“I have been interested in dreams, really since I was a kid. I have always been fascinated by the idea that your mind, when you are asleep, can create a world in a dream and you are perceiving it as though it really existed.”
Starting with Following (1998), Christopher Nolan’s career has made him one of the most revered and popular directors in Hollywood. Really hitting the scene with Memento (2000), he instantly made a name for himself as a filmmaker with a knack for making dark, challenging films. He then took on the Batman film series, directing The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012), which featured arguably the best superhero movie of all time. Add Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014) and Dunkirk (2017) to that list, and you’ve got a seriously impressive resume. Whether you like his non-linear narratives, dark color palette, or you just enjoy awesome, mind-blowing movies, it’s hard not to love a Christopher Nolan flick. Read on for 26 blockbuster facts about this iconic director’s films.
26. Touch and Feel
Nolan films are known for their use of practical effects, using CGI only when absolutely necessary, e.g. space scenes in Interstellar or the mindbending dreamscapes of Inception. Even the Tesseract scene in Interstellar was filmed using a giant, practical set as opposed to just throwing up a green screen and doing everything in post-production.
Although it may not seem like it, Interstellar is actually Christopher Nolan’s ode to old-school family blockbusters like Close Encounters of a Third Kind. “The more we worked on the film, I think, the more it became about what it is to be a father, a parent, a child—the connections between us. Or what it is to be human, really. I think science fiction’s always been a great way of trying to explore those things.” It may not be what you might expect from a mainstream, family blockbuster, but what else would expect from the guy?
24. Show Me the Money
Nolan’s films have landed him a spot on the list of the highest-grossing directors ever (calculated by adding the grosses of all a director’s films). In terms of domestic (US) box office, Nolan now sits at #5 with a total of $1.983 billion. This total even beats James Cameron, who directed Avatar and Titanic, two of the highest grossing movies of all time.
23. Sorry Spielberg
After nearly twenty years, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) finally dethroned Saving Private Ryan (1998) as the highest-grossing WWII film of all time. Nolan’s claustrophobic thriller about the British evacuation of France has grossed nearly $530 million thus far, topping the $481 million mark that was held by Ron Howard’s epic since 1998.
22. Sibling Rivalry
Christopher Nolan’s breakout film Memento was based on a short story written by his younger brother, Jonathan Nolan. Jonathan also helped his brother write the screenplay for The Prestige (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Returns (2012) and Interstellar. His big brother might be the bigger name, but don’t feel too bad for Jonathan though, he went on to create the television adaptation of Westworld (2016).
21. The Dynamic Duo
Aside from his specific style of writing and characterization, Nolan’s films are also strengthened by the work behind the camera. Cinematographer Wally Pfister has worked with Nolan on most of his films leading up to 2015. His credits with Nolan started with Memento, before moving on to Batman Begins (2005), The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception (which earned Pfister an Oscar) and The Dark Knight Rises. Pfister and Nolan have now separated creatively, but Pfister says he’s “always nostalgic” about their time working together.”
20. Relationship Goals
Christopher Nolan’s first true film was a short entitled Doodlebug (1997), which he made with the help of Emma Thomas, who he’s now married to and who also serves as a production partner for most of his films.
19. Practice Makes Perfect
Nolan initially pitched Inception to a studio in 2002, but says he “wasn’t really ready to finish it.” He realized he needed more experience making blockbuster films before committing to the project. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight both helped him learn how to deal with issues such as handling a bigger budget and a larger scale of filmmaking: “What I found is, it’s not possible to execute this concept in a small fashion. The reason is, as soon as you’re talking about dreams, the potential of the human mind is infinite. And so the scale of the film has to feel infinite.”
Some of Nolan’s early films, such as Menento and Insomnia, drew comparisons to the noir genre, especially for the trope of using vulgar, sexually aggressive women as villains.
Nolan, like most directors, has his own list of directors he looks up to. One in particular is Terrence Malick, who Nolan praised for his work on The Tree of Life (2011). In particular, Nolan praises Malick’s penchant for intertwining visuals as a tool for storytelling: “When you think of the visual language of a film, there tends to be a separation of the visual style and the narrative elements. But with the greats, whether it’s Kubrick or Terrence Malick or Hitchcock, what you’re seeing is an inseparable, a vital relationship between the image and the story it’s telling.” Guess you can add Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock to that list, but really, what director doesn’t cite those two as an inspiration?
