Christopher Nolan’s superhero epic “The Dark Knight” celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, and with it has come no shortage of articles looking back on the making of the game-changing genre movie. Vulture recently published an oral history of the infamous pencil trick scene, in which Heath Ledger’s Joker makes a pencil disappear by slamming a gangster’s head into it. The scene alone led cinematographer Wally Pfister to believe the movie was heading to an inevitable R-rating.
“It’s kind of shocking that ‘The Dark Knight’ ended up being PG-13,” Pfister said. “All of Chris’s movies would be PG-13 to open it up to a wider audience. Somehow, he always had some magic with the MPAA. Lo and behold, he has the pencil and I’m like, ‘You are not getting the PG-13 with that. There’s no way this is going in. He’s driving this pencil through a guy’s head!’ And I was wrong.”
“Chris was always right, whether you liked it or not,” the DP continued. “You’d be like, ‘Fuck you, you were right again.’ With this pencil trick, I thought, If it has the right amount of levity, we’ll sell this and it won’t come off as being violent but it’ll come off as being a magic trick and it’ll come off as being a punchline. And it was!”
The gangster whose head gets an unlikely pencil to the face was played by Charles Jarman. The actor was instructed by Nolan to act out the scene and remove the pencil from the table as quick as possible. “If, for some reason, I didn’t get my hand in time, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Jarman said. “Well, possibly through a Ouija board.”
“We did something like 22 takes over two days,” the actor said of filming the violent moment. “We had two different tables. The table that most of the takes were done on was galvanized rubber, so the table itself was fairly solid, and had this half-centimeter of rubber over the top. Now, that was supposed to make it easier for the impact. … It kind of felt like putting a towel over a brick wall, and running into it. Not that I’ve done that many times, but I can just use my imagination.”
Eric Roberts was on set that day starring in the scene as gangster Sal Maroni. “I had a physical reaction. I went, ‘Oh, wow, oh, oh, okay, great, we got to do that!’ I thought it was real, at first. Like, ‘Wow, wow, wow, something went wrong!'” the actor said. “It was that kind of reaction because it looked really good and really fast and it looked a little bit clumsy. … But it was so cool to see it work because it did work. And it was nasty. It was freaking nasty.”
Head over to Vulture to read the full oral history of the pencil trick.