SANTA BARBARA: Nolan crowned as Modern Master

Posted by · 12:41 am · January 31st, 2011

“He no longer challenges our ideas about film,” actor Leonardo DiCaprio said of Christopher Nolan tonight, before presenting him with the Modern Master Award.  “He has helped define them.”

It was a great bow on a fine evening meant to celebrate the director’s work over the last decade.  The Modern Master designation is Santa Barbara’s highest honor and, despite an unexpected Oscar snub for Best Director from the Academy last Tuesday afternoon, this is certainly the year to single him out in such a light.

Pete Hammond served as moderator for the evening as he queried Nolan on his brief if dense career to date.  It was shrewd to note that “Following” in 1998, a $6,000 movie that grossed $40,000 and “Inception” in 2010, a $160 million movie that grossed $800 million worldwide, only have 11 years separating them.  The director’s latest “has been successful on its own terms, not on Hollywood’s,” Hammond said by way of introduction.  It’s a good way to put it.

Nolan actually spent plenty of time in Santa Barbara as a kid growing up.  The last time he was in the Arlington Theatre was the opening weekend of James Cameron’s “Aliens” and he was happy to see such a grand movie palace still alive and well.  Hammond eventually tried to needle some news regarding “The Dark Knight Rises” out of the director, but to no avail.  There were a few enlightening bits, like the fact that Steven Soderbergh seems to be largely responsible for kick-starting Nolan’s career because he helped land him his gig on “Insomnia” and, therefore, his relationship with Warner Bros.  (Soderbergh also suggested the ultimate fate of that film’s main character.)  But mostly, it was just another solid chat.

The conversation covered all bases, with clips from each of his seven films tossed in, all of them well-selected, I might add.  There was the opening, mood-setting sequence of “Following,” Natalie’s “remember her” scene with Leonard in “Memento,” Will Dormer’s tragic moment in the fog that sends the events of “Insomnia” in motion, the ice-sparring sequence and battle of wills between Bruce Wayne and Ra’s al Ghul in “Batman Begins,” Alfred Borden’s final prison good-bye in “The Prestige,” another battle of wills, this time between the Joker and Batman in “The Dark Knight” and Ariadne’s dream training in “Inception.” With the exception of the latter’s centerpiece city-bending effects moment, all quiet scenes, all character-based.  It’s very much at the heart of what Nolan is trying to do as a filmmaker: tell stories of “human frailty,” as DiCaprio later put it, amid the rush of blockbuster entertainment.

I once again Tweeted the evening with quotes aplenty, so I’ll leave it to those to convey the experience.  But after the tribute, Nolan swung by the after party (a bit of a rarity for him) and weathered the well-wishing for a spell.  I got maybe 10 minutes with him and his lovely wife (and producing partner) Emma (who remembered the last time we met I was debating with Aaron Eckhart whether Two-Face was dead or not at the end of “The Dark Knight”).

Nolan didn’t have much to say about the directors snubbing him again.  After all, the film has eight nominations and he has two of them, so it’s difficult to complain.  Plus, he noted, he’s been nominated by the DGA three times without a corresponding Oscar nod.  “I’m used to it,” he said.

One thing was sticking in my head from the evening’s conversation, though, and that was the idea of Nolan at the Independent Spirit Awards 10 years ago with “Memento.” Is it even fathomable that he’ll ever be at that show again, given the massive scale his brand of cinema has come to represent?

“It depends on the story, really,” he said, predictably (as that’s exactly what Thomas said he’d say).  “I tend to think that if you have the chance to do a big film, you should do it while you can.  I’m always worried maybe I won’t be able to do a big film again.”

Thomas, meanwhile, said she’s always wondering if they shouldn’t do something smaller again.  And frankly, after the dominance in the high concept, big budget realm as of late, it would be a brilliant creative stroke to pull back and work in those rhythms once again.  I have no doubt he’d nail another intimate piece because, at the end of the day, that heart still beats at the center of his large-scale work.

We also, by the way, discussed the Lee Smith snub, which was most surprising to Nolan.  “I thought he was going to win,” Thomas exclaimed.  It really does remain perhaps the biggest head-scratcher of last week’s announcement.

Tomorrow night brings the Montecito Award for “The King’s Speech” actor (and newly crowned SAG winner, after that ensemble victory) Geoffrey Rush.

