Last night, director Christopher Nolan was the featured guest of The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment Selects for an evening focused on discussing his much-beloved Dark Knight trilogy. Looking just like one of the characters from his 2010 film Inception—or more specifically, a very tall Leonard DiCaprio from that film—Nolan was quite forthcoming about the development of his take on Batman, his thoughts on the trilogy's "realism," and why he's done with the caped crusader. We broke down some highlights from the evening below:
-Nolan wasn't a "huge fan" of the comic books when he was younger. His first exposure to Batman was through the campy 1960s TV show, starring Adam West. Throughout the night, he continually referred to two main cinematic influences on his vision for the films: Richard Donner's 1978 Superman (which he seemed to personally hold up as the best superhero movie—more on that below), and the James Bond series—specifically The Spy Who Loved Me, which he called his "jumping off point cinematically...a great example of scope and scale in large action films."
-In a supplementary interview that covered most of the same ground as the talk, Nolan explained the difference between his take on Batman and Tim Burton's:
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 as outlandish and extraordinary as we do.
-Nolan said that while he was going for a grittier take on Batman than Burton and the other live action versions, he wasn't trying for "realism" exactly:
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.
-Nolan is, unsurprisingly, a meticulous filmmaker who cares deeply about how the films looked—for example, he doesn't use a second unit director (meaning he shoots every frame of his films). Also, he is kind of obsessive about the action elements: he discussed how he had his team time out car chases and fight scenes from classic action movies in order to figure out just how long he wanted his Batman ones to be.
-There was a brief but substantive discussion of Nolan's love for IMAX (he grew up watching IMAX documentaries in museums), and why he vastly prefers it to 3D.
The clarity of IMAX, and the size of the screen, to me is overwhelming in a very positive way. You’re able to create an overwhelming immersive experience for the audience, really take them on a hell of a roller-coaster ride. The issue for me with 3D is that even though it’s immersive with its stereoscopic illusion, your brain is performing an unnatural optical function, converging your eyes where you’re not focusing them, and there’s a feeling in your head that it’s hard. There’s literally a feeling in your head that’s a little bit different than what you’re used to feeling, and so I find myself unable to forget that I’m watching a movie. And for me that’s a bit of a barrier.
-Nolan wasn't thinking of the films as a trilogy at first—he became piqued a few months after Batman Begins 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."
-Nolan originally sat down with Heath Ledger for a preliminary talk about possibly playing Bruce Wayne; Ledger said at the time that "he'd never do this kinda film." But when time came to cast The Joker, Ledger had warmed up to it. "He had a vision for something," Nolan said. He added that Ledger "didn't like to work too much," so he was "hungry" for the role when he was approached. Ledger was also cast before the movie was completely written, so he had a long time to prepare for it.
-Among other things, Nolan had Ledger read "A Clockwork Orange" and look at the work of Francis Bacon to get inspired. The first scene shot for The Dark Knight (not counting the IMAX preview) was the intense interrogation scene between Joker and Batman that appears halfway through the film. This was also the first time Ledger unveiled his full take on the character. Nolan said he was "scared of his [Joker] voice" and physical movements, and his tone was "always a surprise."
-When he was writing the films, Nolan noted he didn't have any specific actors in mind for any parts...except Morgan Freeman.
-Don't be surprised if Anne Hathaway turns up in Nolan's next project: when he was talking about his predilection for using the same group of actors for all his projects, Nolan noted that often at the ends of films, he wished he had written more scenes for certain people, which led him to cast them in his next work. To that end, when he finished The Dark Knight Rises, he wished he had written more for Hathaway.
-Nolan is done with Batman: "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."
-Finally, Nolan was incredibly secretive and cagey about Man Of Steel, the Zach Snyder-directed Nolan-produced new version of Superman that is coming out next summer. All he would said was that it was a "fresh take" on the character.