#313 Christopher Nolan

Summary Notes


In the episode, the host delves into the intense work ethic and creative process of director Christopher Nolan, as detailed in "The Nolan Variations" by Tom Shone. Nolan's approach to filmmaking is characterized by his obsession with cinema, discipline, and his unique method of storytelling that involves flipping ideas backward and transforming them from two-dimensional concepts into three-dimensional objects. The host highlights Nolan's insistence on shooting in real-world settings, avoiding CGI, and his ability to maintain creative control by working efficiently and under budget. Nolan's films, including "Memento," "Inception," and "Dunkirk," are discussed as products of his lifelong passion, with personal anecdotes and his family's involvement in his work underscored. The episode also touches on Nolan's influence from other filmmakers, literature, and his preference for analog methods, reflecting his desire to create immersive, shared experiences unique to the medium of film.

Summary Notes

Experience with Eight Sleep Mattress

  • Speaker A recounts meeting founders who are avid listeners of the podcast.
  • Founders own multiple houses, each equipped with an Eight Sleep mattress.
  • One founder owns four Eight Sleep mattresses, highlighting the product's quality.
  • Speaker A emphasizes the difficulty in sleeping without an Eight Sleep mattress after becoming accustomed to it.
  • The temperature control feature of the mattress is praised as a significant benefit for sleep quality.
  • Speaker A finds the mattress helps in falling asleep faster and reducing wakefulness at night.
  • The mattress is described as a "no brainer investment" with a special offer mentioned for podcast listeners.

"Do you know how good a product has to be for you to buy four of them?"

This quote emphasizes the high quality of the Eight Sleep mattress, as evidenced by a customer purchasing multiple units.

"Before I had an eight sleep mattress, I never had the ability to change the temperature of my bed before and I had no idea before I used it how much that actually affects the quality of your sleep."

Speaker A highlights the transformative experience of using the Eight Sleep mattress with temperature control and its impact on sleep quality.

"There are very few no brainer investments in life, and eight sleep is one of them."

The speaker expresses a strong endorsement for the Eight Sleep mattress, considering it an obvious and worthwhile investment.

Founders Podcast Community Engagement

  • Speaker A has created an exclusive offering for the "Founders" podcast enthusiasts.
  • A private AMA (Ask Me Anything) feed has been made for members to ask direct questions.
  • Members receive access to a private email address for direct communication with Speaker A, who personally reads all emails.
  • Questions received are turned into short AMA episodes, facilitating learning from other members' inquiries.
  • The opportunity for members to feature their name and website link with their questions is highlighted as valuable.
  • Speaker A has produced 30 episodes so far and plans to continue creating multiple episodes weekly.

"If you become a member, you'll be able to ask me questions directly."

This quote indicates the direct line of communication offered to members of the private AMA feed, enhancing the sense of community engagement.

"That feature alone is worth the investment."

Speaker A considers the ability for members to interact and feature their work within the community as a significant benefit of membership.

Christopher Nolan's Filmmaking Journey

  • Speaker A discusses Christopher Nolan's early struggles with securing distribution for "Memento" and his subsequent rise to fame.
  • Nolan's dedication and obsession with his work are highlighted as key to his success.
  • Nolan's unique approach to filmmaking is described, including his punctuality, discipline, secrecy, and refusal to use second units.
  • The excerpt from "The Nolan Variations" book provides insight into Nolan's working style and mindset.
  • Nolan is compared to other directors like James Cameron and Peter Jackson in terms of their writing involvement and originality.

"What happens when you make a film is you burrow into it. You dig in so you kind of can't see it anymore."

This quote from Christopher Nolan captures the immersive nature of his filmmaking process and his reliance on initial instincts.

"Nolan's ascent since has been near vertical."

Speaker A summarizes Nolan's rapid rise in the film industry, from small-budget beginnings to blockbuster success.

"He invented the post heroic superhero."

This quote outlines one of Nolan's contributions to cinema, showcasing his innovative ideas and storytelling.

Christopher Nolan's Personal Insights and Obsessions

  • Nolan's obsession with his projects is a recurring theme in his work ethic.
  • He believes that being obsessed with a project can make others obsessed with it too.
  • Nolan feels compelled to believe in the potential of his films to be the best ever made.
  • The director's passion for his work is seen as a means to engage and captivate his audience.

"Every film I do, I have to believe that I'm making the best film that's ever been made."

This quote reveals Nolan's ambitious mindset and his all-in approach to each project, aiming for the highest quality.

"I feel like I've managed to wrap them up in it, the way I try to wrap myself up in it."

Nolan expresses satisfaction when his audience becomes as engrossed in his films as he is during the creation process.

