Like the magicians in his movie The Prestige, Christopher Nolan uses clever tricks to put on amazing shows.
But, unlike displays of magic, Nolan’s films lose none of their power when their creator describes just how they are put together.
“You try and get the audience to invest in cinematic reality,” the London-born Nolan said about his Dark Knight trilogy in New York this week. “When I talk about reality in these films, it’s often misconstrued as a direct reality, but it’s really about a cinematic reality.”
Notice that he said that he was trying to get the audience to “invest” in his cinematic reality – this storytelling strategy is a hallmark of Nolan’s directing style. Don’t just tell your story: get your audience pulled into it so deeply that they’re invested in it. You might even say we’re pulled in so deeply that we’re like the characters in Inception who are taken on directed dreams.
How does Nolan do it? Speaking to a sold-out crowd at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, he offered some thoughts on cinematic realism as he practiced it in the Dark Knight movies.
Think Bond, James Bond.
Nolan told the Film Society’s Scott Foundas that as an inspiration he looked to Agent 007.
“At a certain point the Bond films fixed in my head as great examples of scope and scale,” Nolan said, adding that he was especially taken by the “globetrotting” aspect of the series and by the “idea of trying to get you along for the ride.”
But as fantasy-driven as the 007 movies are, their plots were expressions of real anxieties.
“They were very specifically about Cold War fears,” said Nolan of the Bond films of the 1960s. “They introduced the threat of nuclear terrorism very specifically for the first time in movies.”
“If you look at Thunderball,” he said, “it’s actually pretty edgy.”
Have Batman fight 21st century evils.
In the Dark Knight films, Gotham is facing threats that certainly call to mind contemporary terrorism.
“Taking on an action film set in a great American city post 9/11, if we were going to be honest in our fears, then we would come up against the idea of terrorism,” says Nolan.
Introducing the terrorism subtext undoubtedly gives the Batman films more visceral impact.
“I felt a responsibility as a filmmaker to create first and foremost an entertainment, something that people could feel a distance from and enjoy, but I also felt a responsibility, even as an entertainer, to be honest about my fears,” Nolan said.
Make the Batman movies action movies – not comic book movies.
Tim Burton, Nolan said, created a world “that Batman fits into – this great gothic vision that’s consistent with the character of Batman. What I felt I hadn’t seen – and I got from reading the comics – was an ordinary world in which we could be Gotham, so when Gotham sees Batman, he would be as extraordinary as we would see him in our world – he’s an extraordinary character against the background of an ordinary world.”
Invent something new that helps to reinvent something old.
Treating Batman Begins as an action movie also freed Nolan to look at it as a reboot, which he says was itself a new thing in movies in 2005.
“No one had done an origins story,” he said. “It was this terrific gap in the pop culture history that we got to contribute to and explore.”
And in writing a new story for Batman, there was lots to explain – for example, why did he wear his costume, what did it mean, how was it made?
“We started to enjoy coming up with those answers,” Nolan said, and those answers helped to make Batman appear more cinematically real.
Get your audience to do the work.
Audiences are more easily pulled in when they can see how and why characters develop the way they do.
“I enjoy seeing the process of things coming together,” Nolan said. “I think that’s a great pleasure in movies.”
But there’s an ulterior artistic motive as well.
“It’s also a way of, frankly, circumventing a lot of the suspicion an audience might have of something,” he says.
In Inception, for example, Nolan thought that he might risk alienating audiences with a movie that was all about dreams. He was scared some viewers might take the attitude “it’s just a dream, and it doesn’t matter.”
“The solution,” Nolan said, “was to allow the audience in on the process of the creation of the dream – so the dream is not fooling the audience; they’re complicit in fooling another third party.”
The director applied the same idea to the Dark Knight movies: appear to show the audience how everything’s done.
“With Batman, if he just arrived fully formed into an ordinary world, not a Tim Burton world, but a regular world, with the ears and the cape, it would have been laughable,” said Nolan. “The way around it is to understand why he’s doing that and to try and involve the audience in the mental process.”
Think about all the time Nolan spends showing us the genesis of the Dark Knight, especially in Batman Begins. Then fast forward to the climax of The Dark Knight Rises, where Batman is stuck in a prison, literally in a hole in the ground, half the world away from Gotham City.
Once Batman makes his prison break, he still has to travel thousands of miles to get back home in time to thwart plans to destroy Gotham. Yet we never see how he makes the trip. The simple fact is that, by then, we don’t need to. It just doesn’t matter. Nolan has put so much time and effort in painstakingly laying out Batman’s personal history, coupled with the difficult feat Batman’s just pulled off, that we’ll buy this plot development because it fits in with and furthers the telling of the story. We accept it because we want to.
Do your research.
A lot of preparation and research also goes into creating a verisimilitude that audiences will accept. Much of Nolan’s research was into movies themselves. For example, he and his colleagues went through “every action movie ever made” to understand why and how genre formulas work.
Not surprisingly, Nolan is fascinated with timing. For example, he asks, how long do car chases in movies last?
“They’re much shorter than you’d expect, and it’s very useful to know that,” he says. “They’ll time out to four or five minutes, and you’d think they were ten minutes.”
“If you actually put a stopwatch to these things, it’s surprising,” he explains.
It’s not only about pacing, either. His interest in audience perceptions and expectations go to the thematic centers of the movies themselves.
“It’s what I’ve been playing with in all my films,” Nolan says. “The audience absorbs the film in a linear fashion; then it lives in a non-linear space in the brain.” (Again, it sounds a little bit like Inception, doesn’t it?)
Think photo-chemically, not digitally.
When Nolan shot the grand entrance of his villain Bane (Tom Hardy) into Gotham City in a football stadium in The Dark Knight Rises, the director didn’t want computer-generated people in the stands. Instead, he brought in some 11,000 extras. And when Bane starts exploding the playing field itself, Nolan wanted to see the actual ground drop and extras falling into real holes.
“I’ve always pushed my team to try to do as much in camera, to try and get as much for real as possible so that whatever CG enhancements are going to happen are based on something that’s in camera.”
Of course, he uses digital effects, but he still shoots and edits on film. When you see projected film that was printed from an actual negative, with “no digital interference in the middle,” he says, “it’s a stunning image – it just looks spectacular.”
Roughly half of The Dark Knight Rises is shot in IMAX.
“It’s the most immersive film format ever created,” says Nolan. “When you project it onto one of those eight-storey high screens, it is the sharpest image imaginable.”
Pick actors who ooze credibility.
Speaking about Irish actor Liam Neeson, who plays Bruce Wayne’s original mentor in the first film, Nolan says, “The great thing about Liam is that he can sell you anything.”
Nolan spoke about a moment when the two characters are talking, after Wayne (Christian Bale) has fallen through ice into freezing water. Nolan wrote a line of dialogue in which Neeson’s character, watching Wayne rub his arms in front of a fire to keep warm, offers completely made-up advice.
“He says, ‘Rub your chest and the arms will take care of themselves.’” Nolan said. “I pictured boy scouts all over the world freezing to death because I’d just made up this bit. I never went camping. I have no idea. But he says it, and you believe it.”
Christopher Nolan also sat down for a Film Comment interview with the Film Society’s Scott Foundas. In it, the two covered, and expanded upon, many of the same areas they discussed on Wednesday evening. For a transcript, click here.
The Dark Knight Rises is being released on DVD and Blu-ray, Tuesday, Dec. 4.