Christpher Nolan made a name for himself very soon into his career with 2000's Academy Award-nominated "Memento," a film that highlighted the director's penchant for uncommonly dense plotting and vivid characters. He proceeded quickly to the thriller "Insomnia" and then of course to Warner Bros. Pictures' "Batman Begins," the critically and commercially successful resurrection of the once mortally wounded film franchise based on the DC Comics icon.
After taking a break from the Bat with 2006's similarly well-received "The Prestige" (or, as it is known to some comics fans, "Batman Vs. Wolverine") starring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, Nolan returns to Batman on July 18 with "The Dark Knight." The director's bringing with him a new and improved bag of tricks that includes a screenplay tightly packed with a detective story, fan-favorite characters, intense action, some IMAX film, and a secret weapon called Heath Ledger.
For this first in a series of interviews with the cast and crew of "The Dark Knight," CBR News along with other members of the press spoke with Christopher Nolan at the film's location shoot in Chicago.
NOTE: This and all subsequent interviews were conducted prior to the death of Heath Ledger.
CBR: Batman is a detective. In the first film, there was a great deal of time spent explaining in very realistic detail how Batman does all these fantastic things that he does. In "The Dark Knight," now that those things have been done, will we see Batman using his head?
Christopher Nolan: Yes. He definitely, much more easily in this story, assumes more of a detective role. That was something that was important to us to get in ["Batman Begins"]. We got it in a small way, but in dealing with the origin and dealing with all the larger aspects of the character, it became very difficult to get that in. We're trying to get in stuff we couldn't get into the first film, and the detective stuff is definitely one of those aspects.
What made you want to revisit the world of Batman?
Certainly, addressing the character of the Joker has a lot to do with it. Overall, I just very much enjoyed making the first film, but I had no real intention of doing a sequel. But having created a view of Batman's universe and then, at the end of the film, introducing the idea, the thought of the Joker, that to me became an irresistible creative process that myself and [co-writers] David Goyer and Jonathan [Nolan] just got into. It's a very interesting thing to sit around and think with "Batman Begins" as a prism for how you view Batman, how does that effect the way you see the Joker. Who would that guy be in our universe?
In speaking to costume designer Lindy Hemming, we learned that when she was looking for a reason as to why the Joker would dress the way he des, she came to the conclusion that he simply... would. That's just who he is. Can we infer that in "The Dark Knight," the Joker doesn't have an A-B-C path from wherever he was to how he got to wherever he is now. He just is. Is that an accurate?
It is. That's the way it is in the comics, too. If you read the first couple of appearances, he just is. I think that's a absolutely why we wound up going in this direction. We have set out to do a more realistic version of the character that has been done before, something that fits in to our somewhat more realistic, slightly grittier view of the Batman universe. Ultimately, you accept the character just is that way. That becomes the most realistic way of doing it. We didn't want to be pedantic in trying to find a real-world explanation for every aspect of his character. What we realized is, to a certain extent, the flamboyance of the character is who he is.
Is The Joker a force of nature?
He is a force of nature, and once you start thinking of the character as a given -- that he is just who he is -- then the psychology of that becomes immediately very obvious, and the idea that he's a very unusual character, a very anarchic character in our society does seem to me quite obvious. We very much took the view in looking at the character of the Joker that what's strong about him is this idea of anarchy, this commitment to chaos. He's not just a bank robber or an ordinary criminal who's only in it for material gain. His chief motivation is that of an anarchist. I talked to Heath a lot about it even as we were finishing the script, and we both agreed that the most threatening force society faces is pure anarchy, someone who wants to do harm for its own sake and for his own entertainment.
What can you tell us about Heath Ledger's performance in this role?
What Heath's doing is very unique and, I think, pretty amazing and very frightening, as the character should be. There's a wicked sense of humor to it, he's extremely entertaining but he's definitely taking it in a very scary and very intense direction.
If someone's five-year-old wants to see this film really badly, is Heath Ledger going to scare the shit out of him?
Yes, definitely. I wouldn't take a five-year-old. I'd wait a few years.
What if any comic books did you refer to in fleshing out your version of the Joker? The way he looks reminds one of certain versions of the Joker, particularly the work of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips in "Batman: Gotham Noir," which depicted a Joker with facial wounds.
To be honest, myself and David Goyer, we really just kind of dove in and tried to do our version of the character simply based on our memories of the comics without going back [to research]. When Jona came on board to write the first draft of the screenplay from our treatment, one of the first things he said was, "Did you read the first appearances of the character?" I said no and went back and looked at those as we were writing the script and I think we wound up very, very close to the original jumping-off point of the character in the history of the comics.
In visual terms, we really tried to just go our own way and work with Heath in developing what we thought was a good look for the character. Basically, it winds up being an amalgam of looking at everything that's been done with the character and just processing it. Just ruminating and allowing our imaginations to remember what we remembered and then take what we took from the history of the comics and put it altogether --which is very much how we approached Batman in the first film.
Concerning Batman or Bruce Wayne, in "Batman Begins" he was depicted as a profoundly unhappy individual, for obvious reasons. Has he changed in the time between films, or is he still that tortured soul in "The Dark Knight?"
I think Batman is a more complete version of himself. He has sort of moved on, he is less tortured by his distant past. So we get to torture him all fresh! He's never entirely free from torture, one might say.
He can't mope. He can't have a self-indulgent angst. It has to be substantial. We tried to tell a story in the first film whereby he did confront and overcome various aspects of what drives him, of that angst, and left others hanging. So in this film we try to have the way Christian [Bale] plays the character start from that point. He's not sitting around moping about the fact his parents got killed -- we dealt with that in the first film. But he's nevertheless a very dark character.
