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Christopher Nolan on How Sundance Helps Artists Fight for Their Vision

photo by Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock for Sundance

Last night, Sundance Institute hosted its 2024 Festival kick-off bash — Opening Night Gala: Celebrating 40 Years Presented by Chase Sapphire® — and honored Christopher Nolan with the inaugural Trailblazer award. There’s no question that Nolan fits the bill; just watch Robert Downey Jr.’s touching and hilarious presentation speech for a reminder of Nolan’s accomplishments. For over 25 years, the legendary writer-director has been pushing the boundaries of what cinematic storytelling can look like, who it can reach, and what message it can send. 

Nolan lit a flame in the hearts of the audience with his heartfelt speech that acted more as an inspirational advice series for emerging filmmakers and cinema lovers than an acceptance speech or nostalgia tour. A man known for his words as well as his iconic visuals, Nolan’s acceptance speech appears in full below. Take that blazing fire of commitment to storytelling with you wherever you go.

Christopher Nolan and Robert Downey Jr. (photo by Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock for Sundance)

Where to begin? It’s amazing being back here at Sundance. Such a special place. I mean, I’ll start my reflections with an anecdote. We had just recently done the deal to take Oppenheimer to Universal and we had this call from the studio saying the head of Comcast, and that’s the company that owns Universal, the head of the company is going to call you — and just to clarify, the “we” is not some weird British royal we.

I’m talking about myself and Emma Thomas, who has produced all my films … and all my children. Two of whom I won’t embarrass by pointing out that they’re sitting right there. But those films that you saw on the reel, those aren’t my films. Those are her films. They are our films. And we had this moment where we were told that this call was coming through, and we were in different places. I was in New York in a car, I think, and she was back in L.A., and so we got sort of a conference called in. And in those moments of sort of waiting for the boss’s boss’s boss to get on the phone, I could kind of hear her. She got to hear me. We couldn’t say anything because we didn’t know if their assistant was on the line or when he was going to come on.

And I know what she was thinking in that moment. I know what I was thinking, what we were reflecting on. We were reflecting on the fact that since we were independent filmmakers, we then started to work in the studio system. And over the last few years, we realized that the clarity of hierarchy and studio system, and the clarity of how these films are financed doesn’t mean that every now and again you get a call from the boss’s boss’s boss, his boss, that throws things up in the air.

So we were caught in that moment of suspense, very much in that moment of reflection of how it is to work this way as opposed to where we started. We started in the most independent way possible. We made a $6,000 film together that we even paid for by, you know, working jobs in the week and getting together with a group of friends to make a film on the weekend.

Memento, building on that, was once again independently financed. So with those “the good old days,” you know, [I think back and wonder] was I ever an independent filmmaker? And for reasons that I’ll explain, I realized I’ve never been an independent filmmaker because I don’t think you can be. I think painters are independent. I think poets can be independent. 

As filmmakers, we’re so dependent on other people. We’re so dependent on not just the people we make the films with who help us with the craft, but then this world of distribution, this world of getting the film out to an audience. A lot of people know that Memento came to Sundance. A lot of people know that it was a hit and, you know, enabled so much more that came after it for us. 

But not a lot of people know that what really happened with that film as we finished it and then somebody, not me, had the bright idea of a screening for all of the independent distributors at the same time to try to sell the film, get a bidding war going, or whatever. And they all passed.

No one wanted to film. And so a lot of people in the year or so that we were in terrible limbo, we never knew whether anyone would ever see this film. It was an appalling position to be in, but so many people became so important in that moment. Although as I said a moment, it was a long period of time starting with Aaron Ryder — who’s sitting down there — who somehow had convinced his bosses to give us the money to make the film, and then somehow, through various means, I won’t go into all of them, stopped them from selling it to anybody else to cable TV, whatever it was going to be, and kept it going. Dan Moloney, Michael Shakman, you know, these people who saw the film, believed in it, and stood by it. 

Those are the people you depend on as a filmmaker. You can’t get anywhere without them. And so the very notion of complete independence starts to wither away. In my thinking, when I think about my own history and my own history with this film, first of all, I’m thinking of people like the late Stuart Cornfeld. I don’t know how many of you knew him. He helped us get our film out. He  worked very hard to help us for no reason whatsoever. He had absolutely no involvement with the film, no connection to me. He saw my first film up the hill at Slamdance and just liked it. 

