Christopher Nolan films break down: Inside director’s mind (kind of)
If you have watched Leonardo DiCaprio in a dream loop or Christian Bale saving Gotham City, then you have been watching the best works of writer-director Christopher Nolan.
He is famous worldwide for his unique plots, top-notch authentic visuals, and mind-boggling storylines. And if you are someone who appreciates the craft of movie-making or are simply curious, we are here for while we breakdown some aspects of Nolan’s film-making styles.
Now we are hardly experts. Just slightly more observant than the other movie watcher, so we will try to explain it as clearly as we can.
Themes and ideas prevalent in Nolan films
He usually uses non-linear (jumping from one time to another) storytelling. Going back and forth and reconstructing time and space is one of the trademarks of Christopher Nolan, while screenplay as well as direction. The best example can be Memento (2000) when we just try to figure the direction of the story, backward or forward. It is a part of his storytelling that intrigues the viewer more and more.
He uses a technique called ‘crosscut.’ Which means to transition between scenes to show parallel actions and events. This helps in building the climax as the viewers can see the events and conflicts coming to a resolution all the while action is happening. Sort of like watching multiple camera footage and see them leading towards the same destination, trying to figure out the end along the way.
An example of this can be seen in Dunkirk (2017). Here, the settings shift from the land to sea to air. We see them all at the same time and then piece it all together.
Another similar transition technique is ‘hard cuts.’ Here, the scene does not seamlessly merge into the next one but switches at lightning-fast speed, many a time leaving the previous action/dialogue unfinished. Many experts say that it should not be used as it does not look as smooth and appealing, but Nolan managed to make it work in movies like in the Dark Knight Trilogy.
This happens during post-production. That is, the editing of the movie and when all the scenes are put together as per the script. It goes to show how involved he is with all the aspects of his films.
Another thing is that action sequences in the movies use as few visual effects (computerized enhancements) as possible to bring authenticity to the audiences. This might stem from his earlier direction experiences and be a part of his craftsmanship.
The storyline here revolves around a character with psychological disorders, the forthcomings of those disorders and their immense impact. This can be seen in Inception (2010), where Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is unable to grasp onto reality and stays stuck in the dream loop.
Similarly, Will Dormer’s (Al Pacino) inability to sleep while detecting a murder in Insomnia (2002). His sleep-deprived state starts playing tricks on his mind and sends him for a spin. Other instances are Leonard Shelby’s (Guy Pearce) anterograde amnesia in Memento and Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) phobia of bats in Batman Begins (2005).
He has also used time as a tool to affect the psychology of the audience and the characters. His exceptional reconstruction of time and space hooks the viewer to the story. It makes them highly invested in them. Be it the time constraint in Dunkirk or entirely inverting it in Interstellar or playing tricks with the help of the magicians in The Prestige (2006).
This play on the storytelling of his sends viewers in a spin when they realize their assumptions/predictions have been inaccurate. It generates a thrill (in some) in the suspense of it all. Some manage to connect the dots slowly but surely and some stay clueless (then go watch videos that breakdown these concepts, like me).
Christopher Nolan is known for exploring aspects of philosophy in his films, via the consciousness of his characters, without concrete solutions to those concepts. One of those concepts is memory, entwined with time. Flashbacks, reality, dreams, magic, and society were his tools to send his messages across. The most common plot point in his films is that he uses rationale, knowledge, technicalities, and fundamental reality as its base.
For example, in Interstellar (2014) when they try to erase the event of the Apollo mission or Cobb trying to implant memories in a third person’s subconscious. Even in Batman Series, the memory of Bruce’s parent’s death is emphasized and focused upon. He shows how in Dunkirk the memories of war and torture affect the soldiers and the reactions (to bombs and enclosed spaces). He uses it to offer more of an emotional narrative to the audience.
- Howard Hughes biography – One of the most successful producers and engineers, Nolan planned to bring his story to the screen after doing Memento. This was the “best script [he’d] ever written”. However, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator came out in 2004. So, Nolan scrapped this project. But now, after Tenet (2020), fans are speculating that he might pick it up again.
- The Keys to the Street (crime novel by Ruth Rendell) – Since the story was quite similar to his previous works, Christopher Nolan scrapped it.
- The Prisoner (1967 British tv series) – Nolan went on to work on the third Batman Movie. Subsequently, he dropped the series movie adaptation.
This is just a tip of the ice-berg that is film-studies and analysis. On top of that, such complexities are enough to keep our heads spinning for hours. Please let us know if you would like more content like this or more content on Nolan’s works and movies.