Psychoanalyzing Christopher Nolan | Personality Type & Octagram
Christopher Nolan, widely regarded as one of the greatest film directors of all time, has brought a unique style of blockbuster-like spectacles mixed with intricate and, at times, intensely personal narratives. He has been applauded for his films’ psychological complexity, and is recognized for his audacity to capture in the frame what others can only do with CGI.
One of Nolan’s iconic narrative traits is his intertwined, non-linear storytelling. Many directors and writers use elements of non-linear storytelling, but Nolan’s execution of his storytelling almost surgical, as if every piece was calculated down to the last detail.
Three of his films in particular, Memento, The Prestige, and Inception vitally rely on seamlessly moving between past and present, without compromising the intelligibility of the story. And though some viewers may disagree — ”I feel lost” — Nolan has the ability to communicate effectively even amidst extremely complex narratives.
This complexity is built into a much deeper layer of Nolan’s approach. Nolan has said that he doesn’t treat the audience like they’re dumb.
“I think the audience is really smart – the ones who are really interested in movies, anyway. They can sense when you’re condescending to them.”
He has a positive relationship with the audience’s intellectual ability. He understands that, given the right context, many people can grasp even the more complicated stories. Nolan’s perspective reveals a high awareness of Extraverted Thinking — likely an optimistic Te slot.
Nolan said of his collaboration with composer Hans Zimmer, “What I’ve done with the bigger film scores … is figure out a way to build the machine, and then use the mechanism of the music to get the heart of it, to get the emotion into that form.” Building a machine to “get the heart of it” is a revelation of the Te/Fi functions. Nolan is an Extraverted Thinker and Introverted Feeler.
For his structuring, Memento, in particular, is built like a puzzle box that builds two parts of the puzzle simultaneously. One puzzle is composed of black and white scenes moving in one narrative direction. The other puzzle is the scenes in color, moving in a different direction. But in the end, these puzzles are sewn together into a unified narrative.
Nolan’s gift, it seems, is jumping through time — literally in the case of Interstellar — in a way that adds momentum to the story, not detracts.
And how he composes these stories reveals a different trait of his personality.
In this clip, Nolan says that he “Isn’t somebody who does a lot of multiple drafts over the years.” He describes how pieces of a story, or an image, will marinate in his mind for a while and then, when it’s time to write, it’s a planned execution.
Progression types moves forward by multiple attempts, while Outcome types put their effort in the preparation so that the execution runs smoothly. But in the clip, Nolan is also subtly revealing his system for conceptualizing and creating a story.
In his interview for his role in Oppenheimer, Matt Damon talked about Christopher Nolan’s preparation. “He [Nolan] and Emma [his wife & producer] are so well prepared … the two of them together, because they’re married, it’s like all of these discussions have happened. So you never see either of their pulse raise at all. They’ve covered everything. And they’re completely relaxed.”
This thorough preparation that leads to a calm filming environment is potent evidence for Nolan being both Outcome-focused and Systematic.
In another interview, Matthew Mcconaughey’s describes what it’s like working with Christopher Nolan.
“I’ve never worked with a better leader. I cannot say I’ve ever worked with a better problem solver. And half of the problems he just solves by pure will. But everything must keep moving forward … he never goes backwards … he won’t go reshoot anything.”
While part of Mcconaughey’s analysis of Nolan may seem like a movement type (everything must keep moving forward), the context of this forward movement is under the larger machine of Nolan’s plan. A movement type (like an INTJ) is much more likely to adjust on the fly, and go backward, if necessary, to make progress. But Nolan’s preparation, and the machine of his over-arching plan, allows the projects to continually move forward.
It his vital, here, to see that Nolan is not a movement type, and therefore NOT an INTJ. We will have a further discussion on that below. But unless one can demonstrate that Nolan is a progression (movement) type, INTJ is off the table.
Christopher Nolan is both Systematic and an Outcome type. He is an Extraverted Thinker and is therefore one of the four Structure types. As there are only two Te using Structure types, Nolan is either an ENTJ or an ESTJ.
Between these two, the obvious choice is ENTJ, due Nolan’s clear preference for the abstract. His narratives are too explorative and conceptual to be considered as a concrete approach.
“I think movies are a great way to explore big ideas – things like identity, perception, memory, time.”
Christopher Nolan is an ENTJ.
“But Nolan’s an INTJ?!”
Indeed, the difference between an ENTJ and INTJ — especially when accounting for Octagram — can be hard to spot. Both are intellectuals who can be committed to personal exploration and mastery of their craft. Both care about their freedom of choice and reputation.
From the very broadest perspective, though, ask yourself this question: Is Nolan a filmmaker because filmmaking is a source of Reverence (INTJ/ESFP Origin) for him, or because it’s his Purpose (ENTJ/ISFP)?
Nolan’s lack of award-recognition is an interesting piece of evidence that condemns the “INTJ” conclusion. Someone driven by the Cognitive Origin of “Purpose” is more likely to appreciate that a completed piece of art is an award in itself. Something much more difficult for a Reverence type — the INTJ — to surrender to. Nolan is driven by the Cognitive Origin of Purpose.
