Jonathan Nolan Interview, The Prestige

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

The Prestige PosterScreenwriter Jonathan Nolan sat down with Movies Online at the Los Angeles press day for “The Prestige” and talked about the challenges of adapting Christopher Priest’s novel into a film, growing up in Chicago, and the new film he’s writing about the Chicago Fire.  Jonathan is a fabulous guy and a sensational writer and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: What was the biggest challenge of adapting the novel into a film? It's a mammoth book with a lot of different ideas.

JN: Absolutely and I think that was actually a really, really big benefit. I'd never done an adaptation before and the complexity of the book, right from the beginning you knew alright I'm going to have to throw it all out and start from scratch. It sort of gave you license…the sheer wildness and density of what Christopher Priest put into the book just right from the beginning gave you license to say, ‘Well, I can't make that into a film. We're going to have to take it all out and build from the ground up and then hopefully get back to something that captures the spirit and tone of the book.’ Hopefully I think we've pulled it off. I haven't talked to many people who loved the book who hated the film yet. I mean I'm sure there are a few of them out there. I'm sure I'll hear from them, but so far so good.

Q: I've got an offbeat question here. Your [American] accent.

JN: (laughs) We're real brothers. Our folks are happily married and live in England and they just couldn't figure out where they wanted to live for 30 years. So I wound up growing up here and he wound up growing up over there. I grew up in Chicago.

Q: That sounds like a movie in itself.

JN: Well we were able to get some of that into this film which is kind of nice.

Q: How so?

JN: Well questions of…obviously there's some family thematic elements that ducktail nicely with the script. But, then also the idea that these guys are sort of creating their own identities from the first magic trick they do for both of them. As you figure out later, they reinvented themselves first and when you get moved back and forth, you tend to learn that trick pretty quickly. I moved to Chicago with an English accent and that was very unpopular so I learned very quickly how to sound like a good Chicago kid. That sort of thematic idea in the book of self reinvention was something that came real natural.

Q: Do you see that duality within yourself as an American?

JN: Yeah absolutely. I have two passports and my mom is American and my dad's English and these sort of arguments have gone back and forth for years because those two countries have such a natural kind of affinity for one another. It's not that big of a leap, but it does give you a slightly schizophrenic perspective growing up.

Q: How does that affect relationships and what you put into the film? You were growing up in the States and he was growing up there. Do you notice a difference in relationship dynamics?

JN: Well, yeah. There are some differences there. What's kind of neat about Chris and I is that we've very similar sensibilities and I think our minds work in similar ways, but we have these completely disparate backgrounds so we bounce the script back and forth and you get that kind of American vibe in the material that I provide and his is slightly more English sensibility to what he does. Hopefully by the time we're done, you've sort of got the best of both. We're interested in different things I think, but a lot of the material that we work on we sort of find a common ground.

Q: What do you think this film says about relationships?

JN: Not very good things necessarily (laughs), but it's yeah I would say it's equal measures of good and bad things about family relationships and brothers and that sort of material.

Q: So in this film, it’s an interesting experience that you bring. The two of you are brothers and in both characters they have…there’s twins or clones, what can you say about bringing that dynamic into each of those two relationships?

JN: It wasn't that hard to imagine the sort of…I've been asked a couple of times now if Borden's relationship with his brother bears any similarities to my relationship with Chris. No thankfully that's not the case. When you're writing, I think there's a certain amount subconsciously that that relationship funnels into. What I was interested in the movie, what felt personal to me was this idea that you have a magician who performs the trick on stage who then collaborates backstage with his ingeneur in putting together the illusions. That felt kind of fun because that felt like it had some analogy to my part in the process which is to work back in this dank little room behind the stage trying to figure out what’s going to work and what’s not.

Q: So you related to the assistant's character?

JN: No, not the assistant. Not exactly the assistant. More like Michael Caine's character or Fallon’s character where you’re sort of twirling in obscurity in the back which is the way I like it.

Q: Now Chris writes and directs. When are we going to see you cross over and direct?

JN: I’m still concentrating on... I feel like I still have a lot to learn about writing and I do have an interest in directing but I really want to nail the writing part first.

Q: Are you writing anything on your own right now?

JN: Yeah, I'm writing a movie right now for Warner Bros. about the Chicago fire. I grew up in Chicago so it's really been great. It's kind of a revenge story set in the Chicago fire.

Q: Is the revenge against the cow? (laughter)

JN: The cow is alive. (laughter) The cow is anti-Irish propaganda. Our family’s Irish so…When you grow up in Chicago, it's a story that everyone hears. It's Mrs. O'Leary's cow. The idea is it's 1871, right? Chicago is this sort of booming, emerging town sprung out almost over night. And this dumb Irish lady goes out to milk her cow in the middle of the night and she's drunk, of course. The cow knocks over a lantern and burns down the entire city.  It's actually not true. The fire started in her barn, but no one has any idea of what actually started it. Definitely not her. There was a bunch of journalists who came in from New York the next day who were looking for a good angle on the fire. They were like 'drunk Irish lady. That's perfect.' Because the Irish were sort of a subclass in Chicago at the time. They were really, really hated and there was a lot of discrimination there so it was a perfect story. The theories about what actually started the fire range from the most likely scenario which is a bunch of little kids smoking cigars in the barn to a meteorite that exploded over the Midwest.

Q: And of course you want it to be the meteorite.

JN: The meteorite is much more cinematic. What's weird is that the same day as the fire in Chicago, there was a fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin which is about an hour and a half away which killed 3,000 people. No one has ever heard of it. It remains the worst natural disaster in the history of the country. Nobody has ever heard about it because it happened the same day as the Chicago fire.

Q: How many died in the Chicago fire?

JN: 300.

Q: Do we know who is going to be directing that movie yet? Is it just in the early stages?

JN: No, it's still in the pretty early stages. It’s just me. I mean Chris is... I would find it impossible to work without consulting my brother and sort of availing myself of his ideas, but yeah it's just me in a work yard with a couple producers at Warner Brothers.
 
Q: Going back to “The Prestige,” do you think there are any secrets that are worthy of losing someone’s love or their life?

JN: I don’t know. The film is meant to be… It’s presented in a serious fashion with naturalistic performances because that’s the way we do these things. That’s the way Chris makes movies, but it’s supposed to be fun. The idea of these two magicians who pit their wits against one another.

Q: And their women actually died as a result.

JN: Fewer women are dying in my draft. I was a little easier on the ladies in the film and Chris, of course, gets a hold of it and there’s carnage and (inaudible).

Q: What do you think of crossing that line? That secrets can stand in the way and actually lead to two women dying as a result of this?

JN: If you meet magicians… I did a little bit of research on this and I met a bunch of magicians as a result. They are definitely the kind of people who would take a secret that far.

Q: They would let it stand in the way of love and life?

JN: Sure.

Q: Thank you.

JN: It was nice talking to you.

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