Directors’ Trademarks: Christopher Nolan

Nolan knew he wanted to be a filmmaker from a young age. He attended college to pursue this goal and eventually became the president of the local film society. While in charge of the film society, he screened films and used the proceeds to make short films, which were well received by his peers and the faculty. After college, Nolan couldn’t find any work and decided to raise funds to create a feature length film by himself. The result of that effort was Following (1998), which won several awards at festivals and impressed critics. That success led to an opportunity to direct another feature film. His second feature film was Memento (2000), which was based on an idea from his brother. Memento was a success (it earned two Oscar nominations) and caught the eye of many powerful people in Hollywood, including Steven Soderberg.


Soderberg was important in convincing Warner Brothers to use Nolan as director for Insomnia (2002). Insomnia was profitable at the box office, got good reviews, but more importantly secured Nolan’s abilities in the eyes of Hollywood. From this point on, he was allowed more freedom and could chose to build a team of filmmakers around him. He worked off and on for the next few years on a couple projects before finalizing on a new Batman film. Batman Begins (2005) opened to critical and commercial acclaim and was the biggest hit of his career so far. His next film was The Prestige (2006), which he had been working on with his brother for a number of years up to that point. This film was also successful and received Oscar nominations. Nolan returned to his Batman story with The Dark Knight (2008), which was extremely well received by audiences and critics. Inception (2010) was his next film, which continued his trend of smash hits. His finale to his Batman trilogy was The Dark Knight Rises (2012). His latest film, Interstellar (2014) opens in theaters this week.  

So the question posed is, if you are watching a Christopher Nolan film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Nolan’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:



Non-Linear Storytelling


What Nolan is probably best known for is that he doesn’t tell his stories linearly (with scenes in chronological order). He makes extensive use of flashbacks and flashforwards to add additional depth and explanation. As such, a common theme is having multiple story threads that link together. In Memento, for example, the story is told from both ends at the same time. In The Prestige, the film is split into two stories that are from the perspectives of two different characters, and as events in one storyline occur, they add clarity to events that happen in the other. In Batman Begins, Nolan uses flashbacks heavily in the exposition to bring the audience up to speed about what we are watching while also continuing the main storyline starting from a point in the future. Finally, Nearly all of Nolan’s films have an opening scene (or at least just a clip of a scene) that is not in chronological order with the rest of the film.


Memento = The opening sequence is the last scene played backwards

Insomnia = Flashback clip

Batman Begins = Flashback to childhood

The Prestige = The first scene in the film is also the last one

Dark Knight = Flashback to robbery mentioned at end of Batman Begins

Inception = Flashforward to end of film

The Dark Knight Rises = Flash back to event that occurred before main storyline starts

Interstellar = Flash forward to clips of an interview, then clip of flashback/dream.


 Hero or Antihero?

  Two Face

 In many of Nolan’s films, a main character starts off with redeeming qualities only to be shown later as having evil qualities. These characters can be the protagonist or someone who is at first assisting the protagonist. They often start off as heroic or seem like they have good intentions, but by the end of the film are antagonists or anti-heroes. In Memento, Leonard (Guy Pearce) gives himself a warning not to trust Teddy (Joe Pontlianno), but it’s not until the end of the film that we know why. In The Prestige, the protagonist is Angier (Hugh Jackman) who plays the victim’s role when Borden (Christian Bale) causes the death of his wife. In the end though, Angier’s obsession with revenge ends up making him as much of a villain (if not more) than Borden. Nolan’s Batman trilogy has one major supporting character that switches sides in each film. Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, Harvey Dent/Two Face in The Dark Knight, and Miranda Tate/Talia al Ghul in The Dark Knight Rises.


A Character’s Perspective


Nolan is an auteur director, which basically means that he has his hand in just about everything. Although stories are his forte, he also pays close attention to the manner in which his films are shot. In particular, Nolan is very careful with where he puts his camera, and what it shows the audience. This is especially true when a scene is focusing on a character or dialogue. Nolan’s favorite shot is to place the camera behind his actor at eye level. This is to allow the audience to “see” from the character’s perspective without actually being that character. It is a clever way to create a first-person like experience for the audience without giving up a third-person storytelling advantage. In the Prestige, the camera follows behind Angier as he performs onstage, showing his perspective as he looks out at the crowd. In Inception, the vertigo-inducing fight sequence in the twisting hotel room is shot from behind Arthur. In Memento, the camera is always at eye level or else it is showing the first-person perspective of a character. In Insomnia, when Dormer is chasing Walter Finch, the camera follows behind Dormer.

Shining Light


Nolan uses light, darkness, and the contrast of those things to show character growth/decay and exploration. In Batman Begins it is Bruce Wayne who, with the help of a flashlight, ventures into the batcave for the first time to face his fears. In The Prestige, it is a field of light bulbs free of wires that allows Angier to experience amazement from something real, not an illusion. In The Dark Knight Rises, light floods in from above in the Lazarus Pit, beckoning to Bruce and making him find again his strength. In Inception, there is a ceiling of lights in the first/last scene of the movie (similar to the idea of a field of light as in The Prestige) which not only captivates the audience but helps them make the connection between the two very important future/past sequences. Finally, in Insomnia it is the perennial light flooding through the window into Dormer’s hotel room which keeps him from sleeping and over time wears him down.   

