The Los Angeles Times held its first annual Hero Complex film festival this month. On June 12, Christopher Nolan took a break from the dubbing stages at Warner Brothers to discuss Insomnia and The Dark Knight, which screened that night. Of course he previewed his highly anticipated summer movie too, in a Q&A with Geoff Boucher. If you like this, be sure to check out Nolan at the Los Angeles Film Festival where he’s speaking about Pink Floyd: The Wall!
Q: Did you do a lot of practical effects in Inception?
Christopher Nolan: Yeah, Inception has a lot of physical effects in it, as did The Dark Knight and Batman Begins. I think I’ve sort of always had a belief that however sophisticated a process of animation is, the audience can always on some level tell the difference between something that’s been photographed and something that’s been animated by an artist. What I found on Batman Begins, to give a very specific example, Janek Sirrs and Dan Glass, a very talented visual effects team, were very hot to do a digital Batman for certain things. I was very reluctant. They did a test for me. We shot Christian landing on the stairs of Arkham Asylum. We gave them that piece of film and said, “Okay, match that.” They came back with two pieces of film pretty much identical. I could tell which one was the effect which they were a little upset about, but I had to admit, it was incredibly close. I think that somebody who wasn’t really studying it wouldn’t have known the difference. As we took it a little further, what I realized is that’s because they had a real thing to match to, a real shot. Then they can do something extremely sophisticated with the animation. When they had to do shots from nothing, the level of reality was far, far lower. It was much, much easier to spot when a computer graphics element comes in. From that, what learned was if you can photograph something for real, they’re able to do much better work.
Q: Have you been working on Inception for like 10 years?
Christopher Nolan: Yeah, Inception is something I have been working on for a long time. I’ve wanted to make a film about dreams really since I was a kid. That idea took various forms over the years. About 10 years ago, I settled on this concept of really a heist movie set around the idea of a technology that allows people to share dreams and the abuse of that technology by a group of people called extractors, that people can, by drawing somebody into your dream, they can find secrets and steal information. That’s sort of the beginning of the world, the premise that Inception is launched from. I first pitched it to Warner Brothers right after we finished Insomnia. They were very interested and wanted me to write it for them. I sort of realized that it’s not something I could have ever written on assignment. It’s something I needed to go write on spec and show them the finished thing. So I went off to write it and I thought that would take me a couple of months and it took me 10 years. But, it was the right way to go, because when they saw the screenplay, it was a very challenging screenplay to read. It’s much easier to watch as a film than it is to read it as a screenplay. By then, having done the Batman films and done Insomnia, I was in a position where they were able to trust me that I could bring these things to life on screen.
Q: How important was what Leonardo DiCaprio brought to the film?
Christopher Nolan: One of the reasons it took so long to finish the script is I was lacking a strong emotional connection. I’d written a heist movie. Heist movies, it turns out, it’s not something I ever realized, tend to be deliberately superficial. They tend to be glamorous and fun and procedural. They tend not to have massive emotional shifts so that wasn’t really enough for me to finish the script. So what I wound up doing is over the years, I figured out how to emotionally connect to the character. As Leo came on, he’s an actor very much like Guy Pearce was in Memento, who had the task of finding the emotional truth of the character. By being so rigid about that as he is in all his performances, he really needs to know the emotional logic behind why his characters are doing things. I went through that for months with him. I think we really managed to finish the piece, make it something that at least for me – we’ll find out what audiences think in a few weeks – but for me and for the people working on Inception, were able to connect emotionally, not just on a level of being a clever puzzle box of a film.
Q: You’ve said you’re most proud of the interrogation scene in Dark Knight. What is it about that scene?
Christopher Nolan: I think for me the scene means a lot to me for all kinds of different reasons. On a technical level, we were able to do the scene very much in the way I wanted. I worked very early with Nathan Crowley on the look of the room, what it was like in there, one way glass and all that. We actually shot screen tests for Heath’s makeup and the new batsuit and we put the guys together, put the wall coloring that we wanted to use and got Wally Pfister, my DP to experiment with this incredibly hot room. I think he was five stops over lighting because what I was trying to pitch him on, it took me a while to convince him, was instead of doing a dark, traditional interrogation scene, I wanted to throw the lights on and have it be the opposite, have it really be this incredibly bright thing. There was a big technical challenge in that, firstly to make the batsuit look good. you couldn’t ever have done that scene with the batsuit that we used for Batman Begins. It simply didn’t have the quality of the one we built for The Dark Knight. Lindy Hemming, the costume designer, did an incredible job, totally reimagined the materials we made it from, how it would move and everything. So all of these technical things went into it. We put it very early in the schedule because I talked to Heath about this, I felt like doing one of the biggest Joker scenes very early on would be a great way of just breaking the ice, giving him and all of us the confidence of what he was able to do with the character. So we shot it I think in the second week. He was really up for it, just threw himself into it with a great passion, Gary Oldman coming back and creating a great awe on set because Heath was in awe of Gary as all of the young actors are. Just having him involved brought a level of professionalism to it, seriousness to it. It was really fun to watch so it really just came out very well. It was everything I wanted it to be and much more because the actors brought so much to it. I think it’s one of the first times, I’m sure Christian feels the same, it’s one of the first times with our Batman if you like we were really able to show how driven by rage he is. It’s something we tried to get into Batman Begins in other ways but the material didn’t really sustain it. This was a situation we’re able to really show the dark side of that character.
Q: Did you go back to that location on Inception?
Christopher Nolan: Yeah, we used that. That was shot at a location in London. In Batman Begins, it’s the police station. We went back there for The Dark Knight and then on Inception we went back and used it for a different location. It’s just a good old building, a lot of great texture.
