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 best measure of the ambition behind Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending hit Inception isn’t its $160 million budget, intricate visual effects or extreme four-continent shooting schedule. It’s the fact that Nolan wanted to make the movie 10 years ago.

At the time, Nolan was known for modestly scaled films. His twisty breakout 2000 indie Memento led to a deal with Warner Bros. to write and direct Insomnia, a well-received moody remake of a Norwegian thriller. Although Insomnia had a high-caliber cast (Al Pacino, Robin Williams) and a $46 million budget, it hardly seemed a warm-up exercise for a mega-spectacle like Inception. And yet, when Insomnia wrapped, Nolan began to write his dream-caper script.

His wife and producing partner, Emma Thomas, remembers 2001, when Nolan showed her what he was working on. “It read enormous,” she says. “There was clearly a visual-effects component and lots of action. I read those 80 pages and thought, ‘My God, how would we ever do this?’ We asked ourselves, ‘Could we make it smaller?’ We realized that we couldn’t do that with a film about dreams because dreams are infinite.”

Nolan pitched the idea to Warners that year and received an enthusiastic response. Ultimately, though, his doubts about realizing the ideas in his script, as well as the opportunity in front of him from Warners to reboot the Batman franchise, led him to set his “dream” project aside.

Wise decision, according to Thomas. “Chris grew into this film,” she says. “He did Batman Begins and learned an enormous amount.” With The Dark Knight, he learned even more — in particular how to orchestrate big, complex action sequences, relying whenever possible on in-camera effects. He also assembled a crack effects team in Chris Corbould and Paul Franklin, both of whom would be instrumental in bringing Inception’s visual wizardry to life. When Dark Knight went on to gross more than $1 billion worldwide, Nolan had the clout to get the budget Inceptiondemanded. 

Still, Nolan labored to get the script right — and, specifically, to enhance the human element to his story. “There was a certain amount of emotion there, but the script had elements of being a puzzle,” Thomas says. Persuading Leonardo DiCaprio to take the lead role of Dominic Cobb solved that problem. “Leo spends a lot of time in preproduction with the writer and director,” Thomas says. “So Chris and Leo spent weeks and weeks just combing through the script. The work he did on his character with Chris made the movie less of a puzzle and more of a story of a character audiences could relate to.”

Says DiCaprio: “I needed to know implicitly where we were. It got incredibly confusing at certain points in the beginning, but the more we talked, the more I understood.”

When DiCaprio signed, only a handful of people had read Nolan’s script. The filmmaker aimed to keep it that way, even as he proceeded to assemble Inception’s cast and crew. London-based special effects supervisor Corbould, who worked with Nolan on both of his Batman films, remembers getting a call in spring 2009. “Chris said: ‘I’m pitching this script I’ve been working on for years. Would you come [to Los Angeles] and read?’” Corbould recalls. “This was Wednesday; by Sunday, he called again. ‘It’s a goer,’ he said, and flew me out the following week. The script wasn’t allowed out of a room. You go in, and they lock the door and say, ‘Give us a call when you’ve read it.’ ”

Corbould describes that first read as “fascinating but difficult. It took awhile to understand what was going on.” But he immediately began imagining how to pull off the effects-driven set pieces, including a hand-to-hand fight in a zero-gravity room and an exploding Parisian street. “My mind was like a gear winding up,” he said.

On the digital effects side, Franklin, who also worked on the Batman films, also remembers being locked in a room with Nolan’s script at Warners. “I spent a half-hour reading the first 10 pages,” he says. “I had been expecting it to be on the same scale as The Prestige (about rival magicians in turn-of-the-century London) and it was immediately obvious that the scale was going to be epic.” Like Corbould, he began imagining how to visually translate the minimal scene descriptions. (For a sequence set in Paris, for instance, Nolan had written simply, “The city begins to fold in half.”)

“Working with Chris is absolutely great, but he’s very challenging, too,” Franklin says. “He’s never satisfied with something you already know how to do. He always wants to go beyond what you did last time — to really sell the shot to the audience.”

As demanding as Corbould and Franklin’s effects duties would be, Thomas’ even more difficult task was to orchestrate Inception’s globe-spanning shoot.

“Six countries,” Thomas says. “Logistically, a complete nightmare. We had production offices in London, Paris, Morocco, Los Angeles and Calgary prepping in parallel, and we started off in Tokyo. We had a hugely competent production team that ran things like an army, and we felt strongly that by going to all these places and gaining all these different textures, the film would feel bigger.” Each location presented a different set of challenges. “There are a lot of rules in Japan,” Thomas says. “Flying helicopters in downtown Tokyo — that was complicated. And then we were exploding buildings in central Paris, which they don’t like very much.”

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