We’d make a joke about deja vu, but that’s not the memory anomaly at the center of Memento, which first hit American theaters in limited release on March 16, 2001 – 15 years ago this week.
Memento – or “that backwards movie about the guy with amnesia,” as some might know it – proved to be a surprise success. It certainly heightened interest in director Christopher Nolan, who’d go on to make the thriller Insomnia in 2002 and the Batman Begins trilogy starting in 2005. And this particular little indie thriller ended up making many critics’ top 10 lists for 2001. The film still retains a cult following today.
We’re celebrating Memento‘s 15th anniversary with a list of 15 things you may not know – or, you know, might have forgotten about the movie.
1. Yes, reverse amnesia is a real thing
The “standard” form of amnesia is retrograde amnesia, which causes its victims to forget their pasts but doesn’t prohibit them from making new memories. In Memento, Leonard (Guy Pearce) suffers from anterograde amnesia, which prevents him from making new memories. It’s a real affliction and can be caused by brain injuries, but it’s actually something more than a few of us have experienced – as an alcohol-induced blackout. You know, like when you know who you are but can’t process any new info obtained during the period you’re still drunk. (We don’t recommend you try this experiment on a weeknight.)
2. And scientists say Memento depicted the condition realistically
Amnesia is a tired old cliche in movies – a plot device used to set up a shocking revelation, mostly – and often Hollywood plays fast and loose with how amnesia actually works. Memento apparently got it right. Among the props it’s gotten from scientists is a mention in the British Medical Journal article “Memories Aren’t Made of This: Amnesia at the Movies.”
“Unlike in most films in this genre, this amnesic character retains his identity, has little retrograde amnesia, and shows several of the severe everyday memory difficulties associated with the disorder,” writes neuropsychologist Sallie Baxendale. “The fragmented, almost mosaic quality to the sequence of scenes in the film also cleverly reflects the ‘perpetual present’ nature of the syndrome.”
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3. It’s based on a short story by Christopher Nolan’s brother
During a cross-country road trip, Jonathan Nolan pitched the idea to his brother, Christopher. Jonathan Nolan ended up writing the idea out as a short story, titled “Memento Mori,” that ultimately ended up being published in Esquire. The story differs drastically from the movie script, but a lot of the core elements were there. Jonathan Nolan has collaborated with his brother since, and he’s also the creator of the TV series Person of Interest.
4. Brad Pitt was an early contender for the lead role
In the end, Pitt backed out of Memento due to scheduling conflicts. Aaron Eckhart was also considered, and though he’d go on to work with Nolan in The Dark Knight, Pearce won the job thanks in part to the fact that he wasn’t a household name and could disappear into the role.
5. Carrie-Ann Moss is the first "Nolan brunette"
Alfred Hitchcock had his icy blondes, but Christopher Nolan specializes in brunettes. Have you ever noticed this? In all his films save the first, 1998’s Following, the action is propelled by brunettes who are beautiful, smart and sometimes dangerous. There’s the villainous Moss in Memento, Hilary Swank and Maura Tierney in Insomnia, Rebecca Hall in The Prestige (who drives the plot back around to the beginning in a way Scarlett Johansson’s and Piper Perabo’s characters don’t), Ellen Page and Marion Cotillard in Inception, and then Katie Holmes, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway and Cotillard again in the Batman movies. Jessica Chastain in Interstellar is a redheaded outlier in Nolan’s films, and even then, it’s Hathaway who takes the higher billing.
6. Moss recommended her Matrix costar, Joe Pantoliano
Initially Denis Leary was considered for the role of Teddy, but when Leary turned out to be unavailable, Moss suggested Pantoliano, who had played the traitorous Cypher in The Matrix.
7. It provided a stepping-stone role for Jorja Fox
Fox appears in a small role, as Leonard’s wife in his flashbacks. She was essentially unknown at the time, but just a few months later she’d become much better-known to mainstream audiences when she joined the first-season cast of CSI.
8. The three leads were only on set together a single day
According to James Mottram’s book The Making of Memento, Pearce, Moss and Pantoliano were only each on set for the first day of filming. Moss completed her scenes in one week, and the entire film was shot in only 25 days.
9. Originally, it was not set in Los Angeles
The Making of Memento notes that the film was originally to have been filmed in Montreal. It was eventually decided that it should be shot in Los Angeles, to heighten the noirish aspects of the film.
10. And the closing credits originally rolled to a different song
When the rights to Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” weren’t available, David Bowie’s “Something in the Air” was used instead.
11. In case you ever had any confusion about what happened in the plot, there’s a comprehensive breakdown
At least superficially, the film’s plot can be confusing. However, a 2001 Salon article breaks it down in immaculate detail, proving (back then) how Internet journalism could be really awesome. It separates the film into two timelines – the flashbacks and then the current timeline, all in order.
12. And there are also more than a few video edits of the film that put it in chronological order
On multiple versions of the Memento DVD, there are re-edits of the original presentation of the film to put it in chronological order. However, there are plenty of fan edits that do the same. They defeat the purpose of the film, of course, but they can also be helpful in sorting out all the details.
13. The official website was designed by Christopher Nolan himself – and it’s still live 15 years later
It’s not quite on the level of the Space Jam website – which, yes, is also still live – but you can currently visit the official website for Memento and get a sense of what Nolan’s web design aesthetic was back at the start of the new millennium. Pretty cool.
14. Memento was a gradual success
The film was made for just $9 million but ended up making $39 million. However, it was never a blockbuster. In fact, it never placed higher than eighth during any of the weeks it was in theaters, losing out to weekend-winning but ultimately less memorable movies such as The Mexican, Heartbreakers and Spy Kids. That said, it was subsequently named by several critics as not only one of the best films of 2001 but one of the best films of the entire decade. Take that, Heartbreakers.
15. Christopher Nolan helped out on one key line
Allegedly Nolan was unsatisfied with Pantoliano’s enunciation of the line “you freak,” and the final cut has Nolan overdubbing the line himself. If you want something done right
Honorable mention: the great Harriet Sansom-Harris, everyone!
She’d go on to play a prominent role on Desperate Housewives, but at the time Memento came out, actress Harriet Sansom-Harris was best known for her recurring role on Frasier, on which she played amoral super agent Bebe Glazer, whom Niles once described as “Lady McBeth without the sincerity.” More than a few people watching probably thought, “Hey, is that the mean lady from Frasier?” Yes it was, keen-eyed viewer. Good on you.