In the summer of 2008, there I was: A fresh-faced, 19-year-old pharmacy school dropout, a few months removed from stepping off the plane from humble Oregon and on to hopeful California soil. I had no direction of where I was going or knowledge of how to accomplish my lofty goals, but I knew I wanted one thing and one thing only: I wanted to be a part of cinema.
One of my first — and one of my favorite — jobs was when I worked as a film projectionist at a local movie theater. It was one of those summer jobs that lasted well beyond the summer. Even though the pay was trash and I hated some of my managers, I had access to free movies that were actually projected on 35mm film (which is on the verge of becoming an extinct format). I made sure to watch everything I could get my hands on from big budget action blockbusters to independently produced prestige dramas. Since I didn’t have the money to go to a traditional film school like USC or UCLA, the movie theater became my film school.
Everything that I have absorbed about appreciating and deconstructing cinema up to that point came to a climatic crescendo in the form of a tiny little art house flick called The Dark Knight, and it altered my perception of sights and sounds, forever.
From start to finish, there was not a second of that film that was wasted. Whether it was Heath Ledger’s electric posthumous performance, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s explosive score, or Christopher Nolan’s confidently cerebral and robust direction; it was the perfect film.
An aspect of the film that truly helped me come to age as a student of the medium was how it challenged us, as an audience, intellectually, viscerally, and morally (something that was hardly seen in a film of this scale and size). Would you have killed one man to save an entire city or blow up a boat full of prisoners to save another boat full of civilians? These complex questions of ethics and humanity shaped the way I viewed the world (socially and politically, as well as artistically).
I hold Christopher Nolan in the highest regard among the modern pantheon of elite filmmakers. In many ways, I aspire to be him. We share a few similarities: he also majored in English, he also had zero formal training in film, and his filmmaking philosophy to always push genre conventions beyond its expected boundaries has become my ultimate career motto. I’m not saying I am him at my current level nor will I ever be him, but he should be on that pedestal of quintessential role models for any up and coming independent filmmaker looking to make it on their own. The man essentially talked his way into a very exclusive club that is the Hollywood studio system, which in turn helped him secure resources to produce his own ambitious passion projects. Not a lot of people in their lifetime can say that, let alone established filmmakers. Think about it: who in their right mind would ever invest in an expensive quasi-heist film about dream thieves or a three hour long existential space opera, which were both shot on outdated technology?
Mr. Nolan is in a class of his own.
I have gained so much confidence and knowledge just by following his career. His films are less of a passive activity and more of an immersive and provocative experience. Memento, The Prestige, Inception, Interstellar, and The Dark Knight trilogy were all epic, innovative, and wildly entertaining films on the surface, but underneath lies a mentally and emotionally stimulating subtext of romance and idealism. It demands that we demand more from our art. It demands that we be brave and be bold in our artistic pursuits while maintaining the intellectual core of who we are.
I used to copy the way he made films, at least on a superficial level, whether it was his methods, his swagger, or right down to his quirky habits and rituals. I thought that if I took my own films seriously and injected an abundance of philosophical questions, then my work would also ascend to a level of professional legitimacy. But like any pretentious student filmmaker, I got lost in the aesthetic of asking empty questions instead of asking myself why I loved the film going experience so much in the first place. Mr. Nolan’s films helped me ask myself not only what kind of filmmaker I wanted to be or what kind of films I wanted to make, but what kind of man did I eventually want to become? These films helped me be brave.
It’s kind of funny to say that a film this dark, morose, and borderline nihilist gave me “hope,” but it did. It gave me hope in a tumultuous personal year, it gave me hope in listening to my own voice, and it gave me hope in the art of cinema once more. The Dark Knight did not follow a traditional path, model, or formula, and that’s how I want to approach my craft as well as my life.
Bruce Wayne once told the love of his life, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”
The day I watched The Dark Knight was the day I stopped being afraid of who I am and who I was destined to become.
Benjamin To is a Los Angeles based writer, director, and producer who founded BAND WITH NO NAME Films. His work has been featured in numerous publications, such as NBC News, The Los Angeles Times, and The Huffington Post, for creating artistic discussions about media diversity and representation. Benjamin recently received his Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the California State University, Fullerton. He is currently creating exclusive content for NBC Asian America, writing his first feature film, and (hopefully) making his Mom proud.