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.”