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The Profile Dossier: Christopher Nolan, the Visionary Behind Cinema's Best Psychological Thrillers
“Breaking rules isn’t interesting. It’s making up new ones that keeps things exciting.”
Christopher Nolan didn't go to film school nor did he ever study film in a formal way yet he's arguably one of the best living directors in the world.
Nolan, a self-taught writer and film director, is behind some of the most cerebral and thought-provoking movies, including Inception, Memento, Interstellar, and The Dark Knight Trilogy (Batman).
His love for film came early. Nolan began making movies at 7 years old using his father's Super 8 camera and his toy action figures. "I just carried on making films as I grew up," he says. "Over the years, they got bigger, better, and more elaborate."
It's that simple and that complicated. It's his commitment and consistency that Nolan believes allowed him to master his craft. He refused to quit even though he had a shoestring budget and no connections in the film industry.
In fact, he funded his first feature film himself. In 1998, Nolan produced Following, his noir thriller that he wrote, directed, photographed, and edited, for only $6,000. It received international acclaim and offered Nolan the credibility he needed to put together substantial funding for his next film, Memento. Since then, his directorial efforts have grossed more than $5 billion worldwide.
Nolan's signature films are the equivalent of complex puzzles waiting to be solved by a hyper-curious audience. They explore human morality, the construction of time, and the unreliable nature of memory and identity. For him, the main attraction is the complex narrative, which is supported by visuals and sound effects — not the other way around.
“A camera is a camera, a shot is a shot," Nolan says. "How you tell the story is the main thing.”
Below, we take a deep dive into Nolan's storytelling approach, his superhuman obsession with details, and his ability to catapult viewers into alternate universes time and time again.
On Nolan's expansive mind: Nolan's films manage to be both mainstream blockbusters and objects of cult appeal. He is a master at a type of cerebral storytelling that makes the viewer think. The structure of his movies emerges from the relationship between the part of Nolan that wants the science to be at least speculatively plausible (the realist) and the part of him that wants the adventure to be expansive and novel and absorbing (the fantasist). This profile shows us the brilliance of Nolan's mind.
On his pure passion for making movies: In this Q&A with Adam Grant, Nolan opens up about why he doesn't allow phones on set, the role that procrastination plays in the creative process, and how he got over the rejections of his early career. "What I learned very early on, and I’m very grateful for the lesson, is that I could only be making films for the sake of making films," he says. "At the end of the day, all you really have is your own belief, your own passion. You can’t ignore the feedback. But you tell the story because you love it."
On his definition of success: Nolan is one of the most revered and successful directors working today, so how does he define success? "It's different for every film," he says. "You don't know what it is you're looking for, but you sort of know it when you see it, you know what I mean?" Seeking feedback is critical, Nolan says, but knowing when to stick to your guns and trust your own creative process is just as important.
On his unconventional storytelling: In this video, Nolan outlines the filmmaking techniques that have made his films so absorbing and cerebral. He uses non-linear timelines, intercutting scenes, scene geography, inserts, lens proximity, and realism to grab the viewer from the very beginning all the way to the end. This one is fascinating.
On being a multi-faceted director: Nolan is somewhat of anomaly because he is not hyper-focused on just one element of the film. "You have to be able to really think of all the different aspects of the film all at the same time," he says. It allows him to use different parts of his brain, but he's also just as aware, that he needs to surround himself with people who can cover his blind spots and help him overcome his shortcomings.
On examining your own reality: In this Princeton commencement speech, Nolan tells new graduates not to chase their dreams, but to chase reality. “I would love for you to look at the fundamentals," he says. "What are we really doing in the world? What is the change that is being affected? How can we actually move the ball forward and progress in this way?”
On the value of obsession: The key to Nolan's success? It's his wonkiness that makes his art so distinct. Nolan's obsession with details, complexity, and mental puzzles forces his viewers to think. This is a really great breakdown of Nolan's craft.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Play with perspective: When he's writing a script, Nolan plays with the elements of objectivity and subjectivity. Are you seeing the reality of the situation or are you seeing the crooked inner world inside the character's head? Perspective is everything. “My real interest is point of view," he says. "Deciding what’s the point of view we’re trying to express, whose eyes are we seeing the story through?” To achieve this, Nolan writes from "the inside out," meaning that he tries to imagine himself in the world he's created rather than imagining it as a film he's watching on screen. "Sometimes, that means I’m discovering things the way the audience will, with character and story,” he says. When you're writing, try seeing the piece from different points of view — as the reader, as the character, or as someone exposed to your work for the first time. It allows you to think and write in a different manner than if you saw yourself solely as the author of the piece.
