Friday, 18 June 2010

Nolan Fest, Week Two: Memento

I can still remember the first time I saw Memento. It was in a small London preview theatre in 2000. There were only five of us present at the screening, and from the opening image of the Polaroid undeveloping and then being sucked back into the camera, I was hooked. When the film finished, I wanted to see it again. Immediately.

I interviewed Christopher Nolan the very next day, the first of several conversations I had with him about Memento which opened in the UK a couple of months later, and the US early the next year, eventually earning him and his younger brother Jonathan a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination and launching the filmmaker in Hollywood.

Here's the article on Memento I wrote for Premiere magazine back in 2001. It's not online, so unless you read it back then, you wouldn't have seen it.

January 2001: Bright Lights, Park City
By the time Christopher Nolan’s Memento screened at Sundance, it had already been “discovered” at the Toronto, Venice, and Deauville film festivals and opened to wildly enthusiastic audiences in England. But there’s nothing quite like the white-hot media glare of Robert Redford’s independent-film showcase to generate excitement for a movie, as Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, and the makers of The Blair Witch Project would attest. For ten days this past January, moviegoers on the streets and slopes of Park City, Utah, debated Memento’s plot points and urged those who hadn’t seen the twisty thriller to rearrange their schedules accordingly. “We had a great screening early one morning,” said Nolan, who got in a little skiing before attending the festival’s closing ceremony (at which he won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award). “I had trouble getting up myself, so I thought, ‘Who the hell is going to be there?’ But it was packed—for a mind-fuck at 9 o’clock in the morning!”

A mesmerizing meditation on memory, identity, and loss, Memento (in limited release in March) is a revenge thriller that plays out backwards, beginning with the end and ending with the beginning. Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) portrays Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator with short-term memory loss, a rare (and real) condition brought on by his wife’s rape and murder. Since Leonard is unable to form new memories (his attention span is 10 to 15 minutes) and can only recollect events from before the incident, he must rely on Polaroids, hastily scribbled notes, and other people — including barmaid Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and a cop named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) — to tell him everything from which motel he’s staying at to whom he can trust. As he looks for the person responsible for his wife’s death, Leonard tattoos his body with the most vital pieces of information regarding the killer’s identity.


“It’s very much about the futility of revenge,” says Nolan, 30, who’s half-English, half-American and has a preppy, professorial air about him. “Leonard can’t identify himself in the present tense — he knows who he was, but he can’t connect that with who he is — and revenge seemed an excellent jumping-off point for an examination of the subjective nature of reality.”

From its startling opening image of a Polaroid photo undeveloping and being sucked back into the camera, to its intriguingly oblique website (, designed by Nolan’s younger brother, Jonathan, who wrote the short story on which the film is based, there’s little about Memento that’s conventional. None of the characters are who they initially appear to be; nothing is quite what it seems. Only one thing is certain: Everybody is manipulating Leonard — Teddy, Natalie, the motel receptionist, even Leonard himself. Moreover, the deliberately ambiguous ending (or, more accurately, beginning) has had audiences returning to unlock the movie’s secrets, as they did with The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense.

“I was very concerned about making a film that people could come back to a second time and it wouldn’t fall to pieces,” says Nolan. “It’s all internally consistent if you see it enough.” Even so, each viewing is likely to elicit something new. “I’ve seen it about five times,” says Moss, “and each time I feel differently about what it’s about.” Many viewers find it hard to believe what they see — particularly during a key expositional scene late in the film. “[It’s] the one you get in a million movies where the bad guy, the untrustworthy one, lays it on the line,” Nolan says. “In every other film you always believe him. Why? ’Cause you’re supposed to — because film grammar tells you to, because that’s comfortable. In this film, it’s not. People won’t accept it, which is really cool.”

September 1999: The Shoot
With a budget of around $4.5 million, Memento was shot on locations in and around LA in a swift 25 1/2 days. Like most movies, it was filmed out of sequence, but, says Nolan, “this film was probably shot more chronologically than most because it simplified things. If we were in a particular location, like Natalie’s living room, I would say to the actors, ‘How do you want to do this? Timewise or scriptwise?’ Most often they would say timewise — chronologically from the earliest scene, backwards from how you see it in the finished film.”

While Memento’s timeline inversion is not a unique conceit — both playwright Harold Pinter (Betrayal) and novelist Martin Amis (Time’s Arrow) have employed it before — it is also far more than a gimmick. Nolan uses it to subvert the familiar noir conventions of voice-over, flashback, femme fatale, and unreliable narrator. The classic femme fatale, for example, reveals herself to be more dangerous as the plot thickens; Natalie, says Moss, “starts out horrible and becomes a better person.” More important, the backwards structure and the subjective camerawork put the audience inside the mind of the film’s protagonist. We know as much (or as little) about what’s happening to Leonard as he does. Almost every scene begins inside, and there are no establishing shots to give a sense of time or place. “Where you put the camera is crucial,” Nolan says. “Every time [Leonard] comes into a room you want it just over his shoulder, discovering the room as he does. You use all sorts of close-ups to achieve texture through little details, because that’s the scope of his world.”

