INTERVIEW: Mindgames; Christopher Nolan Remembers "Memento"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 03.16.01) — If you haven’t heard of Christopher Nolan‘s mesmerizing new film “Memento,” where the Hell have you been? You just don’t get cooler movies than this newly dubbed “meta-noir,” a thriller as pleasing to the intellectual reader of relativity theory as your average fan of revenge fair from “Point Blank” to “Payback.” Shall we go through the synopsis again? Guy Pearce (“LA Confidential“) stars as Leonard Shelby, a man out to avenge his wife’s murder. He’s got no short-term memory, so every step he takes, he must take it again. He scribbles down notes, takes Polaroids of everyone he meets, and tattoos facts on his body. It’s a tough way to solve a murder. Shall we go through the synopsis again? Guy Pearce (“LA Confidential”) stars as Leonard Shelby, a man out to avenge his wife’s murder. He’s got no short-term memory, so every step he takes, he must take it again. He scribbles down notes, takes Polaroids of everyone he meets . . . Get it? Think “Groundhog Day” with a gun.
Nolan follows up his promising debut, 1998’s “Following,” with proof that the sophomore slump is just a myth. He’s already got his third film in the works: an adaptation of “Insomnia,” a 1997 Norwegian thriller about a corrupt cop, that will star Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, with kindred spirit Steven Soderbergh onboard as an executive producer.
“Memento” opens in theaters today, through distribution from Newmarket Films, who financed the $5 million indie (and never found another company to pay enough to pick it up). The film also stars Carrie Anne-Moss (“The Matrix“) and Joe Pantoliano (“Goonies“) as two enigmatic figures in Shelby’s labyrinthine investigation.
indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman spoke with Nolan about everything that makes the film — any film, actually — work, from subjectivity and space to chronology and continuity.
indieWIRE: When you were making this film, did you ever wonder if the puzzle structure would play to an audience?
Christopher Nolan: There’s this weird irony, because you actually find yourself as a filmmaker in the position of the protagonist that has to trust these notes he’s written himself. It sounds a bit trite, but it’s really true. I watch the screen and think, okay I read the script three years ago and it seemed like a good idea at the time. But it’s like you really are, at a certain point, you’re so immersed in the material. You’re just having to trust yourself. You have so many points along the way where the film stops being real and you just have to say: this is what I’m making, this is what I’m doing and switch that half of your brain off and absolutely trust your initial instincts, your editor, your actor’s instincts and your own instincts about whether you’re getting what you want. The weird thing is you go through these torturous creative machinations and then you look back at the original script and it’s pretty, pretty close to what’s on the screen. It’s almost exactly the same. You say, “Thank God, how did that wind up like that?”
iW: Is the puzzle aspect of the film in the story that it was based on?
Nolan: It’s been a weird organic process, because my brother told me the concept when he was writing the story. He told it to me while we were driving from Chicago to LA, across country. And I was like great, can I go and write a screenplay for this while you write the story? Because he’d been doing draft after draft and in fact it took him another two years. As we were finishing the film, he was finishing his final draft of the short story.
We had decided that in our own ways we were going to try and tell the story in the first person. Me in film and him in a short story. We’re both trying to escape the boundaries of the particular medium that we’re choosing to tell, because we really want to create an experience that doesn’t feed into your head, that bleeds around the edges. I was going for something that lived in its own shape, that was slightly built from that standard linear experience. My brother in the same way, in writing the story, had wanted to randomize it somehow. Like he’s done the web site [www.ontnemem.com] and that’s in an electronic form.
iW: In telling it visually, were you thinking about predecessors, were you thinking about other films that played with time?
Nolan: I really wasn’t, actually. To tell the truth, the structure with “Memento” is weirdly less self-conscious than it was with “Following.” In “Following,” the relationship between the subject matter and the narrative divides. It’s a little bit harder for people to figure out, it’s a little bit more subtle. “Memento” is very clear to most people, even if they hate it. It’s like we try to put you in his head and that’s why the story is told backwards, because it denies the information that he’s denying. So in a way, it was much more straightforward and organic.
I actually wrote the story from page one. I wasn’t thinking too much about those structural things once I had it down as a first draft. And when I look back at it now, obviously I was using continuity devices like I did in “Following”: injuries and appearance and that kind of thing to give clues as to where you are chronologically and the relationship between the different scenes. Influence wise, certain books had a big influence on me, particularly Graham Swift‘s “Waterland.” It’s a really fantastic novel that I read years and years ago where he has this incredibly complex juggling of parallel timelines. That really struck me. I’m trying to put together that narrative influence that I see used more freely in books. In films, people have been very restrained. But in books, there’s a freedom. And to me it really is a question of finding the most suitable order for releasing information to the audience and not feeling any responsibility to do it chronologically, just like we don’t in life.
I think it’s TV that’s really held back the development of cinematic narrative, because with TV you have to be able to switch it on 10 minutes before the ending to understand the entire show — that’s the nature of the medium. And films have been tailored towards that. I think DVD and video and just the birth of VHS really changes that.
iW: What personally do you appreciate about your protagonist?
