Interview: Christopher Nolan

A couple weeks ago we got the chance to sit down with Christopher Nolan to discuss his new film The Dark Knight. The following is a transcript of that roundtable interview. Enjoy.

Question: What were the challenges for you in developing this?

Christopher Nolan: Well, I got interested very much by the idea that we left at the end of Batman is the idea of escalation, the idea of having established Batman as this heroic figure in Gotham who’s going to try and take Gotham back for the good people in the city, that there was going to be an extraordinary criminal response to that, that in going so big as he has in employing such heavy handed tactics you know, what are the criminals going to come back with? And that really manifests itself in the person of The Joker, that was really my interest is, taking this story forward, of seeing it expand out so that Batman’s internal struggle from the first film really sort of takes on a city-wide aspect now.

Question: So, moral ambiguity is really a theme that was of interest to you?

Christopher Nolan: Well, yeah, I think that Batman exists on this very precarious state of somebody who has very negative impulses but tries to channel them into something good and I think that’s a very human dilemma and one that in this film we see infect more and more people, and I think The Joker is very much the catalyst for that infection.

Question: Working with a bunch of actors with I assume very different acting processes, there are so many good actors, wonderful actors in this. How do you approach that? Do you just let them do their thing or do you try to run them under your course?

Christopher Nolan: Well, it’s hard to explain that the thing I’ve always noticed about working with great actors is that however different their methods are, part of what makes them great actors is that they can accommodate each other’s working methodology very easily, very effortlessly, and I think that really becomes, well, I think that really comes from a place that a great actor has to be responsive to the other performer in order to give the right performance themselves, they have to genuinely listening not just waiting to say their next line, you know, so I think that what that means is as with great musicians improvising together or something like that they just find a way to work together that’s very subconscious it’s something pretty magical to watch.

Question: Were you and Christian on the same page as to where you wanted to take Batman as a character.

Christopher Nolan: No but I sorted him out. I [laughter] no, we were very much on the same page. I think he was looking forward to the opportunity of, as I was, with moving on with the character because the origin story of Batman is, it’s a very heavy story, and it was an interesting one to take on, but it binds him to his past very much. We both felt very much with this film you have to leave that behind and move forward and test him in new and different ways and I think that what he is able to do in the film is he’s able to come into this story with a great deal of confidence about being Batman, and I mean that from the point of view as an actor and the character as well. He’s enjoying the same I think feeling of being on top of his game, and then that gradually gets tested.

Question: What about casting the antagonist in this, and what did you see in both Heath and Aaron that made you feel they were right for these very complex villains?

Christopher Nolan: Well, the way the story is constructed we always imagined that Harvey Dent would form the emotional arc of the story. His story, his tragedy would be, excuse me, the arc of the story, because The Joker, the purpose of The Joker for us was always that he has no arc, he has no development he doesn’t learn anything through the film, he’s an absolute. He cuts through the film sort of like the shark in Jaws so he’s a catalyst for action, people are reacting off and being affected by him, so Heath is somebody that I’ve wanted to work with for years. I he’d met with him on various projects but nothing had quite worked, and what I knew I needed for The Joker was an actor of extraordinary talent and that was evident from his other work, has it performance in Brokeback Mountain for example which was truly spectacular, but also an actor who was unafraid who was completely prepared to take on an iconic role and make it his own, and Heath told me he could do that before we even had a script, you know, I met with him, and he and I saw it the same way. We saw it as crafting a character who was an absolute who has devoted a pure, an ideal of pure anarchy, a desire to seek chaos, a desire to just rip the world down around himself, purely for his own amusement, and Heath really got that. In casting Harvey Dent I looked at her and who, somebody also that I met with over the years, I talked to him about doing Memento and that hadn’t worked out, but I’d really wanted to work with for a long time and I think he is able to embody that kind of all-American heroic presence, you know, he has something of the like a young Robert Redford about him, so but within that there’s this seed of something else there’s this undercurrent of another layer of perhaps a little bit of anger in him, a little bit of something in the way he sees the world that could go one way, could go the other, a little bit of ambiguity. I think he gets that across very beautifully. That was very important for Harvey because with where that character goes, you don’t want cheat the audience you don’t want to just set up a perfectly heroic presence and then have that, you know, you have to know, in other words you have to be showing the audience right from the beginning that there’s more to this character.

