Christopher Nolan: An Auteur, or Just Another Filmmaker?

“I think audiences get too comfortable and familiar in today’s movies. They believe everything    they’re hearing and seeing. I like to shake that up.” – Christopher Nolan

Four simple words that carry such great significance, “In Nolan We Trust”.

It’s late October, film-fanatics descend into pack multiplex’s on the morning releases of his new hotly anticipated feature. Christopher Nolan, the name muttered under every film critics lips. His name most often compared to a man as-enthusiastic, meticulous, intelligent and ambitious as him; Stanley Kubrick. Yet perhaps the greatest trait with Nolan lies in his approach to his pursuit of attention to detail in his work.

Virtually unknown at the beginning of the millennium; a decade on, he is arguably one of the most celebrated critically and commercially successful directors in Hollywood today, a man whose eight films over a fourteen year span have grossed over $3.5 billion in revenue. With Nolan’s epic science-fiction thriller, Interstellar, opening across the globe, the question of his authenticity as an auteur will only intensify. It leads me to question, is Christopher Nolan an auteur, or just another blockbuster director?

Born in London, though his childhood was split up between there and Chicago, thanks to his American flight attendant mother and advertisement-copywriter father, Christina & Brendan Nolan. The UK-US citizen made the journey to Hollywood, becoming a Los Angles homeowner where he, his wife (and long-time producer) Emma Thomas and their four children all moved at the beginning of the millennium. Though Nolan, 44, has kept true to his filmmaking ways since the tender age of seven year old when he borrowed his father’s Super 8 camera and together with his older brother and lesser known Nolan brother, Matthew; they made mini-films, using their Star Wars action figures as the actors. “By the time I was 10 or 11,’ Nolan says, ‘I knew I wanted to make films”, he further added, “I just carried on making films as I grew up,” he explained later. “Over the years they got bigger, hopefully better, but more elaborate.”

As his career progressed from hit-to-hit, Nolan has been increasingly described by journalists as a ‘Blockbuster auteur’. This is attributed to the fact that he currently writes, directs and produces high-budget film that gross upwards of a billion pounds plus. Though he is one of few directors who has successfully managed to make the jump from low-budget narratives to massive Hollywood blockbusters in an incredibly short amount of time, and more importantly, successful too. Virtually every film of his has progressively gotten longer as the budget has gotten larger, it’s a show of his growing confidence. 

Mathew McConaughey as “Cooper” in Interstellar (2014)

Now Nolan is taking his directing prowess to the next level with a three-hour long, $165 million blockbuster entitled, Interstellar. Essentially the narrative sees Academy awarding winning actor, Matthew McConaughey lead a team astronauts from the remains of NASA, on a space mission through a wormhole to discover habitable planets, in hope of replacing the dying Earth. The idea was originally penned with the view of Steven Spielberg directing, though co-writers, Nolan’s younger brother Jonathan Nolan and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne opted for older brother ‘Chris’ to direct the winter mega-hit. With his desire to tackle his favourite subjects, Nolan shot Interstellar in 70 mm IMAX cameras, matching the aesthetic venture of the film; this results in the scope and the vision of the film looking incredible.

Labelled “Hitchcock’s successor” by Telegraph writer Will Lawrence in 2010 prior to the release of Inception, following in the footsteps of other greatly appreciated auteurs like Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. Though many critics have remarked Nolan’s auteur status being unjust; of the his eight feature films he has directed, six have been either remakes, adaptations, or franchise films. This questions if Nolan is an auteur or just another blockbuster directer as each carry their own negative connotations and authenticity of Nolan’s directing attributes. Michael Caine, who’s appeared in six of Nolan’s films, including Interstellar, said; “He reminds me of Hitchcock, the way that everything is about creating the best moments of suspense.”

