Producer/Writer Jonathan Nolan Talks PERSON OF INTEREST and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

     January 11, 2012


The CBS freshman drama series Person of Interest returns this week, with new episodes, higher stakes, and the relationships that viewers are quickly becoming attached to. At a Television Critics Association party for the network showrunners, producer/writer Jonathan Nolan talked about making sure the action stems from the story, delivering those big action moments on a TV budget, incorporating technology into the storyline in a way that works for audiences, and further developing the intriguing dynamic between former-CIA agent Reese (Jim Caviezel) and the mysterious billionaire, Finch (Michael Emerson).

He also talked about how they came up with the airplane sequence in the prologue for The Dark Knight Rises, said that after seeing a little bit more of the film than audiences have seen he thinks that what Tom Hardy has done with the role of Bane is spectacular, and said that, after he finishes up a couple of feature writing projects, the next thing he wants to do is direct a feature. Check out what he had to say after the jump.

jonathan-nolan-imageQuestion: How do you work action scenes into an episode versus character development?

JONATHAN NOLAN: We like it to stem from story. You don’t ever want the action to feel like it’s obligatory. So, we have episodes where the scale of the action comes way down, and then some episodes where it goes way up. But, we also want to approach it from a perspective of, “What can we shoot?” I’ve worked in the movie business for many, many years, where you have lots of days and lots of money. It’s really mainly about time. We always try to conceive all of our action from a place of, “What can we shoot that looks fantastic?,” rather than trying to do the kinds of thing that you would be able to accomplish in a movie. That dovetails really nicely with the concept of the show, which is really about being there in time. So, instead of doing a car chase, you do the end of a car chase because our guy gets to walk out in front of the car chase and just cut it off, instead of shooting a week long car chase.

But, don’t you feel that you are able to deliver those moments?

NOLAN: Yeah, but it’s a question of making sure they’re the kind of moments we can pull off in New York, practically. I’m not a big fan of visual effects. We took a lot of the approach that my brother (Christopher Nolan) uses for the films that I’ve worked on, and tried to apply it to the show. I think the audience feels that. I think they feel the reality of a lot of the things that we shoot. Then enhancing it, in the right places, with visual effects. We have an amazing stunt coordinator. We have an amazing visual effects team, and a great division of labor. I think that’s the most important thing.

person-of-interest-cbs-01Where do things pick up now?

NOLAN: Well, we went out on a bit of a cliffhanger, so I think it’s safe to say, given the show and the audience’s response to Jim [Caviezel], that he’s still alive. We can spoil that one. But, with this show, we like to have a little bit of damage. We like to imagine that this is a real world, with real stakes, so Jim’s recuperating a little bit. That’s part of the set-up of the episode. It’s great fun, and a bit of a role reversal.

Was it always the plan to involve Taraji P. Henson’s character into the story more?

NOLAN: It was always the plan. I felt like we talked about her participation evolving from the Tommy Lee Jones role in The Fugitive to ultimately a Commissioner Gordon place. But, I really felt like, just like with Commissioner Gordon, that you can’t just jump into that relationship. You couldn’t have landed her there, in the pilot. We always feel that we want these relationships to have stakes and to be earned and to change. Just because we’ve landed in that place now doesn’t mean we stay there. We’ve got four characters who are all a bit cagey, or a lot cagey, so I think it’s natural that those relationships will continue to change and shift a little bit.

Did Taraji show you that she could do that earlier than you may have expected?

NOLAN: The thing with Taraji Henson is that she’s incredible. You know that when you hire her, so the challenge there was to always keep the material vital for her, even when, episode after episode, she’s just a little bit too late, or a little bit behind the 8-ball. Now, we get to evolve that and start to have some real fun.

person-of-interest-cbs-tv-showDoes the story of the week have to be a little bit more complicated on this show than the usual CSI mystery?

NOLAN: It’s a different level of complication. I think CSI proved, to a spectacular effect, the audience’s capacity for that. That show proved all kinds of interesting things and had all sorts of interesting hallmarks, but one of them was the level of complexity and depth to forensic science. For years, you would imagine that the note would be, “People don’t want to hear that complication. They’re not interested in the gack of the show.” But, with CSI, you realize that, as long as you coupled it with compelling drama, people were actually really interested in that stuff. I think that what’s gratifying is that, when we put detail about technology and about the ways in which Finch and Reese are able to hack into the lives of the person of interest, the audience seems to eat it up. I’m interested in these things. I’m a bit of a tech geek. It’s one of the reasons I was drawn to the idea of the show, in the first place, and it seems to me the audience feels the same way, which is great fun. You get to sink into it a little bit more.

Has there been any new technology, since you started the show, that you can now incorporate into the machine of the show?

