6 Filmmaking Tips From Christopher Nolan

By  · Published on July 18th, 2012

Born in July of 1970, Christopher Nolan was always sort of made for Summer. As an adult, that promise has been fulfilled with blockbuster spectacles in the hot months, but it all started when he was a child. It was then that he picked up the drug that became an obsession for the rest of his life: a Super 8 camera.

The result of those early ambitions and the study of storytelling in college led him to create shorts, build a feature in Memento that drew acclaim, and to embark on a studio career that has blended intelligence with popular culture. He’s invaded our dreams, altered a genre and made magic.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a man who is waiting for a train…

Take the Time to Meet Raw Festival Talent

How do you hook up with a talented cinematographer like Wally Pfister? Or a brilliant director like Christopher Nolan? Or the right sound designer, colorist or editor that your project needs?

A little networking at festivals can help.

“I was at the Slamdance Festival with Following while Ron Judkin’s Hi-Line was being shown at Sundance. I thought it was a beautifully executed film that was clearly produced with limited resources. I had to meet the guy who shot it. I decided during our first conversation that I wanted to work with Wally. We just clicked the way you sometimes do with people. We know each other better today, but our relationship hasn’t changed. There is a synergy that affects our ability to translate ideas into images.”

Next time you’re impressed by someone else’s work at a festival, go tell him or her. It might lead to a solid partnership. Of course, that also means that while you’re at a festival, you have to take the time out to check out screenings that aren’t your own.

Understand Every Job on Set

“I’m interested in every different bit of filmmaking because I had to do every bit of it myself – from sound recording and ADR to editing and music. I feel very lucky to be a member of probably the last generation who cut film on a Steenbeck flatbed, physically taping it together and dropping out shots. It gave me a really good grounding in knowing overall what has to go into a film technically that was very valuable.

And it meant that absolutely everything I did was simply because I was passionate and wanted to try stuff. You’re never going to learn something as profoundly as when it’s purely out of curiosity.”

Real Places Add Credibility

Nolan has continuously shown an affinity for film over digital, in-camera effects and real locations as well as a belief that having as little CGI as possible is the key to taking the audience on a true adventure.

Be a Lover of Movies First

In any number of conversations, Nolan brings up all sorts of titles (most frequently, it’s Blade Runner) that he drew inspiration from. He’s a movie geek. When Wired asked him about the elements of Inception, he answered:

“I’m a lover of movies, so that’s where my brain went. But I think that’s where a lot of people’s minds would go if they were constructing an arena in which to conduct this heist. I also wanted the dreams in Inception to reflect the infinite potential of the human mind. The Bond movies are these globe-trotting spy thrillers, filmmaking on a massive scale. The key noir reference is the character Mal; it was very important to me that she come across as a classic femme fatale. The character and her relationship to Cobb’s psyche is the literal mani-festation of what the femme fatale always meant in film noir – the neurosis of the protagonist, his fear of how little he knows about the woman he’s fallen in love with, that kind of thing.”

That’s one of many, many examples.

Learn to Blend Subjective and Objective in Writing

“What I try to do is write from the inside out. I really try to jump into the world of the film and the characters, try to imagine myself in that world rather than imagining it as a film I’m watching onscreen. Sometimes, that means I’m discovering things the way the audience will, with character and story. Other times, you’re plotting it out with diagrams and taking a very objective view. Writing, for me, is a combination of both. You take an objective approach at times to get you through things, and you take a subjective approach at other times, and that allows you to find an emotional experience for the audience.”

Not exactly a straightforward concept, but it in some ways means a calculated approach to craftsmanship that involves seeing things as creator and audience. The third element is becoming a God inside the world you’ve created. Knowing what cannot be known by any one character, then seeing things through their eyes, then trying on the pupils of the people who will experience the movie.

Go Into the Story has a sharp take on what the method means.

Big Spectacles Aren’t Antithetical to Speaking Personally to the Audience

What Have We Learned

That we have a lot more to learn from this filmmaker.

Next: 6 Filmmaking Tips from Martin Scorsese

Check out previous entries in our Filmmaking Tips series:

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.