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Nolan's own earliest movie memory is of seeing Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and of blanching in fright when the evil queen disguises herself as the apple-toting old hag. "And then the first Star Wars, in 1977—that sort of changed everything for me," he says. Soon, the seven-year-old Nolan, who was born in London and grew up on both sides of the Atlantic, was shooting Super 8 sci-fi movies with a borrowed camera, and he's never looked back. "For people of my age, that was it—that was kind of the birth of cinema in a way," he says of George Lucas's seminal space opera. "The screen just opened up a world that you had never seen before and that you could lose yourself in, and that suggested infinite possibilities. And I think every film I make, particularly when you go big with a film, when you make a blockbuster—and Inception is a blockbuster—the highest aspiration is to create an alternate reality for the audience, a world they can imagine living in beyond the actual text of the film."
Everything is relative in Nolan's world. Like the unsuspecting captains of industry who find their brains burgled by Inception's dream invaders, fail to pay close attention and you, too, may discover that the narrative rug has been pulled from underneath your feet. Or that what you thought was a rug wasn't really a rug at all. Watching Inception, I tell Nolan, I made a note that the movie—really, his entire filmography thus far—is for people who regard "2 + 2 = 4" not as an inviolable absolute, but rather as a manmade construct subject to multiple variations and interpretations.
"The world is founded on paradoxes," he answers, grinning. "2 + 2 = 4 . . . we can see why that's true, we can observe that, but when I talk to my kids about numbers, they have already completely taken aboard the idea that you can't ever have two identical objects, meaning, on some level, that numbers don't exist. Everything in life is inherently paradoxical. You can't prove anything. But we accept that and we live with that and we just sort of deal with it, and what you try to do with a film like Inception is to pull at a few of those threads.
"One of my favorite brain teasers, or things to occupy my mind with when I have spare time, is that if you look in a mirror, left and right are reversed, but up and down are not. How is that possible? I've been trying to wrap my head around that for decades and I make no progress. If any of your readers have the solution, I'll be interested."
Today, as he approaches his 40th birthday, Nolan is imagining yet more ways of building a smarter, better blockbuster in an industry that too often regards the human brain as a derelict appendage rather than a muscle in need of stimulation and exercise. And at the moment, he finds himself in that privileged position, enjoyed historically by relatively few directors, of having the full resources of Hollywood at his disposal to make the movies he wants to make—the ones that take him further down the rabbit hole of his obsessions—the way he wants to make them. With that freedom, Nolan acknowledges, comes "a massive responsibility to do something that you genuinely feel to be meaningful and that you love"—a self-imposed mandate he hopes audiences will feel Inception fulfills.
"Films are subjective—what you like, what you don't like," he says. "But the thing for me that is absolutely unifying is the idea that every time I go to the cinema and pay my money and sit down and watch a film go up onscreen, I want to feel that the people who made that film think it's the best movie in the world, that they poured everything into it and they really love it. Whether or not I agree with what they've done, I want that effort there—I want that sincerity. And when you don't feel it, that's the only time I feel like I'm wasting my time at the movies."
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