Friday, 25 June 2010

Nolan Fest, Week Three: Insomnia

“White nights getting to you?” 

Christopher Nolan’s third feature was a reworking of Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s 1997 Norwegian thriller Insomnia, starring Stella Skarsgård. It was his first experience of working for a major Hollywood studio, namely Warner Bros which has become his home for every movie since.

Nolan had begun work on Insomnia even before Memento was released, having been recommended to the studio by the film’s executive producer Steven Soderbergh. “I saw Memento months and months before it came out, when they were in the midst of trying to find a distributor, [and] was totally blown away by the movie,” Soderbergh told me back in 2002 when I interviewed him for a Nolan profile for Premiere. “When I found out Chris was interested in [directing] Insomnia I made one of those calls to Warner Bros saying that they would be, how can I put this, unwise to pass up the opportunity to work with Chris who had a take on the material and who’s extremely bright and capable and just kept badgering them.”

For Nolan, Insomnia offered the chance to tell a story simply and chronologically, after the fractured narratives of Following and Memento. “In Memento there were a lot of debate questions around the plot, and much less on the thematic questions,” he recalls. “I was interested in making a plot much more transparent in its structure so that the thematic concerns would be much more directly approached; ambiguity and questions at the end are much more available and approachable. In Memento there was a constant manipulating of the audience. This time I wanted something where that was more in the background.

“I think it has a fascinating and very evocative psychological situation,” Nolan continues. “A great moral dilemma that is taken one direction in the original movie, and I think it’s 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.” 

Although a fan of Skjoldbjaerg’s film, Nolan tried to put it out of his mind once he committed to directing the remake. “I didn’t watch the original myself once I committed to the project because we didn’t want to be doing stuff either because it was in the original or not doing stuff because it was in the original. I didn’t want to make any kind of a reactive film. It’s a film that has to work dramatically, totally independently of the original film and particularly when it comes to characterization the key differences in what we tried to do as opposed what the original tried to do evolved from differences in characters, so as far as the actors were concerned I was very happy for them to just work from the script.”

Insomnia begins with Los Angeles homicide and robbery detectives Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) flying to the small costal town of Nightmute, Alaska (“the Halibut fishing capital of the world”) to help investigate the murder of a local teenage girl. For local cop Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), assigned to babysit Pacino’s veteran detective, Dormer’s both a legend and her hero (she wrote her thesis at the academy on him). But all’s not well with Dormer, who’s being investigated by Internal Affairs over an allegation that he tampered with evidence in order to gain a conviction. Hap, meanwhile, is prepared to cut a deal with IA to save his own skin, at the expense of his partner, putting a huge strain on their relationship.

As Dormer swiftly begins to get to grips with the murder case, but disaster soon strikes, when stakeout at a beach hut goes horribly wrong. With the killer fleeing the scene, the police give chase. In the confusion and the thick fog shrouding the beach and surrounding area, Dormer shoots Hap dead. Was it an accident? Or did Dormer kill his partner to prevent him testifying? Dormer, who’s having trouble sleeping thanks to the constant daylight, doesn’t even know for sure. As his guilty conscience rears its ugly head (he sees Hap in his room and in his waking dreams), his judgment clouds, and the veteran detective tries to cover up his mistake. But worse is yet to come for Dormer, when, one night, he receives a call from the girl’s murderer and Dormer’s prime suspect, crime novelist Walter Finch (Robin Williams), who says he saw what really happened on the foggy beach with Hap, and starts to blackmail Dormer into helping him. “We’re partners on this,” Finch tells him.

This is one remake that actually improves on the original, the script by Hillary Seitz reworks the story to push the characters into darker, more morally and ethically ambiguous territory, with Pacino accentuating the physical strain of sleep deprivation on Dormer, as his cop suffers through many nights unable to sleep and loses his grip on both reality and right and wrong. The character of the killer, too, is transformed into someone less predictable and much more interesting, not least because of who plays him. Credit Nolan with keeping his heavyweight, Oscar-winning cast in check, and extracting such strong performances from all three leads, even coxing what is, arguably, Pacino’s last, truly great performance.

