Screenwriter Nolan urges students to follow passions

“Be a lucky person,” screenwriter Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan recalled. That was the advice he and his brother, director Christopher Nolan, received from a famous British director about how to enter show business.

“When I first heard it, it sounded smug,” Jonah Nolan said. “The more I think about it, the more humility I see contained in that statement.”

Jonah Nolan, who co-wrote “The Prestige” and “The Dark Knight,” spoke at a Master’s Tea in Trumbull College on Monday afternoon, sharing anecdotes about his experiences writing films and sharing advice with more than 130 Yalies in the audience.

Jonah Nolan, who is currently working on the script for a Steven Spielberg science-fiction film called “Interstellar,” delved into his screenwriting philosophy and offered insight on what he said is the best way to approach creative writing.

Considering the most commonly practiced maxim “write what you know” to be a false search for authenticity, Jonah Nolan proposed his own modification to the principle, which is to “write whatever you want.”

“For me, I don’t have a lot of experience to prepare myself for writing about a vigilante, or a guy with no memory,” he said. “But that’s where my imagination took me. I would encourage you to do the same thing.”

Jonah Nolan said this idea is applicable to all occupations and creative works, not just to screenwriters.

Later in the talk, he discussed the current economic crisis in relation to the film industry, as well as to current students’ career pursuits.

“It occurred to me that in the deluge of terrible financial news, it would be a somewhat scary moment to try and figure out what you want to do, what you want to study, and where you want to go,” Jonah Nolan said. “But I think, frankly, what looks like a scary moment is probably more of an honest one.”

He went on to discuss the illusion of having a safe plan after college, referencing a career path that ensures financial stability, which he said, especially during this time of economic collapse, no longer exists.

“I think hopefully it would be freeing to some degree,” Jonah Nolan said. “It’s an invitation to say that you can do whatever you want … I think that you should feel free to pursue artistic endeavors, really whatever excites you and gives you a passion. It’s better to fail at something that you enjoy than something you don’t.”

After he wrote the short story “Memento Mori,” which his older brother turned into the critically acclaimed film “Memento,” Jonah Nolan made a name for himself in the industry. The brothers were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and then the two co-wrote “The Prestige” (2006) and “The Dark Knight” (2008), both of which were directed by Christopher Nolan.

“The Prestige” received favorable reviews, and was successful in the box office worldwide. “The Dark Knight” broke records, grossing over $1 billion worldwide and becoming the second most successful box office hit in the United States, behind only “Titanic.”

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