Dunkirk was the only original live-action film that hit the list of Top 25 grossing films for 2017. The 24 other films on the list were all remakes, sequels or adaptations e.g. Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok and Kong: Skull Island. And who say’s Hollywood is out of ideas? Oh, wait…
15. The Box Office Betrays You
The Dark Knight Rises is Christopher Nolan’s highest-grossing film in terms of worldwide earnings, with $1,084.9 billion. The Dark Knight is a close second with $1,003 billion.
Christopher Nolan is known for frequently collaborating with composer Hans Zimmer, who scored The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Interstellar. Their partnership led one outlet to label it a “creative marriage.” And who can forget that classic BWWAAAAH tone that Zimmer created for Inception? It’s hard to picture a Nolan movie without Zimmer’s dark, domineering music behind it.
13. Time is Money
Time was an important theme for every aspect of Dunkirk since it concerned the evacuation of British troops out of Nazi-surrounded territory. Christopher Nolan actually had composer Hans Zimmer use his stopwatch as an inspiration for Dunkirk’s score, and it shows in the ticking noises that permeate the movie, giving it the disorienting sense that time is constantly running out.
12. Camera Hogs
More than one hour of Interstellar‘s runtime was shot with IMAX cameras. In contrast to the Hollywood standard 35mm lens, which shoots on film with five perforations (a fancy way to say holes) per frame, IMAX cameras have a whopping 15 perforations per frame. The perforations determine frame size but also impact visual quality, with the IMAX cameras giving a much higher resolution. These cameras are extremely expensive and rare, yet Nolan still used four of them while filming the movie. He clearly has a thing for them, even though he himself broke one of them back when he was filming The Dark Knight. I’d hate to foot the bill for that blooper.
11. Black Sheep
To date, Insomnia and The Dark Knight Rises are Christopher Nolan’s only films that were not nominated for a single Academy Award, not even in technical categories such as sound editing. That’s a pretty good record.
10. Making History
The Dark Knight was notable for earning Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. With his win, Ledger became the first actor since Peter Finch (1977) to win an award posthumously. He was also the first (and thus far only) person to win an Oscar for playing a comic book character.
9. Golden Child
In 2017, Christopher Nolan earned his first ever Best Director nomination at the Oscars thanks to Dunkirk. He ended up losing to Shape of Water (2017) director Guillermo Del Toro, who was also nominated for the award for the first time.
8. Thought You Looked Familiar
If you thought that the dreamscapes in Inception reminded you of MC Escher, it’s because the painter has, for a long time, been a direct influence Nolan’s filmmaking: “I’m very inspired by the prints of MC Escher and the interesting connection-point or blurring of boundaries between art and science, and art and mathematics.”
7. What Country Are You From?
Memento drew a lot of attention for its non-linear storytelling, which Nolan says was partly inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s classic film Pulp Fiction (1994). Can’t say the movies are particularly similar outside that aspect, though.
6. Bacon Bits
Irish painter Francis Bacon’s work inspired the Joker’s look in The Dark Knight. The idea for the smeared paint came from a book of Bacon paintings, where the paint often had a “runny” appearance, giving the look a more “worn through quality.” I’ll be the first to say, I think it paid off because it’s hard to picture the Joker any other way now—sorry, Jared Leto.
5. Pressure Makes Diamonds
Nolan is a big believer that constraints of time and money can lead to greater creative concentration. His shooting schedules typically involve 12 hour days, from 7am to 7pm, with one lunch break. Yeesh.
4. Human Good Luck Charm
Michael Caine has appeared in every Christopher Nolan film since his first Nolan role with Batman Begins—Nolan calls him his “good luck charm.” If you don’t remember seeing him in Dunkirk, it’s because he was a voice on the British Air Force’s radios. Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Anne Hathaway, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard and Cillian Murphy are also all frequent Nolan collaborators, though not quite to the extent of Caine.
3. Marching Orders
Mark Rylance, who starred in Dunkirk, revealed that Nolan forbids chairs and water bottles on set for actors: “They’re distractions—the noise [of the bottles], they’re like toys almost, playing around with toys… [the lack of chairs] keeps you on your toes, literally.”
2. Caine and Abel
Michael Caine played Bruce Wayne’s loyal ally Alfred in the Dark Knight Trilogy. The first time that Caine met Heath Ledger’s Joker was during one of the first days of rehearsal. Ledger’s acting was so scary that Caine forgot all his lines.
1. The Notebook
On the last page of the chilling “Joker diary” Ledger kept during The Dark Knight, he scrawled the words “Bye Bye” after he finished shooting his scenes. Ledger wrote most of the diary entries while he was locked in a hotel room preparing for the role. The cover looked like a creepy, faded children’s book. Inside the diary, Ledger had cut out and glued in pictures of clowns, hyenas, and Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange, along with Ledger’s crudely scribbled notes.