Jonathan Nolan on ‘Person of Interest’ & ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

The acclaimed screenwriter speaks about his hit CBS series and this year's most anticipated superhero movie.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

For CBS’s evening Television Critics Association party, they brought all of their showrunners in for a cocktail party. "Person of Interest" co-creator and executive producer Jonathan Nolan didn’t want to go too far into "The Dark Knight Rises" territory, but he answered two questions among the many I had about his action mystery show too.


Q: How do you work action scenes into an episode, good opportunities to have Jim Caviezel fight a few guys?

Jonathan Nolan: We like it to stem from story. You don’t ever want the action to feel like it’s obligatory. So we have episodes where the scale of the action comes way down and then some episodes where it goes way up. But we also want to approach it from a perspective of what can we shoot? I’ve worked in the movie business for many, many years where you have lots of days and lots of money. It’s really mainly about time. We always try to conceive all of our action from a place of what can we shoot that looks fantastic? Rather than trying to do the kinds of thing that you would be able to accomplish in a movie. That dovetails really nicely with the concept of the show which is really about being there in time. So instead of doing a car chase, you do the end of a car chase because our guy gets to walk out in front of the car chase and just cut it off, instead of shooting a week long car chase.

Q: But you are able to deliver those moments.

Jonathan Nolan: Yeah, but it’s a question of making sure they’re the kind of moments we can pull off in New York practically. I’m not a big fan of visual effects. We took a lot of the approach that my brother uses for the films that I’ve worked on and tried to apply it to the show. I think the audience feels that. I think they feel the reality of a lot of the things that we shoot. Then enhancing it in the right places with visual effects. We have an amazing stunt coordinator. We have an amazing visual effects team and a great division of labor. I think that’s the most important thing.

Q: Where do we pick up after the hiatus?

Jonathan Nolan: Well, we went out on a bit of a cliffhanger and I think it’s safe to say given the show and the audience’s response to Jim that he’s still alive. We can spoil that one but again with this show, we like to have a little bit of damage. We like to imagine that this is a real world with real stakes so Jim’s recuperating a little bit. That’s part of the setup of the episode. It’s great fun, a bit of a role reversal.

Q: With the news that Detective Carter is going to be incorporated more into the main stories, did Taraji P. Henson show you she could do that earlier than you may have originally planned?

Jonathan Nolan: The thing with Taraji Henson is she’s incredible. You know that when you hire her so the challenge there was to always keep the material vital for her even when episode after episode she’s just a little bit too late, she’s just a little bit behind the 8 ball. Now we get to evolve that and start to have some real fun.

Q: Does the story of the week have to be a little more complicated than the usual "CSI" mystery?

Jonathan Nolan: It’s a different level of complication. I think [that] "CSI" proved to a spectacular effect the audience’s capacity for and interest in… that show proved all kinds of interesting things and had all sorts of interesting hallmarks but one of them was the level of complexity and depth to forensic science. You realize that for years you would imagine the note would be, “People don’t want to hear that complication. They’re not interested in the gack of the show.” But with "CSI" you realize that as long as you coupled it to compelling drama, people were actually really interested in that stuff. I think that what’s gratifying is when we put detail about technology, about the ways in which Finch and Reese are able to hack into the lives of the person of interest, the audience seems to eat it up. I’m interested in these things. I’m a bit of a tech geek. It’s one of the reasons I was drawn to the idea of the show in the first place and it seems to me the audience kind of feels the same way which is great fun so you get to sink into it a little bit more.

Q: Now that we’ve seen the first six minutes of "The Dark Knight Rises," how did you come up with that amazing airplane sequence?

Jonathan Nolan: It’s an amazing team with my brother, David Goyer and myself. Those are two great guys to work with and brainstorm with. I think Chris had long wanted to do sort of the aerial spectacular. It’s such a good fit for the Imax cameras that he likes to shoot with and so that was a long time in the making. Lots and lots of talking to do about The Dark Knight Rises and I’m excited to do it but we’re still sort of in lockdown mode in terms of talking about that project…

Q: I want to talk about the show too. Just one thing I wanted to ask was as a writer, is it bittersweet that you write some fantastic dialogue and it might be muffled in some fashion?

Jonathan Nolan: I gotta tell you, I think what Tom Hardy’s doing with the role is spectacular. I have the benefit of seeing a little bit more than the audience has seen at this point. It’s pretty spectacular.

Q: Thank you. Has there been new technology since you started the show that you can now incorporate into the machine and the storylines?

Jonathan Nolan: It’s so funny, every week we have ten amazing writers working on the show and every day somebody e-mails the team something they’ve read somewhere about not just technology but culturally, the world seems to be shaping itself in the direction of the franchise of our show, which is a little scary. But in a weird way kind of gratifying because you feel like where the thing was pitched and even when the pilot debuted last year, you hear a lot of things about it being science fiction or fantasy. It’s sadly not as fantastical as people would like to imagine.

Q: I hope you appreciate this comparison but were you a fan of "Quantum Leap" where he helps someone different each week? Only instead of time travel, it’s present day technology.

Jonathan Nolan: I love that show. I think one of the things that "Quantum Leap" did, but it’s something that shows like "The Equalizer" or "Magnum P.I." or a lot of high concept procedurals have done over the years is give you a familiar set of characters that you can kind of fall in love with and bring into your extended family and that’s really what TV shows for a lot of us are, but also jump from world to world. What we wanted to do was do that within New York City. I spent a lot of time in New York in the last year and it’s sort of been like a bounded infinity. There’s so many different worlds within that one 30 mile area and for us it’s a chance to take familiar characters and explore a new world.

Q: It seems like the role I’ve been waiting for Jim Caviezel to play. He’s dynamic and charming and tough. How did you tap into every characteristic he can deliver?

Jonathan Nolan: I think Jim always brings to any role he works on this measure of warmth and humanity. I mean, people love that guy. You see it when you spend time with him. It’s not just the films he’s been in and the roles he’s portrayed. He’s just this incredibly warm human being and that comes through in every role. But I’ve always looked at him and I fell in love with that guy in "The Thin Red Line" which is a picture he stole literally from every actor your ever heard of.

Q: It's "Frequency" for me.

Jonathan Nolan: "Frequency" is one that comes up a lot. I know a lot of guys, that’s a favorite film for them. In addition to all of those things we all knew Jim could do, I knew that guy could kick a whole bunch of ass. You see him in "G.I. Jane" which is a very different role for him, it was a very early role for him, and you just knew this guy had an edge there as well. So we’ve had a lot of fun playing with him.


Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel – Touchstone Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures.