Christopher Nolan on Obsession

The Tribeca Film Festival is happening right now in New York (it goes through the 26th), and The Hollywood Reporter has some great coverage of the event and its various panels, one of which involved a discussion on filmmaking with Christopher Nolan and Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher).

There were two moments in particular that I enjoyed reading about.  While discussing the difficulty in maintaining creative direction over a studio film, Nolan talked about some advice given to him by Steven Soderbergh and having the courage to do your own thing:

“You have to get out there and find a place for yourself,” he explained. “You have to make your own rules. You have to figure out what’s going to work for you…. That’s the thing he taught me, is that you’re on your own and you have to get out there and make it work.”

Nolan made his own rules when he was writing the script for Memento, attributing the film’s mind-bending storytelling approach to him just disregarding the rules.

“It’s the classic example of something interesting that can come about when you don’t know what you’re doing,” Nolan said when Miller asked how one writes a script like that. “You’re starting out and you think, ‘Why are there all these rules? Why do people take screenwriting courses? Why can’t you just write the movie you want to see as it would appear on the screen?’ “

Later, when asked about his fears going forward, he said:

“My biggest fear is embarking on a project that you lose faith in or fall out of love with,” he said. “There’s a huge investment of time [in a film], and the biggest fear is that I’d get halfway through and think, ‘No, this isn’t something I really care about anymore.’ So before I embark on a project, I just have to test it, however I test it, by writing drafts, by just living with it and really trying to dive into it. You have to be sure that you’re going to be as happy, as obsessed with this film two-and-a-half, three years later as you are the day you commit to it.”

Christopher Nolan is a great role model for aspiring artists of any genre or medium, because he epitomizes an ideal balance between mainstream appeal and artistic integrity.  He tells stories that move and excite people and that appeal to a diverse audience without sacrificing his artistic vision or dumbing down his subject.

His fear of losing interest in a project he’s working on likely hit home with many artists, particularly writers.  Writing is the art of the long con, a marathon not a sprint, and it’s important to be able to gauge how in love with an idea you are before embarking on the process of turning it into a real thing.  Even when you find an idea you love consistently, there will undoubtedly be times when you need to bolster your enthusiasm–when you’ll need to sit back and remind yourself of why you wanted to write this particular story in the first place.  When you’ll need to take a break and regain some of that lost passion.  This can happen to anyone at any time.  With that in mind, it’s obviously best if, like Nolan, you only put your creative effort behind the projects that really grab you.  The ones you can’t let go of.  The ones you’re obsessed with.

With art, obsession can be a good thing.

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