Nolan's Analog Approach and Craftsmanship

  • Christopher Nolan prefers to work in an analog world, avoiding email and cell phones.
  • He believes that overstimulation from technology can inhibit imagination.
  • Nolan's focus on craftsmanship is likened to the approach of George Lucas.
  • The director's love for screenplays leads him to write or co-write all his films.
  • Nolan's screenwriting philosophy aligns with effective communication seen in great leaders.

"Christopher Nolan does not have an email account and he doesn't use a cell phone."

This quote illustrates Nolan's preference for traditional, non-digital modes of communication, reflecting his analog approach to life and work.

"I don't feel like I'm an artist. I feel like I'm a craftsman."

Nolan's self-perception as a craftsman rather than an artist underscores his meticulous and hands-on approach to filmmaking.

Early Influences and Family Background

  • Christopher Nolan's lifelong passion for cinema is traced back to childhood experiences.
  • The director's varied cultural influences are due to his family's transatlantic living situation.
  • Nolan and his brother's differing accents reflect their upbringing in both England and America.
  • Early exposure to films like "Star Wars" in different countries had a lasting impact on Nolan.

"Christopher Nolan can tell you stories about being six years old and going to see movies with his dad."

Speaker A shares an anecdote that highlights Nolan's deep-rooted love for cinema from a young age.

"So depending on when you were born in the family, you either grow up most of your time in England or most of your time in America."

This quote explains the influence of Nolan's family background on his cultural perspectives and experiences with film.

Early Influence of Film on James Cameron and Christopher Nolan

  • James Cameron's parents supported his interest in movies with a tour of Pinewood Studios.
  • Cameron disliked the work ethic of the Pinewood crew, calling them lazy and arrogant.
  • Christopher Nolan's childhood interest in films was similar to Cameron's, with a focus on understanding how movies are made.
  • Nolan became obsessed with the making of Star Wars and read trade magazines to learn about special effects.
  • Nolan's father took him to see Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," which inspired him to make his own films.

"And so one of the most influential movies that Nolan ever saw when he was a kid was Star wars, which came out in 1977."

This quote highlights the significant impact that "Star Wars" had on young Christopher Nolan, sparking his lifelong fascination with filmmaking.

Christopher Nolan's Early Creative Process

  • Nolan started making movies around the age of seven or eight, using simple cameras and makeshift sets.
  • He realized what a director does at the age of 13 after watching "Blade Runner" and "Alien" and discovering both were directed by Ridley Scott.
  • Nolan's realization that the director was the unifying element in films led him to pursue that career path.

"And then one day he realizes, wait a minute, that's the same director."

The quote underscores the moment Nolan understood the role of a director, which was pivotal in shaping his career ambitions.

Boarding School Influence on Nolan's Discipline

  • Nolan attended a strict boarding school, which instilled discipline and punctuality—traits that later defined his film sets.
  • He would listen to movie soundtracks in the dark, using his imagination to develop film ideas and themes.
  • The boarding school's Darwinian environment helped Nolan develop resilience and a tolerance for discomfort.

"And so many years later, some of the actors that have worked for Chris talk about the fact know he's unbelievably punctual."

This quote illustrates the lasting impact of Nolan's boarding school experience on his professional work ethic and demeanor on set.

Development of Film Ideas and Influence of Past Filmmakers

  • Nolan's idea for "Inception" began to form during his time at boarding school.
  • He was influenced by past filmmakers and made sure his team was familiar with the same films to have a shared knowledge base.
  • Nolan's approach to filmmaking involved letting ideas ruminate for years before bringing them to fruition.

"I really did come up with a couple of ideas that went into inception when I was about 16."

Nolan's quote reveals that the concept for "Inception" was a long-gestating idea, demonstrating his method of developing film concepts over time.

Christopher Nolan's University Years and Early Career

  • Nolan became president of the film and tv society at University College London, creating his own curriculum focused on practical filmmaking skills.
  • He met his future wife, Emma, on the first day of college, and they collaborated on films and ran the film society together.
  • Nolan's first job after college was to fund his filmmaking, leading to his first movie "Following."

"I learned a huge amount about the craft of putting films together."

Nolan's quote reflects on the value of his hands-on education in filmmaking during his university years.

Relentless Resourcefulness and Making of "Following"

  • Nolan's resourcefulness is a recurring theme in his career, aiming to maintain control over his projects by minimizing costs.
  • He shot his first movie, "Following," on weekends over a year with a small budget and a disciplined approach to rehearsals and shooting.
  • Nolan's approach to filmmaking is compared to entrepreneurs for their shared resourcefulness.

"They decided simply to use the bonus from his cameraman job and shoot the film only on weekends for almost a year."

