Skip to main content

Christopher Nolan Is a Bad Editor

The director is so busy preserving all of his scenes that he cuts out crucial, character-building moments.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
Nolan's moments disappear into a black hole. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nolan's moments disappear into a black hole. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Home video releases for Christopher Nolan films don't contain deleted scenes. There's a reason for this, and it's not because he's too embarrassed to show you what he left on the cutting room floor. It's because there are no deleted scenes. In an interview with MTV during the release of The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan claimed his lack of deleted scenes is about money:

“I tend to try and weed things out on paper because it’s crazy expensive to shoot things that aren’t going to be in the film,” he explained. “It also takes up a lot of time and energy. Pretty much with all my films, there are very few deleted scenes, which always disappoints the DVD crowd.”

That logic checks out. When you're working with $150-200 million budgets, you want that money to show up on screen. And he gets it all up there, alright. Which is why his movies are never ... quite ... perfect.

Have you not seen Interstellar yet? Here's the deal: Earth, at some point in the future, isn't a very hospitable place to live. Dust storms are a-blowin', crops are a-failin', and lungs are a-fillin' with diseases. Matthew McConaughey plays a farmer, and also a former astronaut, so when he breaks into NASA headquarters in the middle of the night, the head scientist (Michael Caine) believes this ruffian should be shot into space to find a new planet for humans to call home. Wormholes and black holes and time-shifts due to the theory of relativity make up the rest of the movie. It's being sold as a “thinking person's Gravity,” which isn't necessarily wrong, other than that claim means just about nothing, since Gravity has the depth of open-cheeked flatulence born of too many IPAs the night before.

Yahtzee! Two plot birds with one scene stone! Why waste time with unnecessary exposition?

Let's focus on one particular, tiny moment in the movie. There's a scene halfway through—spoiler-alert, I guess, but don't get too worried about it, it doesn't ruin anything plot-wise—where Jessica Chastain (who plays the adult version of Matt Mac's daughter) is holed up in a dark room at NASA HQ, recording a private video message to her still-normal-age-because-of-that-law-of-relativity-thing dad. It's a touching moment, partly because Hans Zimmer's score tells you This! Is! A! Touching! Moment! But then, out of nowhere, Michael Caine's head scientist character pops his head from behind her and says something like: “Oh, sorry, I snuck in while you were recording.” That revelation, that he eavesdropped (maybe purposefully?) on this very personal moment, is just dropped. Completely. Michael Caine snuck in on his protege while she thought she was alone, but let's just move on, OK?

In and of itself, this is no big deal. Perhaps it's more of a nitpick than anything else, and why bother with it because this film has plenty of actual plot and scientific fictions to nitpick? But, this failure of staging highlights a huge issue with Nolan as a filmmaker. He's a terrible editor.

Let's break down how this weird scene staging occurs, simply from a story-logic standpoint. As a writer—as in, if I was writing this movie—I'd have two goals for this section of the script: (1) I need Jessica Chastain to record a video to Matt Mac while she's alone; (2) I need Michael Caine talking to her, meaning that she can no longer be alone. Also, I don't have much time to work with, because this sucker's already clocking in near three hours. So, instead of developing how Caine gets into the room—by, say, showing him sneaking in or choosing any number of “I wasn't supposed to be here and now I am” scene stagings that could be easily ripped from John Hughes movies—or establishing an entire new scene that has the two characters in the same room, the solution Nolan apparently lands on is just having a sudden close-up of Caine. Out of nowhere. Bam, he's behind her. And have him say some shit like, “I snuck in.” Yahtzee! Two plot birds with one scene stone! Why waste time with unnecessary exposition?

Which, honestly, isn't a terrible mindset for filmmakers. The removal of fluff is always welcomed. When you're dealing with a two-hour-and-49-minute runtime, take out all you can. But instead of taking out scenes, he takes out moments in scenes. See, Nolan's movies shouldn't be two hours and 49 minutes. He's writing movies that should be more like four hours long!

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, AS A writer or story developer or whatever, tries to jam way too much in. He writes and “locks in the script,” to use some industry parlance, with no sense of the amount of time films should realistically be. (In the big-budget blockbuster sense, that is; I got no gruff with Satantango!) And when he constructs his stories, he does so in the same way of someone putting together a Rube Goldberg machine: Point A must lead to point B, which must lead to point C, and on and on. If the third playing card doesn't hit the fourth, that doesn't trigger the hammer, which doesn't push the bowling ball, and the machine just fizzles into an embarrassing death.

But what amazing contraptions Nolan has planned: Planets made entirely of waves! Batman pulling a heist in Japan! A dream level in a world of snow! William Devane as a member of the NASA board! William Devane as the United States President!

Nolan's house doesn't have room for a wall of baseball bats. But he loves them all. So, rather than putting a few in storage and showing off the best, he whittles them all down until they're nothing but flimsy, brittle sticks.

All of those ideas are great—well, maybe not the William Devane ones—and the scenes are enjoyable on their own. But because of his obsession with cramming in every one of those great ideas, every other scene throughout needs trimming. Having a superfluous planet of waves doesn't mean they can't afford time for an explanation as to why Michael Caine snuck in to watch Jessica Chastain record a private video. It means they have to get rid of that and a whole slew of brief, “character-building” moments throughout. Nolan's house doesn't have room for a wall of baseball bats. But he loves them all. So, rather than putting a few in storage and showing off the best, he whittles them all down until they're nothing but flimsy, brittle sticks. This failure to story-edit—say, combine two plot points into one scene; take a hammer out of the Rube Goldberg machine—leads to his failure to edit-edit.

Consider this: The most beautiful photograph ever of a father hugging his daughter. Look at it for four seconds, and it will connect to you on an emotional level. Look at it for three-quarters-of-a-second in the middle of one of those brain-washing montages like in A Clockwork Orange, and it won't. By the time it registers, you've already moved onto the next photo. That's what Nolan does. The photograph of the father and daughter, in Nolan's hands, isn't evocative. It's subliminal.

Terrence Malick is famous—almost notoriously so—for leaving entire subplots and/or characters on the cutting room floor. That's because Malick understands that some things just don't work in the final cut, that the rhythm of editing is different than writing or directing. He doesn't get too attached to a single scene, because he wants the whole thing to work on an emotional level. Nolan? He'll find a way to get every scene in there, even if it means trimming to the point of bare comprehension. Every plot point needs to be there! Every location we shot gets a cameo! No scene gets deleted!

By doing so, it doesn't allow for those extra seconds of just plain-old-humans sharing a humanistic moment. None of his scenes can be “lived in.” None of his characters can sigh, broadcast an extra blink, or extend a hug past the time needed for audiences to register these characters are hugging. Know that old criticism about how Christopher Nolan movies are cold, clinical voids? That's because those nearly imperceptible moments are missing in his films.

No, Nolan doesn't have any deleted scenes in his movies. But he does have a whole pile of deleted moments.