Christopher Nolan Interview – THE DARK KNIGHT

     July 20, 2008

While I promised all my Dark Knight interviews would run before the movie came out…I decided to wait till after opening weekend so more of you would actually read them.

I knew a number of people (and readers) that didn’t want to know anything about the movie and they avoided every spoiler and interview so they could be surprised. And…I think that was the smartest decision any of you could make.

After all, director Christopher Nolan and the team behind The Dark Knight spent years making this brilliant film and learning everything that happens before walking in….I think it defeats the entire purpose.

Anyway…since millions of you have now seen this brilliant film…I figure you might want to read some interviews with the people who made it.

So posted below is an interview I participated in with director Christopher Nolan. During our interview he talked a lot about the IMAX cameras, what the Blu-ray and DVD will be like, the limited use of CGI and a lot more! If you’re a fan of Mr. Nolan’s or just of Batman…you’ll love the interview.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or download the MP3 by clicking here.And if you’d like to read an interview with David Goyer and Jonathan Nolan or Chirstian Bale just click on the names.

Question: Well Chris, congratulations.

Christopher Nolan: Thank you.

Thank god that you convinced yourself to do the sequel.

Christopher Nolan: Yeah. well you know, it’s daunting, the idea of taking on a sequel. I saw it, I came to see it as an interesting challenge, but at first I was a little bit unwilling to roll the device again, if you like. Because Batman Begins had been well received. There’s really no point in doing the sequel unless you can try and do something that you’ll be more interested in or that you hope the audience will be more interested in.

But do you feel in a sequel you were able to more of what you had hoped to do with the character, with the franchise, with the world?

Christopher Nolan: Well, you’re able to–there’s a huge advantage being able to jump in having told the origin story, so you can jump in with a fully formed character and then see where that goes. So I think it definitely gives you the opportunity to go new places and to get into the story much faster. But at the same time, I had very much enjoyed the rhythm and dynamic of the origin story that we got to tell in Batman Begins, so it was a little bit daunting how we were going to replace that, the feeling of scale and size that gave us, just the time span of that story. Uh, and so what we chose to do is to tell a very immediate, very linear story, but based on a slight genre shift, going a little more into the crime story, a little more into the kind of epic city stories of films like Michael Mann’s Heat, things like that, which I think achieve great scale, even though they’re confined within one city.

We were talking about–some of us were on the set and we were asking, you know, would Gotham still look the same, would it still have that look, and at the time you weren’t sure what you were going to do. And you made a conscious choice it looks like in the movie, there’s no overhead CGI shots like in the first movie of what Gotham–it’s just Chicago, sort of what it is. Why did you decide to go in that direction?

Christopher Nolan: Well, to be honest, I think there are a couple of CG half shots of Chicago where we have, as we did in the first one, we still expanded the horizon and made it a much, much larger city than you can achieve with the real photography in Chicago. So our approach wasn’t that different per se, but I think that where there was a real difference was we didn’t try and do on sets things that we could do on location. We tried to film everything according to a real world scale, so even some of the interiors that, for example there’s a Wayne Industries board room in the first film that was as big a set as we could possibly build, and yet to me in the film it still felt too small. Because when you go into these spaces in a real environment, they’re built on a very grand scale that you can’t reproduce in the studio. I mean, you can’t afford to and the space, the stages aren’t built that big, and so we really took the approach of trying to shoot as far as possible in real places on this one.

People have been talking about Heath Ledger’s performance and the way that you directed Heath, which is basically to give him a lot of freedom to do what he wanted to do. Can you talk about that and what he brought to the character and how that sort of evolved?

Christopher Nolan: Well, Heath and I talked a lot about the abstractions of the character, of the underlying philosophy of the character and what he represents in the story, and what that tone would need to be. But then it was really up to him to go off and figure out how he was going to make something that he understood had to be iconic, somehow. But he also understood that it had to be human and recognizably human, because the threat we discussed, the threat of pure anarchy, of chaos, an individual devoted, whose really–an individual whose only real pleasure, only real amusement comes from tearing down the structures around him, that’s a very human form of evil, so he has to be human as well as iconic. Heath put a lot of time and energy into figuring out a very complex way of achieving this.

Can you talk a bit about the process of what exactly you shoot in IMAX, just the logistics and the creative?

