronofsky framing his protagonist in a wide, flat composition and moving from one side of the frame to the other.

He repeats the action with the same framing in the subsequent shot, albeit a few yards down the street.  Most filmmakers would cover this same action as a continued dolly shot, but Aronofsky chops it up and fragments the line of movement as another way to convey that his protagonist is moving in circles without actually going anywhere.

The effect is like watching an old-school side-scrolling video game that doesn’t actually scroll when the hero reaches the edge of the screen.  A soundtrack comprised primarily of street performance-style percussion only vaguely foreshadows the urban character of Aronofsky’s future work, but a series of activity-based insert shots (presented in extreme closeup up and edited together in rapid-fire succession to a soundtrack of exaggerated audio effects) immediately call to mind the signature stylistic technique he’d perfect in PI and its follow-up, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000).

PROTOZOA (1993)

While his next student short from this period is also unreleased and only available for AFI student viewing in the school’s media library, Aronofsky’s 1993 short PROTOZOA nevertheless serves two vital contributions to his development as a filmmaker– one being that its successful completion meant receiving his and the other being his first collaboration with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who would go on to become a key creative partner in Aronofsky’s professional work.

The short, which apparently stars a young Lucy Liu, is reported by those who’ve seen it to be about a trio of slackers just drifting aimlessly through life– akin to human amoebas.

Several key aspects of Aronofsky’s directorial signature apparently emerge here, like his quick-cut insert shots and intellectual approach to religion.  PROTOZOA’s title itself would prove influential in Aronosky’s development, becoming the name of the production company in which he’d later produce his features under.

NO TIME (1994)

Aronofsky’s fourth short from this era– 1994’s NO TIME — appears to have been made after his graduation from AFI, and adopts the brazen Generation X attitude that marked pop culture in the 90’s.  At first glance, the film appears to be a slacker riff on improv comedy shows, anchored by a quartet of young actors playing various characters across several vignettes.

Shot by Matthew Libatique on color 16mm film, NO TIME resembles the style of FORTUNE COOKIE with its super-broad humor and moronic fart jokes that seem at odds with the darkly cerebral character of Aronofsky’s future professional work.

The visual style plays fast and loose with the rules of composition, frequently opting for close-ups that are almost claustrophobic in their nature.  It’s unclear exactly what Aronofsky was trying to achieve with NO TIME, unless he was trying to get this particular style of filmmaking out of his system early on.

Any director’s student films have a strong chance of bearing no resemblance to their professional counterparts.  After all, that’s the nature of film school– to experiment, to feel out, to play in the pursuit of establishing one’s particular voice.

Aronofsky’s professional style is so distinct and singularly his, however, that this quartet of early shorts really does leave one surprised as to how little they predict the unique artistic voice we’ve since come to cherish and anticipate.

Nevertheless, these first efforts constitute a crucial training ground for Aronofsky, and their creation within the confines of the formalized film education system provides him with vital resources and collaborators that would carry him towards professional success in the long-term.

In the short-term, these same resources would give him the confidence necessary to take that first step: the creation of a feature-length effort that would establish his voice as that of an uncompromising indie maverick.


PI (1998)

At its heart, the filmography of director Darren Aronofsky is concerned primarily with the conflict between faith and reason.

His stories find his protagonists as otherwise reasonable people laboring under some kind of delusion– a washed-up wrestler believes he’s on the verge of a comeback; a ballet dancer thinks she’s transforming into an animal; an intellectual pursues his late soulmate across time and space.

This line can be traced all the way back to his feature-length debut: the paranoid mathematics thriller, PI (1998).  One of the scrappiest debuts in recent memory, PI stages itself as a frenzied showdown between faith and reason in which a reclusive mathematician employs numerology in a bid to predict the stock market, only to unwittingly entangle himself with a cabal of hasidic Jews intent on decoding the true name of God.

As any proper debut feature should, Aronofsky’s script draws heavily from personal experience.  Set in his native New York City, the story finds inspiration in Aronofsky’s Jewish upbringing, which de-emphasized the religious aspects in favor of its cultural experience.

As a result, Aronofsky was raised to embrace his faith at arm’s length, always regarding it with a critical eye while never discounting its importance as an emotional motivating force.

PI reflects this rather literally as it charts the plight of its protagonist, the brilliant recluse Maximillian Cohen.  Portrayed by SUPERMARKET SWEEP’s Sean Gullette, Max suffers from debilitating cluster headaches, which prompts him to shut himself off from the outside world and sit before his homemade computer named Euclid as it spits out a random sequence of numbers he hopes will bring him riches on the stock market.

On the rare occasion he ventures outside his Hell’s Kitchen apartment, he tends to visit a retired Columbia professor and mentor figure named Sol Robeson.  A crucial bridge between Max’s logic-based perspective and the fanciful designs of the hasidic Jews, Sol is played by seasoned character actor Mark Margolis, easily the most recognizable face in the film.

When Max’s computer spits out a 216-digit number that he initially dismisses as nonsense, Sol is uniquely suited to convey the number’s spiritual significance, thus setting up Max’s increasingly perilous association with a pushy hasidic Jew named Lenny Meyer (played by Ben Shenkman), who sees Max’s mysterious number as the answer to a longtime mystery involving the true name of God that, when uttered aloud, will bring about the messianic age.

Aronofsky’s approach to PI’s distinct visual aesthetic is unavoidably shaped by its relatively paltry $68,000 production budget, but by no means is it limited by it.  In an era where shooting on video was becoming increasingly accepted, Aronofsky’s choice to shoot on film is a notable and vital one.

Working once again with his film school cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky positions PI as not just a story told from Max’s perspective, but as a subjective experience totally contained within the confines of his mind.  Gullette’s noir-style voiceover plays a substantial role in this regard, but it is Aronofsky and Libatique’s extremely gritty and abrasive cinematography that can claim most of the responsibility.

PI’s radical high-contrast look stems from its acquisition onto black and white 16mm reversal stock, which foregoes the negative process by producing a positive print right out of the gate.

The savings in processing time are offset by a decreased latitude and an exaggerated grain structure, which in Libatique and Aronofsky’s hands results in a rough 1.66:1 image that resembles the earliest days of photography.  They push this conceit even further via harsh lighting setups and claustrophobically-tight compositions.

The camerawork reveals PI’s shoestring-budget origins, foregoing luxurious tracking shots in favor of simple locked-off setups and jittery handheld movements.

Several of Aronofsky’s technical signatures make their feature debut in PI, like rapid-fire activity inserts that portray a physical action like shutting a door or popping pills in a hyper-exaggerated manner, or a disruptive camera technique that has since become known as Snorricam, whereby the camera is rigged to the actor’s body with the lens pointing towards him, selfie-style.

This results in an effectively unsettling composition that anchors the actor firmly in the center of the frame while the background whirls and spins around behind him.

Aronofsky’s technical approach is even more impressive when considering that the entire film was shot guerrilla-style, having never secured any permits for their various locations.

PI also marks the first collaboration between the burgeoning director and his longtime composer, Clint Mansell, whose breakbeat electro-grunge score relentlessly pushes the action forward while becoming the musical equivalent of a drill corkscrewing its way into your head.

PI establishes several concepts and ideas that have since become key artistic signatures of Aronofsky’s.  Beyond the aforementioned religious themes that deal specifically with the director’s native Judaism, PI shares his profound intellectual curiosity– exemplified by Max’s efforts to find mathematical patterns in the flow of life around him, as if to “decode” the ways of nature itself.

The film takes great pains to point out how concepts like the Fibonacci Spiral and the Golden Mean recur naturally across a wide of biological phenomena, giving a semblance of mechanical order to the relative chaos of evolution.

The terror of the human experience is another major theme that courses through Aronofsky’s work, whether it’s the theatrical horror of films like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) and BLACK SWAN (2010), or the lower-key existential fear of oblivion and obscurity in films like THE FOUNTAIN (2006) and THE WRESTLER (2008).

PI establishes this artistic conceit via the perils of genius, whereby Max’s staggering degree of intelligence is both a blessing and a curse.  His mental powers endow him with an almost supernatural talent with mathematics, but they come at the price of his chronic, crippling headaches.

Aronofsky seems to ask: “how smart is too smart?”, as Max becomes so consumed by his need to decode the meaning behind the mysterious number sequence that he feels the need to literally drill into his brain as a means to make it all stop.

This idea of knowledge as a curse dovetails obliquely, but rather nicely, with Aronofsky’s exploration on religion, as it was Eve’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that cast her and Adam from the Garden.

Aronofsky further peppers PI with little artistic quirks, like having the actor from his student short FORTUNE COOKIE reprise his creepy pervert character in a scene on the subway, or having Max take a trip out to Coney Island– the primary setting of his next film, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.

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Considering its origins as a scrappy shoestring indie with an unproven director, no recognizable talent and an admittedly abrasive visual aesthetic, it’s fair to say that PI’s creators probably didn’t fully anticipate the degree of success their film would go on to achieve.

PI debuted at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, where its buzz as one of the most talked-about films that year propelled Aronofsky to his first major career award: the festival’s prestigious Directing Award.  Artisan Entertainment acquired PI at the festival for $1 million, its investment paying off when the film went on to gross $3 million in its theatrical release.

The film world responded positively to Aronofsky’s arrival, awarding him the Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay, and eventually giving PI the distinction of being the first feature film available for download on the internet (1).

Through sheer labor and fortitude, Aronofsky had kicked off his career in earnest, with PI establishing him as a maverick visionary poised to take the indie film world by storm.


CLINT MANSELL MUSIC VIDEO: PI R SQUARED (1998)

As part of the promotional campaign of PI’s release in 1998, director Darren Aronofsky highlighted the work of his composer, Clint Mansell, with a music video for the score’s de facto theme.

Titled “PI R SQUARED”, the piece takes a fairly basic approach that only seems complicated thanks to rapid-fire, subliminally-appealing cuts synchronized with Mansell’s frenetic breakbeat sound.

Aronofsky intercuts skin-crawling stock footage of ants with footage from the film itself– specifically, the sequences in which Sean Gullette runs around the city in a paranoid frenzy.

Combined with flashes of mathematical images like Fibonacci Spirals and complicated formulas, Aronofsky creates an overall feeling much akin to the experience of its feature-length counterpart. “PI R SQUARED” is a fairly minor piece, perhaps more of a marketing after-thought than a true-blue music video, but it nevertheless establishes the foundation for the advertising work that he would pursue later on in his career.


REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000)

2000’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is often cited as the de facto film that “you must see, but never want to watch again”– it’s a gut-wrenching, nauseating, and nightmarish experience that aims to convey the inescapable horrors of addiction.

My first experience with the film was a memorable one– I was in high school, and one day a group of us gathered together in my friend’s basement to watch the film.  For two hours, we were glued to the TV screen, its lurid blue glow being the only light source in the room.

We were too morbidly curious and profoundly horrified to turn away, and by the time the movie was over, we immediately burst outside into the bright spring sunshine and ran around like idiots given a second chance at life.

It’s nearly impossible to achieve such a visceral film experience in the comforts of your own home, but REQUIEM FOR A DREAM delivered that and so much more, besting any of Nancy Reagan’s efforts to keep kids off drugs with a harrowing and uncompromising audiovisual experience.

For me, and for much of the film world, this was the first impression that director Darren Aronofsky left on pop culture.  He had broken out into the indie scene in a big way with 1998’s PI, but he was still an unknown quantity in the eyes of the larger cinematic community.

That all changed with the release of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, still considered to be one of the most controversial films of all time almost two decades after its release.

Aronofsky’s association with the project reaches all the way back to film school, beginning with his making of the short student film, FORTUNE COOKIE, in 1991– an adaptation of author Hubert Selby Jr.’s short story of the same name.

Selby was an influential force in Aronofsky’s artistic development, leading the burgeoning young filmmaker to purchase his 1978 novel, “Requiem For A Dream”, shortly after finishing school.

By the time he was cutting PI in 1998, Aronofsky had barely cracked Selby’s book open, so he lent it to his producing partner Eric Watson to read during an upcoming trip. As Aronofsky notes in his director’s commentary for the film, Watson would immediately approach him upon his return with an urgent desire to adapt Selby’s book for the screen.

REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is, at its most basic level, an anti-drug film– but that’s not exactly where Aronofsky’s interest lies.  Instead, his approach is informed by a simple question with profound implications: “what is a drug?”.

Far from simply being a story about narcotics, Aronofsky uses the framework of Selby’s story to dissect the inherently-addictive nature of our pleasure centers.

This inquiry drives the creation of a rich tapestry of characters, all addicts in their own ways, clustered together in Aronofsky’s native Brooklyn in an ambiguously contemporaneous setting– it could be today, or yesterday, or 1973.

REQUIEM FOR A DREAM marks Aronofsky’s first time working with well-known talent, establishing his artistic reputation for driving his cast to deliver career-best performances.  Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans headline the film, each giving the entirety of themselves over to their roles.

Leto plays Harry Goldfarb, a scrawny, strung-out heroin junkie whose addiction compels him to continually steal his mother’s TV set and sell it at a pawn shop so he can score his next fix.

Bursty would take home an Independent Spirit Award for her performance as Harry’s mother, Sara Goldfarb– a frail and delusional recluse whose drug is the euphoria of adoration, causing her to go to dramatic lengths to lose weight for what she thinks will be an upcoming appearance on a television program hosted by Christopher McDonald’s flashy oil salesman, Tappy Tibbons.

Connelly plays Harry’s girlfriend, Marion Silver, an aspiring dress designer with a dark and moody temperament.  Wayans eschews his screwball comedic persona for a rare serious turn as Harry’s best friend, Tyrone Love– an up-and-coming drug dealer who isn’t as street-smart as he thinks he is.

Aronofsky structures the cascading rhythms of these characters’ arcs as something of a symphony, evoking the musical nature of the film’s title as he divides the action into four distinct movements (spring, summer, fall, & winter) that gradually build in intensity towards a shocking and deliriously-intense catharsis.

