Christopher Nolan Talks About the Dark Knight Trilogy

Whatever you want to say about filmmaker Christopher Nolan and his “Dark Knight Trilogy” either individually or as a whole, there’s no denying that he may be one of the smartest men making movies. That was something immediately evident when and attended “A Conversation with Christopher Nolan” at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center on Wednesday night, as the director talked at length about making the Batman movies, answering questions quietly but eloquently.

Kudos to Film Comment‘s Scott Foundas who held the conversation and answered some incredibly insightful questions to get Nolan to talk about his craft and methods while picking some of the less obvious clips from all three movies to show. Since few people rarely get a chance to speak with Nolan personally or even hear an interview with him live and unedited (which is normally the case with print interviews), it was definitely a great night for fans of the trilogy.

Everyone attending the evening was also handled a Film Comment supplement containing another interview with Nolan by Foundas, which you can read here. One thing he talks about in that interview that he didn’t at the conversation is the end of The Dark Knight Rises and how it wasn’t meant to set up another Batman movie, for those who still believe recent news that the ending was meant to set up another Batman movie with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead.

Nolan’s first experience with the character of Batman was at the age of 5 watching the ‘60s Adam West television show and he admitted that he’s not a huge comic book fan and has “never pretended to be,” saying that it’s dangerous to pretend you’re a comic book fan. Instead, he relied on David Goyer and his brother and collaborator Jonah for the comic book references, remembering that he gave Jonah a copy of “Batman: Year One” once and he was more into that. The director knew the character more in a broader pop culture sense, but he remembers seeing the trailer for Richard Donner’s Superman and being amazed by the weight of the cast, while another huge influence on him (as most will know by now) is the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, the first movie he ever saw in theaters. His intention with Batman Begins was to capture that sort of scope and scale in an action film.

Much discussion has been had about the realism brought to the “Dark Knight” series over other superhero movies and Nolan said that his mission is to try to get audiences invested in the cinematic reality and

Foundas made a funny remark about how when he first saw Nolan’s Batman Begins, he felt it was made by a far more well-adjusted filmmaker than the one that made Tim Burton’s Batman, and Nolan responded that he did want to take a different approach when he agreed to make the movie. Unlike Burton, who tried to make Batman more of an ordinary man in an extraordinary world by making Gotham so stylish, Nolan wanted to take a different approach by making him an extraordinary character entering an ordinary world, which is why Batman was more of a “terrifying wraith” in Batman Begins. When asked about making the first movie post-9/11, he brought up how the Bond films were about Cold War fears, and that if he was to set an action film post-9/11, then the terrorism present in all three of his movies would be one of the big fears of people in a big city like Gotham.

Talk got around to Liam Neeson’s portrayal of Ducard and Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, as they showed the scene of him fighting Bruce Wayne on the ice, and Nolan credited the actor for bringing such weight to the words, saying that he can make anything convincing. He remarked that in one scene by the fireplace, Ducard tells Bruce Wayne to warm his chest because his arms would take care of themselves, something that he completely made up and was worried Boy Scouts might actually take seriously since Neeson was so convincing.

Nolan said that he liked knowing how things work and seeing the process of how things come together, something he brought to the origin story of Batman Begins. When asked about the decision to not introduce the Batman in Batman Begins until nearly an hour in, Nolan said that they were quite pedantic about the timing, as he had producer Jordan Goldberg time other movies to see when the main character came in as well as the car chases, which tended to be only four to five minutes. He felt this was necessary information to have in case he had to push a point when working with the studio who would be more hands-on for Batman Begins.

After discussing what Christian Bale brings to scenes like the one when Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul shows up in Gotham at a party at Wayne Manor before torching the place, the conversation then moved on to The Dark Knight and what the late Heath Ledger brought to the role of the Joker, Nolan saying that Ledger spent months preparing the character even before they had a script for him. The filmmaker gave the actor things like Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange” and art by Francis Bacon as reference points, but he was nervous to finally give him a script knowing how long the actor had been preparing without one. Nolan said that the first thing they shot with Ledger in character was the IMAX prologue for The Dark Knight, which was the first time they saw his full Joker interpretation, but they had some technical problems and had to reshoot the ending when he removes his mask. Ledger thought that maybe they had a problem with the performance and when they reshot the ending, he modified it so much that Nolan went back and decided to use the original out-of-focus take. The second thing they shot was the “interrogation scene” where Batman confronts the Joker about the kidnapping of Harvey Dent, and they showed the full clip before discussing the physicality of shooting such a scene.

When they got to The Dark Knight Rises, Foundas decided to focus on the chemistry between Bale and Michael Caine as Alfred, showing a scene between them from early in the film, rather than talking much about Anne Hathaway or Tom Hardy’s performances as Catwoman and Bane.

As far as Nolan’s decision to start filming in IMAX, he joked that Foundas was opening a can of worms because he’s a “real bore on the subject” although he said that he remembers seeing nature docs at museums while growing up, but that the technology had never been used for a feature film, even though films were being converted from 35MM to IMAX. He felt there was nothing like shooting using the cameras and screening them in the full 8 story screens.

He also talked about the decision to do post-production in the photo-chemical domain, editing the film negatives and skipping the DI process for post-production, although we weren’t quite sure how one could accomplish this with a movie that involves so many visual effects that have to be done in the digital domain.

The Dark Knight Rises hits Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, December 4. You can read more with Nolan and Foundas at Film Comment.