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Christopher Nolan: Deconstructing Insomnia
Welcome to THE DIRECTORS SERIES PODCAST, a show dedicated to appreciating and deconstructing the work of contemporary and classic film directors. In the show, we breakdown the careers of film directors like Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, The Coen Brothers, and Paul Thomas Anderson just to name a few. From their early works and short films to their blockbuster achievements and Oscar glory.
THE BLOCKBUSTERS BEGIN is the second chapter of THE DIRECTORS SERIES’ examination into the films and careers of director Christopher Nolan, covering his trailblazing forays into big-budget studio filmmaking. We begin with 2002’s Insomnia.
LINKS AND RESOURCES FROM THIS EPISODE
- Watch: The Directors Series on Youtube
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- Watch: Insomnia
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- Storytelling Blueprint: Hero’s Two Journeys
- The Dialogue Series: 38 hours of Lessons from Top Hollywood Screenwriters
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MEMENTO caught the eye of many established Hollywood players– most notably, actor/director George Clooney and indie iconoclast Steven Soderbergh. Their frequent collaborations together, especially as producers, cultivated a shared taste in talent, and they both saw in Nolan the perfect candidate to helm a project they had in development over at Alcon Entertainment– a remake of a Norwegian film from 1997 named INSOMNIA, about a detective investigating a grisly murder in an isolated town located so far north that the sun doesn’t set for months at a time.
Alcon’s development deal with Warner Brothers effectively meant that INSOMNIA would become Nolan’s first studio film– a testing ground to see if he really had what it took to play in the big leagues. As such, he would have to make a few concessions on the production methods he was predisposed to; namely, working from a script that was not his own.
While he would ultimately perform his own pass on credited screenwriter Hilary Seitz’s draft just prior to shooting, INSOMNIA was, more or less, a work for hire. Nevertheless, Nolan finds plenty of artistic common ground with Seitz’s prose– enough that his first big-budget effort would feel apiece with the puzzle-esque nature of his earlier work and empower him to deliver a uniquely captivating thriller on par with its Swedish counterpart.
The wet evergreen mountains of British Columbia stand-in for the majestic landscape of Alaska, where a pair of LAPD detectives have been sent in to investigate the murder of a young local girl.
Nolan’s successful collaboration with the likes of Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss, and Joe Pantoliano in MEMENTO begets here a cast with a higher industry profile and a sterling pedigree. Indeed, INSOMNIA begins Nolan’s enviable habit of attracting award-winning talent, boasting no less than three Oscar winners among its ensemble. Al Pacino headlines the film as Detective Will Dormer, a driven yet compromised cop besieged by an internal affairs investigation back home.
Pacino plays the part liked a subdued, run-ragged version of his character from Michael Mann’s HEAT– an aspect that no doubt wasn’t lost on Nolan, a self-styled disciple of Mann’s. A big-city cop in a small frontier town, Dormer is literally and figuratively adrift in a mental fog, isolated from any semblance of familiar surroundings and lost in a perpetual state of exhaustion thanks to a winter sun that never sets and refuses to let him sleep.
To further complicate matters, his inability to think coherently leads to the tragic accidental killing of his own partner during a raid on the suspected killer’s hideout. The local Nightmute police investigate the circumstances of the accident, led by the doggedly determined and fiercely insightful Ellie Burr. Hilary Swank imbues the character with a palpable sense of independence cultivated by a life lived on the outermost boundaries of civilization; the alpha to Nicky Katt’s beta– a fellow Nightmute police officer with a wispy mustache named Fred Duggar.
Meanwhile, Dormer pursues his suspect, a local crime novelist named Walter Finch. Played to chilling effect by the late Robin Williams in one of his rare serious turns, Finch uses his occupational insights into the law enforcement profession to become a formidable and unpredictable adversary to Dormer.
He’s a killer, yes, but he’s not barbaric– Williams projects the same warm sense of paternal authority he had in Gus Van Sant’s GOOD WILL HUNTING, albeit turned on its ear to emphasize its innately creepy undertones. Finch differs from other murder-thriller heavies in that his guilt is never in question– he admits his deed to Dormer openly and without shame as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Williams’ performance is the standout of the film and, in light of his recent passing, stands as a somber reminder of the great talent we lost far too soon.
INSOMNIA is arguably Nolan’s most overlooked major work, but the impeccable quality of its craft lets it stand toe to toe with his best efforts. It certainly helps that the lush, pristine Alaskan wilderness provides a stunning and majestic backdrop entirely unique within the larger canon of crime thrillers. The production values afforded by studio backing amplifies the scope of Nolan’s stylistic choices, which begin to coagulate here into an identifiable aesthetic.
