Christopher Nolan: the personal keys to his success

Christopher Nolan: the personal keys to his success

Is the director of 'Tenet' a trickster? Do you give the general public the illusion of accessing a higher cultural level by proposing difficult-to-access scientific and philosophical questions?

Christopher Nolan: the personal keys to his success


What follows is a written profile, if I may, somewhat American. Who is Christopher Nolan? What do we know about the director who has raised 5 billion dollars with 11 risky films , with complex narrative structures and with themes and plots that are not always easy to understand? His latest film, Tenet , a story of spies coiled – never better said – to a convoluted plot that contemplates the destruction of the world, led the Spanish box office on the 13th, three weeks after its premiere: about 900,000 spectators who They have not been daunted by the hostile circumstances of the pandemic and about 5 and a half million euros of collection, yes, occupying the disproportionate number of 766 screens.

Shot in seven countries on three continents, over almost seven months – with interruptions – Tenet is Nolan's most expensive film . It has cost 200 million dollars. Nothing else to leave has already raised 207 million. The title, Tenet, is a simple palindrome – it reads the same from back to front as it does from front to back -, which symbolically condenses the travel in time, between past and future, that takes place (and common space) in the event of the movie.

The figures above do contain, yes, an inevitable promotional breath. This is always the case, sooner or later, with Nolan's films. What is increasing – it already started with Origen (2010), at least – is an unusual controversial criticism with a certain flavor of discussion between divided elites: is Nolan a trickster? Does he give the mass public the illusion of accessing a higher cultural level by proposing difficult-to-access scientific and philosophical questions? Does it actually seduce you – hypnotize you – with the frenetic pace and visual power of your films? As far as I can remember, it has never before been fiercely argued whether films by a director doubly blessed with authorship credentials and the evidence of owning the box office are understood or misunderstood. Those who say they understand them and those who say they do not understand them accuse each other of imposture. I'm not going to talk here about Tenet or, except in passing, about his cinema. I have spent a few hours collecting data on Nolan to help us understand the original context of his creativity. And, without any intention of making an apology for them, I have found two keys: careful education and family work.


Christopher Nolan turned 50 on July 30. He has been married for 23 years and has four children. His robust and elegant appearance is far from the stereotypical image of the bohemian artist. Even on film – like Hitchcock – he wears a suit and tie, sometimes with cufflinks on the cuffs of his shirt. He looks more like a City businessman or liberal American politician than a filmmaker. He was born in London, in the central neighborhood of Westminster, which is not just any place: Westminster and Buckingham palaces, Westminster Abbey and Cathedral. Jewels of the kingdom.

Education: first, at Haileybury College, an independent public school, boarding school, with palatial buildings and campus, created in 1862 – it was Rudyard Kipling studied – in the residential, small, privileged town of Hertford, some thirty miles north of London. Without being able to specify dates, Nolan and his two brothers – older and younger – lived in their youth between Chicago and London because of the work of their parents.

Now Nolan lives in Los Angeles and has dual citizenship, American and English. The fact is that Nolan received a degree in English Literature from the University College of London, the third oldest university in England (1862) and one of the most prestigious. And totally secular. College education is rare for filmmakers of his generation – and later. At the UCL, among others, GK Chesterton, Gandhi, Ken Follet -who is now releasing a new novel- and, by the way, the humorist Ricky Gervais studied.

In college classrooms, Nolan met his wife – I'll tell who she is later – and they never parted anymore. The future director took advantage of the time to pour himself into working in the university's cinema facilities. At 19 he had already made (and broadcast) his first short , Tarantella , filmed in Super 8, who knows if with the same camera that his father had given him as a child. Contrary to popular belief, young Nolan had no money. He made two more shorts under poor conditions, and his first feature, Following (1998), had a very modest home-made budget of 3,000 pounds. The producers, at that time, rejected his original and ambitious projects and pushed him to the gutter of independent cinema.

Everything changed when no less than Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney were enthusiastic about Memento (2000), their second feature – already made in the United States – and produced Insomnia (2002), with Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. Those were big words by now. And those big words led him to the great leap, with Warner Bros behind him: Batman Begins (2005), the first of his three films about the comic book hero, followed by The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight: The Legend Rises. (2012). That trilogy revolutionized the iconography of the franchise, saved it from its decline, took it to unexpected bleak terrain and blew up the box office time after time.


But first … More family data. Nolan's mother – American – was an English teacher and the father – British – was an advertising creative, that is, someone who worked on optimizing communication with images. Maybe it doesn't have much to do with it, but let's remember that, in the generation of British cinema before Nolan, at least three very important directors had burned in advertising: Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson and Ridley Scott.

If Nolan's father – now deceased – had that professional passion for images, an uncle of the then director of Interstellar (2014) worked for NASA on the Apollo project and another uncle, John Nolan, who appears briefly in two batmans and in Dunkerque (2017), was and is an actor.

And now we go to Jonathan Nolan, Christopher's younger brother , with a life of his own as a creator -producer, screenwriter and sometimes director- of series such as Person of Interest and Westworld , the latter with his wife, Lisa Joy, a graduate in Law no less than at Stanford University. Family that makes film together … Jonathan – born in London – studied at the very private and Jesuit University of Georgetown (Washington) – like King Felipe VI, by the way – and is on the runway and on the flight Christopher's stellar, as he was the author of the story – published in Empire magazine – that gave rise to Memento. But that, being a lot, is nothing: Jonathan has written with and for his brother the scripts for the first two batmans , for Interstellar and, in between, for The Final Trick (The Prestige) (2006), the film about rivalry between two magicians that gave Nolan enormous popularity among a diverse and extensive audience. They are not family, but Nolan, much like the auteur cinema, likes to repeat, if he can, with the same main collaborators: the musician Hans Zimmer, the editor Lee Smith, the photographers Wally Pfister and Hoyte van Hoytema, the screenwriter David S. Goyer … Being able to work like this responds, in addition to the autonomy of decision that success gives, to two keys: Syncopy and Emma Thomas.


Syncopy is the production company founded by Nolan, still in England, which has already produced Doodlebug (1997), his third short, and his first feature, Following , and, finally, all the Christopher Nolan films – and others like Man of Steel (2013) – minus two. And Syncopy, now based in Los Angeles, is essentially its co-founder, London-born Emma Thomas , who is now 48 years old. And Emma Thomas is the girl Nolan met in the university classrooms at University College London. She has been his wife since 1997. She is, perhaps, the most talented, large and powerful woman producer – after Kathleen Kennedy, producer of almost all of Steven Spielberg's films – in the history of cinema. She is the one who has brought out in all the details the complicated films – for their cost and their artistic and production design – of her husband.

The nine films that Thomas has produced for Nolan, aside from the box office, have garnered 42 Oscar nominations , achieving – among them – ten statuettes. They are quite a few, but they are not that many either. Is the Hollywood Academy resistant to Nolan? In addition to producing their own films and those of others, the couple makes time for other activities: Emma is involved in the board of directors of the imminent Film Museum promoted by the Academy and Christopher – who prefers analog to digital cinema and, although it may not seem like it , the work of the camera and the montage to the visual effects – is a very active member of The Film Fondation, the organization founded by Martin Scorsese to recover, protect and disseminate the best of the world's cinematographic heritage. Oh, and the Nolans have political color: they helped fund the 2012 campaign that led to Barack Obama being reelected president.

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