Question: That’s what he did in the Neal LaBute films…

Christopher Nolan: Very much, particularly in The Company of Men I think yeah, I think if you look at his performance in The Company of Men I mean it’s not really a similar character but there’s a similar dynamic going on there with the outward appearance of the character versus this edge that’s somewhere in this thing lurking below the surface.

Question: I know you wanted to shoot with the IMAX camera, and I wondered did you end up finding it kind of unwieldy and also such short, you could only do two-minute takes and did you have to rethink the way you would shoot everything?

Christopher Nolan: No, not really, we did a lot of preparation with it, and we found ways and we planned ways of getting around for example, the short load-times which is you know, we would just swap one camera for another when it ran out of film and that kind of thing, generally with action sequences which is mostly what we were shooting you really rarely roll for more than ten seconds for example so it tends not to really be a factor. Shooting a dialog scene with an IMAX camera would be a bigger challenge because of the noise of the camera and the short length of the loads and so forth but we got better and better at it, we had a terrific crew, a lot of our camera mounts and things were 35 millimeter they were ones they’re built to withstand enormous abuse, so they can take the weight of a much larger camera, a lot of them although we did break one steady-cam just had it literally sheer off, dropped the thing on the ground, but other than that mostly it was all, it was quite possible to do what we would have done with 35 mil cameras with these IMAX cameras and as the film progressed I think we got better and better at it and wound up doing more and more of the film that way.

Question: How do you choreograph those large action scenes? How do you go about choreographing what are very complex?

Christopher Nolan: Well you do a lot of meetings, a lot of discussion and walking the locations with the different heads of department. I try and coordinate the action sequences I such a way that it’s possible to actually change them and improvise with them on the day as the elements come together in the actual location, so I mean for example, a lot of the driving scenes racing through traffic and then we would set up a circuit and we would shoot in both directions and so we would be able to run takes pretty much continuously and just keep rolling and keep trying new things and everything, instead of constructing one particular piece of driving and then having all of the cast reverse back and start again for take II so we try to be a little more free-form with those things and as usually the case, we would story board the sequences so the people had the different department heads had something tactile to work from but I would always warn everybody that we don’t intend to shoot the storyboards, we’re going to do it our own way when we get there, and I think one of the advantages of working with the same people film to film in carrying the same team is they’re able to accommodate that.

Question: But there is a handheld scene with the IMAX camera, and that was somewhat unorthodox wasn’t it?

Christopher Nolan: It was, I you know, Wally had told me, you know, he does his own camera work largely, and he’s a terrific handheld camera operator. We do a lot of the film handheld and he made it very clear to me from the beginning he wasn’t going to try and handhold an IMAX camera because it’s too heavy, but I right towards the end I finally convinced him to do it, it was a couple of shots in the film that are actually handheld he’s shot, but you could have carry it for very long.

Question: That Batmobile was very cool in this one, and I think people always expect bigger and better things and you know with Batman’s costume or whatever, can you talk a little bit about the Bat Pod?

Christopher Nolan: Yeah, the Batpod was our new vehicle for Batman in this film and it was something that my designer Nathan Crolley and myself worked on along the lines of rather than try and produce a motor bike for Batman we thought about what if you took an anti-aircraft gun and put it on wheels that was sort of a design jumping off point and we built small models and then in my garage we actually put the full-size mockup that you could sort of sit on to show it to the special effects guys.

Question: In your garage at home?

