Nolan Returns with Epic ‘Batman’ Tale
by Paul Fischer
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Christopher Nolan returns to Batman territory with his often savagely dark take on Batman with The Dark Knight. In the film, Batman sets out to destroy organized crime in Gotham for good with the help of Lieutenant Jim Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent. The triumvirate proves to be effective, but they soon find themselves prey to a rising criminal mastermind known as the Joker, who thrusts Gotham into anarchy and forces the Dark Knight ever closer to crossing the fine line between hero and vigilante. Nolan also shot key scenes using an IMAX camera. The director talked to Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: About what for you, as the auteur really of these movies, was interesting for you to explore in The Dark Knight? What challenges were there for you in developing this?
Christopher Nolan: Well, I got interested very much by the idea we left at the end of Batman Begins, 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 of the city, that there was going to be an incredible criminal response to that. That in going so big in that as he has, and employing such heavy-handed tactics, what were the criminals going to come back with. And that really manifests itself n the person of the Joker. That was really my interest, is taking this story forward and seeing it expand out so that Batman’s internal struggle from the first film really sort of takes on a citywide aspect now.
PF: So moral ambiguity is really a theme that was of interest to you?
CN: Well, yeah. I think that Batman exists in 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.
PF: Working with a bunch of actors who I assume have very different acting processes—so many wonderful actors in this—how do you approach that, do you just let them do their thing, or do you try to run them on your course?
CN: Well, it’s hard to explain, but the thing I’ve always noticed about working with great actors is that, however different their methods are, part of what makes them great is they can accommodate each others’ 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 a great performance themselves. They have to be genuinely listening, not just waiting to say their next line, you know? So I think that what that means is that 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.
PF: Were you and Christian Bale on the same page as to where you wanted to take Batman as a character?
CN: No, but I sorted him out. [laughs] No, we were very much on the same page. I think he was looking forward to the opportunity, as I was, with moving on with the character. Because the origin story of Batman is 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. I think what he’s able to do in the film, he’s able to come into this story with a great deal of confidence about being Batman, and I mean that from a point of view of him as an actor and the character as well is enjoying the same feeling of being on top of his game, and then that gradually gets tested.
PF: What about casting the antagonist in this? What did you see in both Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart that made you feel they were right for these very complicated villains?
CN: 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 the arc of the story, because 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 he is somebody that I wanted to work with for years, I’d met with him on various projects but nothing had quite worked. What I knew I needed for the Joker was an actor of extraordinary talent, and that was evident from his other work, such as his performance in Brokeback Mountain, for example, which was truly spectacular. But also I wanted an actor who was unafraid, who was completely prepared to take on an iconic role and make it his own. Heath told me he could do that, before we even had a script. I met with him, he and I saw it the same way, we saw it as crafting a character who is an absolute, who is devoted to an idea of pure anarchy, a desire to seek chaos, a desire to just rip the world down around himself, purely for his own amusement Heath really got that. In casting Harvey Dent, I looked at Aaron, who is somebody also that I met with over the years—I talked to him about doing Memento—that hadn’t worked out. But I’d really wanted to work with him for a long time. I think he is able to embody that kind of all-American heroic presence, he has something of a young Robert Redford about him, or something, 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 another, a little bit of ambiguity. I think he gets that across really beautifully. That was really important for Harvey because of where that character goes, you don’t want to cheat the audience, you don’t want to set up a perfectly heroic presence and then have that—in other words, you have to know, you have to be showing the audience right from the very beginning that there’s more to this guy.
PF: That’s what he did in the Neil LaBute films.
CN: Very much. Particularly In the Company of Men, I think. Yeah, I think if you look at his performance in In the Company of Men, it’s not really a similar character, but there’s a similar dynamic going on there, with the outer appearance of the character versus this edge that’s somewhere in there, lurking below the surface.
PF: You wanted to shoot with the IMAX camera. Did you find it unwieldy, with such short takes? Did you have to rethink the way you would shoot everything?
CN: No, not really. We did a lot of preparation with it. 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, really don’t roll for more than 10 seconds, for example. So it tends not to 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 lengths 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 ones. They’re built to withstand, you know, enormous abuse, so they can take the weight of a much larger camera, a lot of them. Although we did break one Steadicam, just had it literally shear off and drop the thing on the ground. But other than that, mostly it was quite possible to do what we would have done with 35 millimeter cameras with these IMAX cameras. And as the film progressed I think we got better and better at it, and ended up doing more and more of the film that way.
