A filmmaker since early childhood, when he made shorts with his action figures and his father's 8mm camera, Christopher Nolan honed his craft while earning a literature degree at London's University College. After graduation, he and a group of friends scraped together enough money to make his 1998 debut feature Following, a clever noir exercise shot in 16mm over a few months' worth of Saturdays. The film's fractured chronology—it tells the beginning, the middle, and the end of its story at the same time—was just a warm-up for his audacious indie breakthrough Memento. That project, based on a story by his brother Jonathan Nolan, begins at the ending and ends at the beginning. For his first studio project, a powerful remake of the 1997 Norwegian thriller Insomnia, Nolan straightens out his timeline, but still shows remarkable command over a complex set of characters and circumstances. Set in the permanent daylight of Alaskan summer, the film stars Al Pacino as a veteran L.A. police detective assigned to investigate the murder of a high-school student. In an uncharacteristically dark and serious role, Robin Williams plays his nemesis, a murder suspect who blackmails Pacino after witnessing him accidentally (or not) killing his partner in a foggy shootout. Nolan recently talked to The Onion A.V. Club about different ways of storytelling, his attraction to the noir genre, and making a film within the studio system.
The Onion: Where did the money for Following come from, and what were the problems of shooting over such a long period of time?
Christopher Nolan: Following was a film that I made knowing I couldn't get any money for it, knowing that I was going to have to pay for it myself. I wasn't a wealthy person. Everyone involved in the film was, you know, working full-time and trying to get by in London, which is difficult and expensive. But we figured out that if you shot in 16mm black and white, which made the lighting much easier to set up, we could shoot 15 minutes of footage every week, and pay for that, and keep going one day a week as we earned money through our various jobs. So it took us three or four months, shooting one day a week, to finish the production. It's probably the cheapest feature ever made, for what that's worth.
O: The purpose of Following's unusual structure isn't as apparent as that of Memento. Why did you construct the film the way you did?
CN: When I was writing it, I really just constructed the film on an instinctive basis. I didn't quite know what I was doing, in a way. I just knew that I had a structure that made a lot of sense to me, and it really took me the making of the film until I started to feel what I thought I was trying to do. And to me, what I tried to do was tell a story in something like a three-dimensional sense, to tell a story that expands in all directions as you're passing through the narrative. Instead of just expanding in one direction, it expands in every direction. And the reason that was interesting to me, and the reason it worked instinctively, is because once I started to really sit down and think about what that meant, I realized that that's the way we receive most stories in real life. If you look at the way a newspaper story works, that's how it works. Say you have a headline like "Mountain Bike Stolen," and then you read the story, read another story about it the next day, and then the next week, and then the next year. News is a process of expansion, the filling in of detail, and making narrative connections—not based on chronology, but based on features of the story. There are narrative connections made between props, between characters, between situations, and so forth. That was very interesting to me. It made a lot of sense for that story. In the case of Memento, I absolutely had not intended to make another film with a fractured chronology, because I felt pretty good about how I had explored it in Following. But when it came to my brother's short story, the first thing we said to each other was, "It's most interesting told from a third-person point of view." And the structure of the film was from the process of sitting and thinking about how you put the audience into the position of somebody who doesn't know what's just happened. I finally came up with the answer: "Well, you don't tell them what's just happened, you tell them what's going to happen, and tell the story backwards, and that way you remove the information from the audience that's not available to the character, and that helps you get into his condition." That was the reason that I wound up making two films in a row with fractured timelines. But Insomnia has a very linear structure, specifically for the reason that I was trying to tell a story from the point of view of a character who's passing through an intensely linear experience, an accumulation of many days without sleep.
O: In the broadest sense, all three of your features are in the noir genre, and all are told from something close to a first-person perspective. What attracts you to those styles?
CN: Well, I think the two are sort of hand-in-hand, in the sense that, to me, the most interesting approach to film noir is subjective. The genre is really all about not knowing what's going on around you, and that fear of the unknown. The only way to do that effectively is to really get into the maze, rather than look at the maze from above, so that's where I sort of come at it. In the case of the three films I've done, there's some element of the protagonist's psychology that is skewed, that gives you a different take on that story. So if you can get in that person's head and adopt that point of view of the story, you get to take familiar elements and see them from an unfamiliar angle. That makes the whole thing much more exciting.
O: Did you have any particular models in mind when you…
CN: No, not really. There are a few models, particularly literary. The one example I like to use is a book by Graham Swift called Waterland, which is a fantastic book I read when I was a kid. Swift constructs the story in a nonlinear fashion that's entirely clear and consistent and interesting, so I've certainly grown up feeling that there's no reason you shouldn't be able to present the cinematic narrative in whatever form is most interesting. But I try not to have conscious cinematic references in mind when I'm figuring out what to do or how to do it, simply because I think it's restricting. Not because you're copying—probably more likely because you'd be afraid to copy, that you wouldn't do stuff—and, to me, any kind of filmmaking that's reactive is not going to be as good as something more inventive and original.