This quote details Nolan's dedication and resourcefulness in making his first film while working a full-time job.

Transition to Full-Time Filmmaking and Memento

  • Nolan had a vision for his career path and prepared for his next project, "Memento," while finishing "Following."
  • "Memento" was the film that significantly advanced Nolan's career, showcasing his ability to plan ahead and capitalize on opportunities.

"He already had the idea for memento. This is his second film. This is the thing that causes his career to go vertical."

The quote highlights the importance of Nolan's foresight in having a follow-up project ready, demonstrating strategic planning in his career progression.

Rejection and New Beginnings

  • Christopher Nolan faced rejection from film school but pursued a new movie idea.
  • The movie concept involved a protagonist with short-term memory loss, using tattoos as clues to solve his wife's murder.
  • Nolan insisted on telling the story backward.

"Encouraged by his rejection from film school, he was hot on a new idea for a movie, the story of a guy who loses his short term memory and tries to solve the murder of his wife by tattooing clues on his body like little mementos."

This quote explains the creative genesis of the movie "Memento," highlighting Nolan's resilience and innovative storytelling approach by using a non-linear narrative structure.

Gaining Recognition and Momentum

  • "Memento" was critically acclaimed, receiving attention from major newspapers.
  • Despite its initial success, Nolan struggled to find a distributor for over a year.
  • The Venice Film Festival screening was a pivotal moment for Nolan's career, with an overwhelmingly positive audience reaction.

"And so then people would ask him, okay, what do you want to do next? Do you have another idea? And then he was able to hand them the completed script for Memento."

This quote reflects Nolan's foresight in having a completed script ready for his next project, demonstrating his strategic planning and ambition.

Transition to Mainstream Success

  • Nolan's first big studio film was "Insomnia," starring Al Pacino.
  • Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh played a key role in helping Nolan secure a meeting with Warner Bros.
  • Nolan's partnership with Hans Zimmer is highlighted, with both being described as minimalists with maximalist production value.

"Offering to executive produce insomnia himself, in a way to guarantee the work of the then 31 year old director, which is Christopher Nolan."

Soderbergh's support and offer to executive produce "Insomnia" exemplify the importance of industry connections and advocacy in advancing a filmmaker's career.

Maintaining Creative Control

  • Nolan emphasizes the importance of constraints in fostering resourcefulness and control.
  • He learned to work efficiently within the studio system to maintain creative power.
  • Nolan's unique home setup allowed him to work closely on projects like "Batman Begins" without studio interference.

"I get my power from spending less and moving faster, not giving anybody a reason to come visit me or to interfere or to complain."

This quote reveals Nolan's philosophy of maintaining control over his projects by working efficiently and cost-effectively, avoiding studio meddling.

Sticking to Analog Methods

  • Nolan has a preference for working in an analog world, avoiding digital tools like email and cell phones.
  • He resisted pressure to digitize film editing, maintaining his traditional workflow despite industry trends.
  • Nolan's adherence to his methods and tools underscores the belief that individual talent is more important than the tools used.

"We continued to shoot on film, edit electronically, then take the frame numbers and cut the film by hand, and that is what goes out."

Nolan's commitment to his preferred film production process, even as the industry moved towards digital, demonstrates his dedication to his artistic vision.

Artistic Influences and Dream Exploration

  • Nolan's work is deeply influenced by literature, past films, and art.
  • He discusses the impact of dreams on his filmmaking, drawing parallels between film and dream experiences.
  • The short stories of Jorge Luis Borges have been particularly influential in Nolan's work.

"Film has a relationship to our own dreams. That's difficult to articulate, but there's an extrapolation of your experience, working things out through your dreams."

Nolan's quote connects the dream-like quality of films to the human experience of processing life through dreams, highlighting a key aspect of his narrative style.

The Culmination of a Vision: Inception

  • "Inception" was a culmination of ideas from various stages of Nolan's life.
  • The success of "The Dark Knight" provided Nolan with the freedom to pursue "Inception."
  • Nolan's approach to filmmaking is likened to running a family business, involving his wife and children in the process.

"Inception was thus the work of half a lifetime, an idea first conceived by Nolan when he was 16, nursed at university, elaborated upon when he came to Hollywood, and finally executed."

This quote encapsulates the long gestation period of "Inception," from initial concept to completion, and how Nolan's life experiences shaped the film's development.

Christopher Nolan's Creative Process

  • Nolan's first instinct with an idea is to flip it backwards, similar to the engineering approach of Rolls Royce's Henry Royce.
  • He visualizes ideas by writing or drawing them out, turning them into three-dimensional objects to better understand them.
  • This approach is applied to storytelling in films, likening it to sculpture.

