Interview: Christopher Nolan

words and photo by Matthew Schuchman
| Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

photo by Matthew Schuchman

On December 4, 2012, The Dark Knight Rises heads to the home video market, marking the official end to the Christopher Nolan Batman era. Recently, Nolan stopped by the Water Reade Theater in New York’s Lincoln Center to join the Film Society for a special guest appearance to talk about all thing Batman. Moderated by Film Comment’s Scott Foundas, Nolan treated attendees to some inside information about making the films and his process as a director in general.

So I guess the logical place to start would be by asking what your own first memory was of discovering the character of Batman.
I think like a lot of people my age, my first memories of Batman were from the television series with Adam West. When you’re watching it as a five-year-old, you really have no concept of the campiness or the humor of it, and you really invest in the simple elements of the character. Still, I think that for something to grownups that it so silly — and deliberately so when you watch it as an adult — that the primal nature of the character still comes through to a young boy, or a child of that age. That was where I first met the character; then there were the comic books and the graphic novels of the ’80s a few years later.

While I’m not a huge comic book fan — I never pretend to be, it’s very dangerous to pretend to be a comic book fan — I was smart to surround myself by writers like my brother (Jonathan Nolan) and David Goyer, who turns out is more of a comic book guy then I realized. I actually gave him a copy of Batman: Year One, and it obviously made more of an impression on him than it did me at the time. He really got into the character through the comics in that way. So my collaborators very much depict the comic side of things to me, but I always knew the character in a much broader, pop culture sense — which I couldn’t tell if the movie was going to reach.

Were there other things outside the realm of other superhero movies — [such as] Superman — that you drew on, [perhaps] things that appealed to you as a young person discovering literature and film?
Mostly they were cinematic references for me, primarily the Bond films. One of the first films I ever saw was The Spy Who Loved Me. So there was a certain point where the Bond films stick in my head as a great ball of scope and scale in action films. That globetrotting idea, that idea of trying to get you to go along for a ride that you could believe in. In The Spy Who Loved Me, they show you a Lotus Esprit that turns into a submarine, and it’s totally convincing. It works, and you go, “Wow, this is incredible.” You know, in The Dark Knight Rises we had to create a flying vehicle — it was very daunting, but that’s the challenge: to try and take the audience on that ride. That was very much the jumping off point, cinematically.

If you look at what Tim Burton did, it’s specifically about a world that was created that Batman fits into. It’s this great gothic vision that’s very consistent, and consistent with the character of Batman. What I felt I hadn’t seen, especially in comics, was an ordinary world in which we could be living in Gotham. When a Gothamite sees Batman, he’s as extraordinary as he would be in our world. I wanted an extraordinary character in the background of an ordinary world. That isn’t what Tim did, so I thought it was a whole other direction to go in. What that involves — which is really quite daunting, but became part of the fun of making the film — is trying to find how to explain things in real terms.

You have to start going, “Okay, why is he wearing this costume, and how did he get the costume, how does he and Alfred have this Batcave?” We started to enjoy coming up with the answers to those questions. It became a fun part of our creative process; some of it became the candy of the movie. The thing no one really talks about is that no one had done an origin story through storytelling, not just in stylistic terms, strictly speaking. When we looked at the history of the comics there wasn’t really tons in terms of an origin story either; it had been done in very shorthand form. So there was this terrific gap in pop culture history that we got to contribute to and exploit.

Batman Begins felt very much like a post-9/11 superhero movie, and the rhetoric of Ra’s Al Ghul is very familiar to us in the post-9/11 era because it’s very close to the rhetoric of extreme Islam and other extreme schools of thought. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the idea of making Ra’s Al Ghul into a very plausible terrorist, rather than what we might think of from the James Bond movies of crazed madmen who want to just take over the world, or who are crazy for power or after someone who thwarted them.
Interesting you bring up the Bond films, because back in the ’60s they were very specifically about Cold War fears. They introduced the threat of nuclear terrorism very specifically for the first time in movies. They were closer than people realize, in pop culture terms, but they really were about what people worried about at the time.

Taking on an action film set in a great American city post-9/11, I think really there is no way…that we weren’t going to come up against the idea of terrorism, and how that might be featured in the universe of Batman. We approached it with a great degree of sincerity. That is to say, we really wanted to try and present a credible villain whose philosophy, when looked at through one end of the telescope, made sense and was very appealing to this young man who lost his parents and has all this rage and all this anger directed at the world. We tried to find an antagonist who could manipulate all of that, who to an extent could represent that rage of a society that kills Bruce’s parents, and where that might go.

There’s a moment in the film where they haul up a prisoner in a cage, and they expect Bruce to execute him. There was a moment there in the edit suite where we found it almost amusing, which really shouldn’t get a laugh because it’s such a serious scene, but the way Christian turns to Ducard and is sort of like, “What a second, you can’t really be serious about this? What path have I gone down?”

