Jonathan Nolan talks about scripting the Dark Knight Rises, the challenge of leaping from features to showrunning CBS’ new crime drama Person of Interest, and why being stupid can be a superpower.
Written by Shira Gotshalk
It all starts with the story, right? It certainly did for Jonathan Nolan – his story, Memento Mori, was the basis for Memento, a true indie hit film directed by his brother, Christopher. Written while still in college, Nolan headed east after graduation and landed a formative job on the set of Memento.
“My brother had put together the cast and the financing, and I said, ‘Look, I’d like to learn the ropes,’” he remembers. The only job available was a P.A., and he said, “I’ll take it.” This is where his Hollywood education began, working on set and watching the moviemaking process from inception through distribution. He went on to write and co-write the screenplays for The Prestige, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel before turning his storytelling skills to the small screen.
Person of Interest, a procedural drama flirting with science fiction, is about two mysterious characters who help stop crime before it happens. Created by Nolan and co-produced by J.J. Abrams, the action takes place in a post-9/11 world, where an immense web of security cameras and a computer program predict the identity of people who will be connected to violent crimes.
Nolan recently spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West about evolving iconic comic book characters, why he’s drawn to the dark and damaged, and why writing for TV is bananas.
Your brother was already successful when you graduated college. Did you know that you wanted to try to make it in Hollywood?
Well, “successful” [laughs] is a bit of a stretch. He had made his first film, Following. So no, it wasn’t really a thing of “Oh, I’ll just go do that.” I didn’t know better. I was too dumb to realize how much of a chance I was taking. I mean, you can definitely say the same thing about the TV business. My superpower is to be too stupid to understand the risk that I’m taking at any given moment. That kind of stupidity is very useful.
Photo: ©2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc.
Jim Caviezel and Linda Cardellini in Person of Interest.
Especially in Hollywood.
Especially in Hollywood.
You immediately jumped right into the deep end of features. What was the move like for you from film into TV?
Well, I’m hoping it’s not totally from features. I’m sort of working… I actually went over today and watched a little bit of The Dark Knight Rises, so I’m trying to do both, although that’s easier said than done. But you know, I noticed in the 12, 13 years that I’m out here working, that it’s not that movies got bad, they just got really thin, and TV got really good.
The film business has largely converged into this massive, massive tentpole picture vs. tiny, tiny indie film battleground, and they’ve largely ceded the middle. We’re not seeing the sort of drama that used to be able to make it in the $60 million range. Audiences just aren’t going to see them, but the TV business sure does know how to make exactly that kind of character-driven, taut, suspenseful kind of storytelling, and it’s become a fascinating environment to tell a story. I’ve long been jealous of the ability to tell stories about characters, build characters that you can continue deepening and changing year after year rather than just writing 120 pages.
What is your writing process like? It has to be awfully different when you’re working on a series versus a film…
Yeah, working in TV is bananas. Network television is constant, a constant… You’re constantly behind, you’re constantly trying to catch up and try to keep your head above water. And it’s a lot of fun because you don’t have time to really be precious, you know? When you’re writing on a feature, you get months and months and months and sometimes years to execute a hundred or so pages, and when you’re in TV you’ve got…
It’s staggering the amount of material that TV showrunners and TV staffs assemble in the course of shooting a season. And what’s great about it is you really get a chance to try different ideas and try different approaches, which is incredibly exciting. A movie is a one-shot deal.
I’ve been lucky enough to work in franchises. On a franchise set of films, you to get a chance to dust off characters after a year or two and see where they want to go next. That’s one of the draws for me, and it’s kind of heartbreaking to know that you're writing characters for the last time.
It’s like when you finish a book or a trilogy that you really loved, and you know you’ll never get to go on an adventure with those characters again.
Little bit, yeah, little bit. Writing is such an adventure that way, it is a little sad, a little bittersweet. So the fun thing with TV is you’ve got the opposite problem.
They never go away.
They never go away [laughs].
How many writers do you have on your staff?
I think we’re up to nine.
And what’s your writing room like?
We spend a little bit of time in a room, but then episodes are assigned to one writer. We don’t split it up and write one act per person, anything like that. The room helps break the episode into the hour-length stage, the writers go off and write the episode.
