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Nominated for eight Oscars — including best picture but, some say mysteriously, not best director — Christopher Nolan’s Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, delves into a dream world the writer-director says he’d “been imagining for years.”
The Hollywood Reporter: When did you finally get serious about writing down what you’d been imagining?
After I finished Memento, I sat down and had a pretty serious attempt at writing the whole thing. I got to about Page 80 and got stuck. Between films, I would come back and look at what I had and think about how to finish it. It took me a number of years to figure out what elements were missing and why I couldn’t finish it. I finally figured it out after I finished The Dark Knight.
THR: What had been missing?
Where I got stuck, I finally realized, is the heist-film genre tends to not have large emotional stakes. I had been banging my head against the wall until I eventually realized, when you’re dealing with dreams, when you’re dealing with the human mind, you have to be dealing with emotional issues, issues that are more character-based. Once I figured out that the whole story is really about Cobb, his interior journey — going deeper within himself, as well as the character he is trying to pull a heist on — then it started to work for me, and I was able to finish it.
THR: It’s such a complicated conceit. Did you map it out first?
I tend to attack a script in a couple of different ways. My first approach is always spending a lot of time thinking about it, running over the key images. Then I’ll generally just start writing, and when I get stuck writing, then I try to dimensionalize it in other ways, very often with flowcharts and diagrams. I really try to step outside the narrative and visualize the structure. With Inception, the thing I worked out early on was the kickback mechanism, the collapsing of the multiple dreams as they telescope in on each other. And right from the first, I worked out the element of the ending. And then it was a question of how to get there.
THR: Because you direct what you write, do you put much by way of camera direction and staging into your early drafts?
I try to visualize the film in certain parts of writing — like montage, things like transitions. Those things I try to visualize as if I’m watching the movie. But I try to write from a character point of view — writing from the inside out. I try to put myself in the shoes of the characters and experience that world from the inside. When I come to the floor to shoot the film, I’m treating it all as a grim reality, so I’ll stage the scene and move it around as if we were creating a real event.
THR: Once you cast the film, did you go back and do any rewriting?
Every project, to me, the script is always developing — I write all the way through production. Once Leo came on board, I spent months and months sitting with him and discussing the script. He made some extraordinary contributions to the script and really challenged me to make the script clear, but also to follow its interior logic and really be true to the essence of the characters and the rules we set out.
THR: Because the screenplay is such an original, did the studio offer notes?
Absolutely. [Warner Bros. exec] Jeff Robinov and Alan Horn, particularly. They read the script many times. They read all the pages I issued as I was rewriting it. We had a good dialogue. They paid a lot of care and put a lot of attention into how I was rewriting the script, particularly in my collaboration with Leo. I think they were concerned that it was a very complicated script. I embraced that very much because I felt we had a house of cards with a script that I’d been close to for a long time. It’s actually great to have objective, outside opinions coming in.
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