Christopher Nolan Master Class: How to Direct Your First Feature Film
Who isn’t familiar with the mastermind who resurrected Batman and made people watch Interstellar twice and thrice even just to find some new angle of the movie?
Being London-born, Christopher Nolan was born to an English father and an American mother, Brenden James Nolan who was an advertising executive while his mother Christina worked both as a flight attendant and English teacher. Having a childhood moving both in London and Chicago, Nolan has both American and British citizenship.
When Nolan was seven years old, he started making movies at the same age. It all began when his father took him to see the first release of Star Wars (1977) and the theatrical re-release of “2001”. He borrowed his father’s Super 8 camera and started shooting short films with his action figures. Being a Star Wars fan since childhood, he made a stop motion animation tribute called Space Wars.
Christopher Nolan had an uncle who worked for NASA and used to build guiding systems for the Apollo rockets. He sent him some launch footage which he re-filmed off the screen and cut in. Since the age of 11, Nolan had hoped to be a professional filmmaker.
When his family relocated to Chicago, Christopher Nolan started making films with Roko and Adrien Belic and received credit for editorial assistance on the brothers’ Oscar-nominated documentary Genghis Blues (1999).
Nolan worked with Roko and future Pulitzer Prize winner, Jeffrey Gettleman for documenting a safari across four continents, organized by the late Dan Eldon in early 1990s.
Christopher Nolan attended an English boarding school Haileybury and Imperial Service College in the Hertford Heath. He studied English Literature at University College London. He chose UCL solely for film facilities which happened to include Steenbeck editing and 16 mm film cameras.
He and wife Emma Thomas started dating in their first year. They ran a film society and used to screen 35mm films to make money so that members were able to shoot 16mm film shorts.
In college years Nolan shot two short films Tarantella (1989), shown on an independent film and video showcase, Image Union. The second was named Larceny (1995), filmed over a weekend with limited equipment, cast, and crew.
It was funded by Nolan and shot using the society’s equipment and appeared at the Cambridge Film Festival in 1996 and is considered one of the best shorts of UCL.
After graduating from college, Christopher Nolan directed industrial films and corporate videos. He made another short Doodlebug (1997), which was about a guy chasing an insect around the apartment with a shoe only to find out after squashing it that it was his miniature
1998 brought Nolan’s first feature, Following which he funded himself and shot with friends. The plot depicts of a young writer (Jeremy Theobald) who follows strangers in London hoping to get material for his first novel but gets caught up in the criminal world when he failed to maintain distance.
It was based on Nolan’s own experience of living in London and getting his flat burgled.
Made on a modest budget of £3,000 it was shot only on weekends for a whole year. Nolan wrote, edited and photographed himself while Emma co-produced it with Theobald. In its festival run, Following won numerous awards and was well received by the critics as well. It was said to have echoed of Hitchcock classics.
Nolan made an incredible entry upon the film scene with Memento (2000). During a road trip to Los Angeles Nolan’s younger brother gave him the idea for Memento Mori which was about a man suffering from anterograde amnesia and uses notes and tattoos to hunt for the killer of his wife. This $4 million film delivered the crime thrillers feels but the twist was the way Nolan presented it.
The recurring memory of the hero was illustrated by a narratives pair. The twist was one was moving forward while the other narrated the story backward. It was premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in September of 2000 at and starred Guy Pearce and Carrie-Anne Moss earning critical acclaim.
Nolan has explored how the conscious memories make up the identities in this film.
Being a huge success, it received Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for the screenplay. Moreover, it bagged Independent Spirit Award for Best Director, Best Screenplay as well as Directors Guild of America Award nomination. It was considered to be one of the best films of 2000s by many critics.
Steven Soderbergh recruited Nolan after seeing his work on Momento, to direct a psychological thriller, Insomnia (2002) which starred the Academy Award winners Robin Williams, Al Pacino and Hilary Swank. Warner Bros. wanted someone more experienced but Soderbergh and his team fought for Nolan and as well for the cinematographer and editor of his choice.
A much conventional film being a remake of 1997 Norwegian film bearing the same name, the budget of the movie was $46 million. Upon asking Al Pacino during the shooting, he said that he could tell right away that he was going to be very proud to say that he starred in a Christopher Nolan movie.