You mentioned how you thought about the practicalities of turning Bruce Wayne into Batman; ordering parts of the suit and building the different toys and everything, and then the stuff like learning Ninjutsu and using those magic powders and all those sort of things. I feel like you take a certain pleasure in showing us the process of things. Not just in The Dark Knight movies — The Prestige is a movie about magic and revealing how magicians do their tricks. That seems to be something that appeals to you a lot, the way things are put together.
It’s something I enjoy. If I don’t know how something works, I enjoy seeing the process of things coming together. It’s also a way of frankly circumventing a lot of the suspicion one might have about something. In the case of Inception, for example, when you’re dealing with the idea of dreams versus reality, you risk alienating the audience because they think just because it may be a dream, it doesn’t matter. The solution there for me was to allow the audience in on the process of the creation of the dream. The dream isn’t trying to fool the audience; they’re complicit in fooling another third party.

Similarly with Batman, if he just arrives fully formed, with the ears and the cape and everything, it would just be novel. So the way around it is to understand the symbolism, understand why he’s doing it, and see how he starts to create it, and try to involve the audience in that mental process of what’s going to work, what’s going to make him frightening to criminals, and so forth.

This is why Batman Begins is very particular in that we never show you Batman fully created. When he presented himself to criminals, we always adopted their point of view and showing the idea of how he became a terrifying wraith.

Let’s talk about The Joker. I know you said Christian Bale was your first choice for the role of Batman; how did you come to choose Heath Ledger to play The Joker in now what has become probably the most talked-about performance in recent American movies?
Really, in a sense, he chose me. I had met with him about a couple of films; I had actually met him in relation to Batman Begins as well. I really thought he was a great actor, and he graciously came and met me for a drink to explain why he would never really do this kind of movie. He was very polite about it; he was a very lovely guy. I thought it’s a shame I can’t convince you, but this is what we are trying to do with this film, it’s a bit different really.

I think when he saw Batman Begins he understood the things I said about doing it differently and felt that I had done it. So I met with him for The Joker and really I didn’t know if it was something he would be interested in. I wasn’t sure if I felt he was right for it. I think he’s a fantastic actor, but you never knew what kind of different take someone else would have on a character. So I chatted with him for a couple of hours in my office about who the character was going to be — we didn’t have a script at that point — but we knew who he was, and where he was going to go, and it was very much what Heath had in mind, and he was very determined to get it down. The way he explained it to me was he didn’t like to really work too much. He liked to do a character and then stop working, and then let enough time go by that he really needed to work again. He wanted to be hungry, and when he came to set, you can see how hungry he was to get it down.

You spoke about how Heath had a similar view of The Joker as you and the writers, but when did you first see him do The Joker, sort of full blast? Did you have rehearsals or talk about the voice or the ticks, because it’s certainly an extraordinarily well-developed character.
It is. We cast him before the script was even written. Heath spent months and months obsessing about what he would do. I sent him some materials; I had him read A Clockwork Orange — well, I had him go through both the book and the film. I had him look at the works of Frances Bacon, a lot of different tangential things to get into it. Then, once he had the script — which was a very scary moment, when he actually got to read it, because by this time he was so committed and…if he didn’t like it, it would have been extremely difficult — he breathed a sigh of relief, I breathed a sigh of relief. He really felt it hit what we had talked about.

So we talked about doing a costume fitting and all this. Like a lot of artists, he would sneak up on something. So he wouldn’t sit there and say, “Okay, now I’m going to be The Joker.” You have to sort of say, “Let’s just read this scene, you don’t have to act it, just read it,” and then he’d read it with Christian and then you’d hear a line or two where he was doing something different with his voice, nothing too intricate. Then we would film hair and makeup tests — we tried different looks with different make up, and that started to move. Then we brought in rubber knives, and he would start to move around and choose what weapon he would have. We would film with handheld cameras so they weren’t so stiff. We would circle around, and he would do his thing and explore his movement. We weren’t recording sound, so he would start talking and showing us what he would do, and that way he sort of sneaked up on it.

It was, as with any great performance, showing us something different. The voice certainly frightened me at first because of its weird shift in pitch. What I came to realize [is that] he figured out this whole thing based on the Alexander Technique, which I’m not familiar with, but the principle is if you hit a high note, you’re immediately able to hit the two octaves below — it’s a way of lowering your voice. So we have this character where you never quite know which way the pitch is going to go — just as in his physical movements you just never know how he’s going to move. It’s always a surprise, the actual tone of his voice was always a surprise; sometimes it would go very low and incredibly threatening, and other times it would be almost like a sing-song, almost light in a way.

The first time I really saw it all together was in the interrogation scene. That was first scene we shot with The Joker because I wanted to make him really commit to something up front. Well, the first sequence we actually shot was the IMAX prologue, which was the bank robbery, where he has the mask on. I just really wanted him to enjoy that and not worry about too much. You see his character in that scene is like Buster Keaton or like Chaplin, it’s just a magical character through every gesture; I just loved what he did there. Then there is the moment where he pulls his mask off, which was tremendous, but it was the first time we shot with the IMAX camera, and when we looked at the dailies it was all a bit out of focus. So I rescheduled it, and I got this horrified phone call from him saying, “What have I done wrong?” This was the first time he really showed us the voice and what he was going to do, and we want to re-shoot it. I told him no, it was great, but I don’t think he ever quite believed me, actually.

