Cinematic FaithChristopher Nolan looks back over the Dark Knight trilogy in this extended interview
Written by Scott Foundas
The Dark Knight Rises
How did you come to Batman Begins, and what appealed to you about rebooting a series that had already been interpreted by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher?
It’s a sign of how quickly things change in the movie business, but there was no such thing conceptually as a “reboot.” That idea didn’t exist when I came to look at Batman. That’s new terminology. Warner Bros. owned this wonderful character, and didn’t know what to do with it. It had sort of reached a dead end with its previous iteration. I got excited about the idea of filling in this interesting gap—no one had ever told the origin story of Batman. And so even though Tim Burton’s film had done a definitive version of the character, it was a very idiosyncratic Tim Burton vision.
I had in mind a sort of treatment of Batman that Richard Donner might have done in the late Seventies the way he did Superman. To me what that represented was firstly a detailed telling of the origin story, which wasn’t even really definitively addressed in the comics over the years, funnily enough. And secondly, tonally I was looking for an interpretation of that character that presented an extraordinary figure in an ordinary world. So I wanted the inhabitants of Gotham to view Batman as being outlandish and extraordinary as we do.
The overall tone of the film is realistic compared to most comic-book- derived movies.The world around Batman is plausible and not particularly stylized or exaggerated.
The term “realism” is often confusing and used sort of arbitrarily. I suppose “relatable” is the word I would use. I wanted a world that was realistically portrayed, in that even though outlandish events may be taking place, and this extraordinary figure may be walking around these streets, the streets would have the same weight and validity of the streets in any other action movie. So they’d be relatable in that way. And so the more texturing and layering that we could get into this film, the more tactile it was, the more you would feel and be excited by the action. So just on a technical level, I really wanted to take on this idea of what I call the tactile quality. You want to really understand what things would smell like in this world, what things would taste like, when bones start being crunched or cars start pancaking. You feel these things in a way because the world isn’t intensely artificial and created by computer graphics, which result in an anodyne, sterile quality that’s not as exciting. For me that was about making the character more special. If I can believe in that world because I recognize it and can imagine myself walking down that street, then when this extraordinary figure of Batman comes swooping down in this theatrical costume and presenting this very theatrical aspect, that’s going to be more exciting to me.
In fact, we spend much of the first half of Batman Begins not in Gotham at all but rather following the young Bruce Wayne on his odyssey through Asia and his training with Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows.
We wanted to get out of the notion of Gotham as a village, as a claustrophobic sort of otherworldly environment which is what it had always been before. We wanted to show it as New York, in a wider world. So taking Bruce Wayne around the world, showing how he builds himself using skills acquired from all these different places around the world, we felt that would position Gotham as the leading international city of our world of Batman.
Following on that idea of how Bruce Wayne builds himself into Batman, there’s a great emphasis in the Dark Knight films, and, actually, in all of your films, on how things work, how things are constructed. Nothing is taken for granted or presented as a fait accompli. If Batman needs a batsuit, we see how he orders it, and where all of his toys come from. They have a practical explanation: they’re Wayne Industries military prototypes. We literally see him building himself in a way a lot of origin stories try to gloss over. It’s like how in The Prestige we see the ways in which the magicians accomplish their illusions.
Very much. I’m interested in process, the process of becoming. I’m fascinated by the idea of Bruce Wayne being an ordinary man without superpowers, turning himself into this larger-than-life figure who appears to have extraordinary abilities. And once you start down the road, it’s like cleaning the dirt off something. Once you’ve cleaned one spot, once you’ve peeled back the logic or reality of what it seems to be, you have to go all the way. I’ve never liked films that go part of the way there and then take an improbable leap. So in terms of where he was sourcing something from, how he would go about it, we really tried to come up with the best solution possible and present it in the film. What we found was that, very much like in The Prestige, that process becomes a really interesting part of the entertainment of the film.
Ra’s Al Ghul is a fascinating character, because he’s not a boilerplate nefarious villain who wants to dominate the world, he’s an ideological villain. He seems to have been ripped from today’s headlines, especially with his rhetoric about the decadence of the capitalist West.
With my co-writers David Goyer and my brother [Jonathan Nolan], we decided early on that the greatest villains in movies, the people who most get under our skin, are the people who speak the truth. So with Ra’s Al Ghul, we wanted everything he said to be true in some way. So, he’s looking at the world from a very honest perspective that he truly believes. And we applied the same thing to The Joker and Bane in the third one. Everything they say is sincere. And in terms of their ideology, it’s really about ends justifying means. It was important in Batman Begins to have Bruce go very far down this road with Ducard, to the point where they want him to chop somebody’s head off because he has stolen something. And at that point there’s this almost comic moment where Bruce turns to Ducard and says, “You can’t be serious.” At that point, you’re surprised by how seductive the training and indoctrination can be. And the scales fall from his eyes. But even later when Ra’s Al Ghul returns and is about to destroy all of Gotham, there is a logic to everything he says. I think truly threatening villains are the ones who have a coherent ideology behind what they’re saying. The challenge in applying that to The Joker was to have part of the ideology be anarchic and a lack of ideology in a sense. But it’s a very specific, laid-out lack of ideology, so it becomes, paradoxically, an ideology in itself.
