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NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - English filmmaker Christopher Nolan is now the toast of Hollywood, thanks to the record-breaking $155 million opening of "The Dark Knight."
But less than 10 years ago, the Batman director was barely a blip at the box office: His feature debut, a small indie called "Following," earned a grand total of $40,000.
The fractured thriller, about a writer who inexplicably follows strangers, was not the kind of film that gets a director commercial gigs. Like Nolan's 2000 follow-up "Memento," it showed an experiment-minded director intent on playing with timelines and disorienting the viewer.
But since then he's managed not only to land on the studio map but redefine it.
Nolan (together with his brother and frequent writing partner Jonathan) graduated to midrange studio projects like the Alaskan murder mystery "Insomnia," which earned nearly $70 million, and Disney's "The Prestige," which landed $53 million.
Then he resurrected the "Batman" franchise with 2005's "Batman Begins," which earned $205 million. "The Dark Knight" will pass that total by the middle of the week.
What's perhaps most remarkable in the arc of the one-time English lit student is that he has managed to migrate to tentpoles without compromising much of the vision of his early movies.
In fact, judging by the word-of-mouth, "The Dark Knight" succeeded because of, not despite, his authorship. "He's not a product of Hollywood, and I think that makes him a better studio director," says Andrew Kosove of Alcon Entertainment, who produced Nolan's "Insomnia."
Kosove's Alcon partner, Broderick Johnson, adds that beyond the creative vision are a set of skills found only in a handful of directors. "He has the whole movie, every single scene, in his head before he stars shooting. And then coupled with that he's a really good communicator so he can get that vision across to everyone on set."
The producers say that Nolan calibrated every scene in "Insomnia" so precisely that they could find only one deleted scene to include on the DVD.
While Nolan's trajectory may be unlikely, those who've collaborated with him said they're not surprised that he had made such a large leap in so short a time.
Studio veteran Bob Berney, who helped on distribution efforts for "Memento," says that, unlike some indie directors who simply end up directing bigger movies by default when the offers start coming in, Nolan was aiming for tentpoles all along. "He exuded self-assurance and confidence that he'd be where he is today," Berney says. "He wanted to be doing movies like 'Batman."'
The closest analogue to Nolan may be Paul Greengrass, who moved fleetly from edgy political fare like "Bloody Sunday" to the mega-earning Jason Bourne franchise. (Guillermo del Toro, who has enjoyed studio success and solid openings while staying true to his quirky vision is also an exemplar of the Nolan model, though Del Toro's numbers are smaller, and the fanboy world to which he plays has always been a little more willing to reward originality and punish imitators.)
Nolan, who turns 38 next week, is also an anomaly for another reason: He's a director who's beloved by the money people, a function likely not only of his box office but of his reported fiscal discipline. "I told (Nolan), 'I'd do anything with you. I'd do a wedding video with you,"' says Thomas Tull, whose Legendary Pictures banner financed "The Dark Knight."
Wedding videos aside, Nolan, on a press day in the U.K. Sunday when the box office news broke stateside, now faces the tricky question of where he goes from here.
A rep recently alluded to his potentially returning to an indie. The only project he's currently signed on to direct -- beyond the possible next Batman installment -- is Universal's adaptation of the 1960's British secret-agent series "The Prisoner."
Executives say that while a true indie is unlikely, a smaller studio movie isn't, if only because a production of a lesser scale can be a relief after the burdens of a tentpole. Said one executive: "As much fun as it is to do a big movie like 'The Dark Knight,' sometimes you want to do something smaller because it's quicker."