''It's completely gigantic,'' says Chris Nolan, gesturing at the warehouse around him. ''Isn't it?'' Sure enough, the ceiling stretches into cobwebbed darkness and the floor space recalls nothing so much as that last scene in ''Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' when Indiana Jones' discovery is banished to dusty obscurity. Nolan lopes through the gloomy studio to point out highlights: a ratty hotel room set on 10-foot-high stilts; a matte painting of an Alaskan landscape; a small house, complete with a grip catching a nap in the backyard. ''Cool, huh?'' Nolan says, pulling on his black trench coat. ''I guess I'm in Hollywood now.''
Vancouver, actually, but for a guy jumping from ''Memento,'' a $4.5 million indie that no distributor wanted -- and eventually earned $25.5 million and Oscar nominations for writing and editing -- to a $50 million studio film, it's close enough. On this cool, gray June afternoon, the 31-year-old director is prepping a critical scene for his new Warner Bros. thriller, ''Insomnia.'' Out of the shadows, Robin Williams appears, trailed by delighted crew members. ''Can't talk to the journalist,'' he says in a shticky little-kid voice. ''Not allowed. Bad. Bad. Bad. No talkie.'' From a nearby director's chair, costar Maura Tierney offers a wan smile, then sneaks away for a cigarette.
The cameras finally roll and the star of the movie limps into view. Al Pacino -- playing Will Dormer, a tortured cop tracking a killer -- moves achingly through the hotel room and into the bathroom. He stops, runs water over his hands, and glares at his lean, lined face in the mirror. Even from 15 yards away, it's a dazzling moment; a riot of applause erupts when Nolan yells ''Cut!'' The director bounces to Pacino's side and claps a hand on his shoulder. They scoop up lattes, grin, and saunter toward the exit side by side.
This is where a movie like ''Memento'' gets you.
He's nervous,'' frets Emma Thomas. ''They can't tell, but I'm his wife. I know these things.''