In a way, the films feel like a tour of different schools of creating social revolution. You have Ra’s Al Ghul with his very clear-cut extremist ideology—
Almost religious, I would say.
And then you have the anarchy of The Joker, and in The Dark Knight Rises you come back with the followers of Ra’s Al Ghul who are trying to enact his plans by masking it as class warfare.
Class warfare but also in a militaristic, dictatorial approach. If you look at the three of them, Ra’s Al Ghul is almost a religious figure, The Joker is the anti-religious figure, the anti-structure anarchist. And then Bane comes in as a military dictator. And military dictators can be ideologically based, they can be religiously based, or a combination thereof.
The Dark Knight Rises
Something you seized on is the fragmented identity of Bruce Wayne/Batman, which is certainly a central part of the character, but it’s much more present in these films. At the end of The Dark Knight on some level he senses that maybe he’s become the villain of the story, that maybe he has too much blood on his hands, and that Batman should go away and leave Gotham alone. Those are dark areas that no Batman movie really ventured into before, and they seem related to an interest you have in the dual or sometimes more than dual nature of identity.
It’s paradoxical, but in order to get at the duality of Bruce Wayne, we had to make him into three people. I sat down with Christian early on and we decided there’s the private Bruce Wayne, who only Alfred and Rachel really get to see; the public Bruce Wayne, which is this mask he puts on of this decadent playboy; and then the creature of Batman that he’s created to strike back at the world. By making him into these three aspects, you really start to see the idea that you have a private person who is wrestling with all kinds of demons and trying to make something productive out of that. I think the most interesting moment to me that Christian pulls off in Batman Begins is the scene at the party when he pretends to be drunken Bruce Wayne being rude to his guests to get them out of the place, to save them from Ra’s Al Ghul’s men. But there’s some truth to it which comes through, and you can see that in his performance. It’s an act, but Bruce Wayne as an actor is drawing on something that he really feels. It’s quite bitter, and I like the layers that Christian was able to put in there.
Was there some key moment during the casting where you knew that Christian Bale was right for the role?
Christian was actually the first actor I met for the role. But given the stakes, the studio was always going to need me to put together a group of actors to be screen-tested. And we got the old costume out and shot the tests and Christian just owned it in a way that was very close to the conception that we were putting together in the script. In terms of the potential for rage that this character has, the axe that this character is carrying with him, he was able to project that very well in his test and have that underlie not only Batman but also Bruce Wayne the playboy. There’s a darkness that the character has been infused with by tragedy at an early age, and it’s the engine that drives everything that he does.
You seem to really love actors, and that comes through in these films in a very strong way, even if we tend not to think about large-scale action movies as showcases for great acting. But you cast great actors and then you give them interesting things to do. They’re not just there for their name value.
I do love actors and I feel great actors can find the depth of a characterization that adds to the richness of the film. I felt a lot of the scale of Batman Begins should come through the casting, and once again I looked back to Richard Donner’s Superman for that because he cast Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford and Ned Beatty, all the characters were played by these terrific stars. So we went after that kind of depth of casting. And then as you come to explore the world of Gotham, and revisit it, and revisit it again in The Dark Knight Rises, because you’ve got this set of massively talented stars there, you’re able to deal with the truth of some of these extraordinary situations that the mythology of the character and your spin on it has put together. That’s something that you rarely see in films of this nature. Christian said it very well when he said The Dark Knight Rises is about consequences. What I was doing was saying, “Okay, I know I’ve got Christian Bale and Michael Caine playing this scene together, and they are able to take on the truth of what if the things that happened in The Dark Knight actually happened? What if they actually did tell the lies they told in order to get at a greater truth or get at the expediency of saving a city? What’s that going to do to them over time? What is the reality of the relationship between Bruce and this servant of the Wayne family who’s been tasked with raising their only child, their most precious thing in the world because they have been gunned down in front of him? And what must this kid have gone through?” I am looking at these actors and saying, “I’ll write you a scene where these things are coming to bear, these consequences are coming to the surface.” And I know that they’re going to find the truth in that, and that is going to be devastating at times and invigorating at times, and it’s going to take the drama to operatic heights, and extremes of emotion where you really feel something because they found the truth of a situation. You’re experiencing emotions in a very intense operatic way.