When you’re a feature writer, you really don’t have anyone to bounce your ideas off of and when you’re in TV, you’ve got, again, the opposite problem. So I was excited to be in the room. I got in the room for the first hour, and then I thought, Get me the fuck out of here! I have nothing to say! It can be an intensely stressful environment. That was just sort of the first day of it, thinking, God, I’ve got to have something to say here or something to contribute. But it’s great fun being able to collaborate. We have an amazing group of writers here. We have two rules: talented people and no assholes.
I think it’s a good philosophy for life.
It is a good philosophy for life, but then you couple it with if you can’t spot the asshole in the first five minutes, you’re probably the asshole. Sadly, I have not found the asshole, so it’s probably me. It’s just as much fun as I could have imagined it would be to collaborate with a bunch of really smart people and develop ideas in that way.
Looking at your filmography over time, it’s pretty psychological and dark. You focus on damaged people.
What’s that about?
I don’t know [laughs]. I’m uncomfortable with that question because I don’t know. I’m one of these writers who I think “Write what you know” is the least useful maxim for writers. It’s nonsense. You should write whatever you want, and I tend to write out of a more science fiction or more slightly heightened arena. Even if you go back to Memento, which was based on a short story I wrote, we used the psychological condition to create a slightly heightened reality, a way to explore reality that’s a little different. So I’ve always been drawn to that. You know, I’d like to think I have a healthy and well-adapted outlook on life. I’m a pretty happy guy [but] I do tend to be drawn to writing about characters who are a little broken.
When you are dealing with such heavy material, how do you keep it from feeling too dark?
Well, “dark” is really a funny word. It comes up fairly often. I’m almost not sure I know what it means, it’s such a natural place. A lot of times when people say dark, they mean dramatic. What I was taught about drama was you go there to raise the stakes as much as possible. What I do believe in order to get people to that, for lack of a better word, to get them to that dark place, you have to build a certain amount of levity. I spend as much time thinking about that, the lighter moments in each script. I don’t think scripts like Dark Knight or Prestige are remembered necessarily for the levity, but I certainly spent as much time worrying about the humor in the scripts and the lightness in moments. Because I actually believe the only way to get people to that darkness is if you just slip a little bit of sugar their way.
The unrelenting bleakness of some scripts ends up feeling hollow to me. It’s a little like with jumping into a pool of freezing water, all your nerves go numb after a while, you stop feeling, whereas if you’re taking people into it in steps, they’ll have that sensation. And the only way to do that is a little bit of humor, a little bit of lightness.
With iconic characters like Superman or Batman, how do you stay true to the canon of the character, yet create your own fresh story?
Actually, working on Batman is a really, really fun thing to do. You have that enormous canon, and it’s so big that – unlike something like Lord of the Rings with a more authoritative canon – so many different writers and artists and storytellers have worked on that character over the course of 70 years because of the nature of serialized comics, that you understand that you have license to do two things. One, you have license to play with the character, with some of those stories, because you have to, you can’t draw from the rote gallery of villains because the fans would be disappointed.
On the flip side, because there are so many different versions of the story, you don’t feel like you need to ask permission to try to invent something new. It’s actually creatively an incredibly fulfilling place to be. You have all sorts of wonderful stories about this character, standing on the shoulders of literally hundreds or thousands of writers who have been thinking about this character for 70 plus years. It’s a unique and incredibly satisfying experience.
That’s an interesting perspective because I would assume that creating a show with characters who are brand new, that that would be the real creative freedom.
A lot of writers find freedom in different places, and for me, it’s the diversity of experiences, different ways to write that I’m tremendously interested in. You can adapt, you can create the whole plot, you can be adapted. They’re very, very different things and as with all of these things, it’s a case of the grass is always greener.
You find yourself working on that kind of character where you don’t really have ownership of the character, you’re just the latest in a long line of custodians who are looking after that character for a couple of years. At some point, someone else will be working with those characters in the film. And that’s what you’re signing on for.
Whereas when it comes to things you’ve created yourself, the difference is, it’s all from you, it’s all this incredibly satisfying but cool but terrifying thing of, well, what have you got? You wanted to tell a story, what’s the story?
So you’ve done all of these dramatic pieces. Is there a romantic comedy lurking in you somewhere?
I thought The Prestige was a romantic comedy [laughs]. No, you know, one of the screenwriters whom I respect most, Ernie Lehman, wrote North by Northwest and The Sound of Music. It’s hard to imagine that I will get around to a musical any time soon, but the measure of a writer in many ways is their adaptability and their versatility. I’m not sure if it’s an attribute that I have, but I’d love to find out.