Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Christopher Nolan

Wide Awake

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

May 21, 2002—A filmmaker dazzles audiences with his first two films, even though everyone may not have seen them at the time. But both films are so technically inventive and adroit that Hollywood businessmen fear he's too much of an "artist" to work within the mainstream. So the filmmaker buckles down, delivers a smart, competent thriller to prove them wrong which will (hopefully) secure more work in the future.

I could be talking about Orson Welles, describing his first two films, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons as well as his third film, the respectable The Stranger. Nearly everyone who sees The Stranger agrees that it's a fine film, and would be a proud addition to anyone's resume but that it's a disappointment from someone as great as Welles.

But I'm not talking about Welles. I'm talking about Christopher Nolan, the 31-year old filmmaker whose mother was American and father was English (he speaks with an English accent). Nolan opened my eyes with his time-twisting, ultra-cheap debut feature Following in 1998, and blew everyone away with last year's endlessly inventive Memento.

Nolan has just turned in his third film, Insomnia. Like Welles' The Stranger, the fairly straightforward Insomnia will no doubt disappoint fans of Nolan's earlier work. Not only does the film play in chronological order, but it's a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film of the same title, written by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjaerg. And Nolan himself did not write the script.

Nevertheless, taken in perspective, I doubt this year will bring a smarter, cagier thriller. In it, Al Pacino plays a veteran cop called in to solve a murder case in Alaska during the summer. The "midnight sun," which never sets, renders him unable to sleep and his judgment grows more and more cracked.

"What I saw in the original movie was a fascinating situation that was fully realized and unimprovable," says the roguishly intelligent Nolan with his sleek blond hair dipping over his forehead. "It was beautifully done. But there's a situation there that you could take and put it into the context of a cop figure from Hollywood movies past. That gives you a significantly different take on that story without changing the events."

In reviewing Memento last year, many critics noticed its similarity with Following, leading them to label Nolan as a filmmaker who plays with time. But Nolan explains that, despite the fact that Memento runs backwards, it's a far more linear film than Insomnia.

"It's intensely linear," he says. "You can't remove a scene. With Insomnia, we were able to have a longer version of the film, pull out scenes, contract things, and play around."

He excitedly explains his take on the conventional film grammar that has evolved over the past 100 years. Films have learned how to express simultaneous action in different scenes, create an impression of three-dimensional space and the passage through it, as well as compressing and expanding time. It's a language that we're so used to that we don't think about it.

"What Insomnia tries to do," he continues, "is to use the artifacts of that conventional film grammar to have a slightly weird resonance. So you reach a point late in the film where you're not quite sure whether it's night or day. But, if I ask you how many days The Matrix takes place over, you don't know. There's this very peculiar compression of time. And making this film, we were able to play with that."

Though his brilliant, instinctive use of film carries over from his previous works, Insomnia marks the first time Nolan has worked with A-list actors -- three Academy Award winners to be precise: Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank.

Nolan has already learned about the possible pitfalls of casting. "We're talking about brilliant actors. They'll tell you anything they want and you won't be able to see through them. I've asked people in the past when talking about projects, and the agent says, 'you should meet them.' Because they know if they get you in a room, if they're good actors they'll convince you of anything. But when they turn up on set, that may not be the case."

"So I see it as part of my job to figure out what I think can work creatively and find a way to make it work. I'm sitting there talking to Pacino and I don't know what he's going to be like on set, till I get there. And he's great."

Nolan describes Pacino's working method, which impressed him to no end. "He has an extraordinary ability to be aware of the entire process of filmmaking, and where the camera is, and directing a level of energy straight down the barrel of the lens, but never betraying that in his performance. Which is a weird combination. It's quite magical, really. I don't know how it works. I don't know what's going on in his head."

According to Nolan, Pacino understood that something miniscule in his performance will show up on the final, projected film. Having shot and edited the film, Nolan has had the opportunity to see Insomnia in various versions in various sittings several hundred times. He insists that the performances hold up, though he doesn't recommend film buffs seeing the film that many times to find out for themselves.

Watching Nolan as he carefully squeezes a lemon into a cup of tea, I see a man who's clearly in love with film, and has a talent for shaping it into something unusual, just like Orson Welles. But that's where the comparisons end.

Indeed, Nolan seems to have learned a few lessons from film history and is prepared to carefully carve his own unique way through the business. One clue is that Insomnia does not suffer from a stupid, tacked-on ending like so many other recent thrillers, (Murder By Numbers and High Crimes come to mind). Rather, it has a perfectly logical, yet ambiguous conclusion.

"I like that tension between the modern take on it and the classical, old-fashioned fatalism of the story," Nolan says. "My joke with the studio was that 40 years ago, they would have been insisting on the ending we have."

Partial Christopher Nolan Filmography:

  • Following (1998)
  • Memento (2001)
  • Insomnia (2002)
  • Batman Begins (2005)
  • The Prestige (2006)
  • The Dark Knight (2008)
  • Inception (2010)
  • The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
  • Interstellar (2014)
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