Christopher Nolan on Inception

I wasn’t a great fan of Inception (I much preferred Iain Banks’s novel Transition, which covered similar ground with much more heart and fun) but it’s undoubtedly a hugely ambitious, deeply personal film for its writer-director Christopher Nolan. The shooting script includes a fascinating interview with him. Here are some of the highlights:

On the need for rules When I saw the first Matrix film, I thought it was really terrific, but I wasn’t quite sure I understood the limits on the powers of the characters who had become self-aware. Inception, on the other hand, is about a more everyday experience …. It doesn’t question an actual reality. It’s just saying, “Okay, we all dream every night. What if you could share your dream with someone else?” And it becomes an alternate reality simply because the dream becomes a form of communication, like using a telephone or going online.

On the need for emotional risk I consider this script to have begun when I figured out I was going to use a heist movie structure … The problem I had was finishing it, because the heist movie as a genre tends to be deliberately superficial … And I realised that when you’re talking about dreaming, this universal human experience, you need the stakes of the story to have a much more emotional resonance. If you’re going to do a massive movie, you’ve got to be able to unlock that more universal experience for yourself as well as the audience. As soon as I realised that Mal would be his wife, it became completely relatable.

On melodrama I’ve written quite a few dead wives, that’s true. But you try to put your relatable fears into these things. That’s what film noir is, and Ido view Inception as film noir. You take the things you are actually worried about in real life, and you extrapolate that into a universal drama, painted as large as possible. You turn it into melodrama. People always talk about melodrama as a pejorative, but I don’t know what other word there is.

On actors I’ve been fortunate enough to work with great casts on all my films. Particularly with a lot of the supporting characters, a great actor will come in with a whole take on it, and they’ll literally give what’s on the page some kind of life that you hadn’t forseen.

On trusting audiences There are points where you worry that you might be putting too much in and alienating the audience … Somewhere in the back of my mind, for example, I had assumed that the business with the spinning top in the safe would wind up being cut out of the film … But what we realised in showing it to people is that they actually grasped the imagery as something to hold onto, as an illustration of things that had happened off camera.

On sincerity I give a film a lot of credit for trying to do something fresh — even if it doesn’t work … I think the thing that I always react against as a filmgoer is insincerity, when somebody makes a film that they don’t really enjoy themselves, just to produce an effect on the audience. And what really frustrates me with a film like Inception is when you show somebody the film and they think you’re trying to be clever. Or show off. I always feel like I’ve completely failed at that point, because I know as a filmgoer that that’s something I react against … you want to believe that the film-maker loves the movie, loves what that movie does.


The craft of … Peter Morgan


Great news from Variety this morning: Peter Morgan, writer of The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon and his own favourite Longford, is to make his debut as a director with his third Tony Blair story. This installment, again starring Michael Sheen, will be about Blair’s relationship with Bill Clinton. Morgan spoke a little about the project at the London Film Festival (more about that from the brilliant SP here), where he described Blair as his Everyman: a “navigator” through whom the audience can experience Balmoral or the White House. He also hinted at a fourth story, about Blair, the Iraq War and the Pope.

Morgan is perhaps the only British screenwriter whose name helps sell a movie (any other suggestions?). So what can we learn from his work?

First, he has a rigorous sense of structure: as he told the New Yorker, he has “an almost autistic ability to see a shape in a story … So The Queen, right from the get-go, was ‘Audience scene — Monday — Tuesday — Wednesday — Thursday — Friday — Audience scene’. Blair-Brown was: ‘starts at the end, goes back, tells the story for two-thirds, then goes back’. I lock onto a structure like an infant looking at colours and shapes. Once I’ve got that I’ll never deviate from it.”

Second, although he has written a lot about real people, often living ones, he has a clear mission to be, as he said at LFF, “truthful rather than accurate”. What matters is to create characters that feel plausible, in a world that feels convincing. He told The Times, “My aim is to illustrate the truth underlying a character,” sometimes through the way they speak but often through small details. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Morgan explained how he’d imagined Frost: “The image I had of him was Frost on Concorde, at 55,000ft, living eight days a week and Nixon in some sort of cave of exile. It was the defining thing. This image of the one guy circumnavigating the globe in a ludicrous soundtrack of success. He’d have a glass of Cristal in his hand, a cigar cos you could smoke and drink yourself senseless at the time”. And while every real life story involves a great deal of research — how does the Prime Minister telephone the Queen? — the emotional heart of the film may be entirely fictitious, like the almost mystical communion between the Queen and the stag, or the drunken midnight phone call that Nixon makes to Frost. 

Third, he understands that everyone’s a hero to themselves — and that nobody is perfect. His heroes are flawed, his villains sympathetic, so the audience is continually engaged. As he wrote about The Queen, “My screenplay leaves you in no doubt that I think the Queen is a cold, bigoted, uncompromising, distant person you wouldn’t particularly want as a parent. However, the film is about her being hurt and because we are often hurt there’s a shared humanity.” You rarely know what Morgan thinks, but you always know what his characters feel. 