However, in an article for, ‘Michael Bay: A New Kind of Director’, writer Katie Kilkenny denies directors like Bay are auteurs and remarks, “The term usually implies a style at odds with profit-minded Hollywood formulas.” As Nolan is now consistently involved with remakes, adaptations, or franchise films that garner big budgets and even bigger profits, does this mean he fits into this bracket Kilkenny describes too. The simple definition of the word ‘auteur’ derives from French filmmaker and critic François Truffaut and his peers at Cahiers du Cinéma during the French New Wave, it states; a director who imposes a strong sense of personality or “signature” on the final picture. It can be argued that Bay is as much as an auteur as Nolan is, as journalist Scott Foundas remarks, “He’s an auteur through and through”. “You know within a few seconds of watching his movie that it’s a Michael Bay movie and beyond that there’s no question that he’s influenced the visual language of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster in a major way.”

On a personal level Nolan and Bay aren’t in the same category of filmmaking. It can be argued that both filmmakers have altered Hollywood as an industry, both have studio executive and Hollywood accommodate their every need and are just as, if not more powerful than the film stars in their respected work. But I consider Nolan to be a true auteur, working with constant themes of identity, truth and time, whilst also collaborating with recurrent actors, producers, production member and writers in his last eight features.

He frequently collaborates with his producing-wife, Emma Thomas; she has executively produced every single one of his nine films (including Following). His brother, long-time writer partner Jonathan has worked on all-but three of Nolan’s film. Wally Pfister, his long-time Academy Award winning cinematographer has shot ever single one of his films, bar Interstellar and film score legend Hans Zimmer has composed his last six films, along with his editor and production designer, Lee Smith and Nathan Crowley. Michael Caine has appeared in every movie Christopher Nolan has directed since Batman Begins in 2005 and Christian Bale has featured in four of his films.

Nolan has grown as a filmmaker with age and experience; he refers to himself as a “jack-of-all-trades” and emphasises the “master of none”, but instead he focuses on making films he would watch, unlike directors like Bay who focuses on making films which will gross vast sums of profit. As his wife, Emma puts it, “In the past, he never made movies for any reason other than the fact that he wanted to see those movies himself, now he wants to make films he can watch with his kids.” This is seen throughout the production process. Nolan, a great believer in shooting fast, utilises the creative concentration enforced by the pressures of time and money when shooting and often maintains a focused energy on his set which reflects within the performances of his actors. This reflects with his auteur approach, placing emphasis on his characters and the audience’s relationship over their actions; although the fantasy element plays an important role too, they’re always realistically grounded. Excluding his The Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan’s movies require extensive historical backstories and factual information to support their looping plots which stimulate the his overall time shifting signatures, whether this be the progression of time, or the idea of time as a theme for the narrative. As well as his expression of using emotional blackmail within the narrative; putting the audience in the shoes of the protagonist, illustrating the themes of identity and truth. This potent mixture of auteur filmmaking, ambitious set design and often utilisation of illustrious visual effects that Nolan has used this throughout his decade of Hollywood filmmaking, despite budget or cast. He uses this with the constant use of his themes, tones and stories that are intellectual, philosophical and sophisticated as well as entertaining.   

Christopher Nolan directs Matthew McConaughey in ‘Interstellar’ 

The Following, Nolan’s £3000 debut student film shot during a period of various weekends over a course of a year, with a small cast of close friends who all had other full-time jobs, used the same tones and themes in this as his £3 million Sundance favourite, which brought him into Hollywood stardom at the age of 30, amnesia noir-thriller, Memento, starring Guy Pierce; which was notable for its narrative told in reverse chronology. These were driven by Nolan’s technique of using the leading character’s personality and troubles as an emotional source for the storyline. “Young Man” alters his personality and lifestyle in the Following around the random women whom he burgled her house, whilst also aimlessly stalking various people. Whereas Leonard’s short-term memory in Memento, uses tattoos and polaroids to hunt for his wife’s murderer and his own personality, leading the narrative through Leonard’s shoes, by showing the audience the future before it happens.

