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Friday, March 16, 2001

GU Alum Becomes the ‘Memento’-Man

Jonah Nolan Takes Talent Write to Hollywood

“I don’t know how many times you’ll have to read this before you listen to me. I don’t even know how long you’ve been locked up in this room already. Neither do you.”

From “Memento Mori” By Jonah Nolan (COL ’99)


Courtesy Newmarket Films/
KEEPSAKE: Guy Pearce (‘L.A.Confidential’) in ‘Memento,’ the new noir thriller based on Nolan’s short story, ‘Memento Mori.’

Memento Mori — Remember you must die.

Not the most optimistic of titles. But for Jonah Nolan (COL ’99), that blunt reminder of for whom the bell tolls is ringing with success.

It’s not just the title of his first published short story. It’s not just proof he’s been published where writers twice his age claw for space. And it’s not just the story behind his brother Christopher’s Memento, the independent film industry’s latest — and potentially biggest — coup. It’s also a reminder that at 24, he’s tasted the success most writers never even sniff.

Nolan, a former writer and columnist for The Hoya, got the idea for “Memento Mori” in his general psychology class. It’s the story every professor shoe-horns into the memory chapter: A man suffers a head injury, losing all ability to form memories. He knows who he is and everything about his life up to the accident but loses his short-term memory thereafter. Every 15 minutes his mind wipes itself clean. He can’t even watch television without getting confused. And then, the wrencher: The man’s wife dies, but he can’t remember it. He inquires about her at least once a day. And he mourns her at least once a day.

The story got Nolan thinking. How does a man live like that, outside of time? What would happen if he remembered his wife’s death. If he wanted vengeance for her murder? What if time didn’t have a chance to dull his quest for revenge? What if he could re-live those first 10 or 15 minutes of fury every 10 or 15 minutes of his life? Would he follow his instinct? Could he?

He liked it. It made sense. You don’t have to explain revenge to people. They just get it.

He let the idea stew until a 1997 cross-country outing with his brother, Christopher, who was fresh off directing his first film, Following, and was moving to Los Angeles. The two got into their dad’s beat-up car in Washington, D.C. and headed for the West Coast. Somewhere in middle America, they ran out of things to say to each other, so Jonah pitched his idea.

Almost immediately, they had a pact. Jonah would write the short story and give Christopher his scrappy first draft. Christopher would then turn it into a screenplay and see what happened.

Three years later, they’re both grateful Jonah was paying attention in psychology class.

Christopher turned the story into an innovative, neo-noir thriller, starring Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) as the forgetful Leonard Shelby and Carianne Moss (The Matrix) as a sympathetic bartender Natalie. He also switched the story’s flow; the beginning of the movie is the end and vice-versa. It was the best way to keep the audience in line with Shelby’s condition. If he doesn’t know what just happened, why should we? As Shelby sets out to avenge his murdered wife, he starts tattooing important pieces of information to his legs, torso and chest. His leg carries a license plate number. His chest says (backwards, so he can read it in the mirror): “John G. Raped and Killed Your Wife.”

The $5 million thriller has critics gushing from every printed pixel possible. The script even won one of the industry’s highest screenwriting honors, the Waldo Salt Best Screenwriting Award, at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Thirty-year-old Christopher is now working on a film with 10 times Memento’s budget — a remake of the 1978 Norwegian thriller Insomnia, which will star Academy Award winners Al Pacino (Any Given Sunday) and Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry). Traffic director and critics’ darling Steven Soderbergh, who reportedly loved Memento so much he would have directed it if given the chance, is an executive producer.

In the meantime, Jonah spent two years hammering out draft after draft of his story, “Memento Mori.” The final version is aheartbreakingly bare account of loss and revenge as Earl (renamed Leonard in the movie), writes letters to the part of himself he knows will soon be looking for answers.

“She’s gone, gone for good,” Earl writes to remind himself of his wife’s death, “and you must be hurting right now, hearing the news. Believe me, I know how you feel. You’re probably a wreck. But give it five minutes, maybe 10. Maybe you can even go a whole half hour before you forget.”

