What Inspires Christopher Nolan?

Christopher Nolan has made a name for himself as being one of the most successful and influential filmmakers of this era. We take a look at some of the people and things that have influenced his approach to film. 

From crime dramas, to mind-bending science fiction, comic book adaptations, and war, Christopher Nolan’s filmography covers a wide range. But unlike some other filmmakers, Nolan does not exactly have a stand-out noticeable visual style or tone which carries through all of his work. What gives Nolan’s films a consistent feel is his storytelling acumen and technical execution. But, when you begin to look at the films, filmmakers, writers, and artists who have influenced Nolan’s work, you better understand the consistency in his vision and his style as a filmmaker. Namely, you begin to see how he has chosen to work in films which play homage to those who have inspired him the most….

2001: A Space Odyssey

Nolan isn’t old enough to have seen this film when it first came out in theaters. Instead, he recalls seeing it during a re-release after Star Wars made science fiction popular again. 

“My dad took me to see it in Leicester Square in London on the biggest screen possible in 70mm, and I’ve never forgotten that feeling of the screen just opening up and you being taken on a journey that you never thought was possible. That’s always stayed with me as an inspiration for what movies could do.”

This is one of the films which made Nolan interested in science fiction and space exploration, and was a big part of his motivation to make Interstellar. You can also see the sparseness of dialogue in Dunkirk, and the skepticism of advanced technology in Inception and The Prestige. Most importantly though, Nolan was impressed by the spectacle of 2001 both in terms of the impact to the viewer and in regards to the film making craft it exudes. Indeed, Nolan is one of the few remaining directors who does not film his movies using digital technology. In 2018, his love for analog film led him to release an “un-restoration” of 2001 in 2018. 

Nicholas Roeg’s films

Nolan has said that Memento would have not been possible without the influence of Nicholas Roeg. Roeg was British director who didn’t seek out the mainstream. His films like Performance, Don’t Look Now, and The Man Who Fell to Earth often discussed topics that seemed to contrast each other. As a result, they often had complicated story lines. Like Nolan, he liked to give his audience clues slowly over time, and figuring out a plot is like solving a puzzle rather than having the film spell everything out for you. In many ways, Nolan uses the same approach in his films. 

David Bowie

Speaking of Nicholas Roeg, another figure who had a significant influence on Nolan was David Bowie himself. Nolan loved David’s performance in The Man Who Fell to Earth, but was also captivated by his performance in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Besides being a fan of Bowie’s music, Nolan was fascinated by Bowie’s charisma. He has praised Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence as a film that captures the delight of this charisma and shares it with the audience without filter. This experience, of being so captivated by an actor on screen, ultimately led to Nolan casting Bowie in The Prestige. Nolan later recalled: 

“When we were casting The Prestige, we had gotten very stuck on the character of Nikola Tesla. Tesla was this other-worldly, ahead-of-his-time figure, and at some point it occurred to me he was the original Man Who Fell to Earth. As someone who was the biggest Bowie fan in the world, once I made that connection, he seemed to be the only actor capable of playing the part. He had that requisite iconic status, and he was a figure as mysterious as Tesla needed to be. It took me a while to convince him, though—he turned down the part the first time. It was the only time I can ever remember trying again with an actor who passed on me. I petitioned to let me explain why he was the right actor for it. In total honesty, I told him if he didn’t agree to do the part, I had no idea where I would go from there. I would say I begged him.”

Steven Spielberg 

While making Dunkirk, Nolan had reached out to Spielberg in order to get some help on staging epic war battle scenes. Dunkirk has the obvious connection to Saving Private Ryan in that both are WWII action films, but Nolan actually was trying to create a different type of film. Nolan has long been a Spielberg admirer, but one thing he has noted that is consistent across Spielberg’s films is the emotional connection the audience has with Spielberg’s protagonists. Nolan didn’t want to make the same type of war film you had seen many times before, and so one of the things he did was seek out a way to distance the audience from the emotional connection with his characters. He wanted the experience to be more about the war, than the story, and that is why he sought out Spielberg’s recommendations because the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan is chiefly about demonstrating the horrors of war to the audience. 

Many people make the connection of Nolan being a modern version of Spielberg because his films have had near-universal appraisal and success in the blockbuster format. Whether or not you agree with that connection, you can’t ignore how Spielberg’s style of film has certainly influenced Nolan and many of the films he takes inspiration from. Jaws was a big moment for cinema that opened the doors for the blockbuster, and made larger-scale films like Nolan’s possible. Spielberg has also had his own share of success with science fiction. Movies like E.T., Minority Report, Jurassic Park, and A.I. have shown a more cerebral take on science fiction compared to something like Star Wars. Likewise, it is easy to see how Close Encounters of the Third Kind helped to directly influence Nolan’s Interstellar. Regarding this film, he said:

“With films like ‘Close Encounters’ and the way that addressed the idea of this moment when humans would meet aliens from a family perspective and a very relatable human perspective. I liked the idea of trying to give today’s audiences some sense of that form of storyline.”