Q: Was going back there emotional after the loss of Heath?
Christopher Nolan: In a way, but they’re very positive memories. I think very often with locations, when you go back there and have positive memories of what you were able to do there, Cardington for us, which is this great hangar outside of London, we built sets for Inception. All of our sets for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are still standing, because nobody else seems to want to use this facility. It’s like my own personal garage or whatever. It’s just got the sets for a couple years. We have great memories of having worked there on different things. The fun thing about shooting that scene was that most of the principals were involved. Certainly at Cardington when we go back there, it’s a very positive thing. Those emotions and those feelings, they remind you of what it is you’re doing and what you’re trying to achieve.
Q: You have six Oscar nominees in Inception.
Christopher Nolan: I hadn’t noticed. It’s an incredible cast. I’ve been very fortunate on my films to work with terrific ensembles. This is really spectacular. There are some newer talent obviously if you’ve seen the trailer, Ellen and Jo, Tom Hardy, young guys. These guys are just incredible. It’s really fun to see them come together as an ensemble because that’s very much the story in the film as well. They had a very good energy.
Q: And Michael Caine’s been in your last four. Is he your lucky charm?
Christopher Nolan: He claims to be my lucky charm and the problem I faced and the reason he’s in Inception is once somebody’s said that to you, what are you going to do? He’ll always have a part from now on. He’s actually just a terrific person to work with. His movie star charisma is extraordinary but he’s just a lovely professional guy to work with.
Q: When we look at your films so far, Superman doesn’t really seem to fit with the haunted characters you’ve tackled. Is there something we’re missing?
Christopher Nolan: It’s something I’m doing as a producer, not as a director, but my involvement in it is quite specific which is while David Goyer and myself were wrestling with the story for another Batman film, as we were stuck, he just said to me kind of out of the blue one day that he had a great idea for how to take on Superman. He pitched it to me. I thought it was terrific. I just felt like I didn’t want it to not get done, so I went to the studio and said, “Let’s have a crack.” That’s the nature of my involvement.
Q: So it was a story that had to be told?
Christopher Nolan: Yeah, he figured out a great way of approaching it.
Q: Was the Richard Donner Superman an influence on your Batmans?
Christopher Nolan: Well, I drew a line straight from it. I literally pitched the studio my take on Batman by saying I wanted to make the Batman film that had never been made in 1978 or ’79-ish. I think what Tim Burton did with Batman was absolutely extraordinary but it was very idiosyncratic. It’s really quite mad for a studio film when you look at it. Much as I enjoyed that, I felt like there was a gap there. That is to say, they’d never done the kind of Dick Donner version of Batman, it’s an ordinary world with an extraordinary hero at the center of it. The textures were real world with this very surprising figure in the middle of it, and the origin story. I very specifically went to the studio and said that’s what I had in mind.
Q: Were you surprised by the enormous success of The Dark Knight?
Christopher Nolan: It very much took us by surprise. I think we felt in retrospect that when we released Batman Begins, it suffered from a lot of suspicion of the franchise, a lot of suspicion of what a Batman film was like at the time. It hadn’t been that many years since the last film. At the time, this idea of rebooting a franchise didn’t exist. So it was a very peculiar marketing thing to put it out there. People seemed to really like the film and it did well, but I think when The Dark Knight came along it had the massive benefit of us having put that film out there to show people that you could do something different with the character. I think that helped to raise expectations because it did very well on DVD and so forth, but we were very surprised by the level of success. I think there are certainly elements that go into that, not the least Heath Ledger’s incredible performance as The Joker. It’s one of those elements that from the second people started seeing it, they could tell that it was going to be something extraordinary.
Q: You’re going to introduce Pink Floyd: The Wall at the Los Angeles Film Festival. What is the influence of that film?
Christopher Nolan: I think all of his films, he’s always used music in an incredible way. He’s the only filmmaker in a contemporary sense to make a musical you don’t realize it’s a musical. Pink Floyd: The Wall, we screened it before we started shooting Inception because I like to screen movies and just watch them with the crew, see if it inspires anything relating to what we’re going to do. It was I think shocking to everybody. A lot of people hadn’t seen it. The reaction at the end, people were literally kind of speechless. Watching it on a big screen is really something. What I was showing everybody was a film that I saw as a teenager that I found very influential in terms of the nonlinear nature of its storytelling. It’s nonnarrative in the traditional sense. There’s no dialogue to speak of. There’s about two lines. Everything is song or image. What he does is connect different timelines just through image, just through symbolism, a hand dropping a telephone, things like that. And then winds up actually mixing within timelines different symbols, breaking chronological boundaries. It was something that was very influential on me. Once again, it’s something that I’ve taken in a more maybe verbal American direction, a pop direction. It’s extremely visual.
Q: Should we believe any of the online reports on Batman 3?
Christopher Nolan: Honestly, I don’t really look at the internet. I think at a very early stage in taking on Batman, I realized it wasn’t going to be helpful to look at what they say. I’ve always taken the view that everybody feels very passionate about these characters and they have a lot of ideas and a lot of thoughts on what should or shouldn’t be done. I think underlying it all, all you can really offer as a filmmaker is try to make what you feel is going to be sincerely the best movie you could make. Beyond that, you’re never going to be able to keep people happy. You’ll hear things from the studio sometimes, it’s clear that they’ve been reading stuff online, but you have to just sort of [let it go]. I got a call saying, “Why did you cast Cher?” So I actually don’t have e-mail or a cell phone. It gives me a little more time to think.