A few years ago, Michael Caine, in a television interview, said that he had had dinner with Christopher Nolan with the idea of discussing a role in his next film, but three hours later, he had no clue about the upcoming project. Those who are aware of Nolan would know that this is ‘normal’ for him. There are times when you sit through ‘a Christopher Nolan film’ and when it all ends, or in other words, the point where everything is supposedly tied up together, you still have no idea what you witnessed. Yet you want to come back to find out if any of the theories that inundated your mind are correct.
Reading Tom Shone’s The Nolan Variations, an in-depth look at one of the most profound and celebrated contemporaries, leaves you feeling pretty much the same way. Unlike the hours and months that an average viewer would spend alone thinking about a Nolan film, the reader here enjoys Nolan’s participation in decoding the cinematic universe of his films and the real world that led to its creation.
Drawing from interviews with Nolan from the time of his first film, the little-seen 1998 indie venture Following, up until Tenet, the pandemic-impacted film that could probably shift the course of the filmmaker’s career, Shone covers a wide range of topics to deconstruct the filmmaker’s vision. The son of an advertising executive father and a flight attendant mother, Nolan, born in London, had a unique upbringing where he spent time both in the US and the UK. He started making films on a Super 8 camera and knew that he wanted to be a filmmaker at the age of 11. Shone tries to figure out Nolan’s influences both in cinema and beyond, and paints a fascinating portrait of a filmmaker’s origins and evolution through his pictures and collaborators.
Watching a Nolan film, you often wonder if his influences include philosophers, scientists, artists and thinkers, and Shone’s book more than lays it out that everything you believed about the filmmaker is, in fact, right. He structures the book using themes from Nolan’s films and thanks to the filmmaker’s extended full-cooperation what you get is a ‘rare, revelatory portrait’, best described by fellow Brit filmmaker Sam Medes “as close as you’re ever going to get to the Escher drawing that is Christopher Nolan’s remarkable brain”. There are long passages in the book where the narrative often meanders, something that sharp editing could have fixed. Yet, it seems okay because you realise how it was something minute that left an indelible impression on Nolan’s mind.
As a leading icon of present-day popular culture, Christopher Nolan is peerless. There is absolutely nothing out there that sums up his brilliance or interprets his world like an instruction manual. Those who see his films want him to express his interpretation, but Nolan learned early on in his career to not tell his audience how to think. At Venice Film Festival, he was asked to explain the ending of his breakthrough film, Memento, and after he spoke his mind, his brother, Jonah, told him never to do that as people only wanted to know what the guy who made the film thought. The Nolan Variations is excellent as it’s the closest Nolan would ever come to interpreting his world and decoding his work. What makes it better is how it does not dispel the mystique of Christopher Nolan.