- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 1, 2002

Movie director Christopher Nolan calls "Insomnia," his crime and psychological thriller that stars Al Pacino and Robin Williams, "a real scenic patchwork."

"I think it came together quite nicely," he says of the impressive follow-up to "Memento," arguably the most stylish and clever movie of 2001.

Nightmute is the Alaska town in "Insomnia" where two Los Angeles police detectives are sent to help solve the murder of a teen-age girl as the Internal Affairs unit back home breathes down their necks. Detective Will Dormer, indelibly portrayed by Mr. Pacino, finds himself in a compromising situation in Nightmute as he is blackmailed by the killer (Mr. Williams), who imagines he has found a soul mate, or patsy.

There is a real Nightmute, but it should not be confused with the fictional site. "A little tiny town of about 300," Mr. Nolan says of the Alaskan community. "It doesn't bear any resemblance to our place. But the original screenwriter, Hillary Seitz, knew of it and borrowed the name."

The British Columbia town of Squamish, , about 40 miles from the film's production base in Vancouver, serves as Nightmute in "Insomnia." A logging town called Unkumuit in the movie is really Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. The movie ends at a lake not far from Stewart, a Canadian hamlet near the Alaska border.

Valdez, Alaska, is visible in the opening sequence, which emphasizes aerial vistas of the Columbia Glacier.

"There's tons of Alaska there," Mr. Nolan says during a phone interview while in New York. "I tried to blend it in such a way that I could do a lot of scene-setting up in Alaska but not have to drag my actors up there. We did take them to some pretty remote places in the north of British Columbia. I did a lot of aerial photography and driving shots in the Valdez area. When it came to the principal shooting, we tweaked the schedule so that in the early weeks the early spring of last year we did a lot of stuff onstage.

"As the days lengthened, we took advantage of the light more and more and shifted to the exterior scenes. It reached a point when we were right up on the border between British Columbia and Alaska, very far north, in June. By that point there was a lot of light all day long, so we were approaching the midnight sun condition that becomes something of a problem for the hero."

Mr. Nolan, 31, was born in London and lived for several years in Chicago. He is the second of three brothers. The younger, Jonathan, collaborated on the screenplay of "Memento," about an amnesiac.

"Jonathan is working on a script for me right now," Christopher notes.

Nominated for Academy Awards, the brothers collected writing prizes from about a half-dozen critical organizations during the winter awards season for "Memento." Filmed in Los Angeles but under the radar of all the major studios, "Memento" had been rejected as an acquisition by the name distributors, typically because it looked "too smart" to market.

The originality of "Memento" made it a bit surprising that Christopher Nolan turned to a remake for his next feature. The prototype for "Insomnia" is a 1997 Norwegian crime melodrama of the same name. The pretext is identical: Stellan Skarsgard was cast as an ill-fated, sleep-deprived homicide detective from Oslo on loan to a small-town police force in the far north. Mr. Nolan has transformed the original, which will be shown in midnight screenings this weekend at Visions Cinema in the Dupont Circle area, into something distinctive in a North American setting and Hollywood tradition.

An avid amateur filmmaker from boyhood, Mr. Nolan made his feature debut in 1998 with a shoestring mystery thriller titled "Following." It was shot in London, with the director doubling as his own cameraman. "Following" attracted immediate attention to Mr. Nolan on the festival circuit and was booked at Visions Cinema in the wake of the "Memento" rage.

The American remake rights to "Insomnia" had been purchased by a producing team working under the auspices of Warner Bros. Commissioned to transpose the screenplay, Miss Seitz spent a year in Alaska soaking up background. She completed a final draft by the time "Memento" put Christopher Nolan on the inside track as a potential director of the remake.

"I sort of kept an eye on it," Mr. Nolan says, in reference to the Seitz rewrite. "After 'Memento' I took a close look at what she'd written. It did a lot of the things I had imagined: in particular, recasting the movie, if you like, with a different set of characters, and then taking similar narrative situations from a different angle. We worked on a couple of drafts together. Then we went in search of our star."

Mr. Pacino was the obvious choice to Mr. Nolan. "We wanted to create an iconic cop figure at the heart of the movie to draw the audience into a moral dilemma. That would provide us with the pivotal difference from the original," he says. "We've added a redemptive dimension to Dormer that's deliberately old-fashioned and more in keeping with a morality tale. I think it was essential to achieving the fatalistic arc I was after. It's a question, for me, of finding a familiar rhythm for the piece, so that people kind of know where things are going but not how they'll get there. We took the same plot and sort of plugged it into a different idiom. I think that allows you to create a fresh version of the kind of movies that the studios were great at making 50 years ago."

The actor was sent the script of "Insomnia" and then shown an early cut of "Memento." "He really responded to them, luckily. We met and spent several weeks in conversation about the script. I needed to make him feel comfortable that he was getting into a really productive situation," Mr. Nolan says.

The director says that there was no preproduction rehearsal period, even though Mr. Pacino is famous for loving to rehearse and Mr. Nolan shares the inclination. "I do love to rehearse, but sometimes you don't get that luxury, because of scheduling reasons," Mr. Nolan says. "Having spent a lot of time discussing the script together, Al and I had a very good grounding. We simply continued those discussions during the shoot as we went along. We took a lot of time with rehearsal and blocking on the set. That turned out to be a productive way of working, although it always causes a few nerves to jangle when you don't start shooting until a few hours into the workday. There was a freshness about working through scenes together for the first time on a new set. Ultimately, it saved time, because we could work out more clearly what needed to be done when the cameras started to roll."

He cites a moment when Mr. Pacino, questioning a surly high school youth, pulls the boy's school desk close to him very abruptly and forcefully as an excellent example of how their on-the-spot rehearsal methods worked. "It was very much a spontaneous move on Al's part," he says. "My contribution was to suggest he sit in the chair next to Jonathan Jackson, who was playing the boy. I loved the idea of seeing Al behind one of these school chairs with the desk attached. That particular setup gave him the idea. In a very early rehearsal he pulled the other desk toward him. He's got such command that he maintained the spontaneous effect of the first time for two days and numerous takes. It always looked like the first time."

Mr. Nolan acknowledges he may have a flair for setting up the details of crime scenes in an incisive way. "It's a tricky thing, but I think I'm good at it," he says. "To me it's an overall feeling about trying to be the audience as I read the script, shoot the film and finally watch the film. I'm the one person who has to think like the audience. I felt pretty confident that the complexities of clues and forensic-type evidence were presented so that there was a balance between repetitious reinforcement of some things and saying others very clearly just once. I felt we were communicating those things so that they could be easily understood.

"What was probably more troublesome and I had an enormous amount of help from Al Pacino in overcoming my trepidations was the need to communicate complex motives, from a character who can't tell anybody what he's thinking or feeling. Without words, Al had to convey his character's intentions and internal dilemmas. He does that so effectively that people aren't even aware of it. They feel the appropriate things, and that's due to his extraordinary ability to project a moral intelligence."

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