The Lost Art of Secrecy

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When was the last time you walked into a movie theater completely unaware of the film you were about to see? For me, it was the summer of 2010. The movie: Inception. The earliest trailers for the film displayed a number of staggering visuals. A rotating hallway, a city folding on itself, and a train charging through the rain. This merely whet the appetites of countless filmgoers like myself. Soon, we were standing in line for the film’s release, not knowing a single detail of the plot. Even on the day of, all we had to go on were the film’s cryptic tagline (“Your mind is the scene of the crime”) and a tiny bit of description from director Christopher Nolan himself (“a heist movie set within the architecture of the mind”). Some could argue we already had more than enough to go on. But compared to today’s films, where entire movies are given away in a two-minute trailer, Nolan’s film barely left a trail of breadcrumbs. It was a refreshing change of pace that allowed audiences to experience the film in its rightful place – the movie theater, of course. 

This level of secrecy in film seems to be of little value in our spoiler-centric culture. In a day and age where transparency is high in demand, Nolan is a rare auteur who believes in upholding the movie-going experience where viewers know nothing going in and become enriched by the story as it unfolds naturally. Such represents the way movies were typically viewed well over a decade ago, in a galaxy that seems so far away.

With Nolan’s latest film Interstellar hitting theaters this weekend, he is yet again under the eye of public scrutiny. Reporters and filmgoers alike are out to gather as much as they can about the film, and to no avail. Because despite Nolan’s exposure to the press, he still remains tight-lipped about the film’s details and assures viewers that they’re better off. To put it simply, the less they know, the more surprised they’ll be by the final product – an idea that seems baffling to the average studio.

Director Christopher Nolan has always been enamored with mystery. In fact, it has been his mantra ever since he began his career in Hollywood. His first big-budget film, Batman Begins, was shrouded in secrecy. Though released in the summer of 2005, no one knew that the project had been in development since 2003. A wide array of casting news eventually brought the film into the media spotlight. Once that flame quelled, the production itself remained in the shadows. No one knew who the villain was going to be, let alone the plot. It’s worth noting that this was well before the onslaught of our SPOILER! obsessed generation. If only we could turn back time…

The Dark Knight, even the above-mentioned Inception, benefitted greatly from Nolan’s penchant for secrecy. Both films made for incredible viewings on their own, not only in terms of quality, but also for not having been spoiled for us beforehand, which is something of a tall order nowadays when plot details are given away like candy.

Nolan does his best to keep his films under wraps, though he doesn’t always succeed. While shooting on location for The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s production crew wasn’t able to ward off all the snooping photographers in the area. One lucky individual in particular caught a glimpse of the film’s major plot point: an image of Marion Cotillard entering the Tumbler. Movie sites were in a complete frenzy as they went on speculating the actress’ role in the plot, claiming that she was in fact Talia Al Ghul. Nolan did what he could to contain the chatter. He even declined to tell Liam Neeson the real reason behind his cameo appearance in the film so the actor would have plausible deniability. Such represents the lengths that the director had to go through to misdirect fans and maintain the natural unfolding of the material. Because this nature of wanting to know every detail of a film has littered our collective minds not only as filmgoers, but as a society.

This type of secrecy is somewhat of a lost art form. Years ago, filmmakers enjoyed the luxury of working in privacy. Now, privacy has become a yet another burden in the filmmaking process. Interstellar star Matthew McConaughey experienced it for himself as he was hand-delivered the script for the film and was asked to return it once he was finished reading it. He could not keep it. Nor could he openly discuss the details with anyone as he was contractually obligated to remain silent. He had to keep his mouth closed and surrender the script, the same script for a film that he was starring in. Sound too extreme for any director to do?

Then again, we only have ourselves to blame. We have become programmed in such a way that we seek out these spoilers for ourselves, as if the bold red SPOILER sign is a green light for us as readers. Yes, it’s true that movie studios have to show parts of their film and give some details away to get audiences interested. But it’s one thing to be spoon-fed all this information, and another thing entirely to grab the spoon for yourself (snooping paparazzis, anonymous sources, and mysterious leaks are prime examples). Not only should we exercise restraint, we should demand it of ourselves more often.

Christopher Nolan is in many ways the last filmmaker of his generation. He still shoots on film, in a time where everyone has gone digital. He films everything practically, limiting the use of CGI. Above all, he’s a firm believer in cinema. He believes in preserving an authentic viewing experience. That is perhaps what sets him apart from all the rest; he is actively fighting to ensure that we’re entertained the whole way through. But we need to do our part as well. Perhaps it’s time for us to take the lead.

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