Anatomy of a Contender: Making of 'Inception'

With helmer Christopher Nolan, Leonardo DiCaprio went through “some of the most unique acting experiences I've ever had.”
With helmer Christopher Nolan, Leonardo DiCaprio went through “some of the most unique acting experiences I've ever had.”
 Melissa Moseley/Warner Bros.

What happens when Christopher Nolan shows you a secret script and asks for never-seen-before special effects? You say yes -- and make it happen

The Paris sequence has been one of the most talked-about in the film. DiCaprio’s Cobb and Ariadne, a graduate student dream-builder played by Ellen Page, sit at a bistro as the street and buildings erupt around them. Nolan didn’t want to rely on CGI; he wanted actual flying debris to give DiCaprio and Page something to react to. But traditional explosions were a no-go: Paris officials wouldn’t allow them, nor would the city tolerate noise above 110 decibels. “So we used high-pressure nitrogen,” Corbould says. “Everything was very directional. My aim was to have the paper cups on the table not move. I created the whole set in my workshop and did about 20 tests. I sat in three of them. I was very confident about safety, but there’s that adrenaline rush when everything goes off around you.”

Says Franklin of the bistro scene: “It was a ballet of destruction.” In postproduction, his team digitally enhanced the debris and added broken bottles and exploding cobblestones — material that was too dangerous to use during the shoot.

The demands on the cast and crew were multiple and ongoing during the seven-month shoot. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the role of Arthur, Cobb’s closest associate, spent days in a wire-rigged harness inside a rotating hotel corridor (constructed by Corbould) to perform a zero-gravity fight. DiCaprio, Page, Gordon-Levitt and co-stars Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe and Dileep Rao trained themselves to remain calm — seemingly asleep — while belted into a submerged van, relying on scuba tanks for air. Tom Hardy, who plays Eames, a “forger” who can appear in multiple guises in dreams, had to learn to ski for the final sequence set around a snowbound hideaway. “Chris said I lied to him when we first met about whether I could ski,” Hardy says with a laugh. “Who wouldn’t? It’s Chris Nolan. If he asked me if I could rock-climb, I’d tell him I could rock-climb anything.”

Throughout, Nolan worked in collaboration, bouncing ideas off his actors and principal creative team and making adjustments on the fly. “You have to be paying attention the whole time,” Franklin says. “He has a very efficient style, but there is opportunity for spontaneity.” Corbould likens the interaction to a tennis rally: “Chris bats the first ball across the net, and you bat it back with a slightly more inventive idea.”

Collaboration was ongoing among actors, too: Hardy and DiCaprio sat and discussed their scenes at great length before shooting them. “At first I went in thinking, oh my God, I’d never worked with anyone who was that famous and well-known,” Hardy says. “I had the fear of looking silly and failing, looking rubbish and letting the team down. That lasted about a day. Leo was just brilliant. He’s smart and sharp.”

A Calgary ski resort was the site of the final stretch of shooting, an action sequence on a snowy mountainside. The only problem? No snow. “The art department kept sending us pictures of mud,” Thomas says. “The week before we went up there, we still had no snow. The great thing about Chris is he’ll always come up with a solution.” They prepped snow blankets and decided to digitally enhance the shots. But then Calgary got hit with the biggest storm in a decade, and they had the backdrop they needed. They also had freezing temperatures: “Yes, it was extremely cold,” Hardy says. “But I loved it.”

After seven months of shooting, the painstaking CGI work of postproduction began. “Getting the bits and bobs to fall out of the hotel cleaning trolley [in zero gravity]? That’s one guy — months of lonesome work,” Franklin says. And the sequences where DiCaprio and Page wake up in Limbo City — the deepest layer of dreams in the film — “that required an absolutely enormous amount of work, a team of guys laboring for about nine months.”

But what a payoff. The mystique and secrecy surrounding Inceptioncreated massive anticipation for the film’s opening. And positive reviews have driven its worldwide box office above $800 million and counting. Oscar watchers say it’s poised to pick up noms in several major categories — picture, director and original screenplay are the most talked-about — and is likely to sweep the technical categories. Academy voters surely will view Nolan favorably as he has scored only one nomination (for his Memento screenplay) to date.

And DiCaprio’s performance gives the movie its empathic pull. He’s been nominated three times and never won, so his chances look good, too — though his edgy turn in Shutter Island might overshadow his work in Inception.

Win or lose, Inception is a benchmark movie — one that will be analyzed for years. Its layers of complexity and its teasingly ambiguous ending make it a movie fans want to return to.

“I think that’s the fun of it,” Thomas says. “The first 50 times I saw it, I’d say something new was revealed every time.”

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