Christopher Nolan on 'Extreme Places' in the Making of 'The Dark Knight Rises'
When writer-director Christopher Nolan completed Batman Begins in 2005, he had no plans for a sequel, let alone a trilogy. But seven years later, with The Dark Knight Rises, he has not only completed a cycle of films that has built in intensity and grandeur but also redefined what superhero movies can be -- while also grossing nearly $2.5 billion worldwide.
Movies that attract more than $1 billion at the box office -- as was the case with 2008’s The Dark Knight and its follow-up this year -- almost never are personal films. They rarely come encoded with social allegory and political overtones and an overwhelming sense of human decay. Instead, they are more usually candy colored, lightweight, frothy.
But while there are many words that can be used to describe The Dark Knight Rises -- which finds Christian Bale’s tarnished hero battered and broken -- “frothy” isn’t one of them. “Brutal.” “Serious.” Maybe even “apocalyptic.”
“We’ve gone to some very extreme places with the content of the film and how much we’ve been allowed to explore, ideas of society, of corruption and decay,” says Nolan, sipping his morning tea by a fire in the drawing room of New York City’s Greenwich Hotel in mid-December. “People often interpret the films as political; they’re not. They are examining social issues, and we’re really pleased to have been able to follow the threads.”
Those threads began with Batman Begins, which introduced audiences to Bale’s Bruce Wayne, orphaned member of Gotham City’s upper class, who decides that the way to fight the crime plaguing Gotham is to dress up as a bat and punch people in the face. But what could’ve seemed silly -- and was silly, when director Joel Schumacher famously put nipples on George Clooney’s Batsuit for 1997’s Batman & Robin -- became a bracing new, serious standard for comic book fare, one that Warner Bros., in partnership with Legendary Pictures, was happy to embrace.
“They had been trying to do a reboot, they had been trying to come up with a reconstruction of the character for a number of years, unsuccessfully,” recalls producer Charles Roven. “Until Chris came in with his vision.”
“Previous incarnations of Batman -- particularly Tim Burton’s very brilliant films -- were based on creating a very gothic world in which Batman felt quite natural,” Nolan explains. “We were trying to do something very different when we came to do our version of Batman. We wanted to have an ordinary world so that the figure of Batman would stand out and be extraordinary.”
As producer -- and Nolan’s wife of 15 years -- Emma Thomas recalls: “We went in and said to them, ‘Listen, we just want to make the film that we feel has never been made about this character.’ And they just loved the idea.”
In Bale, Nolan found an actor who could embody Wayne’s tortured soul. “The damaged psyche that Wayne is controlling with that logical mind bubbles under,” the filmmaker says. “It’s a motivator. There are times in all three films when you see Christian bring that out in a really major way, so you feel this engine race.”
And audiences bought it: Batman Begins grossed $374 million worldwide, enough to get Warners excited about a sequel, even though Nolan hadn’t given serious consideration to one, despite the movie’s evocative final image: “When we reveal the Joker card, that very much felt like the appropriate ending for Batman Begins,” he recalls. “It wasn’t really about setting up a sequel. I wanted [the audience] to leave the theater with their minds just spinning. Batman has arrived. That was always the snap of the ending. It wasn’t really until months after the film came out that I said, ‘OK, now I want to know who the Joker is.’ ”
That question would lead Nolan -- along with his script brain trust of brother Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer, who had written the first draft of what became Batman Begins -- to the central issue of 2008’s The Dark Knight: Who is the Joker? Simply put, he became Batman’s polar opposite. If Batman is the force of order, then the Joker -- who was never given a name, who never got a backstory -- is the agent of chaos. As Michael Caine’s loyal butler Alfred so aptly put it, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Fueled by the late Heath Ledger’s galvanizing, Oscar-winning performance as the Clown Prince of Crime, The Dark Knight went on to gross $1 billion worldwide, making it the No. 1 movie of 2008 and the highest-grossing comic book-based film (a mark that held until this year’s The Avengers).
“After The Dark Knight, it was a much quicker phone call from the studio asking, ‘What about the third?’ ” jokes Thomas. “Chris really had to think about whether or not he wanted to do that; we were very happy with the way we had tied up The Dark Knight.”
Before launching into another Bat-installment, though, Nolan first tackled 2010’s Inception. Then he also took the time to look back to characters and plot threads he’d established with Batman Begins. “Moving on to Dark Knight Rises, I knew that the League of Shadows had to come back,” he says of the secret society of assassins led by Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul, the violent Darwinist who recruited Bruce Wayne and taught him the tricks of the stealth-warrior trade in the first film. “I knew that we had to return to Batman Begins and those philosophical ideas of Ra’s Al Ghul, those challenges -- that all had to come back. And I also was looking for a very physical adversary because that’s something that neither Ra’s Al Ghul, the Scarecrow [Cillian Murphy] or the Joker really represented: a massive physical threat. David Goyer and I started looking through the history of the comics, and we fixed on Bane.”
In the DC comics, Bane is a bear of a man who was raised in one of the world’s worst prisons and drew enhanced strength from a drug that was injected directly into his brain, hence the elaborate mask over his face.
“In the very beginning,” Thomas says, “when Chris talked about the fact that Bane was going to be in the movie, we talked a lot about: ‘Gosh, how do we even cast that? Will somebody have the mask on the whole time?’ It has to be someone really amazing, someone who can express themselves with just their eyes and just a really small piece of their face. When Tom [Hardy] was interested in doing it, we were obviously thrilled; we knew if anyone could do it, it would be him.”
