Christopher Nolan speaks out about 3-D, Inception, Superman, Batman, writing and much more from the Hero Complex Film Festival!
Published at: June 13, 2010, 3:25 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here.
Geoff Boucher’s Hero Complex Film Festival continued last night with a double feature of INSOMNIA and THE DARK KNIGHT. The two features were split by the Q&A with Nolan and he had some really cool stuff to say about all things filmmaking. I’m especially fond of his scientific distrust of 3-D as a viable and ongoing format.
But first let’s go back and look at the two flicks shown tonight. I missed INSOMNIA when it first hit theaters for some reason. It could have been due to travel… I don’t remember, but I know I didn’t see it until it hit DVD where it really struck a chord with me. I loved the atmosphere, the slow descent into sleep deprived semi-insanity by the main character, the wonderfully flawed Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and the pitch perfect serious turn by Robin Williams.
Watching it on the big screen really underlined the fantastic work by everybody involved, specifically Pacino and Williams, and made Wally Pfister’s photography pop in a way that isn’t possible on standard def DVDs (and few Blu-Ray transfers to be completely honest).
Part of that is due to the amazing location work in BC and Alaska (the setting of this little tale) and the rest is because of Pfister’s sheer magical talent at capturing images. The man must have trapped a leprechaun or discovered a magic lamp or something even more ridiculous. There’s no way a regular guy can be this good at photography.
Pacino plays a detective who is incredibly good at his job, but is also under investigation by internal affairs, so his bosses kinda throw him a murder case up in Alaska to get him out from the prying eyes of the agency.
What starts out as a Silence of the Lambs rip-off quickly morphs into something a billion times more interesting and nuanced. We know Pacino’s partner has decided to cut a deal with IA, a deal that most likely would mean throwing Pacino’s fame and record into question, and that he’s not happy about it. So when Pacino shoots his partner while searching through the white mist for the cornered killer we don’t really know if it is an accident.
Which is perfect because after a few sleepless nights, neither does Pacino.
“A good cop can’t sleep at night because he’s missing a piece of the puzzle. And a bad cop can’t sleep because his conscience won’t let him.” That’s a quote attributed to Pacino’s character, recited by Hilary Swank’s Detective Ellie Burr, an Alaskan officer who idolizes the famous LA detective.
So, which is causing Pacino’s insomnia? Is it guilt or his inability to make all the pieces of the murder he’s there to solve come together? Both? Maybe it’s just the constant sunlight and lack of night that does it.
At a certain point Pacino’s forced to cover his ass when the shooting death of his partner starts being thoroughly explored. He soon discovers there was only one witness to the accident/murder… the fleeing murderer of the 17 year old girl that brought him to Alaska in the first place.
Williams, of course, is the murderer and doesn’t play anything for laughs here. The light is still in his eyes and he turns in one of the most nuanced performances of his career. It might not be particularly Oscar bait-ish, but it’s perfectly balanced. His Walter Finch is a deeply troubled soul that is just barely sane enough to believe he was justified in murdering this girl and not realize how fucking crazy he sounds trying to bond with Pacino.
There are a lot of layers to this film, to each character and to the plot as it unravels. If you haven’t given it a spin in a while, throw the fucker on. You’ll be impressed all over again. I was.
And what can possibly be said about The Dark Knight that hasn’t been said already? Two years out and it still gave me goosebumps. When Heath Ledger’s Joker is video taping the fake Batman and turns on a dime from the laughing clown to the threatening lunatic (“Look at me… LOOK AT ME!!!”) I get chills. I have every single time I’ve seen the movie… whether on Blu or the big screen.
I love that the movie is all about small victories. In reality The Joker wins here. At every moment he’s right where he wants to be. The only time he seems genuinely surprised is when the two ferries don’t blow up, the biggest victory of the movie for our heroes and one that Batman really has nothing to do with (if you don’t consider the positive impact he’s had on the citizens of Gotham).
The way the Nolans and David Goyer structured the film is dark as shit. The Joker is one of the most iconic comic book characters ever created and they make him one of the best realized screen villains in the history of the moving pictures. Smart, unstable, unpredictable, The Joker is the perfect villain for Bats. He has figured Batman out and I love that at a certain point he has no interest whatsoever in killing the hero. Instead it becomes all about HURTING him. Kind of Khan-like in that regard when you think about it. “I’ve done far worse than kill you, Admiral. I’ve hurt you. And I wish to go on hurting you.”