"Batman Begins" concluded with a sense that for Batman and Gotham, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. Can you elaborate on that theme, and how does it effect the story and tone of "The Dark Knight?"
It's not necessarily that things are going to get worse before they get better, although that's certainly a theme in this film, but really the key point is Gordon's little speech about escalation; the idea of such a radical response to crime then prompting its own radical response. At the end of the first film, when the Joker card is presented, it's very clear that was our idea of yes, Batman's succeeded but he's going to prompt a very extreme response. And that's the jumping-off point for this film, that extreme response.
There's a quote attributed to you that said Superman is sort of the way that America views itself and that Batman is the way that the rest of the world views America.
That's fantastic that's attributed to me, but it's not my quote, it's Michael Caine's. He said that to me the first time I met him, I thought it was very interesting. It was a very interesting point of view. I agree with that only in the sense that Superman is an ideal of something. I think that Batman, being a more human character, is not as ideal, and is having to deal with the consequences of his actions in a more relatable and a more human and in a more political way. That's what I love about the character, because it means the story gets messy. It's not always easy to figure out what is the heroic course of action, what is it okay to do? What's the line you can't cross as a vigilante or as somebody who works outside the law? This story gets to really explore those issues.
We constantly ask ourselves this question while writing the film and making the film, why is Batman a hero? Why is he a good guy? There are certain directions you could take -- and directions some of the fans would like to see you take -- with this character that are very, very dark and very intense, but there always has to be this guiding idea of heroism. Batman is a good guy and that's an important question to continually ask.
Your Batman movies, relative to other superhero films, employ a huge amount of supporting characters -- characters from the books, not just invented ones. By what criteria do you decide which characters to bring in? For example, in "The Dark Knight" you've got Sal Maroni and Lucius Fox, and on set we saw a female police officer who looked like Renee Montoya.
Yeah, she's not Renee Montoya. We did look at using her but we wanted to change the character from the way she is in the comics, so we changed the name of the character. And that's part of our process, we look at the demands of our story, based on our reading of various comics we're being influenced by and everything, and as the story starts to shape itself, there's a certain sense in which you decide which characters you're [accurately] representing and which have changed a bit and therefore need to be our own characters. In one way, the history of the comics is helping you tell your story, that's kind of the best way I can describe the process.
There's certainly a legalistic aspect to it as well. I'll sit there with David Goyer and say, "Wouldn't it be great if this happened" and he'll say, "Ah ha, that's so-and-so from such-and-such." He has a great, great knowledge of the comics and it's very fun to sit and sort of run over stuff with him.
Playing those supporting roles are a number of incredibly talented and very famous actors like Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox and Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon. What is it that you think brings such performers to a project like this?
They're all pretty excited by the nature of the material and where the story took them. The great thing about doing a sequel --that I didn't really know until we really dived into it-- is that you've set up all the characters already, so you don't have to take that time with the audience. You can take them a little further; you can jump in with them. There's a nice familiarity to them as they first pop up on screen. You can do a little bit more with each of them, and you can do it in slightly less time -- which in a way you have to because you're introducing new characters. To try and not make a four-hour movie, the shorthand you have with characters you already know is tremendously valuable.
Would you talk about the IMAX scene you're shooting, and would you ever consider shooting a Batman film in 3-D?
We're shooting various action sequences of the film in the IMAX format, and as we progress I'm sort of trying to convince everybody to shoot more and more bits of it in IMAX, but is' a very unwieldy and burdensome format, but it's really a pretty incredible thing to look at. I'm just having a blast working with that format. I've never been particularly interested in 3-D because to me, one of the things that's just amazing, one of the things I'm trying to get back, what I love about movies is their larger than life quality. And it's a peculier thing, the way our eyes work, that when you wear 3-D glasses to look at a 3-D image, the screen appears to be smaller. When you take the glasses off, the screen seems massive again. I'm interested in that massive canvas, that larger than life canvas that IMAX gives you. It creates an immersive quality by the clarity of its imagery and size and brightness. That gives you a great visceral sense like you would get in a 3-D movie, but it doesn't diminish the scale of it.
I also hate wearing those glasses.
All of your films are really meticulous with plotting. When you were crafting The Dark Knight, what things could you not fit in that you would have liked to have shot?
Honestly, we've pretty much stuffed everything I wanted into the movie. My biggest fear right now is there's a lot to put in that we're shooting, and when we get to finishing the film we'll have to be somewhat ruthless about how we put it together. We're telling a very dense story and a very sprawling story. There are a lot of characters, a lot of plotlines, a lot of things going on. I kind of didn't leave anything out, and I felt that would be part of the fun of doing a sequel, actually. You're jumping into a story with a character very fully formed. We're not having to deal with the origin of the character so we've got a pretty good head start. We wanted to be as ambitious as possible with the scope of the movie and what we put into it.
What makes a good sequel?
I think a good sequel is a film that feels inevitable. When you go back and you see the first film, you completely understand the story had to continue into the second film. I wouldn't be making this film if it didn't have that feeling about the story, how that has to continue. I think the pitfalls are simply repeating yourself. I think we're not doing that at all. We're really very much creating the second half of a story.
Do you have any such feelings of inevitability for a third film?
No, I'm very interested in this film. Honestly, I'm sure you could look back at all the things I said during the making of the first film and how I wanted [the focus] to be on the first film, and that was a very genuine process. For me, having a great story of two halves is something I'm really aiming for with this movie. So when people see this movie, they feel they've seen a complete story.