O: Your films, particularly the first two, return to the same sort of small set of locations again and again. Is there a reason for that?
CN: Probably mostly practical reasons, because when you have no money, you start looking at the genre and the story like, "What's the most I can do with the least? What's the most I can do with the interrelationships of a very small group of characters and a small set of spaces?" And Memento is somewhat bigger [than Following], but it still had to be contained, for practical reasons. I didn't find that in any way restricting, because I went into the script stage constructing a story designed in that way. And it's exactly the same, really, with Insomnia. The geography is much bigger, but it allowed me to juxtapose this massive Alaskan landscape with this very claustrophobic situation. I think the two, in the film, set each other off quite nicely. With Memento, there's a lot of circularity with locations. You start with places you keep coming back to, so everything is in spirals and circles, allowing you to feel the main character's disorientation.
O: Do you see a natural connection between Insomnia and Memento, because both films deal with how the mind operates and plays tricks on you?
CN: Definitely. Now that I've finished Insomnia, I look back and see all kinds of obvious connections. Certainly the idea of perception is carried over very strongly, and it's something I continue to be interested in, trying to give the audience a slightly different perception of the story. Memento is about somebody who can't make memories, and the way it skews his view of what's happening. Insomnia is also very much about the Al Pacino character's thought process, and how it's clouded through cumulative exhaustion, combined with guilt and extraordinary stress. That, to me, is pretty fascinating. And I think the films also share all sorts of thematic concerns, such as the relationship between motivation and action, and the difficulty of reconciling your view of the story with the supposed objective view of that story.
O: So why remake Insomnia? What are the crucial differences between your version and the original?
CN: To me, it's a question of seeing this film that I absolutely loved, and that I thought was perfect and unimproveable. But I thought that the narrative situation could be taken in a very different direction by setting it in a very different arena, namely the context of the type of American studio film that used to get made 50 years ago. Setting it in that arena totally transforms the nature of the moral paradox; in the original, it's completely fascinating, but I had no interest in attempting to redo that. What we did, and what Hillary Seitz's script did very well, is give you a sympathetic character, particularly in casting Al Pacino, that you automatically invest a lot of trust and respect and sympathy toward. And then, using that, I take you to a very different impression of the man.
O: What do you mean by "moral paradox" in this story?
CN: Well, I think that the hero is put in the position where he can't do the right thing, and that, to me, is what the moral paradox is. If he does the right thing, bad things are going to happen. By making him a good man who wants to do the right thing, the fact that he's killed his partner by mistake and lied about it, and that he's seen by the bad guy… He doesn't have any way, if you think about it, to do the right thing. In fact, it really doesn't matter whether he's doing the right thing. I loved how the script completely scrapped the backstory [about Pacino's alleged corruption as an L.A. police detective], so we wound up making a film that's really the last act of a story. It wraps it up very tightly. In the middle of the film, he's in a place where there really is no way out, which I love. To me, that's what film noir is all about. Studios used to be much better at making these kinds of movies. Take Strangers On A Train, for example, in which the guy at the center of it is sympathetic and a good man, and you've invested a lot in him, but he's compromised and therefore trapped, and you're kind of trapped with him.
O: Did you have to go through studio things like test screenings? What was that process like?
CN: You know, in retrospect, it worked enormously in my favor, because I got the film I wanted on screen. I was very afraid of the process, because I've never had to go through it. I can't imagine having gone through it with something like Memento. [Laughs.] The test screenings were one of these things that just loomed over me, and that was just terrifying. Then, when I went through it, it was kind of okay. There's a logic to it that the studio people explain to you, and you start to pick up. I don't like it, and I would very happily not do it. Filmmakers are all different. Steven Soderbergh is a producer on the film, and he helped guide me through it. He likes test screenings, because he learns a lot about the film by sitting with an audience of unbiased strangers and feeling their reaction.
O: But that's different from filling out those little cards…
CN: Well, they do that at the end, but you're still there for the screening, so there are potentially a lot of benefits for the filmmaker. For this movie, everybody in the audience was just kind of dead still and focused, you know, which is kind of what it's supposed to be, because it's not a comedy. [Laughs.] That was great, because I felt the tension was very good, and it felt like those things were working. I actually get a lot more out of showing films to small groups of people that I know, because I know how to gauge their reactions. Anyway, I wasn't crazy about the process, but I have to say it worked in my favor, because there were certainly things in the movie that seemed confusing, or potentially confusing. And that's always a big fear among producers and the studio: Are people going to understand the plot? Will they understand why the characters act the way they do? I felt pretty good going into the test screenings that people wouldn't feel like that.
