Christopher Nolan is a hard man to track down, but after some patience and persistence, we were lucky enough to sit down with the (to name just a few) “Memento,” “Prestige” and “Inception” director at length to discuss “The Dark Knight Rises,” his debut feature film “Following” and much more about his lauded Batman trilogy. You can read all that right here in part one of our talk, and continue with us as we dug deeper with Nolan into the mythology of his Batman films and his process for putting the pieces of his entire series together, all of which we’ve presented in a part two below.
This week sees “The Dark Knight Rises,” the closing chapter in his Gotham-based trilogy, arrive on home video, and whether you’ve seen it already or are waiting to pop it into your DVD or Blu-ray player, Nolan’s thoughts are a solid primer before you re-discover the film or enjoy it for the first time. So below, the second and final part of our interview with the director, including his thoughts on the psychological and aesthetic underpinnings of the series.
Could you walk us through the writing process with David Goyer and your brother Jonathan [Jonah]?
The films were each a little bit different. On “Batman Begins” David and I sat down and talked a lot about the history of the character. I talked to him about the film and he came up with a story and very quickly wrote the first draft because he had to go off to direct the [“Blade: Trinity”] film. So he managed to squeeze it in.
I then took that draft and rewrote it and involved my brother in that process as well. I would talk to him about what I was doing and get him to look at particular scenes. You know Jonathan contributed a lot to [“Batman Begins”] as well, although he’s not credited on the film. So when it came to “The Dark Knight” what I decided was to do it in a similar process. David and I came up with the story together and we handed that story to Jonah. He spent a very long time wrestling with that first draft of that movie which was extremely difficult. I then came on and wrote with him, sometimes on my own, sometimes with him and we tossed drafts back and forth. “The Dark Knight Rises” was the same process. Though Jonah was busy at that point and so I wound up doing more on my own. But, because he’s my brother he’s always at the end of the phone so he could squeeze in a little bit more.
It probably helps that he’s your younger brother too.
Exactly. I can always call him up and say, “You’ve got to help with this or that.” The contributions of both of them are immeasurable. David from his knowledge of the comics, he’s just a great storyteller.
So how did David appear to you as the right choice to help co-conceive the Batman story?
I had met him before and liked him and I just talked to him about Batman, he just had a great handle on these sort of big-picture emotions. Jonah and his writing is so precise in capturing the nature in “The Dark Knight” and how that engine of anarchy and chaos would shape the story because “The Dark Knight” is a very, very unconventional story. It really shouldn’t work, but it does. It does because of the veracity of the engine kind of driving it. There’s a point in the film where it just relentlessly does the same thing again and again and again.
Right after Rachel Dawes [played by Maggie Gyllenhaal] is killed.
Yes. Really from that point on you’re not in any kind of pretty or comfortable story shape. You’re into a very different and daring story. I told Jonah and David that draft couldn’t possibly work and said “I’d have to rewrite it.” And eventually realized that it just needed to be the way Jonah had written it. It was the right thing for this story. The Joker’s never going to conform to conventional story structure, he just isn’t. In fact, in some ways, it was a pleasure in “The Dark Knight Rises” to get back to characters who could conform, and we could do something a little more classical in the shape of the story, which felt necessary for the ending [of the series]. That’s more how “Batman Begins” works, it’s more shaped. “The Dark Knight” is a more anarchic film.
Sure, because of the villain’s ideology.
Precisely. It doesn’t have rules, it doesn’t obey the traditional screenwriting rules and what have you.
The interrogation scene seems crucial because The Joker tells Batman their ideologies are essentially the same, and it seems like he goes ballistic because the comment cuts to his core.
He’s out of control, definitely. The point in which he has him up against the wall, Batman’s still in control, but once his anger gets the better of him… That’s why he makes the mistake he makes, essentially.
Did you guys want to explore the idea of Batman as a sociopath too?
Absolutely. I mean we talk about it in “Batman Begins,” but the story didn’t demand it. I didn’t want to do too much superficial philosophizing in terms of talking about, “Is he going too far? Is he not going too far?” When it made sense to discuss it, that idea, then by all means, we put it in there. Christian Bale felt when we came to “The Dark Knight” that it was important that we really showed that danger, and that became the interrogation scene.
So it’s back to your point about patience with character building in franchises. Waiting for the right moment to explore the idea.
It is. It’s all about patience because you can’t force it. It was too early [in “Batman Begins”] to explore that side of Bruce. It was too early to build the whole thing up and then call it into question. We did it in a small way in “Batman Begins” with Alfred’s response to the reckless car chase, which sets up the scene where he shames his father’s name by having to play the drunken playboy [ed. as a ruse to keep his guests from leaving the party to keep them from being hurt by Ra’s al Ghul’s men]. But yes, it was about patience. It was about waiting until the time was right, and then really pushing that.
The Batman universe in the comics is vast. Did you ever consider using other members of the murderer’s row of villains he’s faced?
There was a lot to choose from when it came to “The Dark Knight Rises.” But we had certain pretty tight parameters we were looking for [the character to fulfill]. We knew we needed a very physical protagonist. We didn’t want to do anything that echoed The Joker in any way. The Joker was very specifically this unique, anarchic force, who was not physical. You know, he’s much more of the Hannibal Lecter end of things. We wanted a very physical monster. We wanted more of the Darth Vader, if you like, and that was very important in the story dynamics. We wanted Bruce to be facing a stronger presence, physically, which we hadn’t done before. That felt like a necessary escalation and so the story behind it, which we were able to draw on, was quite epic. The really interesting thing about Bane is, he’s massively strong but he’s also extremely intelligent, and his past very much mirrors Bruce Wayne’s in interesting ways, from his training and with the League of Shadows background. Bane represents the the wrong path of Bruce Wayne almost back to “Batman Begins.” So Bane is the return of that danger. The wrong side for Bruce Wayne.
Do you want to keep exploring the blockbuster genre?
I’m open to a lot of different things. I don’t have an exact idea of what I’m going to do next, which I am quite enjoying. I’ve been on a very relentless timeline for the last few years. I worked on this for the last 12 years, so I’m not in any rush. But there are a few [projects] I’m looking at. I like films of all scales and so I feel that in the future if I have the chance, I’ll do a lot of different sizes of films.
The films you did in between Batman films were a type of film noir — anti-heroes, morally dubious protagonists and things end poorly for them.
I suppose. You know to me every film feels equally large. I see scale in storytelling and emotional terms, in budgetary terms I suppose I would say. So for me a story has to be massive in some way, even if it’s two guys sitting around talking about something. It has to have an enormity to it that draws me to it. It takes a long time to make a film.
“Man of Steel” looks like it’s borne out of the realistic Nolan-verse.
Well somewhat, but I wouldn’t want people to think we’re doing for Superman what we did for Batman. It’s very much Zack’s film, and I think people are going to love what he’s done. I think it’s really remarkable to take on that character. Superman is a completely different character than Batman. So you can’t in any way use the same template. But David Goyer had this, I thought, brilliant way to make Superman relatable and relevant for his audience. Zack has built on that and I think it’s incredible what he’s putting together. He’s got a lot of finishing to do on that. Superman is the biggest comic book character of them all, and he needs the biggest possible movie version, which is what Zack’s doing. It’s really something.
“The Dark Knight Rises” and the entire Dark Knight trilogy is now out on Blu-Ray/DVD.