He tells himself the only way to make purpose of his life is to keep lists — that, with enough work and enough repetition, maybe he’ll be able to move to the next item on one of them.

When Christopher’s publicist sent Esquire magazine, a publication that prints 10 out of the 10,000 fiction submissions it receives each year, a copy of “Memento Mori,” the staff literally jumped at the chance to publish it.

“The stories that make you jump up and around the room, that give you a buzz, are very few and far between. ‘Memento’ had that kind of reaction,” Adrian Miller, Esquire’s literary editor, said.

Now on newsstands, phone calls are rolling in about “Memento Mori.” Agents, publicists, publishing houses — everyone wants to get in on the “Jonah Nolan act,” as Miller puts it. The last time she remembers such a reaction was for a young girl named Heidi Julavits, who wrote a story entitled “Marry the One Who Gets There First.” At the time her story was published, Julavits was working on a novel (now The Mineral Palace, Putnam Books). She had only 50 pages finished. Those 50 pages and her published work garnered her a six-figure book contract. She hopes Nolan has the same good fortune.

“He’s a really, really serious writer, and I just hope I can see his novel soon,” Miller said.


“Serious” is a word rarely used to describe Nolan. Around Georgetown, he was known as a prankster and funnyman, who, according to former Hoya editor and friend Sean P. Flynn (COL ’00), “claimed residence in Chicago, London and Ireland but talked like a New Yorker.” He was known for madcap antics like making films about living in a Port-a-Potty, being invincible at talking campus police officers out of breaking up parties and betting $50 he could work “Sammy Sosa” and “Puerto Rico” into a campus media panel discussion (he won).

But Nolan’s close friends, almost unanimously, call him a big teddy bear. He may swear like a gangster while while telling a story, but he’ll also drive from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz (339 miles) just to keep a lunch appointment with a friend. And that aformentioned conglomerate twang of an accent isn’t a random affectation at all, but a byproduct of the British-born Nolan’s Americanization.

The 11-year-old Nolan who moved to the outskirts of Chicago in 1987 learned quickly that his neighborhood, as welcoming as it was to many different nationalities, was no place for a prepubescent with an English accent. So he decided on his mother’s nationality — Irish Catholic — and set about turning himself into a Yankee. He would spend hours in front of his television set, practicing the various American intonations. It only took a few years for him to get it right, but he still consciously and unconsciously rakes any interesting speech pattern he hears for usable bits and pieces.

“Some people like to think I’m a faker, but that’s not it,” Nolan said. “I like to think of my voice as an amalgam of everyone I’ve ever met.”

These habits, however, cultivated an acute knack for observation and an ability to notice all different behaviors — in short, the beginnings of his talent for characterization.

“Jonah is someone who can create characters because he started with creating himself,” English Professor John Glavin (COL ’64), Nolan’s friend and former screenwriting professor said. “It has really formed his ability to write so effectively.”

But what all of it — the fooling around, the accent-tuning, the joke-telling — leads up to is an unwavering ability to tell stories.

In the spring of 1998, Nolan and four of his classmates submitted five 10-minute sketches as a working one-act play to the Donn B. Murphy One-Acts Festival, a yearly Georgetown competition for student playwrights. Entitled “Conflict in Satin and Silk,” the skits center around a wedding dress sale in Filene’s Basement, a bargain clothing store in Chevy Chase, Md., and were chosen for performance the following year.

But Nolan didn’t want to just be the writer; when Jordan Goldberg (COL ’99), a close friend and main editor of their play, called Nolan and told him to “come down and get yourself cast,” he did. He ended up in Goldberg’s skit as a mobster named Sonny who finds out an ex-pimp, ex-associate named Guido has plans to elope with his daughter. When they both try to pick up her wedding dress, Sonny nearly takes Guido out.