O: Do you think that same fear of confusion is why Memento bounced around a little bit without finding a distributor?
CN: Oh, absolutely. And it didn't just bounce around a little bit; it was a long time. It was really grueling. I kind of had expected it, but we went through about six months of saying, "What the hell are we gonna do?" That's a long time to be under that kind of pressure. I think the problem was a lack of adventurousness on the part of the so-called independent studios. I'm not an idiot, and I knew the film was going to be difficult for audiences potentially, so I made the film as small as possible. I made it for the right price, with the right cast. It made a lot of sense to me where it was coming from. What was weird as well was that there'd usually be somebody at each screening who totally got the movie, and could see that there was something there that people would enjoy. Hollywood is a very frightened place—one's very nervous, understandably, with lots of money—so they watch movies in a different way. Which is one reason, to be honest, that the screenings can be helpful, because the audience is relaxed. They're just watching a movie. Everybody else who you screen the movie for has a huge stake in it, so they sit there going, "Oh my God, is the audience going to know what this is? Are they gonna understand this business about the shell case?" and this kind of stuff. Then, when you're able to show it to a relaxed audience, they're like, "Yeah. Fine. I've got it."
O: I was at one of those early film-festival screenings of Memento, and, at the Q&A afterwards, you were inundated with questions from people trying to sort the movie out. Perhaps that was misinterpreted as the audience being confused, rather than interested in the movie.
CN: Well, I wouldn't even call it a misinterpretation, because the people who asked a lot of questions were very often pissed off by the film. People who had just accepted the fact that you can't quite grasp everything, necessarily, and that's part of the characters' experience, seemed to be a little more relaxed about a lot of issues. And certainly with Insomnia, I was very interested in the notion of using linear construction to remove any concern about the plot. People don't come out of Insomnia worrying about the plot. There are all kinds of complexities in the plot, and it's actually a much more complicated plot than Memento. But people don't worry about it. They pass through it, because they're comfortable with their own familiar ground structurally, so they're not constantly worried about it. I wanted to do a different thing, so that people would come out with questions about the themes—which is, in the case of Memento, too, much more interesting to me than questions about the plot. They came out with questions about the paradoxical situation, and the moral questions about the characters that the film raises. That, to me, is a lot more fun.
O: Would you say that you're kinder to both the detective and the killer in this film than the original Insomnia—that your film's view is perhaps a little softer?
CN: Perhaps. I think I try to understand them more, maybe, and in that sense, I'm kinder. Or I try to be a little more subjective with the film, a little more inside the detective's head. I guess there's a sense in which that feels kinder. But I think the film is, nevertheless, quite judgmental in a way that the original isn't. The original is very dark and very alienating, and that's kind of the point of it. This is much more inside this guy's head, and kind of wrestling with it. I guess the only way I can really answer your question is just to confess to the fact that I really think of the two main characters as the same character, in a sense, and sort of approached it that way. So even though I refer to it as a very subjective experience, I think that that subjectivity encompasses both characters without jumping back and forth. I did actually talk quite a lot to Robin Williams about this: To me, there's an odd quality to his character. It's almost as if he doesn't exist, like he's just a projection of the hero's guilty conscience.
O: If memory serves, the original Insomnia put the detective up against someone who's more of a serial killer, whereas Robin Williams' character seems to be somebody who doesn't do this habitually.
CN: Yes. Partly because of who he is as a movie star, he takes the role to a very sympathetic level, where people are literally watching him murder someone in flashback, and they still kind of understand him. To me, he's actually someone who's very dangerous, because he isn't able to apply moral judgment on himself the way Pacino does. So you've got these two guys who are really in the same boat, but one of them is constructing his own punishment for himself, and the other is waiting for punishment from somebody else. In fact, Williams is almost looking to Pacino for it. He's saying to him, "I've done this horrible thing, and nothing bad has happened. The ground didn't open up and swallow me, and God didn't strike me down, so where do I go from here?" Which is very dangerous, and really chilling.
O: Is it true that you're planning to do a film about Howard Hughes?
CN: Yeah, I'm writing it right now.
O: It's sort of cursed, isn't it? The whole idea of doing a Howard Hughes biopic seems cursed.
CN: Well, it's not cursed. It's just never happened. Cursed is when you do it and it fails miserably, and somebody else does it and it fails miserably. No one has ever gone ahead with a Howard Hughes biopic. I don't know why it has a reputation as being cursed, and I don't intend to find out. [Laughs.] I think casting may have had something to do with it, and I think I've found the one guy, in the person of Jim Carrey, who can actually do what's required by the part. It's a monumental part to try to pull off, no question. But that doesn't mean it can't be done. I hope. [Laughs.]