Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Memento (Nolan Theme Week)

This is Nolan Theme Week, where we'll be breaking down Christopher Nolan's five most popular writing-directing efforts in hopes of learning something about how he crafts a story.  Monday Roger reviewed The Dark Knight.  Tuesday I took on Batman Begins.  Yesterday was The Prestige, which surprisingly has garnered some of the more heated talkback, and today I'm reviewing the film that put Nolan on the map, Memento.

Genre: Revenge/Noir
Premise: (from IMDB) A man, suffering from short-term memory loss, uses notes and tattoos to hunt for the man he thinks killed his wife.
About: Memento was Nolan’s second feature film and first large scale production. The inventive story and stylistic directing backpedaled Nolan onto the scene, making him one of the hottest directors of the time. The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar but lost out to Gosford Park. The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance but lost out to…The Believer.  Boy, the judges sure got that one right (if you can't see me, I'm rolling my eyes right now). Asked if he was ever worried whether the strange structure of his film would play to an audience, Nolan replied, “There’s this weird irony, because you actually find yourself as a filmmaker in the position of the protagonist that has to trust these notes he’s written himself. It sounds a bit trite, but it’s really true. I watch the screen and think, okay I read the script three years ago and it seemed like a good idea at the time. But it’s like you really are, at a certain point, you’re so immersed in the material. You’re just having to trust yourself. You have so many points along the way where the film stops being real and you just have to say: this is what I’m making, this is what I’m doing and switch that half of your brain off and absolutely trust your initial instincts, your editor, your actor’s instincts and your own instincts about whether you’re getting what you want. The weird thing is you go through these torturous creative machinations and then you look back at the original script and it’s pretty, pretty close to what’s on the screen. It’s almost exactly the same. You say, “Thank God, how did that wind up like that?”
Writer: Christopher Nolan (based on his brother, Jonathan Nolan’s, short story, “Memento Man.”)
Details: 139 pages

It’s been nearly ten years since I watched Memento. It was a different time. I looked at movies a different way. And all I could remember was that I kinda liked it but wasn’t too fond of the ending, probably because I didn’t understand it. Figuring the law of diminishing returns would be at play here, I anticipated a ho-hum encore presentation.

Boy was I wrong.

This movie nearly blew me away. So inspired was I by this film that I actually spent 20 minutes devising a way to write my review backwards. I made it about three sentences but still, just the fact that I was willing to try says something! Yesterday I said that The Prestige was my favorite of Nolan’s films. I might have to change that after watching Memento.

Memento follows a man named Leonard Shelby who has a unique illness whereby he can’t form short-term memories. His last memory is walking in on a man raping and killing his wife. He was hit on the head, fell to the floor, and passed out. When he awoke, he was afflicted with this problem.

Leornard has dedicated his life to finding and killing this man, who goes by the mysterious moniker of “John G.”  Because he can't remember the pieces of his investigation, however, the only way he can keep track of his progress is through body tattoos and notes to himself. 

The film is told backwards, from the moment Leonard murders John G. all the way to the “beginning” of his investigation, when it started. Along the way, we learn not only how difficult this process is for him, but how the people who are supposedly helping him may not have his best interests in mind. It leads to a mystery deeper than the murder we witnessed at the outset. Did Leonard kill the right guy?

Well what do you know? How do we start off Memento? I’ll give you three guesses. Memento starts exactly like the rest of Nolan’s films – with a divided narrative jumping between three incoherent timelines. Once again, Nolan proves that a key trick to capturing the audience’s attention is to confuse and challenge them, forcing them to focus in or be left behind.

The first thread shows Leonard killing John G., but in reverse. We then cut to a hotel room in black and white where Leonard is mumbling to himself in voice over, trying to figure out what he’s doing there. We then cut to what we’ll eventually learn is our central storyline, Leonard’s pursuit of the killer.

Judging by what I’ve read from Nolan this week, writing this script must have been an orgasmic experience for him. Unlike his other films, where the cross-cutting eventually dies down, leading to a traditional easy-to-follow narrative, in this film he gets to play with time and confuse the audience all the way up to the end. And it works. I can’t remember the last time I was still guessing what the hell was going to happen this late in a film. And I’d already seen the movie!

