Revenge is a dish best served backwards

Christopher Nolan directed his first back-to-front thriller in Soho for £7,000 - and his next, 'Memento', in Hollywood for $10m
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It might be best to start at the end. A 30-year-old British director, Christopher Nolan, has just arrived at the Deauville Festival with his lead actor, Guy Pearce, and sundry producers of his sophomore film, Memento. He's fresh from the terrifying two hours of its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival (and the subsequent thunderous standing ovation). And now he's in the midst of an argument with his creative team about how the film concludes.

It might be best to start at the end. A 30-year-old British director, Christopher Nolan, has just arrived at the Deauville Festival with his lead actor, Guy Pearce, and sundry producers of his sophomore film, Memento. He's fresh from the terrifying two hours of its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival (and the subsequent thunderous standing ovation). And now he's in the midst of an argument with his creative team about how the film concludes.

"These were people who spent three years making it," he says with a smile. "You know what's interesting about the ending to the film? Some people see it as incredibly tidy and tight and complete. Some see it as amazingly ambiguous and loose-ended. That's a rather unusual thing."

But then Memento is an unusual film. Based on an unpublished short story, by Nolan's brother Jonathan, it's the story of Leonard Shelby (Pearce), a man who has suffered from short-term memory loss since the rape and murder of his wife. Driven to avenge her death, Leonard plays detective, despite his affliction, using Polaroids, scraps of paper and even a series of grim tattoos on his body to assist him on his quest to find the killer. What separates Memento from other revenge thrillers is that the film is told backwards. Shown literally in reverse, we open with Leonard killing the man he believes to be the perpetrator of the crime. Nolan then traces back scene-by-scene just how Leonard came to this conclusion, as he encounters various Los Angelenos out to hamper his investigation.

"One of the things I was interested in trying to do with this kind of revenge story is create an unsettling experience," says Nolan. "It seems to me that too often in films, things that should be disturbing aren't. I was interested in reclaiming some of these concepts, such as revenge, and making the audience look at them in a slightly different way than they might with other movies where the revenge element is simply an excuse to view the main character going off and killing someone."

Back to the ending - why should a film, where we know the outcome, cause such division? Memento, in fact, is a film without a beginning - comparable to Alan Parker's Angel Heart and David Lynch's Lost Highway for its deliberately non-linear approach. Like the missing pages in Leonard's well-worn crime-file, we, as audience members, aren't provided with the obvious answers. Our viewing experience is as subjective and ambiguous as Leonard's investigation, as faulty as his memory.

Nolan has his own theory, of course. "The thing that divides people is visual memory versus verbal memory. If you believe what you've seen in the film, you come to one conclusion. If you believe what you've heard, you come to another. That wasn't something I thought about when I was doing it, but it arises naturally from the situation. What I'm finding is that most people are very reluctant to abandon the idea of their visual memory. People believe their eyes more than their ears."

It's this intention to challenge the audience head-on that makes Memento so enthralling. Unlike the novel which has always been granted the freedom to unfold in a non-chronological way (he cites Graham Swift's Waterland as a particular influence), Nolan reckons visual methods of story-telling have increasingly regressed. "Think of Citizen Kane now. The narrative structure is incredibly inventive. Every other aspect of film-making, since that film, has advanced enormously. I now have, for example, incredible editing freedom that people making films back then didn't have. But narratively, things are simpler now than they were then. I really think it's TV that has held back narrative."

You only have to take a look at the film's website (www.otnemem.com - "memento" backwards) to realise that Nolan and his brother, who designed the site, are fascinated by the process of piecing information together. "You read bits, and you make your own order. You can watch it however you want," he says, pointing out that the site, if read carefully, paints a detailed backstory for Leonard way beyond the scope of the film itself.

Nolan believes it his duty as a film-maker to challenge audiences in this way. He started this process with his little-seen debut Following, a 70-minute black-and-white film noir that ran its beginning, middle and end concurrently. Nolan, a former English graduate of University College, London, made the film for under £7,000. Shot at weekends over the course of 14 months, Following garnered equally fervent critical praise, only to receive a shameful release from its UK distributor, Alliance. Presented on only one screen in London, before taking a brief tour around the country, Following ultimately showed the highest per-print gross for a British film last year. That Nolan's career wasn't dead and buried before it started was only due to the fact that industry people saw the film in the US.

"I certainly didn't get any scripts from English companies [after Following's release]," he remarks, understandably disgruntled. "And yet, I'm always asked 'Why are you working in America?' It's only very recently that I've had any interest from English companies. The release was not great, but, to be honest, it's an on-going struggle that film-makers have. There are very few happy independent film-makers."

Nolan might just be one now, despite the initial short-sightedness of his own country's film industry. Granted a $10m budget for Memento, he managed to attract The Matrix stars Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano to join Pearce. But it would seem Nolan remained reluctant to abandon his guerrilla film-making roots, taking roughly the same number of total days (around 25) to shoot Memento as it did Following.

" Following was a process of stamina," Nolan recalls. "It was about getting out of bed at eight o'clock on a Saturday. It was all about creating energy. It was a very grinding process. This was much more intense. Fast and furious. You had to think much quicker. The pressure of time per day was the same, but the accumulative pressure was worse. On Following, at least I was able to edit it together in my mind during the week."

It's an anecdote that befits the rather preppy-looking Nolan, who remains a director very much working against the mainstream. Indeed, while Memento was produced by Team Todd, the partnership responsible for the Austin Powers franchise, with the film itself shot in and around sleazy Burbank motels, it's a movie that veritably spits at Hollywood convention. Nolan, who has just finished a rough draft of his untitled third screenplay, has no intention of changing. This, after all, is only the beginning.

Comments