Christopher Nolan is regarded as one of the great modern directors of our time. He is best known for his blockbuster movies with complex storytelling.
Nolan started out as a script reader and director for corporate videos before directing his first feature film in 1998 with the Following. His major breakthrough came with the psychological non-linear thriller Memento in 2000.
In his career, Nolan has directed 11 films to date including The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017), and Tenet (2020).
Nolan is considered by many as one of the leading filmmakers of the 21st century. He’s been nominated for 3 academy awards and his films have grossed $4.9 billion worldwide.
Below, we’ve listed 45 of our favorite Christopher Nolan quotes on filmmaking covering everything from script to screen to low-budget movies.
Christopher Nolan Quotes on Filmmaking
You know when Hollywood does a great big blockbuster that really wraps you up in a world, and lets you believe in extraordinary things that move you in some way, in an almost operatic sensibility? That to me is the most fun I have at the movies.
I just love photographing things and putting them together to tell a story.
Films are subjective – what you like, what you don’t like. But the thing for me that is absolutely unifying is the idea that every time I go to the cinema and pay my money and sit down and watch a film go up on-screen, I want to feel that the people who made that film think it’s the best movie in the world, that they poured everything into it and they really love it.
If you want to be a filmmaker, make a film and enjoy it; don’t be thinking about what’s the next thing, the thing after that.
It’s encumbered on us, as filmmakers to try and push whatever boundaries we can, and not be beholden to a theoretical rule set.
Breaking rules isn’t interesting. It’s making up new ones that keeps things exciting.
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.
Many of the filmmakers I’ve admired over the years have used sound in bold and adventurous ways. I don’t agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue. Clarity of story, clarity of emotions – I try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal – picture and sound.
Every film should have its own world, a logic and feel to it that expands beyond the exact image that the audience is seeing.
Christopher Nolan on Writing
I got into writing because no one’s going to give you a script to direct when you’re starting out, so, I started writing, just for myself, just to be able to direct things.
For me, it comes down to deciding whether it is a film that I feel I have to make. I ask myself, will I be sorry if I miss this chance? Is it a film that I would be excited to see? Will the story stick in my mind years and years after it is done? Those are the types of things I think about. The irony is that once you get into the process, sometimes the story leads you into a different direction than you initially imagined.
What I try to do is write from the inside out. I really try to jump into the world of the film and the characters, try to imagine myself in that world rather than imagining it as a film I’m watching onscreen. Sometimes, that means I’m discovering things the way the audience will, with character and story.
My real interest is point of view. Deciding what’s the point of view we’re trying to express, who’s eyes are we seeing the story through?
I always find myself gravitating to the analogy of a maze. Think of film noir and if you picture the story as a maze, you don’t want to be hanging above the maze watching the characters make the wrong choices because it’s frustrating. You actually want to be in the maze with them, making the turns at their side, that keeps it more exciting… I quite like to be in that maze.
I started to grasp that storytellers turn to evocative images for a reason – these things are evocative because they have layers that film-goers can pick up and interpret in their own own way. And that was something I very much needed to learn and get on board with.
Suspense is a primarily visual language.
You’re never going to learn something as profoundly as when it’s purely out of curiosity.
It’s about using things that audiences can relate and respond to that matters most, even if you don’t fully understand them. You never quite know what you’re going to come back to and figure out how to make it work. You never quite know where that desire to finish something or return to something in a fresh way, is going to come from.
Nolan Quotes on Directing
I think the job of a director is to be the lens through which other people’s input is focused, and so really my job is to have a clear point of view, and a sincere point of view, and things that I take pleasure in, things I don’t like, things that make me uncomfortable, whatever that is, whatever that input is, you’re trying to focus it in a coherent manner, and that’s where the personality of a director’s important.
If you’re trying to challenge an audience and make them look at elements in a different way, you’ve got to give them a familiar context to hang onto. But you have to be very aware that the audience is extremely ruthless in its demand for newness, novelty and freshness.
It’s most important to just throw yourself into it, just putting everything into the project that you’re working on.
I try to be as efficient as possible because in my process, I think that actually helps the work. I like having the pressure of time and money and really trying to stick to the parameters we’ve been given.
Well, you always discover a lot in the editing room. Particularly the action, because you have to over-shoot a lot and shoot an enormous amount of material because many of the sequences have to be discovered in the editing and manipulation of it.
Shooting the Movie
A camera is a camera, a shot is a shot. How you tell the story is the main thing.
Even if you can drill a hole in the set, why not keep the camera inside that physical space? Because I think that it’s very important to maintain that appropriate physical relationship between camera and performer that you need for storytelling.
The screen is the same size for every story. A shot of a teacup is the same size as an army coming over the hill. It’s all storytelling.