As the film progresses, Leonard’s suit gets cleaner, the cuts on his face disappear, and there’s less dirt on the car he drives. “It’s a really meticulous piece of work,” says the obsessively detailed Pearce, who thrived on the experience. “I’m one of those actors who’s in the continuity lady’s [face] all the time about the specifics of whether this was pulled up this far or down this far, so this was a joy to work on because we had photos and notes.” The actor took the Polaroids seen in the film, and it’s his writing that adorns them. “He wanted to do all those things himself,” Nolan says.

Autumn 1998: Casting
It was Jennifer Todd (coproducer, with her sister Suzanne, of Memento and the Austin Powers films) who first suggested Pearce to Nolan. “I wasn’t that familiar [with him],” Nolan says. “I, like a lot of people, don’t put together the Guy from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert with the Guy from L.A. Confidential. They’re so different. Within 30 seconds I thought, he’s perfect. He has an incredibly logical mind. His script looked eerily similar to Leonard’s file in the film, because he had all kinds of notes, and had taken it to pieces and put it back together.”

“You want to be completely inspired by the tone and style of a picture,” says Pearce. “I’m not a literary actor; I don’t know my Shakespearean characters, I do not know anything about playwrights. I sit there like a raw nerve andif I read something that gets me going it gets me going, and if I don’t, I don’t.” In fact, Pearce was so caught up in Leonard’s plight that when he first read the script he didn’t notice its unusual structure.

Pantaliano, who was recommended for the role of Teddy by his Matrix costar Moss, says he had to read the script five times to get it clear in his head. “I’m still trying to figure out the red pill, blue pill thing in The Matrix,” he laughs.

February 1998: The Write Stuff
“We were going to breakfast and [Nolan] said, ‘I’ve just had the most amazing idea how to structure a film,’ ” recalls executive producer Aaron Ryder of Newmarket Capital Group, a company hitherto known for financing indie movies like The Usual Suspects. “I’ll have to admit I was a bit confused. But once I saw a script it became apparent that this guy was a serious talent.” Ryder convinced his colleagues at Newmarket to option Memento as their first production; they are also distributing it themselves.

From the beginning Nolan was convinced that the only way to tell Leonard’s story was in the first person, though he didn’t quite know how to do that. Eventually a solution presented itself. “If you tell the story backwards you’re withholding the appropriate knowledge from the audience. That’s the only way to have the audience meet a character and not know whether they should trust them or not. Once I had that, I was able to write the script pretty quickly.” He did not, as one might reasonably expect, map out the scenes from start to finish and then reverse them. “I wrote it from page one to page 125. I had a lot of notes and diagrams. You work it through and say, ‘Does that hold up logically?’” He feels that today’s audiences are more receptive of dense, unconventional narratives because of the way videos and DVDs have changed our viewing habits. “As soon as you can stop [a film] and control the timeline, then it becomes like a book on some level. People are more accepting of the idea of jumping around and putting the story together in a fresh way. The supreme example of that is the trailer: You take different scenes, chop them up, stick them together, and allow the audience to reassemble the linear narrative.”

July 1997: On the Road
Memento comes full circle with the tale of a cross-country car trip. Nolan was moving from London to Los Angeles to see if he could drum up interest in his debut feature Following, a no-budget psychological thriller he’d shot one day a week over the course of a year. Together with his younger brother Jonathan (known as Jonah), he decided to drive from Chicago, a four-day journey. “By the time we got to Minnesota I had nothing really left to say, so I figured I’d tell him about this story I was working on,” laughs Jonah, 24. Entitled Memento Mori, the five-page story was inspired by Jonah’s rereading of Moby Dick (“the archetypal work on revenge”) as well as a real-life case he’d learned about in psychology class. “[Chris] took a shine to it pretty much immediately. I knew I was on to something because he usually doesn’t listen to anything I have to say.”

“He sent me a rough draft and I worked from that,” Chris says. “It had the key elements, the guy looking for revenge who has this short-term memory loss and is tattooing things on his body.” Jonah, who worked on the movie as a production assistant, says he’s in awe of his brother’s film but, like its protagonist, seems a bit removed from the whole experience. “The funny thing about Memento at the end of the day — the short story, the film, my participation in it — it’s really not my kind of story,” he says. “It’s way too dark.”

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