Christopher Nolan’s films are cinematic sagas. They’re confluences of narrative, technique, technology, and artistry. And when I saw Tenet’s trailer, I was, once again, in awe of Nolan’s ability to manipulate a scene’s spatial surroundings, giving us a visual fable. The set pieces he uses aren’t merely tools for spectacle and sparkle. They build and sketch the film’s narrative, decorating the most banal aspects of life.
The spacelessness in Memento can only be made possible when the production design studies how universal common spaces can be. In Interstellar, you cannot experience the metaphysical expanse Nolan creates without set pieces that embody the abstract. As an ode to these elaborate and sweeping creations, here’s a list of my favourite set pieces from each of his films.
Following (1998) – The houses the burglars break into
Following, with a budget of less than 10,000 dollars, isn’t quite known for its lavish set pieces. The film is scattered across sketchy locations in London, shot only on a handheld camera. Like a true neo-Godardian thriller, the camera is more concerned with showing us the characters and their faces than the set behind them. We can’t see the hues of Britain through the black-and-white filter; the setting doesn’t bedazzle. But the film, about the surging adrenaline that comes with a burglary (Will the homeowners enter? Have the thieves left behind prints and traces?), is highly effective because of its unimposing sets. It’s one of those rare cases in which the lack of budget is beneficial to the narrative.
That’s why the burgled houses make for the film’s best set pieces. One of the only ways to turn the thieves’ adrenaline into raw, palpable emotion is by highlighting the cause of that adrenaline — the houses they are in. The two voyeurs are boxed into an inescapable, pocket-sized chamber; if the owners walk in, there is no way out. These tonally sadistic shots and sets are essentially what fuel the film’s urgency. And it is the sets that portray the obstacles to Cobb’s ostensibly foolproof plans.
Memento (2000) – Leonard’s motel room
Memento is one of Nolan’s most spatially indifferent films. It’s representative of Leonard’s powerlessness — his memory fails him and just like that, his understanding of where he is. He doesn’t have any domestic safe space. And this quintessentially American motel — the crummy but liveable kind — is the closest Leonard will get to a safe haven. But it’s also where his uncertainties and questions fester. The ability to give some pictorial meaning to this conflicting reality is what makes this set so great. This minimalist and dingy room best complements the film’s tonality.
Insomnia (2002) – The cabin close to where Hap is killed
The cabin, by the musty looks of it, is creakingly thin, probably infested with termites. Its desolation has an ascetic feel to it; it is a house away from all worldly happenings. And before Hap is shot, when the police are chasing the shooter, we get a brief glimpse of the cabin, too. It’s covered in shiver-inducing darkness, quite like a true-crime artsy house. With some light gradation that plays up the fog in the wilderness, this set piece imbibes the traditional design of an investigative crime thriller — like a page straight out of Fincher’s book.
Batman Begins (2005) – The Wayne Manor
The Wayne Manor, from the inside and outside, is the perfect portrayal of an aristocratic, capitalist home. Sticking to baroque architecture, everything in it has been cultured to fineness, and make a tailcoat and black tie the manor’s formal dress attire, it wouldn’t be anything short of British royalty. This extravagance aptly represents the Wayne family — the tuxedo-donning industrialists, and their lifestyle.
The Prestige (2006) – Borden’s and Angier’s stages
Magic is a test of our perception, it’s theatre of the mind — that’s the running theme of The Prestige. And in Nolan’s film, if there’s any place other than the labyrinth-like story that shows us this, it’s the stages Borden and Angier perform on. They embody the setting’s Victorian royalty and grandeur. More importantly, they embody the rivals’ gamesmanship. You need a theatre that large to one-up each other with visual trickery. And you need a set that solid to blend the corporeal with the ethereal.
The Dark Knight (2008) – The hospital that Joker blows up
The Dark Knight is a unique compendium of pyrotechnics and explosives. One can only imagine how much the production designers dreaded seeing their work blown to smithereens. The hospital explosion specifically illustrates an eclectic mix of madness and majestic. This large set raises the stakes that come with Joker’s anarchic obsession. And not only does it sum up his assertive craziness in a single scene, but we also get to see one of Nolan’s most ambitious attempts at cinematic destruction (Tenet may just trump that).
Inception (2010) – The hotel hallway
It was a close call between the rotating hallway and Cobb’s dream setup in Paris, where he introduces Ariadne to the concept of Ocean’s Eleven-ing the mind. Quite a lot of this decision also has to do with my bias towards its massive behind-the-scenes process. Borrowing a few techniques from Apollo 13’s and 2001: A Space Odyssey’s production, Nolan and production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas engineered an entire centrifuge to film the hotel lobby face-off. It’s an entrancing feat and the lengths to which the crew went deserve to be lauded.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – The Lazarus Pit
The pit Wayne is thrown into is perhaps one of the more primal interpretations of an abyss. It annihilates all forms of freedom and liberty, and can corrode its prisoners’ psyche. Fundamentally, it is a prison for the soul. And considering that this is Wayne’s final and elevated obstacle, the film needs a setup that tyrannical to give us a spiritually satisfying comeback. The Lazarus Pit’s crevices, steepness and shadowy darkness make Wayne’s experience as vicarious as possible. And as a result, his achievements even more glorious.
Interstellar (2014) – The Tesseract
Quite a lot of sci-fi has to do with spacefaring adventures and quests. But not a lot of that space warping has to do with human emotions. Interstellar gives us the latter — love is the most powerful tool people can use, even when floating in a hot tub of existential dread. And after being plunged into the Tesseract, Cooper uses that tool by trying to communicate with Murph. This, essentially, is a mythic landscape — he is in a five-dimensional, indecipherable structure reeling against his messy emotions. And this never-ending grid, redolent of Murph’s bookshelf, expresses the complexity of what he is experiencing. The Tesseract is a sublime cinematic creation, the vastness of which channels Coop’s emotions as well as the audience’s.
Dunkirk (2017) – The torpedoed ship
I’d include the entire film if I could. Despite its bright, morning setting, we only get a dim view of human nature. The night the English soldiers inside a ship are torpedoed is one of the finest reminders of that. The ship, a victim to the vagaries of war, is overpopulated and cramped. It symbolises the survival instinct and its possible shortcoming — it’s large but unassuming. And there is nothing to protect it beyond its steely, inches-thick barriers. When the ship founders, we see its fragility through its cracks and scuttles. Nathan Crowley’s single-object set is meticulously put together. Every small detail is a reiteration of the ship’s strength and vulnerability.