Christopher Nolan: Well, the logistics and the creative actually match up relatively well, because the first thing you think of is you’re going to shoot your major action set pieces that way, and action tends to be light on dialogue, which is helpful, because the cameras are far too noisy to record dialogue with. You also tend to be using large camera mounts, which can be made to accommodate these larger cameras, so um, there’s a good match up logistically there. You also have a lot of time to shoot those scenes, because the complexity of them and the logistics of them. Uh, what we found is we started getting more and more interested in throwing these cameras in for smaller, quieter moments that weren’t necessarily action-based. Um, and that became interesting photographically as well. So we just worked more and more into the movie, and because we knew that for the 35 mm release we’d be extracting 35 mm from the IMAX, we used the cameras as much as we felt like and then in the edits were free to decide, do we use the full IMAX frame for this or do we keep it in the 35 mm, 2:40 world. So there are a few things we shot, like the policemen, the cop funeral where there are so many of hundreds and hundreds of police, we shot all those grand shots, were actually shot in IMAX, but they don’t appear in IMAX in the finished film, because it, rhythmically it didn’t feel right. It was an edit room decision at the end of the day.

I wanted to know how interested are you as a filmmaker in 3D filmmaking, and also possibly shooting a full feature in IMAX?

Christopher Nolan: Well, I’ve never been particularly interested in 3D filmmaking, mainly because you have to wear those goofy glasses, but actually, on a serious note, there are a lot of disadvantages with 3D because of the polarization of the lenses and the glasses, there’s very little light that actually comes to the eyes. It’s a very dim image, compared with 2D presentations. The grand scale of the cinema screen, the IMAX screen particularly, when viewed in 3D, becomes much more intimate. It shrinks it, effectively, and I think that my interest in cinema, to this point at least, has been in creating something that is larger than life and that speaks of a certain grandeur. 3D is a very intimate thing, and so it’s not so much an audience experience as an individual experience. So, it has it’s own requirements and demands, and as it develops as a technology I think it’ll become more and more interesting, but I think at the moment we haven’t yet pushed anywhere near as far as we should or could in terms of creating immersive 2D cinematic experiences. So, I would be interested in shooting a whole film in IMAX. The big hurdle to doing that is um, it’s very, very hard to see how you do dialogue scenes, because the cameras are so noisy. And the lenses are so wide, you’re shooting this conversation, the cameras go you know, 18 inches from your nose, basically, and it sounds like one of those small portable generators. That’s about the level of volume of it. So to just speak over that and to act as if that’s not there is very tough.

So do you think that the formula that you created for The Dark Knight might be the template that you’d use for your next film?

Christopher Nolan: I think it might well. I mean, I have to see how audiences respond to it, but based on these early screenings we’ve been doing and based on the way people are receiving the film, it seems to heighten the experience of the film for people. It seems to throw them into the action in very much the way I’d hoped. Um, and you know, we’ve found a lot of ways to deal with the cumbersome nature of the post-production process and everything, we learned a lot. I think it, anything you can do, I think, to elevate the theatrical experience of film, helps keep film distinct from the home theater experience, which is increasingly technically sophisticated.

One of the things in Batman Begins that really set it apart from other Batman films was that it was about Batman. Here, Batman is very much sharing a lot of film time with Harvey and the Joker. And sort of, they’re almost co-leads in a lot of ways. Can you talk about how you keep Batman in that mix and interesting and sort of at the forefront, while having these other very colorful characters around him?

Christopher Nolan: Well, the danger with a sequel that attempts to be sort of bigger and broader than the first film is you do have to bring in more characters; you do have to expand on what was there. The danger is that you lose sight of the heroic presence at the center of it, you lose sight of who the film’s about. I think that what Christian figured out from the script, and what we were able to put into the story was that by the end of the film, I think he makes the film very much his own. The film sort of rotates back to Batman and he takes it back, very much in the last few minutes of the film, I would say. The relevance of all of these other characters and all of the other things that would have gone on, the relevance to those things to the figure of Batman I think becomes very apparent. And that was always very important. I knew how the film ended long before we figured out the story of the film, and that, that’s the way in which we’ve tried to make it clear that The Dark Knight is ultimately about Batman, is about the Dark Knight.

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Can you talk about what it would take to bring you back for a third film? David Goyer and your brother talked about how you had to be talked into doing the sequel. What would it take to bring you back for a third time?

Christopher Nolan: Enormous amounts of cash. (laughter) I don’t know. No, the truth is, I–the only way I can answer that question–there are two ways. The first thing to say is I literally finished this film last week. That was when we finished our IMAX prints. So, I have no idea what I’m going to do next, what I’ll do in the future. The film to me is not actually finished until the audience sees it and tells me what it is, really. Um, so, it’s too early to say for all those kind of reasons. The other thing to be said on the subject is we absolutely did not feel in taking on the idea of doing the second film that we could in any way hamper ourselves or disadvantage ourselves by saving things for another film. And so–I think that’s a mistake people have made in the past, thinking too much of the future. I think you have to put all your eggs into one basket and make as great a film as you can, and that’s what we’ve tried to do.