He introduced me to Steven Soderbergh, who I’m sure a lot of you in this room know, you know, one of my heroes, one of the great Sundance filmmakers. And Steven was instrumental in advocating for Memento in this period where we could not get it distributed. And indeed, he executive-produced my next film, my first studio film. 

Which brings us to the role of festivals, because the reality is that was the only way we were ever going to find an audience for this film. The people who financed the film, Newmarket, who never asked me to change the frame of the film, they never lost faith. Probably something Aaron was slipping into their coffee every morning, I have no idea. But they decided to distribute the film themselves, and they hired the amazing Bob Berney to set up a distributor. I met with Bob and I did not find him to be amazing when I first met him because I thought no one would ever see my film if we self-distributed it. But he calmly and clearly made the case for how he was going to go about doing this, and the massive importance for the North American market of if we could get the film into Sundance — bringing the film to Sundance and what that would be and what they would do for us.

Which brings us to Sundance. And it brings me to the question: What do the filmmakers get from coming here? Why do we come here? What are we hoping to get? What do we come away with? And is it awards? Is it huge distribution deals that you read about in the newspaper? It was certainly wasn’t for us! 

But I did win an award, I won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. And I was enormously proud of it until I unwisely tried to weigh down the kids’ stockings one Christmas on the mantel and it fell and broke into a ton of pieces. And I’m just saying, because that award was glass as well, if you’re a screenwriter and you’re looking at your screenwriting award in pieces across the floor, you can only think in metaphorical terms about what that means for your career. There may be something to it because I didn’t win an award for quite a long time after that. So consider metal.

That’s all I’m saying. I’m very pleased to have this one in glass…as is. 

But, so if not awards and if not huge distribution deals, what is it? Well, it’s the audience. And it’s the two weeks or so in which independent and independent filmmaking doesn’t just mean a business model. It means an aspiration for filmmakers. It means that as directors and writers and actors, you’re treated as artists. You’re given pride of authorship in what you’ve done. And it tells you — meeting that audience — it tells you what you’re supposed to be doing, what your place in things is, what your real purpose is. To connect with an audience. 

If you can get your film here, they will fill the seats and you will connect with an audience. They won’t always see eye-to-eye with you or whatever, but you’ll be experiencing that pride of ownership. And that little fire that you already had in you, that could get you to the Festival, that gets fanned, the flame grows bigger. You carry that when you climb down the mountain, and you go and become part of a cog in a much bigger machine. Whether you’re doing studio films or whether you’re doing independently financed films, you become a cog in a much greater machine that, necessarily, is based on profit and loss statements, and what’s worked in the past and what the algorithms tell you.

That’s all people have to go on, but you have that fire inside of you. You understand that what you bring to the table and what you’re expected to do is fight for what the film deserves, needs to be, what an audience might want to see that they haven’t seen before, those kind of things. And so you carry that with you forever, and you never forget that experience that you had up in Park City connecting with an audience.

Which brings me back to this moment of Emma and I sitting on the phone on hold. Waiting for the head of Comcast to get on the line and thinking about, you know, OK, we just sold his studio a three-hour film about quantum physics and the apocalypse. It’s R-rated. It’s like, I don’t know, maybe somebody finally figured out what we’re done or whatever. And Brian Roberts, who’s the head of Comcast, he got on the phone and we exchanged pleasantries, as you do. 

Then he said something that was completely shocking and, in retrospect, totally logical to me, which was he said that he and his father in 2001 had been skiing in Deer Valley and on a whim had decided to go to the Sundance Film Festival and see a film by an unknown director … and came to our screening that we presented the film at. And in that moment, I could hear Emma’s relief on the other end of the phone. My relief. A couple of things occurred to us: One, we’re probably going to be OK. This is going to work out because he liked the film, as did his dad. 

But also, I mean, it’s a quarter of a century later and I’m still being fucking discovered by Sundance! It’s like, at what point do I get to move on to bigger things? 

But all of that is by way of saying that the experience you have here as a filmmaker is unique in all the world, and you carry it with you through your whole career. And I could not be more grateful for the experience that I had here 23 years ago and for getting this award tonight.

It means the world to me. So thank you very much.

To see more of the magic of the 2024 Festival click here.