Nolan: Since I was a child, I’ve been really interested in the concept of empathy between individuals and the concept of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and that kind of relativism. Film, it seems to me, is this fantastic medium for drawing the audience into somebody else’s point of view. I think more so than books in a funny sort of way. In books you can use the first person — you can clearly signal that in a way that in films there’s always this illusion of objectivity. There isn’t really any first person technique.
What we tried to do in “Memento” is simply block the film from the character’s point of view as much as possible. So he walked into a room, you’re kind of looking over his shoulder, you’re exploring the room as he does and you’re always at his eye line — the camera’s always a little bit closer to him. So there’s a conscious attempt to keep the blocking that way, but there’s always this illusion of objectivity because the camera is on the side of him and you are always aware that there’s somebody choosing those shots; there’s another consciousness, another author if you like. So it’s tricking the audience, drawing the audience into this other point of view. I think it’s tremendously powerful, because people don’t realize it’s being done because it has to be done in fairly subtle ways. I wanted to have a certain element of consciously reminding people: you’re in this guy’s point of view, so they understand the structure.
There’s probably more voice over in this film than there was in the script. I kept missing it when it wasn’t there for 20 minutes, because you just needed to keep drawing people into his mind, so they understand that we’re seeing it from this guy’s point of view and that’s why you’re confused and that’s why you don’t know who this guy is. I find it quite satisfying that people will come out of this film arguing about who the good guys and who the bad guy is. Not because there isn’t one, but because we are using an unreliable narrator, calling into question the judgments of who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, which I think is like real life.
iW: You’d think that the actors would be especially apt at understanding the film’s structure, because they’re always shooting in a strange order of sequence, anyway.
Nolan: Yeah, the actors had less trouble shifting concepts than pretty much anyone else. Even at the script stage, when I’m showing the script to people and people are reading it, they got it in a way that executives, or creative people or writers even, didn’t. They’re used to this very simple process of saying: “Okay, in this scene, what do I know and how does that make me feel.” They had no problem with that once they’d explored the script and reordered it how they wanted to. Then it just became this process of saying a few things to themselves: “where it’s appearing” and “when in the film for continuity purposes,” and “what has actually happened before.” But to be honest, once we had it on the page, it became a lot like any other film, except you had to keep explaining it to people in the different departments.
iW: How did the continuity department react?
Nolan: Much like with the actors. We had this continuity guy, actually, the Farelly Brothers‘ continuity guy, strangely, but he was fantastic and amazing and totally grasped the whole thing. They’re just used to de-constructing and reconstructing, because even in fairly conventional films, there’s all kinds of manipulation in time and space that we take for granted, because that’s the standard we’ve developed. It’s actually very sophisticated. Applying a time line to it can be tricky. One of the things that I was wasn’t expecting that all the departments do is they reduce everything to day one, night one, day two, night two. And they do that with all films, because that’s the only way they can get it clear for costume changes and this and that. And most scripts you read, it’s not clear and you have to actually make those decisions just like we did with this one. This one was actually clearer because — the AD was one of the first guys to point this out — this is not a nonlinear film; this is an extremely linear film. You cannot move a scene. It was very tough in the editing to get it down to the right length because you could not lose a scene, otherwise you’ve lost your link between these things. It’s very, very strongly linked scene-to-scene, much more so than a conventional movie.
iW: How meticulous are you in general? I think you’ve created two meticulous films.
Nolan: I’m certainly meticulous in filmmaking terms. I like to be precise with things. I’m interested in making films to watch them a second time, and hopefully you’ll be interested to watch a second time. You don’t see how it’s stuck together; it actually can sustain that scrutiny and become something a little bit different when you see it again.
Because I feel like I’ve got three years to work on this thing and as a viewer you’ve got like two hours to watch it, so it ought to be functioning at some level of greater sophistication than you can absorb in one viewing. I had that opportunity to cheat in that way and make it more complex or more layered or whatever, because I had that luxury of time. It took me a year to write the script, and so I had a lot of time to play around with all these things and put stuff in there that you’re not going to get the first time around and couldn’t be expected to, necessarily.
So that kind of meticulousness is very interesting to me. I’m very interested in the technical side of film and trying to make things as polished as possible. It’s funny because people look at “Following” and they look at “Memento” and in a way they’re different visually. But to me, they’re very similar because I shot “Following” in a very precise way. The frame is very precise and “Memento” is the same way in a different format and I feel like what we did with “Following” is we tried to push the filmmaking to as high a technical standard as we could with what we had, which was basically nothing. So I think we actually did a pretty good job of that. And with “Memento,” it’s the same thing. The film looks more expensive than it is. The sound mix is really very good. We shot the whole film in 25 days, which is a crazy schedule for a film.
iW: I wondered if that shooting schedule helped the pace of the movie?
Nolan: Oh yeah, it really did. There’s that energy really cranking, really moving. And the actors aren’t given time to leave the set and go back to the trailer. There is definitely an energy that translates itself onto the screen. It’s very hard to define, but it’s absolutely there. It’s also just in the mechanical way that you’re getting enough set-ups when you’re moving that fast. We did 57 set-ups in one day.
[Portions of this interview first appeared in ifcRANT magazine.]