Music for the films of Christopher Nolan

Happy June, fellow travellers.  Here atop Temp Track Plaza in the American West the mercury has been steadily rising and once again makes me long for the days when I could afford that greatest of all sins: central air.  Alas, the life of a PhD student does not pay for such luxuries.  But one of the few pleasures I can afford is that of film, and we are now knee-deep into the Summer 2010 film season.  The next film I’m really excited about this summer doesn’t come out until July though, and you readers have probably already figured out what film I’m talking out.  Yes, it’s the seventh film from director Christopher Nolan: Inception.  If you have somehow managed to miss the trailers and such for the film, check them out here at the film’s website.

What I wish to discuss here is a bit about the films of Nolan and the music that accompanies them.  In the little over a decade of Nolan’s professional career, he has made 6 films using basically two composers (technically three, but since Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard worked on the same films, I’m counting them as one).  Wrapped up with this whole discussion is Nolan’s shift from composer David Julyan, with whom he worked with on 4 of his 6 films, to Hans Zimmer and Remote Control Productions (where James Newton Howard sometimes  works it appears) for the Batman films and the upcoming Inception (which lists only Zimmer on the credits).  I know many people in the film music community have varying and strong opinions about Zimmer and Remote Control, almost as divisive as opinions on James Horner, but rather than letting this sink to the level of modern political discourse, I would ask that we strive to keep a civil tone.

But before I tread into that minefield, lets first discuss Nolan and his films.  His filmography is as follows: Following (1998), Memento (2000), Insomnia (2002), Batman Begins (2005), The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), and the forthcoming Inception (2010).  Setting aside music for a moment, there is a remarkable consistency in quality and style among these films.  Beginning with Memento, Nolan has always worked with cinematographer Wally Pfister (nominated for an Oscar for each of the last three released films), and with the exception of Insomnia, Nolan himself has always had a hand in writing the scripts (many times along with brother Jonathan Nolan).  Further, all of his films were produced by his wife Emma Thomas.  What is also very evident watching the films is a very consistent visual style starting with Insomnia of long shots and aerial photography that began with his working with a large enough budget to afford such things.  Along with this is what I can best describe as a coldness, an emotional distance between camera and subject.  And it is into this distance the music falls.

David Julyan first teamed up with Nolan prior to Following for some of Nolan’s short films made during and after college in London.  His style is largely ambient type tracks using a mixture of electronics and strings (either synth or live), and sometimes other orchestral sounds.  In many ways, the early film scores remind me of Mike Post-esque Law and Order score – dark and moody.  But I would make a similar argument about Julyan that I do about Nolan, that everything took a leap forward with Insomnia.  For Nolan, he retained much of his trademark storytelling techniques – non-linear, puzzle like flashes or flashbacks that keep a viewer disoriented and guessing – but adding many more to the arsenal that come with a larger budget and studio backing.  Similar with Julyan, with more money at his disposal not only did his use of electronics and live instruments become greater, but his compositional technique flourished with said greater freedom. Whereas Following and Memento featured very sparse scoring (like I said earlier, akin to an episode of Law and Order), with Insomnia Julyan wrote longer cues that attempted to fill in the distance between camera and subject with the psychological tension that the film demanded of every sunlinght-drenched neo-noir shot.  The film’s tone is as dark as the music, but since the film is set in northern Alaska where during some seasons the sun never sets, the film itself is in perpetual daylight (a key device in both Nolan’s 2002 film and the 1997 Norwegian film on which it is based).  The juxtaposition of the two is part what makes the film unsettling to a viewer.

Skipping over Batman Begins for just a moment, let’s consider Julyan fourth and so far last collaboration with Nolan, The Prestige.  Many have found this a hard score to get at because it sort of recedes into the background of the film for much of the time.  It lacks any of the activity found at times in Insomnia and is very much the “musical wallpaper” that so many deride film music to be.  Listening to the score on its own illuminates that most of the time the score is long, held chords with movement occasionally happening.  Sparse, stark, and dark.  Just like Insomnia.  Part of this I do attribute to Julyan, but I also think that it is also, partially, what Nolan wants.  The music very much fits the aesthetic distance between camera and subject that I so noted earlier.  And if you had asked me a few years ago what I thought about this score, I might have said that it worked in the film, but when divorced from the visual, it doesn’t hold up.  This feeling is still true to some extent, but in the intervening years, I have developed a greater appreciation for this ambient type of scoring that at times blurs the line between music and sound design.

