Christopher Nolan Talks "Devastating" Career Knocks

Christopher Nolan
BAFTA/Jonathan Birch

"Everybody passed on 'Memento,' " the director told up-and-coming British talent at BAFTA's 2015 Breakthrough Brits initiative. "We took a huge knock, back as far as we could go."

Given the box-office takings and critical acclaim of Interstellar, Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy, it might be difficult to imagine a time when Christopher Nolan was ever a struggling filmmaker.

But the director offered some hope to emerging creatives in London on Wednesday, explaining how his seemingly stratospheric rise to blockbuster glory wasn’t an entirely easy ride.

Speaking at a BAFTA event to launch the 2015 edition of Breakthrough Brits, the British Academy’s annual initiative that celebrates and supports rising stars in the U.K.’s film, TV and gaming industries, Nolan described the difficulties he met after finishing 2000’s psychological thriller Memento, his first big-budget feature after his self-financed debut, Following.

"We organized a big distribution screening in L.A. the weekend all the distributors were coming to town for the Spirit Awards," he said. “But every distributor passed [on it] in one night — nobody wanted it. Some of the distributors were really awful to us, actually, and said they’d walked out of the film. It was a really, really tough ride … pretty devastating."

After failing to find a buyer, Memento eventually was distributed in North America by the film’s financier, Newmarket Films, which set up its own distribution arm. The film went on to earn almost $40 million from a budget of $5 million, and two years after the rejections, Nolan and his producer wife, Emma Thomas, returned to the Independent Spirit Awards to pick up the best director, best screenplay and best supporting actress awards, followed by a couple of Oscar nominations. Memento eventually was recognized by many as one of the best films of the decade.

"It was a really unique road. I don’t think I’ll ever have a moment like that [again] in my career," said Nolan. "We took a huge knock, back as far as we could go. But we came back from it with sheer good fortune."

The director also gave some advice to filmmakers looking to make that step up from making their own self-funded features (1998’s Following was made for around $6,000) to attracting multimillion-dollar budgets from production companies.

"When I look back, the key thing for me when we started to get traction for Following on the festival circuit was that I had already finished the script for Memento," said Nolan. "So, as soon as we’d got any credibility for Following and people asked what I wanted to do next, I was able to go: 'Here’s a script.' And it was a script that was related, in structural terms, to Following."

While Memento read in a "very challenging way on page," Nolan said that when people saw Following, they could see how it was going to work.

"The thing that happens to a lot of people is that you get that opportunity, somebody says, 'I really loved your film, what else do you have?' And if you don’t have anything, or if you’ve just got vague ideas, it’s very difficult to take advantage of that moment, and that moment doesn’t come around again," he said. "You’ve got to jump on it."