But I think the reason every aspiring screenwriter needs to see this movie, or at least be aware of it, has nothing to do with the actual script, but rather with the concept. Memento takes a tired premise and turns it on its head. Go back and read that sentence again because knowing it could be the difference between you making it as a screenwriter or not.

I’d say that 99.99% of the writers out there either give you the same old thing or a slightly different version of the same old thing. And if you’re a great writer, you may be able to get away with that. But to really get noticed, especially if you’re not connected, turning a tired "been there done that" premise or genre on its head is the fastest way to rise above everyone else.  I’ve read a million procedurals. I can usually tell you who the killer is by page 30 and I know every beat you’re going to hit ten pages before you hit it. But if you give me a script where the procedural is done backwards?? I’m lost. I have no frame of reference. Every scene I read is going to feel like I’m reading something for the first time. That’s what Memento did. That’s why Christopher Nolan was noticed. That’s why he was able to go on and make Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and Inception. Had he merely told a straight forward procedural-revenge film with a few stylistic flourishes, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t be talking about him right now.

I think another thing that separates Nolan from his competitors though, is that he wasn’t satisfied with the concept alone. He really sat down and thought about it. He tried to figure out what living a life like this would really be like. The result of that research can be seen in numerous little moments. In bed, when Leonard’s sitting there, thinking about how his situation makes it impossible for him to ever get past the grieving process, because his last memory is and will always be of his wife dying. I mean that’s some hardcore deep shit there.

Or the fact that it doesn’t matter if he ever gets revenge or not, since it will be impossible for him to remember it.

Another great flourish are the scenes in between the scenes. Whenever you do something different, you’re forced to make up some new rules because there’s no blueprint to draw upon. Nolan adds these black and white hotel scenes between the main narrative because he knows jumping backwards directly after a scene would be too jarring. This creates a rhythm by which the backwards storyline actually feels smooth and digestible. A unique challenge.  A unique solution.

But what I love about Nolan is that he doesn’t just rest on this device. He knows that if we’re jumping back into this room a dozen times during the film and nothing’s really happening, we’re going to get bored. So he uses the black and white scenes to tell the story of Sammy Jenkins, a man who had the same brain condition Leonard did. This way, when we get to these scenes, we’re not just waiting for them to end, we’re eager to find out what’s happening in Sammy Jenkins’ storyline. On top of that, he’s also using these scenes to give the audience exposition on Leonard’s complicated condition. In retrospect, it’s surprising how cleverly he slips this exposition in, considering how sloppily he adds it five films later, in Inception.

Not to be lost in all this are some of the simpler touches Nolan made that dramatically affected the script, such as making sure Leonard was a sympathetic character. Having this disability makes him an underdog, and the audience always ALWAYS loves an underdog! When you tack onto this that he’s avenging the rape-murder of his wife, I mean who’s not going to root for this guy?

My only real problem with Memento is that the ending is still confusing to me (spoilers). I love what Nolan is going for here with Teddy using Leonard to kill in multiple towns to make money, but I’m not sure it makes sense when you really start to think about it. It seems like Teddy’s only use for Leonard is to kill the drug dealers so he never actually murders anyone. That way if they get caught, it’s Leonard who’s the murderer, not him. But I think it would be pretty clear in court that he was tricking Leonard into performing the murders, making him a murderer as well. So if he’s a murderer anyway, why not just perform the murders himself?

Also, the way that the black and white storyline turns into the main storyline at the end so that we’re now right back at the beginning of the movie (or the end) definitely hurts my brain whenever I think about it. Even now, as I try to lock down the time frame, I can’t quite do it, and that makes me feel like I missed something.

But hey, that’s what’s makes this writer-director so popular. He likes to make you think. And this is his most thoughtful film. Memento is different and challenging and fun. A great film that every screenwriter should watch.

Script link: Memento

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Having someone take advantage of your character creates sympathy for your character. Nobody likes to see anyone get taken advantage of. It’s sort of the adult version of bullying. And whenever we see our hero get bullied, we develop a bond with them.  We get a feeling of, "We're in this together now."  Now lots of people take advantage of Leonard in this movie, but the most obvious is Carrie-Anne Moss. Her scene where she pretends to have just been beaten up by her drug dealer to take advantage of Leonard's condition is easily one of the most memorable scenes from any movie that year. Not coincidentally, it's the moment where we connect with Leonard the most.