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 Alaskas seasonal phenomenon,
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
"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 dont use a conventional monitor and I dont
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 Pfisters
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
youre 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. Theres 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
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 Ive 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.
"Hes 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.
"Its exciting to play a character as despicable as
Walter Finch," he reveals. "Youre free to explore
darker things, like the seductiveness of evil - or the banality
It was a move which impressed another of the movies executive
producers, Steven Soderbergh, who said: "Walter Finch is
a man who has drifted across the line and has found himself comfortable
with that. Hes 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
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."