Christopher Nolan is annoyed.
The scene: a ballroom at the Beverly Hilton. The occasion: a press conference for the director’s upcoming threequel “The Dark Knight Rises.” The object of his annoyance: a slight female reporter holding a microphone. The situation: she’s just asked a question that references a key reveal near the end of the film, and…Christopher Nolan is annoyed.
“Obviously, you can’t ask that question in a press conference, you’ll give away the ending of the film,” he snaps, interrupting her in mid-sentence.
“Well, I’m assuming everyone here has seen it,” she replies, caught suddenly and hopelessly in a downward spiral of public admonishment.
“Well, but who’s the press conference for?” he answers back, a slight flush glazing the boyish smoothness of his cheeks. “Come on, I mean seriously.”
She returns to her seat then, handing the accursed microphone back to the attendant who’d just awarded it to her, as if removing it from her grasp might somehow make her invisible again. I suppose that it did.
The point of his irritation removed, Nolan slips seamlessly back into the mask of composure that had been broken only slightly just seconds before, agreeing to answer the first, non-plot spoilery section of the shamed woman’s two-part question. And to her credit, it was a good one. Had Bane’s voice, which many audience members criticized for being near-unintelligible in the film’s first trailer, been re-recorded at all in post-production to make the villain’s mask-obstructed speech more understandable?
“Not really,” he replied, speaking calmly on his way to not addressing the specific question in any real detail “Some things are clarified and cleaned up. But we try to be true. I’m not really a big fan of ADR, so we try to be as true as possible to the recordings we do at the time. …So for the IMAX scenes, because the IMAX cameras are incredibly noisy, you’re then really in a position where what we would do on the set is immediately do a take without running the camera. And that way you’d get [the actors’ voices] in the costume, in the physical positions that they’re actually in when they’re performing the scene. And those you can sync up very well to picture.”
Speaking (or rather, not speaking) of Bane, Tom Hardy – the British actor who portrays the sadistic brute in the film – was conspicuously absent from the panel due to work conflicts (as was another main cast member, Marion Cotillard), leaving Nolan to serve as his unofficial spokesperson. But seeing as the character is so integral to the plot, questions about his performance – almost all of which is delivered from behind that now-famous mask, leering cruelly like some impossibly black alien mouth – were bound to arise.
“If [Tom] were here, I think what he would be talking about is when I called him up and I basically said to him ‘look, I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news,'” Nolan began. “The good news is I have a terrific part for you, the bad news is your face is gonna be completely covered for the whole film, so you’re gonna have to get across whatever it is you wanna get across through this character through just your eyes and your voice.
“And what Tom did, which I completely love but it takes audiences time to get used to,” he continued, “is there’s an incredible disjunct between what he’s doing with his voice and what he’s doing with his eyes. His eyes have this extremely threating stillness to them. His voice is this extremely expressive and different voice. And i’ve never really seen anything like it. The first time I ever saw him perform a scene with Christian [Bale], I was shocked by it. I mean I really was like, ‘ok, I’ve just never seen this.'”
Audience preconceptions are just par for the course with a film like “The Dark Knight Rises” – arguably the most anticipated and scrutinized film of the year – a fact no doubt heightened by the unyielding cloak of secrecy in which Nolan is known for shrouding his projects. So when the topic of those leaked set photos and videos taken by eager onlookers was brought up, I actually expected a far more negative and impassioned response than he ultimately offered.
“Well, I mean, the world we live in now is if you’re gonna do day exterior scenes in a city then everybody’s gonna get cell phone photos of it,” he said of the leaked images. “But I think what you have to trust in is that audiences understand, or fans understand, that whatever they’re seeing as the movie is being made is not the movie, and then they come to the film with fresh eyes. That’s certainly what we hope.”
One astute reporter in the crowd noted that “Rises” holds quite a few parallels to the famed 1859 Charles Dickens novel “A Tale of Two Cities,” which centers on the French Revolution and functions as both a sympathetic portrayal of the French peasantry as well as a condemnation of the vicious mob mentality that arises out of the justifiable anger they direct at the gluttonous aristocracy.
While confirming that he had indeed largely based the structure and themes of the film on the 19th century literary classic, he was quick to point out that the idea to do so actually originated from his brother and co-scripter Jonathan Nolan, with whom he also penned “The Dark Knight” (David S. Goyer received screenwriting credit on “Batman Begins” and has received a “story by” credit on the latter two installments).
“When [Jonathan] showed me his first draft of the screenplay, and it was 400 pages long or something, and had all this crazy stuff in it…when he handed it to me, he was like, ‘oh, you’ve gotta think of like ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ which of course you’ve read,'” Nolan recalled, ramping up for a moment of self-deprecation. “I said ‘oh yeah, absolutely.’ I read the script and was a little baffled by a few things and then realized I had never read ‘A Tale of Two Cities.” [The room burst into appreciative laughter here.]
