One Time Martin Scorsese Stole Christopher Nolan's Movie Idea

One Time Martin Scorsese Stole Christopher Nolan's Movie Idea
Image credit: Legion-Media, Miramax

Alright, he didn’t technically steal it: Scorsese was just the first to complete the movie, and Nolan was left behind with a completed script and a broken dream.


  • In the early 2000s, Christopher Nolan canceled his Howard Hughes movie because Martin Scorsese beat him to it with The Aviator.
  • For Nolan, losing his dream project was a tough blow, but he learned valuable lessons about making a biopic.
  • Two decades later, his experience from studying Hughes helped the director create Oppenheimer, his latest magnum opus.

Martin Scorsese is one of the old-school maestros of cinema, and Christopher Nolan is a more recent directorial genius of his own school of moviemaking. What do they have in common, apart from being Hollywood legends? Apparently, movie ideas — and under certain circumstances, they can even end up in a race against each other.

Which Movie Did Scorsese and Nolan Compete for?

In the early 2000s, Christopher Nolan had a dream: he wanted to create a biopic about Howard Hughes, the legend of aviation and industry. The director put a lot of time and effort into writing the perfect screenplay, and even had Jim Carrey lined up for the role of Hughes — but then, everything went crashing down.

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Another famous director, Martin Scorsese, was apparently also developing a biopic about Hughes at the same time. Scorsese finished his script and preparations earlier than Nolan, and his movie went into production. After learning about that, the Oppenheimer director canceled his project. In 2004, Scorsese’s The Aviator with DiCaprio as Hughes was released, and Nolan’s idea never came to life.

When working with Leonardo DiCaprio on Inception, Christopher Nolan had to admit to him that he’d never watched The Aviator — perhaps, out of spite. He shared with his lead actor — and Variety — that seeing his dream project die before his eyes was too hard for him.

“It was very emotional to not get to make something I’d poured all that [effort] into,” the director explained.

What Did Nolan Learn From The Aviator Case?

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Despite the obvious drama of not getting to make his dream project, Christopher Nolan still learned two valuable lessons from The Aviator case. First of all, he never even begins writing a script until he’s sure he’ll get the first dibs on the movie. Second of all, studying for his first biopic attempt prepared Nolan for Oppenheimer.

“Many years ago, I had written a script about the life of Howard Hughes that never got made because I wrote it right as Scorsese was making his own film. But I cracked the script to my satisfaction, and that gave me a lot of insight on how to distill a person’s life and how to view a person’s life in a thematic way, so that the film is more than the sum of its parts,” Christopher Nolan told The New York Times.

In some way, thanks to Scorsese’s The Aviator, we now have Nolan’s Oppenheimer. But the Dark Knight director is still unhappy about losing his Howard Hughes movie.

Sources: Variety, The New York Times