Christopher Nolan on 'Dark Knight' Oscar Snub and the 'Superman' Fib He Told the Studio
Christopher Nolan rang in Batman's 80th birthday in style Saturday.
The filmmaker joined fans for a Dark Knight trilogy marathon at the Universal Cinema AMC at CityWalk in Hollywood on Saturday with back-to-back Imax 70mm screenings. Nolan sat for a Q&A in between 2008's The Dark Knight and 2012's The Dark Knight Rises, sporting a blazer and holding a thermos of what was surely tea.
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By the time Nolan came out, the crowd was already amped up, having burst into applause multiple times during The Dark Knight. The director soon delivered a treat, sharing a never-before-revealed trick he used for the film, for the intense car chase after Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) turns himself in as Batman. The real Dark Knight (Christian Bale) shows up in the Batmobile and smashes into a garbage truck driven by a Joker henchman.
“It’s a miniature,” Nolan said, sounding amused. “I don’t think anyone’s ever noticed it’s a miniature.”
Nolan spoke about casting Bale as Batman, and shared a tidbit about his now-frequent collaborator Cillian Murphy auditioning for the lead instead.
"Christian was actually the first actor I met for the role. And so I think I had a pretty strong sense from there," said Nolan. "Cillian Murphy was somebody who I had seen in Danny Boyle’s film 28 Days Later, and he screen tested for Batman, actually, and gave an extraordinary test. And so we wound up casting him as Scarecrow based on that."
Though Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy clocks in at just over seven-and-a-half hours, the event itself was a nearly an 11-hour affair when taking into account the Q&A as well as breaks of more than 90 minutes each between films, as loading and unloading Imax 70mm prints is a lengthy, complicated process, and the projector doesn’t see much use beyond Nolan’s own films.
Watching the three films in a row is an undertaking Nolan himself has never taken on.
“Christ, no,” the director said to laughs from the crowd. The most he’s seen of the trilogy in a single day, he explained, was Batman Begins and The Dark Knight with production designer Nathan Crowley during early preparation for The Dark Knight Rises — which might remain the most. “I’ve seen the films plenty,” he said with a chuckle. “Maybe one day, I’ll convince my kids to do that with me.”
The audience was a die-hard group dedicated to Nolan. Before Batman Begins kicked off, a fan approached theater staff and asked where the Q&A would take place. After the staff member said it would be in the theater, the fan clarified the question: where exactly in the theater would Nolan be?
Not only did the group clap at many big moments, including when Bruce Wayne returns at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, at almost exactly the 10-hour mark of the event, but they also knew Nolan’s history intimately. As Nolan ran through the different influences on the three Batman films, he reached The Dark Knight. “I was thinking very much the films of...” Nolan started. A fan quickly whispered “Michael Mann” just before Nolan said the same name. “He’s a huge influence on The Dark Knight.”
Though Nolan is credited with elevating the superhero genre, he initially shied away from the superhero tag, even though one of the biggest influences on his first film was Richard Donner’s Superman, specifically that film's sprawling, talented cast.
“We tried to put together that kind of cast for Batman Begins just to give it that weight of event cinema and not let it be dismissed as what, at the time, we felt as a dismissal, which is a comic book movie," Nolan said. "We didn’t want to view it as that. Of course, now, comic book movies are a very different thing and they’re the biggest films being made now, so the world’s changed in that regard.”
It was Donner’s film that allowed Nolan to get away with spending the first hour of Batman Begins with Bruce Wayne — sans cape and cowl. To prepare for that film, Nolan analyzed statistics of action films, from car chases — “They’re all a little shorter than you’d expect” — to when heroes put on their capes. When the studio came to him nervous about when Batman shows up, Nolan had receipts. “I was able to say ‘Well, Christopher Reeve didn’t put on the suit until 53 minutes in.’” And as the audience sat back impressed, Nolan revealed a little of his wit. “That statistic is not true by the way. It’s actually a little earlier.”
Despite Nolan making little eye contact with the audience, he didn’t hold back his humor. Toward the end of the Q&A, Nolan addressed how The Dark Knight's best picture snub has been partially credited for the Academy expanding the best picture field from five to 10 the following year.
"Yeah, which is a kind of cool consolation prize, I guess,” Nolan remarked, earning the loudest laughs and applause from the crowd.
As expected with Imax and theater enthusiast Nolan, the conversation hit on film presentation and the theatrical experience.
“We’ve gone through an intense period of innovation in the digital realm and it’s transformed distribution,” Nolan said, with Netflix looming in the subtext. “It’s transformed movies in a lot of ways, mostly good. But we’re now in a period where, particularly looking at film history, it’s important that we go back and we look at, 'OK, how were these films originally intended to be shown? How were they meant to be seen?'”
Whatever the conversation is, Nolan sees it as about something simple. “It all adds up to the same thing, which is a respect for the creators of the past and opportunities for the filmmakers of the future, so that they get to make films however they want, whether it’s using older methods.”
After Nolan's exit, The Dark Knight Rises played, and things got a little bumpy from there. When Bruce Wayne finds himself locked out of his mansion in the rain, the speakers began to blast gray noise.
The projector quickly shut off, and after some murmurs from the crowd and a few minutes, the film was restarted and rewound back to shortly before the scene that broke. This was odd, as a 2016 YouTube video by projectionists at the Imax Dome Theater in San Jose, Calif., explaining how Imax 70mm projection works, states, “Once the film is threaded, it cannot be rewound as the projector only plays in one direction.”
When it came time for the next Imax sequence, specifically the sewer fight between Batman and Bane (Tom Hardy), the image stopped short of filling the entire screen, still leaving black bars at the top and bottom. The full Imax aspect ratio would never return. In the scenes that replayed, the color was noticeably more muted. And at one point, a seemingly digital green line briefly appeared in the black bar above the top of the image.
Peering through the projection booth were two separate rays of light from two different projection lenses, likely indicating that the theater had swiftly shifted to Imax’s dual laser projection system, which CityWalk has. Either that, or the film projector wasn’t fixed properly in the aftermath.
No matter, the fans persevered and seemed to enjoy the rest of the show. After all, they'd gotten to spend hour after hour in Nolan's world.
Earlier, when Nolan was asked if he truly was done with Batman, he joked, “I think it’s more that Batman’s done with me.” But in essence, it wasn’t a joke, as Nolan saw himself and his team as “custodians of the character,” a job, at least in film, that passed on to Zack Snyder in 2016 with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and will pass on to Matt Reeves in 2021 with The Batman.
“He’s a character who will never die, never go away, never wither,” Nolan said, moving on to quote from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which was a major influence on The Dark Knight Rises — part of the same quote Nolan used at the end of that film. “I mean, ‘generations hence’ are going to reinterpret this character, I think, in all kinds of ways and I’ll be excited to see that.”
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