NEW YORK — “The Dark Knight Rises” director Christopher Nolan stopped by the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater Wednesday night for one of the Film Society’s “An Evening with…” events. Scott Foundas moderated the discussion, which didn’t focus on Nolan’s full career, but rather, his experience with the character of Batman across a trilogy of films that has changed the landscape of blockbuster filmmaking and, indeed, the awards race itself.
Whether Nolan and his film are in a position in this crowded year to make good at the Oscars in major categories is debatable, but Warner Bros. is doing well by the director with one of the more compelling visual “for your consideration” campaigns of the year and plenty of reminding that Nolan broke the barriers of the ghetto-ized “comic book” film. And that’s just where the discussion began Wednesday, as Nolan recalled what it was that attracted him to the project in the first place.
“I’m not a huge comic book fan,” he admitted. “I’ve never pretended to be. It’s very dangerous to pretend you’re a comic book fan. They spot you pretty early…But what I saw was a very clear, identifiable gap in movie history, if you like.”
That gap, Nolan said, pertained to an opportunity left in the wake of the highly stylized versions of Batman created by filmmaker Tim Burton, which he called “fantastic, but very ‘Tim Burton,’ very idiosyncratic.” Nolan, as he’s said numerous times, yearned for something more engrained in reality. Because despite the fact that his first exposure to the character was through the campy Adam West television series of the 1960s, what he always took from the comics was a sense of the real world.
There was also plenty of discussion about the James Bond franchise, which Nolan has always noted as a particular influence on his work. (And ironic, then, that the clearly “Dark Knight”-influenced “Skyfall” moved into the IMAX venues “The Dark Knight Rises” had camped out in over the summer). One of the first films he ever saw was “The Spy Who Loved Me,” and at a certain point, the Bond films fixed in his head as a great example of scope and scale. “That globe-trotting thing, that idea of trying to get you along for a ride, that was very much a jumping-off point cinematically [for the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy],” he said.
Foundas brought up the idea of action films in a post-9/11 environment and how that was something that played into the tonal shift of these films as well. “Batman Begins” was released in 2005 and started the thematic construct that would be shared across the trilogy’s villains: terrorism.
“Interestingly, the Bond films, back in the 60s, they were very specifically about Cold War fears,” Nolan said. “They introduced the threat of nuclear terrorism very specifically for the first time in movies and they were closer than people realize, in pop culture terms, to what people feared at the time. And 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 terms of our fears and what might threaten this great city, then we were going to come up against terrorism and how that might feature in the universe of Batman. And I think we approached it with a great deal of sincerity.”
Ra’s al Ghul, the Joker and Bane, thereby, serve as Nolan’s central trio of adversaries seeking, above all, to destroy Gotham through terror, chaos and, ultimately, the cruel tease of hope.
Nolan noted that actor Liam Neeson, who starred in “Batman Begins” and briefly in “The Dark Knight Rises” as Ra’s al Ghul, was a godsend. “The great thing about Liam is he can sell anything,” the director said, before recalling one of the film’s earlier scenes between al Ghul (then going by the alias Ducard) and his pupil, Bruce Wayne: “They’re sitting by the fire and there’s this line I wrote. Liam says, ‘Rub your chest. Your arms will take care of themselves.’ And I pictured Boy Scouts all over the world freezing to death because I just made up this thing. I don’t go camping, I have no idea. And he says it and you believe it!”
There was also discussion of Nolan’s interest in the process of things in his work. A film like “The Prestige” is very much caught up in the process of magic, for instance, the procedural nature of things and the physical elements at play. His work on the Batman films is no exception.
“It’s something I enjoy, knowing and seeing a process of things come together,” Nolan said. “I think that’s a great pleasure in movies. But it’s also a way of frankly circumventing a lot of the suspicion the audience might have of something. In the case of ‘Inception,’ when you’re dealing with dreams, you risk alienating. ‘It’s not real, it’s a dream.’ The solution was to allow the audience in on the creation of the dream, so the dream is not fooling the audience, they’re complicit in fooling a third party.
“Similar with Batman, if he just arrived fully-formed into an ordinary world, not a Tim Burton world, with the ears and the cape, it would be laughable. So the way around it was to see the symbolism, why he’s doing that, and try to involve the audience in the mental process of figuring out what’s going to make him frightening to criminals. It’s one of the reasons in ‘Batman Begins’ we never show Batman clearly. We show him being a terrifying wraith.”
Two clips from the film were shown: the montage sequence built around Ducard/Wayne’s glacier sparring and a scene toward the end of the film when Bruce is forced to mimic disorderly drunkenness to get a house full of guests out of harm’s way. The latter in particular, Nolan noted, reflected actor Christian Bale’s considerable talent, juggling psychology and physicality with ease.
As discussion moved to 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” naturally the work of Heath Ledger as the Joker was at the forefront. Nolan had met with Ledger early on when he was putting together “Batman Begins” because he was meeting with most young actors in Hollywood at the time. And Ledger politely explained to the director why he would never be involved in a comic book film. Nevertheless, Nolan presented his goals to the actor, then set out to make the film.
The idea of “The Dark Knight” was to follow through on the realism of “Batman Begins.” In so many words, who would the character of the Joker be, seen through the prism of that film? It wasn’t an obvious answer for Nolan, and that kept it interesting.
Eventually Nolan met with Ledger again, this time for the specific role of the Joker. Ledger had seen Nolan do what he set out to do with “Batman Begins” and the interest was finally there, but they didn’t have a script yet. Nolan’s brother Jonathan was working on it, but they knew what they wanted out of the role. And Ledger seemed to be game.