PF: How did you choreograph those large action sequences?
CN: Well, you did a lot of meetings, and a lot of discussions and walking the locations with the different heads of department. I try and coordinate the action sequences in 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 our driving scenes, racing through traffic and things, we would set up a circuit and we would shoot in both directions, so we’d 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 having all of the cars reverse back and start again for take two. So we tried to be a little more free form on those things than is usually the case. We would storyboard the sequences so that people had the different department heads had something to work from. But I would always warn everybody that I don’t intend to shoot the storyboards, we’re going to do it our own way when we get there. I think one of the advantages of working with the same people film to film and carrying the same team with you is, they’re able to accommodate that.
PF: But there is a handheld scene with the IMAX camera, and that was somewhat unorthodox, wasn’t it?
CN: It was. You know, Wally [Pfister] had told me—he does his own camerawork, 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 that he wasn’t going to try and handhold an IMAX camera, because it’s too big. But I right towards the end convinced him to do it, and there’s a couple of shots in the film that are actually handheld that he’s shot. But you couldn’t carry it for very long.
PF: The Batmobile was very cool in this one. I think people always expect bigger and better things with Batman’s costume or whatever. Can you talk a little bit about the Batmobile and it’s interesting little capabilities. I don’t know if you’re trying to keep that part of it a secret.
CN: We are trying to keep that part of it a secret.
PF: In the movie theaters they actually have a poster of the thing itself, so I don’t know how much of a secret.
CN: Yeah, but where it comes from. the specifics of where it comes from is what we sort of skirt around and we haven’t yet them use the shot in trailers. It seems a more fun surprise. I think anybody who’s really paying attention could look at the tired and figure it, they’re very unique tires. But the Batpod was our new vehicle for Batman in this film and it was something that my designer, Nathan Crowley and myself worked on along the lines of trying to produce a motorbike for Batman. We thought about, what if you took an antiaircraft gun and put it on wheels, that were sort of the design jumping off point. And we built small models and then in my garage, we actually put the full-size mock up that you could sort of sit on to show it to the special effects guys.
PF: In your garage at home?
CN: Yeah. Well, we did a lot o the design work in my garage at home. Before we get too many people on the film. It keeps it sort of a little more intimate and lets us kind of explore ideas without having a massive payroll of people that we have to feed drawings to and things. We showed it to the special effects guys and they took one look at it and turned to Nathan and myself and said, “You don’t know anything about motorbikes, do you?” And we had to admit that was true, but we said, “But it looks great! Can’t you find a way that it could work?” And they did, they built this thing for real and it really runs. But, you know, in terms of full disclosure, there really is only one person in the world who can ride it, because it is extraordinarily difficult to ride and to steer and so forth.
PF: And that’s Christian Bale?
CN: [laughs] Well, I wasn’t going to name the person. You can ask Christian.
PF: What’s your relationship to the source material, The Dark Knight, the comic book. It seems to me premise and tone pretty much almost entirely what you took away.
CN: No, 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 Jonathan [Nolan] is really try to just be influenced by the whole history of the comics, and steep ourselves in it prior to writing. Have a knowledge of the feel of it. We tried to be true to what I sort of term as the kind of evolutionary history of the comics. You’ve got 65 years of different writers and artists dealing with these characters. So there are certain commonalities, 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.
PF: You’ve said you’re a big fan of James Bond. Did you purposely put in some of that more secret agenty stuff into this film because of that?
CN: Well, we certainly did in both films. We started it in Batman Begins, and I think the Bond films are 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. I think that winds up being pushed even further in this film, partly as a result of not wanting to do everything at night. 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, okay, how does Bruce Wayne deal with that during the day as well, so there’s more of that.
PF: 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 to wink at the audience and say, “Well, there may be another installment.” And the Joker is left hanging, literally.
CN: 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. Without giving too much away about the ending, I wanted it 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 we were after in terms of expressing something about Batman and bringing the entire story back to him, so that it becomes once again 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 want to just nail the relevance of that to our hero, our core character.
PF: Will you do The Prisoner?
CN: I honestly don’t know what I’ll be doing next. I mean, I finished this film last week. I’m excited to put it out, but nervous to put it out and see what audiences think, and that always informs what I’m doing next.
PF: You said you had the idea for an ending for the while. Do you have a plan of how to exceed on that ending in a third film?
CN: No. What I can say is, I don’t know what I would do next, 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 to make it as great as it can be.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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