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J.J. Abrams vs. Christopher Nolan: Which filmmaker does secrets better?

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Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan

If you went to see Interstellar this weekend, chances are you didn’t know much about the movie beyond “Matthew McConaughey in space.” That’s intentional—Christopher Nolan is famously tight-lipped about his films, and the trailers that accompany them are pretty good about leaving large chunks of the plot untouched. This makes Nolan something of a unicorn: an Internet-Age blockbuster director who actively strives to preserve of the filmgoing experience as he can.

But he’s not alone in this, either—which probably makes him less of a unicorn. (Maybe he’s more like a white antelope.)  J.J. Abrams, Hollywood’s biggest sci-fi steward, is equally obsessed with keeping details about his films under wraps before they debut. It’s an admirable goal—but one that each director pursues in very different ways. Given that they both specialize in something that’s inherently frustrating—the keeping of secrets—who’s better at it? Less frustrating? Rewarding?

The answer lies with the biggest difference between the two—their relationships with fans.

In their careers, both Nolan and Abrams have become paragons of geek culture; they’ve each been entrusted with reviving franchises that have huge, passionate fanbases. And both seemed to accomplish the impossible; Batman and Star Trek were in pretty dark places when Nolan and Abrams took over their respective juggernauts, but Batman Begins and Star Trek each enjoyed wild success. Nolan would go on to redefine comic book movies with his Dark Knight trilogy. Abrams would inherit the biggest sci-fi franchise on the planet: Star Wars. Following them along the way were their fans—who, in turn, had to learn how to cope with each director’s penchant for secrecy.

For J.J. Abrams, keeping things mysterious is part of the fun. He said as much in this 2008 TED talk; he simply loves mysteries and what they do for the imagination.

Thanks to this talk, the Mystery Box is the go-to shorthand for Abrams’ filmmaking approach—and the biggest problem with it.

In the past, Abrams embraced secrecy for secrecy’s sake: it was how he marketed his work. This worked out great for Cloverfield, but backfired heavily during the leadup to the last film he directed, Star Trek Into Darkness. The identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character—”John Harrison”—was an elaborate ruse designed to hide the fact that Cumberbatch was really playing the classic Trek villain Khan. In numerous interviews, Abrams and co. insisted Cumberbatch was playing “Harrison,” going so far as to outright lie and say that Khan wasn’t in the film—when in the end, there was little reason to keep Khan’s presence secret. Abrams does, however, seem to be making an effort to improve upon this method with the steady stream of fun tidbits he’s been teasing for Episode VII. It’s a subtle but important shift from excluding fans to including them. In the case of Darkness, secrecy was in the service of the filmmakers, not the filmgoers; now the tables have turned. That’s important.

Nolan, on the other hand, doesn’t really have any sort of relationship with fans. He doesn’t post updates on YouTube, upload pictures to Twitter, or say much of anything about a project until it’s more or less done. He’s become the Willy Wonka of genre blockbusters, locking himself away in a factory and working hard to make sure his cast and crew never leak the secret of the everlasting gobstopper. In a strange way, this has worked like gangbusters—after all, you can’t screw up a relationship you don’t have. Perhaps the strange Hollywood oxymoron of high-profile secrecy becomes more palatable when the filmmaker is as mysterious as the film they’re making.

Both Nolan and Abrams can count themselves among the tiny class of filmmakers whose every decision is deemed newsworthy. Some of this is a natural consequence of having a tightly-guarded production. Secrecy breeds curiosity—which is the goal, since Nolan and Abrams want to entice people to see their films. But this also has the unfortunate side effect of drawing out prying eyes—those who are interested in learning and sharing secrets only because they’re, well, secret.

This is what happened to J.J. Abrams when a concept art leak poured huge spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens out onto the internet, potentially ruining the film a year before anyone would see it. It was any filmmmaker’s nightmare, and it’s only good fortune that a similar leak hasn’t happened to Nolan. Sure, you could argue that it would be less damaging, since the Star Wars franchise is a known quantity, with six movies and a TV show’s worth of material from which we can infer. But spoilers are certainly still damaging—there are definitely parts of  Interstellar that are best experienced unspoiled.

Could Nolan learn a thing or two from Abrams—lighten up a bit, maybe learn to play the game and bring fans a few steps into his secret world? Maybe. But hey, have you seen Interstellar? Wasn’t it cool to be like the characters in the film, diving headfirst into the unknown, to places no one’s ever been? How great would it be to experience that same feeling in a certain galaxy far, far away—or every time we went to the theater?