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Interview: Chris Nolan for "Insomnia"

By Garth Franklin Friday May 24th 2002 02:19PM
Chris Nolan for "Insomnia"

Organising phone interviews with the US from Australia proves more difficult than you might expect. As if time zone differences weren't problem enough, daylight savings issues, organisational calls and last minute delays/time changes wreak all sorts of havoc.

However, after a little confusion I finally was able to get in touch with Director Christopher Nolan last Wednesday on the eve of his departure for a short holiday before the press circuit work begins for his new film "Insomnia". The very articulate and refreshingly frank English-American Director, a relative unknown about 18 months ago who had the festival hit "Following" as his only feature listed on his resume, stunned the world in early 2001 with "Memento" - a thriller with one of the most uniquely organised narratives in history. In a time when most studios were churning out the pre-Summer crap they're famous for, "Memento" easily stood out of the crowd and demanded attention.

Now, a year later, he's soon to hit us again with "Insomnia", a remake of the acclaimed 1997 Norwegian thriller of the same name. In "Insomnia", Al Pacino portrays a veteran police officer sent to a small Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. Upon arrival, he's forced into a game of psychological cat-and-mouse with the primary suspect (Robin Williams) after his partner is killed. The stakes escalate as he contends with an idealistic detective (Hilary Swank) and finds his own stability and sanity dangerously threatened by a chronic bout of sleeplessness in this land of the midnight sun. This is Nolan's first major studio picture, how's that changed him and what can we expect? The answers you'll discover below: Question: After "Memento" received such a great response, was there a pressure to follow up on it? Answer: No, not really because I'd already started making my next film "Insomnia" before "Memento" was released in the States or Australia, I think it had only been released in a couple of territories like England or France so we really didn't yet know where it was going to go so I didn't really have that horrible thing of sitting around thinking 'well how do I go about following up this big success' cause it wasn't yet a big success and it looked like we were going to be struggling for any kind of distribution at the time so I very happily went off and started another film. Question: When "Memento" actually hit big was there any extra pressure from Warners at that point? Answer: No, not at all. It was great, everybody was delighted. I was in the very fortunate position of working with a bunch of people who had chosen to work with me just on the basis of seeing my film and hearing my take on what I wanted to do to "Insomnia", so I felt very comfortable. That's what I think is the biggest danger about having a film that's suddenly successful, you get a lot of offers from people who might not have got the film but just know that everybody else likes it and I was very fortunate in that I wasn't in that position at all. Question: One of the things which made "Memento" unique was the very complicated narrative structure, is there any such device this time around? Answer: Quite the opposite, what I found making "Memento" was that in sort of trying to reappraise narrative structure, particularly in relationship to the point of view your trying to convey in the film, I actually sort of came to the conclusion that conventional grammar or traditional grammar is an incredibly efficient way of manipulating time & space in film, and developed a renewed appreciation for how the conventional process of sort of collapsing or constructing space & time in film has grown up over the 100 years of cinema. So I was actually looking for a story that would demand that approach, that linear approach, and what "Insomnia" does is it basically demands the viewer follow the story of a guy who is not sleeping night after night, so you have a very specifically linear kind of snowballing effect of sleeplessness and the deeper situations he keeps getting in to, so the traditional narrative arc is kind of perfect for that. That's what I was looking to do, to find a story where I could once again match up the structure with a point of view and in this case the point of view of the protagonist is clearly most interestingly expressed as a linear progression. Question: Back in 1993 there was a lukewarm reception to the US remake of the praised 1988 Dutch thriller "The Vanishing", so here your also remaking an acclaimed European thriller five years after its release - any worry about comparisons there? Answer: Well I think the big difference with that film, and I've only ever seen the original which was great - I haven't seen the remake, is that its the same filmmaker. I would find it REALLY peculiar to try and remake one of my own films. What I have done with "Insomnia" is something different, I've been inspired by this great film I saw back in '97, with a wonderful concept and a fantastic paradox. I immediately thought well if you changed who those characters are, you really fundamentally alter the audiences perspective of the moral paradox your trying to present, and I thought that was a very exciting idea in terms of how it could be applied to a large scale studio movie with very high profile stars as opposed to the original one which was a different audience experience as they've a different relationship with the protagonist. I wouldn't feel comfortable remaking my own film, but being inspired by somebody elses concept and idea is just as valid as being inspired by a short story as in the case of "Memento" or my own original idea in the case of "Following" or a book you might read or anything else.

