By Josh Wolk
Updated December 21, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Each time you deciphered another criss-crossing chronology and double-crossing motivation while watching this year’s most innovative noir, Memento, didn’t you feel smart? Wasn’t there a little rush of self-congratulation when you formulated a theory about the true intentions of Leonard (Guy Pearce), the short-term-memory-free desperado trying to avenge his wife’s murder with only his own tattooed clues?

Well, if you think you’re smart, what about the man who put the thing together? Adapting his brother Jonathan’s short story, 31-year-old British-American writer-director Christopher Nolan made Memento that rare thriller where every surprise, switch, zig and zag holds soundly together and even becomes more strangely logical upon further viewing. Considering that most movies buckle under the weight of one surprise ending (Yoo-hoo, Planet of the Apes!), the precision with which Nolan designed his Mobius filmstrip was all the more astounding. ”He had the whole film in his head,” says Memento producer Jennifer Todd. ”It was so hard to picture, but when you talked to Chris, it would click together.”

Memento was by no means an easy sale. After all, intricacy is not exactly a selling point to the major studios (which passed on the $4.5 million indie). But Nolan, whose first film was the 1998 black-and-white psychological thriller Following, was convinced that ”challenging” didn’t mean box office murder. ”We were always aware of the danger of losing people in the complexities of the story and the structure,” says Nolan. ”I found myself in the edit suite becoming a bit like Leonard, in that you have to sit there and trust what you decided to write to yourself two years before.” His instincts helped Memento become a steady word-of-mouth hit, staying in the box office top 20 for more than three months and grossing $25.5 million. (Perhaps the studios wish they had seen the end of that story first.)

Nolan’s next film, the Al Pacino detective thriller Insomnia, doesn’t open until May, but his fans can keep themselves occupied until then with their Memento DVDs and new analyses of the film that continue to clog Internet message boards. ”These explanations are a bit like Kennedy conspiracy theories,” laughs Nolan. ”But you can’t imagine the pleasure of watching people’s imaginations extrapolate from something you’ve created.”