Christopher Nolan Explains Why He Doesn’t Write His Nonlinear Scripts in Chronological Order

“What I found in that process is that I had to do so much rewriting to make it coherent,” the writer-director shares in a British Film Institute Q&A

Christopher Nolan (Getty Images)
Christopher Nolan (Getty Images)

Christopher Nolan (“Oppenheimer”) broke down his technique for writing nonlinear scripts, saying he no longer pens them in chronological order first as it results in a lot of rewriting.

From “Memento” to his braintwister of a cinematic masterpiece “Inception,” Nolan is famous for using nonlinear frameworks in his narratives. During a panel discussion with the British Film Institute, he talked about his method for nonlinear screenwriting.

“The first script I ever wrote, which had a nonlinear structure, was my script for ‘Following,’” Nolan said. The film marked his directorial debut. “I had the structure mapped out, and I thought the way to do it would be to write the story in chronological terms and edit it to that structure. What I found in that process is I had to do so much rewriting to make it coherent, to make it flow for an audience, so I never did it that way again.”

Nolan explained that he goes through a thorough, detailed process to ensure moviegoers can fully comprehend the film’s plot, even drawing illustrations for himself to connect the dots.

“Every time that I’ve taken on a non-chronological structure, I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, working it out, drawing a lot of diagrams, but then I write the script from page one through to page 124 — or in the case of ‘Oppenheimer,’ page 180 — always writing for the way the audience can see it sitting in the cinema seat,” Nolan said. “I find that, that way, you get the appropriate narrative momentum, you get the right connections between scenes, because you’re thinking of it in the right way, you’re not imposing the structure after the fact. So, for me, that’s been important to do.”

His latest nonlinear project was the explosive now-Oscar-nominated film “Oppenheimer,” which starred Cillian Murphy and told the story of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his journey to making the atomic bomb. The film made its premiere in theaters on July 21, 2023.

Watch Nolan’s full chat with BFI below.

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