But unlike Khan The Joker’s attacks are more at breaking down Batman’s moral code, which he is unable to do, but that forces Bats to be on the defensive the whole movie. Even at the end he has to make an impossible decision.
Everything is running at top efficiency here. Nolan’s direction, all the performances from Christian Bale to Aaron Eckhart to Michael Caine to Morgan Freeman to Heath Ledger just pop off the screen, Wally Pfister’s cinematography is unreal, the score is pitch perfect (I noticed this time out that they use the high screech of The Joker’s theme much like John Williams used the Jaws main theme to always indicate when The Joker’s around. I didn’t notice it ever popping up when he isn’t on screen or just off screen) and the whole just feels effortlessly epic.
I’ve noticed it’s become kind of trendy to dismiss this film, but that really kind of blows my mind. I can’t even fathom that point of view. I’m not saying it’s wrong to have an opinion, but I just can’t imagine not being in awe of this film.
There are my thoughts upon revisiting those two films tonight. Let’s get into the Nolan Q&A, shall we?
- Nolan considers Robin Williams’ work in Insomnia “flawless.” “I wound up watching the film a hundred times as we cut it, as we nailed it down, and I never hit that point in the performances where you see the acting.”
- Discussion turned to similar projects kind of haunting Nolan’s work. When The Prestige came out, The Illusionist was right around the corner. When Insomnia came out, it beat Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo, another dark Robin Williams performance. And when Memento was being shopped around Scott Franks’ The Lookout was making the rounds as well. That film would later be made starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
- Nolan prefers editing to production. “There’s a point during production which you’re really almost doing a paint-by-numbers thing; you’re almost just fulfilling a set of creative obligations that you’ve set up for yourself in prep. So, even though some of it can be fun, and it’s where a lot of interesting and amazing things can happen, there’s a point where you just want to be done with it and get into the edit suite and mess around with what you’ve shot.”
- Nolan has one week of finishing touches on Inception.
- “I’ve always had a belief that however sophisticated a process of animation is, the audience can always, on some level, tell the difference between something that has been photographed and something that has been animated by an artist.”
- Nolan cited an example from Batman Begins where his visual effects crew pushed for more digital work. Nolan pulled off a shot of Bale landing at the bottom of the staircase in Arkham Asylum and told the team to match it. They came back with two videos, one was the CG test and the other the original take. Nolan said they were close, “but I could tell which one was the effect… which upset them a little bit.” But he realized it was close because they had a real shot to match to. When they had to do shots from nothing the level of reality was “far, far lower.”
- The trailer shot in Inception with the buildings crumbling into the sea is a combination CG and practical effects shot. They went to Morocco, shot the actors walking up from the water, with the waves coming in and some small representation of buildings to give the CG guys something to start with. So, he always tries to do always do something in camera to give the CG guys something to build on.
- Nolan first pitched Inception to Warner Bros right after Insomnia. They liked it, wanted him to write it, but he realized he couldn’t write it on assignment, that he’d have to do it on spec and come back with the finished thing. “So, I went off to write it figuring it would take me a couple of months and it took me ten years!”
- Ever since Nolan was a kid he wanted to make a movie about dreams. 10 years ago he settled on the concept of a heist movie set around the idea of a technology that allows people to share dreams.
- Nolan was struggling with the script so much because he said he didn’t have a strong emotional connection to the material. “I had written a heist film and heist movies it turns out, and it’s not something I really realized, tend to be deliberately superficial. They tend to be glamorous and fun and procedural based. They tend not to have massive emotional shifts and that wasn’t really enough for me to move forward.” He ultimately did, but that’s why it took so long.
- Leonardo DiCaprio had the task of “finding the emotional truth” to the character in the film, much like Guy Pearce did in Memento. Nolan spent months with DiCaprio to find emotional logic for every moment and every decision in the story.
- The interrogation scene between Batman and The Joker in The Dark Knight is Nolan’s favorite scene in the movie. He shot screen tests of the Joker make-up and the new Batsuit on that set, which is very much how he wanted it to look.
