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Christopher Nolan Talks MEMENTO & INSOMNIA

Known for his uniquely structured stories that often juggle various plotlines and timelines, Christopher Nolan was born in London in 1970, and began making films at the age of seven using his father's super 8mm camera and an assortment of male-action figures. Years later while an independent filmmaker, he was inspired by a story his brother had written and told him about during a cross-country (United States) trip. Soon after Nolan began drafting a screenplay and gathering the resources for the production of "Memento", a story about a man with a short-term memory problem who must solve his wife's murder. While calling his structure, "Dislinear", his apparently backward storytelling, and dark and noirish tale, was nominated for numerous awards including an Academy Award for screenwriting. (The following is from the Archive, 2002)

Why choose Insomnia for your follow up to Memento? What about the original appealed to you?
I think it has a fascinating and very evocative psychological situation. A great moral dilemma that is taken one direction in the original movie, and I think its a great movie, but as I saw it, it occurred to me that you could by changing the characters take the same situation, the same intense psychological relationship between the two main characters and take it in a rather different direction and create a different kind of moral paradox.

Was there a lot of pressure to follow up Memento with an original? Were people surprised you were making a remake?
To be honest I started work on Insomnia some months before Memento was even released in theatres, so I wasnt really having to view Insomnia necessarily as a follow-up in the sense that people would question it because no one really knew the extent Memento would get out there at the time. I thought I should be free to do whatever inspired me and took my fancy. I found the original movie very inspiring.

Did you find that working with a much larger budget liberating or constricting in terms of having so many choices your third time as a director.
I found that each film Ive made has had its budget increased sort of exponentially, and Ive found the process reassuringly similar at every stage. Cause at the end of the day it always just seems to be about the shots that you get - whats actually going to be there on screen , so all the other stuff, a lot of which is costing the money in terms of doing something on a larger scale tends to be stuff that doesn't necessarily effect the creative process of imagining a series of images, or creating a narrative.


Did you have Al Pacino and Robin Williams in mind when you first started working on Insomnia
Well I try not to when Im working at a development or script stage, I try not to have actors in mind because I think it limits your writing a little bit. You start writing other characters that they have played so forth. You know I tried and Hillary and I were very much in agreement with me she had tried to imagine the characters as real people. So that is how I first thought of it, but right from the beginning my concept and luckily Warner Bros and Alcon felt the same way, you had to have in the Will Dormer role you had to have a substantial star. Somebody with audience association, someone with a familiarity to the audience to give them a kind of built-in sympathy and built in appeal so that you can start the story and take it somewhere rather unexpected. So Pacino absolutely fit that because he has played these great cop figures in the past and my idea, of the different direction take the story and to play up on the iconic cop figure of so many studio movies. Al in addition to just being one of the finest actors who ever lived is someone who has this great star appeal that I felt the character demanded to draw the audience in to this very dark situation. Then of course when youve got someone like Al Pacino in the center of your movie when you try to think of an adversary its gonna have to be somebody with a very substantial presence, to stand opposite, this character really gives him a run for his money. So Robin Williams has this tremendous charisma and tremendous audience association - it was terrific to turn on its head. Hes playing an incredibly dark but very realistic dark character that no one has seen him do before.

Did Robin come to you with the project, or were you looking to cast someone against type.
Well I felt he was a very daring idea but I forget who exactly it came from our side or their side first, but I hadnt really dared hope he would play something so different than he had done in the past, as it turned out that he was looking for that kind of challenge right now.

So it just came together wonderfully. I think Robin was very excited about the idea of working with Al Pacino. They hadnt worked together but had admired each others work.

How much of a role do you think guilt plays in the psyche driving the characters?
To me the film is about responses to guilt, and youve go two characters who deal with guilt in opposite ways, in fact thats what makes the relationship between them quite interesting.

I think on thematic level the film says something about the role of guilt in defining morality or suggesting morality. Both characters in some sense have transgressed to cause their reacting to guilt.


Did you find it a challenge to get such a dark feel from the film while shooting in daylight all the time? The juxtaposition of having everything being discovered in the daylight but having such a dark feel.
It occurred to me, and I discussed this a lot with the DP Wally Pfister, that having daylight constantly present in the background of scene actually allows you to create even darker images than if you would if you were shooting at night, because if you are shooting at night you are effectively having to use artificial illumination, you are having to put lamps on in the room. That kind of thing. Whereas what we were sort of trying to create was these dark interiors where somewhere in the back of the room there is a window with some sort of light peeping in and that allows you to create very dark silhouettes, and forms, interesting textures and depths. Within a very dark interior -- effectively a kind of space where somebody backs away and hides from the light. So in that way there are all kinds of senses you can create a darker film during daylight hours than you can at night.

