Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Prestige (Nolan Theme Week)

This is Nolan Theme Week, where we'll be breaking down Christopher Nolan's five most popular writing-directing efforts in hopes of learning something about how he crafts a story.  Monday Roger reviewed The Dark Knight.  Yesterday I took on Batman Begins.  Today, I review The Prestige.

Genre: Period/Drama/Supernatural
Premise: Two obsessed magicians engage in a dangerous rivalry.
About: The Prestige was Christopher Nolan’s fifth film and fourth writing-directing effort. It was the follow-up to his first bonafied hit, Batman Begins. On the structure of The Prestige, Nolan said, “It was quite challenging to find the right structure and it took a lot of time. We really spent years working on the script. It required interlocking framing devices and interlocking voiceovers, combined with the notion of structuring using the three act structure of the trick. It took a long time, the key being the need to express multiple points of view purposefully and clearly. It was a difficult script to write.”
Writers: Christopher and Jonathan Nolan (based on the book by Christopher Priest).
Details: 128 pages

I’m going to make a pretty outrageous statement here but hey, what’s a Theme Week without a controversial statement or two? I think that if you reversed the releases of The Prestige and Inception, that you would also exchange the box office takes of each film. In other words, if The Prestige had been released this summer, it would’ve made 300 million dollars, with Inception making 53 million back in 2006.

Now part of that has to do with Nolan reaching the apex of his popularity and talent in 2010, with his fans fervent anticipation for his follow-up to The Dark Knight, and a studio willing to back anything he came up with every resource they had. But it also has to do with the fact that The Prestige is the best movie Nolan’s ever made, and I think it’s the best he’s ever made by far.

The story follows two magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) who start out as partners, but after Borden accidentally kills Angier’s wife during a trick, they separate and become rivals.

Angier, a great showman with a lack of ingenuity, becomes increasingly obsessed with whether Borden, an ingenious magician with a lack of showmanship, killed his wife or not. He begins stalking Borden’s shows, looking for ways to trip him up. Borden follows suit, doing the same to Angier.

The story hits its stride when Borden creates one of the greatest tricks in the world, “The Transporting Man,” in which he’s able to transport himself from one side of the stage to the other. The trick stumps Angier, resulting in him going to the ends of the earth to match the trick, and ultimately top it.

The greatest thing about The Prestige, for me, is that the premise – two dangerously obsessed magicians trying to outdo one another– gives you exactly what you're hoping for. One of the biggest problems I run into when I read amateur screenplays is an inability to deliver on the concept. Most writers can mine a high concept premise through one act, but almost invariably run out of ideas and simply draw upon previous movies and TV shows to finish the final two.

Nolan does not have that problem here.

As every good writer knows, the concept opens the story. It’s what hooks the readers. But if you want them to stay around, you have to create fascinating characters. That middle act is your character’s main stage.  It's when the concept exits left and they take over the play.  If you don't have your characters worked out, if they're not deep and complex and interesting, your script will end up like the amateur ones I mentioned above.

Borden and Angier are the epitome of this complexity.  Each one has reversals and surprises and secrets and grow and regress and change and have so many sides to them that we don't even remember what the concept to the film was.  We're just engaged in these two battling each other.  I can't remember the last time I’ve seen a movie where a writer pushes his characters as far to the extreme as Nolan does these two. It’s really great character work.

Just like he did with Batman (and in a theme I’ll be pointing out all week), Nolan once again starts his film with a tapestry of cross-cutting storylines that confuse the audience, which, as we discussed yesterday, is a unique way to get them to pay attention.

The first is a court case in which the only thing we know is that Borden is on trial for killing someone. The second is a limping Angier travelling to a mysterious mansion in the woods. And the third is both Borden and Angier working together as young magicians.

It’s almost uncanny how similar the set ups are between this and Batman Begins. Indeed it speaks to a larger theme in Nolan’s work. I think one of the reasons he likes to confuse the audience and pack so much plot into his movies is so that you’ll come back again. He knows that if you don’t catch it all the first time out, you’re going to want to see it again. This is by no means a radical concept, but I don’t think I know a filmmaker who covets it as aggressively as Nolan. And hey, it's working.  You don't get to 1.8 billion on your last two films if people are only going to see them once.

What I think sets The Prestige above the rest of his work, however, is the attention he gives to his main character’s fatal flaws. Borden’s flaw is that he puts magic above everything else in his life, even his own wife and kid. Whenever you give a character a “fatal” flaw like this, you want to create a scenario in which they either overcome the flaw and reap the benefits, or refuse to change and suffer the consequences. Borden has that opportunity. (spoilers) He can give up his best trick, finally putting life above his magic, or he can continue to keep it a secret. He chooses to keep the secret and suffers the consequences. Death.

Angier’s flaw, on the other hand, is that he won’t get dirty. The reason Borden is a better magician than him is because he’s willing to do anything for the trick, a talent Angier does not have. Later, Angier is given a choice, continue with what he has and be a marginal but ultimately empty success, or “get dirty” with the most dangerous trick ever performed. He “overcomes” his flaw by choosing to perform the trick.

What makes Angier’s character exploration so interesting, however, is that normally when someone “overcomes” their flaw, they find happiness. When Luke finally believes in himself, he’s able to destroy the Death Star. When Shrek finally opens himself up to others, he finds friendship and love. But what’s unique here is that Angier’s gain after overcoming his flaw is a false one. He finds happiness, but the consequences of that happiness outweigh the happiness itself.

Like I always say, how compelling your character is rises in direct proportion with how difficult you make their choices. (spoilers) Angier is faced with the ultimate choice – a choice that will determine how much he cares about his job – Is he willing to die for it? Not once but every single day? A character that’s faced with that choice, who ultimately chooses to die, is infinitely more interesting than a character who’s never been presented with that choice at all. That’s why fatal flaws are so important for characters. If you don’t know what their flaw is, you don’t know what kind of choice to present them with later in the story.

There’s a small segment in The Prestige, after Scarlett Johansen’s character has joined Borden, where the script gets repetitive. Again, at 130 minutes, Nolan is going with a screenplay that’s 10-15 minutes too long – and this portion is exactly why it feels that way. But outside of that small hiccup, this is a really great movie, one that if you haven’t checked out, you definitely should.

Script link: The Prestige

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I think the opening of The Prestige is better than the opening of Batman Begins and here’s why. When Nolan was cross-cutting between the three storylines in Batman begins, he doesn’t set up a mystery, doesn’t insert a clear question in the audience’s mind that they want answered. Without that question, the cutting feels random (which is why I referred to it as random yesterday). But if a mystery is presented, the audience is then looking for an answer, and that allows them to participate in the surrounding scenes. So in The Prestige, we get a court scene where Borden is being accused of murder. The mystery is, who did he kill? When we’re watching the early scenes where Borden and Angier are working together now, they take on a heightened level of suspense. We know someone gets murdered. But who? When? We get to participate in that mystery.  As a result the opening is still scattershot, but executed in a much more skillful way than in Batman.