“I think making films on a grand scale is what I got into movies for. I really enjoy sitting there, having the experience I had when I was a kid, of just seeing something that’s larger than life, that takes you into a whole different world."
Christopher Nolan’s films do just that, transporting you into a whole different world that he has meticulously crafted and created. As the writer and director of such movies as Memento, Inception, The Prestige, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Interstellar, and Dunkirk there is no doubt that Nolan is one of the most imaginative and perplexing filmmakers of our time.
It all started on July 30, 1970 when Christopher Nolan was born in Westminster, London to his father, Brendan James Nolan, an executive creative director in advertising, and his mother, Christina Nolan, a flight attendant and English teacher. Although he spent most of his time in Britain, he also had citizenship in the U.S..
Nolan also grew up with an older brother, Matthew, and a younger brother, Jonathan. He and his younger brother, who would go on to be one of his co-writers and film collaborators, loved to watch science fiction movies together, their favorites being Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and anything by Ridley Scott. It wasn’t long before the two brothers were shooting their own films on a Super 8 camera using action figures and claymation to tell wild stories about rocket ships to space.
By the age of eleven, Nolan was dead set that he would be a filmmaker when he grew up. It was also around this time that Nolan entered a Catholic prep school run by Josephite priests. It was there that he met Roko Belic, a fellow aspiring filmmaker. At nineteen, Nolan and Belic directed their first real short, a mysterious Godardian film called Tarantella, which was showcased on PBS.
Although he knew he was going to be a filmmaker, Nolan decided he wanted to get a more classical education, and he enrolled at the University College London studying English literature. Although he wasn’t a film school student, Nolan immersed himself in the filmmaking culture at his university, eventually becoming the president of the Union’s Film Society. As a member and leader of this society, Nolan would screen films and use the school’s equipment to continue making his own work. The first of his shorts was called Larceny, and was a black and white film about a pick-pocketer being chased down in the woods by the people he stole from. It was a monumental success for a young Nolan, being selected by the Cambridge Film Festival and recognized as one of the best Union Film Society shorts of all time.
After his success, he went on to make one more short, Doodlebug, a story of a man trying to squash a bug with a surprising Nolan-esque twist. It was also at this time that Nolan met his girlfriend Emma Thomas, who would later become his wife.
After he graduated college, he continued to work on new project ideas, also working as a script reader, director, and camera operator for industrial films and films commissioned by businesses. However, Nolan found that his small victories with Tarantella and Larceny were more anomalous than the crazy projects he was pitching. In fact, opposed to success and acclaim, Nolan was facing a large “stack of rejection letters."
Due to insufficient funds and lack of interest from the British film industry, Nolan couldn’t get any of his projects off the ground. Because of this, he decided to look beyond studio financing and instead took the route of independent cinema, and subsequently got his first feature film made in 1998 called Following.
Made with his friend Jeremy Theobald and his girlfriend Emma, for only £3,000, Nolan was the sole writer, director, cinematographer, and editor on his independent feature that made nearly $50,000 at the box office. Although it wasn’t a huge commercial success, Following was critically acclaimed by The New Yorker as a “leaner and meaner” echo of “Hitchcock classics”, and it won several awards and nominations at festivals like the Rotterdam International Film Festival, the San Francisco International Film Festival, and the Slamdance Film Festival. The most beneficial thing to come from Following was that Nolan had made enough of a name for himself that he garnered the opportunity to make his next feature, Memento, starring Guy Pierce, which would go on to be his breakthrough movie and inevitably turn him into the master filmmaker that we all know today.
Like many filmmkakers, Christopher Nolan was inspired by the medium of film at a young age and knew almost instantly that that is what he wanted and needed to do with his life. Although his films now are mainstream and widely known, similar to his non-linear and unorthodox style of storytelling, his path to success was less than typical. Without film school and without backing from any big studios, Nolan’s drive and passion for cinema got him his big break. Instead of waiting for someone to let him into the industry, he grabbed a camera, grabbed some friends, and told his story. As simple as it sounds, he became a filmmaker by making a movie. And through his tenacity, Nolan proved to himself and the rest of the world that his stories were worth telling, and he had a voice worth listening to.
I urge all of you, if you feel stuck, knocking on the doors of the film industry begging to be let in, be your own best advocate. There’s no better way to prove your worth than by actually doing the thing. Write the script. Direct the film. Fight for yourself because there is no cavalry coming.
Be your own cavalry and always be writing.
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Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.