Not since the height of Steven Spielberg has a director dominated Hollywood like Christopher Nolan. In the last 17 years, the English-born director has effortlessly moved from small-budget thrillers like Memento to the blockbuster mainstay of The Dark Knight trilogy. He has proven adept across the film-making spectrum and doesn’t have a single financially or critically failing title to his name. It’s the kind of hot streak that has journalists asking, “do you ever dream about your first flop?”
Nolan knows well enough to avoid such leading questions, instead focusing on the work at hand. It helps that he avoids modern technology like the plague and immerses himself in the process that inspires his greatest films. He works with his wife and with his friends, casts his films carefully, and maintains unrivaled relationships with studio heads and financiers.
16. He Always Carries A Flask of Hot Tea On Set
What fuels Christopher Nolan’s creativity and focus? His writing process is the stuff of legend, but when he’s on set, it’s something far simpler that keeps him in the game. Tea. Earl Grey tea, in fact. Nolan loves the stuff so much that he told The New York Times: “[my assistant] can get me tea on a glacier.”
While shooting Batman Begins, Michael Caine couldn’t help but notice his director’s association with a mysterious flask: “The thing about Chris, he always has this coat, with a flask of tea in it, and he drinks this tea all day long.” Though Morgan Freeman referred to the habit as “quiet authority,” Caine actually wondered if there was more to it than tea alone and asked Nolan if there might also be some vodka in the flask. The British director demurred and insisted it was just tea.
15. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Is His Favorite Bond Movie
It’s rather perfect that Christopher Nolan would choose On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as his favorite Bond flick. It’s the film that stars Aussie civilian-turned-actor George Lazenby in his only appearance as 007. Of all the Bond eras, from Connery to Moore to Craig, On Her Majesty’ Secret Service is the most tonally unique. While incorporating the Bond tropes we’ve come to love, it presses the envelope with a romance that sees the super spy tie the knot and ride off into the sunset with his bride. In one of the cruelest twists of fate, the movie closes with Bond cradling the freshly-assassinated body of his wife as the credits begin to roll.
In referring to Inception as his “007 film,” he revealed why the Lazenby Bond movie hit home: “[it has] a wonderful balance of action and romanticism.” Imagine the possibilities if Nolan got to make a real Bond movie.
14. His Wife Co-Produced Each of His Movies
Christopher Nolan’s partnership and marriage to Emma Thomas is key to his success. While it’s clear that the director’s creative vision comes from within, there’s little doubting Emma’s influence in bringing his dreams to life (and defining their value for the outside world). Since meeting as English Lit students at the University College in London, Chris and Emma have made an inseparable duo. Shortly after getting married during their last year of university, they collaborated on their first short film, Doodlebug. After making Following on a micro-budget and riding the success of Memento (where they first worked with director of cinematography, Wally Pfister), they were off to the races.
Emma’s interviews provide enormous insight into Christopher Nolan’s ability as a writer and director. Given her decades-long partnership with her husband, she is in a unique position to speak to the challenges and opportunities that face the highest paid director in the filmmaking industry today. When asked if she and Nolan long for the old days of tighter budgets and intimate stories, she frankly states, “I don’t think Chris is ever going to make a smaller film again.”
13. The Interrogation Is His Favorite Scene In The Dark Knight
As the director himself says: “[that moment] is the fulcrum on which the whole movie turns.” The infamous scene between the Joker and Batman had gestated in Nolan’s mind for years. While on set of Batman Begins, he and Christian Bale shared ideas for a situation that would test the mettle of the Dark Knight and drive him to the brink of vigilante justice. They found it with the interrogation scene.
Nolan, Bale, and Heath Ledger were so intrigued by the potential of this scene that they shot it in the first few weeks of filming The Dark Knight. As one of the hallmarks of the movie, they embraced the challenge of the scene and only lightly rehearsed it so to allow for maximum discovery on set. As Nolan reflected to the LA Times, his actors “wanted to save it all” for game day. According to Nolan, the scene embodies the core differences between the hero and villain and asks, “how do you fight someone who thrives on conflict?”
12. He Never Attended Film School
Given his sense of propriety and class, you’ll never hear Nolan say he’s too cool for school. After all, his body of work speaks louder than any diploma. Though he never attended film school, Christopher Nolan had his sights set on becoming a filmmaker since he was 11 years old. From working in the editing department of various documentaries (even getting a credit on the Academy Award-nominated Genghis Blues), to working as a camera operator, sound recorder, and directing in-house corporate and industrial videos, Nolan cut his teeth outside the world of formalized education.