NOLAN: It’s so funny. We’ve got 10 amazing writers working on the show, and every day, somebody emails the team something they’ve read somewhere about not just technology, but culturally. The world seems to be shaping itself in the direction of the franchise of our show, which is a little scary, but in a weird way, kind of gratifying. When this thing was pitched, and even when the pilot debuted last year, you heard a lot of things about it being science fiction or about it being fantasy, but it’s sadly not as fantastical as people would like to imagine.

Taraji P. Henson stars in PERSON OF INTERESTWere you a fan of Quantum Leap, where he helped someone in time, every week? Does this feel like an opportunity to do a modern version of that, where you can help a new person, every week?

NOLAN: One of the things that Quantum Leap did, and shows like The Equalizer or Magnum, P.I., or other high-concept procedurals had done, over the years, is give you a familiar set of characters that you can fall in love with or bring into your extended family, which is really what TV shows are, for a lot of us, but also jump from world to world. What we wanted to do was do that in New York City. I’ve spent a lot of time in New York in the last year, and it’s a city, but it’s a bounded infinity. There’s so many different worlds within that one 30-mile area. For us, it’s a chance, each week, to take familiar characters, but explore a new world, which is great.

This role really uses Jim Caviezel in the right way because he can be dynamic, charming and tough. Had you been frustrated, as a fan, to see him not used to his full abilities, in other roles?

NOLAN: Jim always brings, to any role he works on, this measure of warmth and humanity. People love that guy. You see it, when you spend time with him. It’s not just the films he’s been in and the roles he’s portrayed. He’s just this incredibly warm human being, and that comes through in every role. I fell in love with that guy in The Thin Red Line, which is a picture he literally stole from every actor you’ve ever heard of. Frequency is one that comes up a lot. That’s a favorite film for a lot of guys. In addition to all of those things that we all knew Jim could do, I knew that guy could kick a whole bunch of ass. You saw it in G.I. Jane. That was a very different role for him, and a very early role for him. You just knew this guy had an edge there as well. We’ve had a lot of fun playing with that.

Has the dynamic between Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson inspired you to do anything with that relationship that you hadn’t really thought of being seeing them together?

James Caviezel stars in PERSON OF INTERESTNOLAN: Absolutely! The next episode has a bit of a role reversal, which is great fun. You really never want either of these folks to feel like you’ve stranded them in one set of characteristics or one set of things that they can do. The thing about both Michael and Jim is that they’re both so gifted and so interesting that you want to keep challenging them and the audience’s conception of those characters, week in and week out. To a certain degree, with a TV show, people are looking for a certain amount of familiarity. You don’t want to pull the rug out, but you also want to keep things fresh and keep changing it up. Exploring the dynamic between them, it’s such an odd couple relationship. We always knew the humor of that was going to be a big part of the show, but we’ve been able to have great fun playing with that.

When will you get more into the background of Finch?

NOLAN: We’ve always conceived this show and the pilot, from the beginning, as having flashbacks and having this random access structure, where you could see different moments in lives. Lost is a show that I really loved and admired. I especially loved the ability of that show to pick you up and drop you – sort of air mail you – into a moment in a character’s life, who you’d thought you’d come to know, and you’re kind of at sea and have no idea what you’re looking at.

Now that people have gotten to see the first six minutes of The Dark Knight Rises, how did you come up with that amazing airplane sequence?

NOLAN: It’s an amazing team with my brother, David Goyer and myself. Those are two great guys to work with and brainstorm with. I think Chris had long wanted to do the aerial spectacular. It’s such a good fit for the IMAX cameras that he likes to shoot with, and so that was a long time in the making.

Bane-Dark-Knight-Rises-image-Tom-HardyCan you comment on the reaction that people had upon hearing how muffled some of Bane’s dialogue sounded in that prologue?

NOLAN: I’d really rather talk about the show today, if that’s okay. There’s lots and lots and lots of talking to about The Dark Knight Rises, and I’m excited to do it, but we’re still in lock-down mode, in terms of talking about that project. I wanna talk about the show a little bit, if possible, because we’re coming back.

As a writer, is it bittersweet that you write some fabulous dialogue and it might be muffled, in some fashion?

NOLAN: I’ve gotta tell you, I think what Tom Hardy is doing with the role is spectacular. I’ve had the benefit of seeing a little bit more than the audience has seen, at this point, and it’s pretty spectacular.

Are you any closer to getting behind the camera and directing a feature?

NOLAN: Yeah. I wanted to do a couple of things for awhile now. One was working on a TV show and the other was directing a feature. The thing about working on a TV show is that it becomes, very quickly, all consuming. But, the very next project for me, in addition to a couple of feature projects that are outstanding, that I’m still hoping to get across the finish line, as a writer, the very next thing I want to do, personally, is direct a feature.