[Photo: Hollywood Elsewhere]

→ 39 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

39 responses so far

  • 1 1-31-2011 at 12:58 am

    Rashad said...

    Is there any video?

  • 2 1-31-2011 at 1:02 am

    ann said...

    Very nice post kris. I think Nolan is heading the route of steven speilberg or martin Scorsese — as I doubt he will get an oscar for a long time until the academy realizes his long due. It would be great to see Nolan make a small movie, I feel prestige and insomnia is so under appreciated.

  • 3 1-31-2011 at 1:03 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Rashad: I believe it will be available at, the sponsor of the fest.

  • 4 1-31-2011 at 1:12 am

    adam said...

    Did you ask him how he felt about the Lee Smith snub?

  • 5 1-31-2011 at 1:24 am

    Kevin K. said...

    Really hoping to see some video of the tribute. This award is really a no-brainer. Nolan is the most innovative and exciting filmmaker of his generation, only Aronofsky comes close. Can’t wait for The Dark Knight Rises to bring his masterful saga to a close and then see what else he’s got up his sleeve after Batman.

  • 6 1-31-2011 at 2:00 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    I agree with you that he should scale back his next project after The Dark Knight Rises. He has accumulated such a massive fanbase that he could probably do *anything* and make it financially successful.

  • 7 1-31-2011 at 3:14 am

    geha714 said...

    Off topic:

    John Barry is gone. Rest in peace.

  • 8 1-31-2011 at 3:38 am

    red_wine said...

    I still feel pleasantly amazed that the director’s branch had the balls to snub such a sure thing. Kudos to them.

    Nolan has definitely does his best work in the “indie” format. Memento had a humanity and story-telling surety and confidence which his blockbusters have never been able to possess. I hope he scales back soon to give us a film of the stature of Memento. And I really hope that just like James Cameron should, he never writes a screenplay alone. He should always collaborate with his brother or some other writer.

  • 9 1-31-2011 at 4:04 am

    Rashad said...

    Inception had all his ability on display. I honestly do not get the script complaints. It was sharp, especially working within the heist genre which uses exposition as an important part of the story.

  • 10 1-31-2011 at 6:41 am

    DRM said...

    Red Wine,

    You do realize Nolan wrote the Memento script alone, don’t you? His brother came up with a short story, but Nolan himself is the one who wrote the script. In fact, he finished the script before his brother even finished writing the short story.

  • 11 1-31-2011 at 7:23 am

    James C said...

    Still such a young filmmaker too. I’d love to see him continue making large scale films, but I’d love to see him make films on a smaller scale like my favorite of his, Memento.

  • 12 1-31-2011 at 8:16 am

    Anthony Ruggio said...

    Red Wine,

    You do realize by giving kudos to the director’s branch for their dubious decision that you’re supporting the inane genre bias that has permeated the Academy for so long? Because I guarantee they snubbed him not out of lack of quality, but simply because they wanted their “oscar films” represented as the main five. Aronofsky got lucky, as I imagine the last spot was down to him and Nolan.

  • 13 1-31-2011 at 9:09 am

    red_wine said...


    Thats great to know. What an amazing script. I would much rather Nolan write something like that again rather Inception. Its stunning to know that the writer of Memento went onto to right something like Inception.


    There is no genre bias. David Lynch got nominated for what is arguably the biggest mindfuck of them all. They simply did not like Nolan’s direction enough. Inception is a much more accessible film than Black Swan.

    I think people sometimes get into the routine that only the films in the Oscar race are worth awarding. We need to cast a wider net. I think Nolan would have been undeserving simply because I saw atleast 20 other better directing achievements. I believe all the five (six) directors nominated made better films than Nolan, a film which I think is one of the most inferior nominated this year.

  • 14 1-31-2011 at 9:23 am

    Maximo said...

    “Its stunning to know that the writer of Memento went onto to right something like Inception.”

    Like you I prefer Memento by a long shot but I hardly find it stunning or even improbable that Inception came from the same man. And whatever issues I may have with Inception I certainly don’t think any less of Nolan for writing /making it. I certainly liked it more than most of his post-Memento works.

    I am not sure exactly what ticked you off so much about that film but I would argue that even if Nolan still feels a little uncomfortable with the scale he is dealing with and there is some amount of awkwardness that remains, he is showing sings of improvement.

