When Summit Entertainment brought Christopher Nolan’s Memento to the American Film Market in 2000, the British- born director was still a relative unknown. The screenplay he wrote for his second feature proved puzzling as it wove together two timelines, one in reverse chronological order, to tell the story of a man with short- term memory loss trying to piece together the truth behind his wife’s murder.
But producer Aaron Ryder, calling it “perhaps the most innovative script I had ever seen,” brought it to Newmarket Films, which agreed to finance the project on a budget that was variously reported as $4.5 million to $9 million. When Newmarket failed to interest an American distributor, the company decided to release it itself domestically, with Summit coming aboard to handle international sales.
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After big-name stars like Brad Pitt passed, Australian actor Guy Pearce was cast in the mind-bending lead role, with Carrie-Anne Moss, fresh from The Matrix, and Joe Pantoliano in supporting roles. “The thing was that even though on some level it felt like gobbledegook as I was reading it, because you got the sense that things were all over the place, what was really clear was the emotional journey of the character,” Pearce later told GQ. “As the actor that’s the only thing I need to latch onto in order to do my job. … Once it all made sense to me, I then had to put it all away and let it all go and just treat every scene as its own little thing because I wasn’t supposed to remember what had happened before and obviously had no clue.”
When Memento debuted at the Venice International Film Festival later in 2000, an enthusiastic buzz began building, which continued through the film’s appearances at Deauville, Toronto and Sundance. When it opened theatrically, Memento went on to gross $25.5 million in North America and $40 million worldwide, serving notice that Nolan, who helmed this year’s Oppenheimer, was a rule-breaking director on the rise. Ryder, whose latest film, Dumb Money, just hit theaters, recently told THR, “I knew it was something special, but I don’t think anyone could truly predict the future that he would become one of the greatest and most successful filmmakers ever.”
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