The story is about two detectives from Los Angeles who are sent to Northern Alaskan town to investigate a teenager’s murder. It received positive reviews from critics. The director of the original film was satisfied and called it a well-crafted smart film whose director handling was really good. The film grossed $113 million worldwide and showed Warners that he could definitely handle the demands and pressure of a studio movie.
Intrigued by the character and story, Nolan approached Warner Bros. in 2003 with the idea to make a Batman film which reflected a classic drama than a comic book story. The biggest project he had undertaken, Batman Begins was a massive commercial and critical success which revived the franchise. It starred Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson and Gary Oldman.
It narrates the origin story of the character from bat fear, death of his parents, becoming Batman and fight against Ra’s al Ghul to save Gotham City. It was the 8th highest grossing film in US and 9th highest worldwide. It was nominated for three BAFTA awards and Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
Before Batman, Nolan produced, directed and co-wrote the Prestige (2006) which was Christopher Priest novel’s adaptation. The plot was about two rival magicians of the 19th century. Starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in lead roles, it earned critical acclaim as well as Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography.
The sequel to Batman Begins was announced in July 2006. Released to immense critical acclaim, The Dark Knight released in 2008 and cited as the best super-hero films ever.
It was nominated for eight Oscars at the 81st Academy Awards and won two: posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (Heath Ledger) and Academy Award for Best Sound editing. Recognized by his peers, Nolan earned nominations from DGA, PGA and Writers Guild of America.
A huge commercial and critical success, Inception (2010) starred a large cast which was led by Leonardo Dicaprio. Inception was a proof that it is possible for art and blockbusters to be the same thing. Grossing over $820 million worldwide, Inception was nominated for eight Oscars and won four for Best Picture, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects.
Christopher Nolan was hugely appreciated and praised by being awarded a Writers Guild Award for the film and earning nominations for Golden Globe, DGA, PGA and BAFTA awards.
The third Batman film was released in 2012, The Dark Knight Rises. It was also a big success and won critical acclaim.
Nolan was to direct, write and produce a science-fiction film as announced in 2013 January, titled Interstellar. The first drafts were written by Nolan and it was to be directed by Steven Spielberg.
Based on the renowned theoretical physicist Kip Thorne’s scientific theories, the film was a journey to the farthest borders of scientific understanding. Starring Anne Hathaway, Matthew McConaughey, Bill Irwin and Jessica Chastain it was co-distributed and co-financed by Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures.
Interstellar was released to a strong box office response and positive reviews on 5th November 2015 and grossed $670 worldwide. It won the Best Visual Effects at the 87th Academy Awards and received nominations for Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Score and Best Production Design.
The filmmaking process of Christopher Nolan is a combination of geometry and intuition. He gives his actors as much takes they may need of a given scene. Nolan likes to shoot on natural settings and real locations. His style is deeply influenced by film noir. He prefers to shoot on film rather than digital and use of digital cinematography and digital intermediates are opposed by him. He favors deep and haunting shadows and prefers the documentary styled lighting. According to Christopher Nolan, he is inspired by M.C Escher, the Dutch graphic artist.
His style is deeply influenced by film noir. He prefers to shoot on film rather than digital and use of digital cinematography and digital intermediates are opposed by him. He favors deep and haunting shadows and prefers the documentary styled lighting. According to Christopher Nolan, he is inspired by M.C Escher, the Dutch graphic artist.
Christopher Nolan is by far one of the greatest directors of his generation. His ability to dance between an indie film mindset and major world-wide blockbuster is extremely rare these days. I have spoken to people who work with him on the backlot of Warner Brothers and it’s known that Christopher Nolan does not read email or even has a cell phone. He says:
“I’d rather spend my time working on my films.”
That shows you the man’s dedication to his craft.
If more Hollywood directors would worry more about how to make their film projects better and actually work on their craft it would be a very different cinematic landscape.
