Anatomy of a Contender: Making of 'Inception'

Issue 55 - Making of Inception: Christopher Nolan and Leonardo DiCaprio
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.”

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.”

Dream On

How films about the subconscious have fared

1. Inception (2010)
2. Vanilla Sky (2001)
3. The Cell (2000)
4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
5. What Dreams May Come (1998)
6. In Dreams (1999)
7. Mulholland Drive (2001)
8. The Science of Sleep (2006)