Question: Both "Following" and "Memento" were very intimate stories, does the locale of this help you open up you filmmaking palette? Answer: In terms of scale of the film it feels somewhat bigger, but I think its just as intimate and its just as specifically concerned with the mental state of the protagonist and what he's put through during the course of the film and trying to really as closely as possible make the audience follow that point of view through the story. What is interesting about the nature of the setting that we chose, you know its setup in Alaska with its magnificent scenery, but what interested me is the contrast between that and the incredibly claustrophobic ordeal of the protagonist so what I'm trying to do in the film is contrast those two scales. Question: Did you find the stark Alaskan vistas difficult to shoot and was that always the intended locale? Answer: That was always the intended locale and it was my intention when I saw the original back in 1997.? I went to meet with Warner Bros. to try and pitch myself as a writer hoping that if I wrote a version of the script that eventually I'd get to direct it, but they already had a writer - somebody called Hilary Seitz who is the writer of the finished film and what she was going to do was exactly what I had in mind which is set the film in Northern Alaska so you could maintain the midnight sun of the original movie but Americanised so?you could embrace all the iconography of the American cop thriller that studios used to make really well about fourteen years ago. So, in terms of going around shooting that, it was difficult from the point of view of weather, but its such magnificent scenery - its very inspiring and hard to shoot badly really so we had a lot of fun with it. Question: The casting of Robin Williams in the role of the villain of sorts, how'd that come about? Answer: It came about through the process of saying well we're casting Al Pacino as a detective with all this history behind him which is the conflict of the movie, he's a 30 year veteran of the LAPD and he carries all this baggage. Pacino in this role is just an awesome figure so you have to cast someone opposite him that will balance that in some way in terms of audience connectivity and fascination. I don't remember how Robin's name first came up, but it was apparent from the script that he was looking to take on the role of the villain. As soon as we found out that he was interested in that kind of role I thought its just such an exciting idea as he's very unexpected in the role and he's somebody of sufficient star stature to balance the prescence of Al. When you see the film you'll see that the balance of the two characters is very important, and its very important to me that we address the issue of this character (Williams) who has killed somebody and is trying to deal with the mental consequences - "where do I go from there" is the question in his mind. I really wanted to treat this in a realistic manner, the trailer portrays this more as a serial killer movie - the character is I think more grounded in reality than that. So it was interesting in finding somebody that the audience would have a lot of sympathy for as well, and to see him in a different way. Somebody who wouldn't obviously be a monster and would be able to be as insidious to the audience as he is to Pacino's character in terms of his justification and rationalisation of what he's done. Its very cold, very calculated and very realistic and from all of that becomes very insidious and creepy. Question: There was a scene in the trailer with Al crossing a river which would've been bloody cold. How was that to shoot? Answer: That was pretty tricky to shoot, but we did a lot of the shooting in Vancouver which is obviously a lot further to the South in the Spring so as long as it wasn't raining, it was actually great. The scenery there is phenomenal, its very similar to the places I scouted in Alaska and the second unit stuff I shot up there. Still it was incredibly versatile as a location because we could do all our studio stuff there as well and shooting stuff like the river which has a bunch of logs racing down it and all kinds of peculiar mechanics and things. You need a pretty large crew base and equipment base to be doing scenes like that, you get a wonderful combination in Vancouver of a quite large film industry and a large talent base along with this great scenery very close to the city.

Question: There was a test screening a few months back and one reviewer said, and I quote "For the sake of Jesus, DON'T mess with the ending", has it been changed much at all? Answer: No, not at all. I went into the audience testing process with a great deal of trepidation as I never had to go through it before, and I actually found it to be pretty helpful and to work very well and no, they didn't mess with the ending thank god. Its exactly as it was which is great, what can I say - I wouldn't turn around and say 'oh what a wonderful thing to test movies', but I can't complain - it worked very well for me. Question: People keep asking me whether "Memento" will ever be released on DVD with the option of playing the events in chronological order, any chance of that happening or do you prefer people seeing it as intended? Answer: My attitude to that has had to be from Day One, to never view the film in that way. I wrote the script as it appears on screen, I worked through it with the actors as it appeared on screen, I never allowed anybody to re-order the script but they probably did - I believe various departments did in order to get their head around the difficult continuity, but I never viewed it that way so I've been reluctant to do that only in so far as I didn't want to ever present it as an officially endorsed way of looking at the film because the film becomes completely different as a narrative when you look at it that way, and in a way that's fascinating to me because it very neatly answers the question of what's the relationship between the structure and the substance of the movie and to me watching the film chronologically or thinking of it chronologically clearly demonstrates that the narrative is fundamentally changed, therefore the structure is essential to the reading of the film. In fact some of the DVDs, there's been a DVD in the UK for example that as a hidden feature that re-orders the scene chronologically. I think there's a couple of territories around the world that has come up as a hidden feature, but I haven't sat down and re-cut the film in that way and I never would. Question: Once work with "Insomnia" is all wrapped up, what's next for you? Answer: Well "Insomnia" is all wrapped up, I finished last week basically so we have our final print and everything. I'm about to go on holiday for three weeks, my first in a while so its going to be fun. I'm going to go to Ireland and take it easy for a few weeks, and after that (or probably during that), I'm going to start working on a film about Howard Hughes with Jim Carrey. Question: There's been talk of several of those projects... Answer: This is the real one!! (laughs) Question: Is there any word on a title? Answer: Well its based on a book that's titled "Hughes", but I haven't yet got into the project enough to know what's going to be what because its going to be a very very unusual script and a very unusual movie. Question: Do you find coming from a part English background gives you a unique perspective on the American film industry? Answer: Perhaps. I think one of the American film industry's greatest strengths is that its an incredibly international and cosmopolitan industry. I mean even in terms of just within America when you look at Hollywood most people are from elsewhere in America or elsewhere in the world and they're very accepting here of people from other countries with different points of view and so forth. Its probably helpful but I definitely enjoy the fact that I work in a business where you can take a very international perspective and you can get to work in different places like Europe and that.

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