Why “Interstellar” Director Christopher Nolan Doesn’t Have Email or a Cell Phone

What would you say if you learned that one of Hollywood’s biggest directors, someone responsible for billion dollar movie franchises that explore things like space travel and alternate dimensions, doesn’t have email or a cellphone?

You’d probably think he was a bit crazy. But, maybe he isn’t.

In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Christopher Nolan, the auteur behind Interstellar, the Batman trilogy, as well as Memento and Inception, explains his reasoning, and it kind of makes a lot of sense.

“I’ve never used email because I don’t find it would help me with anything I’m doing,” he says. “I just couldn’t be bothered about it.”

That’s it. Read it again. Christopher Nolan has never set up his own email account because he basically doesn’t see a use for it. Eureka! This guy may be on to something.

Email is one of the greatest modern inventions, but anyone who has spent the greater part of their day answering emails with 78 different people cc’d, many of whom are only tangentially connected to the issue at hand, all of them offering one sentence replies that amount to— what, exactly? — knows that despite its usefulness, it can also be one of the biggest time wasters in human history.

To wit, imagine all of the great things not being done, tasks not being completed, attention being diverted, ideas not being fully formalized, because people are spending their precious time— the only resource in life that they cannot get back— with this digital form of communication that can often not amount to much.

Before email, if people wanted to stay in touch with someone, they called them on the phone, mailed them a letter or maybe even saw them in person. Because these things actually required some effort, there was perhaps much more thought put into them beforehand. To mail a letter required not only a pen, some paper, an envelope and a stamp, but it also meant physically walking over to a mailbox, too.

Now, nobody thinks twice before firing off emails at every hour of the day, and it’s essentially a given that you will see notifications on your smartphone, which is tethered to your side like a siamese twin, lighting up at all hours of the night. Yes, there is precious, really important correspondence in your inbox, waiting for your attention.

But how much of this correspondence actually amounts to anything? Very little of it. I’d argue that deleting at least 50% of all your email would yield the same exact things in both your professional and personal lives.

Let’s not be mistaken— surely, some of it is important, because email is so ingrained into the fabric of how we live now. But a lot of it isn’t. Particularly as it pertains to work, a lot of email correspondence you get looped into, without even trying.

Sadly, we’ve taken those work email practices into our personal lives, too. So it isn’t that uncommon now to have long email conversations with family members and friends, where by the time you’re ready to respond, there’s a trail of 59 one-sentence replies you have to scroll through just to figure out what the original question was.

But, Mr. Nolan doesn’t just stop at email. Perhaps because he doesn’t want to be bothered by email notifications at 3 AM, he doesn’t have a cellphone either.

“It’s like that whole thing about ‘in New York City, you’re never more than two feet from a rat’ — I’m never two feet from a cellphone,” he explains. “We’ll be on a scout with 10 people and all of them have phones, so it’s very easy to get in touch with me when people need to.”

The key words in that statement are the last four.

When. People. Need. To.

Imagine that, using the phone only when needed. Well, it’s not a very abstract concept. The way phone companies used to work, before cell phones and unlimited plans, they’d charge you for every call you made. Many grownups today can probably remember the days when their parents would open up a phone bill at the end of the month and harangue them about how many calls they made (“But mom, I was just talking to my friends!”).

Even mobile service, up until the past few years, was built around the idea of the minutes plan. You only had so many minutes to use each month, so you probably thought a little more about how you utilized that time. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers the days of waiting until 9 PM— off-peak hours! — to make a phone call. Now, not so much. You might have a 4-hour phone call in the middle of the day. Why? Because you can.

Similarly, with expanded data plans, proliferation of lightning fast wireless networks and powerful processors that have turned our handheld devices into miniature desktop computers, we’ve taken the time-wasting we might have done at our desk, right along with us wherever were are. Ultimately, that’s why Mr. Nolan doesn’t have one.

“It gives me time to think,” he says. “You know, when you have a smartphone and you have 10 minutes to spare, you go on it and you start looking at stuff.”

He’s right, we do. And that stuff tends to cloud our thoughts, occupy our mind and keep whatever it was we were looking at swimming around inside our brain. This stuff is not always essential to completing whatever tasks are at hand, or even the act of living itself.

So, maybe it’s time we all gave hyper-connectivity a second thought. Not disconnect completely, but pull back just enough to rediscover who we truly are, what we think about, and what our ideas really mean, when we’re not distracted by someone else’s.

If it works for Mr. Nolan, who has been nothing short of prolific, if not visionary and progressive as a filmmaker, maybe, just maybe, it’ll work for us too.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.