Christopher Nolan Talks About His Writing Process
By Erik Amaya
Following a screening of The Dark Knight on Saturday at the Los Angeles Times Hero Complex Film Festival, director Christopher Nolan took time to answer questions from the audience and LA Times writer Geoff Boucher.
The first audience question, in particular, stuck out: Prompted by a recent reading of the published script for The Prestige, writer Ed Brubaker wanted Nolan to talk about his writing process. “Your stuff is pretty bullet-proof,” Brubaker said. “How far do you outline stuff before you actually start scripting?”
Nolan was quick to excuse the apparent flawlessness as a quirk of constant revision. “When you’re reading a screenplay that’s been published,” he explained, “you’re reading something that’s 14, 15 drafts in, because what they publish is the shooting draft including all the shooting revisions you made while on production.”
As for his process: “I don’t really outline.” Many writers begin with an outline not unlike the sort students are taught to use in high school for term papers. “I tend to start with page one and try to just write in a very linear fashion, particularly if the story is not linear,” Nolan said. “When I did my first film, Following, I wrote it as a chronological story and then I edited it together to make all the non-linear divides. I found it very difficult, because I then had to do an enormous amount of rewriting to make it flow for the audience. So when I went to do Memento, I determined to tell the story backwards. I thought it was very important to sit down and just write for how the way the audience is going to see it. That way, there’s a better flow.”
Nolan’s films are known for their unconventional structures and tight plots. Instead of outlines to keep track of the story, the director has an alternate means of maintain order. “What I do is draw a lot of diagrams — particularly if there’s sort of a structural complexity. I’ll kind of stick stuff all over my walls,” he revealed. Often these diagrams are shelved or ignored when a more interesting order presents itself.
“With story, I just try to go with the flow of the narrative,” he said of actually scripting line by line. In cases like the Joker’s multiple origin monologues in The Dark Knight, Nolan explained, “I’ll tend to just write them very, very free form, very long. I’ll just splurge [on] three or four pages and then spend days and days just editing it down.”
Earlier in the session, Nolan spoke about his upcoming film. “Inception is something I have been working on a long time,” he said. “I wanted to make a film about dreams, really, since I was kid. About 10 years ago, I settled on this concept of, really, a heist movie centered on the idea of a technology that allows people to share their dreams and the abuse of that technology.”
“I first pitched it to Warner Bros. right after we finished Insomnia. They were very interested and wanted me to write it for them. I sort of realized it’s not something I could’ve ever written on assign. It’s something I needed to write on spec.” Instead of having the studio shepherd the development of the script, Nolan chose to write it without supervision or payment. “I thought it would take a couple of months and it took me 10 years,” he laughed.
Although a third Batman movie looms on the horizon, Nolan didn’t mention it, even when fielding questions about The Dark Knight. He did, however, touch upon his involvement as a producer in the Superman reboot, and its roots in brainstorming ideas for Batman with writer David S. Goyer. The writer pitched him a concept for a Superman film that inspired him to get involved: “I just felt that I didn’t want it to not get done.”
Inception opens on July 17. The third Batman film is expected in 2012.