Inception, the boundary-pushing psychological thriller that explored dreams and the architecture of man’s subconscious debuted 10 years ago, but fans and cinephiles are still fixated on it. And proceeding films are still struggling to catch up to the scale of its high concept practical effects wizardry — best exemplified by the iconic hallway fight scene. To be sure, that’s another reason audiences and critics are eager to get a look at Nolan and team’s latest, visually stunning, and cerebral high concept film in Tenet (whenever its safe to do so in a theater, of course).
Born from the necessity of trying to find a way to match Nolan’s gravity-defying vision without breaking the limbs of those involved, actor Joseph Gordon Levitt (who played Arthur opposite Leo DiCaprio’s Cobb) somehow survived the chaos, running through a gauntlet hiding sizeable drops and other potential dangers. All this while trying to play a character desperately fighting to set up the “kick” that will awaken the rest of his team of dream thieves.
How, exactly, did they pull it all off? To celebrate this achievement in spectacle filmmaking and assess its legacy and modern impact, we connected with production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, stunt coordinator Tom Struthers, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, and Levitt to find out, sharing details, stories, and pre-production visuals of the epic undertaking that was the hallway fight scene.
Planting The Idea
Creativity often strikes in the most unusual of places and for Christopher Nolan, typically that place is his garage. It’s where he invited production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas to discuss plans for the climactic fight scene and where the two men bonded over their love of action movies – Dyas had previously worked on films in the Indiana Jones and X-Men franchises.
“A lot of it was talking about how we could perhaps redefine the action-adventure film,” Dyas tells Uproxx. “Tapping into classics, the way you used to feel when you were a kid and you’d go and see your first James Bond film.”
The answer: go as practical as possible.
Nolan is famous for preferring practical effects and innovative camera work over the use of CGI, something that’s helped drive the success and adulation for films like The Prestige and The Dark Knight over the years. But is that a negative response to new technology or a means of staying within the tradition that represents a certain way of movie making and some of Nolan’s influences.
“Chris and I were on a heavy-duty diet of old archives of classic films, whether it was Fred Astaire dancing around a room that’s rotating, or whether it was the iconic scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the astronauts are trying desperately to get back into the airlock,” Dyas recalls. “All of those scenes were created before the dawn of CGI.”
That “old school” approach extended to the film’s set design, as well. A heist thriller set in the confines of various dream worlds certainly could have allowed for splashier colors and more fantastical backgrounds and other-worldly locations but Nolan wanted to keep shared dream sequences, like the hallway scuffle, as grounded in realism as possible. That’s a signature element of his Batman trilogy, of course, allowing for stories that feel more at eye level — which, in turn, makes villains like The Joker and Bane seem more terrifying. But in this case, it was also done to make the audience question their own sense of reality.
“What Chris wanted was a sort of restrained elegance, restrained sophistication,” says Dyas. They also apparently wanted to keep their audience from feeling disoriented. That’s why Dyas incorporated Japanese architecture into certain scenes and warmed up the film’s color palette.
“There was a distinct decision by Chris and me to give each of these landscapes a very different color scheme because that is the first thing your eye reads when you enter a scene,” Dyas explains. “So at the same time, you had Joseph spinning around in that golden corridor, you also had characters tumbling in the van, in a very gray, urban environment. At the same time that’s all going on, of course, you have the snowy landscape for the final layer. So every time you’re cutting back and forth from these layers, you know, hopefully, where you are at any given time.”
Building The Dream
Constructing a useable hallway that could house filming equipment and multiple actors while rotating a full 360 degrees was one of the biggest hurdles the crew faced during their 10-month shoot. Nolan tapped special effects supervisor and Batman trilogy collaborator Chris Corbould to help build the massive set-piece in the same hanger where they’d filmed action sequences for those films.
“Just the sheer scale of it was a challenge. We had to really get our heads around how do we drive it? How do we make sure the integrity was strong enough to do what we wanted to do?” Corbould admits.
Initially, the corridor was just 40 feet long but Nolan upped it to 100 feet. Then he wanted to add a cross-section which meant the entire structure needed to be lifted 20 feet off the ground and powered by two giant electric motors. Another corridor was built, one that tilted upward to simulate the loss of gravity.
“You had the rotating corridor so that you could get Joe basically running around and hitting the walls,” Dyas explains. “Then we placed a camera on the ground and pointed it up and had him on a wire harness, and he fell towards the camera. But of course, when you look at that, it looks like he’s floating down the middle of the corridor.”
Once the hallway was finished, Dyas was able to build an interior that resembled an actual hotel corridor. But, the set design and production teams had to get creative in order to keep Levitt and the stuntmen from seriously injuring themselves.
