Interview: Chris Nolan
You can sum Christopher Nolan up in one word: British. He's your stereotypical British gentlemen. He speaks quietly yet distinctly with a pronounced British accent. When listening he sips from a cup of tea sitting in front of him. Very polite and gracious. Way more intelligent that either your or I combined. At the INSOMNIA press junket, I had the opportunity to sit with Chris and talk about the difficulties of following-up MEMENTO, telling Al Pacino what to do and harnessing the awesome power that is Robin Williams.
What went into your decision to make INSOMNIA?
Well, really simply because when I saw the original movie, which I loved, I didn't think it needed new improvements, but I thought there was an interesting set of situations there, and if you put it into the form of American kind of 'cop drama', a morality tale, when you take this heroic figure and you put him through this, my feeling was that you get a very different take on the picture.
Would you say that INSOMNIA's story is different from your previous two films,
FOLLOWING and MEMENTO, in that this one is more straight-forward?
I don't see the film as straight-forward at all in a narrative sense. Structurally, it is linear and it is conventional and familiar. Therefore the audience feels comfortable passing through it. And I think my interest was having made two films before that constantly reminded the audience that they were watching a film, constantly reminding the audience that they were being manipulated in those terms, I was interested in trying to make use of familiar grammar. And what that gives you, I think, is the ability to really directly connect the audience with the thematic elements that you're interested in, in the story. But to me, the complexities of the film are not structural. They're really more to do with the murkiness of the situation. The notion of intention versus action, that sort of thing. Because ironically, in comparison to the plot of MEMENTO, the plot is far more complicated.
In those two films you were able to explore and delve into issues of existence
while still telling an intriguing story. Is there room in commercial cinema for such
open-ended, personal questions? Does the artist have a responsibility to address such
Filmmakers have a responsibility, given the opportunity to make films, which is a pretty elusive thing, to use it in the best way they possibly can. And I think there is all kinds of range to put those ideas into stories. In the case of INSOMNIA…at the heart of it, what I saw was a combination of genre, or idiom, combined with a situation that gives you a moral paradox that's interesting to me. And that's the basis, I think for me, of a fascinating story. And I don't think the genre elements of it, or the size of it, chip away at that. Because if you look back at the successful mainstream films of the past, the studio films of the past, they tend to have a very sophisticated moral basis or thematic basis. And that's why, in some of them, they just kind of grab people's imaginations. But I think the trick, and I think the thing that I'm interested in is to not be too self-conscious. That's, to me, in some sense, the distinction between art cinema and mainstream films, and it's about the degree to which you try to slip these things into the fabric and make you feel them rather than consciously recognize them.
What about the original film compelled you so much that you had to remake it?
I thought the film was perfectly realized and…unimprovable. What I was interested in was the plot turns, the situation, if you recast it in a different idiom. Because I think that, thematically and in moral terms, you get a very different feeling by changing the characters and changing the audience's relationship to the characters. Hopefully you create something new, certainly something different from the original, with different intentions. And so it's not easy for me to say specifically about the original…it's more to do with the plot turns.
What's it like working with Al Pacino, and why was he your choice?
He's one of the only actors I know of that can project moral intelligence. His is a character who can't express anything, he can't tell anybody what he's really thinking or why he's doing the things he's doing, because in my version of the plot, he's prevented from doing that. As a filmmaker you can't use dialogue the way you usually do which is to sort of clarify things for the audience. We didn't want to use voice-overs because it didn't really feel right. You have to have an actor who can, just through his eyes and gestures, really make the audience really understand what's going on. You can only understand this story by looking into his eyes and seeing his intentions and struggle. I don't really know of anyone else who can do it. He's a great actor, he can do anything you want him to do, really anything. He's a gift from the Gods, and an incredibly hard worker.
After casting Pacino, what went into the decision of casting Robin Williams?
We'd be sitting there going OK now we have Al Pacino playing the cop, and that's a pretty big league presence. We were looking for a similarly fascinating presence onscreen. So when Robin's name came up, and he expressed an interest, everyone was excited. When I met with him, it was very clear that he got the character the way I did. The character is a very unexceptional human being. I really don't think he's ever played anybody like that. That's kinda fun.
How did you negotiate Pacino's and Williams' two different acting styles?
They were both very focused and very much stayed within the construction that we were all agreed on as we were working. I think they felt that that was the tone of the piece and that was the direction we were going in. So nothing wild and crazy, always within the appropriate framework and just exploring different nuances. I think they figured out early on that I was going to stick the camera up their noses the whole time, so anything we did on that mental level, it's all there onscreen. I think it's frustrating when directors play the whole scene from a wide shot. Really sophisticated film actors like these guys actually somehow tune their energy to where the camera is. Without even being self-conscious, they just automatically do this.
So then what was the overall goal of the film in relationship to the original?
It was more like - thoroughly enjoying the film, but immediately thinking that situation, that set of plot turns, that brings these two characters together. If you applied that to the Hollywood "cop drama," that the studios used to be really great at making about fifteen years ago, we'd have an iconic, heroic figure at the center of it who could take the audience to this place. And it's a very exciting basis for that kind of movie, but it's a very different kind of movie in that sense. And that's, to me, the point…because to me there's no interest in re-making a great movie.
Who are your cinematic influences?
Really it's just kind of a boring list of all the great movie directors. You know, there's Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. I've always been very partial to Ridley Scott's films. I think this film probably was most influenced by Hitchcock. He was so adapt at bringing characters together who really shouldn't be.
What's next on your schedule?
I'm writing a film about the life of Howard Hughes that Jim Carrey is going to star in. But there is a huge time between sitting down now and trying to make it all work. It is a monumental subject.
Reporter groans at the thought of Jim Carrey playing Howard Hughes
(Smiling) No, Jim is absolutely perfect. If you look at Hughes' life and you look at the extremities of the guy, I don't think that there's anyone else who can play it.
Do you also have faith in Carrey's range and his ability to do dramatic work?
Yeah, he's a great performer. I just had a wonderful experience working with Robin Williams, doing something that some people might be skeptical about him doing. To me, I think part of my job is to be able to look at a performer and decide what I think he's capable of. Robin is an actor, not just a comedian. He's tremendous, and Jim is tremendous as well.