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Back to where it all began: Christopher Nolan awarded honorary doctorate at UCL

12 September 2017

Hollywood and UCL came together last week to celebrate the achievements of more than 200 graduates and recognize one of the university’s most successful and famous alumni - film director Christopher Nolan.

Christopher, a 1993 UCL graduate in English Literature who went on to become one of the world’s top film directors, received an honorary doctorate alongside the UCL graduating class of 2017, their parents and the successful PhD students from the faculty of brain sciences.

Christopher had some poignant and pertinent advice for the graduates who joined him at the ceremony, speaking passionately about the debt he owed to the university.

“The attitude that permeates UCL when you study here is something that you carry forward,” he said. “This attitude of not accepting things as they are, not accepting the status quo, but looking to improve things, looking for a better way, looking to advance things in all fields. This is something that you carry with you after you leave here.”

It was the extracurricular element of his time at UCL that shaped his life as much as the academic. As UCL Film Society President, Christopher spent as much time – if not more, he admitted - in UCL’s Bloomsbury Theatre as in the lecture theatre, making short films and shooting his first feature film while still a student, as well as coming back to use UCL as a location in a number of his major motion pictures, including Inception.

Christopher Nolan

He revealed how he met his wife and film producing partner Emma Thomas (History 1993) on his first day in Ramsay Halls at UCL and told the graduating Class of 2017: “We have four children. We have a body of work that we have made together. So the moral of the story is: pay a lot of attention to who you meet on your first night at your halls of residence.”

Referring to connections between his films and the work of his audience of brain science graduates, he spoke of “a fascination in my work that is centred around the gulf between our perception, our way of processing the world around us and our faith in an objective reality outside of that.

“I think in today’s world we are living in a time when perhaps, more than ever before, the disparity between our subjective view of the world, of history, of what is going on in the world today and objective facts, that gulf has never been more important to be analysed and explained and dealt with. I am interested and able to explore that in a manner of storytelling. But I think there are many people here who will go on to explore it in a substantial way and in ways that will help the world.”

Following the ceremony, both Christopher and Emma returned to visit the Bloomsbury Theatre, which is now undergoing a major refurbishment, and meet current members of the Film Society.

Welcoming Christopher and Emma, UCL President & Provost Professor Michael Arthur said: "Chris and Emma are longstanding friends and supporters of UCL and we are delighted to welcome them back and show them how proud we are of them. They are a great example of what university education is all about - trying new things, pursuing your passions, seizing opportunities and meeting the people who become lifelong friends and collaborators. They took every opportunity UCL had to offer, and I know they are still feeling the benefit of that effort and energy many years later.

"I'm particularly pleased we were able to show them round the Bloomsbury Theatre, which played such a central part in their student lives and is so important to the student experience at UCL. I'm delighted that we are improving and redesigning the theatre so that future generations can develop and learn a range of skills outside of their academic programmes."

Since making his directorial debut with the acclaimed independent hit Following in 1998 – five years after graduating – Christopher has gone on to become one of the most successful and influential film directors in history. His celebrated body of work includes the 2000 thriller Memento, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, the tense psychological thriller Insomnia, the mystery drama The Prestige, and the landmark The Dark Knight Trilogy. His groundbreaking 2010 feature Inception earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, followed by the science fiction blockbuster Interstellar. This summer saw the release of Christopher’s epic cinematic masterpiece Dunkirk, which has become one of the best-reviewed and most successful films of the year.

Collectively, Christopher’s 10 films have grossed $4.7 billion worldwide and garnered a total of 26 Oscar nominations and seven wins. He has co-written several of his films with his brother, Jonathan, and runs the production company Syncopy with his wife Emma.

By being awarded an honorary doctorate at UCL, he joins an elite group of around 120 who have received the honour, including 14 Nobel Laureates, the broadcaster and writer Melvyn Bragg, artist and sculptor Anthony Gormley, Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Burnell, author Ian McEwan, architect Lord Foster, novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd, theatre producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh, and businessman and politician Lord Sainsbury.

Even after he left, Christopher has still returned to the “corners” of UCL that he used as a backdrop in his student days films. It has always been hard to find a location in London so “as the films got bigger, you still revert to the same methodology so I found myself in London looking for ways to create Gotham City,” he said. “For me, it was quite natural to go back to what I knew and what I knew was UCL.”