These tones and themes in his proceeding films. The Prestige, the competitive Victorian one-upmanship magician drama, is Nolan’s introduction into utilising film and its technology, with it clever special effects and commentary. Its themes are conveyed through the identity crisis between two magicians; two men occupying a single identity in an illusion created by Hugh Jackman’s character. His trilogy set in Gotham, Christian Bale’s character torn between the two personalities of Bruce Wayne and Batman and Cobb’s confusion between reality and dreams in Inception, the heist film that takes place in a series of dreams within the body of one character as Cobb’s struggles with the recollection of his wife, and now his latest feature, Interstellar. On the surface Nolan’s newest feature doesn’t convey similar thematic tones or characters which he often plays with, however, his themes of memory and identity are conveyed through the use of the his leading character’s emotions. Faced with the possibility an extinction of humans, Cooper and his crew must choose for all of mankind, to search for a better future and the survival of the human race. 

Nolan, left, with Guy Pearce on the set of “Memento” in 2000. Credit: Everest Collection

Nolan is a director who isn’t pressured by the idea of ‘celebrity’, he directs without drama or problems. The bigger the budget, the higher complexity of the film or scene, Nolan appears to be calmer. As Michael Caine explains, “He’s very quiet and he just wanders around looking at everything. Then he comes up and whispers something to you and everything is very controlled”. Though perhaps his biggest quirk is his passion for secrecy in filmmaking. Like his directional comparison, Kubrick, Nolan is committed to keeping his narratives a secret in production due to fear of spoilers. Liam Neeson hinted at the difficulties of working with Nolan when he was shooting Batman Begins in early 2004. “He takes it to another extreme,”, Neeson explains how he went and shot a scene for two hours with Christian Bale. |There was a set, and Christian was tied up. I said”, ‘Chris, what am I doing?’ ‘Um… well, just walk forward, and say the lines, walk back, and that’ll be it, really.’ I said, ‘What the f—? Tell me the story!’ ‘Um… I’d prefer not to, really’, “Okay, don’t mind me — I’m just an actor.”

The success of his remake of the Norwegian thriller, Insomnia is what gave Nolan this shot at the resurrection of Warner Bros’ “Batman” franchise and placed him on the global film radar; with Batman Begins in 2005, eight years after Joel Schumacher version turned the iconic comic book hero into a laughingstock of Hollywood. Combining with recurrent actors Christian Bale & Michael Caine, writer-brother Jonathan Nolan, cinematographer Wally Pfister, and producing-wife Emma Thomas once again, The Dark Knight trilogy has his stamp of style with the continuation of themes Nolan previously explored, though instead builds on the fundamentally roots of Batman in terms of identity and truth, entangled in the rich well known story Batman has. The films stylistic and thematic attributes have similarities to Nolan’s past and present work. Nolan uses the story of Bruce Wayne to examine our own personal and social identities, harping onto memory and personality as key themes which has been represented in other Nolan film.

Also, like his past work, his Batman films are full of emotion, thanks to Christian Bale’s brilliant version of the psychologically tortured superhero; Bruce Wayne’s struggles as he must choose who lives, and who dies in The Dark Knight. Whereas his follow-up, Inception, features a love story at its fundamental heart, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Dom Cobb” as he struggles with his undying passion for his deceased wife Mal, played by Marion Cotillard, whom can only be kept alive in his dreams. “I do consider Inception something of a love story,” he remarks. “I’m going soft as I get older!”. His latest feature, Interstellar, is too full of emotion, with Cooper’s love for his planet, sacrificing his relationship with his family in order to give them a better future. Often video-logs are sent to him and his crew from their families as an emotional narrative device, and we see these family members progressively getting older and go through various life events. Like Cooper’s son, Tom, played by Casey Affleck – meeting a girl, marrying her and having a child with her. 

Heath Ledger as the “Joker” in The Dark Knight (2008)

Co-writer of The Dark Knight trilogy, a frequent executive producer on big-budget blockbusters; most recently Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and the upcoming Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the leading writer in all the features he has directed (except Insomnia), Nolan fits within the bracket of a “complete filmmaker” in all aspects of preproduction, production and postproduction. He prefers to control the directorial process; no second directing unit, just him and the camera. This is unnatural in the world of Hollywood blockbusters as the majority of directors prefer to work on audience favourability with constant explosions, most notably Michael Bay.