- He tussled with his DP, Wally Pfister, over the lighting of the interrogation room. Nolan didn’t want to do the typical dark and shadowy interrogation scene, so instead he insisted on very hot key lighting (five stops over for you camera nerds).
- Said one of the biggest technical challenges of doing that was making the Batsuit look good fully lit. “We could never have done that scene with the Batsuit that we used for Batman Begins. It simply didn’t have the quality for the one we built for The Dark Knight.”
- This scene was also put early in the schedule. Nolan talked to Heath about it and felt strongly that by putting one of the big Joker scenes early in the shoot would be a great way of breaking the ice and, hopefully, give him and all of them the confidence that they were going in the right direction with the character. They shot the interrogation scene in the second week.
- So, Nolan loves this scene for all those reasons plus it’s the first time we really get to see just how fueled by rage Batman is as a character.
- They built that set in a building in London. It was the police station in Batman Begins, went back for The Dark Knight and then shot there again with Inception. “It’s just a good, old building with a lot of texture.”
- “Heath was in awe of Gary (Oldman), as all young actors are.”
- Nolan’s films have been about haunted figures to a film… so how was he drawn to produce Superman? “As you said, it’s something I’m doing as a producer. Obviously I’m not directing it, but my involvement in it is quite specific. While David Goyer and myself were wrestling with the story for another Batman film as we got stuck he said to me, kind of out of the blue one day, that he had a great idea for how to take on Superman. I thought it was terrific and I just felt like I didn’t want it to not get done, so I went to the studio and said, ‘Let’s have a crack at this.’ That’s the nature of my involvement.”
- Speaking of, Richard Donner’s Superman was very influential to Nolan on Batman Begins. “I literally pitched the studio my take on Batman by saying I wanted to make the Batman film that had never been made in 1978 or 1979.” He was attracted to the Dick Donner take of putting an extraordinary hero in an ordinary world.
- He told the studio he wanted to shoot just like they did (in an American city for locations and then in English studios), he wanted to cast like they did, build an ensemble. “Now all these superhero movies come out and they have these great casts, but when we did Batman Begins I was looking back at that movie. They had Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford and all these incredible actors around the principals. That’s how I got permission from the studio to cast up this comic book movie.”
- On Tim Burton’s Batman: “I think what Tim Burton did with Batman was absolutely extraordinary, but it was very idiosyncratic. It’s really kind of a mad studio film, really.”
- Nolan is obsessed with Blade Runner. “That’s a film I’ve seen hundreds of times. I’m one of those people that knows every single detail of that movie.” Blade Runner spoke to Nolan at an early age (he saw it when he was 13) and it kind of defined the kind of movie Nolan wanted to make. He loves how it rewards multiple viewings, how you’ll see something new each time you watch it.
- Nolan screened Pink Floyd’s The Wall to the cast and crew before they started shooting Inception. He does that a lot, screens movies for the crew and see if that inspires anything for the project they’re working on.
- He’s able to use a screening room at Warner Bros. “That’s a good part of being a film director. You can call up a studio and get a film print of a movie!”
- Is Michael Caine Nolan’s lucky charm? “He claims to be my lucky charm. The problem I’ve faced, and the reason he’s in Inception, is that once someone has said that to you what are you going to do?” Lots of laughs. “He’s actually just a terrific person to work with. His movie star charisma is just extraordinary. He’s a lovely, professional guy to work with and the crew and the young cast all behave much better when he’s around. He’s very valuable!”
- Cillian Murphy gave a killer screen test when he can in to read for the Batman role on Batman Begins. So good, in fact, that when Nolan suggested him for the villain role the studio said okay right away, which he thought was unheard of for a major villain in a Batman movie to be such an unknown (to the masses, obviously) actor.
- Chris Nolan doesn’t look at the internet. “I think I realized at a very early stage on Batman Begins that it wouldn’t be helpful to look at what everybody was saying.” Nolan felt like all he could do was deliver the movie he wanted to see and if he tried to accommodate everybody the movie would have been a mess.
- And no, Cher is not in the next Batman movie.
- He doesn’t have email or cell phone. “It gives me a little more time to think.”
- Ed Brubaker asked the first question from the audience. He read a lot of Nolan’s screenplays and complimented them as being some of the tightest screenplays Brubaker has ever read. He wanted to know more about that process.
