Another amazing CS podcast, this time with Jonathan Nolan, the little and 40 pounds heavier brother of director Chris Nolan. Jonah came up with the idea of Memento, worked as a creative consultant on Batman Begins, co-wrote The Prestige with his brother and is now writing the second Batman installment.
I pitched him this short story I was writing called Memento Mori about a guy who has memory loss and needs to use the tattoos on his body as a roadmap and I said to him: ‘I think this is more of a cinematic thing, why don’t you see what you can do with it’. And then I went back to school and after three months he called me up and he’s all excited and said: ‘I finally figured it out, I’m going to tell the screenplay backwards.’ And I said: ‘that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.’
The way Chris and I work together, we don’t write drafts together. We tried that one time and it was not pretty. We tend to write sequential drafts and sort of bounce them back and forth. But we talk a lot before getting started.
Chris wanted the film itself to work like a magic trick. And I made all that “the pledge, the turn, the prestige” stuff up. There’s no magic history there.
The interwoven three act structure is something Chris did in his first feature ‘The Following’. You got snippets of each act, right from the beginning, and they were delineated to you, so you could tell where you were by the lead actor’s haircut and the amount of bruises on his face, which is kind of a nice device. The same thing to a certain degree happens in Memento with the black and white stock and the colour. In this one, we thought let’s try to have some fun with it. Narrative structure is I think for a segment of the audience. You can’t make everybody happy. Some people don’t want that from a movie and say ‘a movie shouldn’t be hard work’. Fair enough. But I think there’s an audience for it.
But Batman then kind of got in the way of making The Prestige. So we set the script aside for a couple of years, which is actually great. Because you come back and you have a real perspective on it. You’re always able to give it a cold read. So Chris came back to it and said; ‘what if we do this and do that’. The biggest shortcoming in my draft was the female characters. Every rewrite after Batman concentrated on really developing those characters and instead of using them as plot devices, a real flesh and bone quality, which hopefully is there in the final product.
Notoriously on Memento, we took it to the Venice film festival, and the Italians they make everything very fancy, you really feel intimidated the moment you get there with your crazy backwards movie. The Venice festival is well known to be a frank audience, if they don’t like the movie, they stick around to boo you and throw things at you. My dad and I were seated down in the middle of the main section watching the movie and we get to the end – Memento ends fairly abruptly – and the credits start rolling and we sit there for 30 seconds and there’s no applause of any kind and I turn to my dad and say: ‘lets get out of here’. And then people start clapping and luckily, it was a really well received film. And then we go to the press tent and Chris starts to spill the beans about what the movie means and what actually happened in the story. And when he finished answering questions, I sort of walked up to him as we were getting dinner, and I said: ‘you know, lets not do that again, let’s leave it up to the audience’. Because as soon as he gives out his interpretation, it becomes the definitive one. And later, we were sitting together with the producers and a bunch of other people and we were all having a massive argument about what the movie we just made meant. And nobody could agree with each other, which is quite fun. It’s either really bad or really good.
For years, I didn’t understand the concept of writer’s block. I was like ‘what’s that?’. And then I realized a few months ago ‘oh that’s every day.’ My thing about writing is that it’s like a lot of the best things in life: ‘if it’s not hard work, you’re not doing it right’. And I find writing to be a lot of the times agony. I’m lucky if I can get five good hours of work in a day. It often takes 10 hours of wandering around and yelling at people and eating candy bars and talking to yourself and babbling, that kind of stuff.
Christopher Priest’s book The Prestige itself invites you to mess around with time a little bit. But I think any time I work with Chris I know there’s an invitation to do that every time.
You also realize and I have done this enough now at this point with Chris to realize that a lot of the non-linear narrative structure is going to be changed in the editing room. There are a lot of things that you can do on the script and you can get the broad strokes in there but you are not going to be able to solve the problems that the director and the editor have got to figure out in the editing suite. So you have to build a kind of flexibility into it. The final cut of The Prestige versus the shooting script, there are substantial differences. Not in content but in structuring.
The audience is remarkably flexible in what they can absorb, in what they can process, in what they can put together. And there’s a fun in there as well, if it’s handled right.
There are only so many good ideas in the world.
My brother told me when I was first moving out here in 1999: ‘don’t come because everyone out here writes about the same stuff’. And that’s kind of true. But you just have to got with it.
To a certain degree the phenomenon that I have figured out is that when I’m working on a idea and I’m really excited about it and then you go to a movie theatre and you watch a trailer and it’s like ‘oh no’ and you get that awful feeling. What I figured out at this point is that pretty much anything that’s remotely similar to your thing elicits that feeling if you’re in the wrong mood. And then you need someone else to help you step back and say ‘dude what are you talking about, they are completely different things’. So you kind of have to fight that feeling.