The Directors Series – Christopher Nolan [5.1]
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational/editorial non-profit collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl, dedicated to appreciating and deconstructing the work of contemporary and classic film directors. This ongoing project is made possible in part by our generous supporters on Patreon. Please visit our profile page to learn how you can become a patron: patreon.com/directorsseries
5.1: THE NON-LINEAR NEO-NOIRS is the first chapter of THE DIRECTORS SERIES’ examination into the films and careers of director Christopher Nolan, covering his pair of breakout independent neo-noirs:
THE DIRECTORS SERIES channel on Vimeo: The Directors Series
The Directors Series – Christopher Nolan [5.2]
5.2: THE BLOCKBUSTERS BEGIN is the second chapter of THE DIRECTORS SERIES’ examination into the films and careers of director Christopher Nolan, covering his trailblazing forays into big-budget studio filmmaking:
01:13– INSOMNIA (2002)
13:33– BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
46:05– THE PRESTIGE (2006)
The Directors Series – Christopher Nolan [5.3]
5.3: THE COLOSSAL CORNERSTONES is the third chapter of THE DIRECTORS SERIES’ examination into the films and career of director Christopher Nolan, covering his zeitgeist-defining pair of complex blockbusters:
01:18 — THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
45:04 — INCEPTION (2010)
How Does Christopher Nolan Tell A Story?
Christopher Nolan’s Top 10 Rules For Success
Power of Story: The Art of Film with Chris Nolan, Colin Trevorrow, and Rachel Morrison
Christopher Nolan, Colin Trevorrow, Rachel Morrison, and moderator Alex Ross Perry for a discussion on the aesthetics of film, its intrinsic qualities, and its appeal to filmmakers who have made the artistic choice to use film as a shooting format.
Chris Nolan: The full interview – Newsnight
Our culture correspondent Stephen Smith caught up with blockbuster film director Christopher Nolan at the BFI London Film Festival where he took part in a discussion on the unique qualities of film. This is the full uncut version of the interview.
BONUS: THE HANDS OF Christopher Nolan
A visual journey of the filmography from Christopher Nolan through the hands of his characters.
Online Filmmaking Resources
- Werner Herzog’s Filmmaking MasterClass
- Filmmaking Hacks: Filmmaking Master Course
- Directing Actors Film Workshop
- USC Film School’s ONLY Online Course: Directing the Actor
- Film Lighting MasterClass
- Recording Sound for Indie Film
- The Art of Micro-Budget Filmmaking
- Cinematography MasterClass
- Film Festival Hacks: Submit Like a Pro
- Self-Distributing Your Film Online
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Menento Analysis Transcription
Well my brother told me the story verbally before he finished writing it and the screenplay is an extrapolation of his basic idea which I was fascinated by. He told it to me while we were driving cross country between Chicago and Los Angeles and we both decided right away that by far the most interesting way of approaching that concept was subjectively to tell a story in the first person. So he went off to write his short story. I went off to write the screenplay and my solution to telling the story subjectively was to deny the audience the same information that the protagonist is denied. And my approach to doing that was to effectively tell the story backwards that way when we meet a character we don’t know just like the protagonist how he’s met that person whether he’s even met that person before and whether or not they should be trusted, that kind of thing. So the story is basically told back which is basically told as a series of flashbacks that go further and further back in time. What’s similar to my brother story as he finally finished it. It’s being published next month actually in Esquire magazine and in the States and the similarity in structure is both the film and the short story deal with repetition and internal echoes and also both alternate between the objective in the subjective.