Aronofsky retains several prior collaborators from PI and his student work, including Sean Gullette and Mark Margolis, who cameo as an unnervingly pompous yuppie and a lazy pawn shop dealer, respectively.

Stanley B. Herman also makes his requisite appearance as a variation on the creepy pervert he’s played since FORTUNE COOKIE, unwittingly giving the film one of its oft-quoted lines in his lecherous “ass-to-ass” chant during a nightmarish sex party sequence.

Technical collaborators like cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell also return to lend their talents in service to Aronofsky’s vision.  REQUIEM FOR A DREAM presents old-fashioned 1.85:1 35mm film in radical new ways, pairing his picture with a hyper-aggressive sound mix to completely assault the senses.

A muted, naturalistic color palette complements a distinctly gritty texture while evoking the ramshackle grime of Coney Island with buzzing fluorescents and unforgiving sunlight.  Indeed, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is a decidedly ugly film, but one that’s nevertheless so richly-realized and surreal we can’t help but be drawn in.

Aronofsky and Libatique employ a variety of classical dolly, handheld and Steadicam movements in addition to expressionistic techniques like distorted lenses, spiraling overheads, extreme undercranking, and Aronofsky’s signature actor-anchored “Snorricam” shot, all of which editor Jay Rabinowitz chops up into a delirious split-screen brew that simulates the experience of an increasingly-bad trip.

Mansell’s score would prove instantly iconic upon the film’s release, imprinting itself into the collective pop culture psyche with its dark techno baseline and an intense string theme performed by Kronos Quartet.

Indeed, the score was a breakout piece of work for both Mansell and Kronos Quartet, helping to ensure the film’s longevity with a theme that has since been used and repurposed many times over, perhaps most famously as a battle theme for the trailer of Peter Jackson’s second installment of his LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, THE TWO TOWERS (2002).

PI may have been Aronofsky’s breakout, but REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is the film that cemented his artistic aesthetic in the eyes of the public, establishing his technical and thematic signatures.

Having grown up around Coney Island and greater Brooklyn, the world of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is one that the director knows intimately and completely.

His familiarity imparts the film with an unforgettable sense of place, helping his audience to understand the context of the world that his characters wish to escape via their various addictions.  REQUIEM FOR A DREAM also represents the perfection of a technique he had been experimenting with since his earliest student work: rapid-fire inserts that depict distinct activities in extreme close-up.

Referring to these mini sequences as “hip hop montages”, Aronofsky employs this technique throughout the film as something akin to a punctuation mark preceding some of the film’s most bizarrely surreal images.

The audience is able to experience the same kind of rush his characters feel as they shoot up or pop pills– but just as we get to share in their loopy delight, we also must endure their pain and suffering as their addictions increasingly take hold.

REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is nothing if not a cautionary tale about the perils of addiction, a key pillar in Aronofsky’s career-long exploration of the dark side of the human experience.

Aronofsky shows how our ability to subvert our own biological chemistry and willfully manipulate our perception of reality comes at a high price– the more we give ourselves over to narcotically-induced euphoria, the more we lose of our authentic selves.

Addiction slowly saps of us our humanity, dimming the bright light of our individuality until eventually the light goes out.  Aronofsky’s inherent understanding of the human condition allows him to depict addiction for the waking nightmare it truly is, exposing drug culture’s sexy and appealing aspects as ultimately hollow and elusive.

Nearly twenty years after its premiere out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM has steadfastly maintained its reputation as one of the most controversial films ever made.

The controversy began before its theatrical release, with the MPAA refusing to rate the film any lower than NC-17 due to, of all things, its sexual content.  To his credit, Aronofsky courageously refused to cut the film– after all, the shocking nature of its content was integral to the conveyance of the core message.

An NC-17 rating would mean that commercials couldn’t air on TV and prints ads couldn’t appear in newspapers, virtually guaranteeing a box office catastrophe.

In the end, Aronofsky chose to release the film unrated.  This move would allow him to distribute the film without edits or censorship, but it also meant that no mainstream theater chain would show the film either.

Thankfully, Aronofsky was able to leverage his indie cred and the film’s public controversy into a respectable run in arthouse theaters.

The film’s cult status was cemented with its successful performance in the home video market, with many no doubt adding the DVD to their collection as a must-own work of cinema that they’ll knowingly never take down from the shelf.

More important than REQUIEM FOR A DREAM’s profit margins, its warm critical reception reinforced the power of Aronofsky’s unique voice in cinema.  He had delivered on PI’s artistic promise with an unforgettable powerhouse of a film that served as the culmination of his early directorial output.

In closing this first chapter out on such a strong note, Aronofsky would begin a new one well-poised to meet the greater challenges of a higher artistic plane.


THE FOUNTAIN (2006)

Entering one’s thirties can be a loaded rite of passage– the telltale signs of aging like grey hairs, chronic pain from old injuries, and a slowdown of metabolism usually rear their ugly heads for the first time.  It’s a time when many start to grapple with their future and the realism of their prospects and dreams.

Thoughts about one’s own mortality can move from the realm of the impossible to the all-too tangible, but most don’t have to deal with the spectre of death directly.

In the early 2000’s, director Darren Aronofsky was entering this particular life juncture for himself, and found himself confronting death when his parents were diagnosed with cancer.

While they eventually overcame their illnesses, the process left the young filmmaker trying to make sense of it all– caught between the worlds of faith and reason, his intellectual rationality couldn’t reconcile itself with the staggering unknowability of oblivion.  Words simply failed him; thankfully, pictures did not.

All this internal turmoil caused Aronofsky to turn to his old Harvard roommate, Ari Handel, in an effort to develop a story that properly expressed his sentiments about the great beyond.  Their efforts would result in Aronofsky’s third feature film: THE FOUNTAIN (2006).

An ambitious and overwhelmingly unique meditation on death, eternity, and undying love, THE FOUNTAIN is a pivotal work in Aronofsky’s canon.  It was received upon its release as an artistic misfire, but it’s clear now that THE FOUNTAIN was simply ahead of its time.

Pop culture during the 2000’s was defined by its materialistic flash and taste for gaudy excess, so in hindsight it’s perhaps understandable that audiences decked out in Tom Hardy tattoo shirts and pink sweatpants with “Juicy” on the butt were not exactly ready for the psycho-spiritual brew Aronofosky had concocted.

The success of PI (1998) and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) gave Warner Brothers the confidence to finance Aronofsky’s vision, setting him and his producing partner Eric Watson up with an exponential increase in budgetary resources to the tune of $75 million.

Complete with epic battle scenes, gigantic set builds and an all-star lead couple in Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, THE FOUNTAIN was shaping up to become Aronofsky’s first big Hollywood film.  The lifelong New Yorker even relocated to Australia to settle in for a long, arduous shoot.

Inevitably, the studio got buyer’s remorse, and when Pitt departed the project because Aronofsky wouldn’t accommodate his rewrite requests, they seized on the opportunity to shut a massively risky project down and cut their losses.

Despite all this, the project wasn’t completely dead in the water– Warner Brothers, to their credit, still believed in Aronofsky’s vision enough to leave the door open to a revival should he bring the costs down.  The wounded director retreated to his writing while re-immersing himself in his roots in the independent sector, trimming away unwieldy battle scenes to better hone in on THE FOUNTAIN’s key themes and ideas.

In doing so, Aronofsky was able to shave his budget down to $35 million.  By 2004, Aronofsky was off to Montreal, Canada with his second greenlight and a renewed conviction in his vision.

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THE FOUNTAIN’s story arranges itself as a triptych, depicting a man named Tomas and his quest across time and space to conquer death and live forever with his beloved, Isabel.

Aronofsky sets the action in three distinct time periods– the 16th century, 2005, and sometime in the distant 2500’s– with the action and story beats arranged so that they repeat, overlap, and cascade upon in each other in such a way that suggests a circular temporal structure of reincarnation rather than a linear, forward-pushing timeline.

In the 16th century, Tomas is a Spanish conquistador who has traveled to the jungles of South America in a bid to find the Fountain of Youth and win the hand of his beloved Queen Isabel.  In contemporary 2005, he is a driven neuroscientist desperately searching for the elusive cure to brain cancer before it claims his terminally-ill wife.

In the 2500’s, he is a meditative zen astronaut, traveling through the cosmos in his bubble spaceship towards the dying star, Xibalba.

Known primarily at the time for his fierce portrayal as Wolverine in the X-MEN films, Hugh Jackman proves a revelation as the three distinct incarnations of Tomas– each more grief-addled and tortured than the last.  Rachel Weisz handles the luminescent complexity of Isabel’s three forms so effortlessly that it’s hard to imagine Aronofsky initially didn’t want her in the part; she was his girlfriend at the time, and was sensitive to the potential accusations of favoritism that her casting might imply– until Jackman was able to overcome his resistance and sway him.

Weisz ties her three roles as a Queen, a wife, and an ethereal angel together with a wide-eyed wonder at the prospect of confronting oblivion– she’s unafraid of the Great Beyond, seeing death not as an end, but as an empowering transformation that will enable her to discover the wider universe beyond our perception.

Indeed, her musing that “death is the road to awe” handily sums up THE FOUNTAIN’s fundamental message, giving the film the necessary conviction to uphold its distinct tone.

Through these two souls and their various incarnations, Aronofsky fashions a profound narrative that resonates at the innermost levels of the collective human experience, drawing inspiration from a wide range of resources like Renaissance art, Western religion, and Eastern philosophy and meshing it together into something that feels at once both impossibly familiar and jaw-droppingly alien.

By this point in his career, Aronofsky had cemented his core group of collaborators, both in front of and behind the camera.

This includes talent like Ellen Burstyn and Mark Margolis– Burstyn following her highly-praised turn in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM with her appearance here as modern-day Tomas’ compassionate and maternal boss, Dr. Lillian Guzetti, and Margolis as Fr. Avila, a Franciscan priest accompanying 16th-century Tomas to the Mayan jungles.

Behind the camera, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, production designer James Chinlund, editor Jay Rabinowitz, and composer Clint Mansell also return– their individual efforts coming together in sublime harmony.

Celluloid film is already prized for its organic nature (especially in relation to the clinical, sometimes-lifeless sheen of digital cinematography), but THE FOUNTAIN finds Aronofsky and Libatique imprinting the 1.85:1 35mm film image with an unusually-tangible degree of organic texture.

Extreme closeups reveal the fleeting effervescence of life itself via the fine hairs on skin and rough tree bark.  Indeed, Aronofsky and Libatique shed the gritty, grimy lo-fi texture of their previous collaborations for a timeless aesthetic that looks at the specter of death with a romantic eye, painting it as an unknowable force of impermanent beauty.

An evocative black/gold color palette unifies THE FOUNTAIN’s three eras, complemented by limited splashes of green and red.  A “starlight” motif drives the film’s approach to lighting, illuminating Chinlund’s sets in bright wells of concentrated spotlights or the warm, ambient glow of candles while puncturing the surrounding darkness with pinpoints of distant luminescence.

If Aronofsky harnessed the spirit of John Cassavetes with his rough-hewn approach to PI and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, then THE FOUNTAIN channels the ghost of Stanley Kubrick with its plentiful one-point perspective compositions, abundance of overhead angles, and classical/formalist camerawork.

Rabinowitz brilliantly weaves the film’s three epochs together into a cosmic whole, employing classic techniques like match-cutting on action or similar shapes.

Naturally, a story like THE FOUNTAIN requires a substantial degree of visual effects, but Aronofksy’s roots as a scrappy microbudget filmmaker enable him to pull off his vision while both keeping costs down and ensuring his images’ technical integrity against the always-evolving nature of digital wizardry.

Aronofsky endeavors to capture as much of the film as practically as he can, utilizing only basic CGI techniques like compositing and rotoscoping.

THE FOUNTAIN’s most inspired touch in this regard is arguably its technique for realizing the vast backdrop of a dying nebula in space. To achieve this, Aronofsky employed macrophotography of various chemical reactions inside water– a process that reads as organic and entirely believable thanks to space and water’s shared physics.

In adopting this approach, Aronofsky was able to create realistic and astonishing visual backdrops for a fraction of the cost it would take for a computer to do the same.  Like Rabinowitz’s edit, Mansell’s already-iconic score unifies the disparate elements of THE FOUNTAIN into a singular entity, using romantic and intensely epic string arrangements played once more by Kronos Quartet as well as Scottish post-rock band, Mogwai.

As vastly different a film as it is to previous works like PI or REQUIEM FOR A DREAMTHE FOUNTAIN is nonetheless an inherently authentic portrait of Aronofsky’s distinct artistic character.

His intellectual, academically-minded and atheistic upbringing within a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and culture forms his lifelong search for the middle ground between faith and reason.

Despite opening with a verse from the Old Testament, the film takes great pains to ensure its narrative and thematic conceits can’t fit into a tidy box labeled for one particular religion– indeed, Aronofsky’s vision of Eternity marries the core spiritual tenets of Western and Eastern religions while also folding in elements of Kabbalah mysticism, Mayan creation myths and contemporary neuroscience into a singular cosmic experience.

In doing so, Aronofsky is able to capture the awe of oblivion, the afterlife, and creation itself without religious imposition.  Indeed, THE FOUNTAIN is the kind of film that a Christian, Muslim, or Agnostic alike could find profound spiritual resonance in.

Just as REQUIEM FOR A DREAM explored the dark side of the human experience through addiction, THE FOUNTAIN dissects ideas like death, grief, and religious fanaticism (seen best in a sequence set during the Spanish Inquisition).

Whereas his previous film’s depiction of chemical dependency made for an appropriately harrowing and dour viewing experience, THE FOUNTAIN’s treatment of its darkly existential themes is meant to inspire awe at the beauty of creation’s impermanence.

Death is a powerful force that we all must succumb to one day, but THE FOUNTAIN posits that Love is even stronger; death can be conquered– not by living forever, but by letting our divine capacity for love resonate through the ages.

THE FOUNTAIN premiered at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, generating a strong base of acclaim before its theatrical release.  Its domestic run, however, did not meet expectations– mixed critical reviews and poor audience attendance left THE FOUNTAIN unable to recoup half its production costs.

