Director makes 'Batman' films deeper, moodier

In “Memento,” British-born director Christopher Nolan’s mesmerizing 2001 thriller, the story famously unfolds in reverse chronological order. Now Nolan — who receives ShoWest’s Dirctor of the Year kudo on Thursday — has turned the clock back again, this time on the “Batman” franchise.

With the 1997 release of “Batman and Robin,” the lowest-grossing film in the series, the caped crusader’s days on film looked like they were over. But then came Nolan’s 2005 character-driven reboot, “Batman Begins,” starring Christian Bale as a grittier Bruce Wayne. With more than $205 million in U.S. ticket sales, “Begins” emerged as the second-most-successful Batfilm and paved the way for the return of the 70-year-old comicbook legend as if he wasn’t a day over 30. Warner Bros.’ big summer tentpole “The Dark Knight” is Nolan’s franchise follow-up.

But even with nine-figure budgets, Nolan applies the same meticulously detailed and deeply thought-out psychological approach to the material as in his earlier, low-budget efforts. (His 1998 feature debut “Following” was shot for next to nothing one day a week over a year).

“I feel like an indie filmmaker working inside the studio system,” Nolan told Variety in 2006.

Nolan, who studied English literature in London and has worked closely with his brother Jonathan on many scripts, has also cultivated a close-knit crew — including cinematographer Wally Pfister, production designer Nathan Crowley and editor Lee Smith — that has worked on many of his movies in the same intimate manner, no matter their size. “When the camera rolls,” Pfister has said, “it’s just Chris sitting next to me with a little monitor. His entire universe is in that 12-foot area, which brings the process down to a more personal level.”

Bringing an intense auteur’s vision to the once-cartoonish entertainment, it turns out, was just what the franchise needed. “He darkened the character to what the true dark knight is,” says Dan Fellman, Warner’s president of domestic distribution. “And he brought the fanbase back.”

Fellman notes Nolan also brought something new to the movies: a wellspring of critical support, “which we did not always have the luxury of having,” he admits.

As New York Times’ critic Manohla Dargis noted, Nolan’s “Batman” origin pic “owes its power and pleasures to a director who takes his material seriously.”

If Nolan’s somber take on the material sounds like it might scare off the suits, Warner Bros. was along for the ride from the very beginning. “They already knew that studio filmmaking had screwed up this franchise,” Nolan told Variety in 2006. “They couldn’t do it their way, so I got to do it my way.”

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