Memento: Nolan’s Noir Was Rejected by Every Studio and then Became a Hit

Given the box office and critical acclaim of Interstellar, Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy, it might be difficult to imagine that Christopher Nolan was ever a struggling filmmaker.

But the director offered some hope to emerging creatives in London on Wednesday, explaining how his seemingly stratospheric rise wasn’t an entirely easy ride.

Speaking at a BAFTA event to launch the 2015 edition of Breakthrough Brits, the Academy’s annual initiative that celebrates and supports rising stars of the U.K.’s film, TV and gaming industries, Nolan described the difficulties that followed finishing 2000’s psychological thriller Memento, his first big-budget feature after his self-financed debut, Following.

“We organized a big distribution screening in LA the weekend all the distributors were coming to town for the Spirit Awards,” he said. “But every distributor passed on it in one night, nobody wanted it. Some of the distributors were really awful to us, actually, and said they’d walked out of the film. It was a really, really tough ride… pretty devastating.”

After failing to find a buyer, Memento was eventually distributed in North America by the film’s financiers Newmarket Films, who set up their own distribution arm.
It went on to earn almost $40 million from a budget of $5 million. Memento was eventually recognized by many as one of the best films of the decade.
Two years after the rejections Nolan and his producer wife Emma Thomas returned to the Independent Spirit Awards to pick up the best director, best screenplay and best supporting actress awards, followed by a couple of Oscar nominations.
“It was a really unique road. I don’t think I’ll ever have a moment like that in my career,” Nolan said. “We took a huge knock, back as far as we could go.  But we came back from it with sheer good fortune.”

The director also gave some advice to filmmakers looking to make that step up from their own self-funded features (His first film, Following, was made for around $6,000) to attracting multi-million dollar budgets from production companies.

“When I look back, the key thing for me when we started to get traction for Following on the festival circuit was that I had already finished the script for Memento,” he said.  “So as soon as we’d got any credibility for Following and people asked what I wanted to do next, I was able go: here’s a script. And it was a script that was related, in structural terms, to Following.”

While Memento read in a “very challenging way on page,” Nolan said that when people saw Following they could see how it was going to work.

“The thing that happens to a lot of people is that you get that opportunity, somebody says I really loved your film, what else do you have. And if you don’t have anything, or if you’ve just got vague ideas, it’s very difficult to take advantage of that moment, and that moment doesn’t come around again,” he said. “You’ve got to jump on it.”