Critics admired the earnestness of Aronofsky’s ambition even as they dragged him for the film’s perceived failures, belittling his vision as a hodgepodge of religious gobbledygook that, while pretty to look at, made little to no narrative sense.

Time has revealed those sentiments to be shortsighted at best (and foolish at worst), as Aronofsky’s ambitious “failure” has only grown in esteem in the decade since its release.  Like a slow-blooming flower, THE FOUNTAIN’s multitudes of nuance and spiritual insight steadily unfold over time– each subsequent viewing drawing us deeper into Aronofsky’s vision, yielding ever-more elusive emotional truths.

These are the kind of ideas we expect to see from filmmakers nearing the end of their lives, not one barely into his thirties.  Remembering this, the spiritual profundity of THE FOUNTAIN becomes even more impressive.

Whenever “Best Of” film lists are compiled for the 2000’s (or the 21st century for that matter), THE FOUNTAIN almost always manages to achieve a respectable slot– even ticking upwards in rank every couple years as its ideas prove ever more timeless.

It may be one of the most misunderstood films of its decade, but THE FOUNTAIN is also one of its best.  For Aronofsky, it may not quite fully embody his aspirations as a cinematic masterpiece, but it is certainly a work that will stand the test of time– marking his transition from an upstart maverick to a mature artist in full command of his abilities.


THE WRESTLER (2008)

Everyone loves a good comeback story.  As long as cinema has been around, it seems, this particular narrative archetype has persisted.

It can happen either in front of or behind the camera, sometimes simultaneously– especially simultaneously, considering the trope’s usefulness as a tool for washed-up actors or tired directors to revive a flagging career.

In 2008, the latest comeback story to enrapture audiences was told by actor Mickey Rourke, who had finally delivered on the early promise of a career many had written off as a series of missteps and squandered opportunities by starring in director Darren Aronofsky’s fourth feature film, THE WRESTLER.

Rourke made himself particularly visible during the film’s promotional campaign, availing himself of countless media interviews and appearing at local screenings in LA (I managed to catch one of these appearances myself, at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica just prior to its official release).

Indeed, the pairing of THE WRESTLER and Rourke was lightning in a bottle– a divine alchemy between actor and subject matter.  What often gets lost in this narrative, however, is Aronofsky’s role in the proceedings, and how THE WRESTLER serves as something of his own comeback story.

The sudden surge of career momentum that enabled Aronofsky to make 2006’s THE FOUNTAIN slowed just as abruptly in the wake of that film’s disappointing performance.

Having experienced his first major career setback by faltering under the scale of a mid-budget studio film, Aronofsky must have felt a return to the independent sector in which he had made his name was the appropriate move.

Indeed, a total artistic reboot seemed necessary in order to reclaim his forward momentum.  He found this fresh start in Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay about an aging wrestler attempting a comeback– a story he was strongly compelled to realize on-screen despite it not stemming from his own thoughts like all of his previous work.

Partnering with a new producer in the form of Scott Franklin, Aronofsky set up a bare-bones– yet ambitious– production that shot around the New Jersey area for thirty-five days.

The scrappy nature of the shoot didn’t provide Aronofsky with very much in the way of resources, but it did give the director the opportunity to reconnect with his independent roots and re-establish his artistic relevancy, all while making one of the most acclaimed films of his career.

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The eponymous wrestler of the film’s title is Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed-up champion fighter far removed from his 1980’s heyday.

He’s got little to show for his prior success– he lives in a trailer park in rural New Jersey, his chest bears the scar of a major heart operation, and he’s estranged from his grown daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).  He’s still wrestling, albeit in the ramshackle regional arenas he used to dominate on his way up to the pros.

Rourke is nothing short of a revelation here, delivering a performance full of heartbreak and regret that reveals untold depths about both the character and the man playing him.

It’s hard to imagine the fact that Nicolas Cage was originally attached to star in the role (1), as it belongs so fully to Rourke– indeed, no other actor would likely have brought the kind of dedication Rourke does, like physically cutting himself to draw blood during a match just like a real wrestler might do.

Funnily enough, even Rourke apparently needed some convincing at the beginning.  He reportedly didn’t think very highly of Siegel’s script, but his desire to work with Aronofsky pushed him through his initial wariness.

Aronofsky even let Rourke rewrite all his lines (10)– a seemingly simple gesture that nonetheless shows the director’s growth of artistic confidence in his collaborators, considering how his first iteration of THE FOUNTAIN had collapsed partially because he refused to accommodate Brad Pitt’s request to make changes to the script.

As Randy mounts one last shot at glory in the form of a rematch with his former nemesis The Ayatollah, Rourke repeatedly shows the audience that this was the role he was born to play.

Rourke’s own career had followed a similar trajectory, and all the bad choices he made have led up to this singular moment that requires everything of him.  Clearly, the power from Rourke’s performance lies in its nature as an emotional and artistic catharsis for the actor himself– it is, simply, art imitating life.

Life would imitate art after the fact, with Rourke’s valiant efforts ultimately coming up short.  Despite universal praise from critics that positioned him as a lock for the Best Actor Oscar, Rourke would only make it as far as the nominee pool, losing the golden statue to Sean Penn’s similarly transformative performance in Gus Van Sant’s MILK (2008).

However, this development only matters if one sees the Oscars as the be-all end-all of a film’s artistic worth; the fact remains that Rourke delivers the performance of his lifetime, and the art form of cinema as a whole is made richer by his dedication and sacrifice.

Befitting its framing as an indie character study, THE WRESTLER surrounds Rourke with a limited set of supporting characters, most of them female to better differentiate Randy’s cartoonishly macho fantasy world from reality.

There aren’t too many people that Randy can relate to, but he finds something of a spiritual counterpart in a middle-aged stripper named Cassie.

Played by Marisa Tomei in an Oscar-nominated performance, Cassie also pays the bills by offering up her body to the entertainment of the crowd, her vessel having become more of a liability than an asset as she’s aged.  Like Randy, she too wears a mask when she’s working, hiding her real self away from her audience.

This includes Randy, who spends a great deal of time and energy attempting to make the transition from customer to friend, gradually coaxing the real Cassie out by the end.

Evan Rachel Wood excels as Randy’s estranged daughter, Stephanie, delivering a vindictive, bitter performance as a damaged college student who wants little to do with the father who is only now beginning to show interest in her.

Aronofsky fills out the remainder of THE WRESTLER’s cast with authentic performances by real wrestlers and other New Jersey locals, injecting a visceral realism to the proceedings while further differentiating the everyday from the garish theatricality that Randy deals in.  Finally, character actor Mark Margolis continues his streak of appearing in every one of Aronofsky’s features by making a cameo as Lenny, the cranky landlord of Randy’s RV park.

The visual aesthetic of THE WRESTLER differs so wildly from Aronofsky’s previous work that it functions as a complete artistic reset, switching out all of his key collaborators (save for returning composer Clint Mansell) in favor of new blood and fresh ideas.

He starts with the cinematography, eschewing a fourth consecutive collaboration with his regular DP, Matthew Libatique, in exchange for the services of Maryse Alberti– a french cinematographer renowned for her cinema-verite  documentaries.

Aronofsky and Alberti shoot THE WRESTLER on gritty Super 16mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, presenting a dreary, autumnal color palette punctuated with bursts of garish color via the wrestlers’ various costumes and the countless fountains of spurting blood.

Indeed, the grainy, organic texture of Super 16mm aptly captures the literal and thematic sheen of blood & sweat, further reinforcing the raw physicality on display.  Far from the sculpted theatricality and stagework of THE FOUNTAIN, THE WRESTLER harnesses the natural light found in its real-world locations, empowering the filmmakers with a nimble mobility.

Indeed, when it comes to Aronofsky’s camerawork, “mobile” is the operating word: inspired by the work of the Dardenne Brothers, his camera evokes sensations of searching or restlessness as it fluidly follows the actors around real locations.

There’s a degree of detached observationalism at play, albeit one that gradually diminishes itself in favor of a quiet empathy and compassion as the story unfolds.

While the cinematography strives for visceral realism, editor Andrew Weisblum adopts a tempered expressionism, utilizing jump cuts as visual ellipsis that compress time across one long, continuous action.

Another memorable moment finds the sounds of an audience cheering in anticipation of a big wrestling match juxtaposed with a tracking shot of Randy making his way from the bowels of a grocery store to the deli counter– to him, it’s just another performance, but the striking mismatch between sound and picture brilliantly underscores just how far Randy has strayed from his element.

While Clint Mansell returns to Aronofsky’s fold, his score (consisting of a spare guitar riff played by none other than iconic guitarist Slash) is downplayed in favor of a suite of needledrops that perfectly embody Randy’s mindset and 80’s heyday.

Classic 80’s hair bands like Quiet Riot and Guns & Roses make appearances on the soundtrack– a development that normally would gobble up the majority of Aronofsky’s budget and leave little left over for the film itself.

It’s a testament to Aronofsky’s credibility, as well as Rourke’s moving performance and THE WRESTLER’s resonant storyline, that many tracks were donated for free– including extremely iconic radio hits like Guns & Roses’ “Sweet Child Of Mine” (2).

Bruce Springsteen even got in on the fun, finding himself so inspired by an early cut of the film that he composed a new original song named for the film that would go on to be incorporated into THE WRESTLER’s end credits and even win a Golden Globe.

Despite its significant departures from Aronofsky’s established aesthetic and prior narratives, THE WRESTLER is undoubtedly preoccupied with the key themes that drive his artistic identity.

The New Jersey setting allows Aronofsky to ground his efforts in a sort of “home base”, harnessing the experiences and observations he’d cultivated during his formative years in the larger New York/NJ area.

The dark side of the human experience, previously explored to such chilling effect in all of his prior features, again finds Aronofsky dissecting another particular aspect thereof– specifically, pain, aging, and the distinct horror of having your body fail you.

Aronofsky goes to great lengths to show the extreme wear and tear Randy has accumulated throughout a lifetime of gruesome physical performance.  A large scar runs down his chest, leftover from a drastic heart bypass surgery.

His joints are creaky, his energy is low, and he needs a chemical cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs in order to function at the most basic of levels.

One of the film’s key generators of suspense is Randy’s battle against his own heart, which threatens to give out entirely if he exerts himself too much.  Naturally, this stands as a major obstacle to Randy’s attempt at a comeback, but what choice does he have when all he really has left to live for is the roar of an approving crowd?

Being of the advanced age that he is, Randy walks that fine line between delusion and conviction– he’s too old, too washed-up to recapture the glory days of his youth, the haters might say.  Every sign points towards retirement, but Randy truly believes he can be become a champion once more.

This aspect of THE WRESTLER’s story serves as a great example of the internal battle between faith and logic that marks Aronofsky’s work– albeit one that flips the script from previous iterations.

As seen in Max in PI or Thomas in THE FOUNTAIN, an Aronofsky protagonist is often a rational, intelligent person challenged by the presence of the unknown or the inexplicable.

Randy The Ram, however, is stuffed to the brim with faith in himself and his abilities, despite the cynical dismissal of the outside world who see him as a broken-down sack of hamburger meat.

While the screenplay did not originate with Aronofsky himself, it’s easy to see why he was drawn to it, and the act of approaching his signature themes from the perspective of someone else’s expression makes for one of the most nuanced and resonant works in his celebrated filmography.

As mentioned before, THE WRESTLER kicked off a wave of resurgent momentum for Aronofsky’s career after the disappointing reception of THE FOUNTAIN.  The film premiered at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, taking home the Golden Lion in the process.

It went on to Toronto, where Fox Searchlight snapped up the distribution rights for $4 million.  Given a limited release in December of 2009 before going wide in January, the film debuted to almost-universally positive reviews and healthy box office driven by a savvy marketing campaign that created a meta-narrative around Rourke’s own comeback story.

Rourke even made a guest appearance on WrestleMania XXV with a fake storyline that paralleled his character in the film (3).  Critics honored Rourke’s courageous performance with the aforementioned Oscar nomination, as well as bonafide wins at the BAFTA’s, the Golden Globes, and the Independent Spirit Awards.

As for Aronofsky, THE WRESTLER is evidence of his graduation to a mature filmmaker with refined (yet still iconoclastic) tastes.  Nearly a decade on from its release, THE WRESTLER is fondly remembered as one of his very best works, re-establishing his pre-eminence in the indie sector while setting the stage for even bigger victories to come.


BLACK SWAN (2010)

The lo-fi independent production of 2008’s THE WRESTLER served to unleash director Darren Aronofsky’s ferocious creative energy, reconnecting him with the iconoclastic spirit that kickstarted his career.  He knew that he couldn’t afford to bask in the glow of his artistic redemption– he had to strike again, and soon.

Leveraging his newfound creative momentum into another hit was a task easier said than done, but thankfully he already had a project in the pipeline.

Back during the production of 2000’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, Aronofsky received a script by Andres Heinz titled “The Understudy”, about off-Broadway actors in New York contending with the haunting appearance of their doubles.

He liked the general idea, but thought it might be more compelling if set within the world of ballet, being an insular subculture that is rarely depicted onscreen.

He commissioned Mark Heyman and John McLaughlin to craft a rewrite with this change in mind, resulting in what would become a nightmarish foray into psychological horror titled BLACK SWAN.  The project had spent the ensuing the eight years in development hell, finding a brief home at Universal before decamping back to the independent realm.

Despite the heat he’d generated with the success of THE WRESTLER, Aronofsky was turned down by every studio in town– even with a proposed production budget of $13 million, he found he couldn’t entice studios to bite on such an experimental genre picture, even with major stars attached.

Indeed, the indie iconoclast was confronting Hollywood’s New Normal: a post-Recession aversion to risk and a distaste for the cultural cache of The Auteur in favor of candy-hued “Content” desperately licensing any kind of pre-existing intellectual property that might draw an audience.

Thankfully, Aronofsky’s street cred in the indie world was strong enough to secure the funds he needed, enabling him to make what would come to be his most successful film to date.