During the rehearsal process, Nolan stayed comfortably out of the editing of his own skit. But when it came to his own character, he had one major request. He couldn’t bring himself to recite one of the anecdotes, about a brutal attack on a helpless woman. He felt it would cast a pall over the entire scene, and asked if he could come up with something on his own. Knowing his penchant for storytelling, both Goldberg and Jason Yarn (COL ’01), the show’s director, agreed. But as opening night drew nigh, they got worried; no new anecdote was forthcoming.

“I don’t like working much, so through rehearsals, I hadn’t come up with anything,” Nolan said. “I came up with a new one each night backstage while we were waiting to go on.”

So, instead of a woman being kicked in the mouth, audiences got fat, pale kids tripping on spiked punch at a Bar Mitzvah, prize ponies being shot and yelled at on the racetrack and a fricasseed Red Lobster fry cook. On the last night of performance, they performed them all — right in a row.


“You know that story, ‘The Lady, or the Tiger?’ I wanted to track down the person who wrote that and bludgeon him.”

Nolan, recalling grade-school, is talking about the Frank R. Stockton short story about a king who forces a gladiator to choose between doors — behind one is a beautiful lady and a life full of riches and happiness. Behind the other is a salivating tiger. Just as Stockton is about to tell the reader what the man chooses, the story ends. We never learn if Stockton’s main character gets turned into puppy chow. This is what Nolan can’t take.

“Just because you have that power over us as an author ...” he trails off. “A good author invokes that power as carefully as possible. The ambiguity there is in-your-face.”

Nolan argues that this is the opposite of the ambiguity in Memento, which he feels was owed to the script. In fact, he feels so strongly about the film’s right to ambiguity, that, at a question and answer session after the film’s first screening (in September at the Venice Film Festival), he yelled at his brother for clearing up an important plot point for a confused audience member.

“My brother, doofus that he is, went ahead and gave an answer, and I clocked him right afterwards and said ‘you’re a f—ing bonehead.’ He has this one interpretation of the way the film goes, but by doing that he’s misinterpreted the whole film. We all [Christopher, Jonah, Guy Pierce and the producers] had a nice long argument about it. There is no objective truth. It would totally betray the concept of the film.”

Jonah won; Christopher no longer gives out his interpretation. But just talking about it gets Jonah jumpy, excited.

His story, “Memento Mori,” has just as much ambiguity. The end of his tale is the beginning of the film’s — the protagonist has ostensibly achieved the revenge he was after. He is driven away in some sort of car (a cab? A police cruiser?), possibly shackled by handcuffs.

This is the kind of ambiguity that’s OK, Nolan says.

“Memento is about an objective perspective on your life, which you cannot have. Everyone euphonizes their own life. We do all live backwards; we don’t understand the significance of doing something until we’re past it.


A novel, half a dozen screenplays, some stories — they’re all lying around the place Nolan is “stuck in” right now on the West Coast. At this point, he’s just having fun, leapfrogging from project to project.

“The nice thing about writing,” he said, “is that you don’t have to don’t have to call someone up and ask for a $1 million in order to change something. But I haven’t figured out the whole discipline thing yet.”

There’s some kind of historical piece, something about loneliness, some kind of comedy — he’s not restricting his topics. But others say there is a common thread to everything he’s written thus far.

“He has a passionate moral imagination,” Glavin said. “He really cares about truth and justice. They’re not just cliches to him.”

Hence his wedding-dress script: A couple is tempted to buy an out-of-their-league gown, and realizes their love is more important than money.

Hence “Memento Mori:” A man overcomes serious physical obstacles to achieve vengeance.

It’s a tendency toward the moral Nolan knows about. “It would be possible to write a book or a movie that didn’t address human nature,” he said. “But I don’t see the point.”

Right now, he has the luxury; between the Esquire piece and some work in web design (he designed Memento’s flash-heavy site, where you can sign up for personal emails from Leonard Shelby, which probably get repetitive), he has saved enough money to avoid the restaurant and retail world too many writers know. But he’s not worried. He never has been. A few years ago, Goldberg asked him if he thought they would make it as writers. He barely stopped eating his taco long enough to say yes. Like Leonard, like Earl, Nolan’s only worry right now is how to get to the next item on his list.

 

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