Even before re-imagining DC Comics’ caped crusader in his acclaimed Batman trilogy, director Christopher Nolan had solidified himself as one of Hollywood’s most technically proficient and narratively bold directors, thanks to films like his 1998 debut “Following,” “Memento (2000) and “Insomnia” (2002). Nolan’s dark and gritty “Batman Begins” was the first superhero film of its kind, laying the groundwork for the current trend of approaching the genre with a level of seriousness and sophistication that had not been seen before the 2005 film hit theaters and stunned audiences. Despite the movie’s success, Nolan refused to be defined by his take on one of comics’ most beloved figures, helming successful films between his second and third visit to the franchise — “The Prestige” in 2006, prior to 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” and then 2010’s Inception, before this year’s “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Nolan made a rare public appearance last week for an hour-long Q&A at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. The sold out crowd was treated to clips from Nolan’s Batman trilogy along with an in-depth discussion about his realization of the franchise over the course of seven years. Nolan also touched upon the influence James Bond films have had on him, his experience working with Heath Ledger, his passion for pioneering IMAX technology and producing next year’s Superman reboot, “Man of Steel.”
Asked about his personal introduction to Batman, Nolan, like many fans from his generation, dug deep into his childhood memories:
Like a lot of people my age, my first introduction of Batman was the television series with Adam West. When you’re watching as a five-year-old, you really have no concept of the campiness and the humor of it. But still, the central appeal and the fun of the character comes through. That was really where I first encountered the character, and then came the comic books and the graphic novels a few years later. Although I’m not a huge comic book fan, and I never pretended to be — it’s very dangerous to pretend you’re a comic book fan. I was smart enough to surround myself by co-writers like David Goyer and my brother Jonah, who it turns out is more of a comic book guy than I realized. I’ve actually given him a copy of Batman: Year One for a birthday. So my collaborators very much presented the comic book end of things to me.
In explaining why he took on the challenge of rebooting Batman on film, Nolan turned to another of DC’s great heroes for inspiration:
What I saw was a very clear identifiable gap in movie history. In the late 70’s, when Dick Donner took on the character of Superman…I still remember the trailer. That stuck with me, because what Tim Burton had done with Batman — which was massively successful…the films are fantastic. But they’re very Tim Burton, they’re very idiosyncratic. I saw this gap. If you like the Dick Donner version where you go, “Okay, this is not a comic book movie, it’s not excessively gothic, it’s just a huge action film.” You try and people it with the most incredible cast you can find and really give it an epic scale. And you try and get the audience to invest in the cinematic element of it. It’s really about cinematic reality.
On the massive influence the James Bond films of his youth, as well as the current realities of the world we live in, had on the approach he took to filming his Batman trilogy:
One of the first films I ever saw was “The Spy Who Loved Me,” and so, I think at a certain point the Bond films fixed in my head as a great example of scope and scale in large-scale action films. That globe-trotting, that going to other places — that idea of trying to get you along for the ride, if you can believe. I mean, in “The Spy Who Loved Me,” a Lotus Esprit turns into a submarine, and it’s totally convincing! [Laughs] They just built the thing and it works and you go, “Wow, that’s incredible!” So if you can take somebody on that ride — you know, in “The Dark Knight Rises,” we had to do a flying vehicle, and it’s very daunting. But you go, “Okay, that’s the challenge — to try and take the audience on that ride.” That was very much my jumping-off point, cinematically.
The Bond films — back in the 60’s when they started making them, they were very specifically about Cold War fears. They were closer to things people worried about at the time. There was a very real threat they were dealing with that people were concerned about, post-Cuban Missile Crisis and all the rest. If you look at “Thunderball,” if you look at the novel, particularly — it’s actually pretty edgy in its own way. I think that, one of the things — in taking on an action film set in a great American city post-9/11…if we were going to be honest in our own fears…in terms of what might threaten this great city of Gotham, then we were going to come up against the idea of terrorism, what that might be, how that might feature in the universe of Batman. So we approached it, I think, with a great degree of sincerity. That is to say, we really wanted to try and create a credible villain whose philosophy looked at through one end of the telescope made a lot of sense, was very appealing to this young man who’s lost his parents and has all of this rage. We really wanted to try and find an antagonist who could manipulate that anger.
In discussing Liam Neeson’s work on the Batman films, Nolan delved into the double-edged sword of Neeson’s convincing delivery:
The great thing with Liam…is he can sell you anything. The scene [in “Batman Begins”]…they [Neeson and Bale] sit by the fire, and there’s this line that I wrote in the script that he’s [Bale] rubbing his arms and Liam says, “Rub your chest; your arms will take care of themselves.’ After we shot it, I pictured boy scouts all over the world freezing to death because I made up this thing. [Laughs] I don’t go camping, I have no idea! And you just believe it! He says it and you go, “Absolutely!” …Just, the gift of how he can take one of my lines like, “Your antics at the asylum” and actually make it sound good, just — thank you! [Laughs] But he really means it as he’s saying it, and to me that made him more threatening.”
