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Photo of Christopher Nolan and Carla Hayden
Credit: Bruce Guthrie

Christopher Nolan in Conversation with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden

Award-winning filmmaker Christopher Nolan came to Washington, D.C., on November 2 to engage in a lively conversation with Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress. Nolan – whose extensive career includes Memento, the Dark Knight Series, and Inception – was also in the area as a member of the National Film Preservation Board. Each year, the Board makes recommendations to the Librarian about the 25 films that should be added to the National Film Registry. Nolan remarked that this difficult process involves a very “spirited discussion.”

Photo of Christopher Nolan
Credit: Bruce Guthrie

“You have to fight for what you love and what you think is important,” the director, writer, and producer summed up those meetings.

Nolan credits films such as Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner as influences on his development as a filmmaker because they were so effective in “creating a world you could escape into.” He also recalled seeing Star Wars 12 times in the movie theater because the inventions like the VCR were still “a distant dream of the future.”

Indeed, it’s quite a far cry from how we view films and other programs today. Demonstrating that point (and a fan moment), Hayden couldn’t resist pulling out her personal DVD copy of Inception. Yet, DVD and the more tech savvy digital formats pose a curious problem even if they are more accessible.

Celluloid film reels, to Nolan, comprise “a distinct medium” and are representative of how a film was originally made. Nolan painstakingly compares prints of his own films when they are recreated on other formats for release. “Each time you transfer these materials, you’re interpreting them,” he cautioned about the process. “… Because I am still alive, I can speak to the authoritative version.”

Naturally, Hayden was inclined to inquire about what Nolan is currently reading. “I am absolutely more film literate than literate-literate,” the director joked, before discussing his English literature studies. “If you take time with a text to view it the way it was intended, … there is a lot to tap into.”

This tactic was instrumental when he used elements of A Tale of Two Cities as he worked on the Dark Knight series. “I just ripped pages of it and stuck it into the screenplay … figuratively!” he said, quick to reassure Hayden and book enthusiasts that paper books were not destroyed.

Photo of Christopher Nolan and Carla Hayden
Credit: Bruce Guthrie

Dunkirk is Nolan’s latest feature film and marks the director’s first venture into depicting events from history. He undertook his own crossing over the Channel at Dunkirk and he was amazed that it took about 18 hours. “People grow up on a sort of fairy tale version,” he noted. “It’s a gap in the culture, … that’s what you’re looking for as a filmmaker.”

The task of casting for Dunkirk was also challenging, because Nolan’s team had to go straight to drama schools instead of through agents for the search. “The truth is we send kids to go fight wars,” he added, wanting younger actors for those roles.

The cast included experienced actors invested in cultivating a good working environment. Mark Rylance “was a wonderfully generous actor” who spent time teaching and doing acting exercises with his younger castmates between takes.

Nolan also had plenty of praise for relative newcomer Fionn Whitehead, who plays Tommy in the film. “When you put a camera on him, there’s this whole other level of empathy … the camera and its relationship to the actor is hard to quantify,” he said.

It’s not clear what we can expect next from Christopher Nolan, who hinted at taking a little time off. He admitted that he loves watching films with his children, who share his love of silent film. “I had sort of a moment. What if they become film critics?”

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros earned a B.A. in Art History on a full scholarship at the University of Virginia. Pat is a frequent reviewer of all things Washington, D.C., but she's also covered events in Canada and London. Highlights in her work include articles on Ian McKellen and Mark Rylance, as well as memorable interviews with Lawrence Gowan of Styx, Tony Bennett, and Kiefer Sutherland. At Awesome Con 2017, Pat moderated a Q&A for voice actors Sean Schemmel and Christopher Sabat.

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