Following in the grandiose footsteps of horror icons like Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg, BLACK SWAN tells a cautionary tale about the dangers inherent in the pursuit of artistic perfection.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, an ambitious ballerina plucked from obscurity to headline her dance company’s new production of Swan Lake.

Portman, who Aronofsky had attached to play the part as early as 2000, fully immerses herself into the role, going so far as to drop twenty pounds and spend countless months in dance training prior to the shoot.

Her long-term loyalty to Aronofsky’s vision would prove fruitful, propelling her through a career-best performance that would ultimately earn her the Academy Award.  She’s imprisoned in a childlike inner state, held there by her strict, overbearing mother Erica.

Played by seasoned character actress Barbara Hershey, Erica is a former dancer herself– albeit a failed one who projects her own ambitions onto her daughter and pushes her to be the prima ballerina she never was, all while denying Nina her agency and sexuality as a grown woman.

This arrested development proves a problem when Nina’s director, Thomas Leroy (iconic French actor Vincent Cassel) handpicks her to play the lead in his production of Swan Lake– a role that requires the successful projection of duality in the twin forms of the White Swan and the Black Swan.

Coaxing Nina’s dark side out from deep within proves a formidable task for the intense, narcissistic director, compelling him to employ psychological and sexual manipulation with surgical precision.

The ploy works, although a little too well– a monster awakens inside Nina, making itself known via nightmarish episodes of doppelgänger sightings and body horror that question her grip on reality.

This insatiable beast feeds off the dark energy of those around her, thriving off her sexual relationship with Mila Kunis’ Lily, a mysterious new dancer in the company, as well as the bitter despair of Winona Ryder’s Beth Macintyre, who had previously been Leroy’s star dancer before she was unceremoniously replaced by the younger and more-virginal Nina.

As Nina descends into her nightmare of perfection, Aronofsky embraces the conventions of the psychological horror genre even as he plays them against the everyday objectivity implied by the film’s documentary-style cinematography.

He deftly incorporates spooky subtleties and blatant jump scares alike, all the while dragging the audience deeper into Nina’s subjective perspective and making her eventual transformation into the titular Black Swan a viscerally plausible experience.

After the total collaborative reset of THE WRESTLER, Aronofsky brings back some of his key creative partners from films past in a bid to connect his new aesthetic to his artistic roots.

This includes recurring performers like Mark Margolis and Stanley B. Herman making respective cameos as an extra in the gala sequence and, naturally, a creepy pervert on the subway.  It also includes technical craftsmen like cinematographer Matthew Libatique, editor Andrew Weisblum, and composer Clint Mansell.

If its thematic similarities weren’t enough to position BLACK SWAN as a companion piece to THE WRESTLER, then the cinema-verite style of cinematography shared between them certainly picks up the slack.

Libatique adopts the handheld Super 16mm film aesthetic that Maryse Alberti developed for THE WRESTLER, giving the 2.35:1 frame a gritty, organic texture that stands in stark contrast to the film’s cosmopolitan setting and elegant subject matter.

The handheld camerawork gives BLACK SWAN an appropriate fleet-footed energy, allowing Aronofsky to quite literally dance with his actors.  Libatique’s approach differs from Alberti’s in its embrace of the horror genre, mixing the theatrical lighting of Nina’s professional world with the dim, natural glow of her personal one.

Framing favors tight, almost-claustrophobic closeups and compositions that allow Aronofsky to play with the literary idea of “The Double” by highlighting a reflective element in almost every shot.

Libatique’s efforts work in concert with new production designer Therese DePrez, who cultivates a color palette of black and white tones supplemented by secondary splashes of pale green and pink.

Mansell’s contribution is much more notable here than his spare work on THE WRESTLER, reworking excerpts of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake into a mysterious, brooding score underscored by a throbbing guitar that musically echoes the beast lurking beneath Nina’s refined exterior.

Like THE WRESTLER before it, BLACK SWAN’s narrative hinges on several of Aronofsky’s signature thematic preoccupations despite not authoring the script himself.

The film’s format as a psychological horror enables Aronofsky to plumb more of the pitch-black depths of the human experience– in particular, disease, body horror, and the idea of passion as a negative quality.

Some of BLACK SWAN’s most iconic moments stem from Nina’s body coming under siege from a bird-like presence within, like pitch-black feathers poking out from under the skin of her shoulder, or her knees forcefully cracking backwards into a horrific avian posture.

Coupled with terrifying hallucinations and sightings of her doppelgänger, these developments ultimately lead up to Nina’s total transformation into the titular animal– but did she really turn into a bird in full view of an adoring audience, or was it all in her mind?

Aronofsky deftly walks the fine line between the real and the imagined, further underscoring Nina’s conflict between belief and logic.  Logic would dictate that humans can’t simply transform into another animal; it’s safe to say that’s an objective truth (extreme body modifications notwithstanding).

However, by aligning the audience’s perspective with Nina’s subjective point of view, Aronofsky does away with the pesky hurdle of an objective truth and establishes a scenario where all things are possible.

The tug of war between faith and logic is the backbone of any good psychological thriller, and it’s directly because of Aronofsky’s exploration of this conflict in his prior films that makes BLACK SWAN so effective as an entry in the genre.

Whereas the exploration of faith in prior films like PI or THE FOUNTAIN used the prism of religion, BLACK SWAN is inherently about faith in oneself and how it clashes against expectations and discipline.

Few art forms are as rooted in the necessity of discipline as ballet– indeed, nearly every aspect of Nina’s waking life is dominated in some form by her vocation.  When she isn’t practicing in an insular studio sealed away from the bustle of the city, she hangs around her dingy apartment and practices some more.

She has no love life to speak of, and routinely denies herself small indulgences like the occasional slice of cake.  To successfully play the Black Swan, she has to learn to let go of her discipline and give in to a raw, animalistic drive.

The framework of the psychological thriller genre might imply that BLACK SWAN’s descent into madness is a cautionary tale about the dangers of losing one’s self to unchecked id, but in Aronofsky’s hands, the message instead seems to be that all the discipline in the world is for naught without the foundation of passion and inspiration.

Reams of critical thought have already been expounded about the idea that BLACK SWAN and THE WRESTLER are companion pieces, each working in complement to each other within a distinct chapter of Aronofsky’s artistic growth.

Indeed, their respective narratives frameworks bear many similarities as they each track a protagonist pursuing a career of demanding physical performance at the expense of a “normal life”.

When viewed together, it becomes immediately evident that the refined and cosmopolitan femininity of BLACK SWAN contrasts tidily with THE WRESTLER’s blue-collar, broken-down machismo.

The two films seem to inform and shape each other, despite being made separately– an observation that no doubt stems from the lingering vestige of Aronofsky’s original idea years back, which would have detailed a love story between an aging wrestler and a young ballerina before he decided it was better to split them up into their own respective films.

United in their shared aesthetic and thematic conceits, BLACK SWAN and THE WRESTLER are also tied together by their shared success– a one-two punch that represents the pinnacle of Aronofsky’s career as well as his artistry (so far).

After debuting as the Opening Night film of the 2010 Venice Film Festival, BLACK SWAN opened to warm critical reception.

A modest degree of success was to be expected given its genre trappings as a psychological horror, but the rave reviews from critics helped BLACK SWAN to find the kind of mature, artistically-discerning audience it might not have had otherwise.

Aronofsky’s crossover hit eventually joined the ranks of other classics like William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973) and Jonathan Demme’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) as one of the few overt horror films to be honored by the Academy, earning nominations for Portman’s performance, Andrew Weisblum’s editing, Libatique’s cinematography, and even Best Picture.

Aronofsky himself would score his first Oscar nomination for his direction, thus formalizing the growing notion that BLACK SWAN was a truly special film in his body of work– the perfect alchemy of subject matter and his particular artistic strengths.

Portman may have been the only one to walk away with a gold statue that night, but the filmmakers could rest assured that their passion project had been formally canonized as one of the classics of 21st-century cinema.  Seven years on, BLACK SWAN has lost none of its darkly-elegant edge, with each passing year adding more fortification to the idea that Aronofsky had achieved an artistic perfection all his own.


MUSIC VIDEOS & COMMERCIALS (2011-2012)

Riding high off the success of 2010’s BLACK SWAN, director Darren Aronofsky turned his attention to a long-gestating passion project that aimed to reimagine the classic biblical story of Noah’s arc.

The logistical challenges of mounting such an ambitious project naturally made for a slower pace in development and pre-production, so Aronofsky filled his spare time (and bank account) with a series of music videos and commercials that would broaden his aesthetic portfolio.

METALLICA & LOU REED: “THE VIEW” (2011)

Aronofsky’s first music video in over a decade would be for a collaboration between Metallica and The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed called “THE VIEW”.

His last music video was for Clint Mansell’s “PI R SQUARED”, and was comprised of grainy black & white footage lifted directly from his feature debut; “THE VIEW” brings back that particular aesthetic, opting for an extremely high contrast, monochromatic look.

Perhaps inspired by Lou Reed’s fire & brimstone vocals (spoken plainly like a poet prophet rather than singing), Aronofsky also incorporates expressionistic flourishes like lens flares and unstable double exposures that complement the over-aggressive macho posturing on Metallica’s part.

THE METH PROJECT CAMPAIGN (2011)

Anti-drug commercials have always been hailed for their willingness to shock and horrify.  Easily the highlight of Aronofsky’s short-form work during this period, he collaborates with The Meth Project for a series of four spots that recapture the graphic shock and visceral horror of 2000’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.

Through the four vignettes– individually titled “DEEP END”, “ER”, “DESPERATE” and “LOSING CONTROL”— Aronofsky drops us right into a vivid scenario involving someone caught in the grips of a severe meth addiction.

We see a girl slashing her wrists, another girl overdosing, a young man tearing his little brother’s room apart in search of cash, and a boy reluctantly prostituting himself out to an older man.

Each vignette starts out with an extreme close-up of the subject’s face, awash in bright light and looking to the camera while an inner monologue plays.

The effect is almost tranquil– that is, until Aronofsky dials the exposure back and ramps the film speed to real-time, pulling back with his handheld camera to reveal the horrific chaos unfolding around them.  The ads made quite the splash when they debuted in November of 2011, generating waves of chatter about the campaign’s effectiveness as well as the excellence of Aronofsky’s craftwork.

YVES SAINT-LAURENT: “LA NUIT DE L’HOMME” (2011)

Aronofsky closed out 2011 with a case of artistic whiplash, veering from the graphic grittiness of the Meth Project campaign to the glossy elegance of a perfume commercial for Yves Saint-Laurent.

The spot, titled “LA NUIT DE L’HOMME”, features his BLACK SWAN co-star Vincent Cassel as a black-suited lothario effortlessly seducing a trio of beautiful young women across the city.  Each of the three locales gets it own color code, helping us to differentiate Cassel’s location via strong swaths of orange, blue and red.

Aronofsky creates a moody, cinematic look that juxtaposes baroque elegance with the crisp lines of modernity.  The piece is also notable for its contributions by several of Aronofsky’s frequent collaborators, including producer Scott Franklin, editor Andrew Weisblum, writers Mark Heyman and Ari Handel, and composer Clint Mansell.

KOHLS: “JENNIFER LOPEZ” (2012)

A 2012 commercial promoting pop icon Jennifer Lopez’s partnership with Kohls doesn’t particularly seem like it would appeal to an artist of discerning taste like Aronofsky.

Indeed, the bright, bubbly spot bears no evidence of his signature, maybe save for the string lights in the background that evoke the lighting aesthetic of 2006’s THE FOUNTAIN… but even then, that’s a stretch.

Aronofsky stages the piece as a single shot, strung together from multiple takes as Lopez dances and sings to the camera and undergoes several wardrobe changes.  It’s an admittedly slick piece of work, with Aronofsky’s relative anonymity behind the camera affording him the opportunity to play around with complicated technical ideas.

One could easily imagine Aronofsky taking the job just for the payday (especially while he was laboring to get an ambitious and risky passion project off the ground), but that line of thought does a disservice to the man’s natural curiosity towards his craft, which manifests through an eagerness to experiment with technique.

“JENNIFER LOPEZ” isn’t exactly memorable as a piece of advertising, but it is effective as a cohesive marriage of concept and execution.

When viewed together in the context of his larger body of work, these short-form pieces don’t evidence a substantial amount of artistic growth on Aronofsky’s part– indeed, pieces like “THE VIEW” and The Meth Project campaign find him returning to extremely familiar ground.

That being said, this period does show Aronofsky turning away from the inward-looking nature of his artistic approach and engaging with pop culture on a level that’s appropriate for an American filmmaker of his pedigree.

A longtime outsider and iconoclast dwelling on the independent fringe of Hollywood, Aronofsky’s brush with prestige in the wake of THE WRESTLER and BLACK SWAN’s twin successes meant he was now on the inside of the machine– a commodity that could be exploited for the material gain of others.  The challenge would now be maintaining that ferocious independence in the face of mainstream expectations and pressure.


NOAH (2014)

The biblical epic has always been a time-honored staple of American cinema, with some of the earliest films ever made drawing inspiration from the timeless stories contained within the “good book”.

In the latter decades of cinema’s existence, these biblical films tend to be marked by a high-profile controversy over their artistic interpretations– films like Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) or Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) have caused no shortage of consternation over their depictions of Jesus and the events of The Gospel.

These stories dare to humanize their iconic protagonists, which naturally tends to generate vocal backlash from the people and organizations tasked with preserving their sanctity.

The latest revisionist take to rankle the faithful is director Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH (2014), which seeks to expand upon the Old Testament’s classic, yet all-too-brief, fable of Noah and The Ark.  Aronofsky had been interested in the story since the seventh grade, when he won a writing contest with his entry on the subject (1).

After making his debut feature, PI (1998), Aronofsky partnered with his co-writer and former college roommate Ari Handel to write a screenplay exploring his unique take on the Noah story (1)– the crafting of which would ultimately take several years.

Despite the success of his recent efforts, THE WRESTLER (2008) and BLACK SWAN (2011), Aronofsky found it difficult to convince studios to buy into his $125 million passion project.