11. He Uses CGI To Enhance, Not Create, Visual Effects
Contrary to popular opinion, Chris Nolan does not hate CGI. As his carefully-developed films attest, he simply believes in using CGI sparingly and with one goal: to enhance visual effects already grounded in reality. As he told the Directors Guild of America, “[CGI is] an incredibly powerful tool…but I believe in an absolute difference between animation and photography. However sophisticated your computer-generated imagery is, if it’s been created from no physical elements and you haven’t shot anything, it’s going to feel like animation.”
While Nolan “prefer[s] films that feel more like real life,” he no doubt has used CGI to bring out the best in his blockbusters. He just doesn’t want to “impress the audience with the amount of money spent on the spectacle of the visual effect.” Whenever possible, of course, he’ll opt for in-camera effects and real action scenes like the rousing hallway sequence in Inception.
10. He Took 10 Years To Write Inception
In Nolan’s oeuvre, Inception stands tall. It has the essence of a project near to his heart, and indeed, Nolan admits he had wanted to make a movie about the nature of dreams since he was a child. As the multi-layered plot developed in his mind, he opted to use a “heist movie plot and structure.” Though the building blocks were in place, Nolan struggled to find the empathy at the core of his story.
It ultimately took him a full ten years to “get it right.” As he admits, “I realized it had to be more about the human condition and human emotions, and that I had to work on the characters – the things that help an audience connect with the ideas, however crazy they may seem.” It was a decade well spent.
9. He Wrote A Howard Hughes Movie For Jim Carrey
Though many believe Inception is Nolan’s crowning writing achievement, the filmmaker himself doesn’t agree. Fifteen years ago, he was fully invested in bringing a Howard Hughes biopic to the screen. Jim Carrey was attached to star in the film, the script was ready to rock, but only one problem remained: Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator was already mid-flight with Leonardo DiCaprio. Duels over historical and literary classics aren’t uncommon in Hollywood, but this one stung Nolan: “I was definitely like, f*ck. I think it’s the best script I’ve ever written, and I had a really wonderful experience writing it.”
While Nolan hasn’t officially ruled out the possibility of revisiting the script, his penchant for pursuing groundbreaking new films tells us otherwise. As for his process of selecting his next big-screen adventure, Nolan “usually dig[s] out [his] old scripts in between movies and see if anything sparks there, and sometimes you get a chance to finish it, like Inception.”
8. He Deliberately Repeats The Same Two Outfits On Set
When Brad Grey, former Paramount Pictures CEO, visited the set of Interstellar, he was impressed by the crew’s high standard of appearance: “Everyone was in suits and ties, and I thought, who are these folks, everyone talking very nicely to each other, all civilized?”
That atmosphere of class and sartorial splendor comes from the fountainhead of filmmaking himself. Chris Nolan always looks sharp on set, wearing a uniform that is said to “[split] the difference between the demands of an executive suite and a tundra.” More for the practicality and less for the aesthetic, the director often repeats two outfits for his shooting days: one for warmer weather and another for the cold. He decided that “it was a waste of energy to choose anew what to wear every day.” Plus, he just needs a coat to fit his tea flask.
7. He Personally Ensured NYC Cinemas Could Project Interstellar In 35mm
Chris Nolan rarely works on weekends, but when he breaks that rule, it’s for good reason. In the run-up to the Interstellar release in 2014, the director visited New York City to ensure that the local cinemas could properly project his space epic. Rather than visit the mainline AMC theaters, he stopped by the Bow Tie Cinema in Chelsea to check if the rocket launch scene could play at full blast. Remaining ever sensitive to the demands and needs of his audience, he revealed, “You can’t just start with the rocket launch, or you’ll blow everybody’s ears out.”
According to The New York Times’ interview with the director, Nolan’s first reaction to arriving at the theater was one of concern: “I worried that perhaps the screen had been hung just a little too high, but these headrests are very nice.” Later, when Matthew McConaughey first appeared on screen, Nolan noted: “Those whites are O.K. Not bad. This is encouraging.” There’s little doubt that Nolan makes movies not just to satiate his creative desire, but to feed his audience a three-course meal.
6. His Love For Francis Bacon Influenced The Joker’s Makeup
As Nolan’s self-proclaimed favorite artist, Francis Bacon’s tortured depictions of mankind bled into the new reality of the anarchist of Gotham. In a video interview with the Tate Britain gallery, Nolan reveals how he and Heath Ledger, along with legendary makeup artist John Caglione, attempted to make the Clown Prince of Crime’s visage more frightening than ever. After showing his team some of his favorite Bacon portraits, “we wound up applying [that aesthetic] to the makeup and letting it have a slightly worn through quality, sweaty.”