Fourth, he’s brilliant at tackling big ideas through intimate stories. The Queen is a story about the British people’s complex relationship with the monarchy. Longford is about, in Morgan’s words, “the compassion of judgement”. The Clinton/Blair movie is about Britain’s relationship with America. These are big, bold, complex subjects, but Morgan keeps them at a human level, so the movies always feel like drama, never like debate. Every scene is rigorously argued, but feels emotionally alive. 

Above all, he’s hugely entertaining. Morgan’s one of the funniest writers around, particularly in The Queen, but also in even more potentially perilous material, like his screenplay for The Last King of Scotland, written with Jeremy Brock. A lot of screenplays are emotionally monotonous, continually playing the same note. Morgan’s dart and sparkle, full of light and shade. And he treats every story as a thriller — you will always want to know what happens next.

Right now though, my big question is: who’s going to play Bill Clinton?

The craft of … George Orwell


Orwell has long been a hero of mine, for a number of different reasons. There’s his personal courage in the Spanish Civil War; his brilliant understanding of the nature and methods of fascism – and indeed all kinds of fundamentalism; and the number of his ideas and phrases that still resonate today: Big Brother, doublethink, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” and many more. Nineteen Eighty-Four in particular now feels like a primer for the so-called (and how Orwell would have mocked the phrase) war on terror, and Big Brother’s mantra “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength” like an epitaph for the presidency of George W Bush. 

But what makes Orwell particularly relevant to Mastersvo is his dedication to rigorous thinking and clear language. In his classic essay Politics and the English Language Orwell outlined some of the ways in which language can be used as a weapon of persuasion, deception and obfuscation. “If thought can corrupt language,” he wrote, “then language can also corrupt thought”. Good writing, on the other hand, should be “like a windowpane”: you should be able to look through it to see exactly what is being written about. This is especially important in screenwriting, which gives you only very limited verbal tools to bring an entire visual, aural and emotional world to life, and where every image has to count towards the story. So here are Orwell’s six rules towards good writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

You can now read Orwell’s daily diaries as a blog, thanks to the Orwell Trust.

The craft of … Billy Wilder


Double Indemnity. Sunset Boulevard. Ace in the Hole. Stalag 17. Sabrina. The Seven Year Itch. Witness for the Prosecution. Some Like It Hot. The Apartment. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. How many film-makers made five this good, let alone ten? There’s nothing you can say about Wilder that he didn’t say better; so here, straight from the master, are his tips for writers.
  1. The audience is fickle.
  2. Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.
  3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
  4. Know where you’re going.
  5. The more subtle and elegant  you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
  6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is the first act.
  7. A tip from Lubitsch. Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
  8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees.  Add to what they are seeing.
  9. The event that occurs at the second-act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
  10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then-
  11. -that’s it. Don’t hang around.

Truth and fiction

It’s not just Austrian actors who’ve had trouble with knives this week. Just in case we were in danger of placing too much trust in politicians, the Home Office has been accused of unnecessary creativity in its trumpeting of success against knife crime. Thankfully Chris Dillow has written this gleeful deconstruction of some of the ways in which crime statistics can be made to say whatever you want them to. 

There’s a general assumption that people who work with numbers are sensible, rational and factual, while people who work with words and pictures are emotional, irrational and unpredictable. But in reality the logic of a story — or a scene — has to be worked through as thoroughly as any mathematical equation. In his book Bambi vs. Godzilla David Mamet sums up this challenge brilliantly:

The filmed drama (as any drama) is a succession of scenes. Each scene must end so that the hero is thwarted in pursuit of his goal, so that he … is forced to go on to the next scene to get what he wants. […] To write a successful scene, one must stringently apply and stringently answer the following three questions:

1. Who wants what from whom?

2. What happens if they don’t get it?

3. Why now?

This process has to fit both strands of the double helix that makes up the DNA of drama: character and plot. As with statistics, you can try to massage one strand or another to fit the answer that you want; unlike statistics, you’re very unlikely to get away with it. This is because (a) we’ve all seen a vast number of stories, and (b) most people have near perfect pitch for emotional truth, which is why we find ourselves yelling at the screen: “She’d never do that!” or “Those two would never fall in love!”. As Billy Wilder said of the audience, “An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together — that is critical genius”. 

This stringent working through of a scene to find its emotional truth is as true of the wildest fantasy as it is of so-called realism, which is one reason why most superhero movies are so unsatisfying. It’s also the real secret behind Disney’s success: they have always understood that the desires and motivations of a candlestick have to be just as well developed as those of a mermaid. Ultimately, every scene in every film is there to make a case: why the audience should care what happens next. This case has to be argued as convincingly and truthfully as possible, or the audience is gone. 

Or, to put it another way: Facts are easy. Truth is hard.