Of course he's not to be confused with Christopher Nolan of Dark Knight and Inception fame; he's Christopher Nolen (with an "e"), a Chicago born and based independent filmmaker who proves the point that it doesn’t matter where you live, it’s your ambition that matters the most.
Nolen, a graduate from University of Illinois with a Masters in Electrical Engineering, started out as an actor before switching over to write and direct his own feature films, such as The Good Life and Four Seasons. This month he starts work on his fifth picture titled 72 Hours, starring Harry Lennix, Cynda Williams (Mo’ Better Blues, One False Move), Erica Hubbard, Terri J. Vaughn and Timon Kyle Durrett, which tells the story of a reformed womanizer who dies, but is given a second chance by God (Lennix, of course) to make amends to all his previous exes that he’s done wrong, in 72 hours, or else he’ll be cooking in hell.
Nolen is an example of the truth about black independent filmmaking that doesn’t get enough credit. As you will recall, last year was toted everywhere as ”The Year of Black Cinema” because of all the black films that came out during the year, such as Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Fruitvale Station and 12 Years A Slave.
But then it was pointed out that what was really being referred to were black films released by Hollywood studios, not the dozens of independently made black films made every year by independent filmmakers working outside the studio system on their own. As if they didn’t exist, let alone were even worthy to be even mentioned alongside films such as Fruitvale Station.
So, in effect, every year is “The Year of Black Cinema” and not just when Hollywood decides to release more than two. So Nolen is a great example of many filmmakers who are following the path of those pioneering spirits such Oscar Micheaux and Noble & George Johnson.
But how did Nolen start making films? Did he go to film school? Why stay in Chicago when everyone else says you have to go to Los Angeles to make it? All those questions and more he answered when I spoke to him last week:
SERGIO: Why stay in Chicago instead of moving out to L.A. like everyone else?
NOLEN: (Laughs) I love Chicago, I think is a character within itself. So when I shoot a film I use Chicago, and even the suburbs, as a character within the premise of my films. And, for me, I just really like shooting films in Chicago. Now I do travel to Los Angeles quite often, but Chicago is home. This is where I want to bring Hollywood back to Chicago. I know a lot of people leave for L.A., but as a film director and producer you can make films anywhere now without really having to live out there in Hollywood.
SERGIO: So you think you would not have been productive out there as you have been here, if had you moved out there to live?
NOLEN: Great question. I might have. It’s possible I might have been on another level if I had gone out there full time. But right now, I love the progression that I have been making with my films and my film career. So I’ve been paying my dues. I started out as an actor and a model, as a youngster, and just kept developing and growing and growing, and then I decided to get behind the camera from the business end, to start creating for myself and creating for other people that are talented. So I don’t know. I could be on another level and then I might not; but I’m blessed to be where I am right now.
SERGIO: So as you said you started out as an actor, but why did you decide to go behind the camera as a director?
NOLEN: I went into directing to create, to come up with different projects and ideas that I wanted to see. When I was an actor I realized that this business is about who you know, so by me creating things I make a job for myself. I don’t have to sit around and wait for my agents and managers to get me a job. How about if I create a job for myself and even for other people who are in the same boat as I was?
SERGIO: And you didn’t go to film school?
NOLEN: No I did not. I learned the hard way how to make films by just going out there and doing it. But also being an actor on films, TV, commercials and video shoots, you just learn a lot. I took maybe just one class, a directing class. And after that, I said to myself, let me just get people who know what they’re doing around me and learn from them, make my mistakes, learn from those mistakes and experiences, and just get better.
SERGIO: So you don’t think it’s necessary for someone to go to film school, or people should do what they think is right for them?
NOLEN: I think that, and this is just me talking, if you want to go to film school, pay all that money to learn how to make a film, then that’s on you. In retrospect, every person is different, so somebody might need all that technical education and to go through the process to learn how to make a movie. But I also look at it, asking why spend tens of thousands of dollars to go to school, when you can use that money to make a film, and that’s your schooling. Because I’ve heard a lot of filmmakers come out of school and complain: “Man I didn’t need this to make a movie. I wish I just would have kept my money and made a film.” That’s how you really learn, is by doing. So it’s a choice. It’s a personal choice for people to go to film school or not. I just took that one class and said, I’m going to go up and do it and make it happen, and I’m very happy about that. And I'm blessed that I’m able to be doing what I’m doing.
SERGIO: So then what directors inspired you?
