To promote the upcoming 10th anniversary Blu-ray release of Memento, the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles held a special 35mm screening of the film followed by a Q&A with Christopher Nolan moderated by Guillermo del Toro.
During the Q&A the filmmakers discussed the literary influences of the film, the use of subjective perspective, and why he won’t reveal the meaning of the last scene in Inception.
Read on for the details.
For those not lucky enough to have visited the Egyptian, it is a movie theater like no other. While New York City can lay claim to the title of cultural epicenter of the United States, there is a serious preponderance of quality art theaters in the city. Not so with Los Angeles. The Egyptian is large and ornate with a well maintained interior filled with plush seats, wide aisles, quality popcorn (with real butter!), and most importantly expert projection and sound. It’s really a wonderful place to see rare and obscure films* or to hear A-list filmmakers get into the nitty-gritty of the craft. Even the audiences are good, asking questions that are deep and specific instead of reiterating nonsense from Access Hollywood.
The night began just before 8 PM. The film print wasn’t brand new, but other than a few scratches here and there and some fairly noticeable sound issues during David Bowie’s excellent closing credits song, the film looked rather pristine. There is nothing more frustrating than driving an hour out of your way to see a revival screening only to discover a terrible print, but this one was in fine condition. It’s safe to assume that any film screenings in the near future will be done with this print, and it looks good.
Del Toro and Nolan exhibited an easy rapport during their conversation, with Del Toro dropping bizarre and hilarious one-liners, calling Nolan, “A man with a high testicular content” which the latter man would turn around into real and insightful answers.
Though the filmmakers didn’t touch upon any of their future projects, there was still a lot of great new information during the talk.
When Del Toro described Nolan’s work as intensely visual, but oddly literary, Nolan explained how his creative output has been largely influenced by the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges and how in some ways Memento functions as a companion piece to one story in particular about a man who could not forget anything.
“Films are oddly linear,” said Nolan before going on to explain his theory that the advent of DVD has fundamentally changed the cultures interaction with and understanding of film. During Nolan’s childhood the only way to see a movie was in a theater or on broadcast television. With the VHS era one could begin to control the film, but it was still fairly difficult to find specific scenes out of context. However, with the rise of DVD, audiences could suddenly skip around in a movie, interacting with it almost like they would a book, opening it to any page they wanted and even starting mid-paragraph. Nolan believes that this shift has expanded film’s vocabulary greatly, allowing for more complex films like Memento and The Matrix to achieve mainstream success.
This film began during a road trip during which Nolan’s brother Jonathan described a rough outline of the story. The older Nolan encouraged his brother to continue working on the idea, but to find a way to do it from the subjective perspective of the protagonist so as to give the reader a sense of what it is to have the disorder.
After the road trip ended, Nolan went off and began working on the screenplay while his brother continued to develop it as a short story. During the time it took Jonathan Nolan to figure out the written version, his brother made the entire film with the story being published only one week before the feature’s release.
Nolan says he wrote the script from page 1 to 120, in order and that he wouldn’t allow anyone to reorder the film during rehearsals or filming. He thought it was important that the characters experienced things without any larger context to other scenes in order to keep things authentic.
While Nolan maintains that the film never cheats, he does note that there is one brief scene where Carrie-Anne Moss looks on at Guy Pierce and we momentarily see what he looks like to the rest of the world — a totally incompetent mess and a guy who could never, ever solve this mystery.
And while Nolan took home the WGA award for best original screenplay this week, he claims that he does not feel like a good writer. He attributes his success in this field to a simple trick; avoid trying to be clever.
“I discovered that if you went back and took out all the parts that you thought were good, what you’re left with is much better,” said Nolan.
Finally, Nolan briefly touched on his hesitancy to reveal the meaning of the ending of Inception. He described how that film, like Memento is told from the subjective perspective of a protagonist who can never really know the truth of his situation. After Mememto first screened, he discussed his interpretation with a few journalists, but decided to stop doing so when his brother pointed out that this was cheating as “if you tell people the ‘truth’ you’ve violated the terms of the story,” said Nolan.
*in the last year I’ve seen a double feature of Happiness and Life During Wartime, a screening of Godard’s Contempt, and a new print of Jordorowsky’s Santa Sangre at this theater.