The opening sequence is a dazzling plane journey across a breathtaking Alaskan landscape, with jagged blue ice fields and green pines, and, in addition to the beach hut shootout, there’s also a gripping chase between Pacino and Williams across a log-strewn river. But while Nolan isn’t adverse to pretty images, he’s more interested in what’s happening inside his characters’ heads. Working again with Wally Pfister as his DP, he creates an atmosphere of paranoia and dread during daylight.

“It occurred to me, and I discussed this a lot with Wally, 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, cause if you are shooting at night you are effectively having to use artificial illumination, you are having to put lamps on in the room. 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. So in that way there are all kinds of senses you can create a darker film during daylight hours than you can at night.”

Insomnia was a sizeable hit, commercially and critically, and within Hollywood it firmly cemented Nolan’s place as a rising star, the film drawing him Hitchcock comparisons, and giving Warner Bros the faith in the 31-year-old filmmaker to hand him the reins to a major comic book movie franchise.

“Because I was shooting at almost the same time I went up just before they wrapped Insomnia and spent a couple of hours on the set, just saying hello to everybody,” recalled Soderbergh. “And I said to Chris, the great news is you’ve withstood the most difficult situation a young filmmaker can find themselves in, making a studio movie with movie stars in it, on a pretty tight schedule, having never operated in that world before. You’ve not only survived, you’ve excelled, and that means that from now on, the only thing that will limit you is your ideas of what you can do.”


Tails from the dog house said...

Hey Mark,
I just wanted to let you know we went and saw Tim Burtons art exhibit and we were lucky enough to go to the master class your ,the interviewer basicly read your book and just kept refering her questions from that.
How great is Tim wow he came across as the most sweetest gracious person.
Your book was super popular in the gift shop Congratulations

Mark Salisbury said...

Thanks for letting me know. Much appreciated.

Glad you enjoyed it so much. He's really nice, isn't he.

Gerard said...

I've not yet had time to read this, but can't wait until I do!

Mark Salisbury said...

Well come back and let me know when you do.

Did you enjoy Burton Down Under?

Hal Gracie said...

I think I might be going against the rest of your readers here, but what the hell… In short, I think Nolan totally lost it on Insomnia and has yet to recover. But given this might not be a popular opinion (or a welcome one), I wont post any further negativity on the next three entries (which I’m still looking forward to reading, nonetheless). I’m not trying to be a troll, just a bit mystified that Nolan’s reputation continues to be grow after a string of weak films.

Insomnia: I haven’t seen the Scandinavian flick, but I have seen the films Nolan’s flick is actually based on, it being one of the most derivate I’ve ever seen (that had such a high class pedigree at any rate). It goes from an opening half hour that is a remake of the Twin Peaks pilot in so many little details I’m amazed they got away with it: a teenage beauty is found dead, she’s even wrapped in plastic, clues could be found in her diary, she had a heart-shaped necklace the origin of which is assumed to have a bearing on her killer’s identity, there is a clue in her fingernails that no one spots until the wise detective arrives and, oh, he’s from out of town, never been up this north before where everthing’s done a little differently, he interviews the victim’s boyfriend at his school for effect, he’s a hardass, so much so that the detective knows he didn’t do it, but he is having an affair and was having it the night his girlfriend died, the secret diary will confirm all that and…. I’m out of breath!

Then it became a note for note re-staging of Seven, when the killer finds that the cop has actually turned up on his doorstep ahead of schedule, they have a shootout, he makes his getaway whilst our chasing cop gets all wet – cop goes back to killer’s apartment where he gets a call from the nasty man (ultra calm and in control) who expects him to be there: again, that’s just one too many similarities to go unpunished.

It then goes all Spoorloos until the end, the Silence Of The Lambs finale: Clarice Swank ends up at the killer’s house just as Al Crawford works out where she must have gone – again almost beat for beat –she reaches slowly for the gun as our killer is looking for business cards or summit for her. I think he even runs out of the room in a similar fashion to Jame Gumb.

This is all unacceptable in my opinion, going waaay beyond any ‘inspired by’ defence. I thought Al was much better in People I Know from the same year and later in The Merchant of Venice. I’m not sure he’s anything here other than being Al. It’s also unfortunate that Robin Williams played a villain elsewhere around the same time that was a superior work in every direction. Swank is practically anonymous.

