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Christopher Nolan: The Movies. The Memories.
Part 2: Wally Pfister on Memento

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Six astonishing films. Six key collaborators. Six exclusive essays. An intimate insight into an enigmatic genius. Here’s number two of our half-dozen exclusives, Wally Pfiser on Memento as he guides us through the off-screen goings on behind the brain-bending thriller he worked on as Director Of Photography.

  • Part 1: Jeremy Theobald on Following
  • Part 2: Wally Pfister on Memento
  • Part 3: Robin Williams on Insomnia
  • Part 4: Gary Oldman on Batman Begins
  • Part 5: Hugh Jackman on The Prestige
  • Part 6: Jonathan Nolan on The Dark Knight
  • Christopher Nolan: The Movies. The Memories.

    "Memento very nearly didn’t happen for me. I was shooting a low-budget movie in Alabama during the summer of 1999 when I was sent the script by Chris, who I’d met briefly at Sundance seven months earlier (I’d been there with a film called The Hi-Line, he was there with his debut feature, Following). I was fascinated and excited by what I read. While it was bizarre — frankly I didn’t follow the structure very well - I was struck by how interesting this man Leonard Shelby’s journey was. And Sammy Jankis’ world, so horribly defined by his short-term memory loss, was eerily familiar to me, as my father had just begun to suffer from a similar form of dementia. So I made quite an emotional connection with the script. But it seemed there was no way that I’d be able to get to LA for the meeting; I was working six-day weeks! Thankfully, my agent at the time urged me to find a way, so I did: I shot all night and got the first morning flight on a Saturday and landed in LA to meet Nolan.

    "I was running on empty, but we did get along well. Even so, I was not Chris’ first choice for Director Of Photography — that was Peter Deming, who’s shot for Sam Raimi and David Lynch, but he’d made a commitment to shoot Scream 3. He is still banging his head against the wall! Anyway, I was very lucky he wasn’t available, and that I somehow impressed Chris. As I was back in Alabama soon after, shooting another 12-hour night, it would have really sucked if I hadn’t have got the job!

    "The Memento shoot was ten years ago (already?!), but I do remember my first day well. We had to film the scene where Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) talks to Leonard (Guy Pearce) in his car. We filmed it outside of a house in Pasadena, where we also shot all the material with Carrie-Ann Moss and Guy in her home. That was a very heavy workload, and Chris and I set the pace for that week. The fast pace that we set was basically essential for completing the shooting schedule of 25 days!

    "One of the highlights of those 25 days was watching the dailies in black and white on a projector at the laboratory in Burbank. I was struck by those images of Leonard tattooing himself with an ink pen in the hard white light and the various tones of gray and black on the screen. Many moments of the days spent on set stand out, but this was one of those hours after a long day of shooting that showed the result of our hard work: in glorious black-and-white film, projected on a screen in a room with the entire key crew.

    "Many critics have praised the way that Memento is such a bright ‘noir’, but it wasn’t a deliberate creative decision on my part... I probably just didn’t know how to light back then! Seriously, though, there was no plan to have things very bright, but this was affected and dictated by our environment. Most of the film was shot in Burbank, California. The light there is a bit harsh and smoggy at that time of year and that really defined the look of Memento. We nearly shot it in Canada, and that would have had an enormous effect on the look. That hazy, smoggy feel has become a part of the film’s soul.

    "The first glimpse I had of the finished product was when Nolan called me in to the cutting room to watch the opening sequence, where Joey gets his head blown off and Guy takes a Polaroid of his body, with it all running in reverse (and it was filmed in reverse, on a Panavision camera with a reversing magazine - there were no effects in post). He was very excited about it and wanted to show me. It blew my mind (pun intended) to see this vision come to fruition. The look, the feel, the pacing was extraordinary to me. I subsequently watched every single screening at the Sundance film festival the following year to gauge audience reactions. It was amazing to see the stunned looks on those faces.

    The look, the feel, the pacing was extraordinary to me.
    "Chris is now the only director I work with. It was never really a decision that I made, or will make, it has just turned out that way. The last film I did with another director was just before Batman Begins in 2003, a small independent film called Slow Burn that was a very unsatisfying experience that yielded disappointing results. I’ve just been very choosy since then — I’ve turned down many projects (including several Harry Potter films), in some cases just to be available for Chris, or to stay home with my family. I’m quite content working on TV commercials in-between.

    "Mine and Chris’ working relationship is defined, quite simply, by the great respect we have for each other. I’ve learned so much from him in terms of him pushing me to find beauty in a simpler method of photography. We’re also very like-minded, we share a sense of humor, and from the beginning I trust his judgement.

    “It really goes all the way back to Memento. That film changed my life dramatically. It was the first time I worked as a cinematographer for someone I felt really had a special gift for storytelling. His work inspired me then and continues to today. I would love to work with other directors that are as gifted, but I just don’t know any. Do you?”

    This article first appeared in issue 253 of Empire Magazine. Subscribe today.

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