Jonathan Nolan is responsible for some of the decade’s most pointed musings on obsession. He wrote the short story "Memento Mori," which his brother, director Christopher Nolan, turned into the mind-fuck-y Memento. He collaborated with Chris on both The Prestige and The Dark Knight. Then, having cemented his place as one of Hollywood’s preeminent screenwriters, including work on the forthcoming The Dark Knight Rises, he took to the smaller screen with Person of Interest, a show that shoots in New York and benefits from the city’s never-ending supply of stories. The show imagines a world where the government is able to monitor every citizen using wiretaps and traffic cameras, and centers on a vigilante duo who mine that data. Finch (Lost’s Michael Emerson) is the mastermind behind an algorithm that determines which New Yorkers are about to be the subject or the perpetrator of a crime, and Reese (Jim Caviezel) is the muscle who digs further into each mystery. We sat down with Nolan during New York City Comic-Con to talk vigilante justice, working with his brother, and his conspiracy theory about Facebook.
In one of the recent episodes of Person of Interest, Reese says that he doesn’t believe people can change. If that’s your belief, then is it challenging to construct this ongoing TV show, where characters have to change at some point?
The secret to all drama, film, TV, or books — the thing that people respond to most, and the thing I find myself as a viewer feeling most interested in, is the idea of change. A lot of these superhero stories, that's the essence of it: That the scene in Spider-Man where Tobey Maguire wakes up one morning and he's different. That's everyone's favorite scene in the movie, the "becoming the hero” montage. People love that. Our pilot for Person of Interest begins with this smash cut from handsome guy on a romantic weekend getaway with his beautiful girlfriend, to a homeless guy on a subway car. So the answer to [Reese’s] question at the end of episode four, at least in the case of his character, is a resounding "yes": People do change, whether they want to or not.
Was there any apprehension in working on a procedural show, which tends to follow a formula more often than not?
When I was a kid, all the shows were procedurals, and there was nothing wrong with that. The procedural has become kind of a dirty word in the last ten years, sort of a slightly unsophisticated idea. But I like procedurals and I always have. I liked Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues, The Equalizer, and Magnum, P.I. And what I loved about them was that secretly they were a delivery device for a serialized story. You had a case-of-the-week format, and you were lulled into a sense of complacency with that, and then they would do something with the characters [snaps fingers]. And it was, "Oh my God, I can't believe that just happened!"
Do you have to stifle the impulse to let information out about the character, and instead save it for future episodes? I’d imagine when you’re writing film, you don’t have to save it for long.
Sometimes you have to dial yourself back. I'm a newbie in TV, but I have an amazing staff, an amazing collection of writers that I'm working with. They help because they'll say things like, "No, no, no, no." They get in the way of it and say, "We'll get to that!" In movies, you just pour it all out on the page, and you're done. You walk away. And it works or it doesn't work.
This is the first of your projects released that isn’t in collaboration with your brother. What part of that dynamic do you miss?
Collaborating with my brother is such a fun thing to do because, in many ways, we have similar minds, having grown up with the same references. I’m the younger brother, so I grew up watching all the hand-me-down VHS cassette tapes of all the films that he loved. So when we work together, it’s a turbo-charged version of the same development process. On this project, I’m working with a writing staff in the same capacity, but it’s, you know, nine people instead of one. And so I’m constantly throwing out movies and occasionally getting silence back when no one’s seen that weird, odd little Portuguese art film that I’m talking about. [Laughs.]
Given your show’s obsession with privacy, what are your feelings about Facebook?
I was talking about this the other day and I was saying, “It’s fucking bananas.” You know, your mom used to say to you when you were a kid, “Well, if the whole world did X, would you do that too?” And I always thought that was a little silly, and then the whole world [joined Facebook] and submitted their info. When I was in college, I spent a year with studies focused around Cuba. Raúl Castro, it took him 30 years to put together a security apparatus to answer one critically difficult and important question, which is, “What is a person’s social network?” The state could figure out who you were married to, who you sat next to at work. The exceptionally difficult question for them to answer was, “Who are your friends?” And that piece of knowledge was always a great — and this makes me sound like a tinfoil-hat-wearing revolutionary crackpot, but the truth is, I work in a town where less than 60 years ago, Congress decided we were a bunch of pinkos and dragged people who do what I do for a living in front of a Congressional subcommittee to testify and rat out their friends because of their informal social networks. Because of who they went to a dinner party with once, or who they corresponded with. We live in a moment in history in which our privacy may not be important. And Zuckerberg tells us it shouldn’t be important. But it’s horseshit. One tiny degree of political difference, one slight alteration in the seats down in Congress, or the world teeters towards distress for one reason or another, whether it’s financial or geopolitical — that list of friends that we’ve publicly put out there … If I worked for the fucking CIA, I’d be laughing my ass off.
So … you’re not on Facebook?
No, I’m not. One of the ideas I had was actually to have a Facebook account, and the criteria for friending me was that I’ve never actually been in the room with you. To try to throw them off the scent a little bit. Anyway, I should stop talking now because I’m sounding increasingly paranoid.