Memento: 9 Behind-The-Scenes Facts About The Christopher Nolan Movie

Guy Pearce in Memento
(Image credit: Newmarket Capital Group)

Remember Sammy Jankis… Leonard and all of his tattoos, John G., Natalie and the structural puzzle that Christopher Nolan created with his first big hit, Memento? Even in the event of short-term memory loss, you’d likely remember this mind-bending neo-noir because it has been 20 years since Memento was released in theaters and effectively launched the career of one of the biggest filmmakers working today.

Take a stroll down memory lane while also learning some behind-the-scene facts from Memento, just don't go so far as to tattoo them on your body so you remember.

Joe Pantoliano and Guy Pearce in Memento

(Image credit: Newmarket Capital Group)

Christopher Nolan Finished Memento Before Jonathan Nolan Published The Short Story That Inspired The Film

Christopher Nolan first made his way to Hollywood with a road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles with his brother Jonathan Nolan. But rather than play classic car games like Punch Buggy that we Americans love, Jonathan told his brother about an idea for a short story that Christopher decided to write a script on. Each Nolan would write his own version of the story, with Christopher’s version turning into Memento.

Even though it was Jonathan’s original idea, Christopher Nolan recounted to IndieWire that he was able to actually finish making the film prior to Jonathan getting his version, which would be called Memento Mori, published.

The filmed Memento was completed in time to have its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 2000. It took a little bit of time for it to get a U.S. release, but that ended up being extremely fortuitous. Memento would have a limited release on March 16, 2001. Memento Mori, meanwhile, would be published for the first time in the March 2001 issue of Esquire magazine.

The two stories are different, and that, plus the film pre-empting the short story, allowed Memento to be considered as an original screenplay, for which it earned an Oscar nomination. Fair bet to guess the reported Memento remake will not, however.

Guy Pearce in Memento

(Image credit: Newmarket Capital Group)

Brad Pitt’s Interest in Memento Helped Get The Ball Rolling

Christopher Nolan’s only credit to his name prior to Memento was Following, which he made over the course of a year shooting on weekends in England, eventually doing the rounds at some festivals, most notably Slamdance. His Hollywood influence was almost none when he started to try and sell Memento. Thankfully, Brad Pitt had plenty, and helped get the ball rolling for Memento.

There are rumors that Brad Pitt was at one point going to star in Memento instead of Guy Pearce. Nolan provided some clarity on that though, as well as Pitt’s influence on the film, in an interview back at Slamdance (fittingly enough):

Truthfully he did read the script. I mean that’s where the story comes from, is he read the script and he met with me about it when he didn’t have any reason to know who I was or anything about it. And nothing came of it. Other than him being interested in it, I think within the sort of [talent] agency world where the script was circulating, just sort of perked up a bit of interest in what was a very obscure project, otherwise. And I think really that’s how it came to Guy Pearce’s attention, and you know, he sort of got the ball rolling.

Stephen Tobolowsky in Memento

(Image credit: Newmarket Capital Group)

Actor Stephen Tobolowsky Actually Had Experience With Amnesia

Stephen Tobolowsky is probably best known for his roles in Groundhog Day (Ned … Ned Ryerson!) and Memento, where he played Sammy Jankis, a man who Leonard remembers suffered from a similar short-term memory loss condition to what he has in the film. Part of what makes Tobolowsky so good in this small but key role is that the actor actually had experience with amnesia, which he recounted recently on The Lone Star Plate podcast.

Tobolowsky was immediately a fan of Nolan’s Memento script, describing it as the best he’s ever read, and when the actor met with the director he stressed just how much he wanted to be in the film and what he had that no other actor could bring to the role.

As Tobolowsky tells it, for a kidney stone surgery he had been given an experimental drug rather than an anesthetic, which essentially lets the body function as normal but gives the recipient amnesia. Tobolowsky said that the drug took some time to get out of his system, and so even at home he would still have instances where he would be “born in that moment, and not know where you were or what you were doing.”

Tobolowsky said in the podcast that Sammy Jankis was the most difficult part for him to play, trying to recapture that real feeling of amnesia.

Thomas Lennon in The Dark Knight Rises

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Memento Was The First, But Not Last, Time Thomas Lennon Played A Doctor For Nolan

Christopher Nolan is known for having a number of actors that he routinely works with: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard and … Thomas Lennon? Yes, the Reno 911! star has appeared in multiple Nolan films, starting with Memento, where he plays the doctor that tests Sammy Jankis. Coincidently (or is it?), his other Nolan role comes in The Dark Knight Rises, where he again dons a white jacket to play a doctor giving a physical to Bruce Wayne.

