No one can predict the future. But it is possible to observe a new artist’s incredible debut project and predict the arc of their career. From Rob Reiner (This Is Spinal Tap) to Rian Johnson (Brick) to Greta Gerwig (Ladybird), certain directors are undeniably brilliant from the very start and just keep getting better as they go. But in the year 2000, one person set a new high bar for the directorial debut.
That director was Christopher Nolan, and the movie was (of course) Memento, which arrived in theaters in September 2000 — despite the best efforts of pretty much the entire movie industry. In the decades that followed, Nolan redefined both the superhero and science fiction genres with his unique approach to tentpole filmmaking. But with his latest film, Oppenheimer, the director is coming full circle with an updated take on the revenge-soaked thriller that started it all.
The premise of Memento is both brilliantly simple and almost impossible to explain. The movie stars Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, a man suffering from short-term memory loss. Leonard is trying to find the man who murdered his wife, but because he can’t form any new memories, his only hope is to follow a set of clues he leaves behind for himself via Polaroid photos, scribbled notes, and tattoos on his body.
To emphasize Leonard’s disorienting condition, Memento plays out backward as a series of scenes unfurl in reverse chronological order. These are intercut with a black-and-white sequence (a trick that Nolan repeats in Oppenheimer). Explaining any more of the plot is probably an excercise in futility — and also a spoiler — but suffice to say the movie builds to a towering climax that will leave you reeling in shock and immedeatly ready for a rewatch.
For Nolan, that last bit is kind of the point.
“I’m interested in making films to watch them a second time, and hopefully you’ll be interested to watch a second time,” Nolan told IndieWire in a 2014 interview. “You don’t see how it’s stuck together; it actually can sustain that scrutiny and become something a little bit different when you see it again.”
The idea for Memento came during a long drive. While making the trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, Christopher Nolan’s brother Jonathan shared the concept. He was already writing it as a short story, but Chris decided to turn the idea into a script.
Until then, Nolan’s only movie was Following, an indie short (just barely over an hour) with an unknown cast. But based on the strength of his new script, the writer-director was able to assemble an impressive team. Brad Pitt was originally set to play the lead role, but his busy schedule got in the way. So Nolan went with Guy Pearce.
Next came Carrie-Anne Moss (cast off the strength of her performance in The Matrix) as the female lead. Finally, Moss recommended her Matrix co-star Joe Pantoliano as a mysterious character claiming to help Leonard in his quest.
Once the film was finished, finding a distributor proved particularly challenging. Memento’s dark and complex story was a turnoff for all the biggest studios, who praised it behind closed doors but didn’t think audiences would be interested. Steven Soderbergh eventually caught a screening and started promoting the film, but even that wasn’t enough. Finally, indie production company Newmarket decided to take a huge risk and distribute Memento on its own.
To promote the film, Christopher Nolan edited the trailers himself, while brother Jonathan designed a website full of newspaper clippings and other clues. They even mailed out bloody Polaroids to unsuspecting moviegoers to build hype.
Unsurprisingly, Memento was a huge hit. It earned $25 million at the U.S. box office on a budget of less than $10 million. And don’t forget, this was in the days when a cult hit like Memento could make a fortune in the DVD market. (The British DVD even includes a special feature that lets you watch the movie in chronological order.)
Christopher Nolan went on to create his Dark Knight trilogy along with genre classics like The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar. As his career continued and his clout grew, Nolan was able to make movies on a scale unlike anyone else (or at least unlike anyone not working within an established franchise).
But none of it would have happened without Memento, the unexpected thriller that blew everyone’s mind and launched a new superstar director into the stratosphere. Now that Nolan has come full circle with Oppenheimer and its fractured narrative, one can’t help but wonder what the next era of Nolan will bring. But one thing is probably certain: It will be unlike anything we’ve seen before.