So in the screenplay what I did as I said I need a way of breaking up the flashbacks so that we separate the scenes in our mind and feel this progression further and further back in time. So what I did is I alternated between these color sequences that are intensely subjective, everything in the color sequences is from caller’s point of view, we’re always in his head at least to begin with. We alternate with these black and white sequences that at least to begin with our objective. They present a little bit more filmy black and white, it’s grainy the shots are sometimes the overhead a little bit more distance it’s a more objective. We don’t hear the voice of the other end of the telephone; we’re not really in his head. The voice overs and the color sequence in the Black wants it was a very different and the color sequence is the voice of the mind. It’s the first person it’s very much his thoughts as he’s thinking them in the black and white scenes they sound a bit like interview grabs you know a bit like this kind of interview edited and laid over pictures of him in this room going about his life. So I wanted to introduce this almost documentary style element at the beginning to give the audience a little bit of information, objective information about how this guy lives his life and what he thinks and to break up these scenes. So the black and white sequences, the chronology is forward, they run forward in time as we realize as we go further and further along with film. As the film progresses the color sequences become a little bit less intensely subjective. I think towards the end of the film we really start to step outside his head a little bit and start to question some of the things we’ve been told about this character or some other things he’s told us himself. The black and white scenes on the other hand as the movie progresses, they become less and less objective. We start to get more and more into his head as he exists in this my tower. And in fact when the black and white and the color scenes actually meet towards the end of the movie and I think these two perspectives, the objective, the subjective of the backwards running narrative in the forwards running narrative they actually meet at what is the end of the movie chronologically I guess you could call it the middle of the movie.
It’s confusing because I don’t think pictorially diagrammatically. OK you have the beginning of the film here. The best way to draw it is as a hairpin like that, that’s basically the end of the movie, this stuff is the black and white stuff, this is color and this is running backwards as a series of jumps and what we do is we cut tween the two the whole way through, so we alternate scene here scene, scene here and here and they meet towards the end of the film. But then within this you have flashbacks to a different timeline which is actually even earlier somewhere around there. Also within this you have flashbacks to an earlier time, some in there.
So I guess you could use the heap in shape to represent the bulk of the film. With the black and white with the color meeting in the last reel, the end of the film being sort of their after it turns really color and kind of lead us into the beginning of that proceeding scene. But you have other material that actually precedes the beginning of the black and white scenes and the gap between the beginning of the black and white scenes and this long term memory stuff, some of which is color some of which is black and white. That gap is unspecified. The lead character because of his particular condition he can never know how long that’s been he’s cut loose in time effectively. So we never wanted to specify for the audience. We imply a length of time to it because it’s the time in which he’s had these tattoos put on, he’s been living this life so forth. So that gap to me is where the most interesting ambiguity of the film is the end you know we never wanted to step fully outside of his head and you know specify too many of these things in terms of an objective reality because to me one of the interesting things about the film and what we were trying to do is essentially present an idea of the tension between our subjective view of the world, the subjective way in which we have to experience life and then our faith in an objective reality beyond that. And most movies present a quite comfortable universe where we’ve given an objective truth that we don’t get in everyday life, it’s one of the reasons we go to the movies. In this film, we don’t want to do that, we don’t want to step outside his head. We wanted to present the audience with that problem effectively and say ‘he can’t ever get outside his head and recognize what the objective truth is’ So I think the audience at the end of the film is left to make certain of the same judgments that he is the invited to believe or disbelieve certain elements of what is supposed to have happened in his life much as he is.
And I think the way that we try and focus on this end of the film and making that as extreme as possible is by taking this subjective view on this objective view and effectively having them meet at the end, so that what we achieve is still subjective but with enough objective information built into it that we start to question the point of view that we’ve been given for the whole film.
Well within the hip and structure, we have different elements of his past life that we want to introduce and we the way we divided them is that some of them are presented in black and white and those are the ones that relate to a parallel story that runs parallel to his life. But it’s a story of another character who has the same condition. And that is all presented chronologically and cuts into the black and white scenes not into the color scenes. The memories of his longer time life, his own life the life within his own head therefore also to me you know that the subjective experience these sort of memories of his wife, these images of his wife are all shot in color and I will present in the color sequences not in a black and white sequences, so we keep those separate. But as you may have noticed towards the end of the movie there is a certain amount of joining of these images and confusion of these images and some of the things we’ve only seen it in color are presented in black and white and vice versa. So certainly once again we’re trying to basically merge the subjective and the objective, the memory versus the sort of narrative that he has in his head of this other this other character. So the other thing we want to be doing in the end in terms of the way in which we mix images and reinterpret images is to suggest the complex relationship between Imagination and Memory. And we see him towards the end, we present certain images that we’ve seen from his past life within a different context and in a different context they have slightly different meaning and I think the suggestion there is that he like all of us is able to manipulate the meanings of certain memories or manipulate his own interpretations of certain memories according to his present circumstance.
