Elegant Nightmares

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If Christopher Nolan weren't a movie director, he could be a Ralph Lauren ad. Tall, blond and civilized, he sits in a rocking chair in his living room politely answering questions in a soft British accent. But give Nolan a camera, and he goes straight for the most disturbed characters he can find. Last year he reinvented film noir with Memento, a low-budget story that he wrote and directed about an amnesia victim searching for his wife's killer. It started at the end and worked back toward the beginning, while the protagonist tattooed clues on his body. After Nolan weathered rejections from all the big studios, the $4.5 million thriller became a critically acclaimed hit, and Nolan got an Oscar nomination for his screenplay.

His new film, Insomnia, which releases in Australasia Sept. 5, is more conventional than Memento (it starts at the beginning, for one thing) but just as unsettling. It stars Al Pacino as a morally dubious Los Angeles cop who is exiled to Alaska to solve a murder and Robin Williams as the killer. "To me, the whole film is like a nightmare," says Nolan, 31, smiling as he gently rocks to and fro, "some awful waking dream."

Nolan is part of a brave new Hollywood experiment: handing artistically minded directors big budgets and big stars. Gambling on Sam Raimi's character-driven approach to Spider-Man produced a spectacular hit; stage director Sam Mendes scored big with American Beauty and leads Tom Hanks and Paul Newman down the Road to Perdition in October. The formula has risks as well: Doug Liman (Swingers) had a stormy tenure as director of The Bourne Identity, the Matt Damon spy thriller.

Nolan, who says he wants to shake up the linear traditions of film, wakes up a tired genre with Insomnia. When Pacino shoots his partner, the director's subtle touches leave the audience wondering whether the cop did it on purpose. The same scene appears slightly different each time it is viewed in flashback. "I tend to have quite a fractured mise-en-sc?ne, to use a phrase I don't really understand," says Nolan, who was born in England, studied at University College London and developed his taste for the shady side from American film noir.

It was this interest in off-kilter characters that led him to the original Insomnia, a 1997 Norwegian film. When he found out Warner Bros. was planning a remake, he applied for the job. The producers wanted a more established director, but they came around after a private prerelease screening of Memento. Steven Soderbergh, a Nolan fan, signed on as an executive producer. Although Insomnia's budget was 10 times Memento's, says Soderbergh, "I felt the odds of making a distinctive film would be increased if they hired somebody young and hungry."

There are two kinds of directors in Hollywood: despots and doting parents. Despite his focus on the darker corners of the human psyche, Nolan is shaping up as one of the latter. "He's so calm," says Hilary Swank, who plays Insomnia's idealistic local detective, "and really aware of people's safety. In the scene where I get punched by Robin, Chris made sure it was all worked out and rehearsed, and we did just three takes. Usually directors want 20 to make sure they sell the punch."

Nolan had three leads with wildly different styles of working. Pacino required rigorous rehearsals, long conversations about character, and numerous takes; Williams wanted many takes but minimal rehearsal; and Swank preferred to do simply a few takes and save her energy. Nolan's solution was to let Pacino and Williams experiment as much as they wanted while they worked alone. "The best actors," says Nolan, "instinctively feel out what the other actors need, and they just accommodate it."

Williams, who has played more than his fair share of sentimental heroes, gives a reserved, surprisingly creepy performance as the hack novelist turned murderer. Says he: "Is it stunt casting? Maybe, but it puts people off guard, and Chris Nolan has this amazing sense, visually and dramatically, of always keeping the audience off guard."

Nolan lives in Los Angeles with his wife (and producing partner) Emma Thomas and their infant daughter. He's writing his next project, a biopic of Howard Hughes, with Jim Carrey as the reclusive billionaire. "It's about the extremes to which one man can live-the glamour, the wealth, then the claustrophobic unhappiness," says Nolan with the most benign smile possible.

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