'Memento' recognition landed Christopher Nolan in the director's chair for big-budget 'Insomnia'
Two years ago Christopher Nolan was in Hollywood trying to get Warner Brothers to hire him as a screenwriter on a remake of a gloomy and unusual 1997 cop vs. killer psychological thriller from Norway called "Insomnia."
Warner's owned the rights to the film about a complex murder case in a town north of the Arctic Circle, where the sun doesn't set in the summer, and much to Nolan's disappointment they'd just hired a writer named Hillary Seitz to pen an American version of the film.
So Nolan turned his focus to a low-budget noir thriller he'd been writing (from a short story by his brother), a reverse-chronological allegory of revenge and amnesia called "Memento" -- which became 2001's must-see sleeper hit and landed Nolan a job he'd never dreamed of before. Warner's hired him to direct "Insomnia" from Seitz's script, which, he says, bore a comforting resemblance to his own ideas for the remake.
Fast-forward to May 2002 and Nolan's "Insomnia" is one of the biggest buzz movies of the summer. Starring Al Pacino as a sleep-deprived detective locking intellectual horns with the killer of a teenage girl in northern Alaska, it's a much more conventional Hollywood film than anything the director has done before -- but that suits him just fine.
The story now "takes on the baggage of the sort of iconic cop figure from Hollywood movies past," Nolan said during a trip to San Francisco last week. "That gives you a very, very different take on that story without actually changing the events of the plot significantly."
"That was my interest in remaking it," Nolan continued, absentmindedly toying with the lime in a glass of water he'd been sipping. "Not in any way trying to redo what they'd done with the original, because I think it's brilliant."
Half American, half English, the director was born in London in 1970 and began making movies at the age of seven, using his father's Super-8mm camera. His first feature-length film was a cleverly convoluted black-and-white 1998 thriller called "Following," about a young Londoner whose proclivity for fairly harmless voyeurism gets him framed for a major crime.
Then came "Memento," starring Guy Pearce ("L.A. Confidential," "The Time Machine") as a man suffering from short-term memory loss who tries to solve and avenge his wife's murder by tracking clues and suspects through notes, Polaroids and even tattoos all over his body. To put the viewer into the character's frame of mind -- i.e. not knowing anything that has happened longer than 10 minutes ago -- each scene goes back in time a few minutes, events unfolding in reverse order. "Memento" became a huge hit by independent film standards -- it took in $26 million and played for eight months.
Was it less taxing to make a movie with a traditionally linear plot? Nolan takes issue with the very notion.
"If you abandon your preconceptions about film grammar and just look literally at the structure, 'Memento' is much more linear than this film," he replies. "It's reversed, but it's intensely linear. You cannot remove a scene (and still have the movie hold together). But here, when we went to the edit suite, we were able to have a longer version of the film, we were able to pull out certain scenes, we could track things and play around."
Although Nolan has taken a huge leap up the budgetary ladder with "Insomnia" ($50 million versus "Memento's" $5 million) he says that factor wasn't as intimidating. "To me the big leap is between spending your own money ("Following" was financed on the director's credit cards) and spending someone else's," he laughs.
But he was intimidated at first to be working with his cast of acting legends and Oscar winners.
"(Pacino) really puts you through so many hoops, wanting to know what you're going to do with the film before he commits," Nolan says of his star. "He's learned over the years that as an actor you have to be able to completely trust the people you're making a film with."
The director learned to trust Pacino too. "He has an incredible understanding of his craft and of how a film is put together. He would literally say to me, 'You won't see what I've done until you project it, until you've seen what the camera photographed.' And he was always right when he said that. More often than not, he was giving me everything I envisioned and offering me plenty more on top of that."
A key difference in Nolan's remake revolved around giving Pacino's cop character a backstory involving an Internal Affairs investigation back home in Los Angeles. The fact that he's already frazzled when he arrives to assist in the murder investigation and cannot sleep because midnight is almost as sunny as noon "just shifts the whole story," Nolan says. "Pacino's thinking is distorted by (his sleeplessness) in a different way than in the original." This provides for "a really interesting moral paradox (that) leads you to a very different set of interpretations and answers."
Nolan seems to be even more impressed with Robin Williams, who gives an incredible, uncanny departure performance as the killer, a mystery novelist who is so seemingly ordinary that "you wouldn't notice him sitting next to you on the bus."
"To me that's why he's so creepy, because he's a very ordinary guy who's crossed this line and he's trying to figure out where that's going to take him," Nolan offers. "I've seen his performance in this (movie), one way or another, thousands of times at this point, and it's totally real. It absolutely stands up to multiple viewings. Most performances don't. Most performances, after you've watched them and watched them and watched them, you start to see the tricks. It starts to get stale."
What isn't ordinary about the character is that his mind is so meticulous. Watching Williams, you get the sense that everything he does is premeditated, even when he's winging it.
"Right," nods Nolan, "but if you watch the film again, if you step outside Pacino's perception of the situation, he's not as sharp as you think he is. Al is progressively strung out. He's missing things."
So was it hard to get such a reserved performance out of the famously hyperactive Williams?
"I didn't find it so, to be quite honest. What I found was that all of the control he has as a performer -- that allows him to create these various characters be they manic or whatever -- it's exactly the same control that allows him to reign it in."
After directing Robin Williams to this ominously understated performance, Nolan should be more than ready for his next project, a Howard Hughes biography he's developing with Jim Carrey, who is also known mainly for being zany.
"I'm writing a script now, so it's a long way off," Nolan says pensively. "And it's a big project. It is the sort of great unmade Hollywood movie -- and if you ask me why, I don't know and I don't want to find out.
"But I think casting is a large part of it, and I think Jim Carrey is just perfect for the role. He'll be able to pull off something I don't think many performers could."