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Friday, May 24, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movies

'Memento' director twists time again

Seattle Times movie critic

In all three of his films, Christopher Nolan has played with time. In "Memento," the young director's Oscar-nominated breakthrough hit last year, the story is told backward, as if time could be cut into slices and rearranged. His earlier debut, "Following," seemed to shuffle scenes like cards.

His new film, "Insomnia," opening today, appears to have a more conventional time structure, but there's a twist. Al Pacino, playing a troubled detective struggling with sleeplessness while working on a case in Alaska, never seems to know what time it is — and neither do we. The sun shines as brightly at midnight as at noon, and Pacino's increasingly desperate disorientation mirrors our own.

"After doing two films that had nonchronological structures, you start to develop quite an appreciation for the efficiency and peculiar quirks of conventional film grammar," said the London-born Nolan on the phone from San Francisco. "What it does with space and time is easy to underestimate, almost invisible. I wanted to use the invisibility of it, and the way conventional film grammar compresses time, elides things, to put the audience into the head of a character who's losing the sense of time through not sleeping."

The time structure of "Insomnia" is just one of many firsts for Nolan in this film. It's his first big-studio release, featuring three Oscar winners (Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank) in the cast. "Insomnia" is also Nolan's first remake — it's based on the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name — and his first time directing a screenplay that he didn't write himself.

"It's in some ways quite liberating to work from someone else's script," said Nolan. "You're past the initial stage of neurosis about the validity of the original idea." He noted, though, that working from Hillary Seitz's screenplay brought challenges of its own. "You do then find yourself in the position of having to solve somebody else's problems to some extent. When it's your own script, you know the shortcuts you've taken."

Nolan, 31, has been making films since he was a child — his short film "Tarantella" appeared on PBS while Nolan was still in his teens. His elegant black-and-white 1998 noir "Following" attracted much attention at film festivals. But after moving to the U.S. and making "Memento," released in early 2001, Nolan suddenly became the year's hot new director. The film's twisty logic sent many moviegoers back to the art houses for a second viewing — and sent his career in a whole new direction.

The "Insomnia" remake was a project that Nolan had been eyeing for a while, after seeing the original film. "I met with Warner Bros. before I made 'Memento,' to pitch myself as a writer, but they already had one," recalls Nolan. After "Memento," he returned to Warner Bros. and was able to sign on as its director. The film was shot in several British Columbia locations last spring.

Currently, Nolan is writing a film adaptation of the life of Howard Hughes, with Jim Carrey attached to star. But, having made the leap from independent films to big studios, he's noncommittal about whether he'll stay there.

"People ask about working for a studio as opposed to independently — well, when you make an independent film you still have a dozen people in suits worrying about money. To me it's not really a question of who's the financing, but what's the size of the audience, and the type of story you're trying to tell."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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