How Did Christopher Nolan Become One of the Greatest Directors of Our Time?

By Pete JohnsonLast Updated Jul 23, 2020 7:20:58 PM ET
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Christopher Nolan attends the screening of "Sink Or Swim (Le Grand Bain)" during the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 13, 2018 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Tony Barson/FilmMagic)

Nolan is a filmmaker and screenwriter (often alongside brother Jonathan Nolan) who is determined to tell big stories with complex — and sometimes baffling — ideas. His films are philosophical studies of subjects like the nature of reality and dreams (Inception), the manipulation of perceived reality (The Prestige), the experience and conception of memory (Memento), the creation and persistence of identity (Memento and The Dark Knight), the malleability of time (Interstellar) and the power of mathematics and physics (Inception and Interstellar). He’s also unafraid of telling his stories in unconventional ways, from inventive narrative structures to astonishing camera work.

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In a movie-making era dominated by computer-generated effects, green screens, and digital filmmaking, Nolan insists on celluloid film and practical camera-based effects with miniatures and minimal CGI. He prioritizes filming on location over studio shoots and often uses handheld cameras and documentary-style lighting. Understand it or not, you know a Nolan film when you see one.

Nolan's films are hard work, but hard work that pays off. His films have earned $4.7 billion worldwide and garnered 34 Oscar nominations plus 10 wins, not to mention hundreds of international film awards. Nolan’s latest project, the spy film Tenet, was postponed before being postponed indefinitely.

Now is the perfect time to dive into or refresh yourself on some of the highlights of Nolan's filmography in anticipation of its potential release.

Following (1998) and Memento (2000)

London-born Christopher Edward Nolan began making feature films in 1998 after studying English literature in university. His first feature film, Following, was about a writer who followed strangers around London's streets looking for inspiration before stumbling into a dark world of crime. Australia's The Vine called it one of the top 10 best "no budget" movies ever made, produced at a cost of just $6,000.

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Photo Courtesy: Next Wave Films/IMDB

From that tiniest of beginnings, Nolan quickly showed his promise as a director with his next independent film, Memento. It earned nearly $40,000,000 at the box office and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. From there, Nolan has never looked back.

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The Dark Knight (2008)

2005’s Batman Begins marked the start of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy about the Caped Crusader, but The Dark Knight soon surpassed it to become one of the most beloved Batman movies of all time. Heath Ledger in the role of the Joker stole the show with his powerful performance, while the film’s broader interest in exploring societal questions also received critical acclaim and boosted the respectability of superhero movies as a whole.

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Photo Courtesy: Warner Bros/IMDB

According to Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, "Pitched at the divide between art and industry, poetry and entertainment, it goes darker and deeper than any Hollywood movie of its comic-book kind … " Based on 338 critics' reviews, Rotten Tomatoes calculated a 94 percent "Tomatometer" score for the film. Nearly 1.9 million viewer ratings on Rotten Tomatoes generated an audience score of 94 percent as well. Overall, the movie made Nolan a household name on top of his existing reputation with film critics.

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Inception (2010)

Inception is about a thief (Leonardo DiCaprio) who steals corporate secrets by exploiting technology that allows him to share and influence dreams. His latest mission isn’t to learn a secret at all, but instead to deposit an idea into one man's mind. What's in it for the protagonist? The clearing of his own criminal past and the chance to see his kids again.

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Photo Courtesy: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./IMDB

Despite the many bizarre and fantastic scenes in the film, Nolan used little CGI. One zero-gravity fight scene used computerized effects to great effect, but generally, most effects were achieved using just a camera and physical sets

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Legendary reviewer Robert Ebert wrote a glowing review in 2010 entitled "Dreams on top of dreams inside dreams. "It is wholly original, cut from new cloth … " wrote Ebert. Maybe there's a hole in Inception too, but I can't find it. Christopher Nolan reinvented Batman. This time he isn't reinventing anything. Yet few directors will attempt to recycle Inception. I think when Nolan left the labyrinth, he threw away the map."

Insterstellar (2014)

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Ellen Burstyn, and Michael Caine, Interstellar trails astronauts through a wormhole as they search for a new home for humanity. Earth-bound human life in the dystopian future depicted in the movie is doomed. Space.com tried to break down the range of concepts — including wormhole gravel, supergiant black holes, and their combined effect on the passage and experience of time — in its own November 2014 infographic.

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Photo Courtesy: Paramount Pictures/IMDB

Interstellar is intentionally thought-provoking and challenging, and sometimes even over a lot of heads. Rolling Stone's November 2014 review said: "Nolan believes it’s better to think through a movie than to just sit through it. If that makes him a white knight, Godspeed."

Dunkirk (2017)

Dunkirk is based on the true story of when soldiers from France, Belgium and Britain were hastily evacuated from Dunkirk's beaches despite being overwhelmingly surrounded by the armies of Nazi Germany. Nolan conceived of Dunkirk in the 1990s but held off on making the film until he felt like he'd developed enough experience to do it justice.

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Photo Courtesy: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC/IMDB

The 76-page screenplay written in 2015 was just half as long as usual. Why? Nolan was determined to tell the story through visuals and sensation rather than dialogue. In July 2017, Nolan told Time magazine, "I tried to give the audience and experience that will wash over them. They'll sit back and — I won't say enjoy the ride, because this is a very intense ride — but experience the film. I never want the audience to watch the film in an overly cerebral way. It's not meant to be a puzzle. It's meant to be an experience."

The Guardian called Dunkirk Nolan's "best film so far." Dunkirk drew eight Academy Award nominations, including for Best Motion Picture and Best Director. It won Academy Awards for film editing, sound editing and sound mixing and showed that Nolan could create great art out of history as well as comic books and science fiction concepts.

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