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Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2002

Hitchcock's heir apparent

It's a good thing Christopher Nolan is a director and not, say, a professor, because his dry, steady monotone would put a class to sleep in a minute if he was talking about ancient Minoan religious rituals or some such. But when the topic at hand is Al Pacino and Hollywood filmmaking, he has no problem holding an audience's attention. At a recent Tokyo press conference, when Nolan-sensei spoke at length about his first big-studio film, his detailed comments revealed the amount of thought and care he invests in every stage of the production.

News photo
Director Christopher Nolan

On his decision to do a remake:

I saw the original film in '97 and enjoyed it very much. But I immediately saw a way in which you could take the wonderfully paradoxical situation at the heart of the film, and -- by changing the characters and the idiom of the filmmaking -- create a very different experience. I inquired about the remake rights, and Warner Brothers already had them and had just commissioned a script. I took a look at it when I was finished with "Memento," and I felt that the writer, Hillary Seitz, had done very much what I had in mind, which was changing the way the audience would feel about the story.

What we were both after was creating the type of old-fashioned cop movie that studios 50 years ago were good at making, but I hadn't seen in a long time. Taking the idea from the original -- which is brilliant, but quite alienating; very cold in its tone -- and using it to create the kind of film that Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles used to make. So, I was able to get involved at that point, partly thanks to Steven Soderbergh, who had seen "Memento" and shown it to the studio, and helped me convince them that I was the person to direct it.

On working with Pacino and Robin Williams:

These actors had totally different styles, but one of the things I've noticed about great actors is that they have an innate understanding of the transfer of energy, or the back-and-forth of a scene. So they're not just giving their lines and waiting for their next line; they're listening as well, receiving energy from the other actor. They simply accommodate the other actor without even realizing they're doing so.

On Williams' reputation as a joker:

Robin, on set -- indeed, all the time you're around him -- he's constantly making jokes. He has the most brilliant mind, and he constantly interprets the world around him and turns that into comedy.

We were on some difficult locations, and when everyone starts to get tired and the energy sags, he can be very inspirational. Robin is very aware that, at times, his humor can be distracting, so he tends to channel it where it's most productive.

On Pacino's convincing performance:

I don't know whether he was sleeping while we were making the film, but I know that he's gone through long periods of insomnia in the past, and certainly that was one of the reasons he was interested in the role -- because it's something he's experienced, and he understood the way it would play into the story, and how it would heighten what's happening to his character.

On whether he's ever experienced insomnia:

I've definitely experienced insomnia at different points in my life, luckily never as a chronic condition. But for me, the most extreme sleeplessness I've ever had came when I was editing the film, because my wife and I had a baby then, and for the first month or so you just don't get any sleep. So while I was editing the film and mixing the sound, I was definitely not sleeping very much at all. And that pushed us in a certain direction in the way we manipulated the sound and imagery.

On his approach to filmmaking:

I think my ideal approach is to strive for cinematic storytelling. I try not to separate the visual from the story. To me, the best films are those that could only be films. They couldn't be novels, or plays or radio programs, they could only be cinematic narratives.

On whether he'll stick to making suspense films:

I, personally, see my films as comedies, in some sense. There is something inherently comic, in a mordant way, about the darkness of these situations. The directors that I admire -- Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick -- find very dark humor in suspenseful and mysterious situations. As far as the future is concerned, I'm interested in all types of film -- except musicals.

On the pressure of success:

It all starts to build. It's exciting, in that it opens a lot of opportunities for the next project, but it's definitely daunting, because there's no question, when choosing a project, you should never be reactive, or looking either to repeat yourself or do something completely different just for the sake of it. So, my intention is to stick with what I've always done and just look for a story that really interests me.

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