Snapshots Of A Masterpiece: Looking Back At Memento 20 Years On

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“Now, where was I?” The infamous words uttered by Leonard Shelby in the final moments of Christopher Nolan’s puzzling thriller Memento, in effect, kick off the events of the film we have just witnessed. Told partly in reverse with two converging timelines, the film plays out like an inverted butterfly effect—starting out at the bloody effect and working back to its most modest cause. 

A sun-drenched noir, Memento trades the murky psychological fog typical of the genre for our protagonist’s rare condition: anterograde amnesia. Incapable of forming new memories, Leonard finds himself constantly ‘waking’ up to unfamiliar situations, not knowing how he got there or what he planned to do next. 

Twenty years on, the film still stands out as one of the most audacious uses of film narrative: right up there with the likes of Citizen Kane in terms of sheer inventiveness. Much like Citizen Kane’s infamous snow globe, Memento also opens on an image bound to burrow deep into your psyche: a Polaroid of a bloodied corpse. As time passes, the image slowly vanishes, as the narrative starts to move in reverse. In the spirit of that image, and to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary, let’s look at the timeline of the film which helped Nolan become the most bankable auteur in mainstream cinema. Now where was I?

2020: During the COVID-19 pandemic, Tenet opens to an expectant audience, with Nolan being prematurely heralded as cinema’s saviour. The blockbuster—with a budget of $200 million—had far more humble beginnings on the set of Memento. That film’s depiction of a gun being shot in reverse gave Nolan the image of “a bullet getting sucked out of the wall and into the barrel of a gun”—an image realised in Tenet

2018: Researchers at Aalto University use fMRI scans to explore participants’ brain activity while watching Memento. Their results conclude that the film contributed to a deeper understanding of brain functions and memory mechanisms. 

2017: Every year since 1989, the Library of Congress selects 25 American films deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Memento becomes the first 21st century film to be admitted. 

2013: Memento’s 10th anniversary BluRay is released in the UK. Alongside a new improved transfer of the film, the edition includes the option to play the film in chronological order as well as an audio recording of Memento Mori, younger brother Jonathan’s short story which inspired Memento

2009: Memento ranks 5th on The A. V. Club’s ‘The Best Films Of The 00s’ list.

2004: Newmarket Films, who took their first distribution risk with Memento, find incredible success distributing The Passion 

of the Christ. The film earns a staggering $370.3 million in the United States.

2002: Memento is praised during awards season. It is nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing at the 74th Academy Awards. Nolan wins Screenwriter Of The Year at the AFI Awards. 

2001: Memento Mori is published in the March edition of Esquire magazine. The deal was put together by Christopher’s partner and producer, Emma Thomas. 

2001: Memento is released on 13 July in America to both critical and commercial success. Described by Roger Ebert as “a diabolical and absorbing experience,” it grosses $25 million domestically. Not a bad return on the film’s $4.5 million budget. 

2000: Newmarket Films begin marketing Memento. In order to spread word of mouth, postcards replicating Leonard’s gruesome Polaroids from the film are distributed at film festivals and through the mail. There is at least one instance of a woman filing a police report upon receiving one of these postcards. An investigation was opened to find the source. 

2000: Memento premieres at Venice Film Festival to a standing ovation. James Mottram describes Memento as “undoubtedly the best-reviewed film since L.A. Confidential three years before.” 

1999: Beginning 7 September, shooting lasts 31 days. The filming of a shell-casing entering a gun in reverse proved tricky; the shot was faked to seem as if it was moving backwards, but according to Nolan, the crew accidentally shot the scene backwards as well. This results in, well, the shell casing moving forward in the footage. Perhaps this is why the image lingered with the director for so long. 

1999: Following early talks, Brad Pitt passes on the role of Leonard and Guy Pearce is cast in the lead. Impressed by Carrie-Anne Moss’ performance in The Matrix, producer Jenifer Todd recommends her for the part of Natalie. Joe Pantoliano is cast as Teddy on the personal recommendation of his The Matrix co-star. Pantoliano would go on to offer his own ideas of the casting situation: “The reason why they hired us, was that we were the guys they could afford to hire.”

1998: After seven months of writing, Nolan completes the script for Memento. The script circulates Hollywood, earning much attention but no buyers. Eventually, Aaron Ryder, executive producer at Newmarket Films, options “perhaps the most innovative script [he] had ever seen.”

1997: Christopher and Jonathan Nolan take a road trip from LA to Chicago in their father’s old Honda Prelude. Jonathan shares the concept for a short story he is working on and gives his brother permission to use the idea for a script. 

Words by Jake Abatan

This article was published as part of The Indiependent‘s May 2021 magazine edition.


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