Christopher Nolan Hates Getting Recognized in Public, According to Robert Downey Jr.

Robert Downey Jr. trekked to Sundance Film Festival’s opening night gala to reveal that a “terrible tragedy” has befallen Christopher Nolan. But don’t worry about the filmmaker behind “Oppenheimer.”

His hardship is really just a bad case of the blues, and it’s because Nolan — as Downey explained on Thursday while bestowing Nolan with the first-ever Trailblazer Award — “has become recognizable on the street.”

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According to Downey, the critical and commercial success of “Oppenheimer” means that Nolan can no longer fly under the radar. Casual moviegoers have started to spot the British director, and, as a result, “he recoils, as though from a hot flame, from this new and unwelcome reality.”

Well, Nolan may not be retreating from the spotlight anytime soon. The director, an awards season favorite, was lauded by Downey as an “enigmatic auteur” and “as independent a voice we’ve ever had in cinema.” But the actor, who has also been on the Oscar circuit himself for portraying Lewis Strauss in “Oppenheimer,” also playfully skewered his director.

“We have become extremely close,” Downey told the packed house at a venue about 30 minutes outside of Park City. “As in, we had dinner on location once.” He also teased the director for limiting bathroom breaks on set to “11 a.m. and 6 p.m. sharp,” adding that “diuretics are his kryptonite.”

Nolan may be over the attention, but he expressed excitement in returning to Sundance. He got his big break at the festival with 2000’s “Memento,” a time-bending thriller starring Guy Pearce as a man who suffers from anterograde amnesia. He’s gone on to make beloved blockbusters, such as the “Dark Knight” trilogy, the dream-scape thriller “Inception” and the World War II epic “Dunkirk.”

He wasn’t always breaking box office records and brokering deals to command $100 million production budgets. Nolan recalled trying to sell “Memento” in the early aughts, but “nobody wanted the film. It was an appalling position to be.”

It wasn’t until a screening at Sundance that “Memento” ignited any traction in North America. “If you get your film [to Sundance], you will get an audience,” Nolan said, acknowledging that attention doesn’t guarantee enthusiasm from critics and moviegoers. “They won’t always see eye to eye with you.”

Nolan wasn’t the only Sundance alum who was feted on opening night. Kristen Stewart, who headlines two films at this year’s Sundance, the sci-fi romance drama “Love Me” and the queer crime thriller “Love Lies Bleeding,” was honored with the Visionary Award. Celine Song and Maite Alberdi, who premiered “Past Lives” and “The Eternal Memory,” respectively, at the 2023 festival, each received the annual Vanguard Award.

Guests, adhering to the “mountain chic” dress code, included several cinematic luminaries there to support films at the festival in various capacities, including Jodie Foster, Jesse Eisenberg, Darren Aronofsky and producer Christine Vachon, as well as Blumhouse CEO Jason Blum, who moderated Sundance’s opening press conference earlier that day.

Stewart remembered first attending the festival 20 years ago, when she “got my first pair of Ugg boots and got to be where the cool kids are.” Since then, Stewart has returned with “The Runaways,” “Lizzie” and her directorial debut “Come Swim.”

“Sundance is the fucking shit,” she said to applause. “I love being here.”

Eisenberg, who presented the award to Stewart, has remained in “awe” of her since they worked together the romantic comedies “Adventureland” and “Cafe Society” and the action film “American Ultra.” Or, as he described those indies, “two gentle talkies and one aggressive shoot-em-up.”

“She’s so authentic [on film sets] that you almost want to make sure she’s OK at the end of the day,” he said. “It’s such a gift for audiences.”

Song, meanwhile, reminisced about bringing her first film to the festival last year. “At Sundance,” she said, “being a first-time filmmaker with a low budget is a badge of honor and the coolest fucking thing in the world.”

Robert Redford, who founded the festival 40 years ago, wasn’t in attendance in the mountainside town that hosts Sundance. But his daughter Amy brought a message from her father, who expressed sorrow for missing the annual celebration of film.

“While I’m sorry I cannot be with you in person tonight,” Amy shared on her dad’s behalf, “I want to welcome you to Sundance Film Festival.”

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