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Insomnia - Special feature



Feature by: Jack Foley

ONE of the biggest challenges facing Christopher Nolan and his director of photography, Wally Pfister, when shooting Insomnia was doing justice to the sprawling beauty of the British Columbia and Alaskan landscape without detracting from the characters.

For while the film remains, first and foremost, a psychological battle of wits between to men living on the edge (as portrayed by Al Pacino and Robin Williams), the terrain plays an important part, not least because of Alaska’s seasonal phenomenon, Midnight Sun.

Nolan and Pfister - who also served as cinematographer on Memento - therefore crafted a shooting style that captures the breadth of the larger-than-life landscapes, while at the same time remaining focused on the characters.

"We created intimacy by keeping the camera with the main character, something we did very much with Memento and continued with Insomnia," reveals Pfister.

"The camera always stays with Will Dormer [Pacino], either travelling in front of him or behind him, or revealing his point of view. In this way, the audience explores the unfamiliar landscape with him, and they feel the light piercing through the windows as he desperately tries to sleep."

The light also played its part, with Nolan confessing that he wanted to convey a ‘sense of an omnipresent light’ throughout, one which ‘seeps in everywhere and is a constant reminder of danger, guilt and the threat of exposure’.

Pfister continues: "Light, and how light affects Will Dormer, is such an integral part of the story, we viewed it as a fourth character.

"I felt an enormous amount of pressure, but at the same time a creative excitement, in using light in this way, because it became this entity that taunts Dormer throughout the story."

As a result, interiors on set were deliberately kept dark, to contrast with the constant, intense daylight of the exteriors, while enamel paint was used on sets so that the light could be bounced onto walls and into dark corners.

Another key part of the production process is the trust which has developed between Nolan and Pfister, as the latter not only served as director of photography, but also operated the camera during shooting, thus allowing Nolan to position himself by the camera with the actors, as opposed to watching the action unfold on a video monitor.

"The increasing convention is for the director to stand away from the action, watching the scene unfold on a monitor and then reviewing it on playback," explains Nolan.

"I don’t use a conventional monitor and I don’t use playback. I like to stand by the camera and really watch what the actors are doing with my own eyes, because when you blow up their performances on the big screen, you see so much more than you could ever see on a monitor."

Nolan therefore used a small, handheld monitor to reference Pfister’s shot framings, while also being able to listen to the actors rehearse and shoot without the aid of headphones.

He continued: "Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank are actors who express so much through the most subtle expressions and gestures, and those moments are what you build the film on in the editing room, so you really need to see everything while you’re filming, in order to be able to discuss it with them."

It is a method of film-making which won both the respect of its stars and its producer, as Broderick Johnson reveals: "His method of working in the trenches with the cast and crew energized everyone on the set. There’s a camaraderie and a certain confidence that the actors have in him which normally develops over a long career.

"Christopher has already achieved that level of skill and confidence."

Pacino also confesses to immediately feeling very comfortable with Nolan, describing his Will Dormer as ‘a romantic character and a much different kind of cop than I’ve ever portrayed’.

For Nolan, as well as Pacino, this was part of the draw. "It was very clear to me that casting Al was the most interesting way of approaching this material.

"He’s played so many great cops through the years, from Serpico to Sea of Love to Heat, and we were able to really use that history and that identification the audience has with this iconic cop image to play against expectation."

Also playing against expectation was Williams, who relished the opportunity to explore a darker side.

"It’s exciting to play a character as despicable as Walter Finch," he reveals. "You’re free to explore darker things, like the seductiveness of evil - or the banality of it."

It was a move which impressed another of the movie’s executive producers, Steven Soderbergh, who said: "Walter Finch is a man who has drifted across the line and has found himself comfortable with that. He’s such a withdrawn, interior character, and to see Robin Williams in that state is oddly compelling.

"Walter is trying to control himself, to be normal, while struggling with so much on the inside. Robin plays this dichotomy perfectly."

Yet while the two vy with each other for acting honours on-screen - reaching a level of intensity which positively sparkles at times - their approach to filming was far different; even though they maintain the utmost respect for each other.

For while Williams periodically made forays into the crowd to sign autographs during filming, the intensely private Pacino kept himself to himself. Or, as Williams so eloquently puts it: "It was Mr Method versus Mr Anything. We would both come at it from different angles, like two different styles of jazz, but we were both looking or the same kind of unusual approach to the unexpected, and then we would usually hit it about the same time."

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