Interview with Christopher Nolan
by Chris Roberts
The inventive thriller Memento, starring Guy Pearce and Carrie Anne Moss, is tipped to be a cult movie on a par with The Usual Suspects. It's only the second feature from Anglo-American Christopher Nolan, who started to make a name for himself with last year's low-budget movie, Following. Virgin Net talked to him about memory loss, pushing boundaries and femmes fatales...
Memento is a film that you leave with your head reeling: you feel exhausted and thrilled, but rewarded. Is that a suitable reaction?
"That sounds perfect - put that on the posters! My intention in making the film was to take this story and tell it from an incredibly subjective point of view. The protagonist has this condition whereby his mind can't make new memories, so I was very interested in that: if we apply it to ourselves, we see how fragile our systems are for placing ourselves in the world, in time and in space. How do we know people can be trusted?
"I wanted to put the audience in his head, make them think that way, question things the way he does. If they come out of it with their head spinning, mulling it over, arguing about it with a friend, that's the ideal response. Most films show you a world you can't beam into. This one's about showing you the existing world in a very different way."
Did you at any point during conception think the story and structure were getting too complex, too convoluted, for audiences raised on The Full Monty and Star Wars?
"We thought a lot about how to keep an emotional thread running through it. We realised it was something which could become very cerebral and cold, or simply puzzling. So it was a challenge to keep the audience, to give them a narrative that works backwards but has akind of forward logic to it.
"I have a lot of faith in audiences. As a film-goer myself, I'm constantly frustrated by the lack of different, challenging films. But I don't consider myself to be an "art" film-maker at all. I actually have pretty mainstream tastes, which may come as some surprise. And I think there are a lot of people out there who'd like to see more interesting angles on familiar material. Memento views film noir's tropes and symbols from a very skewed perspective. Hopefully, therefore, they're given a fresh spin."
You've drawn career-best performances from Pearce and Moss...
"I was so impressed by Guy - he understands this man has to be very focussed, organised, meticulous and uptight. That's the only way someone could function with his condition. Then, every now and again, his unshakeable faith cracks a little bit, and you see this tremendous weakness behind it all. Guy was entirely real, frighteningly so: he gave us transcendent moments.
"Then you have Carrie Anne as the classic, creepy femme fatale of film noir: this focus of male insecurity, basically. That thing of: how can I trust this woman completely? How can I give myself to her? There's an uncertainty that's always kind of bubbling under. The film takes that and makes it as extreme as possible, so that she becomes this symbol of male paranoia. He's trying to retain facts, information, while knowing he's going to fall straight back into this relationship, because she's going to tell him things he wants to hear.
"The best thrillers have always played on things we can all relate to in real life, but exaggerated them to the nth degree."
Have you always loved film noir?
"Very much. I'm a big fan, but interested in making those materials live for this time, this place. To create something new, whilst not abandoning the things I love about the genre. Which include the intrigue you can get out of that triangular relationship between three main characters.
"Who does what to whom is the driving force of both the narrative and the psychology. You judge them on their actions, rather than a lot of back-story and conversation.
"I just think it would be a marvellous thing for film-makers to have some of the narrative freedom that novelists have had for hundreds - well, thousands - of years. In other media, it's always been accepted that you don't have to tell stories chronologically.
"In films, you have the flashback concept, but Stanley Kubrick and Nicolas Roeg were pioneering and pushing other boundaries in the Seventies, and it seems criminal to me not to keep using the freedoms they hard-earned.
"You should always be a little ahead of your time. I don't mean in a medicinal, here-take-this-it's- good-for-you way, but keeping people on their toes is a fun thing to do. Citizen Kane pushed things forward ambitiously, but in a real, instinctive, not gimmicky sense. And some of the aggressive, avant-garde devices Godard patented are accepted mainstream tricks now."
How did you begin making films?
"I started when I was a little kid, on my dad's Super-8. When I was seven I did a little stop-motion war movie with my Action Man, then my "films" got bigger and more ambitious every time, until now somebody finally actually paid me to do one. Dream come true! Marvellous!"
Your brother wrote the story on which you based the screenplay of Memento. How does that relationship work?
"It's the first thing we've done together. He was in the process of writing this short story as we were driving cross-country from Chicago to L.A., because I was moving to L.A. from London. He told me the bare bones, and I immediately responded, told him what I felt I could do with it. We scribbled away at the same time, so we had an interesting parallel development of the same themes. And he was there on the set for most of the time, which was both fun and productive."
What's next for you, now that Memento's reaping so much acclaim?
"A couple of projects. I may well do an adaptation of Ruth Rendell's novel The Keys To The Street next, in London. It's based around Regents Park. Now I'm based in L.A., but as I'm half-American and half-English, I'm interested in pursuing both sides of myself through my films, in a way."
Will success compromise your vision?
"No - a lack of budget compromises you! With a no-budget film, you're constantly convincing yourself the practical compromises aren't artistic ones, and with a bigger film, you're constantly convincing yourself the compromises made to accommodate the people financing it are relevant and constructive. Overall, I'm tremendously satisfied with Memento and I don't think it could or should be any more personal! I'm an optimist."
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