Active vs. PASIV Writing
Exposition has long remained a tricky obstacle for writers, as important plot points or character information needs to be explained, hopefully in an entertaining fashion. Nolan admits battling this as well and believes the key to making expository sequences interesting lies in keeping the writing active rather than passive. Amusingly, in the film — either on purpose or subconsciously — the device used to invade people’s dreams is known as the Portable Automated Somnacin Intra Venous, or PASIV device. “Exposition is such a massive demand,” he admits. “It’s something you have to just try and imbue in the relationships of the characters. You never want to find yourself in a scene where characters are passively receiving information in some way, because you don’t want the audience passively receiving information. You want them engaged with that dramatization.”
Helpful to Nolan’s process was his collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio, who combed through the script, scene by scene, in order to examine his character’s emotional truths and motivations. “One of the things it really forced me to do was to truly dramatize every beat of exposition so that the sum character reason for getting information is that the information means something,” Nolan says. “There’s certainly a beat in the film where there’s an important idea about being trapped inside the dream and about not being able to wake up from it. I had always put it in there as fairly neutral exposition [where] the characters were being fairly passive, and then after thrashing it over with Leo, I was pushed to the conclusion of dramatizing it through conflict. It made it work in a way it was not working before. It made the expositional scene into something that was important to the characters.”
A heightened importance of inanimate objects as personal icons or totems reappears throughout Nolan’s writing. “It’s not something I’ve been that conscious of,” he says.“Following is probably the first I’ve ever really dealt with it — right from the get-go with the idea of a person having a box and having these objects that signify them.” In this, Nolan’s debut feature, a thief (also named Cobb) relishes in showing a voyeur the relics of strangers, which are generally useless objects that would have no significance to anyone else in the world except their owner; objects that Cobb steals for his own amusement.“I’m interested in the idea that you can have an inanimate object that’s imbued with all kinds of emotional resonance and nostalgia,” Nolan says.
In Memento, Leonard (Pearce) uses a collection of his wife’s belongings, placed near him as he falls asleep, in hopes of reliving what happened on the night of her murder. When he fails to glean anything from the re-creation, Leonard purges the objects by burning them in a fire. Such a scene allowed Nolan to convey character exposition through action and visual signifiers rather than explanation, as Leonard’s disintegrating disconnect with both his memory of that night and the memories he believed the objects may hold are subtly reinforced. “It’s something that is fundamentally cinematic because a visual icon is probably the most resonant example of how you imbue experience, memory and emotion into an object,” he says.
In Inception, Nolan takes the use of personal icons a step further. Tasked with keeping their heads straight while experiencing multiple versions of reality, the heist team carries objects, the true physical nature of which only they know, as a way of identifying whether the “reality” they inhabit is real or fabricated.