Take the cue “The Transported Man” for instance, which just popped up in my iTunes (YouTube version here).  The cue begins with what sounds like an orchestra tuning in, but the clusters soon coalesce then fade away into a slow-moving cue that has a low percussive throb mixed with sustained strings and other sounds mixed it.  It’s incredibly dense music that only sounds simple on the surface.  Yes, the music may disappear for a viewer of the film, just like a slight-of-hand magic trick, but could almost be more of a case of, to paraphrase The Usual Suspects, “the greatest trick [Julyan] ever pulled was convincing the world [his music doesn’t] exist.”  If there is a ill-word to be uttered here, it is that, at times, the scores for Insomnia and The Prestige sound too much alike.

So now let us turn to Nolan’s big-budget blockbusters, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (which will hopefully be followed in 2012 by Nolan’s third and final Batman film).  As mentioned above, these scores are done with Hans Zimmer and his Remote Control Productions (aka Team Zimmer, a phrase coined by a good friend of mine), and as mentioned elsewhere on this blog, are billed as a collaboration between Zimmer and sometimes Controlee James Newton Howard (from what I can find on the interwebs using the Google, the exact roster of composers at Remote Control is hard to pin down).  In many ways, it is obvious that the static, more ambient music of Julyan would not be a good fit for a summer action film such as that the Batman films would be, but at the same time, Zimmer/Howard composed a score that at times shares characteristics with Julyan previous work for Nolan.

Examine the opening cue on the Batman Begins score album, ‘Vespertilio.’  It begins with some ambient like effects that are meant to mimic the sound of a large bat flapping his wings and then moves into what we can identify as the Batman theme: the active string motor underneath with large brass chords sweeping up and down slowly.  If we were to take out the active motor, it would not be unlike something Julyan might write (we might also have the turn down the volume on the brass, but the principal remains).  Both Zimmer/Howard and Julyan’s scoring are athematic in a traditional sense, their scores are less melodically based and more harmonic, but if one listens closely and enough times, melodic themes to begin to emerge, such as Batman and the Joker, a love theme, etc.  This is all to say that despite the change in composers, there are aesthetic continuities between the films, and the differences can be ascribed to, rather than a change in composer, the differences between an intimate psychological neo-noir film like Memento or The Prestige and a summer action (albeit also psychological and noir-ish) film like the Batman films.  Throughout his films, Nolan has a certain type of music that he feels fits his visual language well.

Could Julyan have scored the Batman films effectively?  Maybe, but judging from his work on The Descent, I think that Zimmer/Howard were a much better fit for a more complex scoring project.  But what I’m arguing here remains, that Nolan has a certain sound for his films that he wants that fits with what he and Wally Pfister are creating on-screen.  Think of the opening sequence of The Dark Knight.  The long helicopter shots of Gotham City (really Chicago), shot in such a way to really be any city.  There is a certain feeling to these shots, that distance I’m talking about (accentuated here by the masks worn), and the music starts very soft, in many ways silent, and it takes almost 6 minutes to build up to the moment when the Joker takes off his mask and we have the descending chord that accents the gesture.  It is a great musico-visual moment and is a reason why I love using the scene in a class context.

This is all to say that while I feel that ‘auter’ theory in film studies is a tricky thing to deal with for students of film music (a future blog post), the continuity between certain elements of the scores for the films of Christopher Nolan show that he has a certain sound in mind for his films that was cultivated through his work with Julyan and has transferred into his current collaboration with Zimmer and Co.  There is also a close working relationships between Nolan and his composers, evident when you watch some bonus materials on the DVD discs in which Zimmer says, in the case of The Dark Knight, he gave Nolan a large sound file full of noise and sounds to help in Nolan deciding what kind of music and feeling he wanted for the Joker.  My wish is that all directors were as aurally aware.

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