Jonathan Nolan always knew Big Brother was watching. But it wasn't until his upcoming series Person of Interest became CBS's highest-testing drama pilot in 15 years that he realized he'd tapped a cultural nerve about our increasing lack of privacy.
"I often wondered if I was alone in being interested in these things," says Nolan, 35, known to friends as Jonah, and who's perhaps best known for co-writing The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and next year's The Dark Knight Rises with his director brother, Christopher. "Screening the pilot, it was abundantly clear that this has become part of the conversation in a big way."
Person of Interest, which premieres tomorrow, stars Jim Caviezel as a former CIA agent who teams with billionaire software genius Michael Emerson to track down future victims of violent crime. Pattern recognition software identifies the anticipated victims, while cutting-edge surveillance technology tracks them down.
All of which would be comfortably located in a distant sci-fi future, were it not for Nolan's real-life source material. He sites conversations with special forces and federal intelligence officials, books like The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, the government's defunct Total Information Awareness Office, which sought terrorists by culling the records of U.S. occupants before losing funding, and daily headlines as narrative inspirations. One such headline touts new types of surveillance, the FBI's ability to remotely activate cell-phone mics to eavesdrop on organized crime conversations.
Feel comfy now?
"We have software that can parse all this information and find a needle in a haystack," says Nolan. "There are apps that ask what your mood is, or track the transmission of disease. Gmail software reads your emails for marketing purposes. There's a dovetailing of corporate and government interests. Cell phones have become like Trojan horses. It's as though people have willfully tuned all this out. Security, the ability to communicate with friends, and convenience are big parts of it. If you sit around thinking about how many times a day and the way your privacy is being eroded, it's uncomfortable."
That's where Person of Interest comes in.
"This show asks the next question," Nolan says. "Assume we're in a surveillance state to look for terrorists. What do we do with all the other information? The apparatus is in place. The only difference is intent. Google's intent is to get you to buy groceries. Our show is about malicious intent."
Nolan got a taste of encroaching surveillance while growing up in the North London neighborhood of Highgate. "Scotland Yard began putting cameras up everywhere," he recalls of a time long before local phone hacking scandals erupted. "There were cameras out on street corners; English police employed cameras. When I moved to the States at 12, there weren't any cameras. Now you're seeing some cities catching up. In Manhattan, they counted 5,000 in 2005. In 2010, the number was uncountable."
Add that to the number of cell phone cameras, and you've pretty much waived your right to privacy any time you step out your front door—or back. "We even talked a little bit about this in The Dark Night," he says, alluding to the scene where Batman turns all the Gotham City cell phones into tracking devices to find The Joker. "My brother is equally secretive—when he carried the script for Batman Begins, he'd protect it with encryption software. I've been paranoid for a long, long time."
Suddenly, the phone connection goes dead. A few minutes later, Nolan calls back.
"We have a joke that [POI exec producer and Lost god] J.J. Abrams is tapping the phones and cuts them off if I say something stupid," laughs Nolan. "I'm wearing my foil hat as I say this."
Beyond exploring the more sinister elements of humanity, Nolan's first TV venture has expanded his creative and technical opportunities.
"This is an enormous departure from what I doing before," says Nolan, who also wrote the upcoming Warner Bros.' Hell and Gone and Paramount's Interstellar. "As a film screenwriter, you write it up and hand it in. I have a little more input, given that I'm related to the director. But in TV, I'm doing everything, and the pace is accelerated. Where movies enable two hours of mayhem with no pause button, TV enables me to write a massive story and take characters on a really long journey."
POI's focus also enables Nolan to tinker with unusual shots and video resolution. "TV is mostly shot digitally," he says. "Given the theme of the show, my attitude was, 'Let's embrace that and dive in head first.' We have a full suite of camera shapes and sizes that we can hide anywhere and get all kinds of quality and resolution."
The exception—the show's signature visual conceit is surveillance video with date and time code that pops up throughout episodes—came from actual Los Angeles Department of Transportation surveillance cameras.
"They haven't let me buy a Weisscam yet," he says, wistfully. "Those are the digital cameras that shoot 4,000 frames per second, so you can do things like capture bullets flying through water balloons. If they pick up the back nine [episodes], I'm buying a drone. We have a consumer-style drone flying around the writer's office. They're all paranoid—they're under the assumption we've tapped all their phones. I'm not saying it's not true ... "
[Images: Courtesy of Jonathan Nolan/CBS]