It was the age of “Intellectual Property” in mainstream studio filmmaking, and the world-famous story of Noah and his Ark somehow couldn’t quite cut the mustard.

To prove that indeed there was a modern audience for his revisionist take, Aronofsky rather cunningly commissioned the production of a NOAH comic book in 2011, and used the project’s resulting fanbase to quantify the worth of his “IP”– in other words, he went out and built the necessary audience himself.

Armed with Paramount’s financing and the collective resources of super-producers Arnon Milchan and Mary Parent, Aronofsky and his producing partner Scott Franklin soon found themselves embarking on the director’s most ambitious– and successful– film yet.

We’re all familiar with the biblical story of Noah and The Ark, but we’ve never seen it quite like this.  Ten generations on from Adam & Eve, humanity has split into two distinct clans– the barbaric descendants of Cain and the virtuous descendants of Seth, headed by patriarch Methusaleh (Anthony Hopkins) and embodied in Russell Crowe’s Noah.

Aronofsky seeks to deepen the sketch of a character that’s typically portrayed in The Bible, casting Noah instead as a reluctant man of faith with a horde of psychological demons tormenting him on the inside.

When he begins having nightmarish visions of a world destroyed by a deluge of water, Noah seeks guidance from his grandfather, Methusaleh.

Hopkins injects the role with an immediate gravitas befitting his career reputation, believably projecting the grizzled, magical aura of a man who is reported to be many hundreds of years old and is the last living person to have met Adam.

Methuselah advises Noah that a great flood is coming– a means for an unhappy Creator to purge the Earth of his unsatisfactory creations and start life anew.  What’s more, The Creator has tasked Noah with building a large ark in which to shelter two of every animal and his small family so that they can start over when the waters recede.

Despite his internal doubts and misgivings, Noah begins preparing for the Great Flood, constructing a massive arc with the help of several Golems– fallen angels whom God had transformed into hulking rock monsters when they came down to Earth to help humanity.

The first half of Noah is rather fantastical, adopting a LORD OF THE RINGS template in its approach to mankind’s origins– complete with a massive CGI-laden battle as Noah defends his ark from an offensive led by Ray Winstone’s Tubal-Cain, the brutal and vindictive figurehead of the Cain lineage.

The second half is where the film gets really interesting, when Aronofsky treats Noah’s riding out of the flood in the ark as a simmering psychological chamber drama.  Racked by a profound survivor’s guilt, Noah spirals even deeper into his obsession with fulfilling The Creator’s wishes.

His wife Naameh — played by Jennifer Connelly in her second collaboration with Aronofsky after REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) — becomes the voice of reason, imploring Noah to come back from the brink.  He also must contend with a rebellion from his two sons, Ham & Shem.

Played by Logan Lerman and Douglas Booth, respectively, his two sons each have their own reason for turning on their father: Ham seeks revenge for the girl Noah allowed to be killed by her own people, and Shem seeks to protect his pregnant wife, Ila (Emma Watson), from Noah’s crazed crusade to extinguish humanity once and for all.

While all of this is happening, Tubal-Cain is stowed away in the bowels of the ark, laying in wait to wrestle control from Noah and re-establish his evil leadership.

NOAH affords Aronofsky the opportunity to work with an all-star cast, which even extends to the voice-only roles, with Nick Nolte and regular collaborator Mark Margolis providing the voices for two of the golems.  Behind the camera, Aronofsky’s core group of technical collaborators also return.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique injects NOAH with the epic feel of a big-budget Hollywood film, replete with an orgy of CGI creatures and epic battles that marks the film as one of the most technically-challenging for both Aronofsky as well as his computer effects team.

Combining a mix of 35mm film and digital Arri Alexa footage onto a 1.85:1 canvas, Libatique and Aronofsky render their range of dynamic compositions in drab earth tones.

Handheld close-ups complement an otherwise formal approach, with Aronofsky making a recurring visual motif out of a particular aerial/crane move that drifts up and away from his subject.

Indeed, he often strings this same movement across multiple successive shots, achieving a hypnotic effect that also showcases the volcanic grandeur of his Icelandic locales and production designer Mark Friedberg’s cavernous Ark sets.

Returning editor Andrew Weisblum faces a greater challenge than usual, with Aronofsky tasking him with the execution of a recurring motif that sees epoch-spanning timelapses rendered in a unique, rapid-fire snapshot style.

Clint Mansell expectedly provides NOAH’s original score, which once again commissions the talents of Kronos Quartet and possesses a swelling, romantic flair reminiscent of biblical epics of yore as well as  Aronofsky’s own 2006 feature, THE FOUNTAIN.

NOAH deals heavily in the themes and ideas that Aronofsky has spent his career exploring, the most prominent of which being the interior struggle between faith and reason.

This conflict is no doubt what initially attracted Aronofsky to a revisionist take on Noah’s Ark, as it would enable him to apply a cerebral approach to religious ideas– an approach that previously had made films like PI and THE FOUNTAIN so intellectually resonant.

A significant portion of the classic Noah’s Ark story finds Noah grappling with doubt from both within and from those around him regarding his outlandish visions of the end of the world.

NOAH takes this template and runs with it, applying a compelling (and borderline-psychopathic) twist that extrapolates Noah’s desires for the end of humanity to the point that he’s willing to murder a newborn infant.  He labors against all sound logic and reasoning, filled with righteous conviction that he is fulfilling The Creator’s divine plan.

Additionally, Aronofsky obliquely explores this theme during a montage that incorporates the aforementioned propulsive snapshot-style timelapse technique to detail the origins of the universe and mankind.

Noah recounts to his family the biblical story of creation found in the Book Of Genesis, but the images onscreen detail The Big Bang, the cosmic formation of the stars and planets, the beginnings of life on Earth, and mankind’s slow evolution from apes.

Aronofsky then goes a step further, with Noah explaining the generations of violence between the tribes of Cain and Seth while rendering this conflict on-screen via rapid-fire silhouettes of figures engaged in combat throughout history– including the recognizable forms of Roman centurions, Napoleonic troopers, WW2 fighters and modern-day soldiers.

It’s a stunning sequence that finds Aronofsky achieving something of a harmony between faith and logic by applying a figurative interpretation of the Bible that seeks to connect ancient ideas to immediate contemporary concerns.

For whatever reason, however, Aronofsky temporarily ignores this scientific approach in his portrayal of Adam & Eve in The Garden of Eden, rendering them less as flesh & blood human forms and more as ethereal alien-types with a golden glow.

filmz.ru

The dark side of the human experience is another theme that courses through the entirety of Aronofsky’s filmography, and the story of NOAH provides an opportunity to explore its very origins– murder, temptation, and the idea of Man’s Original Sin that led to his casting out from The Garden.

More specifically, Aronofsky explores sin as a stain that runs down through the generations, marking an entire line of people with a predetermined fate.  If The Creator made mankind in his image as a perfect being, then the introduction of sin marks the point at which we became imperfect.

Sin is what separates God from his creations, and the protagonists of Aronofsky’s films are often found attempting to close that gap with logic while struggling to overcome their imperfections– PI’s Max Cohen labors to find the true name of God via mathematics; REQUIEM FOR A DREAM’s scraggly group of heroic addicts used narcotics to seek enlightenment and euphoria; THE FOUNTAIN’s Tomas believes science is the key to immortality; THE WRESTLER’s Randy The Ram puts his body through the thresher for the worship of his fans; BLACK SWAN’s Nina Sayers works towards godliness in her mastery over her body.

NOAH continues this tradition by having its protagonist actually commune with his creator, risking the very future of humanity so that he can purge it of sin and start anew.

In both idea and execution, NOAH is most similar to THE FOUNTAIN— both are ambitious, big-budget indies about the cycle of death & rebirth as well as a direct reckoning between faith and reason.

By making NOAH in the first place, Aronofsky was flirting with the kind of disappointing reception and aura of “failure” that THE FOUNTAIN initially met with upon release.

Indeed, NOAH posed an even bigger risk, considering the significant creative liberties that Aronofsky took in adapting a section from what is easily the most scrutinized and sacred work of literature in human history.

On top of the inevitable religious controversy, NOAH faced criticism for its perceived white-washing, perpetuating the long cinematic tradition of casting all-white actors in roles that, historically-speaking, would have most definitely not been Caucasian.

The controversy might have even been of a higher profile, had Ridley Scott not stolen that particular spotlight with his release of EXODUS: GODS & KINGS that same year– a much more egregious display of white-washing considering his Caucasian leads were portraying ancient Egyptians.

Despite these controversies, NOAH outperformed expectations, earning mostly positive reviews and posting big numbers at the box office.

When all was said and done, NOAH had emerged as Aronofsky’s highest-grossing film to date, vanquishing any anxiety that it might be another disappointment like THE FOUNTAIN.  With NOAH’s success, Aronofsky proved he could handle big-budget epics with the deft, assured touch that marked his indie thrillers.

He had seemingly found his groove, and was now poised to consistently deliver more of contemporary cinema’s most visceral and strikingly original creations.


COMMERCIALS (2016-2018)

Following the success of his 2014 feature, NOAH, director Darren Aronofsky once again turned to the commercial world to sustain himself as he prepped his next big effort.

This chapter of his career finds Aronofsky bringing his iconoclastic vision to powerhouse establishment outlets like The New York Times and high profile fashion brands like Hugo Boss while dialing down the individuality of his artistic aesthetic to better accommodate the commercial interests of his employers.

HUGO BOSS: POWER OF BOSS (2016)

Aronofsky’s prior work for Yves Saint-Laurent established the director as a sought-after talent in fashion marketing.  In 2016, Hugo Boss enlisted him for “POWER OF BOSS”, a spot for their new men’s fragrance.

Starring the emerging actor Theo James, the spot exudes high-glamor and a slick, cosmopolitan vibe.  The Weeknd’s darkly seductive single “High For This” throbs over sensual closeups of bodies in motion– hands caressing bare skin, lips brushing together, and so on.

The spot contains a brief allusion to BLACK SWAN, in that Aronofsky uses mirrors and windows as a framing device to suggest the idea of “the double”, often with the subject being reflected twice-over in the glass prism.

While it’s still a relatively anonymous spot, “POWER OF BOSS” further evidences Aronofsky’s ability to capture glossy, slick images in addition to the gritty, visceral visuals usually associated with his repertoire.

NEW YORK TIMES: THE TRUTH IS HARD (2017)

In 2017, Aronofsky was hired to direct a quartet of spots for the New York Times, celebrating the role that their photojournalists play in bringing the immediacy of the news home to their readers.

Only three of the four appear to be available for public view, with Aronofsky adopting the same style of execution for each: a series of rapid-fire snapshots punctuate stretches of black while the photographer delivers a voiceover monologue (filtered to sound like a telephone call) about his or her experience in the field.

At the end of each spot, Aronofsky settles on a singular image in particular, showing how it becomes the key image for the news article it accompanies.  Aronofsky proves the right choice as the helmer of the spot, bringing his unique insights into the dark side of the human experience in the exploration of images featuring war & disease.

As of this writing, these pair of commercials represent Aronofsky’s most recently-released works, although he’s set to release his seventh feature film MOTHER! next month.  A psychological horror starring Jennifer Lawrence, MOTHER! promises to chart territory similar to BLACK SWAN.

If early buzz is any indication, Aronofsky is set for yet another hit in a string of well-received genre pictures that have embodied his operational prime.


MOTHER! (2017)

One of the lesser-talked about aspects of pursuing a career in filmmaking is the loss of that visceral or “magic” sensation that made us fall in love with the medium in the first place.

The ability to passively sit back and let ourselves get swept up in the story becomes hampered by an active deconstruction of narrative logic, performance, or mise-en-scene. Emotion & empathy takes a back seat to intellectual scrutiny, robbing us of the thrills or exhilaration that the filmmaker worked so hard for us experience.

Once in a while, however, a film comes along out of nowhere and lands with such increasingly-rare impact that we surrender the entirety of our senses to its power.

Despite marketing materials that heavily emphasized its supposedly-batshit narrative, I was not expecting such an outcome when I sat down to a screening of Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 feature MOTHER!— sure enough, however, I was so shaken by the film that I had to wander outside in a daze for nearly an hour.

I needed time to process what I’d just seen, but I knew I had loved every minute… and that most audiences would loathe it.

Aronofsky, of course, is no stranger to dramatically polarized reactions to his work— the foundation of his artistry is built upon it.  Ever since the protagonist put a power drill to his head in his debut feature PI (1998), Aronofsky has sought to elicit visceral exhortations of shock and disgust from viewers.

The difference, however, between Aronofsky’s gruesome predilections and the torture porn titillation of, say, the SAW franchise, is the intimidating intelligence that drives it.  The phrase “tortured artist” doesn’t seem particularly apt to describe Aronofsky; he typically comes across as a soft-spoken, buttoned-up intellectual in interviews.

Nevertheless, MOTHER! — easily the most ambitious marriage of his cerebral narrative approach and gut-wrenching visual flourishes — was born from a place of deep sadness and anguish on Aronofsky’s part (2).

Following the success of 2014’s NOAH, he reportedly turned his attentions towards a project that would be a first in his filmography: a film for children (3).  As it turns out, it’s a bit difficult to write for children when their future isn’t as rosy as their cheeks.

Indeed, how could anyone, when the world is on fire, fascist authoritarianism is on the rise, and family dinners are spent blankly staring into the glow of smartphones?  Aronofsky’s existential despair had built up like water against a dam, and the only way to relieve the pressure was to express it in the form of art.

Thus, MOTHER! was born, its first draft screenplay feverishly dashed out over the course of five mad days (whereas Aronofsky’s normal gestation period is measured in years (1)).

Like his script, Aronofsky’s latest Protozoa production came together exceedingly quickly, shepherded by his longtime producing partners Scott Franklin and Ari Handel over the course of a few months while Aronofsky conducted extensive rehearsals with his cast in a Brooklyn warehouse.

This gonzo strain of frenzied focus would carry on through to the shoot in Montreal and, ultimately, the finished product— itself a flaming phoenix of cinematic anarchy encompassing nothing less than the whole of human civilization.

mother!

The “plot” of MOTHER! is hard to describe, if only because it doesn’t operate on a straightforward narrative level.  Every character and event is suffused with allegorical meaning, rooted in the self-contained setting of an isolated farmhouse that seemingly exists outside of both time and space.

Jennifer Lawrence anchors the film as the eponymous “Mother”, a woman who has given the entirety of herself over to her husband, played by Javier Bardem and identified only as “Him”.  He is a poet, albeit a tortured one that suffers from a severe case of writer’s block.

Mother seems to exist only for Him, with no exterior or interior life of her own beyond fixing up their farmhouse and catering to his creative needs.  Their fragile harmony begins to fray when a Man (Ed Harris) arrives unexpectedly, seeking a place to stay the night while he passes through.

In letting Man in, however, Mother and Him unwittingly invite a cascading series of unimaginable, increasingly chaotic events that will come to include a funeral, a birth, and a fiery reckoning.

Aronofsky’s biblical and anthropological allusions aren’t exactly difficult to draw out, but the tidiness of their allegorical significance nevertheless resists close scrutiny.

In other words, Aronofsky gives us just enough detail to track the roles his characters play in the larger ur-narrative while leaving plenty of room for a variety of personal interpretations.

My own read of the film first requires further discussion of its technical construction and other thematic conceits, but there’s still plenty to remark about on the surface level of MOTHER!’s story, especially as it pertains to the performances.

If MOTHER! can be called a star vehicle for Lawrence, then it can also be said that Aronofsky never deviates from a cockpit view.  Everything orbits around Lawrence and her tour-de-force performance— she is the Earth (or “Gaia”, as Aronofsky himself describes her), and all the other cast members are satellites circling past her periphery.

The fact that Lawrence goes barefoot throughout the entirety of the movie so as to emphasize her organic connection to the farmhouse (1) points to the rich level of detail and commitment that she gives to a character who, at least on paper, serves as a relatively-blank cypher for the audience to experience the film through.

A nurturer by nature, Mother is endlessly giving of herself, wanting nothing in return except for the love of her husband, Him.

Despite his personal malaise over his lack of productivity, he is ultimately an exceedingly warm and attentive man who is able to return her love in full and still have some left over for his increasingly-needy houseguests.

Indeed, he is accommodating to a fault, welcoming of strangers with open, trusting arms because he can’t help but revel in their praise for his writing. By turning his gaze away from Mother, he inadvertently puts her through all nine circles of Hell until she has nothing left to give him… and even then, he still requires more of her.

Despite their significant gap in age, Bardem’s casting complements Lawrence’s rather well, balancing her character’s youthful naïveté with a seasoned, almost-otherworldly gravitas.

Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, as Man and Woman respectively, are the disharmonious yin to Mother and Him’s yang.  Their presence illuminates the unbridgeable gap between their host’s characters and proceeds to widen that chasm even further.

Identifying himself as a surgeon and teacher when he unexpectedly arrives in the middle of the night, Man proves himself a toxic presence in the house— it’s not enough that he’s simply intrusive, he also brings sickness into Mother and Him’s lives.

He’s constantly sneaking cigarettes, despite an alarmingly severe cough that speaks magnitudes about how little time he has left on this Earth. Woman proves equally abrasive, also arriving unexpectedly a day later and quickly overtaking Mother’s energies with her icy sexual aggressiveness and high-grade alcoholism.

Real-life brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleason play their two adult sons, the former a slimy misogynist and the latter a wiry, spoiled twerp who arrives in a red-hot rage over learning he’s been cheated out of his inheritance.

It’s at this point that MOTHER!’s cast loses control of its contained chamber-drama nature, with strangers multiplying at an alarming rate until the house is absolutely stuffed.  Most are nameless extras, but Aronofksy notably casts Kristin Wiig against-type as Him’s corporate-y publisher, credited only as “Herald”.

Indeed, a quick glance at IMDB’s cast listing for MOTHER! further shades out the biblical/mythical connotations of his allegorical ambitions, featuring bit-part characters named Cupbearer, Fool, Whisperer, Penitent and Devourer, among so many others.

Aronofsky’s technical execution reinforces his vision of MOTHER! as a 2-hour stress attack.  Once again working his trusted director of photography Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky returns to the 2.35:1 16mm film format that lent so much visceral grit and organic weight to previous films like THE WRESTLER (2008) and BLACK SWAN (2010).

These films, and now MOTHER!, etch into stone the idea that Aronofsky is not cut out to be a studio filmmaker; he thrives in the indie environment, where a smaller production footprint affords him plenty of nimbleness and his affections for lo-fi filmmaking formats and techniques are appreciated.

The 16mm gauge in particular has come to serve as something of a calling card for Aronofsky, with its amplified grain texture allowing his work to stand out amongst the hordes of slick, yet inescapably sterile, digital content that populates our screens today.

Its deployment in MOTHER! echoes the earthiness of the story while capturing an ethereal aura in the imperfection of its chemistry.  A lot of ink has been spilled about digital‘s increasing ability to match the quality of film to the point that, to the average observer, there is no discernible difference.

However, the fact remains that film is a chemical process whereas digital is an electronic one; one could shoot the exact same composition using the exact same lens and lighting setup, but the two resulting images will always be fundamentally different.

Aronofsky and Libatique understand this, using the increasingly-minute quality of celluloid’s distinguishing aspects as a storytelling tool— the volatile, unreplicable alchemy of exposing grain crystals to light (as opposed to capturing light onto an electronic sensor) imbues the light itself with life; a palpable, fleeting luminosity that underscores MOTHER!’s very existence.

As such, the quality of light on display throughout MOTHER! takes on an ethereal beauty: dim, cool daylight and the warm, sensual amber of incandescent practicals come nightfall.  This is, of course, before Hell itself arrives at Mother’s doorstep and bombards the farmhouse with a fusillade of garish fluorescents, ash-choked moonlight, and searing fire.

MOTHER! succeeds at generating an intensely claustrophobic atmosphere through a series of complementary artistic decisions passed along through the entirety of the production pipeline.  The film is shot almost exclusively handheld, immediately creating a present-tense realism and a restless energy.

To better unify the film’s perspective to that of his protagonist, Aronofsky and Libatique limit their coverage to 3 basic setups— the first being a closeup composition that is always tracking Mother’s facial performance as she moves throughout the farmhouse, the second being corresponding over-the-shoulder angles that aim to establish her spatial relationship to the events she’s witnessing, and the third being direct POV shots through her eyes.

The result is an effect akin to hyper tunnel vision, propelling Mother and the audience through a narrow space while intensifying the surrounding chaos.

Philip Messina’s production design further evokes the growing claustrophobia in his vision of the farmhouse itself, which incorporates a recurring octagonal motif both in its structure as well as various decorational elements.

An exercise in the marriage of interesting aesthetic design and thematic underscoring, the heavy usage of the octagon shape is quite appropriate to Aronofsky’s narrative.

The shape was employed by many ancient civilizations, who associated the number eight with the idea of “rebirth” or “renewal”, further entangling the relationship between the earthly and the divine in its merging of the square and the circle.

MOTHER!’s allegorical conceits deal heavily in the language of rebirth, suggesting an infinitely-repeating cycle of creation & destruction that echoes scientific theories about the perpetual expanding & contracting of the universe.

On a visceral level, the farmhouse’s octagonal shape serves to muddle the audience’s bearings, constantly subverting Aronofsky’s deliberate use of extended tracking shots that follow Mother through various rooms.

It’s a rather inspired idea, using the visual language & continuity of motion typically employed to establish spatial orientation, but within a form factor that actively obscures our sense of geography.

We always know what room Mother is in on an intellectual level, but we can never quite discern where she is in relation to the rest of the house— the corners always seem to be closing in on themselves… and by extension, us.

That Messina renders the farmhouse interiors in various neutral shades (similarly echoed in the clothes worn by the characters) results in an abstractified, relatively-colorless environment that boosts the narrative’s metaphorical, “outside of time” qualities.

In the absence of color within the frame itself, Aronofsky uses the remaining tools in his arsenal to give MOTHER! its tactile depth and contrast.  This includes aforementioned elements like lighting and a neutral color palette, but also post-production tools like visual effects, editing, and sound design.

The VFX work goes a long way towards establishing the farmhouse itself as a living, breathing entity that Mother is intimately connected to— she’s able to sense a delicate heartbeat behind the drywall and plaster, and can glimpse fleeting, skeletal visions of charred woodwork that pulse throughout the house like heavy breaths.

There’s also an arresting image of a lightbulb pooling with blood until it explodes and sends plasma splattering everywhere.

Returning editor Andrew Weisblum adopts a swift pace that builds exponentially in tandem with a hyper-aggressive sound mix, resulting in an effect that’s not unlike being caught within the whirlpool of a flushing toilet… spinning faster and faster as we circle the drain.

Notably, MOTHER! features no music whatsoever until Patti Smith covers “The End Of The World” over the end titles.  An original score by the late Johan Johansson was planned, and even produced, but nixed as early as the rough cut stage (4) when he and Aronofksy came to the conclusion that the film worked better without music.

Their decision — an admirable display of creative restraint — proves to be the right one; there’s something infinitely more disturbing about MOTHER!’s spiral descent into madness without the accompaniment of bombastic music cues constantly reminding us that we’re watching a movie.

The absence of score allows us to better witness the narrative from Mother’s viewpoint while denying the sense of safety and remove that stems from theatrical artifice.

If the entirety of Aronofsky’s feature output can be boiled down to a singular, unifying thematic idea, then it stands to reason said theme is the collision of logic and faith.

From PI’s besieged mathematician to NOAH’s eponymous biblical hero, the arc of each Aronofsky protagonist passes through this prism, giving the director an avenue to approach religion and belief from an intellectual standpoint.

Having been raised, as he describes, in a non-practicing, “culturally” Jewish household, Aronofsky uses his art to exhibit his primarily-anthropological interest in religion and its influence on human behavior.

As previously mentioned, MOTHER! stands as the arguable apex of this career-long excavation, its allegorical storytelling approach being the reason for its very existence.

In crafting a story about a woman under siege by recurrent tidal waves of hostile humanity within her own home, Aronofsky expresses a cinematic lament over our apparent powerlessness to curb runaway climate change in the face of self-enriching presidential administrations and pollution-friendly corporations, all the while tying in the grand sweep of civilized history to demonstrate how our self-destructive tendencies are dyed in the wool.

In other words, our ability and apparent willingness to eradicate ourselves is a feature of the species— not a bug.

As mentioned before, MOTHER!’s narrative isn’t meant to be taken at face value, instead assigning allegorical correlation with both religious and world history to make a larger statement on the human condition and our failure to be responsible stewards of the Earth (spoilers below).

As the personification of the Earth itself, Mother is endlessly giving of herself, inviting her husband and houseguests to take advantage of her generosity until she has nothing left to give.

The events of the film put her under significant duress, manifest at several junctures in the form of increasingly-violent tremors that push Mother to the floor.  These moments resemble earthquakes, illustrating the raw destructive power that lurks underneath.

Bardem’s character stands in for God, his profession as a poet/writer alluding to The Almighty’s unfettered creativity. The arrival of Man’s character signifies Adam, an already-compromised creation whose sickness alludes to the frailty of human life.

It’s no coincidence that the night after Mother accidentally catches a glimpse of a vicious scar over Man’s rib, Woman arrives on her doorstep.  Him’s office can be read as the Garden of Eden, his treasured crystal artifact becoming an object of obsessive temptation for Man and Woman not unlike the apple from the Tree of Knowledge.

We later learn this crystal is forged from the charred remains of the previous Mother’s heart, underscoring that her love and generosity is a precious gift that’s easily destroyed.

The hot-blooded murder of Man’s son by his other son is an obvious reference to the biblical story of Cain & Abel, while the boy’s subsequent funeral, attended by an increasingly-populous and out-of-control congregation, represents both humanity’s growing numbers and its wanton sinfulness.

The first half of the film culminates when some particularly-careless “mourners” accidentally rip Mother’s unbraced sink away from the wall and unleash a torrent of water that clears out the house; this can be read as an allegory for the Great Flood in the Old Testament, in which God drowned out his compromised creations and wiped the slate clean.

The ensuing argument between Mother and Him leads to their making up via making love, and Mother wakes up the following morning with the supernatural realization that she’s already pregnant.

Overcome with love and a regained appreciation for life, Him is struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration and immediately scribbles out the first new poem he’s written in years— a New Testament, if you will… the beginning of a new covenant with humanity based on compassion and forgiveness rather than tempestuous wrath.

The resulting text single-handedly resurrects his career, drawing in a growing tide of admirers whose lives he touched with the beauty of his words. This second half of the film is where the narrative really plays into the thematic throughline of Aronofsky’s work: his anthropological fascination with the bleakest, darkest aspects of the human experience.

Mother’s grip on the situation quickly spirals out of control as people keep coming— an endless wave of increasingly-frenzied fanatics who erupt into fistfights with each other and steal Mother and Him’s belongings as if they were precious artifacts to be hoarded.

In selfishly ransacking a farmhouse they’ve come to regard as a holy temple to their creator poet, they suggest the compounding dangers of rampant overpopulation and religious fanaticism.

Before Mother can kick each trespasser out of her house, the crowd has seemingly merged into a singular glob of chaos— a parasite or disease that is quickly devouring the Earth.

Aronofsky takes an evident truth — that it’s in our nature to destroy beautiful things — and maps it out over a harrowing, mind-melting escalation that sees each room in the house become a diorama for the horrors of the 20th century: famine, concentration camps, human trafficking, brutal riots, war, and terrorism.

By refusing to deviate from Mother’s viewpoint, Aronofsky expertly orchestrates a sense of overwhelming chaos and incomprehensible panic, evoking the deep existential horror that comes from both the loss of control and the absence of logic.

MOTHER!’s steep nosedive into the bowels of hell culminates in the birth of a baby boy, heralded as something of a Messiah by the frenzied masses below.