“You may wonder what the texture is on the walls. It’s not paint, it’s actually fabric,” Dyas says. “And underneath that fabric is a very thick, three-inch layer of neoprene rubber so that our actors and stuntmen wouldn’t break their limbs. That thing was very dangerous. I tried it out.”
Staging The Fight
Once the set was created, it was up to the film’s stunt team, led by coordinator Tom Struthers, — another Nolan veteran — to choreograph Levitt’s vital fight through the dream’s deepest layer while facing down trained henchmen in a match-up with life or death stakes.
“Chris is very classic,” Struthers says. “He tries to bring across a whole sense of something new while still using the methods that we learned when we first started in the business.”
The key to making this fight sequence feel authentic was the set, yes, but it was also vital to find the right actor to sell the brawl. Arthur was Cobb’s right-hand man and a restrained, calculating presence for most of the film. In this sequence, we finally see him on his back foot, scrambling to survive and complete the mission at hand. Now imagine how hard it was to pull that off while trying to not get injured or fall out of step with the intricate choreography required to get through the scene in a way that met Nolan’s vision.
“Really, the key to it was casting someone that is capable of handling the workload physically that we were going to throw at him,” Struthers says, adding that “Joseph did every shot himself. He put a massive amount of energy and homework into doing this.”
“I was just so inspired by the physical challenge of it,” Levitt stated when we spoke with him recently ahead of his latest film, 7500, which sees him constrained in a cockpit while fending off terrorists for much of the film — another challenging shoot. “I was probably very territorial about doing stunts and pulling any double in there [with Inception], but that team was so supportive and taught me so much.”
Explaining why he felt a responsibility to endure the rigorous training and choreography so he could perform as much of the action as possible, Levitt said, “I think a lot of Chris’s [Nolan] action scenes, there are not as many edits in them as some standard Hollywood action scenes. What he wanted to do, especially with that hallway scene, was he wanted the camera to stay in one shot for longer periods of time. And that meant that it was going to be on my back sometimes, and then I’d turn around, and all in the same shot, you would see my face. So it had to be me.”
And because Nolan wanted the dream sequence to feel as real as possible, he made sure that the fight felt gritty and authentic in a way that fit his characters and not some idealized vision of what fight sequences should be.
“Our characters were not martial arts experts,” Dyas explains. “They were architects and sleuths and people who were con artists. They were not these sorts of incredible athletes. So it became very obvious that our action needed to be sort of messy and clumsy in a way. I remember standing there as we were filming it and watching him fall about the corridor. A lot of the crew was there looking on and going ‘What a disaster.’ And of course, Chris [Nolan] was lapping it up because it was exactly the tone that he wanted. He wanted people to look at this and see somebody struggling for the first time and not being so perfectly poised.”
Because of that choice, Dyas sees a disconnect between the legacy of Inception and comic book movies. “I think they make the audience [feel like they’re] removed from the experience. But when you look at that corridor scene, everyone can imagine they’re in that corridor.”
From casting with an eye on getting a great 360-degree performance and not just with a physical type in mind to the commitment to practical effects and ornate sets whenever possible, you can easily see a separator between the big-budget action movies (comic book inspired and otherwise) of the last decade and Inception. Dyas does, telling us, “Even in the comic book films of recent years, there’s sort of a rehearsed elegance to a lot of the fights. I think they make the audience [feel like they’re] removed from the experience. But when you look at that corridor scene, everyone can imagine they’re in that corridor.”
With that in mind the question of “why” stands out. Why does a film that changed the game not scan as something that drove a revolution of films that aimed to beat it on its playing field? Is it just too hard and/or expensive to do things the Nolan way? That kind of risk aversion that stops sparks of innovation from becoming an industry-wide brush fire?
Even if Tenet does take the baton from Inception when it comes out, causing wallets to open and jaws to drop, the impact of COVID on theaters and the economy (both in Hollywood and worldwide) has likely made it even harder to get adventurous with studio money, continuing the tradition of still amazing but somewhat antiseptic largely digital moments that don’t quite blow our minds. Or like something truly new has the capacity to do. Think about 2012’s The Avengers and the thrill of seeing the main heroes gathered together and how the evolution of that in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame is a lot more heroes, all in front of a green screen, causing a swell of fist-pump inspiring emotion but not necessarily something that is sure to linger as iconic. And perhaps that’s good enough, providing the empty calories that these kinds of films are expected to deliver. But while Nolan is getting (legitimate) criticism for his reported insistence on opening this film as a statement to the viability and worth of the movie theater experience right when theaters open, perhaps we should also remember and appreciate his commitment to pushing boundaries that only he may be able (or willing) to top someday.