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The Playlist Interview: Christopher Nolan Talks The ‘Dark Knight’ Trilogy, Blockbuster Filmmaking, ‘Following’ & More [Part 1]

The Playlist Interview: Christopher Nolan Talks The 'Dark Knight' Trilogy, Blockbuster Filmmaking, 'Following' & More [Part 1]

It’s been a big two weeks for Christopher Nolan in New York and beyond. The admired director was feted at the Film Society Of Lincoln Center with an hour-plus conversation about his ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy last week and a few days before that the IFC Center hosted a screening of a new restored print of “Following,” his debut film that Criterion is releasing later this month. To cap it all off, “The Dark Knight Rises” and the entire trilogy is out on Blu-Ray and DVD this week (surely, that is going to be one of the biggest home video releases of the year).

Last week we had the good fortune to sit down with Nolan, have some tea (naturally) and dig in deep into the creative process of his Batman trilogy and more. Our conversation casually began as Nolan mentioned the FSLC dialogue and then segued into a discussion of the the recent IFC Center screening of a new restored print of “Following.” Due to the length of our conversation, you can come back tomorrow to read part two of the interview. For more Nolan, you can check out our chat with the filmmaker about “Justice League,” whether he’ll do more superhero pictures and the producing process behind next summer’s Superman film “Man of Steel.” Update: and for more from Christopher Nolan, make sure to go and read the final part of our interview here.

I imagine it’s nice to see the cinephiles appreciate the Batman films as much as the comic book crowd.
Well, we did New Films, New Directors with “Following” when starting out which is Lincoln Center and MOMA together. It’s nice to come back to that audience, it was very important for me starting out. We screened the print because it’s coming out on Blu-ray with Criterion so we did a screening of that, and it was really fun. It was fun to get back to that side of things.

Did you work closely on the restoration of that release?
I actually spent almost two years restoring the thing which makes me feel very old. But we had never been able to get it looking the way it was intended to and the way it did on its very first 16mm prints which screened at the San Francisco and Toronto film festival. So we ended up with a 35mm blow-up, but I was never happy with it. I was never able to finish it quite right so we spent a couple of years on it. I got the Criterion guys involved and IFC did it with me and Criterion got a really beautiful Blu-ray. I know it sounds like I’m selling my Blu-Ray, but I really want people to take a look at it because it is beautiful and it was really fun to be able to strike some 35mm prints that look the way they’re meant to. We screened that at IFC it was really good.

Is it strange to look back on a film like that that you made more than 10 years ago?
Yeah, it’s odd when you look back at your own work. Some filmmakers don’t look back at their work at all. I look at my work a lot actually.  I feel like I learned something while looking at stuff I’ve done in terms of what I’m going to do in the future, mistakes I’ve made and things at work or what have you. I find it interesting. And with my films there’s always been a lot of personal history in them too in a way, particularly a film like “Following,” where I made it with friends and family.  We just shot it in places we were living.

Your uncle John Nolan appears in it and he’s in “Batman Begins” too.
Yeah, and he’s in “Dark Knight Rises” as well. John, he’s a real actor in the Royal Shakespeare Company. I drafted him into the role and then used him for “Batman Begins” and “Rises.”

Having revisited all the films, it strikes me that unless you have a great poker face these films were conceived as a trilogy, despite some claims to the contrary.
[Laughs] Well it’s a bit of both. I’m often asked if we’ll do a trilogy with relation to “Dark Knight Rises” and it’s a complicated question to answer because the truth is when we took on the character, you know that there is a potential for sequels… So David Goyer and I at a very early stage, were just throwing ideas around for “Batman Begins” and just exploring the character. We did loosely talk about where you would go for other sequels, and to us, that was a trilogy because a story has a beginning, middle and an end. But very early on we shut that down and said, “Yes and no.” It was in the back of our minds, but if we said anything, or held anything back consciously we were going to be making less of a movie than we could. So with “Batman Begins,” I thought everybody just pretty much was thinking about that movie. When it was finished we said, “Okay we have the loose arc of what the trilogy would be as a story.”

The ending is controversial to many, but in retrospect, there are myriad threads planted throughout that reinforce the idea that Bruce Wayne is looking to get out of the game as soon as he can. This isn’t a long term plan and he’s been planning to quit all along.
Very much. I mean everything in the trilogy comes back to the scene of the jet in “Batman Begins” between Bruce and Alfred. It’s a short scene and it’s simple, but it’s got a couple of little nods to this idea. It flies by, but i it’s crucial to the trilogy because not all Batman fans agree with this. This is my interpretation of the character.

This is David [Goyer] and my take on it, and Christian [Bale] as well having his input. We said, “Okay, when you look at how you make the incredible extraordinary actions of an individual, who’s going to reinvent themselves in a theatrical persona in order to right the wrongs of the world and exorcise demons”….

The only way to me that made sense was in a more realistic tone, and taking on the idea of symbolism. The take on the idea that [Bruce Wayne] would see himself as a symbol who would motivate the good of Gotham to actually start working on their own, so he would be a catalyst for change, and tip the scales. And that’s always going to be a temporary process. To me it only made sense if you were looking at going okay, “I’m going to do this until the point where it’s not needed. So we followed it through very much into “The Dark Knight.”

