Were the secrets of Memento unlocked when Georgetown alumnus Jonah Nolan (CAS ‘98) spoke to students this Tuesday evening? The answer is no … or is it yes? Or rather, maybe there just aren’t any solid answers when one tackles such difficult subjects as forgiveness, revenge, the mercurial nature of memory and the possibility of a world in which the passage of time is removed. It’s even harder when you try to tackle them backwards. Nolan, author of the short story on which the film was based, addressed these questions before an auditorium full of art-house film lovers, aspiring indie directors and people who wanted to know if that stray hair on the lens in frame 12 of scene three was intentional and, if so, just what it represented.
Nolan came to Georgetown in 1994 as an SFS student aspiring to become a spy. After two years of study, he decided to take some time off and traveled to New Zealand where he worked as a cowboy on a farm owned by relatives and spent a good deal of time reading. While there, Nolan first read Moby Dick. “I had the feeling it would be my favorite book, just as soon as I could get around to reading it,” he said of Melville’s classic. The novel caused him to start thinking about revenge (a very American theme, Nolan claimed), as well as its motives and consequences. Later, he would tour the country by motorcycle, staying in one anonymous motel room after another. Such isolation proved to be the genesis for the story that was to become “Memento Mori,” said Nolan.
Returning to Georgetown in 1997, Nolan transferred to the College and took a more varied range of classes, from psychology to screenwriting, before ultimately graduating as an English major two years later. In writing “Memento Mori,” he drew on his varied experience as a student at Georgetown, particularly the influence of his screenwriting teacher, Professor John Glavin (John G. for those of you paying attention), in addition to his time spent traveling through New Zealand and Europe.
When talking about the film Memento and the filmmaking process, Nolan readily admits that he has had an easy ride from beginning to end. Having a filmmaker in the family helped a great deal, but so too did having an original idea to work with. While the two brothers collaborated on many aspects of the film’s screenplay, it was his brother Chris who took Nolan’s already novel idea and added the hook of telling the story backwards, leading up to the film’s twist end (or beginning).
It was a bit more difficult to find a studio willing to back and release a film which Nolan describes as having “the complexity of a novel that was meant to challenge the audience and make them complicit in the film.” Thought to be too challenging for widespread theatrical release in the United States by most distributors, it was a vindication for the brothers Nolan that the film was an overall success, proving that audiences were interested in more challenging and thought-provoking films. The author tied his experiences in making the film Memento to his overall message to the aspiring young students to Georgetown: Nothing is impossible with talent, hard-work and persistence. Now trying to follow-up the massive success of the story and film, Nolan is currently working on a screenplay for a film adaptation of the book The Prestige, as well as a possible novel of his own.
Despite wrinting and directing a fairly sophisticated film, Nolan himself is neither, often glibly referring to his film’s producers as “money people.” Clever, straightforward and humble, Nolan spoke for more than an hour and a half, the bulk spent on answering questions from inqusitive students. Overall, it was a delightful evening for all involved, even if we still don’t know exactly what that hair on the lens represents.