On Inception, where he played part of Leonardo DiCaprio’s dream team, Hardy had joined the ever-expanding Nolan Repertory Company -- which includes Bale, Murphy, Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard -- and Nolan used the opportunity of working with Hardy during the production of that mind-heist thriller as a sort of secret audition to see if the promising young British actor was up for playing the villain.
The most problematic part of Bane was his voice: The character speaks through a mask that covers his entire mouth, and Nolan wanted to build a sound that came off as both erudite and imposing. “[Bane’s] particular accent was very specific, which was a gypsy accent,” Hardy told The Hollywood Reporter just before the film’s release. “So that’s why it was difficult to understand. But once you tune into it, you get it. I hope.”
Not since Darth Vader had a villain’s voice been so crucial. But the first time fans got a listen, in a Dark Knight Rises teaser trailer, they were flummoxed: Bane sounded almost unintelligible, and the geekosphere exploded with rage over what seemed like a catastrophic misstep. “I had no doubt that it would work,” says Thomas. “The Internet is a scary thing. As filmmakers, you just have to hold on to the fact that we know it’s going to work; people just have to see the movie.”
While the sound is what worried fans about Bane, the look was the concern the filmmakers had when it came to casting Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, Batman’s storied foil/love interest who takes on the identity of Catwoman. Catwoman has been a part of Batman lore since she was introduced in 1940, and five actresses have squeezed into that black bodysuit -- Eartha Kitt, Julie Newmar and Lee Meriwether in the ’60s Batman TV series; Michelle Pfeiffer in 1992’s Batman Returns; and Halle Berry in 2004’s spinoff Catwoman. Hathaway -- not known for sultry -- had big stilettos to fill.
“We always knew casting Selina Kyle was going to be very challenging, and we didn’t really have a sense of who was going to be right for it,” Thomas offers. “Chris met with a lot of people. We shot some tests with Anne, and it was just amazing watching dailies from that day. She just completely transformed herself.”
Adds Roven, who had worked with Hathaway on 2008’s Get Smart reboot: “She had to bring a character out of that [previous] archness to make it real to fit it into Chris’ world.”
With the cast locked down, the giant movie machine began to shift into gear. Scheduling Cotillard’s scenes as Miranda Tate was tricky, given that the actress’ pregnancy was far along when The Dark Knight Rises went into production. “We sorta had to move the schedule around so not only could she have the baby but, you know, to lose the baby weight,” says Roven, “and be a mom.”
The $185 million production traveled to Los Angeles, New York City, Pittsburgh and various parts of England to assemble Nolan’s vision of Gotham City, which has evolved with every film. (Scotland and India also were on the itinerary, to capture the opening aerial action scene that introduces Bane and the prison called The Pit, where Bruce Wayne recovers from a catastrophic injury.)
“It’s not really so much that the actual city changes in the three films, it’s that the genre of the movies changes slightly, and we look at Gotham in a slightly different way,” says Nolan. “Batman Begins is very much an origin story, and Gotham is viewed in quite symbolic, quite romantic terms. With The Dark Knight, we really switched genres. We’re looking at the media, the police, the wealthy, the poor; Gotham takes on that sort of crime epic idea of what a city is. Then, in Dark Knight Rises, we really move more into the disaster movie.”
As the landscape has changed, so has the saga’s main character. Bruce Wayne’s journey from well-adjusted boy to incredibly damaged man has been the spine of the story. “What’s always been interesting about Bruce Wayne’s story is, he’s driven by rage,” says Nolan. “But he’s always pushing towards something positive. There’s something wonderfully human about that endeavor to take what’s bad of himself and make something good come out of it.”
“It’s a little like being the butler to Howard Hughes, who went right off his lorry,” says Caine of his role as Bruce Wayne’s butler and surrogate father, who spends the whole of the trilogy like a parent dealing with a child addicted to something fatal, something that would inevitably kill him. “In our case, our guy came back.”
Caine has been the glue that held the films together, the “audience’s representative on Earth,” as he puts it. So it was fitting that Caine was so integral to the trilogy’s end. “When Chris brought me the script, I thought, ‘I’m either gonna have a great part here, or I’m gonna get written out for the ending,’ ” Caine recalls. “And I didn’t realize I was the ending. The standard of writing was so high. They usually spend so much money on the special effects and stuff, they don’t write heavy characters because they can’t afford good actors.”
For Nolan, the joy of working with those actors and giving them meat to chew on is a large part of what makes filmmaking in general, and The Dark Knight Rises in specific, worth the months in production -- more than 120 days of active filming -- and the years off his life.
“The last few movies I’ve been doing have been very much ensemble pictures, and they’re daunting,” he says. “Particularly when you’re writing a script, when you’re trying to balance those characters’ emotions. Then when you come to casting, you start getting to play it; getting to see it played out by these tremendous talents, then it becomes a huge pleasure because you realize you’ve just got so many different people to play with.”
Three movies. Nine years. A total of $2.45 billion at the global box office. But for all that success with superheroes -- and once he’s done producing Warners’ Man of Steel, the Superman reboot being directed by Watchmen’s Zack Snyder and will hit screens in June -- Nolan is ready to hang up his cape. The prospect of shepherding Warners’ promised Justice League film holds no allure.
“I want to direct another movie before too long, probably ’cause I get bored very easily,” Nolan says. “But I’ll take my time in figuring out what it is. I know I’m done with Batman.”