Christopher Nolan’s critically and financially successful Batman may have retired his suit for good last July, but his creator has not yet exhausted talking about the trilogy. Earlier this month, the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center filled up with an eclectic crowd of veteran cinephiles, genre fans, and even children for “Film Comment Selects: An Evening with Christopher Nolan,” where the indie film maker turned major Hollywood director sat down for a chat with Film Comment’s own critic Scott Foundas. While briefly touching upon films such as “Inception” and “The Prestige,” the talk primarily dealt with the Batman films, focusing on the genesis of the project, what attracted him to a sequel, and what ultimately made him interested in completing his trilogy. Nolan seems to be a very intelligent and loquacious gentleman, and the talk did not show any weariness or disdain for once again discussing a series which has consumed the last decade of his life and which many feel may be the most important collection of superhero films ever made.
Honor Roll is a daily series for December that will feature new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-person stories of some of the year’s most notable cinematic voices. Today, we’re re-running a profile on Christopher Nolan, whose critically acclaimed blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises” was yesterday named by AFI as one of the 10 best film of the year.
Here are the five most intriguing highlights from “An Evening with Christopher Nolan.”
Nolan’s vision for “Batman Begins” was inspired by a variety of different franchises, including Tim Burton’s own two Batman films
“I saw a very clear identifiable gap in movie history. In the late 70s, when Richard Donner took on the character of Superman, he made the image of how people my age saw Superman. I still remember the trailers. I remember going to the cinema to see something else and seeing these epic trailers — the character standing in the cornfield, Marlon Brando’s voice — and that stuck with me just as much as what Tim Burton had done with Batman, which was massively successful. And those films are fantastic, but they are very Tim Burton and very idiosyncratic. And I saw this gap where no one had really done the “If you like the Richard Donner version…,” where you say “Ok, this isn’t really a comic book movie…” and its not excessively Gothic. I wanted to make just a huge action film and give it an epic scale in casting, physicality, and to try and get the audience to invest in the cinematic reality. When I talk about reality in these films its often misconstrued as direct reality, but it’s really cinematic reality. It’s about trying to find the translation and credibility in the events and fantastical nature of what is going on.
“The globe trotting elements of “Batman Begins” mostly came from the Bond films. One of the first films I remember seeing was “The Spy Who Loved Me” and at a certain point the Bond films fixed in my head as a great example of scope and scale in large scale images. That idea of getting you to other places, of getting you along for a ride if you can believe in it — in “The Spy Who Loved Me” the Lotus Esprit turns into a submarine and its totally convincing, and it works and you go “Wow that’s incredible.” In “The Dark Knight Rises” we had to do a flying vehicle for Batman, which is very daunting, but that’s the challenge. It’s trying to take the audience for that ride, and that was sort of my job cinematically. To speak specifically to things that had been done: if you look at what Tim Burton did, a world was created which Batman fits into it. It’s this great sort of Gothic vision that’s very consistent with the character of Batman. What I felt I hadn’t seen was the Gotham in the comics: Gotham as an ordinary world, a world which we could live in. And so when Gotham sees Batman he’s as extraordinary as he would be in our world. So (what Tim did) is place an extraordinary character in an extraordinary world. Part of the fun making the film for me was explaining these elements in real terms: Why is he wearing this costume? What does it mean? How does he get the costume? Is it just him and Alfred and the Batcave? And we started to enjoy coming up with the answers to these questions. That became a fun part of our creative process. Another thing we talked about is that no one had done an origin story so, in story terms and not just stylistic terms, the real gap there was the origin story. When we looked through the comics there was really no attempt at telling the origin, it was all in sort of shorthand. So there was this terrific gap in pop culture history that we got to contribute to.”
On the evolution of Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning Joker, and seeing it for the first time.
