“There’s No Prescription”: Christopher Nolan and Bennett Miller on Influences, Fatherhood, and the Ending of ‘Inception’

The question was bound to come up; what’s surprising, really, is that a half-dozen other questions were asked before it did. But the Q&A portion — and the hour itself — was nearly over for Monday’s Tribeca Film Festival “Tribeca Talk” between filmmakers Chris Nolan and Bennett Miller when a fan raised his hand, bounded to his feet, and said, “So at the end of Inception…” The audience roared in recognition and cheered; they were Nolan-ites, and here was one who was speaking the language.

Of course, the Dark Knight and Interstellar director didn’t answer the question — but his fellow filmmaker (Moneyball, Foxcatcher) and interviewer Miller volunteered, “I asked the same question backstage, and he told me the answer, but said that it’s not really for public consumption…” Nolan, of course, begged off (“I’m certainly not going to answer that, or I would’ve in the film”), but the real note of interest for Inception fans was Nolan’s disclosure of the origin of another image from that 2009 film.

Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale

It came in response to what Miller confessed was “really just personal advice for me”: how Nolan, as a prolific filmmaker and father of four, balances out a career and a life. “From a creative point of view, the process of growing up, the process of maturing, getting married, having kids, I’ve tried to use that in my work. I’ve tried to just always be driven by the things that were important to me. And I’m very fortunate to be able to work from home, and I can look out the window and see my younger kids playing on the grass, and that becomes the key image of Inception, because I’d rather be out there playing with them…”

“Surely you could, at this point,” Miller interjected, not unreasonably — after all, this is the filmmaker responsible for some of the most financially successful movies of the past decade, so he could certainly take some time off, if he so desired. What keeps him working?

“A feeling of responsibility for the opportunities that I’ve been given,” he admitted. “I’ve had opportunities as a filmmaker that a lot of filmmakers would kill for. So I feel a responsibility to try and do something with that, and really maximize it. And I think both Emma [Thomas, his wife and producer] and myself feel good about pushing the boundaries of studio filmmaking by taking on things that maybe they would give another filmmaker a harder time about.”

Christopher Nolan

This is one of the peculiarities of Nolan’s career, which he and Miller discussed at some length: how he managed to start with the tiniest of budgets ($6,000 for his debut feature Following), and end up with what he calls “the incredible power of the studio machine” at his disposal — while still exploring the subjects and themes that interest him. “My studio filmmaking experience has been extremely positive, and I think a lot of that is chance,” he confesses. “A lot of that is, we get this idea with films that we’re making, that when they make money that gives everybody confidence, false confidence, thinking, ‘This guy knows how to make a film that makes money.’ Which is complete nonsense… I do attribute a lot of it to luck, and I’m not being falsely modest there.”

“I probably think it’s less luck than you do,” Miller grinned. Earlier in the talk, he confessed some envy of Nolan’s confidence as a filmmaker, which Nolan attributes to “the fact that I’ve always enjoyed making films at whatever level I could.” This goes all the way back to his first Super 8 film series, inspired by his favorite movie Star Wars, the “imaginatively-titled Space Wars” (films he recently revisited, and “I was a little disappointed by how bad they were… I still remembered them as I wanted them to be, as I thought they were. They weren’t!”). Yet like all of his work, those films were just about the joy of creating, so now, Nolan says, “even if I couldn’t secure a huge budget on a project, and big stars or whatever, I’d make a film on a tabletop somewhere and be as invested in that as any bigger film.”

And though there were, unsurprisingly, a great number of filmmakers in the Tribeca audience, Miller wasn’t sure what to do with their implied obligation to offer advice, since “it’s such a curious profession, because there’s no prescription.” Nolan recalled the advice given to him when he was younger by the great Stephen Frears (the rather unhelpful, “Be a lucky man”), but offered up this much: “If you’re lucky enough to tell a story with a camera, at whatever scale you’re doing it, appreciate that as filmmaking. Don’t always be waiting for the ‘real’ film to come along, because you may be making the real film.”

The Tribeca Film Festival runs through April 26.