Guy Pearce in Memento

(Image credit: Newmarket Capital Group)

Christopher Nolan Tried To Put The Audience In Leonard’s Shoes With Various Shooting Techniques

People at times refer to Memento as a non-linear story, but Christopher Nolan says that is incorrect, it is actually incredibly linear despite its narrative structure. What makes it a unique experience is that the director attempted to put the audience in Leonard’s mindset, and he did so using various lenses and shooting techniques.

Scenes often start as they would for Leonard, so “you sort of enter into his confusion as to the sequence of events,” as Nolan told Elvis Mitchell in an interview. Creating that sense would go as far as the lens and shots that Nolan would use for a scene, as he explained in another interview with the BBC:

We shot the film in 'Scope with anamorphic lenses because I wanted as clear an image as possible to really put the audience in the lead character's head. Once you start playing with the landscape you feel a lot of texture and a lot of intimacy. And the fact that there are very few wide shots, very few long shots, and no establishing shots at all contribute to this.

John David Washington in Tenet

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Memento’s Opening Scene Was An Inspiration For Tenet

Christopher Nolan’s enjoyment from playing with time certainly has carried over from Memento to many of his other films, like Inception and Dunkirk. But Memento actually served as a kind of direct inspiration for Nolan’s most recent film, Tenet, specifically the opening sequence.

Memento begins with the scene playing in reverse, including having a bullet flying out of a wall, through a character’s head and back into the gun. Nolan used it in Memento to help establish the structure, but as he continued to tell Complex, he always wanted to make a film where characters had to deal with “the physical reality” of that idea of a bullet going back into a gun.

It took about 20 years, but Nolan realized that ambition with Tenet.

Christian Bale in Batman Begins

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Memento Has A Batman Easter Egg

Memento may be Nolan’s breakout film, but his best known films to date are still The Dark Knight trilogy. Eerily, Memento gives a nod to the character that would make him a household name, with the a Batman logo appearing in a store window about halfway through the movie.

This wasn’t even the first time that the Batman logo appeared in a Nolan film. It also popped up in his first film, Following.

So, did the director have incredible foresight to know where his career would go? In all likelihood, no. In an interview with Empire (via Film Detail), Following actor Jeremy Theobald said that the Batman logo was there because they filmed that scene in his flat and he had the Batman logo there since 1989, when Tim Burton’s version came out. As for Memento, the window also features the Superman emblem, a Star Wars logo and some other fan-centric graphics, so it likely was a comic book store window. But it's a still a cool tidbit after the fact.

Guy Pearce in Memento

(Image credit: Newmarket Capital Group)

Nolan Consciously Likes To Design His Films For Second Viewings

Be it Memento or one of Christopher Nolan’s other films like Inception or Tenet, if you finished watching it and were left scratching your head and eager for a second viewing to clear something up or better grasp it all, then Nolan feels like he has done his job. In fact he purposefully strives for that kind of reaction.

Explaining it to IndieWire:

... I feel like I’ve got three years to work on this thing and as a viewer you’ve got like two hours to watch it, so it ought to be functioning at some level of greater sophistication than you can absorb in one viewing.

But he’s not just doing it to confuse his fans, rather, as he fittingly said in Memento’s DVD commentary, the VHS/DVD era of watching movies more than once instilled a sense of responsibility in him that films should be able to be viewed differently each time they are watched.

Guy Pearce in Memento

(Image credit: Newmarket Capital Group)

Memento Was The First Narrative Film From The 2000s Preserved By The National Film Registry

The world won’t be forgetting Memento any time soon, thanks to the National Film Registry. In 2017, Memento was one of 25 films selected for preservation by the organization as a “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant work." It also has one other unique distinction among other films, it was the first narrative feature added to the Registry from the 21st century.

The National Film Registry requires that a film be at least 10 years old before it can be nominated for preservation. But despite that meaning 21st films were eligible as of 2010, no narrative film was until Memento in 2017. Prior to that, only documentary films had been added to the Registry.

Since that time, seven other 21st century narrative features have made the cut, including another of Christopher Nolan’s films, The Dark Knight, in 2020.

Memento celebrates its official 20th anniversary on March 16. Write it on a polaroid so you won't forget.

Michael Balderston

D.C.-based cinephile. Will dabble in just about any movie genre, but passionate about discovering classic films/film history and tracking the Oscar race.