Christopher Nolan Never Let Casting Two Superhero Stars Cloud His Vision For The Prestige

Though he's known for making meticulously-planned and intricately plotted films, Christopher Nolan never writes a movie with a cast in mind. Preferring to build out the character before thinking about casting, the celebrated director takes his story and its characters seriously enough to allow them to become fully formed without imposing any limits. And it was no different with his 2006 period thriller "The Prestige."

A tale of two dueling 19th Century magicians, the movie was an adaptation of Christopher Priest's novel of the same name. Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, took the liberty of rearranging the story significantly to make its three acts mirror the three stages of the magicians' tricks: the pledge, the turn, and, of course, the prestige. The result was a clever and effective fantasy thriller that made for a refreshing change of tone between Nolan's blockbuster "Batman Begins" in 2005 and "The Dark Knight" in 2008.

The director had written the whole thing with no cast in mind, allowing the story and characters to develop naturally to the point where he had a film with a much smaller scope but more complex plot than his then-recent Batman movie. As such, he was taking somewhat of a risk by casting two of the most recognizable superhero stars in the lead roles: Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. Bale had just gained widespread recognition and praise for his portrayal of the Dark Knight, while Jackman basically was Wolverine in the mainstream consciousness. But Nolan always seems to know what he's doing, even when he probably doesn't. And in the case of "The Prestige," he was confident that its recognizable stars wouldn't detract from the story he was telling and the characters he'd developed.

Wolverine vs. Batman

Christian Bale was perfectly cast as master illusionist Alfred Borden. The actor inhabited Borden's technical mastery and obsession with his craft, while Hugh Jackman's showman of a magician, Rupert Angier, suited the stage musical vet perfectly. But it very easily could have gone the other way, with audiences bound to make the "Batman vs. Wolverine" connection. In a move that wouldn't necessarily help those comparisons being made, Nolan even drafted in Alfred himself, with Michael Caine playing stage engineer John Cutter.

The auteur remained characteristically unfazed, however. Speaking to Empire, he said:

"I probably made the joke at some point. You know: Wolverine versus Batman [...] But Christian obviously started out as a child actor and as he's matured he's done lots of different things, so I certainly didn't think of him as just Batman, even though as Batman he was a great choice. And Hugh, the same thing — there's a great depth to this guy as an actor. Wolverine is just one aspect of his work."

Nolan almost seems keenly aware of the redundancy of his words here. After all, he's basically saying, "Hey, you know these guys are actors right? They play different people? That's kind of their job." Having to spell out that Bale isn't "just Batman" and that Wolverine is "just one aspect" of Jackman's work must have felt a little ridiculous to the director, who seemingly always trusted his actors to transcend any association with prior roles. Again, that's pretty much their job, and Nolan knew that.

The secret and the trick

Christopher Nolan is known for having things pretty well planned prior to shooting, which is likely part of the reason he famously never does reshoots and shoots multiple setups in one day. It all comes down to preparation — as Alfred Borden says in the movie, "The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything." It's true. Nobody sees the "secret" of filmmaking — the months and years of planning that go into Nolan's movies ("The Prestige" took Nolan and his brother five years to write). But there's a worldwide audience that enjoys the "trick" of those years being condensed into a two-hour movie. It's kind of silly to think that a director so well prepared would be casting actors he thought would distract from the story with their superhero notoriety.

Even if he wasn't as well prepared, why would he be worried? You can tell on the press tour for "The Prestige" that Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Nolan, and even Michael Caine had been asked incessantly about the Batman/Wolverine connection and they all look (rightly) tired of it. Both Bale and Jackman are accomplished actors, with Bale especially being able to disappear into a variety of characters. Nolan knew their skills beyond superhero performances, and trusted the actors to do their jobs.

As Bale said in that very press run, "It's a fine script, it's a fine movie. It's one of the finest that I've ever read. It's got so many smart twists and turns to it." The story of "The Prestige" and Nolan's vision for it was strong enough to withstand any Batman or Wolverine references overshadowing its effectiveness. Having worked on it for half a decade, Nolan knew his trick was going to work all along.