Jonathan Nolan On Writing The Prestige
The screenwriter discusses adapting Christopher Priest's book, working with his brother, and writing The Dark Knight
Like his brother Christopher, Jonathan Nolan has affected cinema in a profound way in a very short period of time. His short story Memento Mori eventually became the film "Memento" which single-handedly changed the way a movie could not only be presented, but watched as well. His is currently working on the highly anticipated "Batman Begins" sequel The Dark Knight. However, it is his work on brother Christopher's most recent film, The Prestige that is currently garnering him his recent round of acclaim.
The Prestige is a twisting turning tale of urgent mystery, as two Victorian-era magicians spark a powerful rivalry that builds into an escalating battle of tricks and an unquenchable thirst to uncover the other's trade secrets. As these two remarkable men pit daring against desire, showmanship against science and ambition against friendship, the results are dangerous, deadly and definitely deceptive.
Are you the first one to come across the priest novel, your impressions of the Priest novel and how much work did it take to I guess re-shape into your vision?
Jonathan Nolan: It was a hell of a lot of work. Our producer Valerie Dean sent Chris the book in 99 or 2000. Then Chris told me about it probably the end of fall in 2000 we were in England doing publicity for Memento which came out in the UK first. We were taking a long walk and he told me about this book that he had been sent that really kinda stuck with him. They send you a lot of stuff, most of it isn't a good fit, this book just seemed sort of tailor made for our sensibilities and what we were interested in, but it proved to be.
So right from the beginning Chris just sort of pitched me the book as a story. Before I read the book I'd had this sort of...You know when your trying to tell someone about this book that you've just read you tend to re-shuffle a narrative in order to explain it. Somethings work better as a book, somethings work better as a story, somethings works better as a film. So that was quite useful because it meant that before I even read the book I had a pretty good idea of the component pieces of the story. The adaptation was the first adaptation that I had ever done. It was a real challenge, I kept waiting for them to send me the rule book you know "heres how you adapt to a book", it never came. After a couple of weeks I gave up and figured out you just sorta have to get on with it.
At least in the case with this book, the first step was you read it. There's so many fantastic ideas in that book, the first thing you have to do is through everything out because there is no way you can fit it all into a movie. Then the process seems to work as building blocks, you know, ideas would seem to creep their way back in. Then after I did my draft, Chris would come in and start re-writing and even in the first few weeks before production a couple of pieces from the book would make their way back in to the film. So hopefully by the end of the day, people who enjoy the book are going to enjoy the film too. Or at least find a commonality in the tone and kind of atmosphere in the two things.
Did you ever think about not having the Tesla machine work and that there was another way that he....a real way? Cause I was thinking he would use a double and drown him...
Jonathan Nolan: It feels fundamental to the book and one of the challenges of the additation was, and one of the reasons why the narrative has the structure that it does, one of the reasons is that you need to let the audience know as quickly as possible that we're gonna go there. We're gonna go into...not exactly what you would call it supernatural, but more 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 Nicolas Tesla I mean the man is absolutely fascinating. Based on the research I did, I'm quite convinced that the experiments we were doing in Colorado Springs were...the thing, the guide that we do in the film with the light bulbs in this sort of remote transmission of electricity through the ground and depending on who's accounts you read....he really did that. And really was....and I'm not a conspiracy theorist but he really was opening up Pandora's box that they sort of made him close.
I think it's interesting when your do encounter a character like that because he is one of those in that age of invention, he's one of those characters who has gotten shunned to the side, I mean electrical engineers know his name. But, but...
Jonathan Nolan: But a few other people and hopefully 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 the museum had been stolen and is 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 is a tragic quality to his character where they really um...society doesn't know what to do with people like that, and hopefully we sort of got to the essence of that in the film.
I'm guessing society also doesn't want to see a scientific hero being torn apart for having thugs go out and....
Jonathan Nolan: Ya Edison is a real....a...the more research you do on Tesla, the less you like Edison. You really do, you realize that there's a lot of....again this is what I was most impressed with, the more research I did the more I realized how carefully Christopher Priest had chosen the characters who appear in his novel. That the Tesla/Edison rivalry has a lot of similarities with the rivalry between the magicians and the piece Edison used all manner of PR tricks including...you can find footage online of a this PR heck that a Edison hired to go to State fairs to electrocute elephants with alternating current generators just to prove how dangerous AC was, I mean these guys did some wild, wild things...and of course Edison lost, ultimately DC was, his system was you know, use it in your car but not to many other places. AC is the thing that electrified the world, Tesla's system was correct, but Tesla lost the PR battle and you suddenly realize how important that is.
In getting into the world of the novel and creating/adapting to the screen one of the things that had to be opened up to you was the world of magicians and they are very secretive. How did you get them to, and what did you get them to reveal in your research?
Jonathan Nolan: Well the easiest way to do that is to hire them, chuckle. So Ricky Jay and his engineer and business partner work on the film and those guys are fantastic, but will only let you know as much as you need to know. What was great is again, the book that proved to be such a valuable resource. I tend to think of research as being helpful only to a point, and if you tend to do to much it makes you think that there are rules...you know, it tends to get in the way of the imagination. I did just enough research to realize just how much research Priest had put into his book. One of the important things he stresses in the book is that there is only a handful of basic techniques that go into every illusion.
Once your familiar with these and you watch magic, and I've watched a lot of magic in the last couple of years. You can begin to break apart how almost any illusion works. And then your just left being impressed by the skill of the performer. Thats really what it comes down to, these things are actually...and the movie makes pains trying to make this point...you don't want to know the secrets because their invariably disappointing, you know what's impressive is the skill of the performance. Thats kinda rich thinatically or it feels rich thinatically to me and it was born out by all the research that I did.
Skill and personality right?
Jonathan Nolan: Ya the skill, the presentation, this is the sort of skism between the two characters in the film, Christian Bale's character understands intuitively the gimmick behind a trick, the gimmick in a sense that the actual mechanism by which the trick would work. So he's the sort of servaunt, he's the guy who can understand...thats very important. And then Hugh Jackman's character is the showman, he understands that just to have that innovation isn't enough, you've got to sell it to the audience.
What do you think makes the partnership between you and your brother work when you collaborate on projects assuming there's no bitter sibling rivalry and you don't cry when he re-writes your script...chuckle.
Jonathan Nolan: Well I do cry when he re-writes 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 I is that because we grew up in different countries and different backgrounds, very different backgrounds...there aren't really any markers there for what you'd need to develop a sibling rivalry, you know. I took the SAT's, he took A levels, he played different sports to the ones I played...there wasn't really any point of comparison. So we have a pretty straight forward relationship, not a lot of ego involved. He's always wanted to be a film maker, I've always wanted to be a writer. So the two roles seems pretty complimentary. But one of the nice things is we have similar minds, very different backgrounds. So its almost like I have sort of a cloned version of myself who was raised in a different country and interested in different things. The material often I think, tends to benefit from that back and forth you know...I'll come up with a script that's complicated, I'll give it to him and it comes back twice as complicated.
Is that how the collaboration with the The Dark Knight is going? Because you weren't there for the first one right?
Jonathan Nolan: I worked on that film for a long time, but more of an assistant or consultant or whatever you want to call it. On this one I wrote the first draft, David Courier and Chris came up with this awesome story that I was able to do the first draft on. Chris is now doing re-writes and I hope to get back a...back on that picture in a few weeks here. Those are really fun movies to work on.
The Prestige opens nationwide on October 20 from Touchstone Pictures and Warner Bros.