The Dark Knight
It’s fitting because in Batman Begins it’s after a visit to the opera that the young Bruce Wayne witnesses the death of his parents.
Yeah, absolutely. And the theatricality of opera and the larger-than-life quality of the presentation of it, but also the emotions it generates, has always sat underneath my understanding of how to make these heightened realities work. Why am I working in this genre for the audience? What does it allow me to do as a filmmaker that I couldn’t do in a more everyday universe? The answer is this operatic quality. It’s this ability to blow things up into very large emotions that are accessible to a universal audience. And it’s a very privileged position that you’re in as a filmmaker with your audience. I felt that I wasn’t getting to experience that in mainstream commercial movies at the time, so I really wanted to enjoy that as a filmmaker. I’ve had a great time with these three films, really enjoying that relationship with the audience.
What were the technical and physical challenges of doing these films? They’re much bigger than anything you had done up to that point in your career. Was that intimidating?
Well, it was intimidating in theory, but a lot of the challenge with taking on a big film is not allowing yourself to get caught up in the way that other people do big films. Because you can put a team around you of very experienced people, and that gives you a great safety net, but that also has a lot of pitfalls. However, it is possible to make large-scale films very much in the way that you make your smaller films, and it’s possible to maintain some of the spontaneity and creativity you have on set. Not all of it. You have to adjust your methods, but you don’t want to get completely railroaded into the big movie thing out of fear and inexperience. I would have conversations with my line producer and he’d say, “Oh, there’ll be some days where you’ll only get one setup in the morning,” and I just said, “I’ll never work that way, because frankly it’s too boring, and it’s creatively stultifying.” With the team I had, we were able to keep things much lighter on their feet, despite the enormous scale.
And the thing I learned is that no matter how big the film became, people would always complain it was too small. For the studio, it was never enough. So you learn to relax with it a little bit, and trust your instincts about scale, how this is going to feel big enough when it’s in the can. So when we came to do The Dark Knight, we were comfortable setting much more of the film just in Gotham, in more claustrophobic situations, because having been all over the world for Batman Begins and having a very big scale, with an exploding monastery and sliding down the cliff and all that, by the time we get to The Dark Knight we had the confidence to say, “If we’re putting huge characters and huge conflict on screen, and making this kind of urban crime drama, the scale will naturally be there, in just the way we shoot The Joker walking down the street with a machine gun. That will be a huge image.” That was a big part of investing in that sort of tableau style of photography which I hadn’t really done before.
There’s a strong analog quality to your films in general and the Dark Knight films in particular. You talked about wanting to have a very tactile world, and seeing The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX 70mm you can’t escape the feeling that you’re seeing a film made on film, albeit with hundreds of CGI shots, but integrated in a way that you don’t feel that digital quality in the way you do with most movies that make heavy use of digital technology.
I recently saw a 70mm print of The Master and I realized that, other than my own films, it’s the first photochemically finished film I’ve seen in many years, and it looks the way a movie should look. To me, it’s just a superior form. In The Dark Knight Rises, we have about 430 effects shots out of 3,000, so the idea that the tail wags the dog and then you finish the film in the digital realm is illogical. We make the 430 shots fit in with the remaining 2,500 that we timed photochemically. For that reason, I’ve never done a film with more than 500 effects shots. These films have about a third or a quarter the number of CG shots of any other film on that scale. That allows me to keep working photochemically and to make the digital effects guys print out their negatives so we actually cut the effect with its background plate on film, and we can see whether it matches.
For me, it’s simply the best way to make a film, and why more people haven’t done it I could not tell you. The novelty of digital is part of it. For some filmmakers, there’s a fear of being left behind, which to me is irrational because as a director you’re not responsible for loading a camera. You can hire whoever you need to and shoot how you want to shoot, but I think, very simply, industrial economics favor change, and there’s more money in change, whether or not it’s better. But I talk to a lot of young filmmakers who want to shoot on film and see the value in it. I’ve gone out of my way to screen film prints of The Dark Knight Rises for other filmmakers, because no one prints dailies anymore—they’re not seeing the potential of film—whereas I’ve been seeing it every day I’ve been working for the past 10 years.
At what point did you start to think that there was more than one story to tell here, that this could be a trilogy without repeating or cannibalizing itself?
I think it was in the months after the first film was released. At the end of Batman Begins, when he turns the Joker card over, I found myself wondering, “Okay, who would that antagonist be?” seen through the prism of Batman Begins. I wanted to see how we could translate The Joker into that world. That was the jumping-off point. And the nature of The Joker’s antagonism was so utterly different to what happened in Batman Begins and was so different to Batman’s relationship with Gotham in particular. So The Dark Knight is very much a story about a city, a sort of crime drama, whereas Batman Begins is more of an adventure story. So it actually felt like a different genre, and then you know that you’re not retreading what you’ve done, you’re expanding it.
