Christopher Nolan has built a reputation in the film industry as a grand showman and visual magician firmly in command of his craft. He’s infamous for assembling his complex and intricately layered plots like a puzzle, presenting them in such a way that respects the audience’s intelligence while simultaneously indulging their desire for exhilarating escapist entertainment. He tells stories on a tremendously large scale, and it’s all too easy to be swept away the sheer scope of his vision and ambition. Best known for his record-shattering, paradigm-shifting DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, Nolan’s meteoric rise to consistently unprecedented heights of financial and cultural success has established him as one of one of those rare filmmakers who is able to harness the full power of the Hollywood studio system to his benefit. It wasn’t always this way, however– Nolan’s ascent to the stratosphere of visionary directors was preceded by a long period of obscurity and rejection that any aspiring filmmaker can relate to.
Christopher Nolan was born in 1970 in London, the 2nd of 3 boys born to a British advertising executive and an American teacher. The jarring culture split that the Nolan boys experienced through their childhood is perhaps best exemplified by the difference in accents between Christopher and his younger brother, Jonathan– who would go on to become his writing partner and a close professional collaborator. Christopher speaks in an elegant British lilt, while Jonathan’s all-American speech patterns reflects the fact that the Nolan boys spent a great deal of time living in Chicago as well as the UK. From an early age, Nolan found himself enamored with cinema, and after seeing George Lucas’ STAR WARS at age 7, he was inspired to make Super 8mm stop-motion movies with his father’s film camera. He would go on to attend University College London, where he studied English literature in the absence of a film program. In lieu of a formalized education in filmmaking, he established an on-campus cinema society with Emma Thomas– his classmate, future producing partner and future wife– in addition to devouring the works of key influences like Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Orson Welles, and Michael Mann. At age nineteen, he made his first film, TARANTELLA– an 8mm short that was eventually shown on English television. That development encouraged the burgeoning director to make another short called LARCENY, which debuted at the 1995 Cambridge Film Festival. For quite some time afterwards, Nolan toiled in obscurity, paying the bills with corporate and industrial films he was able to commission. All the while, he was applying to various British film organizations in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain grant money for another narrative effort. Perhaps disheartened by the rejection, and emboldened by the take-no-prisoners, do-it-yourself attitude of the 90’s indie scene, Nolan decided to take matters into his own hands.
After marrying Emma in 1997, Nolan enlisted her help to produce his third short film, DOODLEBUG. The three minute piece– the earliest of Nolan’s publicly-available works– stars the British actor Jeremy Theobald, who would go on to headline Nolan’s first feature a year later. Shot on grainy 16mm black and white film, Nolan imbues the film with a kinetic energy at odds with the claustrophobic setting. Nolan’s idea of a man chasing a bug around his apartment, only to find out the bug is a smaller version of himself, foreshadows the narrative sleight of hand he’d bring to his feature work as well as his inventiveness with practical visual effects.