Christopher Nolan always seems to have a confident vision for each movie he makes. His signature style is in part defined by his self-assuredness when delving into a new project. Whether it's the finely-tuned narrative of films like "The Prestige" or the clearly defined styles of Nolan's Batman movies (origin story, crime thriller, war epic), the British visionary always seems to have a solid and well-thought-out idea behind each of his projects.
With "Oppenheimer" set for a 2023 release, Nolan once again looks to be preparing a singular vision using both black and white and color footage. His drama about the Father of the Atomic Bomb will be led by longtime collaborator Cillian Murphy with a supporting cast that includes Florence Pugh, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Gary Oldman, Matt Damon, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine, and Rami Malek. And that's just to name a few.
Yes, Nolan, ever the ambitious filmmaker, has assembled a giant cast for his upcoming biopic, which is sure to be just as confident a vision as his previous works. Every element of "Oppenheimer" looks to have been sharply honed, with Nolan praising "the aesthetic charge of shifting between color and black and white" which also helped propel the complex narrative of his breakout film "Memento." Considering the preparation and well-calibrated approach Nolan takes to his films, it's kind of surprising that he doesn't actually ever write a script with a single actor in mind.
Nolan Doesn't Short-Change His Characters
Among Christopher Nolan movies, his 2006 effort "The Prestige" stands as an underappreciated entry that's often overshadowed by the director's blockbuster efforts. Which is a shame because it contains all the non-linear storytelling and philosophical insight you'd expect from a Nolan film before he started leaning too heavily on that kind of thing. An adaptation of the Christopher Priest novel of the same name, the movie follows two rival magicians in the 19th century, played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, and took Nolan and his brother Jonathan a full five years to write and bring to fruition.
The casting of Bale and Jackman was really excellent, with the former's more austere energy translating well to the thoughtful and more technically gifted illusionist Alfred Borden. Meanwhile, as Bale told Empire, Jackman's showman, Robert "The Great Danton" Angier, benefitted from the actor's stage musical experience. So good was the casting that you get the impression Nolan and his brother always had the actors in mind, especially considering the director had worked with Bale prior to "The Prestige" on 2005's "Batman Begins.
But apparently, that wasn't the case. Nolan confirmed he actually makes a point of not writing characters for specific actors, saying, "I don't think of actors when writing a script, I think of the characters. I think it's short-changing the characters if you apply the visualization of an actor to them. You're limiting what the character can do if you view them one way."
Imagining Characters As Real People
This wasn't the first time Nolan had spoken about not limiting his writing by having actors in mind. Back when he remade the Norwegian crime thriller "Insomnia" in 2002, the auteur spoke about the film's stars Al Pacino and Robin Williams and how he hadn't thought of them during the development stage. "I try not to have actors in mind because I think it limits your writing a little bit," he said. "You start writing other characters that they have played so forth."
With "Insomnia," Nolan would deliver one of his most conventional films, which largely eschews the kind of non-linear storytelling and intellectual exploration that defines his other projects. But his approach to development remained constant throughout his career, with Nolan always approaching his characters as "real people." That hasn't stopped him from recognizing the usefulness of star power or an actor's inherent traits. When casting Will Dormer, the lead role of "Insomnia," the director said, "You had to have a substantial star. Somebody with audience association, someone with a familiarity to the audience to give them a kind of built-in sympathy and built-in appeal."
Pacino was cast due to his undeniable familiarity and it worked well, allowing Nolan to draw in audiences while subverting the typically confident Pacino cop type by having Dormer grapple with his own demons throughout. Meanwhile, Williams, in one of two 2002 roles in which he played against type (the other being in "One Hour Photo") was cast as villainous crime writer Walter Finch. Again, Nolan recognized the star's "tremendous charisma and tremendous audience association" which allowed him to once again subvert expectations by casting him as a villain.
Nolan's Casting Success
It's clear that Nolan champions character over actor when developing his movies. While he's been criticized for elevating plot above everything else, he clearly has an appreciation for the characters in his stories, even if they often are buried beneath excessive exposition or philosophical pontification. His approach to writing without actors in mind contains much of what defines the approach of method actors themselves, and as such represents a true appreciation for the story being told rather than the cultural appeal of the final product.
That's something that should be celebrated and arguably goes a long way towards Nolan being one of the few directors who can still bring in audiences with purely original ideas. Whatever you think of him as a filmmaker, his obvious commitment to making the best version of the story he's trying to tell is plainly commendable.
And writing for the character and not the actor clearly hasn't hurt his casting. Throughout his filmography, Nolan has actually demonstrated a great eye for casting, with numerous actors delivering career-best performances in his projects. Whether it's Heath Ledger as The Joker in "The Dark Knight" or Matthew McConaughey's affecting turn as Cooper in "Interstellar," Nolan's projects consistently serve as fertile ground for the actors he casts. Let's hope there's a lot more of that to come with "Oppenheimer."
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