Fritz Lang

Many of Nolan’s favorite films are silent films, and he is especially impressed by the films of Fritz Lang. What inspires Nolan about silent films is the visual storytelling. It is easy to see how a reliance on visual effects is a similar type of storytelling in today’s films. However, when it comes to Lang, there is a deeper connection with Nolan’s work. First, Lang’s plots were often puzzles, just like Nolan’s. He eschewed traditional storytelling at the time to tell tales of dystopia, master criminals, and spy networks. Lang’s films show a pessimistic view towards the development of society and technology. Nolan’s films, which share the skepticism of technological advancement, have a similar drive. 

More importantly, Lang does not focus on developing his characters in a traditional sense. He eschews drama and psychological investigation for explorations of the worlds he builds. Movies like M and Metropolis are about exploring the problems with a society at large, rather than focusing on the problems of an individual. Nolan’s films may be more personable, but their drive is still on a big picture rather than a small one. Lang’s films are expressionist, distorting the real world to create a desired effect. Nolan is expert at distorting the real world in his films, either through the way he tells the story (Memento) or the story itself (Inception). 

Terrence Malick

Nolan has said of Malick: 

“Terrence Malick, more than almost any other filmmaker I can name, his work is immediately recognizable. His films are all very, very connected with each other and they’re very recognizably his work, but it’s very tough to put your finger on why that is or what you’re seeing in that the technique is not immediately obvious.” 

It is interesting to note how the same statement could be made about Nolan’s work. He does not necessarily have a bold visual style, and besides the creativity he utilizes when telling a story, the kinds of stories he tells aren’t very similar. Yet, despite the variety in his films, and his somewhat monotone presentation, you can easily identify a Nolan film. It is just that the nature of the film is so unique, just like Malick. Malick tends to use a limited amount of dialogue, and is a director who leans more towards visual storytelling than through a script. 

Nolan’s Dunkirk is probably the most similar to Malick’s work. Nolan was influenced by The Thin Red Line when making this film. The story is told primarily through visuals, and there is a lack of dialogue. But, even in Nolan’s other, more dialogue-heavy films, nods to Malick’s pacing and approach can be seen.  But you can also see the influence of films like Tree of Life or Voyage of Time in Interstellar and Inception

C. Escher

C. Escher was a graphic artist who utilized mathematics in his art. He is famous for creating what is known as the “impossible drawing”, the optical illusion. He would often create drawings in black and white before transferring them to woodcuts, lithographs, and engravings. Even if you do not know his name, chances are you are familiar with Escher’s work.

Escher’s creations are often surreal. They show us perspectives that appear normal, but aren’t. Nolan’s mind-bending films may not be surreal, but they do warp perspectives in impossible ways. Think about the warped buildings in Inception, or the seemingly impossible time travel in Interstellar. But Nolan’s connection to Escher isn’t just about visuals or themes, it is also about the way he tells his stories. Escher’s drawings often depict something with no beginning or end. Nolan’s films often start at the end, and loop their way back to the beginning. 

Bauhaus Architecture

It may be odd to think about how a school of architecture is a significant influence to a film director, but when you consider the approach and the outcome, it actually makes a lot of sense. This is one of the few areas where we are able to discuss Nolan’s visual approach rather than his storytelling or thematic approach to film making. Bauhaus was a German art school which started in 1919. The focus of this school was to combine artistry with mass production and functionality. During the 1930’s many of the artists fled Germany and began to inspire other forms of art around the world, including architecture. 

Bauhaus architecture is the idea of two focuses in contrast. One focuses is on a clean design, eliminating ornamentation and artistic flair to create something functional and simplistic. The other focus is on bringing in an artistic perspective. This artistry is seen in the way the simple shapes are used, and by incorporating modern materials such as glass or metal. Likewise, the color schemes in Bauhaus tend to be minimalized, in monotonous greys, browns, and whites. 

In many ways, Nolan’s films exhibit this exact type of style. His characters are dressed in modern black suits. They are functional and stylish at the same time, but not overly flamboyant or eye-catching. Similarly, his films have a toned-down color pallet. He uses a lot of contrast and blacks and greys. Finally, he focuses on function, but not without an eye to artistry. His sets don’t really stand out on their own, but they are often stylishly dressed and crisp. Think of the hallway scene in Inception or the Wayne Manor in the Batman films. His characters are often in nice or otherwise visually interesting places, but the void of bright colors (and often use of contrasting light) or lack of character interaction can blend them together in your mind. 

For more on Christopher Nolan, check out:

Christopher Nolan: Time Traveler