Christopher Nolan (English 1993) recalls the start of an illustrious career in film.
Words Kate Hilpern
Photograph ©2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. and Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon
There was a video facility, a couple of 16mm cameras and a Steenbeck editing suite with real film and spools – and a huge amount of bric-a-brac
When Christopher Nolan arrived at UCL to study English, the last place he expected to be spending most of his time was a dark, windowless, airless basement room, with a musty smell and graffiti on the walls. But it was here, underneath the Bloomsbury theatre, where his social life – and indeed the start of his career – took centre stage.
It has been reported that Nolan selected UCL specifically for its film-making facilities. “But actually I chose it because I wanted to be in London, at the heart of the film business, and I very much liked the idea of studying English,” he says. What is true, however, is that once he’d heard about the Film Society he wasted no time in going along to its venue in the theatre’s basement. He never looked back.
“I’m unusual in that I decided I wanted to make films at a very young age,” he says. “And once I’d done that first walk along the side of the cafeteria of the Bloomsbury Theatre and climbed further and further down the staircase into the dark basement, I spent most of my time there.”
It helped that on his first day of university, he met his soon-to-be-producer and wife Emma Thomas (History 1993). “Together, we wound up running the society together,” he says, recalling “the special code on the door that you were only told about when you proved you were serious!”
That door opened into what was a treasure chest for budding film-makers. “There was a little video facility and an archive of the films that students had made over the years,” he says. Not to mention a couple of 16mm cameras and a Steenbeck editing suite, with real film and real spools, which, according to Nolan’s fellow student John Tempest (Civil Engineering 1968), had been bought at some point in the late 1960s as a result of a bequest.
It was, Nolan says, “a wonderful place to hang out, with great equipment and interesting people, many of whom are still my friends today”. There was a system that allowed you to easily synchronise sound to film and a huge amount of bric-a-brac that had built up over the years, including costumes and a piano. “I have a memory of an unnaturally long couch, with very little padding, that people slept on,” says Nolan. “I wasn’t an all-nighter, though. I’ve always liked my sleep too much.
“The Film Society was a black hole that sucked you in and it’s fair to say that I spent far more time in that musty old basement than in the English department where I was supposed to be,” laughs Nolan.
Which is not to say that his English degree didn’t come in handy. “I remember my tutors were extremely engaging. A lot of what I learned about literature during that period informed what I was doing in terms of my writing and screenwriting.
So for me, there was a very inspiring relationship between what I was learning and what I was trying to do in my film-making.”
While the society had a real gravitas to it, there was no official structure to things, he says, “just a bunch of friendly, helpful and very creative students and former students who wanted to help you out”. Among them was David Julyan (Astronomy and Physics 1987), who wound up doing the music on Nolan’s films Memento and Prestige.
There was, he says, a great spirit of collaboration. “If someone had a script, you’d get a group of people together to try it out,” he says. “And there was a real buzz, particularly when the shooting for a film started coming together, for which a set would often be built down there. There was such an energy when that happened.” There was also great excitement when a film came back from processing, he says. “There were a lot of laughs. And I can remember this friendly rivalry between us film people and Bloomsbury TV.”
The Film Society used that theatre to run Hollywood movies, he explains. “And we used the money from those screenings to make our 16mm films. But I had no money myself. Everything was hand-to-mouth. In my final year, I remember having a bucket of change by my front door that I’d use in the vending machine in the Bloomsbury Theatre – it thankfully took pennies. A couple of Fruit and Nut bars seemed enough to live off.”
The basement, he concludes, was a very self-contained, creative incubator, and Nolan himself made several short films there. He also continued to use the university to make films after he left. “There was this tradition of alumni hanging around a few years after leaving. The trade-off for using the facilities was helping newer students learn the ropes and passing on knowledge.”
In fact, it was not long after he’d left that Nolan made his first commercial-release feature film, Following, which starred university friends Jeremy Theobald and Lucy Russell. And Nolan’s links to UCL have carried on. Not only were both the beginning and the ending of Following made at UCL, but it’s also a location in Inception and Batman Begins.
The impact of that time on his life is easy to quantify for Nolan. “I’m very grateful to UCL. My family stems from those days – Emma and our four children. And we have a business making films that has become the thing we’ve done with our lives. My entire life can be traced very directly to those student days and that basement.”
Christopher Nolan is a screenwriter, producer and one of the highest-grossing film directors in history.
This year, UCL awarded honorary degrees to: British economist Sir Anthony Barnes Atkinson; Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England; Professor Jose-Marie Griffiths, President, Dakota State University; Zimbabwean healthcare specialist Professor James Gita Hakim; Professor Sing Kong Lee, Vice President (Education Strategies) and Vice President (Alumni and Advancement) at Nanyang Technological University; and President Dean Spielmann, lawyer and former President of the European Court of Human Rights.
UCL awarded honorary fellowships to: Ms Sophie Chandauka, Head of Group Treasury (Legal) at Virgin Money; novelist and journalist Ms Shirley Conran; artificial intelligence specialists Dr Demis Hassabis, Dr Shane Legg and Mr Mustafa Suleyman; Ms Ruth Kennedy, Managing Director at Kennedy Dundas and founder of The Louis Dundas Centre; Sir Frank McLoughlin, Chair of the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning; Mr Trevor Pears, businessman, philanthropist and Executive Chair of the Pears Foundation; Iceland Chairman and Chief Executive Mr Malcolm Walker; and Professor Geoff Whitty, former director of the Institute of Education.
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