Christopher Nolan: Yeah, well, we do a lot of the design in my garage at home. Before we get too many people on the film, it keeps it sort of a little more intimate and let’s us kind of really explore ideas without having a massive payroll of people that we’re having to feed drawings to and things. We showed it to the special effects guys and they took one look at it and turned to Nath and myself and said you don’t know anything about motorbikes, do you? [laughter] And we had to admit that was true, but we said but it looks great! Can you find a way that it could work and they did, they built the thing for real and it really runs but you know, in terms of full disclosure, there really is only one person in the world that can ride it, because it is extraordinarily difficult to ride and to steer and so forth.

Question: And that’s Christian Bale? [laughter]

Christopher Nolan: Well, I wasn’t going to name the person. You can ask Christian.

Question: What’s your relationship to the source material Old Dark Knight, the original comic which seems to me premised and toned pretty much almost what you took away?

Christopher Nolan:
Well, you know, there’s a lot of detail that comes from the comics, and there’s a lot of characterization that comes from the comics but generally not specific books. Generally what we’ve tried to do, myself and David Goyer and Jonah is really try to just be influenced by the whole history of the comics, and steep ourselves in it prior to writing but just have a knowledge of the feel of it and we tried to be true to what I sort of term as the kind of evolutionary history of the comics and you’ve got 65 years of different writers and artists dealing with these characters. So there are certain commonalities or certain things that sustain over time. And then there are all kinds of blind alleys, the specifics of which you can ignore, so really try and just distill from the history of the comics what the essence of those characters are, and we try to be true to that.

Question: and You’ve said that you’re a big fan of James Bond.

Christopher Nolan:
Yeah.

Question: And did you purposely put in some of more of that more secret agenty stuff into this film because of that?

Christopher Nolan: Well, we certainly did in both films. We started it in Batman Begins, and I think the Bond films were a big influence tonally in terms of trying to explain to the studio, you know, if you look at the early Bond films you’ve got extraordinary things happening, but there’s an overall tone you can buy into as a regular action movie. You’re not completely stepping outside the bounds of reality particularly with the earlier films and I think that winds up being pushed even further in this film, partly as a result of not wanting to do everything at night and not wanting to. I mean, if Batman controls the night, in Gotham, than the Joker is much more dangerous in the day, and so the daytime scenes actually become more threatening and more interesting in a way. So you wind up having to deal with, OK, how does Bruce Wayne deal with that during the day as well, so there’s more of that.

<Next question and answer contains spoilers>

Question: What about the film, doesn’t end there’s no finality to the film in terms of its ending. Do you – is that partly because there is a conscious desire for you to wink at the audience and say, just yes, there may be another and but also The Joker of course is left hanging literally.

Christopher Nolan: Not in the case of this ending. This ending, I knew what I wanted to do with the end of the film before we even knew the whole story and without giving too much away about the ending, I wanted it to actually have a feeling of – I wanted the film to feel very complete. It’s not the same as having a feeling of finality in the ending. There’s a particular emotion to the end of the film and a particular thing that we were after in terms of expressing something about Batman and bringing the entire story back to him, so that it becomes once again, you know, Batman’s film at the very end having dealt with a very wide number of characters interacting in all kinds of extraordinary ways, at the end of the day we wanted to just nail the relevance of that to our hero, our core character.

<Spoilers End>

Question: Will you do “The Prisoner” before you do?

Christopher Nolan: I honestly don’t know what I’ll be doing next. I mean, I finished this film last week and so, I’m excited to put it out, but nervous to put it out and see what audiences think and that always informs, I think that naturally informs…

Question: You said you had the idea for the ending for a while. Did you have a plan at how to succeed on that ending in the third film?

Christopher Nolan: No. What I can say is I don’t know what I would do next or what would happen next but I felt in doing a sequel that it would be a big mistake to try and hold anything back for future films. You have to put everything you can into this movie and try and make it as great as it can be.

Question: Thank you Chris.

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