“We casted him before the script was even written, so he had a very long time to obsess over what he was going to do. I sent him some material — I had him read “A Clockwork Orange” for example. When I finally sent him the script it was very scary, because by this time he was so committed and knew what a high wire act it would be and if he hadn’t liked it I think…it would have been extremely bad. But he breathed a sigh of relief, I breathed a sigh of relief, and he really felt it delivered what we talked about, so we started talking about things like costume fittings. Like a lot of artists, he would sneak up on something. You couldn’t really sit him down and say “Ok, today you’re going to do the Joker.” You’d have to say “Let’s read this scene, and act it,” and he’d read it with Christian Bale and there would be a line or two where you heard him doing something with his voice that was a little different, or he’d throw in a little bit of a laugh, while never saying “Ok, this is it!” And then we’d film hair and make-up tests and try different looks and different versions of the make-up, and with that he’d start to move. We would have some rubber knives and he’d pick up the knives and choose what weapon he’d use. We’d film these tests with handheld cameras so they weren’t so stiff and we’d circle around him while he did his thing. We didn’t record any sound, so he felt able to start talking and show us what he was going to do. That’s when he started sneaking up on me and, as with any great performance, he was showing me something very different.
“The voice certainly frightened me because of its weird shift in pitch, and with this character you never quite know where the pitch is going to go in the voice, just as with his physical movements you never know how he is going to move, what he is going to do with his hands. It’s always a surprise. The actual tone of his voice was always a surprise too — sometimes it would go incredibly low and threatening, and other times it would be kind of sing-song. The first scene we shot was IMAX prologue, the bank robbery, where he had a mask on. I think that freed him up not worry too much because the stakes weren’t so high. When you see the physicality of the scene its very much like Buster Keaton or Chaplin. You manage to see the character in the gestures, and I just love what he did with it. Then there’s this tremendous moment where he takes this mask off, and it was the first time we shot with the IMAX cameras so it came out a bit out of focus. So I just rescheduled, but I got this horrifying phone call from him, like a “What have I done?” It was the first time he ever showed us the voice, and we wanted to reshoot it! I told him “No, no, no, it was great!”, but he never quite believed me. He reshot it very graciously because he was a tremendous professional, and I think he was delighted that we ended up using the out of focus one because it was just magic.”
Nolan’s interest in completing the trilogy came from a desire to see these characters grapple with consequences
“A lot of the fun of getting to complete the trilogy was to say “Ok, I know I have Michael Caine, I know I have Christian Bale,” and they could actually follow the consequences of what happened in the first two films. So rather than dropping that stuff and coming up with a whole new story, I thought “Ok, Michael burns that letter at the end (of “The Dark Knight”), so what does that really mean? Is he really going to be able to keep that a secret forever? Isn’t that going to come out?” Really the whole film for me grew out of that idea of wanting to know. We finish “The Dark Knight” based on a set of lies, and what would that actually grow into. When you have actors like this, who are prepared to follow the thread of that characterization as if they are real people who have that history, you really get to feel that emotion.”
Nolan’s penchant for casting actors who have fallen by the wayside (such as Rutger Hauer in “Batman Begins,” Tom Berenger in “Inception,” Eric Roberts in “The Dark Knight,” Tom Conti in “The Dark Knight Rises”) both allows him to give work to those he finds undervalued and also enhances the epic scope of the piece
“I think older actors are probably dreading that call these days. They probably think “Oh, have I’ve fallen that far. . .?” These guys are incredible actors who are undervalued in an industry where the protagonist in every script that you read, or indeed write, is a 35-year old white male. So there’s a huge pool of talent, some of which like Michael Caine or Morgan Freeman or Gene Hackman are just established in popular imagination as very reliable story-tellers and extraordinary performers, but then you’ve got lesser knowns and people you haven’t seen in a while who have done great work. They love what they do and if you can give them a little something to play they’ll really make something of it. It’s such an advantage to have that depth of casting where every role is played by someone who is going to make it real. Rutger Hauer created a whole backstory (for his part in “Batman Begins”). It’s also great putting them with the younger actors who are terrified of them because they grew up watching their work. It was fun putting Tom Hardy with Tom Berenger in “Inception” because he was such a fan of his. It also gives the film more life and credibility. I think its about scale because you’re not throwing any part of Gotham away. You’re saying that every bit of this city and every level of it has some importance, and if you can cast that way you create more of an immersive environment.”
Foundas closed the evening asking for a tease about Zack Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot “Man of Steel” (of which Nolan is producing)
“Producing is much easier than directing. Even as we speak I’m producing Zack’s film. But I really think he’s doing some very exciting things with it. I don’t envy him for taking on such a project like Superman, but he’s done things I haven’t seen before. But you won’t see it until next summer, and he still has many complex things left to do, but I think that it’ll be very thrilling.”