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How to Succeed the Christopher Nolan Way

By Ken Miyamoto · May 6, 2019

What are some of the ways that Christopher Nolan has found success in life and in Hollywood?

Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.

Here we feature Evan Carmichael‘s video Christopher Nolan’s Top 10 Rules of Success to find words of wisdom and inspiration for screenwriters and filmmakers.

Read More: The Nonlinear Magic of Christopher Nolan Films

1. Be Resourceful

“I’m a self-taught filmmaker. I never went to film school. I never studied filmmaking anywhere. I started making films when I was a kid. When I was, I think, seven years old.”

Nolan goes on to explain that as he got older, he relied on his own resources to shoot his films. He would utilize friends, cameras, and equipment that he could get a hold of. In essence, being resourceful, without ever having gone to film school, led him to become the successful filmmaker he is today.

2. Be Passionate

“I am a big believer in being sincere about your passion for something… each film you take on, whatever scale it’s played out at, it’s a couple years of my life, sometimes more. So you really want to be passionate about what it is that you’re doing.”

Passion is what drives screenwriters through all of the adversity that they may face. If you don’t have passion for the projects you take on, you won’t be driven enough to stick with it. So be sure to choose stories that you have a true passion for.

3. Always Challenge Yourself

“As a writer, I try to take my director’s hat off and not be afraid, and just say, ‘I want to write the most exciting thing, the most unexpected thing I can think of, for the story.’ Then I pick up the script again, put the director’s hat back on, and go, ‘Okay, how the hell am I going to do that?’ And that’s when you know you’re in a good place because every film you want to be challenging yourself. You want to be doing something different.”

He was specifically asked if he came up with ideas that even scared him as one of our generation’s greatest filmmakers.

Screenwriters need to challenge themselves every chance they get. And often, the scripts that they succeed with are the ones that scared them the most.

4. Build on What Has Been Done Before

“We really try to build on what’s been done before, but add our own techniques to it.”

Nolan was referencing the technical achievements and challenges they faced during the making of Interstellar, but this advice applies to screenwriting as well.

Screenwriters can and should look to the past to see what plot points, concepts, character types, themes, tones, and story arcs have been done before and try to build on them with new techniques and applications.

5. Find Your Inspiration

“As I get older and have the opportunity to make more films, which I feel very grateful for, more and more I find that real life and my life inspires me more and I try to work that into the material I’m working on.”

He first began to list his influences — people like Ridley Scott and George Lucas, and their respective films like Blade Runner and Star Wars. While it’s great to find inspiration in other people’s work, the next step is to find inspiration within your own life and the real world around you.

6. Focus on the Story

“For me, I don’t think in terms of scale. It’s all about — Is there a story and a set of characters that interest me?”

Screenwriters often get caught up in trying to be bigger and better in terms of scale, whether it’s action sequences, thrills, scares, concepts, or dynamic characters types. What’s most important is story and finding characters that interest you.

7. Focus on What Interests You

“[When I started out] I felt very young and inexperienced. And I felt that my own life and the things that I saw in the world were not going to be of interest to people. But they felt interesting to me. So I was looking for a language, I was looking for a genre, that I could take the things that I was interested in and make them accessible. Make them interesting to other people.”

Screenwriters have no control over what interests other people. If you try to focus your sights on that particular group, you’re limiting your reach and limiting yourself and your own interest in the project you’re choosing to write. So you must always focus on what interests you and do your best to find a genre and concept where you can take that and try to translate it to others and make them interested.

8. Intelligent Compromise

“All filmmaking is intelligent compromise. That’s the whole process we go through. No matter what your budget is, you never have enough time, you never have enough money. It’s weird. When you’re doing a huge film, you’re in the same position you were when you were doing a tiny film.”

Nolan is speaking about the need to compromise. Whether it’s filmmaking or screenwriting, compromise always has to be made. There are always constraints. There are always tough decisions that need to be made. And if you can do that with intelligence and make smart choices for the better of the project, you can succeed.

9. Engage with Your Audience

“With all the films I’ve made, I’ve felt that really trying to compliment the audience’s intelligence — trying to engage the audience with something that’s new or different — can pay great dividends.”

He mentions that trying to attain a type of quality based on the filmmakers that he has looked up to and types of films that he has been inspired by are second to trying to engage with an audience.

You certainly want to write what interests you, but you also have to remember that you’re writing for an audience as well.

10. Always Stay Focused

“It’s most important to throw yourself into just putting everything into the project that you’re working on.”

He did tell the story about how he had written the script for Memento while finishing a project, which helped him later sell that because he had an audience with people asking what he wanted to do next. However, he says that this happened by chance and he wouldn’t recommend working on one project when another was still in the process of being finished. Since then, he has always focused on one project at a time.

Read More: Christopher Nolan Wrote the ‘Oppenheimer’ Script in First Person. Here’s Why That’s Awesome

Watch the full video below to hear the words from the icon’s mouth and learn more from his elaboration on these points.

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