On casting the late Heath Ledger as the Joker:
Really, in a sense, Heath chose me. I met Heath for a couple of films — I actually met him in relation to Batman, as well, because I was meeting kind of every young actor. He very graciously came and met me for a drink and began to explain why he would never do this kind of movie. [Laughs] But he was very polite. He was really just a lovely guy, and so I thought, “Well, shame I can’t convince you, but this is what we’re trying to do with this thing.’ I think when he saw “Batman Begins,” he’d probably remembered the things I’d said about what I was going to try to do, and he felt that I’d done it, so I met with him for the Joker. I didn’t know whether it was something he’d be interested in, but I sat and chatted with him in my office for a couple of hours. We didn’t have a script at that point, but — my brother was writing it at the time, and we knew kind of where that was going to go, and it was very much what Heath had in mind. And he just was determined to do it. He just had a vision for something, and the way he termed it to me at the time was, he really didn’t like to work too much. He liked to do a character and then stop working then let enough time go by. He wanted to be hungry for it. And when he came to me, he was clearly in that state: Very hungry. He was ready to do something like that and just own it — which is what he did.
On the process preparing for and the reality of Ledger’s transformation into the Joker:
We cast him before the script was even ready, so he had a very long time to obsess and think about what he was going to do. I sent him some material, I had him read “A Clockwork Orange.” I had him look at paintings of Francis Bacon. Then, once he had the script — which was very scary, my initial reaction to having him read it, because by this time he was so committed and knew what a high-wire act it was going to be, and if he hadn’t liked it I think it would’ve been extremely difficult. It would’ve been very uncomfortable! [Laughs] But…he really felt it delivered what we’d talked about. Like a lot of artists, he would sneak up on something — you couldn’t really sit and say, “Okay, you’re going to do Joker.” He’d throw in a little bit of a laugh, but never kind of saying, “Okay, this is it.” As with any great performance of showing you something very different, there were moments where you kind of go, “Wow, that’s exactly right.” There were other moments where you go, “I hope this is good.” I had no idea — he was so unpredictable. The voice certainly frightened me at first, because of its weird shifts in pitch. Just as in his physical movements — you don’t know how he’s going to move, you don’t know what he’s going to do with his hands. It’s always a surprise. The actual tone of his voice was always a surprise, too.
On the technical (and communicative) difficulties behind Ledger’s first scene as Joker:
The first sequence we shot was the IMAX prologue, where he had a mask on. I think that freed him up to just enjoy that — not worry about it too much. Then there’s the moment when he pulls his mask off, which is tremendous, but it was the first time we’d shot with the IMAX cameras, and when we looked at dailies it was all a bit out of focus. So I just rescheduled…and I got this horrified phone call from him, sort of, “What have I done?” It was the first time he’d ever shown us the voice, and he’s like, “And you want to re-shoot it?” I’m like “No no no — it’s great!” But he never quite believed me, I think. He re-shot it very graciously, he was a tremendous professional, but…in the end, we actually used the out of focus one because it was just magic. The first scene of great length and depth that we did was the interrogation scene… I wanted him to commit to something up front… We planned it very, very carefully and gave ourselves a lot of time to shoot it.
On merging the IMAX format with traditional filmmaking:
I grew up watching museum presentations of IMAX…and it’s simply the most immersive film format that’s ever been created. But it’d never been used in a feature film. On “Batman Begins,” we did the conversion…and on “The Prestige,” we shot our visual effects using an IMAX camera so I could see what the thing was, how big it was. The frame is enormous, the cameras are enormous, but when you project it on one of those eight-story-high screens, it is the sharpest image imaginable. So, what we ended up doing in “The Dark Knight” was shooting the opening prologue and then about 30% of the film using the cameras. Dialogue scenes didn’t really seem practical — the camera is enormous. When it came to “The Dark Knight Rises,” we were determined to do all the action that way. We shot about half the film that way.
On the challenges in coordinating the stadium sequence in “The Dark Knight Rises”:
That sequence in particular was one that — on the page — was always really a set of indicators for parallel action. You were really looking at not knowing exactly how you were going to cross-cut it, but knowing the different strands you’re going to have to weave together. It was shot in three different cities over many months. We storyboarded certain sections of it, really, just as an indicator to the special effects guys. I think one of the reasons that it came together convincingly is I really pushed my team…to try and do as much in camera and get as much for real as possible, so that whatever CG enhancements were going to happen are based on something within the camera.
With the stadium, I stood there and got a lot of blank looks because — where do you even begin to try and do something like that? I said, “If we’re going to be in the stadium, then we’ve got to try and fill the stadium — we’ve got to try and get people in.” And we got a lot of local people — we had 11,000 people in the stands, for real, and you feel that level of humanity. We challenged the stunt guys and effects guys to come up with a way to drop sections of the field. Then, my editor Lee Smith really did an incredible job stitching it all together in the right dramatic rhythm.
On producing director Zack Snyder’s upcoming “Man of Steel”:
Producing is a lot easier than directing — I’m doing it as we speak. [Laughs] I think Zack Snyder is incredible — [“Man of Steel” is] something I’ve never really seen before, it’s a very new, fresh take on the character. It was pretty amazing to watch him take it on. I think people are going to be really thrilled!