- Nolan wanted to point out that when you’re reading a published screenplay “you’re reading something that’s 14 or 15 drafts in because they publish the shooting draft which includes all the revisions from production.”
- Nolan doesn’t have a writing credit on Insomnia, but he wrote the last draft himself.
- Nolan’s first drafts very rarely get read (“in fact they very rarely leave my house!”). He called his first drafts “rambling.”
- He doesn’t outline and generally starts from page one and tries to write in a linear fashion. Even when the story is non-linear.
- Nolan’s first film, Following, was written chronologically and then, at the script stage, he edited it to make it non-linear as he had diagramed it out. He found that very difficult because there was an enormous amount of rewriting to make it flow right together.
- When it came to Memento, he thought it was important to write the film the way the audience would see it unfold, instead of doing it like he did Following.
- While he doesn’t outline, Nolan does draw a lot of diagrams and sticks stuff all over his walls. “It all gets a bit Beautiful Mind by the end of it.”
- “I always start with story rather than characters. When I write I try to write from the point of view of defining a character through action. That way having the narrative shifts define what we think of the characters. That’s why I love film noir crime fiction because double-crosses, twists and turns… you’re constantly readdressing your opinion of the characters and you’re reassessing who you think those people are. I find that a really interesting and very strong form of characterization, but it means putting story first and then just seeing where that leads the characters.”
- When it comes to writing dialogue, like the Joker’s multiple origin stories in The Dark Knight, Nolan tends to write it free-form and it can go on for three or four pages. Then he spends days and days editing it down. “I try not to stop an idea before it is born. In this way I throw it all out there and then edit it down. It really is like editing. You write a bunch of dailies and then you edit it together into a comprehensible form.”
- Nolan attributes The Dark Knight’s success to people liking Batman Begins. When BB was released the idea of rebooting a franchise was new and they didn’t know exactly how to market it… plus it hadn’t been that long since the previous Batman movies and there was some distrust (read: people thought it could be another shitty Batman movie) from the audience.
- He also says Heath Ledger’s performance was also a large factor. He noticed when people started seeing glimpses of his performance they could already tell it was going to be extraordinary.
- Christopher Nolan on 3-D: He’s not a huge fan of 3-D (which got a lot of cheers, surprisingly), but said that if people want to watch stereoscopic imaging then there’s no question that’s what the studios are going to make and that’s what he’ll be doing.
- He thinks 3-D vs. 2-D is a misnomer. “The whole point of cinematic imagery is that it is three dimensional. We work in three dimensions. 95% of our depth cues come from resolution and color and so forth, so I think the idea of called a movie a 2-D movie a 2-D movie is a little misleading.”
- They did post-conversion tests on Inception and “it worked quite well, actually. It looked really good, in fact, but it takes some time and we didn’t have time to do it to the standard I would be happy with.”
- “On a technical level I think it’s fascinating. On an experiential level I find the dimness of the image extremely alienating. The truth of it is, when you watch a film you’re looking at 16 foot-lamberts. When you watch it through any of the conventional 3-D processes you get about 3 foot-lamberts. It’s a massive difference.
You’re not that aware of it because once you’re in that world your eye compensates, but having struggled for years to get theaters to get up to the proper brightness you’re now sticking polarized filters into this thing and we’re going back worse than we were.”
- Also from a shooting standpoint, Nolan has even more issues with 3-D: “It requires shooting on video, if you mask it to 2.40 you’re only getting 800 or 900 lines of resolution. You have to use a beam-splitter.”
- Nolan doesn’t use use zoom lenses, only primes, because the image quality isn’t sharp enough on the long end of a zoom, so the idea of shooting a whole film through a beam-splitter doesn’t appeal to him. “There are enormous compromises, in other words.”
- Post-conversion 3-D he believes is the only way he’d be able to work with the format, “but it’s really up to the audience to decide what they want to see and how they watch their films.”
I don’t particularly love 3-D and I don’t hate it, either, but I gotta say hearing Christopher Nolan speak about it from the point of view of making a movie and watching a movie really kind of hit home with me. The dude won’t compromise the image on the screen and I LOVE that about his work.
Hope you guys enjoyed the piece. Now I’m off to see Ridley Scott screen Alien and Blade Runner!!!
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