Connections? We’ve got your connections.


Nolan’s biggest signature is also the one that’s the hardest to spot. Think of it as easter eggs for the well-informed. All of Nolan’s films have various levels of connections. These connections can be physical or based on ideas and themes. Some of them are obvious and therefore easy to point out (The Batman Trilogy), while others are more obscure and are just theory at this point (The Prestige Trilogy).

Besides The Batman Trilogy, the most obvious connection between many of Nolan’s films is a physical one. Although Nolan’s films have made technological advances over time, production values have increased, and actors have aged, his films are remarkably consistent in presentation. The key is the people he works with. Even though The Prestige takes place in the the early 20th century, the film feels eerily similar to Inception or Insomnia. The visual texture of his films remains similar because his principle of photography (cinematographer Wally Pfister) has been the same for all of his films except The Following. The soundscape of his films remains similar because Hans Zimmer has made all of the soundtracks since Batman Begins. Each film of the Batman trilogy has a similar feel to the story because Nolan wrote them all with his brother Jonathan, who also wrote Interstellar and the short story on which Memento is based. There’s also a consistency with the people in front of the camera. Once Nolan finds an actor/actress he likes working with, he often uses them for more than one film. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy, and Ken Watanabe have all had more than one role in multiple Nolan films.

Now let’s look at some of the more obscure connections. To begin with is the observation that each of Nolan’s films have a connection to the film that immediately preceded it. This may be intentional or just coincidence, as some connections are stronger than others:


Memento – The clock that is used in the film is the same one that is stolen in Following.

Insomnia – Both of the main characters talk to the person they are after on a phone before they know who that person is. Both of them receive this phone call while in a hotel room.

Batman Begins – The beginning of the film takes place near an icy glacier, a homage to the glacier shown in the opening scene of Insomnia.

The Prestige – Starts off with Christian Bale’s character in prison, just like Batman Begins.

The Dark Knight – The Joker performs a “deadly” magic trick.

Inception –  Ariadne references blowing up a hospital.

The Dark Knight Rises – The opening scene is similar to Inception. Both feature a character breaking into a safe. While doing this, they are caught, yet they are able to keep what they stole.

Interstellar – AI/Autopilot appears to be malfunctioning and as a result we are under the assumption at some point in the film that the main character is dead. It turns out that these systems work fine and as a result the main character is actually alive.

These are just some of the connections. There are many more, including connections between films that are not back-to-back. Examples include the name of the main character (Cobb) being the same in Following and in Inception. Or the fact that in both Batman Begins and Inception Ken Watanabe’s character dies by a roof caving in on him. Or the fact that a necklace is an important prop in both Insomnia and The Dark Knight Rises.

Finally, any Nolan fan worth their salt is aware of The Advanced Batman and The Prestige Trilogy theories. To understand this theory, one must first understand the opening scene in The Prestige. In the opening scene the foundation of a good magic trick is being explained. A magic trick has three parts. The first part is The Pledge. This is when something that is seemingly ordinary is presented to the audience, but we all know that it is probably not ordinary. A coin for example. The second part is The Turn. The Turn is when the Pledge becomes extraordinary. The coin disappears. The third part is The Prestige. The Prestige takes the extraordinary and uses it to do something unexpected. The coin reappears.

The Advanced Batman Theory claims that the three parts of a magic trick can also be applied to The Batman Trilogy. Batman Begins is The Pledge. A man, Bruce Wayne/Batman, is introduced and although he is just a man we know that he is probably something more than just a man. The Dark Knight is The Turn. The Joker causes chaos which ruins everything that Bruce Wayne wanted. He becomes a recluse and Batman takes the fall for the murder of Harvey Dent. The man we were introduced to disappears. The Dark Knight Rises is The Prestige. Both Bruce Wayne and Batman find a way to battle back. They find their purpose and surprise everyone with their return.

The Prestige Trilogy Theory claims that The Prestige is the beginning of another trilogy. After viewing Interstellar, here’s my take on this idea. In this trilogy, The Prestige is really The Pledge. The basis of the film is the truth (reality) vs. illusion. The magicians work to fool their audience, but the film reveals the horrifying truth behind these tricks. In other words, the truth is absolute, you can’t escape it. Inception is The Turn. Here the idea of reality or “truth” is turned on its head. We have dreams within dreams and characters struggle to determine what is real and what is not real. Here the message is that reality or “truth” may not exist, or at least it questions the foundation on which reality is based. Interstellar is The Prestige. It tells us that, like an epic episode of the X-files, the truth is out there. It explains the unexplainable, and in doing so, expands our mind and our potential. Reality and “truth” are not going anywhere; they can be faked but not altered.

Want more? Check out the previous installment:

Directors’ Trademarks: David Ayer