    Oh and there is genre bias. The Inception isn’t really a minf@ck so much as science fiction film and the former has a heck of an easier time getting in then the later. Especially if it’s artistic. I would also firmly place “Black Swan” in that Category.

  • 15 1-31-2011 at 9:28 am

    red_wine said...

    I think his nomination was there for the taking. Twice now the directors know that not nominating him was gonna raise a shitstorm. Specially after the urban legend that we have 10 Best Picture nominees because of The Dark Knight. He was nominated everywhere – each and every single place. The director’s branch is much more sheep-like than you think, having nominated Precious, Juno for Best Director in the past years. That they consciously chose to go out of their way and face another shitstorm by not nominating Nolan shows that they simply did not like his direction that much.

    I don’t blame them much. Infact I side with them.

  • 16 1-31-2011 at 9:34 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    adam: They brought it up, actually. Just added a note about that.

  • 17 1-31-2011 at 9:40 am

    Maximo said...

    “Twice now the directors know that not nominating him was gonna raise a shitstorm.”

    I think you are widely overstating what has happened here. From where I sit, the the reaction to Nolan’s second “snub” was a lot more muted (partially, although far from entirely, due to Nolan getting two other major nominations).
    And besides, why should AMPAS care what non-voters think? I believe they quite like their position and power to decide (when they actually care to form a collective opinion instead of just producing an outcome) who gets in or doesn’t get in. That’s the same reason Avatar got in for directing but NOT for screenwriting. They look at what dominated the film in each case.

    And if you ask me, Juno DESERVED to be nominated for directing. I said as much after I left the film. There is a lot more there then it seems.

    “Infact I side with them.”

    And you are yet to explain (at least in this thread) why.

  • 18 1-31-2011 at 9:55 am

    red_wine said...

    I’ll give it a go. I don’t think bad films can’t have good direction. There have been films that I did not like but thought were well-directed, Black Swan might be one of them, I find Aronofsky’s nomination barely tolerable but not offensive.

    Nolan in Inception suffered somewhat from the latter day David Lean syndrome, his pursuit of scale overwhelmed his characters which were awfully written to begin with so much so that he failed, according to me, to create even a single believable human exchange in that movie. Even the central love story which was supposed to grip the audience seemed to be staged in such a stilted plot device sorta way, the entire movie felt like a filmed manual about dreams within dreams.

    I don’t think Nolan has post Memento shown skill at directing actors. He almost seems oblivious to what they do in the frame as long as the shot is composed nicely and the mis-en-scene is good.

    I honestly don’t like talking in detail about films I don’t like but there you have it. I was very happy for the Coens when they booked the last spot.

  • 19 1-31-2011 at 10:39 am

    Kevin K. said...

    “I honestly don’t like talking in detail about films I don’t like but there you have it.”

    That’s interesting, because you seem to do a lot of just that on these talkbacks. I’m not sure what about Nolan or his films offends you so, but you act like they his is a leper or something. I guess if your intention was to derail a thread about a pleasant evening Kris felt like reporting on and turn it into a troll-fest about how much you hate Nolan, you succeeded. Bravo.

  • 20 1-31-2011 at 10:41 am

    DRM said...

    “Its stunning to know that the writer of Memento went onto to right something like Inception.”

    Can’t help but laugh at this attempted smartass comment considering the spelling error.

  • 21 1-31-2011 at 11:02 am

    Chris G. said...

    “Specially after the urban legend that we have 10 Best Picture nominees because of The Dark Knight.”

    I was here when the press conference about the change from 5 to 10 Best Picture nominees would happen, and I seem to remember a reporter asking about The Dark Knight and if it had anything to do with it, and the reply was something along the lines of “I’d be lying if I said that The Dark Knight wasn’t a big part of that discussion.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but if you ask me, that’s one hell of an achievement for Nolan in itself.

  • 22 1-31-2011 at 11:06 am

    Maxim said...

    Again, The Dark Knight could have been used to JUSTIFY the 10 but the reason why it came about.

  • 23 1-31-2011 at 11:07 am

    Maxim said...

    Sorry, I meant to say *not* the reason.

  • 24 1-31-2011 at 11:23 am

    Chris G. said...

