Media Production

What We Could Learn From Film Director Christopher Nolan

Movie director Christopher Nolan is quickly becoming a legend in Hollywood. Although he’s directed a number of memorable films, you may know him best as the 44 year old director of a trio of “Batman” movies, which together grossed $2.5 billion at the global box office. As he releases his latest film, “Interstellar,” he’s as respected as anyone in Hollywood and studios pay him as much as they do top stars. For instance, Warner Brothers Studios gives him a great studio deal with no strings attached. And in spite of his personal passions (some would say eccentric) like shooting traditional film over digital technology, his preference for IMAX, and his team’s desire for extreme secrecy, he’s given enormous latitude by studio executives. Obviously, his talent has a great deal to do with it, but when you look beneath the obvious, there’s a number of interesting things he values that most of us could learn from. For instance:

1. He doesn’t have a cell phone or email account.  It could be to add to his mystery, or perhaps he understands the importance of focus when it comes to massive projects. You can’t execute $100+ million movies and be distracted by the need to Instagram your every move.

2. He’s not excessive.   For his latest movie “Interstellar,” insiders say the studio was prepared to spend up to $200 million. But he kept the budget at $165 million. That’s significantly less. There’s not many directors out there today that wouldn’t have asked for it all.

3. He has a reputation for delivering movies on schedule and under budget.   Want to inspire loyalty and confidence from your boss? Do the same with your projects – whatever the size.

4. He doesn’t play the “artist” card.   While he knows what he wants, he ultimately creates movies that are remarkably close to what he pitched the studio and the investors. He doesn’t play creative games, and delivers on his promises.

5. He wears a suit.   (Yes, you heard me.) In an age where movie directors (and even major CEO’s) show up in jeans and a t-shirt, he dresses well. Say what you like, but when you look important, people treat you that way.

6. In spite of his success, he’s remarkably humble.  Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios and former president of Warner Brothers said, “I’m continually impressed by his self-deprecation and humility, but with that comes supreme confidence.” That’s something to remember. Humility doesn’t come from insecure people, it comes from people who see the big picture.

I’m not a fan of following anyone’s “10 Steps to Success,” but watching Nolan’s career, these principles stood out as something worth noting.  I’d love to know if you think any of these ideas could help your own career…..

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  1. Christopher Nolan is one of my favourite directors. Ever since Memento I’ve been a huge fan. However, I bet his PA has a phone/email account!

    That said, I have heard from people who have met him/worked with him all of the above, so good for him – particularly his insistence on film over digital (still looks so much better).

  2. By the way Nolan isn’t the only one who prefers 35mm. So do Spielberg, Tarantino and PT Anderson. JJ Abrams shot the latest Star Wars on 35mm too. Its become an elite format for elite filmmakers.

  3. As a pastor, Phil, some of these are important. I pastor a church in a small town in the middle of Indiana so the excess (church or personal) are not there. I don’t wear a suit (except at weddings and funerals sometimes) because no one, NO ONE, wears one. It would be too ostentatious. I do need a cell phone but I am not on any social media (which does put me at a disadvantage from time to time). However, the humility one is a necessity. Given that I don’t always play the “pastor” card. I recently became a member of the Chamber of Commerce board and they wanted to do a name tag for me. “How do you want your name? Pastor Bill?” “No, just Bill.” I do like his under budget thinking and having the product done on time. Sorry to windy Guess I could learn from him in that.

    1. Why we call pastors “Pastor Bill” is another post completely. We don’t call people “Lawyer Bob” or “Teacher Stan” or “Salesman Ed.” So I never understood how the “Pastor Bill” thing came about…

      1. Good point Phil. Around here it is seen as a sign of respect. I don’t introduce myself as such but they want to call me that or introduce me as that. The folks in the Chamber are so excited that I am willing to be on the board they wanted to show their respect. But I didn’t want that on my name tag. I would like to hear your thoughts in a post though. 🙂

          1. The first two Mormon missionaries I ever met wore nametags saying “Elder Ethan” and “Bishop Bob”, both in their late teens.

          2. Sometimes when people address me as “Pastor Rob”, I’ll reply with “Hey, Parishioner Mike!” It gets a smile and underscores the point.

          3. Our own pastor is another “Pastor Bill,” but he recently acquired a new nickname. A younger intern, just finishing seminary, took to calling him “P. Billy” – and it stuck!

  4. Its just refreshing to read this about someone this accomplished. He is one of the best in the business and seems to have kept his feet on the ground. Film it would seem is his only reported excess here and with the teams he works with it probably does not add all that much to his budgets. The cell phone thing is interesting. Not sure how he does that without a walk around assistant or family member. I think the on time delivery and on budget performance speaks volumes about being well prepared. I will always aspire to do the same.

  5. It encourages me to know that there are still those out there, particularly in Hollywood, who have a “do what you say, say what you mean” approach. “In a world” where broken promises, busted budgets, and self-importance have come to be expected, it is nice to see that keeping your word (ie:integrity) still has a place, and is appreciated. The propensity for playing the “artist card” in both the film and music industries is wearing very thin. I think people are starting to gravitate (once again) toward honesty, humility, and decency when it comes to a work ethic, no matter how big the star on the door.

  6. I respect guys like Christopher Nolan who protect what they value and let the rest of the world play second fiddle. He’s probably a better husband, father, friend, etc. for being the simple, confident guy that he is.

  7. Speaking of dressing in the suit. When I came to a small town in a state I won’t name as a new pastor. I always wore the normal three piece suit and shined my shoes and did my best to look the part in those days. I walked into a local very small restaurant for lunch. I chose a corner in the small place and sat down to look at a menu very quietly. There was a table nearby full of locals and one guy who sounded like he was leading the discussion on politics and as he talked he kept glancing at me and I gave the complimentary nod and hello and he kept talking but noticeably lowered his voice and the stride of the conversation and he kept looking over at me and I was reading the menu to order lunch. Finally, he stopped the conversation and said to the men at the table, “hold on a minute guys we need to find out who this man is in the corner. He looks like he might be “the law” or with the IRS, may I ask who are you sir?” I looked up from my menu actually a little startled that he was addressing me. I quickly introduced myself as the new pastor at a local church that he knew and most of the people in it. He goes, “Oh!….okay and heaved a sigh of relief and told me who he was. Turns it he was heavily involved in local politics and was a paid operative for the current seated governor of the state. After that we saw each other often and he joked a few times about mistaking me for somebody really official government agency or law enforcement following him. I guess he was afraid I would overhear some of his deeds. But I remembered that day and how he based his assumption on how I was dressed. I had several instances in my life when I approached people to ask if they were a certain person and when I explained I was just an average guy they would go, “Oh man I thought you were with the State Bureau of Investigation! LOL!

  8. Those are all cool things and many of them are great lessons but I’m ultimately, it’s still a story telling medium. I’ve never been blown away by the stories he’s told even though he tells them really well…Danny Boyle, Eastwood, Terrence Malick are far more impressive to me…

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