“He didn’t like to work too much,” Nolan said of the late actor, who won an Oscar for his iconic performance. “He liked to do a character and then stop working and let enough time go by until he was hungry for it again. And that’s what happened when he came in; he was really ready to do something like that.”
Ledger spent months and months obsessing on and thinking about how he would play the character. Nolan sent him some materials, like Anthony Burgess’s novel “A Clockwork Orange” and some work by painter Francis Bacon, just “tangential” things that fed into his vision of the Joker. By the time the script was finished, Ledger was so committed, knowing what a high-wire act it would be, that if he didn’t like the script, it would have been extremely uncomfortable. But happily, it was off to the races, and the real work started to go into figuring out how to make the character tick.
“Like a lot of artists, he would sneak up on something,” Nolan said. “So you couldn’t really sit and go, ‘Okay, you’re going to do the Joker. You’re going to show me what it’s going to be.’ You had to sort of say, ‘Let’s read this scene. Don’t act it, just read.’ And he’d sit with Christian and there would be a line or two where his voice was a little different, throw in a little bit of a laugh. And then we would film hair and makeup tests and try different looks, and in that, he’d start to move, and we’d have these rubber knives and he’d choose what weapon and explore the movement of the character. We weren’t recording sound, so he felt quite able to start talking and showing some of what he was going to do. And in that way he sort of sneaked up on the character.”
The voice, though, worried the director at first, he said, because of its odd shift in pitch. “He had figured out this whole thing that was all based on the Alexander Technique, where if you hit a high note, you’re then able to hit sort of two octaves below afterwards,” Nolan said. “It’s a way of lowering your voice. So you had this character who you’d never quite know which way the pitch was going to go of his voice. Just as in his physical movements — you don’t know how he’s going to move; it’s always a surprise — the actual tone of his voice was always a surprise, too. Sometimes it would go incredibly low and threatening and other times it was light, in a way.”
Clips featured were the Joker’s encounter with Gotham’s mob bosses and the interrogation scene between him and the Caped Crusader later in the film, which was actually the first scene shot after the big IMAX prologue. Of that prologue, Nolan recalled that the final shot of the Joker removing his mask was out of focus, so he had to call Ledger back in to re-shoot it. Ledger was insecure, thinking there was something wrong with this incredibly high-wire performance he had concocted, but Nolan had to go to great lengths to explain it was merely a technical issue. Nevertheless, he stuck with the out of focus shot when he got to the editing room, because it was a better performance.
Finally talk shifted over to “The Dark Knight Rises,” which puts a definitive end on Nolan’s involvement with the franchise and hopes to blaze its own path through the awards season after lighting up the box office and landing its share of critical acclaim.
“We finished ‘The Dark Knight’ with a lie,” Nolan said. “Where does that go? What does that thread into?” That was the question he wanted to answer with his superhero denouement.
Talk was fairly limited in this segment, with no discussion of Anne Hathaway, who took on the iconic role of Catwoman, or much at all of Bane, played by Tom Hardy. But Foundas took the opportunity to deal with the relationship Bruce Wayne has had with his butler and only family, Alfred Pennyworth (played by Michael Caine) throughout the series, which in some way — reflected in one of the clips in which Alfred says to Wayne that it’s time for the truth to “have its day” — speaks to that thematic idea. Nolan commented on how Bale and Caine’s chemistry was perfectly realized every step of the way, making his job all the more easy. But soon enough talk moved right on into the IMAX filming format and Nolan’s oft-stated passion for film over digital.
“”It’s a can of worms,” Nolan said. “I’m a real bore on the subject. I’ll give you the short version, which is I grew up watching museum presentations of IMAX films and OMNIMAX films. It was invented in 1969, so it’s actually a year older than I am. It’s simply the most immersive film format ever created.”
Nolan had a life-long dream to shoot a feature on IMAX and as the multiplexes started to build out the infrastructure to show re-purposed 35mm prints in IMAX, he saw his opening. But it was a gradual process.
“On ‘Batman Begins,’ we did the conversion. I got to know the guys that way,” he recalled. “On ‘The Prestige,’ we shot our visual effects plates using an IMAX camera, so I got to see what the thing was, how big it was, how noisy it was.” With “The Dark Knight,” he experimented further, shooting roughly 30% of the film in IMAX (mostly in action sequences, as dialogue scenes — given the noisy machinery that “sounds like lawnmower” — were not ideal). And finally, about half of “The Dark Knight Rises” was filmed in the format.
He spoke briefly about Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” as well, noting that it’s the only other film that seems to have embraced high definition filmmaking on celluloid. “That’s what a movie is supposed to look like,” he said.
And indeed, the final clip shown was of the build-up and execution of strategic bombing in Gotham City, which Foundas said he was embarrassed he couldn’t show in IMAX or even on film. Alas, it still looked tremendous.
When “The Dark Knight” failed to land a Best Picture nomination in 2008, after a precursor circuit that clearly saw it in the thick of the hunt, the Academy shifted the landscape of the category, expanding the number of nominees in the hopes that popular fare would have a better shot at the recognition. It appears unlikely the final installment of Nolan’s epic achievement will make good on the promise of that change, but the ripples are nevertheless felt. And at the end of the day, even with all the talk of grounding comic books in a sense of reality and bringing a dose of sincerity to blockbuster filmmaking, Nolan is very clear about his ultimate goal: “I wanted to create, first and foremost, an entertainment, something people could keep a distance from and enjoy.”
With roughly $2.4 billion in box office receipts and nine Oscar nominations (and likely more to come this season) to its credit, it’s fair to say he’s pole-vaulted over that bar.
“The Dark Knight Rises” hits DVD/Blu-ray Tuesday, December 4.