Certainly. He sees Harvey Dent as a beacon of change and his chance to get out and be with Rachel. Harvey even says at one point, reminding the audience, “Whoever the Batman is, he doesn’t want to do this forever.”
Oh yeah, a big reason the three films are one big film.  I’m just being honest with people when I say we never intended to make a trilogy. What I’m being honest about is we never sat down and wrote a trilogy. Because I feel that to do it that way, you would be limiting the possibilities. What I wanted to do was live the trilogy with the characters, grow them, and take the time to develop the thing over years from the inside. I talk about his writing from the inside — we’re changing and growing with the characters and the world is changing with the characters. We’re trying to reflect that in the storytelling but always knowing that in loose terms, this is Bruce Wayne’s story. It has a beginning, it has a middle and it has an end. And we essentially knew what that was upfront.

As much as it’s Bruce Wayne’s story, it seems to be the story of a city, almost the battle for the soul of Gotham.
Yes, it is. I think that was very relevant when we first looked at what constitutes Batman. What is the character of Batman? In looking at the comics and the history of the comics, really Gotham, his relationship with the city is a very defining feature of why Batman exists and who he is. In terms of the canvas of the film, we went outside Gotham. We did that in order to suggest the idea to the audience that Gotham is not a village. That you’re subtracting, as sometimes in the TV show or the Tim Burton movies, there was this slightly claustrophobic nature of the world.

During the FSLC conversation, you called it an “action film” and “entertainment,” but that almost underplays their dramatic power.
Well, I see that point of view, but I hope that you would feel that those elements aren’t added to them in a disjunctive or superficial way. For me, I think there dramatic elements in them that are very important to me and the actors. Whether it’s Michael Caine or Anne Hathaway, what they’re bringing to these characters is extremely important. So when I refer to the films as entertainment or as action movies, I’m not in any way trying to diminish that, what I’m saying is I always approach it from that larger scale and entertainment point of view. Then try to say let’s not take any shortcuts with that. Let’s try and give the audience as enriching an experience as possible.

Can you talk about your pitch to the studio initially?
My pitch was always that if you can believe in the Batmobile, if you can believe in this action set piece that involves a flying vehicle in “Dark Knight Rises,” it’s much more exciting if you can believe in it. The dramatic credibility of the movie that we get by casting such incredible talents and then trying to give them scenes to play, and really play the logic of it with that underpinning, all of the more fanciful elements become more fun. They’re more enjoyable, and they’re more intense. So, to me, those things aren’t mutually exclusive. That’s my honest appraisal of what we’re trying to do. The entertainment, I just find a rich big movie experience. You know when Hollywood does a great big blockbuster that really wraps you up in a world, and lets you believe in extraordinary things that move you in some way, in an almost operatic sensibility? That to me is the most fun I have at the movies. And that’s what I’m trying to do for the audience.

Did you ever see yourself as this blockbuster filmmaker starting out? Do you consider it a blockbuster?
It’s a big movie. I think it’s a blockbuster. I grew up loving Hollywood movies, “Star Wars,” the ‘Bond’ films. These are the films that I first tuned into and then as you grow older and you start looking at more interesting and obscure movies and cinema. You get on all kinds of different paths such as my underlying interest in independent film and my desire to work in the film genre and so forth. But in the back of my mind I’ve always looked to the biggest scale Hollywood movies. Because to me the most satisfying experience of watching a movie, if it’s done really well. And so that aspiration is always it for me,  if I have the opportunity to do it. But I always wanted to give it a shot. So having had that shot, I really wanted to make the most of it and that’s what I tried to chase down with these movies.

Did you chase after Batman? You’ve said you younger brother [co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan] was more of a fan of Batman then you were.
Well, he was more of a comic book fan than I was. I’ve always been a movie guy, movies have been my thing. I love movies, all kinds of movies. I heard that Warner Brothers wanted to do something with the character but really didn’t know what. They didn’t have a plan for what to do. It occurred to me that in the telling of the story, a more realistic telling of the world of Gotham would make that movie more extraordinary. “These are things that haven’t been done,” and so that was my pitch to the studios. Then I said, “Okay, you know you have this very valuable character, he’s an icon of popular culture, and we should do something with him. This is what I would do with him because it hasn’t been done before and I think it could be very powerful.” And they completely got it. It was a perfect match up of the filmmaker wanting to do something different and the studio wanting the same for one of their key characters.

After the Schumacher years you have to reinvent. But “reboot” was a new idea then.
Yeah, you have to be patient with the blockbuster. You have to have the patience to build in the right way and that’s a frightening thing for a studio, and for filmmakers, because you’re spending a lot of money and there’s a lot riding on it. But you have to earn the trust of the audience. We learned that in “Batman Begins” in a major way because while creatively we’re always on that path, in a marketing sense, it was very apparent that nobody really had a framework for understanding what we would do because it hadn’t’ been determined.

There wasn’t really a frame of reference for the audience about, “Okay why should I go see this Batman film if I didn’t like the last couple of whatever?” I think to some extent in the comic book movie world, that’s now changed and accelerated. The world has changed around us and so you know that process is slightly different, but I think underneath it is still this patience. You have to take the time to build the credibility of the character and earn the audience’s respect for the character. You can’t assume that they love the character just because they have all of the iterations. You have to earn your stripes.

“The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Dark Knight Trilogy” are now out on Blu-Ray and DVD. The final part of our lengthy interview can be read here.

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