In what is easily the most disturbing, gut-churning moment in a film already stuffed with images of sudden blunt-force trauma, exploding jawlines, and even a blood-squirting toilet creature, Aronofsky easily outdoes the body horror of previous films like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) or BLACK SWAN by showing the crowd seize the newborn and feverishly rip it apart into bite-sized chunks.

This is a horrifically-literal echo of Communion, the sacrament celebrated by Catholics at every mass with the consumption of bread that’s regarded as “the body of Christ”.

That Him is all too ready to forgive the crowd for this unspeakable act reminds us of the Christian God’s compassion, knowingly sending his only son to slaughter so that humanity could be saved.

Mother, however, does not share Him’s compassion— the loss of her baby sends her into a murderous rage, culminating in her burning the whole house down on top of everyone (likely an allusion to runaway global warming, the inescapable terminus of humanity’s total domination over the planet).

While Aronofsky presents the majority of MOTHER! through a Western perspective, his final reveal draws from Eastern thought— specifically, the idea of reincarnation.

Evoking THE FOUNTAIN’s ruminations on the endless cycle of death & rebirth, MOTHER! ends with Him digging Mother’s heart from her charred body and forging it into a new incarnation of the precious crystal he keeps on display in his study.

As a new day dawns, the house builds itself back up from the ashes, and a new Mother (played by a different actress with a fleeting resemblance to Lawrence) wakes up in her bed just as she did at the beginning of the film.

With this final beat, Aronofksy alludes to the theoretical reincarnation of the universe itself: a continual expansion and contraction of the cosmos that provides a rather-tidy answer to the question of what preceded The Big Bang.

All of this is extremely heady stuff, to be sure, and poses quite the challenge in connecting with an audience that mostly regard movies as an opportunity to switch off their brains for two hours.

As it turns out, said audiences — especially those of the American variety — really weren’t up for an evening of sensory overload and confrontational anthropology.  MOTHER! earned itself an exceedingly rare “F” CinemaScore, reflecting the general repulsion manifest in its relatively-meager  worldwide gross of $44M over its $30M budget.

The film’s critical reception, however, tells a much different story: after premiering at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, jurors nominated MOTHER! for their highest honor, the Golden Lion.  Several prominent critics from Rolling Stone, The Chicago Tribune, and The Guardian subsequently issued rave reviews, applauding its allegorical audacity.

This isn’t to say that other reviews weren’t negative — indeed, there were plenty of critics who were all too eager to file scathing notices. If anything, MOTHER!’s polarized reception speaks to the success of Aronofsky’s efforts.

The repulsion is the point; when confronted with a visceral portrait of humanity’s capacity for (and long history of) atrocity, we should be disgusted and horrified.

Our collective desire to be & do better is the only way to break the cycle of chaos and bloodshed that will ultimately end in the boiling annihilation of the only home we’ve ever known.  Despite its perceived “failure” as a commercial product, MOTHER! succeeds in hammering its message home, and in so doing, confirms Aronofsky’s legacy as a creator of transgressive & fearlessly independent cinema.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———

Ultimate Guide to Francis Ford Coppola and His Directing Techniques

EARLY WORKS (1962)

Few figures in the world of cinema cast a shadow as long as Francis Ford Coppola’s.  He’s a giant of the art form, with a handful of movies that have redefined film as we know it.  His inherent genius, which has cost him considerable grief throughout his career, is abundant enough to be passed down to his offspring.

Indeed, the Coppola family dynasty is something of a phenomenon– there’s his daughter, indie darling Sofia Coppola, as well as his filmmaker son Roman (and that’s not even counting more distant family like Jason Schwartzman or Nicolas Cage).  His recent films may only have a fraction of the power of his early work, but Coppola’s place in the annals of cinema history is undeniable.

Born in Detroit, but raised in New York City, Coppola found his love for film by way of the theatre.  Suffering from polio during his childhood, Coppola entertained himself by putting on puppet shows and dabbling with the family’s 8mm film camera.  This led to substantial training in music and theater, capped by a bachelor’s degree from Hofstra University.

It wasn’t until he enrolled in graduate school at UCLA that he began formally studying film.  Influenced by the works of Elia Kazan and Sergei Eisenstein, Coppola was a member of the earliest wave of directors to directly benefit from a dedicated filmmaking program.  It was during this time that Coppola cut his teeth with shorts like THE TWO CHRISTOPHERS and AYAMONN THE TERRIBLE.

What’s interesting about the beginnings of Coppola’s career is that his work found wide distribution before he even graduated.  A full five years before he earned his graduate degree from UCLA, Coppola had already made several feature-length films.  Some of these have been lost to time, such as his first work– 1962’s TONIGHT FOR SURE– a softcore comedy meant to titillate rather than entertain.

THE BELLBOY AND THE PLAYGIRLS (1962)

His next work, however, exists in bits and pieces around the internet.  Also shot in 1962, THE BELLBOY AND THE PLAYGIRLS was more of an editing job than a directing one.  However, recutting and adding new footage to German director Fritz Umgelter’s film MIT EVA FING DIE SUNDE AN earned him a full director’s credit.

The film, shot in black and white, was yet another stag/nudie comedy.  The only clip I’ve been able to find, presented above, makes no mention of whether the footage belongs to Coppola or Umgelter.  It doesn’t appear to be dubbed, so for the sake of this article I’ll assume it’s Coppola’s.

This brief snippet shows an intimate scene between newlyweds, as the husband tries to cajole his timid new wife into sex.  Coppola shoots wide and straight-on, capturing the action dispassionately until we pull back to reveal that these characters are actually actors rehearsing for a play.

It’s a playful move on Coppola’s part to deceive us using only the boundaries of the frame– an effective trick that hints at Coppola’s budding desires to challenge convention and redefine the language of cinema.

BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN (1962)

That same year, Coppola found work as an assistant to legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman.  Coppola’s first task under Corman was a daunting one: westernize an existing Soviet sci-fi film entitled NEBO ZOVYOT for American audiences.

Coppola’s take on the material, subsequently retitled BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN, became a schlocky monster film, albeit one with the conviction and resourcefulness of a young director with something to prove.

BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN (presented above in its entirety) concerns a space race between a unified Earth’s two latitudinal hemispheres, set in a then-future 1997.  Which is hilarious, by the way.  When the South Hemis nation attempts to beat the North to Mars and crash-lands on a nearby moon, the two powers must work together and fend off vicious space monsters so they can return to Earth safely.

This film is probably the epitome of Eisenhower-era B-movie cheese.  Spacecraft models and props are janky, special effects are laughable, and the limited understanding of actual space travel is preciously quaint.  However, it is surprisingly watchable, if only for the glimpses of Coppola’s earliest directorial choices.

His largest contribution to the film, besides the dubbing over of dialogue with American actors, was to inject a space monster battle midway through the film.  Long before Ridley Scott made the sexualization of aliens cool in ALIEN (1979), Coppola crafted his dueling monsters to resemble vaginas and penises.  This was a common characteristic of the lurid films that Corman produced, all of which were churned out rapidly and cheaply to maximize profit.

Ultimately, these films aren’t reliable indicators of Coppola’s growth as a filmmaker.  Put simply, they’re glorified editing jobs where Coppola got to re-conceptualize an existing film and conform his edit accordingly.  However, they’re fascinating looks into how film school students gained experience in the early days of the institution, when the costly nature of celluloid prompted experience gained via unconventional avenues.

Coppola’s work with Corman would eventually lead to the making and distribution of his first, true feature film.  His early works served as important stepping-stones on that path, and now they serve as assurance for up-and-coming filmmakers that even the greats had to start somewhere.


DEMENTIA 13 (1963)

In 1963, director Francis Ford Coppola was deep into his apprenticeship with schlock mogul Roger Corman.  That year also found Coppola in Ireland, working as the sound man for Corman’s feature THE YOUNG RACERS.  When filming was finished, Corman found that he had a substantial amount of money leftover in the budget.

He may not have been a great film director, but Corman was undoubtedly a shrewd businessman, and he saw an opportunity to invest that money in Coppola’s untapped talent.

Corman gave the money to Coppola, with an assignment to stay behind in Ireland with a few of THE YOUNG RACERS’ cast members and make a low-budget horror film in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960).  Coppola responded to the challenge with DEMENTIA 13, his first true feature film of his own making.

While today the film comes off as understandably dated, low-budget and schlocky, it also offers a captivating insight into the mindset of a young, hungry director who would go on to become one of the greats.

The story of DEMENTIA 13 is well-rooted in classical and cliche horror-tropes.  When her husband unexpectedly dies of a heart attack during a late-night boating excursion, Louise Haloran (Luan Anders) unceremoniously dumps his body overboard and heads to his family’s ancestral home in Ireland.

  Acting under the guise that her husband is still alive and absent on a business trip, she maneuvers to get written into his mother’s will so she can cut out with a hefty portion of the family’s wealth.  What she doesn’t count on, however, are the meddlings of her husband’s two brothers (William Campbell and Bart Patton), their macabre obsession with their deceased sister Kathleen, and a mysterious axe murderer stalking the grounds.

Despite DEMENTIA 13’s campy, trashy roots, the cast seems to be aware that they’re working with a great director, accordingly giving themselves over entirely to their performances.  Anders is the archetypal Hitchcock blonde at the center of the story, and her shrewd, calculating ways aren’t as off-putting as they are lurid and compelling.

Campbell and Patton are the brothers to Louise’s dead husband, and they embody stubborn conviction and haunted torment, respectively.  Veteran character actor Patrick Magee delivers a standout performance as Justin Caleb, the family doctor whose gruff mentality raises questions about his true intentions within the story.

DEMENTIA 13 is positioned as a slasher film, but it also dabbles in the murder mystery genre by giving us a gallery of characters with their own potentially-murderous motivations.  Due to the speed in which Coppola wrote the screenplay, the identity of the murderer is easily deduced about halfway through the film– which doesn’t make for much in the way of suspense.

However, the pure excellence of Coppola’s craft, even at this early, low-budget stage, is undeniable.  DEMENTIA 13 is absolutely the kind of film that shouldn’t hold up fifty years after its release, but there’s a small, palpable aura of prestige that lingers over it.  Yes, it’s shlock, but it’s the kind of schlock you might find given a reverent release by the Criterion Collection.

Coppola’s camerawork is simplistic, belying the shoestring nature of the production.  However, its minimalism draw inspiration from classical filmmaking techniques that give the film a timeless feel.  This low-key approach amplifies the few stylistic flourishes peppered throughout;  the opening high-angle shot looking down on a rowboat bobbing in the lake, as well as the floating, dreamlike nature of the underwater photography come to mind.

As lensed by Director of Photography Charles Hannawalt, the 35mm film image uses the low-budget necessity of the black-and-white format to its advantage.  The contrast is crisp and moody, alternating between naturalistic and high-key lighting scenarios as needed.  A vicious knifing sequence halfway through the film uses rapid-fire edits to create disorientation and a sheer sense of terror.

The homage is so apparent that it matches PYSCHO’s infamous shower murder scene shot-for-shot.  This doesn’t read so much as Coppola trying to rip off Hitchock as it does as an example of Corman’s business model for deliberately emulating successful films in his cheap knock-offs.  The same practice still exists today, most notably in “masterpieces” like SNAKES ON A TRAIN,  churned out monthly by cheap production companies like The Asylum.

The music of DEMENTIA 13, provided by Ronald Stein, is appropriately gothic and mysterious.  It’s traditional in that it’s composed like most orchestral scores of its day, but Coppola’s rebelliousness as a young filmmaker gets another chance to shine with the sly inclusion of diagetic rockabilly music.  Using prerecorded source tracks may be commonplace in films now, but In the early 60’s, it was virtually unheard of.

The practice didn’t really gain steam until a generation of film brats like Coppola, George Lucas, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese adopted it as an aesthetic trademark.

As a low-budget genre/exploitation film, DEMENTIA 13 doesn’t give us much in the way of a personal insight into Coppola’s psyche or development as a filmmaker.  While it trades heavily in the tropes of schlock cinema, such as weak acting and easily-corrected inconsistencies (if the film takes place in Ireland, how come nobody is actually Irish?), it also carries a great deal of pathos and understated style.

It might seem dated by today’s standards, but I was surprised to find how effective DEMENTIA 13 was as an old school chiller.  Its gothic iconography has considerable spooky charm, and it’s easily one of the better films within Corman’s extensive library.  But most of all, it’s a solidly-constructed first effort from a blossoming filmmaker (who was still in film school, to boot) who was on the verge of shaking up the entire art form.


YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW (1966)

It’s an inarguable fact that director Francis Ford Coppola benefited greatly from the nascent days of the film school institution.  Making a film wasn’t as commonplace as it was now– back in the 60’s, your film was remarkable for the fact that you even made it.

Coppola was a different force altogether– before he had finished his master’s degree at UCLA, he already had the successfully-released features DEMENTIA 13 (1963) and BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN (1962) under his belt.

In order to graduate, Coppola needed to complete his master’s thesis film.  Naturally, he crafted the most ambitious student film ever, a feat unmatched even by today’s standards.  This effort was 1966’s YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW, a feature adaptation of the David Benedictus novel.

Shot for the obscene sum of $800,000, Coppola’s little “student film” eventually premiered in competition at Cannes, secured distribution with Warner Brothers, and netted an Academy Award nomination for supporting actress Geraldine Page.  If this were to happen to a student filmmaker today, he’d be hailed as the second coming of Christ– but for Coppola, this was only a taste of things to come.

YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW tells the story of Bernard Chanticleer (Peter Kastner), a bookish, virginal young man who works in his father’s library in New York.  HIs mother Margery (Geraldine Page), sets him up with an apartment in the city but aggressively warns him about the dangers and evils of women.  Now living on his own for the first time, the sheltered young man’s eyes are opened to a whole world of sexuality and danger.

He begins dating the sweet Amy Partlett (Karen Black), but he quickly finds he can’t help himself when a beautiful, glamorous go-go dancer (Elizabeth Hartman) shows interest in him as well.  Caught between Mrs. Right and Mrs. Right Now (I hate that I just wrote that), Bernard learns that there’s a lot more to love than sex.