Unlike Bay though, Nolan is a director that searches for a technical challenge in filmmaking, productions that connect the audience to his stories. An example of his is preference on shooting on location rather than creating a set. He says he is inspired by “the claustrophobia, the restrictions involved in trying to make your story work in a real location, versus the anything-goes mentality on sets.” He embodies this within his auteur signature, differing himself from other renowned filmmakers like his comparison, Stanley Kubrick. Additionally he often uses the camera to its full-capacity, attempting to create as many of his special effect as he can, rather than creating them within the postproduction edit. The acting, the plot, special effects, advancing film technology and sound all contribute to his growing wealth of film logic in the audience and his auteur signature. “I have a faith,” he said, “that any audience can tell the difference between something that’s consistent to rules versus something that’s totally made up and anarchic.”

In this short-span of just over a decade, Nolan has classed-up the American film industry, and more importantly, blockbusters in a way Hollywood thought was impossible. He went from a student film shot over a course of a year, to a psychological-thriller which struggled to find distribution in the United States to Batman, the Joker and Bane battling in the streets of modern-day Gotham, to distorting the minds of the public with The Prestige, Inception and Interstellar, whilst consistently breaking box office records with multiple-million dollar budgets and maintaining his artistic credibility throughout. His films have managed to appeal to mainstream blockbuster moviegoers and cult film fanatics; it’s what makes Christopher Nolan an admired figure in Hollywood and a true auteur.

Interstellar is on Blu-Ray and DVD now


In writing this feature piece on Christopher Nolan and his latest film Interstellar, I aimed to explore his tones and themes which make him an auteur in Hollywood today, whilst also a leading direction in the world of blockbusters. In researching and discussing this I chose my films based on the year it was made, the budget and the general synopsis of it; Interstellar, Memento and The Prestige were my main focuses in the piece, whilst I also discussed his films Inception and his Batman trilogy, whilst referencing his first film the Following. Additionally I wrote this article in the style of a Sight and Sound publication, due to the heavy-film based academic insight and writing style I wrote this in. Originally my first-choice publication was Empire due to its concentration on current films, but I felt my writing style and content suited Sight and Sound more.

Whilst these films also focus on the idea of time, identity and truth, it was important for me while watches these films to understand how Nolan has conveyed these themes; in terms of the production. I mentioned how Nolan is a great believer in shooting fast, utilises the creative concentration enforced by the pressures of time and money when shooting and often maintains a focused energy on his set which reflects within the performances of his actors, and how he uses these themes, tones and stories which are intellectual, philosophical and sophisticated as well as entertaining to their full effect in capture the minds of the audience. Additionally how his films require extensive historical backstories and factual information to support the looping plots which stimulate the his overall time shifting signatures, whether this be the progression of time, or the idea of time as a theme for the narrative. As well as his expression of using emotional blackmail within the narrative; putting the audience in the shoes of the protagonist, illustrating the themes of identity and truth.

This is discovered through researching Christopher Nolan, however it was difficult understanding his personality as I obviously wasn’t able to contact him for an interview etc; journalists like The Guardian’s Tom Shone, The Telegraph’s Will Lawrence and NY Time’s Gideon Lewis-Kraus, were very helpful and insightful into understanding why Nolan directs in a certain fashion and how history and personality reflects his work. Additionally as they also had the ability to interview him, their quotes were essential in writing my piece, as they asked questions I personally was intrigued into finding out. Whilst movie critics Katie Kilkenny and Scott Foundas also helped engaged the question I set out for myself, whether Christopher Nolan is an auteur, or just another blockbuster director; thanks to their arguments on whether Michael Bay is an auteur in relation to the world of great auteurs,

In conclusion, I aimed to convey and illustrate Christopher Nolan’s auteur style from his themes, tones and general filming making personality through the publication of Sight and Sound. I believe I did this from a mostly non-biased stance (except for the paragraph discussing my own personal opinions on the auteur subject). This module also has helped me in becoming a better film academic, something which I feel is key when studying.