What was it like shooting on location in Alaska. Did you have white nights?
We finished up shooting some of the aerial photography in June and it was pretty light throughout the night, its a very eerie source of light, but the sun does dips below the horizon, so its not a full sunlight but this weird twilight world.

Do you have people still ask you constantly about Memento?
Sure, People ask me about it all the time but recently people have been a bit more accepting of the enigma in the story.

Insomnia and Memento are quite serious and dark - do you want to make a comedy someday?
Well I think both of them are quite funny, maybe no one else agrees. I d love to do a comedy. I d like to do all kinds of movies, except maybe musicals, any other type of movie is of interest to me. I do find a lot of what goes on in films like Memento and Insomnia to be darkly serious, they are very straight faced films but they get a lot of laughter at screenings.

How was directing Insomnia different than a story you have written? Is that what you want to do in the future?
I wrote my last two films, this is the first time Ive done something that was written by somebody else. I think In the future Id be open to both ways of working. Theres something quite liberating about taking somebody elses script on because you can be a lot more objective about a pretty advanced draft whereas when you are writing yourself you get very much wrapped up inside itand its difficult to maintain focus. There is something quite nice about coming to something in a later stage and then apply your own creative process as a filmmaker to something you have already been able to judge the merits of in a quite objective fashion.

Did you have to fight to get the same DP and editor as Memento to work on Insomnia?
I was very fortunate, even though Memento hadnt come out yet; both the photography and the editing were quite striking in the film and have obvious association with the type of film Insomnia would have to be so everybody was pretty receptive to me working with the same team.

Any fame related stories since the success of Memento?
Its all been a bit weird and crazy, but once you start to go to work every day with Al Pacino and Robin Williams and things like that, you get used to the insanity of the whole thing in terms working with people that youve grown up watching on screen.

Thats a very bizarre thing to start doing but as soon as you start working with these people and seeing the type of acting they are capable of and type of performance, which is of course why youve grown up watching them on screen, it becomes very exciting. Feels like a real privilege.

Did Robin stay in character on set ?
Robin is irrepressibly funny, hes constantly making jokes and like a lot of good actors he is able to separate himself from the character he is playing except right before a the camera starts to roll.

I havent worked with Robin before - I found him to be very funny a lot of the time. I am told by him and the people around him that he was a little more subdued on this film and he definitely had to go to a pretty dark place, I suppose bound to have a little less joking around going on. He has such an incredibly brilliant mind, hes constantly coming up with observations and witticisms and all that. I think you are just always going to get some of that from Robin.

Did you encourage Al or Robin to see the original?
I didnt at all and in fact I didnt watch the original myself once I committed to the project because we didnt want to be doing stuff either because it was in the original or not doing stuff because it was in the original. I didnt want to make any kind of a reactive film. Its a film that has to work dramatically, totally independent of the original film and particularly when it comes to characterization. The key differences in what we tried to do as opposed to what the original tried to do evolved from the differences in characters, so as far as the actors were concerned I was very happy for them to just work from the script

Whats the longest you stayed up without sleeping?
Well just as we're finishing the film, my wife, who worked on the film, she gave birth to a baby girl so we were kept up pretty intensely for several weeks -- thats definitely the least sleep Ive had and that was right as we were at the end of the editing the film. I found it a pretty informative experience.

Any plans to collaborate with your brother on any future projects.
Yes, we are working together on something right now but the Howard Hughes biopic is going be the next thing I am going to start writing.

Any actor or actress you would want to work with next?
Having just worked with Pacino, Robin and Hillary, Im feeling pretty satisfied with the actors I have been fortunate enough to work with.( laughs) Ive been very lucky in that regard and working the previous film with the cast of Memento with Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss. I dont know but Ive set the bar pretty high for my self on who I work with next but it is a great position to be in.

As far casting Hillary, was there a conscious decision to have the female character in your version be a younger actress than the original?
The character in the script is a very different character than appears in the original film, youth is certainly one element of that. This is a character who is just beginning her career in the police force and that is very important to her relationship with Al Pacinos character.

How much do use the Internet?
My wife is online all the time, Im not hugely into computers really. Ive used the internet for research, and its a very useful tool for that. I think I get the most use for communication in terms of it in contacting people by emails and such. But its our experience on Memento was that the Internet was very incredibly useful way of getting word out about the film out there, to small film lovers it was immensely valuable. , But I actually left it to my younger brother, hes the computer literate of the two of us.


For more information about Insomnia go to



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