QUESTION: How much work did it take to reshape Christopher Priest's novel into your vision?
JONATHAN NOLAN: It's a lot of work. Our producer, Valerie Dean, sent Chris the book in '99 or 2000. And then, Chris told me about it probably in the fall of 2000. We were in England. He was doing publicity for 'Memento,' which came out in the U.K. first. We were taking a long walk, and he told me about this book that he had been sent which had stuck with him. They send you a lot of stuff, and most of it isn't a good fit. This book just seemed tailor-made for our sensibilities and what we were interested in. So, right from the beginning, Chris just pitched the book as a story. When you're trying to tell someone about this book that you have read, you tend to reshuffle a narrative in order to explain it. Some things work better as a book. Some things work better as a story. Some things work better as a film. So, that was quite useful, because it meant I had a pretty good idea of the component pieces of the story. So, the adaptation was the first adaptation I had ever done. It was a real challenge. I kept waiting for them to send me the rule book. You know - here's how you adapt a book. It never came. After a couple of weeks, I gave up and figured out you just have to get on with it. And, at least, in the case with this book, the first step was you read it. There are so many fantastic ideas in that book. The first thing you have to do is throw everything out, because there's no way you can fit it all into a movie. And then, the process seemed to work as building blocks. Ideas would creep their way back in. And then, after I did my draft and Chris got in and started rewriting, and even just in the last few weeks before production, a couple of pieces from the book would make their way back into the film. So, hopefully, at the end of the day, people who enjoy the book are going to enjoy the film, too, or at least find real commonality in the tone and the atmosphere of the two things.
QUESTION: Did you ever think about not having the Tesla machine work?
JONATHAN NOLAN: It feels fundamental to the book. One of the challenges of the adaptation, and one of the reasons why the narrative has the structure that it does, is that you need to let the audience know as quickly as possible that we're going to go there. We're going to go into -- not exactly what you call the supernatural; more like the super-scientific. The more research I did into Tesla, the more impressed I was with Christopher Priest's choices in the book for a Promethean figure. You get no finer than Nikola Tesla. The man is absolutely fascinating. The gag we do in the film with the light bulbs and the remote transmission of electricity through the ground. Depending on who's accounts you read, he really did that. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but he really was opening a Pandora's box that they made him close.
QUESTION: He is a character in history who has gotten shunted aside. Electrical engineers know his name.
JONATHAN NOLAN: … But few other people. It would be fantastic if this movie were able to help bring a little more luster back to that guy. I did a lot of research on him. I went out to Colorado Springs. Fittingly, all of his equipment that had been there in a museum was stolen. It's probably now in the hands of private collectors. He's a real cult figure. And I wound up pretty fascinated with him. They've been trying to make a Tesla film in this town for years. The problem is, there's a tragic quality to his character. Society doesn't quite know what to do with people like that. And, hopefully, we got to the essence of that in the film, at least a little bit.
QUESTION: I'm guessing society also doesn't want to see a scientific hero like Edison be criticized.
JONATHAN NOLAN: Yeah. The more research you do of Tesla, the less you like Edison. Again, this is what I was impressed with. The more research I did, the more I realized how carefully Christopher Priest had chosen the characters that appear in his novel. The Tesla-Edison rivalry has a lot of similarities with the rivalry between the magicians in the piece. Edison used all manner of P.R. tricks up; you can find footage online of this P.R. hack that Edison hired to go to state fairs and electrocute elephants using alternating current generators, just to prove how dangerous A/C was. These guys did some wild, wild things. And, of course, Edison lost. Ultimately, his system, you use it in your car, but not too many other places. A/C is the thing that electrified the world. Tesla's system was correct, but Tesla lost the P.R. battle, and now you suddenly realize how important that is.
QUESTION: In getting into the world of the novel, did you find magicians to be very secretive about their magic?
JONATHAN NOLAN: It's a very cloistered world. Yeah.
QUESTION: How did you get them to reveal some of it for the film?
JONATHAN NOLAN: Well, the easiest way to do that is to hire them. So, Ricky Jay and his ingenieur and business partner Michael Weber work on the film. Those guys are fantastic, but will only let you know as much as you need to know. What was great was, again, the book proved to be such an invaluable resource. I tend to think of research as only helpful to a point. And then, if you do too much, it tends get in the way of the imagination. I did just enough research to realize how much research Priest had put into his book. And one of the important things that he stresses in the book is there are really only a handful of basic techniques that go into every illusion. Once you're familiar with these and you've watched magic -- and I watch a lot of magic in the last couple of years -- you can begin to break apart how almost any illusion works. And then, you're just left being impressed by the skill of the performer. That's really what it comes down to. The movie takes pains to try to make this point: you don't want to know the secrets, because they're banal. You don't want to know the secrets, because they're invariably disappointing. What's impressive is the skill of the performance. So, that's rich thematically, or feels rich thematically, and it was borne out by all the research that I did.
QUESTION: The skill and personality of the performer.
JONATHAN NOLAN: Yeah. The skill, the presentation. This is the schism between the two characters in the film. Christian Bale's character understands intuitively the gimmick behind the trick -- the gimmick in the sense of the actual mechanism by which the trick would work. So, he's the savant. And that's very important. And then, Hugh Jackman is the showman. He understands that just to have that innovation isn't enough. You've got to sell it to the audience.
QUESTION: What do you think makes the partnership that you have with your brother work when you collaborate on projects, assuming that there's sibling rivalry and you don't cry when he rewrites your script?
JONATHAN NOLAN: Well, I do cry when he rewrites my script. I'm a little bigger than he is, so I can resort to threats, as well. One of the nice things about Chris and me is that because we grew up in different countries, different backgrounds, very different backgrounds, there aren't really any of the markers there that you need to develop a sibling rivalry. I took the SATs; he took A-Levels. He played different sports than the ones that I played. There wasn't really any point of comparison. So, we have a pretty straightforward relationship. There's not a lot of ego involved. He has always wanted to be a filmmaker; I've always wanted to be a writer. So, the two roles seem pretty complimentary. But one of the nice things is we have similar minds, but very different backgrounds. So, it's almost like I have a clone version of myself who was raised in a different country and is interested in different things. The material often, I think, has to benefit from that back and forth. I'll come up with a script that's complicated; I'll give it to him; it comes back twice as complicated.
QUESTION: Is that how the collaboration for the "Dark Knight Rider" is going?
JONATHAN NOLAN: I've worked on that film for a long time as more of an assistant or consultant, whatever you want to call it. On this one, I wrote the first draft. David Goyer and Chris came up with this awesome story that I was able to do the first draft on. Chris is now doing rewrites, and I hope to get back to that picture in a few weeks. Those are really fun movies to work on.
Read more about The Prestige
Read a Q & A on Christopher Nolan