NOLEN: Spike Lee, George Tillman Jr, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg, Tyler Perry, John Singleton, The Hughes Brothers. The list just keeps going on and on. I look at everybody and I’m inspired by everyone. And what I’m trying to do is to help other people be inspired by me doing what I’m doing. So hopefully my name can be mentioned when someone else is interviewed in the future when they’re asked who inspired them. Christopher Nolen, the black Christopher Nolan (laughs).
But I’m inspired by Christopher Nolan as well. I want to continue to be inspiring because I have heard that some people have been inspired by the fact that I’ve been able to make a feature film every year. So all those directors and even more that I have listed in my mind, I look up to a lot.
SERGIO: Getting to your new project, which starts shooting this month - 72 Hours. You’ve put together quite a cast, such as Harry Lennix, who is playing God in your film. How did you get him, because a lot of filmmakers out there are saying to themselves, how can I get some major big name actor for my film? I’ve got a role that’s right for them. Is it the material? You wrote something so compelling that he said I have to do this?
NOLEN: The way it happened with Harry was that, I first met Harry back in 1998 at the Goodman Theater in Chicago when he was doing August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and we stayed in contact, and every time we talked, I would tell him, I’ve got to work with you, because I look up to you, and I think you’re brilliant, and a master of your craft. I co-wrote this script with my sister Melinda Nolen and Mark Harris, so when we were finished with the script, I hit Harry up and said, “Harry I think I’ve got something here that you might want to do.” And he said, “All right send it to me.” And he took a look at it, and called me and said “Yeah I’m in!” And needless to say, I was so happy because Harry Lennix doesn’t do bullcrap projects. He does projects that mean something. And I felt like I had arrived when Harry said: “Yes!”
But the thing to understand is that it’s been a process for me with my stories, with my scripts. You have to keep working at it and get better and better and better. But to answer your question about other filmmakers, it is, to me, the material; but it’s the character as well that the actor might want to portray. Because, for example, if some actor has also been the hero or the good guy in every film that he’s done, and you give him a script in which you want him to portray the villain, he might look at that and say “Yeah I might do this. I’ve never portrayed a villain before.” So it is the material and the character, as well as the relationships that you have with the actors, the actor's managers, the actor's agents and the actor's attorneys, publicists, etc. It is about relationships as well because it’s very hard to get scripts to these Hollywood actors, unless you personally know them or their people.
SERGIO: That leads me to ask - do you think that you’re a better filmmaker and screenwriter now than you were, when you started out?
NOLEN: Absolutely! 150 times better. I am so much better now because I’ve made the mistakes in the past, and I was humble enough to understand the mistakes that I made in the past, and learned from them, and learned to just keep getting better and better. I think, for me, with my new project, 72 Hours, I am challenging myself to make a better film with a better script and story. With each film I want to get better and better. And also I’m getting better at picking people, in front of and behind the camera, to help bring my vision to life - picking a great team of crew members and actors who all want to see this vision come to life. And that, for me, is a process within itself; but it’s a great process, for great likeminded people to get together to work to make a great film.
SERGIO: So what was the genesis for 72 Hours?
NOLEN: Well, years ago I was sitting around thinking about my old college days, my old fraternity brothers, and we had conversations about some of the wrong things that we had done, and the bad that had happened to us that had come back on us, and I just started writing this story, creating these characters, and I realized that they are so relatable.
SERGIO: No doubt you have a lot of ideas for various films, but what was it about 72 Hours that made you say, I have to make this now?
NOLEN: You know what, it’s because I think the story is very relatable, not just to women, but also men as well. I wanted to make a film everybody could relate to, and even every race, because the message in the film is about forgiveness, and we all need to forgive someone in our lives. We have to. So I have to make this particular film now with this cast, because the time is right. I originally wrote the script years ago, but I had to put it on the back burner because I knew that time wasn’t right back then. But I knew the time was right, right now. And that’s why I’m blessed to get this talented ensemble cast, this talented crew that I have. It is going to be amazing. Believe me, I’m not trying to sound conceited or arrogant. I’m just very confident in that, and humbled that this will be my best film up to date.
SERGIO: And a final obvious question - what do you have planned after this film?
NOLEN: To make more films in Chicago, and to venture into television series. My plan is to do a TV series based on one of my previous films - either The Good Life, Four Seasons and or maybe even 72 Hours, but that will be done either next year or in 2016. But that’s once I have the scripts I need, and after I’ve talked with my distributor, Entertainment One, [to figure out] which one of these films would the best to be made into a TV series.
But I want to keep producing and directing films, and also to produce other people’s films as well, because some people need that chance; they need that shot to get their vision across. I don’t have to direct every project that I’m a part of. I want to produce and help mentor and guide people to get their dreams accomplished as well