I’m also never impressed when directors go to exotic locales, and don’t give them any points for shooting the landscape. It doesn’t help when it’s re-inforced with silly dialogue. Doesn’t Martin Donovan say he hasn’t seen a building for 20 minutes? And he’s flown up from Los Angeles? Has he ever flown anywhere in the ‘lower 48’ before? …

Hal Gracie said...

Batman Begins: Didn’t like the script, the story, the villain, Bale’s silly bat-voice, the cast (Tom Wilkinson and Katie Holmes are particularly bad, with Morgan Freeman totally wasted). I liked: the scarecrow’s tar faced nightmare Batman.

The Prestige: Liked: the opening image of the top hats. But it was all downhill from there. I think Nolan made it more muddled than it had to be. I just didn’t care for the structure or the performances. Never read the novel, but the short synopsis on Wikipedia is cinematic dynamite. It deserved much better.

The Dark Knight: Insomnia territory here, a film that seems to have been directed by Jive Bunny. A 10 minute homage to Heat, then we’re in Honk Kong remaking Mission Impossible 3. I thought it was poor all-round. Didn’t believe in Harvey Dent’s transformation, or Oldman’s fake death. Heath was kinda fun (and got the film more good will than it deserved), but the funniest scene had to be when the Joker removes his hospital mask to Dent’s horror. Didn’t the top half of his face give him away? This would have been perfect in the Adam West series, but here?

Inception: I don’t watch trailers, so other than a few snippets, I know little about this. I hope it’s great but admit to being fearful of nothing more than a Matrix knockoff (he’s clearly a fan).

On Nolan in general: seems like a decent guy, is clearly highly intelligent, but it seems to me that he’s putting the cart before the horse. He’s pre-occupied with the mechanics of old-school filmmaking, whilst storytelling and originality are now ignored.

I watched Memento again recently: still a great film, but my reaction now at the end credits when a (then) current, culturally unknown David Bowie song plays the film out, is that it does so only because that’s how the Davids Fincher & Lynch had finished their last thrillers.

I’m not a Nolan fan.

Mark Salisbury said...

@ Hal

You argue your points very well, I have to say, certainly in terms of Insomnia but, obviously, I don't agree with you entirely, although I'm no fan of TDK as I made clear here when it was released.

That said, I think Nolan's a talented filmmaker, and I admire what he's doing while working within the studio system. Haven't yet seen Inception, though...

As for Insomnia, I hadn't, ahem, twigged the Twin Peaks stuff before, but now you mention it I can see the similarities, yet I'm clearly more forgiving of the film's flaws than you. Re-reading my copy, the only thing I'd change was my comment about it being better than the original. I had intended to rewatch that too, prior to writing the piece, but I didn't have time, and so that assessment was based on my memory of both films...

Stimulating stuff, though. What do others think?

Gerard said...

I enjoyed Burton Down Under very much. Didn't get the chance to meet him, unfortunately, but he was in wonderful form at each of his in-person events, particularly the screening of a dripping-wet print of Pee Wee's Big Adventure.

As for the Insomnia article: another ace addition to Nolan fest! I'm ashamed to admit I've only ever seen the film once (in theatres) which is why I had earlier voiced my eagerness to read your take on it here. It's the only Nolan film I don't own, in fact. Not for lack of wanting to. I've just never managed to get around to tracking it down to see again. Seems to have incited some healthy debate! I can understand Hal's gripes with Nolan's directorial inconsistencies throughout his career, but the unfortunate truth, I think, is that we could all say the same about practically any filmmaker working consistently within the studio system today. Nolan's always been a bigger-picture filmmaker for me, so I'll always forgive a thin smattering of lunkheaded choices or slip-ups (the most glaring from the Nolan catalogue being the scene Hal cites from The Dark Knight in which the Joker 'reveals' his identity to Dent--I actually sat forward and went "...what?!" in the cinema) if I feel the whole work impresses and stimulates. He's one of the few major directors making Hollywood films powered by ideas and thematics, and that certainly scores him some points from me.

Mark Salisbury said...

Shame you didn't get any time with the man but glad it went well. Would love to see Pee-Wee on the big screen.

What I discovered rewatching Insomnia is that I need to see the original again.

And I agree, Nolan makes films full of ideas and, alas, that's a rather thing in Hollywood today.