Start with feelings first: Every writer has their own storytelling approach. Nolan is unique in that he doesn't start with the plot; rather, he focuses on the feelings he wants to elicit. Before writing a script, Nolan writes a summary that identifies all the different ways that he wants the viewer to feel as they watch the movie for the first time. He keeps this summary on hand throughout the making of the film so he can make sure he doesn't lose touch with his original idea of the emotions he wants the story to evoke.
Use 'layering' to make your stories more interesting: Nuance. Layers. Complexity. These are the things that make movies intellectually stimulating to an audience. Most directors go wrong in that they simplify a film in order to have it appeal to a mass audience. Nolan believes that's a mistake. As a writer and director, he has faith in the viewers that they will work to demystify the story without getting confused. "I've made films that have some ambiguity to them or some narrative layering to them so that if you see them a second time, you'll watch them a slightly different way." Treat your reader, viewer, listener, or user as an equal. Refuse the urge to speak down to them, and trust that they can rise to the level of your work.
Borrow ideas from different disciplines: The structure of Nolan's films follows a musical framework called "The Shepard Tone," a series of ascending notes on a scale. It's an auditory illusion in which the tone gives an impression of an infinitely rising pitch. You've heard it in pretty much every Nolan film (see it in action here). "I wanted to try to apply it to screenwriting," he says. "Can you braid together the three storylines in such a way that you create the idea of a continuing rise in intensity?" Some of the most creative people in the world generate ideas by allowing their brains to make connections between two totally different inputs (ie: hearing music and applying the structure to film).
Don't break the rules; invent the rules: Nolan's goal with every film is to challenge himself. He takes a specific genre, turns it on its head, and adds new elements to it. “Breaking rules isn’t interesting. It’s making up new ones that keeps things exciting," he says. Nolan says he feels a responsibility as a filmmaker to push the boundaries that exist in the status quo and break free of the "rule set" put before him. Rather than break the rules for the sole purpose of shocking the industry, Nolan has created his own rules with every film that tell the story in a fresh, innovative way.
Find your creativity soulmate: No creative pursuit can be undertaken alone. Nolan knows this. So he's had a years-long "creative marriage" with world-class composer Hans Zimmer. Like Nolan, Zimmer is a storyteller. "The process was conversation. The process was experimentation," Zimmer says. "While [Nolan] was writing, while he was shooting, I was writing, and the music was happening sort of in a parallel universe, really." Nolan and Zimmer have collaborated on Interstellar, Inception, Dunkirk, and The Dark Knight Trilogy, and they have become known as "the most celebrated director-composer duo in Hollywood." Find someone who understands your vision — or "the subtext" as Zimmer puts it — and bring them in at the very beginning of your project. Two heads are always better than one.
Learn how to take smart risks: As a writer, Nolan takes his director hat off and gives himself ultimate freedom to write the most unexpected and bizarre narrative possible. "Then, I pick up the script, put my director's hat back on, and say, 'OK, how the hell am I going to do that,'" he says. "And that's how you know you're in a good place because with every film, you want to be challenging yourself and doing something different." Nolan understands that if you want to make a great film — not just a good film — you need to take many smart risks along the way.
Let your ideas simmer: Time. You need time to let your ideas breathe. "That doesn’t mean necessarily even working full-time on [the project] itself — it means time to throw some ideas together and then let them sit, go off and do something else, come back and see what still feels right," Nolan says. The creative process requires intense periods of focus, but it also requires mental breaks in which you let your ideas simmer. Try running without music, going on a walk without your phone, or just quietly observing your surroundings. Give your brain time to wander.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“Breaking rules isn’t interesting. It’s making up new ones that keeps things exciting.”
“You’re never going to learn something as profoundly as when it’s purely out of curiosity.“
“A hero can be anyone, even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat on a young boy’s shoulders to let him know the world hadn’t ended.“
“Either you die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.”
“I’ve been fascinated by dreams my whole life, since I was a kid, and I think the relationship between movies and dreams is something that’s always interested me."
"Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.“