Claudia Leisinger


Britain’s Memento maestro on breaking into Hollywood, reining in Robin Williams and sleepless nights with Insomnia.

How did ‘Insomnia’ become the next step after ‘Memento’?

Someone gave me a tape of the Norwegian original and I loved it, I watched it twice in one sitting, which I don’t think I’ve ever done before. I felt it to be brilliant and unimprovable.

Hollywood is so remake-crazy, didn’t you think ‘If it’s so good, what’s the point of remaking it?’

I certainly thought that, if it’s so good, why make it the same way. But I felt that if you took the events of the story, and you apply it to a different idiom, namely the studio old-fashioned cop movie, which I think Hollywood is great at making, you could craft a suspenseful and resonant morality tale.

How different was it going from no and low-budget films to making a $70 million studio picture?

To be honest, I’ve found the three films I’ve made to be reassuringly similar in terms of my part in the process. Because really as a director on set, you’re being the audience for the film and you develop a kind of tunnel vision so that you only see what’s going to be in the frame and you don’t worry about the scale of things around you. It really wasn’t that different.

You cast three Oscar winners, two of whom are huge stars. Daunting?

Well it’s daunting in theory, but what I learned making this film was that the reasons these actors are who they are, the reason they’ve achieved what they’ve achieved, is obviously because of their talent but also because of their professionalism. So what I found from them was an incredibly valuable level of experience to draw on, frankly.

They seem to be really relishing their roles – Pacino doesn’t do a single ‘Hoo-hah!’ and Robin Williams is almost the last person you’d expect to see as the killer…

They just both really understood the characters. Robin has done great dramatic work in the past but it’s easy for people to forget that because of his persona. The truth is he can do anything you want him to and he’s challenging himself with a role like this.

So it wasn’t a question of controlling his more manic side?

No, it was just a question of discussing the type of character we were trying to create - a banal and unexceptional person who on-screen is only interesting by virtue of the fact that he’s done something terrible. It’s amazing to watch an actor do that, particularly one as capable as Robin is.

Both ‘Following’ and especially ‘Memento’ are famous for having timeframes that jump around all over the place. Was it interesting for you to work in a more ‘conventional’ style?

Yeah, it was. For me it’s about choosing the most suitable structure for the particular story you’re going to tell. In the case of ‘Insomnia’ that clearly had to be chronological, because you wanted to follow this guy’s descent into increasing pressure night after night after night.

Now you’ve cracked Hollywood could you ever consider making movies back in the much-maligned British film industry?

I would certainly consider making movies back here, but the English film I made didn’t have anything to do with the film industry here in terms of financing or anything else like that. So I don’t really have any experience of the British film industry at all. But what I do know is that there’s an enormous amount of grass roots talent, particularly on the technical side of things and the acting side of things. I’ve availed myself of that and would certainly like to again.

What’s next?

Well I’m actually writing a script about the life of Howard Hughes [legendary barking movie mogul] that Jim Carrey is going to be in. But it’s a big project and there have been tonnes of versions around, some for many years, so together we’re going to try and crack the Great Unmade Hollywood Movie.

Did making ‘Insomnia’ give you any sleepless nights?

Not while I was shooting it because shooting you get physically very tired. Towards the end of editing, my wife and I had our first baby and immediately you’re deprived of sleep for a couple of months, so we used a lot of that in terms of how we finished the edit, because I wanted to get across to the audience what extreme exhaustion does to your perception of the world.

So kind of ‘Method Directing’ then?

(laughs) Yes, very much…

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