    Yeah, and that still supports my point though! :)

  • 25 1-31-2011 at 11:43 am

    DarkLayers said...

    red_wine, Lynch was nominated for Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, and Mulhollhand Drive. There are definitely mindfucks in this bunch, but not science fiction. I would guess that there are comparatively few science fiction nominees. As to whether it’s because they don’t like his direction, or because it’s a genre thing: The fact that some directors have gotten nominated for a genre doesn’t end the discussion, because it could still be a disadvantage all other things being equal. Plenty of nominees have done comedies, but they could still be a moderate disadvantage. There could be bias that some have overcome. The true way to determine whether red_wine’s assertion is the case is for Nolan to make say a drama about a British Monarch or World War II that garnered a DGA nomination and see whether AMPAS members respond then.

    As for the ten thing, I doubt TDK was the sole reason. Many people say TDK is why they expanded, or is it was an apology for TDK. The fact is that in the years from Million Dollar Baby’s win to Slumdog Millionaire, there hasn’t been a single BP nom among the top 10 grossing movies of its year. There was a top 10 grossing movie among BP nominees almost every year (one exception when Amadeus won). So, the landscape mattered a lot. If there were more high-grossing nominees and ratings didn’t drop as much, they might have opted to continue with 5.

  • 26 1-31-2011 at 12:14 pm

    Chris138 said...

    Good article. I’m glad that they gave this award to Nolan.

  • 27 1-31-2011 at 2:10 pm

    Kevin K. said...

    Best Director nominees for sci-film films would be

    James Cameron – Avatar
    Steven Spielberg – E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
    George Lucas – Star Wars
    Steven Spielberg – Close Encounters of the Third Kind
    Stanley Kubrick – 2001: A Space Odyssey

    Best Director nominees for Fantasy films

    David Fincher – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
    Peter Jackson – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (won)
    Peter Jackson – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
    Steven Spielberg – Raiders of the Lost Ark

    So that’s five nominees for sci-fi films with no winners, and four nominees for fantasy with one winner. The Peter Jackson win, as truly deserving as it was, was also because the trilogy could no longer be ignored. They had to give it to him that year. But you look at this tiny handful of eleven nominees and only one victor among them and then tell me the Academy doesn’t have a genre bias. And look at the films nominated. All very broad storytelling, except for Kubrick. Kris called it back in July, they prefer broad storytelling to complex films like Inception. At least Nolan was recognized in Picture and Screenplay is all I can say. Sure, they did the same for District 9 last year, so maybe the newer blood in the Academy is opening up to great sci-fi, but genre films will always have a tough time with the Oscars. Nolan will get his due, whether it’s for a grand-scale blockbuster or a smaller mood picture. Either way, as long as he never bends and makes a middle of the road Oscar movie, I’m fine with him getting a director nomination later down the road.

  • 28 1-31-2011 at 2:11 pm

    Kevin K. said...

    Nine nominees, not eleven*

  • 29 1-31-2011 at 2:54 pm

    Jake said...

    red_wine, you’re a troll.

  • 30 1-31-2011 at 3:22 pm

    Kyle said...

    I often wonder if Nolan’s “snubs” or whatever you might call them, have less to do with Academy taste and are more related to the politicking that other producers are well known for. I mean, perhaps I’m ignorant of the whole process (most likely the case, but I’m a lobbyist for a living, so I tend to think this way) but I have a hard time picturing Emma Thomas pulling a “Harvey Weinstein/Scott Rudin” around Hollywood with her husband’s films.
    I just wonder if a lack of promotion is also to blame beyond “the academy is out of touch”…meh…

  • 31 1-31-2011 at 3:33 pm

    Jim said...

    “I don’t think Nolan has post Memento shown skill at directing actors”

    Umm…. It’s not like Heath Ledger directed himself haha.

  • 32 1-31-2011 at 7:07 pm

    Kevin K. said...

    Kyle: You may be onto something there. But ultimately I think Nolan is simply ahead of his time. The Academy will catch up eventually.

  • 33 1-31-2011 at 7:08 pm

    Kevin K. said...

    Jim: Nolan detractors will tell you otherwise lol.

  • 34 1-31-2011 at 8:17 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Kevin, you forgot another Kubrick film, “A Clockwork Orange.”

  • 35 1-31-2011 at 8:37 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    Also, some might make the case for “Dr. Strangelove”, but that’s obviously up for debate.

  • 36 2-01-2011 at 2:32 am

    Kevin K. said...

    Speaking English: I almost put that up there but for some reason decided against it. Thanks for pointing it out. That makes a paltry ten nominees. Still such a staggeringly low number.