Jonathan Nolan, who along with his brother Christopher, share an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Momento, is making his first foray into television with his new drama Person of Interest. His other movie credits include the screenplays for The Prestige, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, which is currently in production.
Nolan, along with JJ Abrams, is the executive producer of Person of Interest, a crime thriller about a presumed dead former CIA agent named Reese (Jim Caviezel) who joins forces with a mysterious billionaire named Finch (Michael Emerson), who through sophisticated surveillance equipment attempts to stop crimes before they happen.
Considering the theme of the show, it seemed fitting that Jonathan Nolan spoke with TV critics in Los Angeles via satellite from the set of the series in New York City, teasing them if a question about The Dark Knight Rises came up all the mics would be turned off!
Can you talk about this title of the series?
I’m always enthusiastic about having titles of shows that allows reviewers to just add one syllable in order to render their review, like “Person of Disinterest” or “Show of No Interest.”
But in this case I felt like it was worth the risk because the title, to me, suggests a lot about what the show is about. It’s a phrase that law enforcement has adopted over the last 10 years; it can mean suspect, victim or witness. There’s an ambiguity and kind of an uncertainty behind it.
I think a lot of what our show is about is uncertainty. The world around us is filling up with information. Surveillance is a huge theme of the show, and I think we’re all really aware these days of just how much information is swirling around out there about us, about our friends, about everybody. So I think there are some themes that have some real relevance.
Would you consider this science fiction?
The show has been described occasionally as a science fiction show, but I think the more you look into it, [it’s more science fact]. As we were hanging out in New York, shooting the pilot, we realized this isn’t 15 minutes into the future. This is 5 minutes into the future, or maybe it’s right now.
Every street corner we shot on in New York, you could see cameras. Someone tried to count them a couple years ago, and the official tally was ‘uncountable.’ The government has been trying to build exactly the kind of machine that we feature on the show for about a decade now. So again, the science fiction part is just imagining that they successfully built one.
Are we at some moment in history now where this kind of a show strikes a chord with people?
I don’t know about that. I love crime procedurals. I always have. I love cop shows. But I was more interested in writing something that was a little more dangerous. There have definitely been shows like this. And the Batman analogy is not a million miles away.
I’ve just always been more drawn to characters that were on the periphery or kind of an arm’s-length relationship with law enforcement. That, to me, suggests a natural drama to it. I think Americans have always enjoyed these kinds of stories, but I haven’t seen so many of them on TV lately. So it may be that we’re tapping into some of that.
Is there any kind of through-line with this show and elements from The Dark Knight, where you had Bruce Wayne setting up that vast surveillance network in Gotham City?
I’ve just been fascinated by it since I was a kid. And it was a small feature of The Dark Knight. It was part of a storyline that ran in the comic books that examined Batman and the lengths to which he would go. And there are some connections there. I’ve always been drawn to those stories and maybe drawn to that aspect of Batman.
After 9/11, you started seeing cameras everywhere. And I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a surveillance state: Who’s watching? What are they doing with that information? But I really felt like it’s a really rich story to tap and that we had a lot of questions and ideas about it that I think will give us some really fertile ground for storytelling.
I’m torn over whether you should never speak of the machinery behind it again or if the premise kind of screams for it to be illuminated a little bit at some point. What’s your plan?
I hope you’re not going to be disappointed. I plan to illuminate it again, following the JJ Abrams’ rules, we’ll do it one piece at a time.
I’m so interested in the machine, its inception, how Michael’s character put it together in the backstory, we’re pushing ahead and exploring a little bit more of that, of course, not to the exclusion of kick-ass explosions and amazing soulful relationships and character moments.
The camerawork in the pilot was great. You actually felt very voyeuristic, that you were looking over somebody’s shoulder or you were the eye in the sky doing it. Are you using any actual surveillance cameras around the city to film this?
It’s a beautifully shot pilot directed by the amazingly talented David Semel and our director of photography, Teo Maniaci.
One of the ideas behind it was this idea that the look of the show should help remind the audience of the concept of the show. You wanted to be feeling a little bit like you were peering through layers, spying on people, or that our cameras were spying on our actors.
Actually, this is the first project that I’ve worked on that hasn’t been shot on film. My brother is a huge believer in film and probably will always remain an advocate of shooting on film.
I don’t want to reveal too many ways the show is made, but the prevalence of cameras in this city and elsewhere gives us some interesting production techniques. It’s been great fun in that regard.
Are you looking forward to exploring cases where maybe the team should not intervene and let nature take its course?
Absolutely, you are gonna love it!