Exclusive: Insomnia production designer on meeting Christopher Nolan and avoiding avalanches

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Production designer Nathan Crowley tells us about his first movie with Christopher Nolan – 2002’s Insomnia, and its chilly outdoor filmmaking.

Having broken through with the low-budget thriller Memento (2000), Christopher Nolan made his Hollywood debut with Insomnia in 2002 – a remake of the Norwegian film of the same name. Starring Al Pacino as a quietly guilt-ridden LA cop investigating a murder in an Alaskan fishing town, Insomnia was also lit up by supporting performances from Hilary Swank as a rookie officer and the late Robin Williams as a shifty potential suspect.

Although some filmmakers may have regarded Insomnia as a work-for-hire gig, Nolan brought all his skill and attention to detail to bear on the movie, using his expanded budget (some $46m versus Memento’s $5-ish million) to make a measured, stunning-looking thriller. (Cinematographer Wally Pfister’s early shot of a plane flying over Alaskan wastes is quite a sight on a big screen.)

Insomnia also marked the first pairing between Nolan and Nathan Crowley, the British production designer who later collaborated with the director on most of his subsequent films, including Batman Begins (2005), The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008) and Tenet (2020).

Partly informed by his early work on such big-budget productions as Hook and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Crowley has a penchant for shooting on location and building large physical sets – a style that chimed with Nolan’s own preference for practical filmmaking techniques.

While on the promotional tour for this month’s Wonka, Crowley talked to Film Stories about his memories of working with Insomnia, and his first meeting with Christopher Nolan.

According to Crowley, he was just finishing his work on the 2001 war film Behind Enemy Lines, directed by John Moore (not that one) and starring Owen Wilson and Gene Hackman. Much of the film was shot in Slovakia, while the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was also used for exterior shots of planes taking off and landing.

“We’d been awake for about a week with these jets going on and off,” Crowley tells us. “I’m sitting on the bow coming into San Diego harbour, and my phone had been off because it was out of range… then the phone rang.”

The call, it turned out, was a potential job offer: a young filmmaker, who’d just made a film called Memento, was looking for a production designer.

“So I got a car, drove up to LA and walked into his apartment,” Crowley recalls of his first meeting with Nolan. “I think he was pretty broke back then. I remember it was him and Emma [Thomas, Nolan’s producer and partner]. I brought some ideas and he was into it.”

The pair quickly built a rapport – it turned out that Crowley’s childhood friend had grown up a couple of doors down from Nolan in Highgate, London – and began talking about how they’d go about making Insomnia.

Read more: Wonka | How Hook and Dracula informed the look of this autumn’s musical

Memento was a hard film for him,” Crowley says. “It was a hard film to make and sell, and it was very low budget. For Insomnia, I showed him that we can build stuff, and it started with that. Like with the lake house [where Robin Williams’ character lived] – ‘Let’s go up to northern BC [British Columbia] and build a lake house!’”

Shooting in real, snowy locations looked stunning on film, but came with a practical downside, however. “What comes with [location filming]?” Crowley asks. “‘Oh shit, there’s avalanches all around you. I think that was how we started: ‘how do we stop avalanches.’

“Then it was, ‘Oh, why is this called Bear Lake? Is it because it’s barren?’ No, it’s because there’s grizzly bears here!”

As Crowley notes, Insomnia – threat of avalanches and bear attacks and all – was the start of a style of filmmaking they’d continue to explore in multiple films afterwards. In each project, they’d push themselves to create ever more detailed sets or shoot in unusual locations to get the effect they were after, whether it was building a huge Bat Bunker in Bedfordshire for The Dark Knight or filming in volcanic regions of Iceland for Interstellar. Four of the pair’s films – The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Interstellar and Tenet – were nominated for Academy Awards for their production design.

As Crowley tells us, Insomnia was the start of Crowley and Nolan’s approach to ‘outdoor filmmaking. “That’s how we started our adventure,” he says.

Wonka is out in UK cinemas on the 8th December.

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