I’m curious why you brought back Scarecrow when we had a big farewell in the first film?

Christopher Nolan: Well, I mean really, partly because Cillian’s terrific and it was fun to have him turn up for a couple of days. But because we left the Scarecrow story so open-ended, we wanted to take advantage of that, that aspect of a sequel, whereby you get to just jump in with the hero fully formed. You’re not having to tell this origin story anymore. So, we want to see Batman in action very early on, you know, right after we’ve introduced the Joker, so, but I think in screenwriting you can’t try and wrap too many things together, so we didn’t really want to have that be one of the new story elements exactly that the other story elements were going to feed into, I think it would have felt a little too tidy, and we had the perfect opportunity with Scarecrow having been left at large in the first film, to use him to drive the action.

I wanted to know what fans might expect on the DVD and/or Blu-ray?

Christopher Nolan: Well, we’re coming up with, I think, some very interesting extras for the DVD and for the Blu-ray. The Blu-ray in particular we’ll be able to use the shift in aspect ratios as it appears on the IMAX screen, because the 16 by 9 aspect ratio is sufficiently different from the 2:40 that you’ll actually see a shirt on the Blu-ray, and the resolution on the Blu-ray is clear enough that you’ll see a difference in grain structure and sharpness, so I think it’ll be quite spectacular, but that’s something we’re only just beginning to work on.

Talking to Chuck a few weeks ago, he mentioned that–you know, we asked about the whole Justice League thing–everyone was kind of caught off guard when they announced that they’re going to be doing that. And he said that yeah, it was on the radar, they were a bit concerned because obviously they’ve been working so hard, you’ve been working so hard to bring Batman to the big screen, and the possibility of seeing another Batman on the big screen–Did you have time to look at that and kind of express your concerns anywhere? Or did you hear–did you have a sigh of relief that it’s been put on hold for now?

Christopher Nolan: You know, to be honest, films aren’t real until they’re real, and so I tend not to get really worked up about things like that. That are theoretical. We’ve really just got on, got on with this movie, and this is the movie that we’ve been focusing on. I think other people’s movies, it’s so hard to get a movie made, you really don’t want to be weighing in on other people’s films and so forth. I’m very happy that, you know, there weren’t any projects that interfered with this one, and we were able to get on and make the film we wanted to make.

Can you tell us anything about how the Harvey Dent or Two-face makeup worked? Because Aaron didn’t want to talk about it.

Christopher Nolan: Oh yeah? Well, the thing I will say which, depending who your audience is, certainly for film sophisticates, if you like, it’s very apparent that it’s done primarily using computer graphics. And that was a choice I made because I wanted the look to be so extreme as to be a little bit fanciful. When we looked at doing sculpts of the look, you know, in clay, of Aaron’s face and how it would look degraded in different ways, uh, the more subtle the mutilation, the more horrible and depressing it was somehow, and it’s the one area of the film where I felt that being a little more fanciful, being a little bit less uh, less real, realistic I should say, and having just a lot of interesting sculptural detail in it for the audience to look at, have a morbid fascination with–that was the term we were looking for. We don’t want people to, you know, we don’t want them throwing up their popcorn and we don’t want them looking away from the screen. We want them to be able to engage with his character. So we wanted it to be a little bit fanciful.

Following up on that, you obviously have to sort of look at that division from reality and fanciful stuff a lot, especially in an action film. I mean, you want to make a realistic film, you also want to make the action big, you want to make it exciting. How often do you find yourself up against that decision, and how often do you think you choose fanciful over real, and how often do you stick with the real?

Christopher Nolan: Well, I think you find yourself up against it every step of the way, but I would honestly say that I think that this particular example is probably the only time I’ve sort of consciously chosen that. Possibly the one other point is in Batman Begins where we had the device he has when all the bats kind of come and rescue him. That’s a very fanciful notion, drawn from the comics, but it felt somehow that where we were in the story that the audience would embrace that and not feel that it was out of character with the rest of the film. Uh, when you look at it, you sort of step back and look at it, it’s very much more fanciful than other elements of the film. So there’s the odd choice like that to be made, but generally, the impulse is always to try and make the thing as real as possible and be as rigid as possible in the standards you apply to the notion of could this happen in our universe.

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