The performances are appropriately outsized to match the comedic, absurd plot developments, but they also traffic heavily in a rebelliousness that lends the film a countercultural quality.  The dynamics between the excitable Kastner and the seductive Hartman are well-drawn, if not a little cliche.

Kastner does an admirable job as the lead, delivering a performance reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in THE GRADUATE (1967)– despite the fact that he had never seen it himself (THE GRADUATE was still a year away from release).   Hartman’s character of Barbara Darling is distant and cold, completely unaware of the psychological damage she inflicts on her suitors.  She fully embodies the weaponized sexuality that was an unintended product of the free love era.

Page’s Oscar-nominated performance is quite funny, if not entirely memorable.  Her conviction that girls are the devil is a well-worn character trait, but she performs the role with a fresh urgency.  Torn and Black would go on to have bigger careers after this film, so it’s incredibly interesting to see them as young upstarts here.

Torn is so young and fresh-faced that he’s nearly unrecognizable as Bernard’s stern, reserved father.  Black does an admirable job embodying the kind of girl that a budding lothario knows he should pursue, even if that comes at the cost of a milquetoast characterization.  While she’s innocent and sweet, she doesn’t judge Bernard for his transgressions, which is refreshing for her character’s archetype.

Bucking the trend of student films shooting on 16mm film, Coppola uses his considerable budget to film on 35mm.  Andrew Laszlo, serving as Director of Photography, gives the film a fresh, energetic look that suits Coppola’s countercultural aesthetic.

The cold grays of New York City are contrasted with bright pops of color seen in the young characters’ attire and props.  Indeed, all the adults are depicted in boring, neutral tones so as to make the teenagers’ vibrancy stand out.  One great instance of this is the film’s opening shot, which starts wide on a dull, quiet library scene.

Suddenly, the camera rushes in towards the door, and Hartman’s character storms into the room.  Clad in screaming orange and accompanied by the blasts of rock and roll music, her entrance signifies nothing less than the arrival of a new generation intent on upending the traditional order.

Editor Aram Avakian complements this attitude by employing fast-paced, experimental editing influenced by the then-burgeoning French New Wave.  Other stylistic flourishes, like on-screen titles animated to resemble typewriting, further push the experimental tone that Coppola is after.  As a result, the film must have felt very fresh and bleeding-edge in its techniques upon its release.

Robert Prince contributes a jaunty, energetic score, but the musical soul of the film belongs to rock band Loving Spoonful, which firmly roots the film in the teenage counterculture of the 60’s.  It’s unpolished guitar riffs chafe against the edges of the frame, encroaching ever closer and eventually consuming its characters entirely.

YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW finds Coppola combining his experience with his early softcore comedies with the hard-edged vitality of the emergent youth culture.  The film’s tone is breezy and playful, with the kind of boundless optimism and curiosity reserved only for the young.  There’s even a sense of burgeoning filmography to Coppola’s craft, manifested by the use of footage from DEMENTIA 13 as an art installation in a nightclub sequence.

By this point in his career, Coppola had yet to establish a consistent visual aesthetic, but his taste for experimentation and boundary-pushing is quite evident.  With the release of YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW, Coppola established himself at the forefront of his generation’s ascent into the industry.  Not bad for a student film.


FINIAN’S RAINBOW (1968)

Full disclosure- I’m not a big fan of musicals.  Something about people spontaneously bursting into song and dance makes me profoundly uncomfortable, and I can’t explain it.  Naturally, I approached my viewing of FINIAN’S RAINBOW (1968), director Francis Ford Coppola’s third true feature film, with a large degree of hesitation.

  While I don’t plan on watching it again, I have to admit it was much better and watchable than I expected it to be, thanks to young Coppola’s considerable storytelling ability and an evocative Southern setting.  FINIAN’S RAINBOW, distributed by Warner Brothers, is Coppola’s first big studio picture, and the modest success of the film would further propel his career to new heights.

FINIAN’S RAINBOW is about Finian McLonergan (Fred Astaire) and his daughter Sharon (Petula Clark), who’ve recently left their native Ireland to venture to the mythical land of Rainbow Valley, Missitucky.  Unbeknownst to Sharon, Finian is carrying a bag full of gold that he stole from a leprechaun named Og (Tommy Steele), and plans to place the gold in close proximity to Fort Knox so that it may multiply.

While Sharon falls in love with Rainbow Valley’s most eligible bachelor, Woody Mahoney (Don Francks), Og The Leprechaun tracks down Finian to Missitucky and attempts to take back his gold before he becomes mortal.  Toss in a little song and dance, and a lot of Irish stereotypes and you’ve got the idea.  It was by complete coincidence that I watched this very Irish film on St. Patrick’s Day, but my general amusement at that fact helped my enjoyment of the film overall.

Every member of the cast seems fully devoted to Coppola’s vision.  Even the seasoned movie star and dancing legend Fred Astaire gives himself fully over to Coppla’s whims.  Pushing 70 during the film’s production, FINIAN’S RAINBOW became Astaire’s last major movie musical.  It’s a great send-off that allows Astaire to retain his youthful vigor, dazzling grin, and fancy-free footwork despite his elderly, frail state.

Clark garnered a great deal of acclaim for her singing talent as Irish lass Sharon McLonergan.  Francks drew from the folk persona of Woody Guthrie for his portrayal of the rakish Mahoney.  Keenan Wynn is a good sport, allowing himself to be humiliated at every turn as the film’s racist, lily-white antagonist, Senator Rawkins.

The sprightly Barbara Hancock plays Susan the Silent, who is unable to speak but communicates effortlessly via dance.  As the cartoonish leprechaun Og, Tommy Steel received the bulk of ire directed at the film.  His goofy, slapstick-laden performance was decidedly off-tone (despite the inherent whimsical nature of the story).  I can’t say I blame his detractors– I hated that guy’s shit-eating grin, too.

FINIAN’S RAINBOW sees one of the largest casts that Coppola has ever assembled, and he does a great job filling out the population of Rainbow Valley with outsized, memorable personas.    The expansive world-building on display proves to be a great training ground for the kind of epic filmmaking Coppola would take on in THE GODFATHER (1972) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).

Indeed, FINIAN’S RAINBOW marks a considerable uptick in scale and production value for Coppola, who makes great use of all the extra toys afforded him.  The sunny, springtime exterior locales are given scope via extensive crane and dolly movements (and even the occasional helicopter shot), and all the set dressings required to sell his story are in abundant supply.

Curiously enough, Coppola mashes together location/exterior footage and sets made to look exterior with reckless abandon, oftentimes creating jarring transitions and leaps in logic.  While some of these sets were built for valid reasons (lighting a forest at night would be too expensive), others seem to have little explanation.

However it does illuminate Coppola’s internal battle over shooting the film like a traditional Hollywood musical or indulging his experimental, more-realistic tendencies cultivated in film school.  One instance of this indulgence is allowing specks of water to remain on the camera lens during a firefighting sequence, which gives the scene an immediate presence not unlike documentary.

While the film is decidedly old-school in its approach, an undercurrent of film brat rebellion charges the picture with a harder edge than it normally would have.

As lensed by Director of Photography Philip H. Lathrop, the 35mm film image– framed at the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio– is heavily saturated with the gonzo hues of Technicolor and lit within an inch of its life.  Coppola and Lathrop show an aptness for staging complicated group numbers with a breezy energy that draws the audience into being active participants in the song and dance.

The sleepy southern town of Rainbow Valley and its rich, brown/green color palette is fleshed out in great detail by production designer Hilyard M. Brown.    Ray Heindorf rounds out the list of technical collaborators with his arrangement of the musical’s many numbers into jaunty, energetic orchestrations that retain a decidedly Irish influence.

Having been released in the prime days of the Civil Rights movement, FINIAN’S RAINBOW’s racial and cultural politics have now aged into amusing, quaint oddities.  Its incorporation of actor Keenan Wynn playing blackface (having been magically transformed from white to black in the course of the story) was understandably met with controversy upon its release.

So many decades on, it still comes off as extremely politically incorrect, but is now more-easily written off as a product of antiquated cultural views.  This is further reflected in the film with earnest, positive expressions about the benefits of credit, and even asbestos.  Moments like these paint a fuller picture of an optimistic time gone by, albeit at the cost of losing a certain, timeless aura.

Coppola does an admiral job directing FINIAN’S RAINBOW, breezily clipping along the film’s 2 ½ hour running time so that it’s not a complete snoozefest.  There are many positive things to recommend about it– Astaire’s performance, and the set design to name a few– as there are negative.

Its cultural legacy has since become its relevancy to Coppola’s development as a filmmaker.  It was a huge step up for him, and the first real test of his talent.  The sheer task of directing such a big, mainstream production would efficiently prepare Coppola for the biggest challenges of his career, and would allow him to soar like Astaire himself when lesser filmmakers would’ve fallen flat on their faces.


THE RAIN PEOPLE (1969)

A year after releasing his first big-budget studio film (1968’s FINIAN’S RAINBOW), director Francis Ford Coppola was back in theaters with a markedly different feature film.  Channeling the experimental sensibilities and understated narratives of the French New Wave, 1969’s THE RAIN PEOPLE was a subtle, introspective road picture that eschewed all the frills of contemporary studio filmmaking.

For Coppola personally, the film is further notable in that it was the first project released under his fledgling production studio, American Zoetrope.  In the years since, American Zoetrope has been a source of great trial and tribulation for Coppola and his associates, but has consistently delivered on its promise of making original, thought-provoking acts of cinema.  As Zoetrope’s first feature release,  THE RAIN PEOPLE is a fascinating window into the principles and ideals that shaped an upstart indie studio into a cinematic institution.

THE RAIN PEOPLE assumes the perspective of Natalie Ravenna, a lonely housewife who abruptly picks up and hits the road upon learning that she’s pregnant.  Spurning her husband’s pleas to return home, she picks up a handsome, mentally stunted hitchhiker named Killer (James Caan).  The two form an unlikely friendship, with Natalie becoming something of a caretaker to the young man.

Inevitably, Killer falls in love with Natalie, which doesn’t make their situation any easier when Natalie becomes romantically involved with a lonely police officer named Gordon (Robert Duvall).

Coppola’s command of his cast’s performances, especially in regards to their emotional restraint, is superb.  Natalie, as played by Knight, is reserved and conflicted as she suddenly finds herself in the throes of a quarter-life crisis brought about by pregnancy.  It’s a haunting performance, and Knight was rightfully recognized for the strength of her portrayal.

In hindsight, the most interesting aspect of Coppola’s casting is the first instance of collaboration with both James Caan and Robert Duvall.  Everyone knows they’d both go on to legendary performances in Coppola’s next film, THE GODFATHER (1972), but not a lot of people know that Duvall and Caan were actually roommates at one point.  If that doesn’t compel you to amicably figure out who’s taking care of those dishes in the sink tonight, I don’t know what will.

Caan is fresh-faced and quiet as Jimmy Kilgannon, affectionately nicknamed Killer.  His character was a college football player who was left mentally stunted after a particularly bad concussion.  He embodies a child-like innocence, with an unflagging loyalty and obedience to Natalie that’s not unlike a dog.  Duvall, in contrast, is inquisitive and tough as a widowed cop looking for some rough love.

He’s dangerous and unpredictable, which makes him so attractive to Natalie in the first place.  The battle between these two men is well built-up to, and when it finally explodes, it does so with the force of an atomic bomb.

What struck me most upon watching this film was Coppola’s visual treatment of the story.  The picture, lensed by Director of Photography Wilmer Butler, is simple and unadorned.  Coppola and Butler are content to let the 1.85:1 frame simply dwell on its subject, passively observing long, quiet moments of reflection and malaise.

The lighting is as naturalistic as the performances, and the air of realism hangs heavy over the proceedings.  It’s almost the prototypical mumblecore film, what with its low-key look, simple performances and barely perceptible plot developments.

Ronald Stein, who previously supplied the score for Coppola’s DEMENTIA 13 (1963), creates a staccato, melancholy score here that also infuses a little bit of jazz into the rural West Virginian setting.  Contrasting with the musical bombast that was FINIAN’S RAINBOW, Coppola adopts a reserved approach to music that matches his minimalist aesthetic.  Even the film’s opening credits eschew music, opting instead for the quiet patter of early-morning rain and ambient clanking of garbage truck machinery in a quiet suburban neighborhood.

Curiously incongruent with the low-key nature of the photography, however, is Barry Malkin’s editing.  Borrowing heavily from the innovations of the nascent wave of cinema rebels in France, Malkin incorporates a variety of avant-garde techniques like jump-cuts, poetic juxtaposition, mismatched sound cues, etc.  Coppola and Malkin often pepper dialogue scenes with wordless flashes of perpendicular action, flashing forward or backwards to illuminate events that bring greater meaning to the dialogue sequence at hand.

The groundbreaking editing, when combined with the minimalist visual style, gives the film a very European vibe.

This points to a common, definitive trait of the “Film Brat” generation of directors– that of reference and/or allusion to classic works as well as the work of their contemporaries abroad.  Unlike the directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, directors like Coppola were part of a larger community of filmmakers inspiring each other in their attempts to redefine the language of cinema.

Coppola counts THE RAIN PEOPLE among the top five favorite films of his own making, and for good reason.  It’s a strikingly confident work, free of the studio interference that would come to plague him as he became more successful.  It was also his first collaboration with future STAR WARS  creator George Lucas, who served as production associate on the film.

Filmmakers like Lucas were one of the reasons that Coppola founded American Zoetrope– he sought not only to advance his own cinematic interests, but to further the innovative spirit of filmmaking by empowering like-minded directors and giving them the resources to create outside of a stifling studio system.

Ironically enough, Coppola’s next film would beholden him to the studio system more so than he ever wanted (albeit at great benefit to his career).  In that context, THE RAIN PEOPLE is an interesting look into an artistically pure Coppola, unfettered by outside opinions and influence, as he cements his particular brand of storytelling and characterization.


THE GODFATHER (1972)