"So when Christopher Nolan first has an idea, his first instinct is to flip the idea backwards, right?" "Henry Royce would have an idea for some kind of thing... And so he would describe the idea, and then he'd have a wooden model of, like, the part made."

The quote explains Nolan's initial approach to conceptualizing ideas by reversing them and Royce's method of creating a tangible model to grasp the concept better. Both methods involve a physical representation of an idea to facilitate deeper understanding.

The Importance of Analog in a Digital Age

  • Nolan emphasizes living in the real world and not being overly dependent on technology.
  • He uses analog methods for planning and visualization, which he believes aids in storytelling and business development.
  • There is a repeated mention of the dangers of dependency on technology and corporations for managing information.

"But this idea of, hey, I want to live in the real world, and I don't want to be dependent upon all these technologies, was something that comes up over and over again."

The quote highlights Nolan's preference for analog methods and his concern about the potential overreliance on digital technologies, which he sees as a broader metaphor applicable to both filmmaking and business.

The Filmmaking Journey and Trusting Instinct

  • Nolan believes in the loose association between plans (screenplays, business plans) and the final product.
  • He stresses the importance of getting lost in the process but ultimately finding one's way, trusting in one’s instincts developed over years of practice.
  • A list of successful individuals, including Steve Jobs and James Cameron, is cited as having similar beliefs in trusting their instincts.

"After a decade or two of practice, he realized that the job of director and a lot of what he has to do comes from his either unconscious or his instinct."

This quote reflects Nolan's realization that much of his directorial decisions are based on instinct, which is a sentiment shared by other successful figures in various fields.

Christopher Nolan's Work Ethic and Preparation

  • Before starting a movie, Nolan writes a one-page summary of his vision to remind himself of the film's heart.
  • He compares his approach to Jeff Bezos's practice at Amazon, where they begin with the end in mind, crafting a mock press release to understand the product's core.
  • Nolan and Bezos both prioritize maintaining a clear vision amidst the distractions of the creative process.

"Before he starts working on a movie, right, Nolan will pull out his typewriter... and then he will type up a one page summary of his vision of the film."

The quote describes Nolan's preparatory step of distilling his vision into a concise document, a practice paralleled by Jeff Bezos's approach at Amazon, emphasizing the importance of clarity and focus.

Personal Reflections in Filmmaking

  • Nolan's personal experiences, such as his relationship with his children, influence his filmmaking.
  • He altered a key relationship in "Interstellar" from a father-son to a father-daughter dynamic to reflect his own life.
  • Hans Zimmer's quote on seeing oneself through one's children's eyes resonates with Nolan's approach to his work and life.

"I have a daughter who is the same age as the character... And then they're having a discussion because he's got this close friendship and creative partnership with Hans Zimmer."

This quote connects Nolan's personal life with his creative decisions, illustrating how personal experiences can shape artistic expression.

Nolan's Approach to Genre and Minimalism

  • Nolan's distinctive approach to filmmaking involves defining a film by what it lacks, as exemplified by "Dunkirk."
  • He was influenced by "Gravity" and "Mad Max: Fury Road" to create a war film that strips away conventional elements.
  • Nolan's minimalist direction focuses on the essence of the experience rather than the typical chaotic visuals of war films.

"Another thing that he does is trying to take his approach to a specific genre of a movie is to do to make a product defined by all the things it lacks."

The quote summarizes Nolan's method of creating a unique film by omitting expected elements, resulting in a fresh perspective on a familiar genre.

Nolan's Persistence and Practicality

  • Nolan's filmmaking philosophy involves shooting regardless of weather conditions or other challenges.
  • His persistence and determination to keep working no matter what are conveyed to his team, setting a tone of seriousness and dedication.
  • This philosophy is seen as a metaphor for his overall approach to filmmaking.

"I'm known in the film business for having good luck with the weather... But my philosophy is to just shoot no matter what the weather is."

Nolan's quote about his reputation for good weather luck versus his actual philosophy reflects his resilience and adaptability, key traits in his approach to filmmaking.

Cinema's Unique Place According to Nolan

  • Nolan views directing as a job requiring knowledge in many areas, though mastery is not essential in all.
  • He believes cinema offers a unique combination of subjective, visceral experience with the shared empathy of the audience, likening it to a mystical experience.
  • Nolan's passion for cinema is compared to the way Enzo Ferrari spoke about his cars, with deep love and respect.

"Directing is a job where you have to know a bit of everything... The thing that makes films completely unique is the combination of subjectivity, the visceral experience with shared experience, and empathy with the rest of the audience."

The quote encapsulates Nolan's belief in the power of cinema to offer a simultaneously personal and collective experience, which he regards as a profoundly unique and valuable aspect of filmmaking.

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