Yes the way in which we cut between these two things is will take a color scene and then we’ll cut to a black and white scene that’s shorter in length and then we come back to the colors here and we basically, as these are going essentially backwards in time, we sort of leap frogging and we wind up repeating the beginning of a scene at the end of another scene vice versa. And in that way we use repetitions of certain parts of scenes to clear the audience in to where they are chronologically. So essentially what we’re always doing is we’re beginning every scene with something a cliffhanger, something of an unusual situation or a memorable image and then in our later seen we’re explaining how that situation has been arrived at and that’s the rhythm of the film over the entire course of the movie. So it’s in a way taking a familiar cinematic rhythm. You know the rhythm of the cliffhanger orthe question and then the answer and it’s presenting that as an alternating rhythm the whole way through the film.
Yeah, the black and white stuff is all derived from a forward running sequence. So if you take these individual Black and White sequences, they run forwards. If you stick them together they actually overlap in the same way that the backwards scenes overlap. It’s not quite so obvious when you’re watching the movie but you know it begins with him sort of shaving his thigh and answering the phone and everything and in fact these actions overlap. So there is a suggestion that in fact and it is the case that you can stick our scenes together and achieve one sort of long scene effectively. And that episodic structure was one that I wanted to employ because the overlapping flashbacks of the color sequences for complex structure, the black and white stuff is actually pretty simple to follow because it follows the basic episodic structure was very familiar with me from watching T.V. You know it’s like you break something up with T.V. commercials, very easy to just keep following a very simple forward progression in this case it’s him on his own in a room speaking on a telephone, so it’s a very simple sequence of forward progression and it’s not too difficult as we return to it to just tap into it and say OK this is where we are we’re back here on familiar ground we’re just going to get a bit more information about you know who he is and what he’s discussing on this telephone call.
The overlaps become shorter as the film progresses because the assumption is that it seems to work that the audience gets into the kind of rhythm they begin to understand that the structure is backwards. We in fact begin the film with a literally backward scene at the head; I mean we’re literally running reverse action. The rest of the film is forward action but in a series of backward steps, it’s kind of you know one step forward two steps back the whole way through. But at a certain point those repetitions are able to be a little bit shorter because the audience isn’t rhythm and then there is a point at which in certain scenes we actually don’t achieve the same repetition we actually make an illusion. You know we make a complete jump the same way in a conventional movie they will do that. You know when you reach a point with two scenes so obviously connect chronologically so you don’t have to explain the chronological relationship. So there’s a point sort of midway through the film where we begin to do that a little bit. But then we come back to the repetitions because some of the repetitions later in the film I think are important for their own sake, not just for explaining to the audience where we are but also for hammering home this in notion that it’s the context of a scene, it’s the context within which a particular action happens like there’s a point at which he’s searching for a pen and he’s trying to write some down to remember something and all the rest and we see that once so we don’t really understand and we see it again has a rather different meaning. So there’s repetition start to take on a more substantial role I think in the narrative other than just orienting in time they actually start to suggest the way in which the narrative context in which a particular action happens is changing what that action represents. And that relates once again to his subjective view of what he’s doing in the room and how that’s actually affected by what’s going on around him which becomes I think very important to the overall theme of the movie.
At the beginning of the movie I was looking for a way into this structure, the way into this storytelling. So what I wanted to do was to show something in reverse to suggest that the backwards movement of the film. But the way in which the Polaroid is used through the film is as a replacement for short term memory. So it seemed like showing a Polaroid picture on developing, showing the picture on developing and showing this information being lost. It seemed like a very useful way of suggesting the problem that he’s having to deal with which is you know this faulty short term memory and this information dribbling away and in fact the opening shot is you know it’s a Polaroid of what that body. And I think the significance of that becomes clear later in the movie in terms of how I was interested in looking at his relationship of his perception of revenge versus the notion of whether it has any objective reality or has any value outside his out head. So this achievement of revenge, the satisfaction of that body, this gruesome image fading and actually I’m developing and losing itself from his mind.
That actually is pretty much of the whole movie; in fact you can just watch opening shot you to the movies. Thank you.