Christopher Nolan strides backward through the door — one foot behind the other, heel to toe — stopping at his chair. ”Cool. Well, thanks!” he mumbles. ”No, that’s about it,” a reporter answers. ”Any more questions?” he asks. Before that comes the full interview with the writer director of ”Memento.” And before that, interviews with the stars of the movie. And before that, the triumphant screenings here at the Sundance Film Festival. We could even work all the way back to Nolan’s first, halting baby step. It was adorable.
Confused? Wait until you see his movie, ”Memento,” a whetted razor of a noir that just happens to be told drawkcab. (The device works better on screen. Really.) Detailing the plight of an insurance investigator (”L.A. Confidential”’s Guy Pearce) who wakes up from a blow to the head with his wife dead and his short term memory damaged, the movie has become a serious Hollywood conversation piece. It has also rocketed the British filmmaker’s career, kick started his brother’s writing career, and, after almost every studio passed on the finished film, christened a spanking new distributor. Not a bad ripple for a $4.5 million pebble, inspired, in a roundabout way, by ”Moby Dick,” road trips, muggings, and fistfights. (But aren’t all indies, these days?)
It all began at Georgetown University in 1996, where Jonathan Nolan — Chris’ American born brother, who goes by the nickname Jonah — sat in a psychology class. His attention wandered until his professor mentioned a condition called anterograde memory loss, which prevents subjects from forming new recollections. ”I was drawn to it as a metaphor,” says 24 year old Jonah. ”A demonstration of how fleeting identity really is.”
The younger Nolan later dropped out of Georgetown for a semester — traveling, devouring Melville, getting held up with a shiv in Madrid, and falling into drunken slugfests with New Zealand lumberjacks. ”The fights had put me in this dark place,” he recalls, ”And somewhere they led to the kernel of ‘Memento.”’ He returned home in 1997 with the idea percolating. It bubbled out months later on a cross country drive with his big brother, whom he was helping move from Chicago to L.A.
”Jonah told me the story,” explains Chris, 30, who was then finishing his first film, the thriller ”Following” (which won Best Black and White Film at 1999’s Slamdance). ”It wasn’t developed, just about a guy who can’t make new memories who is looking for revenge. But I got excited and asked to write the screenplay.” In Chris’ version, as Leonard Shelby searches for his wife’s killer, he records clues by taking Polaroids, scribbling notes on scraps of paper, and tattooing himself. His problem: After 15 minutes or so, his memory fades like a receipt put through the wash. The only outside help he gets is provided by a sultry bartender (Carrie Anne Moss) and a shady friend (Joe Pantoliano). The biggest departure Chris takes from his brother’s story of the fuzzy, often fictional nature of memory — is relating it in reverse.
”If you tell the story backwards, the audience is denied the knowledge Leonard is denied,” says Nolan. Adds Pantoliano: ”You could reedit it to go forward. It’s extremely linear…. But backwards, it becomes a whydunit, not a whodunit.”
Nolan brought his script to a friend at Newmarket, the finance company behind such films as ”Topsy Turvy” and ”The Mexican.” One rewrite later, Newmarket hired sisters Jennifer and Suzanne Todd (”Austin Powers”) to produce.
”I literally begged to be in it,” remembers Pearce. ”My agent sent me the script and wrote on the bottom, ‘You’re going to love it.’ And I called him after I read it and said, ‘Well, that was an understatement, wasn’t it?”’ Moss was next. ”I couldn’t believe how intense it was,” says the actress, who recommended her ”Matrix” costar Pantoliano for the third lead. The 26 day shoot was swift and smooth. Newmarket was thrilled. Nolan was thrilled. Everything was sunshine, lollipops and unicorns? until the finance company screened the movie for almost every studio and indie outfit in town. And no one bit.
”They were getting lowballed,” says Pantoliano, who just wrapped this season’s ”Sopranos” and is in preproduction on his directoral debut, the dark comedy ”Wild Life Incorporated.” ”At the Independent Spirit Awards I ran into Bill Block from Artisan and he said, ‘Omigod, ”Memento”! You were wonderful.’ ‘Thank you. You gonna buy it?’ ‘No.’ Then I saw Russell Schwartz of USA Films. Russell said, ‘Joey Pants! ”Memento”! Brilliant, baby!’ ‘Thanks Russell. You gonna buy it?’ ‘No.’ Next night, Harvey Weinstein. ‘Joey Pants! ”Memento”! You’re f—in’ great!’ ‘Thanks Harvey! You gonna buy it?’ ‘Uh, no.”’
The problem was marketability. Everyone seemed to love the film, but after the dog and pony show in the spring of 2000, Newmarket couldn’t find anyone who thought ”Memento” would end up in the black — a sentiment that execs who passed at the time say still prevails in Hollywood.
”If we had an offer for $8 million we would have said ‘fine,”’ says William Tyrer, who cofounded Newmarket with Chris Ball in 1994. ”But that $8 million offer never came…. People thought it was too difficult, too obscure, and had no commercial potential.” So the finance company, which had planned to start marketing and distributing its own films anyway, decided to make ”Memento” its first theatrical release, and took the film to the festivals — Venice, Toronto, and Sundance (where it won a screenwriting award). And so far, Newmarket has no reason to want to turn back the clock. Not only has the movie grossed £1.5 million ($2.1 million) in the U.K., where it opened in October, but it also averaged over $21,000 per screen its first weekend in New York and L.A.
For the Nolans, the film is already a memorable personal success. Jonah had his short story published in the March Esquire and is working on his first novel, while Chris has his next gig lined up. He’ll be swapping disorders — memory for sleep — to direct Al Pacino and Hilary Swank in the Steven Soderbergh produced remake of the 1998 Norwegian thriller ”Insomnia,” which begins filming April 9. ”Chris has this incredible ability to deconstruct things and a wonderful focus on detail,” attests Pearce. ”He’s a major talent.” Indeed, for Nolan, the end of ”Memento” would seem to be — what else? — just the beginning.
(This story is printed in its entirety from the March 30, 2001, issue of Entertainment Weekly.)