He re-shot it very graciously because he was a tremendous professional, but in the end we actually used the out-of-focus one because it was magic, it just had that little thing. The first thing we really did shoot on the real schedule though was the interrogation scene, and we took our time shooting it and he was very grateful. We shot it in England with this very gruff British crew. They had all worked with Jack Nicholson and thought, He’s the only Joker. They didn’t quote know who this guy was and what he was doing, [but] afterwards they all looked at him differently…it was a great thing for him.

When you’re doing a scene like that, it starts with dialogue and then moves into physical action — does that change the way you approach it with the actors in terms of the number of takes you do or the amount of rehearsal at full blast, as it were, due to the physical exhaustion factor in tandem with what they have to do emotionally?
Yeah, another reason we did this scene early on was because the stuff we shoot at the beginning of the schedule, we tend to have more time with. You give yourself more time for it, [but] over several months of shooting a film you get pushed for time. So we gave ourselves a couple of days and split it into sections — quite specifically in the interrogation scene, everything in the dialogue is done with a dolly, and then it goes to handheld. That becomes a different style of shooting. It’s consistent and we want it to be consistent, but you try to break it into those sections because, yeah, once you start really going for it, it’s incredibly draining. [Not just] the physicality, but also the performance — the intensity of the scene, they were just exhausted by the end of it.

While Heath’s manipulation of the situation is really fun to watch, what’s also very important in the scene to me is that Christian really wanted to hold on to the idea: at what point would it be too far to go with that character’s approach to justice? What does it mean if he loses control and takes things personally? It’s the sort of thing we toyed around with a bit in Batman Begins, but I didn’t have the story move well enough to push it, in terms of the inner anger of the character. Now we have a scene where you really see him out of control and edgy, while seeing [that despite] all of his strength and all his training…[he] has obvious limitations, and he’s sort of confronted with that.

That required a huge amount of energy on Christian’s part. Also, with the punches, I’ve never seen something so beautifully choreographed where every take was usable. You just put a sound effect on it and they all look like a devastating blow. It’s a very intense scene, but there’s no blood in it — partly because of the red makeup and everything, it sort of stands in for the blood, so we were able to make a great PG-13 version of it, but I really felt strongly that it should be an uncomfortable scene. You want to be at this point where you’re really unsure of what you want Batman to be doing.

Talk a little about the depth of casting. We’ve been using Superman as a reference, and there is a film where all the supporting roles were played by very well-known actors, i.e; Ned Beatty and Gene Hackman, and so forth, that you slightly mirror in these films. More accurately, it may mirror more of what we think of when we talk about Tarantino, where you’ve given some pint-sized roles to actors who really have sort of fallen off the Hollywood radar, like Eric Roberts, Rutger Hauer, Tom Berenger in Inception, and Tom Conti in The Dark Knight Rises. Are those castings a conscious effort? I know, for instance, The Hitcher is a film you’re very fond of — is that one of the reasons Rutger Hauer winds up in Batman Begins?
Well, Blade Runner too, the amazing performer he is. I think older actors are probably dreading those calls these days. These guys are just incredible actors who are undervalued in an industry where the protagonist in every script is a 35-year-old male. So there’s this huge pool of talent, some of which get work, like Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman; these guys have had continuous stardom that are just established in popular imagination and just incredible story tellers and performers. Then you’ve got lesser-known guys like Tom Berenger, or people you haven’t seen in awhile that love what they do, and if you can give them something to play, they’ll come do it and really make something of it.

That’s somewhat of an advantage for me, to have that depth of casting, where every role you can give to someone who’s really going to try and find a way to make it real, and sit with it and figure out a whole back-story for a character — it’s really a fun thing to watch. It’s also really great putting them with younger actors who are terrified of them. You have Tom Beregner in Platoon, it’s great fun putting him together with Tom Hardy in Inception, since he was such a fan of Berenger in that role. It gives the film more light and credibility. It’s about depth, because you’re not throwing any part of Gotham away. Every bit of this city is on a level where every actor brings an importance to it. If you can cast that way and not let if fall by the wayside, you’re creating a more immersive environment for your story telling.

You’ve said conclusively this is the end of The Dark Knight series for you. You have now produced the reboot of another franchise, the Superman franchise that will be arriving next summer, directed by Zack Snyder. I was just wondering perhaps in closing you could maybe leave us with a little tease of that film.
Yeah, producing is a lot easier than directing. I think Zack’s done a great job with it; it’s something I definitely haven’t seen before. It’s a new, fresh take on the character, and I don’t know how you’d approach Superman as a director — it was pretty great to see him take it on. I think people are going to be really thrilled with it.

For an unedited full transcript of the entire interview, visit Movie Reviews From Gene Shalit’s Moustache.

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