Nolan is drawn to the black background that often dominates Bacon’s work. In the director’s own words, it “makes me think a lot about the geography of the painting…the paradoxical nature of it, the more he removes, the less he tells you really about what’s out there, the more I find myself about what’s in that dark space behind.” If ever there was a perfect application of this quality in The Dark Knight, this scene embodies it.
5. He Shot The Interstellar Skype Scenes In 35 mm Film
It’s no secret that Christopher Nolan prefers 35mm film over digital. Even though newer technologies allow for countless takes and increased flexibility, he believes film is ultimately less expensive (by “projecting film and not doing digital intermediates”), more attractive on screen, and better integrated in the industry. Stating his case bluntly to the DGA, he admitted, “I think, truthfully, it boils down to the economic interest of manufacturers and [a production] industry that makes more money through change rather than through maintaining the status quo.”
It’s little surprise, then, that Nolan kept the film stock running during every minute of production on Interstellar. Even during the iconic “Skype” scenes where Cooper (McConaughey) watches recorded calls from his kids. However grainy and green they may look, those tapes of Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain were shot in film.
4. He And His Brother Developed Memento On a Roadtrip to LA
Is genius congenital? The Nolan brothers make a strong case for it. As kids, Chris and his younger brother Jonathan traded copies of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight comics, watched Star Wars, and dreamed of hitting it big in Hollywood. By the year 2000, they were well on their way.
As Chris and Jonathan drove cross-country from Chicago to Los Angeles, the creative juices were flowing. Jonathan had taken a psychology class at Georgetown University and been particularly intrigued by the concept of retrograde amnesia. In sharing the idea with his brother, Chris encouraged Jonathan to put pen to paper. Using Jonathan’s work as his foundation, Chris set about turning it into Memento, the film that would ignite his directorial career.
3. He Does Not Have A Personal Email Address or Cell Phone
If you’ve ever tried to find Chris Nolan’s Twitter handle or Instagram account, you undoubtedly came up dry. Beyond social media, the famed director doesn’t even have an email address. He’s not a Luddite; he’s just practical. As he sees it, “I don’t find [email] would help me with anything I’m doing. I just couldn’t be bothered about it.”
The same rules apply to his use of a cell phone. Borrowing a Manhattanite analogy, he says, “It’s like that whole thing about ‘in New York City, you’re never more than two feet from a rat’ – I’m never two feet from a cellphone.” To take calls, he simply borrows the phone from his production crew. Nolan’s troglodytic approach keeps him focused and above the fray. He certainly knows the temptations of modern technology: “I actually really like not having [a cell phone] because it gives me time to think…when you have a smartphone, and you have 10 minutes to spare, you go on it and you start looking at stuff.”
2. He Pitched Dunkirk As “Virtual Reality Without A Headset”
Given his unbroken streak of box office success, you might wonder if Christopher Nolan simply gets blank checks from movie studios. While he undoubtedly has the keys to the cinematic kingdom, he affirms his respect for executives and financiers by strictly adhering to budgets and delivering equally dynamic pitches. For Dunkirk, the auteur streamlined the WWII evacuation into a snazzy speech:
“We’re going to put the audience into the cockpit of a Spitfire and have them dogfight the Messerschmitts. We’re going to put them on the beach, feeling the sand getting everywhere, confronting the waves. We’re going to put them on small civilian boats bouncing around on the waves on this huge journey heading into a terrifying war zone. It’s virtual reality without a headset.” Packed with confidence and expectancy, Nolan sums up the ambitious project as effectively as any team on Madison Avenue.
1. Blade Runner Is His Favorite Movie
While he doesn’t think of himself as a specialist, Nolan has a unique command of the director’s chair. Having worked in many departments across the filmmaking spectrum, his expertise is in his ability to tie the disparate elements together into a single, cohesive unit. Long before he would take the reins of Batman and intergalactic wormholes, Nolan recognized the potential influence an effective director can have.
“When I was young and looking at Alien and Blade Runner, I was going, OK, they’re different stories, different settings, really different actors, everything’s different – but there’s a very strong connection between those two films, and that is the director, Ridley Scott.” Upon having that epiphany, he knew he wanted to be that kind of director.
As for Blade Runner, Nolan praises the indelible atmosphere of the film, and the feeling that “there were things going on outside of those rooms where you’ve seen the film take place.” Along with Ridley Scott’s dystopian epic, Nolan cites the first Star Wars and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as massively formative films.
What other interesting facts do you know about Christopher Nolan? Tell us in the comments!
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