I don’t really want to give those things to someone else; as a director, I have to believe that there’s some value in my brain being behind every scene on the set, not just in the edit suite. If you’re viewing the overall film in visual terms, it’s very hard to split off the shots that you think are unimportant or less than deserving of first-unit treatment. One of the things Wally and I do is to shoot all the inserts as we go along. Some people raise their eyebrows at that, but the truth is, that insert, that close-up of the hand, is going to end up on the same screen as the close-up of the actor, and it’s going to occupy the same space in the audience’s field of vision. Those insert shots are also about storytelling — otherwise, you wouldn’t need them.
If I don’t need to be directing the shots that go in the movie, why do I need to be there at all? The screen is the same size for every shot. The little shot of, say, a watch on someone’s wrist, will occupy the same screen size as the shot of a thousand people running down the street. Everything is equally weighted and needs to be considered with equal care, I really do believe that. I don’t understand the criteria for parceling things off. Many action films embrace a second unit taking on all of the action. For me, that’s odd because then why did you want to do an action film?
Working with Actors
My approach with actors is to try and give them whatever it is they need from me. Direction to me is about listening and responding and realizing how much they need to know from me and how much they have figured out for themselves, really.
[on different acting styles] The best actors instinctively feel out what the other actors need, and they just accommodate it.
Working with a legend like Michael Caine is about as enjoyable and relaxing an experience on set as one could hope for. His vast experience gives him an air of good-humored calm that you could almost mistake for complacency until the camera rolls, and you see his focus and efficiency nail each scene on the first take. He once told me that he’s never asked for a second take — he’s happy to do one if you have an idea for him to try, but he brings a definitive interpretation to every line. His method has the casual air of effortlessness that can only come from decades of dogged hard work, and you sense that he’s still as hungry for every last morsel of a part as he was when he first captured everyone’s imagination. A fine actor first, and screen icon second, he’s a director’s dream.
On Low-Budget Filmmaking
When you’re doing films, just with friends, with no money, on a shoestring. You have to be able to do all the jobs… And it’s a wonderful way to learn everything.
[on self-reliance] I didn’t go to film school and I always made my own films. I know enough about every job on set to sort of be a pain in the ass to everybody.
Everybody’s situation is unique, and the one thing I’ve learned is that instead of copying someone else’s model for a low-budget film, you really have to look at what you’ve got available and see how you can tell the story you want to tell, using the things that you have around you.
At the time I did Following (1998), I was looking at the American ultra-low-budget model that didn’t really exist in the UK. A low-budget film in England tended to be about £500,000 to £600,000. In America, there was a tradition of guys like Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith making films for thousands, and that’s what we’d been doing for short films. So it was really just a case of using that knowledge and expanding it to feature length. I hear of people doing it in the UK now and I think that’s a great thing.
Chistopher Nolan on the Film Business
You need time. And that doesn’t mean necessarily even working full-time on it itself; it means time to throw some ideas together and then let them sit, go off and do something else, come back and see what still feels right and everything.
Really every job I did, including corporate videos, industrial training films, where I’d have to go to a company and throw up some lights and shoot interviews with executives, you’re always learning about your craft. The larger the films have become, the more I’ve been able to appreciate the learning that I did by doing.
If you can get a little bit of attention, a little bit of success on the festival circuit, people say, “Well, what would you want to do next?” And the tricky thing is, if you don’t have a specific thing, you can’t capitalize on that moment.
But there’s a very limited pool of finance in the UK. To be honest, it’s a very clubby kind of place. In Hollywood there’s a great openness, almost a voracious appetite for new people. In England there’s a great suspicion of the new. In cultural terms, that can be a good thing, but when you’re trying to break into the film industry, it’s definitely a bad thing. I never had any luck with interesting people in small projects when I was doing Following (1998). Never had any support whatsoever from the British film industry, other than Working Title, the company that [producer] Emma Thomas was working for at the time. They let me use their photocopier, stuff like that, which is not to be underestimated.
You’ve got to put everything into the one movie and just try and make a great movie because you may not get this chance again.” And then, when it succeeded, we were able to think about, “OK, what would we do in a sequel?
As a director in the studio system, working in the commercial world of filmmaking, you have to pick your fights; you have to choose when you’re open to input, but you also have to show strong leadership. It’s a tricky balance.
There are usually two different goals in a visual effects movie. One is to fool the audience into seeing something seamless, and that’s how I try to use it. The other is to impress the audience with the amount of money spent on the spectacle of the visual effect, and that, I have no interest in.
As a filmmaker, you know, no matter how positive things seem, you always notice the bad reviews, you always notice that the things people love are the same things other people hate, so you can’t react to that. To me, it’s all about doing what you believe in.
Christopher Nolan Quotes Final Words
Have a favorite Christopher Nolan quote? Share it on social media and link back to us. The more links we have to the website, the more time we can spend sharing filmmaking wisdom.
If you’re looking for more quotes from other film directors, check out our profile article section of the website for quotes from more masters of cinema including Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and more.