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Christopher Nolan Charms Sundance, Denies Being “Independent Filmmaker” and Recalls How “No One Wanted” Seminal Film ‘Memento’

For some artists, the duties and demands of awards attention can be a lifelong dream come true. For others, it’s a slog. Or worse. Christopher Nolan may fall in the latter category, based on what his Oppenheimer star Robert Downey Jr. said from the stage on Thursday night in Park City during the Sundance Film Festival’s opening night gala.

“During this wildly social season, in the wake of resounding global reaction to the Oppenheimer phenomenon, Chris and I shared a vulnerable moment of existential query. He placed his hand on my shoulder, got a little misty and whispered, ‘I’m beginning to wonder, is it possible: Death by schmoozing?’ Adulation, congratulations, celebration, being thanked and honored is as desirable to him as being tarred, feathered and pilloried.”

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If that’s true, Nolan didn’t show it nor did he flinch during his time inside the DeJoria Center in nearby Kamas, Utah, where he was honored with an inaugural Sundance Institute Trailblazer Award. In fact, he held the capacity crowd in the palm of his hand while delivering the night’s longest speech, clocking in at more than 10 minutes. It was bookended with an anecdote about a call with Comcast boss Brian Roberts over the fate of Oppenheimer and mixed in with an intellectual examination of what it truly means to be an independent filmmaker.

Of the latter subject, Nolan asked, “Was I ever an independent filmmaker?” He thinks not. “I’ve never been an independent filmmaker because I don’t think you can be. I think painters are independent. I think poets can be independent. As filmmakers, we’re so dependent on other people.”

He used Memento as a prime example. “A lot of people know that Memento came to Sundance. A lot of people know that it was a hit, and it enabled so much more that came after it for us. But not a lot of people know that what really happened with that film is we finished it and then somebody, not me, had the bright idea of screening for all of the independent distributors at the same time to try and sell the film, get a bidding war going or whatever. And they all passed,” he said of the 2000 film starring Guy Pearce as an amnesia-rattled man attempting to find his wife’s killer. “No one wanted the film. In the year or so after that, we were in terrible limbo, we never knew whether anyone would ever see this film.”

Nolan then detailed the heroes of the story, citing Aaron Ryder and Bob Berney among them as champions of his vision, who helped set up a new distribution avenue for it through Newmarket Films. He credited Berney with suggesting they bring the film to Sundance, and used the anecdote to credit festivals for offering filmmakers the chance to merge with moviegoers.

“If you can get your film here, it’ll fill the seats and you’ll connect with an audience. They won’t always see eye to eye with you or whatever, but you’ll be experiencing that pride of ownership. If that little fire that you already had in you that could get you to the festival gets fanned, the flame grows bigger. You carry that when you climb down the mountain, then you go and become part of a cog in a much bigger machine.”

Speaking of, Nolan eventually circled back to that phone call he and Emma Thomas had with Roberts, “waiting for the head of Comcast to get on the line.” He wasn’t optimistic about the conversation because they were thinking, “We’ve just sold his studio, a three-hour film about quantum physics and the apocalypse, and it’s R rated. I don’t know, maybe somebody finally figured out what we’d done or whatever.”

But to his surprise, Roberts hopped on the call and “said something that was completely shocking.” The Comcast chief told Nolan that he and his father were skiing in Deer Valley in 2001, and on a whim decided to check out a film at the Sundance Film Festival by an unknown director. Yep, it was Memento.

“In that moment I could hear Emma’s relief on the other end of the phone, and in my relief, a couple of things occurred to us. One, we’re probably going to be OK, this is going to work out. He liked the film just as he did in his day. But also, I mean, it’s a quarter of a century later and I’m still being fucking discovered by Sundance. What point do I get to move on? But all of that was by way of saying that the experience you have here as a filmmaker is unique in all the world and carry it with you through your whole career. I could not be more grateful for the experience that I had here 23 years ago and for getting this award tonight. It means the world to me.”

Downey, an awards season standout who seems to be enjoying his Oppenheimer run and the swirl of events, brought the comic relief tonight as he’s known to do. About Nolan, he said, “Confidentially, he needs his spirits lifted. He’s a bit blue because a terrible tragedy has befallen him, and I don’t need to bring this up, Emma, I know it’s very personal. He has become recognizable on the street, and he recoils as though from a hot flame from this new and most unwelcome reality.”

It’s not necessarily a surprise, especially here in Park City, where he’s heralded as a hero. Downey noted that 23 years ago, Nolan with his brother Jonah, took home the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for Memento from the festival. And he went on to deliver such films as Insomnia, The Dark Knight trilogy, The Prestige, Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk and Tenet. Downey also praised Nolan’s work on Oppenheimer by calling it “basically Hollywood backwards” with “nary a drop of creative compromise, ahead of schedule, under budget.” (It’s also cleaned up during awards season, even receiving a new round of BAFTA nominations earlier today.)

Much is made of Nolan’s on-set rules, and Downey called it “a monastic and devotional energy,” with the closest comparison being “a hundred people making a watch. I’ve never experienced anything like it.”

Downey also paid tribute to Emma Thomas, Nolan’s longtime producing partner and wife, who “energetically, somehow both apologizes for and reinforces the necessity of every creative decision and the level of respect they give and require is frankly astonishing.” He continued: “Because they lead from the front, you faithfully follow, and because she blocks for him, he’s free to be as independent a voice as has ever existed in cinema, while telling stories that remind us of the interdependency of the human experience.”

The gala’s other big experiences came courtesy of Past Lives filmmaker Celine Song who received a Vanguard Award for fiction presented by Acura and her producer Christine Vachon of Killer Films; Maite Alberdi taking home a Vanguard Award for nonfiction presented by Acura and presenter Jodie Foster; and Sundance Institute board member Pat Mitchell earning a Vanguard Award for philanthropy (and two standing ovations) from Mary Robinson, first female president of Ireland.

Among those in attendance were Darren Aronofsky, Jason Blum, Jennifer Grey, Rory Kennedy, Roger Ross Williams, Danny Ramirez, Ondi Timoner, Lío Mehiel and others. Amy Redford read a special message written by her father, Sundance chief Robert Redford, who offered apologies for missing the festivities and praise for his longtime friend Mitchell.

“Simply put, Pat is a force for good, a catalyst for positive change, somebody who has dedicated her time, her expertise, and her energy to making a difference by using the power of media and storytelling to shine a light on the people and the issues and the challenges of our time.”

Then there was Kristen Stewart who was honored by actor pal Jesse Eisenberg with a Visionary Award. She said the trophy arrived at the perfect moment (“It is so well-timed. I need this”) as she’s trying to get a new movie off the ground while here celebrating the debut of two new ones, Love Me and Love Lies Bleeding. “Thank you for lighting a fire under my ass and letting me know my whole life implicitly and explicitly that it is possible. Sundance is the fucking shit. I love being here.”

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