Why else? Why is Nolan not an INTJ? Admittedly, Nolan seems careful with his words. In interviews, he seems to be calculating with his responses, always aware of how what he reveals will change people’s perceptions of him or the film. Most would NOT look at Nolan as someone who talks excessively
But like all the four structure types (ESTJ, ESTP, ENTJ, ENFJ), while they are extraverted, they tend to be more deliberate with their words than the four Starter, extraverted types. The four structure types can sometimes be mistaken for introverts because their speech can be more calculated.
I don’t know how many ESTJs I’ve met, for example, who think they are introverts — and don’t get us started on ESTPs!
For Nolan, his structure — literally — is about planning. He is a voracious planner. An INTJ makes the plan as they make progress. But not Nolan. Once again, Christopher Nolan is not a movement type, and therefore not an INTJ.
But, people are picking up on something vitally important when they perceive that Nolan is not bombastically extraverted. To this we explore Christopher Nolan’s Octagram.
Christopher Nolan’s Octagram
In a book about Christopher Nolan’s filmography and life, The Nolan Variations, author Tom Shone wrote about Nolan’s 8th film, Interstellar. Though Interstellar still performed well, it was not as well accepted by fans and critics as Nolan’s other work.
Shone had this to say about Nolan’s relationship with that film: “Maybe Interstellar had to be a messier film for Nolan to break free of the self-imposed strictures that bound his earlier work, which invited the audience into a chess-player-like cogitation about the rules of narrative engagement.” Shone continues, “Praise for the intelligence of his early work, Nolan found himself in the curious position of asking his interstellar audience to think a little bit less.”
The implication here is that the audience can feel a little more.
Nolan commented that while 2001 asked the audience to take an intellectual leap, Interstellar asked the audience to take an emotional leap; in this case, through a black hole.
Knowing that Nolan is an ENTJ, and examining this single quote from Shone, I think we have enough to determine Nolan’s Octagram based on this alone.
Much of Nolan’s work has been characterized as mechanical, dark, and — at times — heartless. There is an intellectual distance that is felt in much of his work, as if the stories and characters are all under the guide of a much more powerful, unstoppable machine.
It would be a mistake to ignore our instincts here. We have two main paths for Nolan’s Octagram. His reliance (Development) is either more on the INTP Shadow/Unconscious or the ISFP Subconscious.
Does he rely more on the intellectual, mathematical, and structural INTP side that is building the Cognitive Origin of Discovery — secondarily to Nolan’s ENTJ Purpose? This would be Subjugation on the Temple Wheel.
Or does Nolan rely primarily on his artistic and expressive sides to deliver complex emotion? This would be the ENTJ’s Complacent pole on the Temple Wheel — synonymous with the ISFP Subconscious.
So which is he? Which side has he relied on more?
From Nolan’s mouth: “I feel that what I do is based more in artifice and abstraction and theatricality. I feel more of a craftsman than an artist, genuinely.”
The intuitive answer would be the INTP side. And we believe this is the right answer. Christopher Nolan is an Unconscious Developed ENTJ. It’s more about building a better machine than expressing oneself more messily. Each project is an opportunity for Discovery, where his INTP side provides his ENTJ ego with new possibilities to pursue.
Sometimes this Discovery is quite literal, pushing out into outer space and exploring into the unknown of a black hole. The secondary Cognitive Origin of Purpose is evident in Nolan’s work.
And, the reliance on the INTP shadow, a background type, adds evidence to reveal why Nolan seems more laid back and self-possessed than other ENTJs might. It’s easy to mistake the INTP Shadow for a preference for introversion.
But why did I bring up Interstellar? To answer the other half of his Octagram: his Cognitive Focus.
To say that Nolan is UD, developed in his INTP Shadow, is to say he places a higher emphasis on building out the structure of his stories, over raw personal expression.
But it may also be to say that within that structure, that is so deliberately built, is where his expressiveness can come through.
Interstellar was a turn toward a more ambitious Nolan, as it pressed into the more expressive side. And yes, there is plenty of mind-bending physics and complex structuring in Interstellar, but at the heart of Interstellar is an emotional, vulnerable, and yes, expressive piece about love. Nolan’s ISFP Subconscious is evident in Interstellar particularly.
Taking one of Nolan’s earliest films — Memento — a work of film engineering, and compare that to Nolan’s upcoming picture, a personal biopic about the complex Robert Oppenheimer. Nolan’s Octagram variation deepens our ability to appreciate the work of a director committed to his personal cutting edge, and committed to delivering the ultimate experience. Christopher Nolan is Subconscious Focused, in his ISFP Subconscious.
Lastly, take Nolan’s famed attribute for being someone who wants to film as much in camera as possible. He relies minimally on CGI to capture events on the screen. He builds his own sets and is committed to bringing the audience into as immersive an experience as possible. Further, Nolan’s other key attribute is his commitment to continue shooting on real film, as opposed to digital.
Consider these in the context of the Body Temple, committed to preserving the integrity of our legacy — the legacy of film — but also to leave behind work that stands up for generations to come. This is the Body Temple fulfilling its purpose. For Nolan, it’s as if he’s asking: What could be more worthy of leaving behind than the real thing?
We believe Christopher Nolan is a UD | SF ENTJ: INTP Developed and ISFP Focused.