Last night at the Walter Reade theater in New York, Christopher Nolan and Film Comment contributing editor Scott Foundas sat down for an hour plus chat about the ‘Dark Knight‘ trilogy, Nolan’s career and the traditionalist’s love of cinema, the virtues of IMAX cameras and shooting on 65mm, and the importance of keeping the photochemical process alive in a digital age.
The fascinating conversation was also peppered with key footage from all three Batman films, though projected digitally much to Foundas’ (and surely Nolan’s) dismay. Much of what they discussed had covered similar ground to the just-posted interview Foundas and Nolan had in Film Comment this month (which disappointed a few hardcore fans) but as always, there were some notable moments. Here are six highlights from “Film Society of Lincoln Center – An Evening with Christopher Nolan.”
1. Heath Ledger met with Christopher Nolan about the part of Batman and Bruce Wayne.
Before you get too excited, Nolan said, as is routine, he met with many young actors for the part. And while Ledger took the meeting, he immediately said he wasn’t interested. “He was quite gracious about it, but he said, ‘I would never take a part in a superhero film.’ ” Nolan said. The filmmaker said he thinks Ledger changed his mind eventually because, “I explained to him what I wanted to do with ‘Batman Begins‘ and I think maybe he felt I achieved it.”
2. Ledger signed onto the part of The Joker months before there was an actual screenplay.
Having been won over by “Batman Begins,” Ledger was more than game to play the Joker and actually sought the part from the director. The filmmaker wasn’t sure who he wanted to play the part yet, but he said the actor quickly convinced him. Nolan explained that Ledger didn’t like to work much and waited until “he was hungry.” And so when the Joker role came around, “he was certainly hungry then.”
The filmmaker said the actor germinated on the role for months to slowly find his way into the role. “Heath spent months and months [preparing],we cast him even before the script was written so he had a very long time to obsess about it, think about what he was going to do, to really figure it out.”
During this period, Nolan sent “touchstones” to prepare for the role like the novel “A Clockwork Orange” and books on the paintings of Francis Bacon — “a lot of tangential things that fed into the character,” he said.
3. When Nolan finally got the final script to Ledger, he hesitated and became nervous. What if this actor, already immersed in the role, didn’t like the screenplay?
Obviously Nolan had explained the idea of the Joker, that he was going to be an anarchist with a lack of ideology that would challenge the very being and fabric of the methods and philosophy of Batman. But all the time he prepared, the script was still being written. The final hand-off to the actor was like a leap of faith.
“It was a very scary moment, because by this time he was so committed and knew what kind of high wire act it was going to be and if he didn’t like [the screenplay], it would have been extremely uncomfortable. But he [liked it]. He sighed with relief, I sighed with relief,” Nolan said.
4. While the Joker character is iconic now, they weren’t always so sure about it at the time.
The Joker voice slowly developed over time and during camera tests until it finally emerged. “In that way he kind of sneaked up on it,” Nolan said, explaining it didn’t just become the voice all of a sudden. Both of them however, were a little nervous about it. “There were moments when you go, ‘Oh, that’s exactly right’ and there are moments when you go, ‘I hope this is good because I have no idea.’ It was so unpredictable.”
“The voice was certainly scary because it would shift in pitch,” Nolan attested. “You never quite know which way the pitch is going to go with the voice. Just as the physical movements were [unpredictable], you didn’t know what he was going to do with his hands, the way he moved, it was always a surprise. The actual tone of his voice was a surprise too. Sometimes threatening and sometimes more sing-song and light.”
The first sequence they shot was the IMAX prologue. Nolan said he put that scene up front because in a way, it was low stakes, Ledger wore a mask for most of it and there was little dialogue. But the character was there regardless with the slinky physicality that was out of a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton film. The opening reveal of the Joker, when he took off the clown mask, was problematic. Because they were still getting used to the IMAX cameras, the shot of his face was slightly out of focus so Nolan called for a reshoot. But Ledger immediately called him, worried that he had gone too big and wild. “It was tremendous, but when we looked at dailies it was slightly out of focus,” he said. “So I just rescheduled, and I got this horrified phone call from Heath saying, ‘What have I done?’ It was the first time he had ever kind of shown us the voice and character [for real] and we wanted to reshoot it!” He laughed. “[But I said], ‘No, no no, it’s great,’ but he never quite believed me.”
Nolan said Ledger graciously reshot the scene, but ultimately they went with the original, slightly out of focus take in the final film because it was just one of a kind. “It was just magic,” he said. “It was that thing. And I think part of him knew he couldn’t reproduce it because it was so of the moment.”
Nolan said the first major scene they shot was the interrogation sequence between the Joker and Batman because Ledger had been playing with variations of the voice and character and the filmmaker wanted him to “commit” to a version of the Joker. Nolan also said that scene was shot in England with a “gruff” British crew who were used to Jack Nicholson as the Joker “didn’t really know what [Ledger] was doing.” But he soon won them over. “After a couple of days they said, ‘He’s the business,’ as they say. They could just tell.”
5. The Batman does not enter “Batman Begins” until after the first hour of the movie, but Nolan studied action touchstones beat by beat and gave evidence to Warner Bros. to assuage any concerns they had.
Something that most people seem to forget is that there wasn’t really a precedent for “Batman Begins” back in 2005. The term “reboot,” as Nolan pointed out, had not really been invented yet and was not one that audiences had any precedent for — which helps explain why ‘Begins’ wasn’t a mega-blockbuster right out of the gate.
It took in only $48 million on opening weekend before becoming a word of mouth hit with many people not catching it until DVD when they saw that this was something very different from Joel Schumacher’s campier versions and Tim Burton‘s more comic panel worlds.
But getting the studio on Nolan’s side was not always easy, especially for a Batman film in which the title character doesn’t show up onscreen until roughly an hour in. To help build his case he enlisted an assistant who combed through countless blockbusters and timecoded when each major story beat would occur. Since Nolan had never made such a large film before or in the action genre, he wanted to dissect these types of films to see how they worked. He used this data not only to help conceive of the screenplay with David Goyer but also to convince WB that if the story was compelling enough audiences would wait for their hero.
6. One of those films he studied closely was Richard Donner’s “Superman.”
Which maybe makes Nolan’s godfathering/producing of “Man of Steel” not so surprising. Though he said he admired what Tim Burton had done with his Batman films by creating a gothic vision of Gotham for the character to inhabit, it was Richard Donner’s classic 1978 film that had proved a greater inspiration for his take on the character. (Tellingly, Schumacher’s films were never mentioned.)
“Superman” had cast iconic stars in small parts and Nolan wanted to do the same thing with Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and others. “I looked back to Richard Donner’s ‘Superman’ for that because he cast Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford and Ned Beatty, all the characters were played by these terrific stars. So we went after that kind of depth of casting,” he told Film Comment (which are roughly the same comments he made last night). He also said he thought of “Batman Begins” as an action film, not a superhero one, which explains his more grounded take on the character.
As for “Man of Steel? Nolan gave a small taste. “Producing is a lot easier than directing. I’m doing it as we speak,” he quipped. “I think it’s outstanding. It’s something I’ve never seen before, it’s a very unique and fresh take on Superman. I think people are going to be really taken by it, but it doesn’t come out until next summer. There’s a lot of finishing to do, there’s a lot of very complex things going on [in it]. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.” — additional reporting by Cory Everett