He brings back MEMENTO’s cinematographer, Wally Pfister, in the second of what would be many more subsequent collaborations; filling the 2.35:1 35mm film frame with sweeping panoramas and earthy texture. Working in conjunction with production designer Nathan Crowley, who would also become a key collaborator in Nolan’s filmography, they cultivate a distinct color palette comprised of stark whites, blacks, and earth tones– with the surrounding evergreens, in particular, evoking that particular blue-green color characteristic of the lush Pacific Northwest. Warm colors are typically avoided, concentrated mostly within the interior hotel sequences to convey a cozy, hearth-like atmosphere.
The overall effect is one of majestic beauty pervaded by gloom and unease, especially so when a heavy fog envelopes Dormer during the pivotal raid sequence. Nolan’s camerawork here is much more ambitious, perhaps even a little incongruous considering the staggering sense of scope he imposes on what’s otherwise a relatively grounded story. His films frequently employ lofty aerials, and INSOMNIA marks the point in which Nolan’s camera finally takes flight, soaring through the dramatic vistas via a combination of helicopter mounts and cranes.
On the ground, Nolan alternates between handheld camerawork and classical dolly moves, making full use of his new toys to convey an epic scope as well as the unique cultural character of his setting. Editor Dody Dorn and composer David Julyan round out Nolan’s returning crew, with Dorn’s expressionistic approach reprising MEMENTO’s quick-cutting technique as a means to jar the protagonist’s thoughts with flashes of violence, while Julyan’s last collaboration with Nolan moves away from the electronic nature of their earlier work to embrace a big-budget orchestral sound reminiscent of a brooding Hitchcock film.
INSOMNIA may not have initially sprung from Nolan’s mind, but his artistic character permeates every aspect of the film. As previously noted, Michael Mann is a key influence on Nolan’s aesthetic, and INSOMNIA allows the burgeoning director to play in his idol’s wheelhouse. Aside from the shared casting of Pacino in a similar character archetype used by Mann, Nolan also evokes his spirit in the detailed and tactical accuracy imposed on even the most minute aspects of police work.
For all his virtues as a man of justice, Dormer is also profoundly corrupt; he plants evidence to justify his own version of events and even goes so far as to cover up his role in the accidental killing of his own partner. Nolan’s interest lies in Dormer’s struggle to achieve his objectives without sabotaging himself, continuing the tradition he established in both FOLLOWING and MEMENTO where the fundamentally-compromised nature of his protagonists allows him to better access the psychological underpinnings of their actions.
The twisting nature of INSOMNIA’s plot also evokes the revelatory, puzzle-like character of Nolan’s storytelling, which allows him to turn time itself into a compelling narrative and structural device. Perhaps rightfully so for his first mainstream Hollywood film, INSOMNIA is the first of Nolan’s features to unspool in linear, chronological order. Nevertheless, time still plays an important factor in the drama– by setting the story in a place where the sun doesn’t set for months at a time, the circadian day-to-night rhythm is utterly disrupted.
In other words, Dormer is literally removed from the dimension of time itself. This wreaks havoc on his ability to function, which, in a profession that’s entirely dependent on clear-eyed critical thinking and razor-sharp reflexes, becomes a formidable antagonist in and of itself. Just like he did for the home video releases of FOLLOWING and MEMENTO, Nolan would also assemble an alternate, apocryphal cut of INSOMNIA– rearranging his scenes in the order that they were shot and overlaying his commentary.
Unlike those prior alternate cuts, however, the narrative and logical cohesion of the story completely falls apart in this particular version of INSOMNIA. Thankfully, clarity isn’t Nolan’s purpose here– rather, this version marries its disjointed order with his astute commentary to provide a unique glimpse into the day-by-day challenges of mounting his first big studio effort.
The commentary also yields intriguing insights into his personal growth as a filmmaker. If his increasing directorial confidence wasn’t palpable enough in the film itself, he reveals that, during the shoot, he didn’t use crucial preparation tools like storyboards, shot lists, or video monitors. Instead, he let the choices of his actors organically block the scene for him, which he’d then think up coverage for on the fly while he stood by the camera and watched their performances directly instead of behind a screen.
Indeed, these techniques require an astonishingly high degree of confidence to embrace, and aren’t typical of a director on only his third feature… but yet, there he was, pulling it off quite effortlessly. That gamble of confidence paid off when INSOMNIA debuted in May of 2002 to critical and financial success as one of those rarest of remakes that managed to match, if not transcend, its original material. Roger Ebert perhaps summed up the sentiment best in his review, hailing it not as “a pale retread, but a re-examination of the material, like a new production of a good play”.
INSOMNIA may have been easily and overwhelmingly eclipsed by anything Nolan’s made since, but it’s nonetheless a strong and notable addition to his canon– and an important one, too, as it would serve as an audition for his next high-profile film, setting the stage for the crowning achievement of his career thus far.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics, and Indiewire.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. You can donate to support the project at Patreon.
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