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Have you notice a pattern with Christopher Nolan? No, I'm not talking about his repeated use of non-linear storytelling or themes like obsession. I'm talking about the pattern in which he makes movies.
Nolan's first film was Following (1998), which made for a great film to prove he had the chops to handle his own production. He took on Memento in 2000, a project he co-wrote with his brother, Jonathan. Both of these films, while serving the interests of his career, were passion projects of his own. He wrote and directed Following on a shoestring budget of £3,000 and shot it on weekends over the course of a year. Memento proved to be equally frugal in its budget ($4 million) considering it was a studio production and was based on his brother, Jonathan's, own short story. Going off that information alone, one might assume Nolan had enough creative material in his head to keep making his own movies.
But his next picture Insomnia (2002), while still containing many of Nolan's trademark characteristics, is probably the least "Nolanesque" film he's made. Arguably, it's a studio flick. I myself didn't realize he'd made it until the end credits. He, in a way, did this film as a favor to Warner Bros because it opened the door for him to write and direct the reboot of the epic Batman series with Batman Begins (2005).
This is where things get more interesting. Nolan's follow up to the highly successful Batman film could've been another Batman film. But he chose not to do that. Instead, he opted to take on a picture about two magicians competing to perform the greatest illusion of all time, The Prestige (2006).
Instead of riding the coat tails of his most successful film to date, he opts to do a period piece about magicians? Sounds nuts, right? But I see a pattern emerging here.
After The Prestige, Nolan returned to the Batman franchise with The Dark Knight (2008). But again, after that film, he took a detour away from the superhero action to do a psychological sci-fi heist thriller called Inception (2010). It was expected to be a failure because of its complicated plot and themes but actually went on to be a massive success.
Are you seeing the pattern? Nolan doesn't just do pictures for the studios. He does films for himself, too. Even though Nolan opted to helm the Batman films, he arguably did so as a career move to gain leverage in Hollywood. That leverage allows him to direct films he's passionate about in between the popcorn projects he takes on for Warner Bros. And because he does this, his work is that much better.
As an artist, you have to do work for others to make money. It's just part of the game (unless you've got a massive trust fund that allows you to give a middle finger to the world). This work often is not the work you enjoy doing and offers little, if any, inspiration. True artists will take on these projects and strive to learn something new each time, pushing themselves further and further. One could easily argue that each successive Batman film was better than the last because Nolan worked to push the boundaries of his own artistry more each time. Nevertheless, they were films he made for someone else - not for himself.
Doing that kind of work over and over again serves only to drain the soul of the artist (even if it is filling up his bank account). I had this epiphany myself recently. I'd been feeling uninspired in my work and was even struggling to turn on the computer to write or edit. I found it challenging to get excited about new projects no matter how delightful my clients were.
Then it hit me. When was the last time I did a project for myself?
I couldn't remember. I think the last passion project I completed was in college when I did a short film with some friends. It was terrible. But it was ours. Something we did for fun to push our own artistic boundaries.
So after I finished my last project, I opted to take a day to do something for myself. I did a small project for my daughter's upcoming birthday highlighting her first three years of life. Nothing big. But it was mine. I did it the way I wanted with no one to seek approval from except for myself. I created my own challenges for the piece to do things I'd always wanted to do but never had a client interested enough to do them. It was a piece for me.
Once I finished it, even though I knew I'd never get a dime for it, I felt more proud of it than anything I'd made in a long time. More importantly, I felt reinvigorated and ready to get back to work. Ready to put my best foot forward for my next client.
So I've decided from now on, I'm going to work like Nolan does. In between the projects I do for others, I'm going to take on my own passion projects so that I can push my artistic boundaries further and, as a result, improve the work I do for others.
In other words, you get one. Then I get one. Deal?