“So I then got the book, read it, absolutely loved it, got completely what he was talking about…then when I did my draft of the script it was all about ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and really just trying to follow that because it just felt [like] exactly the right thing for the world we were dealing with, and what Dickens does in that book in terms of having all of these different characters come together in one unified story with all of these great thematic elements and all of this great emotionalism and drama.”
Those with a jaundiced preexisting opinion of Nolan and his films (yes, these individuals do exist) will likely roll their eyes at the above statement, taking the director to task for his pretentious approach to a film series that does, after all, center on a man who fights crime in tights and a cowl. But it’s not that Nolan doesn’t also recognize the films’ value as a form of escapist entertainment; it’s just that he doesn’t view them only as that.
“To be perfectly honest, we really try to resist at the script stage being drawn into specific themes, specific messages,” he replied to a question about the film’s more cerebral undertones. “Really these films are about entertainment, really they are about story and character. But what we do is we try and be very sincere in the things that frighten us or motivate us or would worry about when you’re looking at ‘ok, what’s the threat to the civilization that we take for granted,’ and we grope at how we’re going to frighten ourselves essentially with a force of evil coming into a place.
“We try to be very sincere about that,” he continued. “And I think resonances that people find or that happen to occur with what’s going on in the real world, to me they come about really as a result of us just living in the same world that we all do and trying to construct scenarios that move us or terrify us in the case of a villain like Bane and what he might do to the world.”
True, that’s perhaps a bit disingenuous for a man who only a short time earlier had admitted to hinging the script for “Rises” largely on the themes of a Dickens novel, but for a fanboy culture that so often derides film adaptations of their favorite works as coming off like shallow approximations of the original material, criticizing a director for even attempting to imbue the film version of a well-loved property with deeper resonance feels a little contradictory on its face.
“For me, it feels important to make films, even films that we go to for escapism and entertainment, that they in some way be moving us in a real way,” said Nolan. “But it is also important to bear in mind that Gotham is not a real city, and we’ve changed it every time…so that hopefully there’s a little reminder in there for people as they watch the film that it is an unreal city.”
Not a real city. It was a phrase Nolan threw out more than once during the Q&A, and yet, as one reporter correctly pointed out, Gotham has always been seen as representative of New York – the skyline of which, it bears mentioning, is displayed more prominently in “Rises” than it was in either of the previous entries. To hear Nolan talk about it, however, that wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice.
“Gotham has always been in some sense a stand-in for New York, and so obviously there’s resonances there,” he replied succinctly.
Like the Big Apple, everything about the “Dark Knight” trilogy evokes feelings of grandiosity, of operatic largeness and scale. This is what the big-screen was made for, the films and their creators seem to cry out at every available opportunity. So it’s no surprise, then, that Nolan has embraced the use of IMAX perhaps more than any other Hollywood director (“Rises” features more than an hour of IMAX footage as compared with “The Dark Knight”‘s 28 minutes), and – perhaps counter-intuitively – has not embraced the far more ubiquitous 3-D format.
“‘The Dark Knight,’was a very important movie in terms of getting across the idea of eventizing movies and the theatrical experience,” he said. “We got a lot of mileage out of really making a big deal out of our premiere engagements in a very old-fashioned way, like they used to do in the ’50s and ’60s [with] 70 mm projection.
“For me,” he went on, “IMAX is all about it’s [being] the best possible quality image when you film with their cameras and project that film in their theaters on those huge screens. There’s really no other way to do that with any other imaging technology. What I love about it, as opposed to 3-D, is it creates a much larger than life image. When you watch a 3-D film, the parallax makes it more intimate, it shrinks the imagery that you’re looking at. I actually really like for these characters and these movies, I really like to see Batman larger than life on that enormous screen. The clarity of the image really draws me into the movie, and I enjoy that.”
For a director who started out on such an incredibly small scale – his first film was the ultra-low-budget 16mm neo-noir flick “Following,” succeeded by the attention-getting 2001 mind-fuck “Memento” – that larger-than-life sensibility is something he’s acclimated to with admirable effectiveness. Which begs the question: Is there any desire to pull back from the blockbuster Hollywood machine once you’ve enjoyed such massive returns from it? In short: will we see another “Memento”-scaled (or even “Prestige”-scaled) production from him?
“I have no idea what’s next,” he told us. “I’m going on holiday, and just relax[ing], and [I] quite enjoy not knowing what I’m gonna do next, which is fun. As far as the ride from doing sort of…smaller [films]…[to] these big films, what I like to say about it is the process has always been reassuringly familiar to me. It’s always been this thing of you’re there on set, but really your job as a director is to ignore the scale of things and really just try and look at the shot that you’re gonna put on screen, [and] how is that gonna further the story? I’ve found that process to be more similar on different scale films than it is different.”
He answered the question with typical equanimity, though it’s an equanimity that’s far from painting a complete portrait of Christopher Nolan, the director and (some would say) creative genius. Like his films, there are, of course, layers located beneath the composed exterior, fiercely guarding secrets. This exterior, this mask, was broken only once, and only just barely, with the female reporter I described earlier. The crack disappeared from sight just as quickly as it had materialized.
“The Dark Knight Rises” hits theaters on July 20.