‘Oppenheimer’ Director Christopher Nolan On Filmmaking at 53: “I Try to Challenge Myself with Every Film”
Director Christopher Nolan poses upon his arrival for the premiere of the movie 'Oppenheimer' in Paris on July 11, 2023. Photo: Julien De Rosa/ AFP/Getty Images
Celebrated director Christopher Nolan began making films at the age of seven on his father’s Super 8-mm camera. That’s when the celebrated director first caught the filmmaking bug.
Now 53, and with his 12th film, Oppenheimer, under his belt, Nolan continues to challenge himself and his filmmaking abilities.
“I try to challenge myself with every film. But I also try not to be reactive about what I’ve done before,” Nolan explained during a recent interview in Los Angeles alongside his wife, Emma Thomas (a film producer and frequent collaborator), ahead of the home entertainment release of Oppenheimer on November 21. “So I try not to be worried about repeating myself or not repeating myself, try not to be self-conscious about the work that’s come before. I just look at each film individually and what’s the best thing to do for that particular film.”
Thomas, 51, believes that Nolan’s films have changed over time with age and the different phases of his life. She tells me that while all of his films are very recognizable — his preoccupations with time, structure, flashbacks, etc. — she’s noticed a shift in subject matter recently.
“What’s interesting, as you watch the films over time, is that some of his preoccupations are the same, but then some of them have changed over time with who he is as a person and what’s going on in his own life,” Thomas said.
“When we made Inception, our kids were young. The whole driver for that film is about a man who wants to get back to his family — that was the most important thing to Chris and I at that moment in time. All the films since then, up until Oppenheimer, he sort of moved past that particular moment in his life. And now he’s thinking about the broader issues as they relate to the world and the things that threaten us as a human race,” she added.
Nolan says he tries not to be too self-conscious when it comes to thinking about aging and the kinds of films he makes. “I think with experience — and with the experience of watching your films with an audience over the years — you do more and more recognize the human elements that people respond to, and the things that move you and the things that move the audience.”
The British-American director’s latest explosive drama, Oppenheimer, which has earned upwards of US$940 million at the global box office, follows theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) as he leads the team creating the first atomic bomb, as director of the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Laboratory.
The film is stacked with A-list talent including, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek and Kenneth Branagh.
The movie was filmed on IMAX 65-mm and completed entirely with practical effects and no CGI. When fans heard that Nolan did the infamous Trinity Test scene of the first atomic bomb, the internet rumour was that he might have actually detonated an atomic bomb in real life. When I asked him about this he laughed, joking: “Mercifully, for very good reasons, they don’t let you do that.”
A Lasting Legacy
The Oscar nominee has become a celebrated filmmaker, with each new movie drawing in the masses, young and old alike. Undoubtedly, most of his films become cultural events — given his imprint on cinema, I ask him about the legacy he’d like his work to leave behind.
“It would certainly be great for people to feel that every film I’ve done, I believed in tremendously, and I gave it as much as I could,” he said. “Because when I go to see other people’s films, the only time I ever feel like I’ve wasted my time at the movies is if I don’t feel that they were sincere about what they were trying to do.”
Thomas, too, wants the films to stand the test of time, especially with the next generation of moviegoers. “I hope that people will continue to watch [Nolan’s movies] and I hope that they will not age.” she said. “We’ve talked to a lot of younger people who are now discovering films that we made earlier on that they would have been too young to watch at the time.”
Thomas added: “When I think about all his films — as different as they all are, and they take place in different worlds with different stakes and so on — ultimately they’re human stories. We want to go see films about people. That’s the most relatable thing for an audience.”
Oppenheimer will be available to own on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD — including more than three hours of bonus features — on November 21.