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Christopher Nolan Says His Filmmaking Process a ‘Combination of Intuition and Geometry’

Christopher Nolan described his filmmaking process as “some combination of intuition and geometry” in one of the Tribeca Talks series of public conversations at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

“I don’t write a story outline,” he told a packed house of festivalgoers during the discussion with fellow director Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher,” “Moneyball”). “Usually my answer right off the bat is that I work intuitively, but I draw a lot of diagrams when I work. I do a lot of thinking about etchings by Escher, for instance. That frees me, finding a mathematical model or a scientific model. I’ll draw pictures and diagrams that illustrate the movement or the rhythm than I’m after.”

Intuition, he noted, comes to the fore in his editing process. “I’ve always edited in a huge hurry, tried to catch that lightning in a bottle, just so the energy is there,” he said. “I always think of editing as instinctive or impressionist. Not to think too much, in a way, and feel it more.”

He always begins a film, he added, in an effort to find answers to interesting questions. “It’s only as I get into it that I realize they were questions hanging over from the last film.”

Led by the low-key Miller, the Tribeca Talk also touched on Nolan’s creative roots, stretching back to the Super 8 films of his toys that “Star Wars” inspired him to make. (“I was a little disappointed how bad they were,” he joked about a recent viewing of the juvenilia.) He first became aware of filmmaking as a career after seeing Ridley Scott’s two films, “Alien” and “Blade Runner.”

“There was a mind behind both of them, a feeling behind them, you could really identify,” he said.

As the discussion traced his career from first film “Following” to the recent “Interstellar,” the director pointed out that he could never make “Memento” today. “It’s the classic example of what you can do when you don’t know what you’re doing. If I tried to do that again now, it’d be a terrible failure. As you learn more and more, it becomes harder to forget the rules.”

Miller also asked Nolan about his efforts to preserve the medium of film in the face of the rising digital tide. “I care because film has the best imaging capabilities that exist,” he explained. “A lot of the threat to film is a little short-sighted, and finance-driven. I shoot film because it’s the best way of capturing an image and preserving it, and it’s important for filmmakers to always have the option to use it. My real push is to get us out of this area where the choice of imaging is given to the line producer or the studio. I want to put it back in the hands of the director,” he declared, earning a round of applause from the crowd.

Aspiring filmmakers could take away plenty of advice from the conversation. “If you can allow everything outside the frame to fall away, you can get creative fulfillment from whatever you’re doing,” he said. “If you’re lucky enough to be telling a story with a camera, appreciate it. Don’t wait for the ‘real film’ to come along, because this might be it.”

Toward the end of the talk, an audience member asked him to describe how he thinks about the audience during the process of creating a string of films that have had an astonishing track record of profitability and strong acclaim.

“Every stage in the process, I try to be the audience,” he answered. “I don’t think of the audience as someone else. We’re all a part of the audience.”

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