When you were starting to write The Dark Knight Rises, were you thinking about what was going on with the economy and movements like Occupy Wall Street, in terms of the depiction of society on the brink of a kind of second American Revolution?
We were writing years before Occupy Wall Street, and we were actually shooting at the time that it arose, but I think the similarities come from Occupy being a response to the banking crisis in 2008. We were sitting there in a world where, on the news, we were constantly being presented with what-if scenarios. Like: “What if all the banks go bust?” “What if the stock market is worth nothing?” These questions are terrifying, and we were taking the view that we should be writing about what’s most frightening. We came to the idea of how in America we take for granted a stability to our class and social structure that has never been sustained elsewhere in the world. In other words, this sort of thing has happened in countries all over the world, why not here? And why not now? So a lot of the ideas underlying the film come from a situation in which the economy was in crisis and therefore even on the news questions are being asked—unthinkable questions about what might happen in society.
It was interesting to see the spectrum of reactions to The Dark Knight Rises, with some arguing that it was a sort of a neoconservative or very right-wing film and others seeing it as being a radical leftist film. And one of the things the film seems to be talking about is how easily the political rhetoric of one extreme can be co-opted by the complete opposite extreme.
Absolutely, and then you get into the philosophical question: if an energy or a movement can be co-opted for evil, then is that a critique of the movement itself? All of these different interpretations are possible. What was surprising to me is how many pundits would write about their political interpretation of the film and not understand that any one political interpretation necessarily involved ignoring huge chunks of the film. And it made me feel good about where we had positioned the film, because it’s not intended to be politically specific. It would be absurd to try to make a politically specific film about this subject matter, where you’re actually trying to pull the shackles off everyday life and go to a more frightening place where anything is possible. You’re off the conventional political spectrum, so it’s very subject to interpretation and misinterpretation.
The last hour of The Dark Knight Rises, from the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the football stadium through to the end, is an hour of film that takes us through a lot of different locations and action, but it feels like one long sustained set piece. It has this gradual build in intensity and careful linking of everything that happens, and it’s quite exhilarating to watch.
We tried with all three films, but in the most extreme way with The Dark Knight Rises, what I call this sort of snowballing approach to action and events. We experimented with this in The Dark Knight, where the action is not based on clean and clear set pieces the way Batman Begins was, but we pushed it much further in this film. The scope and scale of the action is built from smaller pieces that snowball together so you’re cross-cutting, which I love doing, and trying to find a rhythm in conjunction with the music and the sound effects, so you’re building and building tension continuously over a long sustained part of the film, and not releasing that until the very last frame. It’s a risky strategy because you risk exhausting your audience, but to me it’s the most invigorating way of approaching the action film. It’s an approach I applied with Inception as well, to have parallel strands of tension rising and rising and then coming together. In The Dark Knight Rises, from the moment the music and sound drop and the little boy starts singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it’s kind of like the gloves are coming off. I’ve been amazed and delighted how people have accepted the extremity of where things go.
One could say that of Inception. On paper it sounds like a movie Hollywood wouldn’t dream of making—and it speaks to the fact that you have a lot of faith in the intelligence of the audience and their ability to embrace things in movies that might not fit into cookie-cutter molds.
Well, I think it’s interesting. I’ve often characterized it as faith in the audience, but it is also faith in the movies, faith in pure cinema. If you can avail yourself of the appropriate cinematic device to make the audience feel something, then cinema is an incredibly powerful communicator. I have faith in that process, that if I get it right and put the pieces together, then people will understand what they need to understand and will feel the intensity of the experience that I’m trying to give them.
The Dark Knight Rises leaves the door open at the end for a possible continuation of the Gotham saga, without Batman perhaps, but with these new characters like Catwoman and the young cop played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Do you envision revisiting Gotham?
For me, The Dark Knight Rises is specifically and definitely the end of the Batman story as I wanted to tell it, and the open-ended nature of the film is simply a very important thematic idea that we wanted to get into the movie, which is that Batman is a symbol. He can be anybody, and that was very important to us. Not every Batman fan will necessarily agree with that interpretation of the philosophy of the character, but for me it all comes back to the scene between Bruce Wayne and Alfred in the private jet in Batman Begins, where the only way that I could find to make a credible characterization of a guy transforming himself into Batman is if it was as a necessary symbol, and he saw himself as a catalyst for change and therefore it was a temporary process, maybe a five-year plan that would be enforced for symbolically encouraging the good of Gotham to take back their city. To me, for that mission to succeed, it has to end, so this is the ending for me, and as I say, the open-ended elements are all to do with the thematic idea that Batman was not important as a man, he’s more than that. He’s a symbol, and the symbol lives on.