Nolan found unusual inspiration for 'Knight' 

ANATOMY OF A CONTENDER: Christopher Nolan used some unusual source material -- including George Stevens' 1953 Western "Shane" -- for the "Batman" franchise.

When Christopher Nolan started to envision his second installment of the retooled Warner Bros. "Batman" franchise, he began thinking about some unlikely source material.

"'Shane' was very much an inspiration for me," he says, referring to George Stevens' 1953 Western. "The evil, in particular, in that film was so evil. There had never been anything quite like it. I try to be inspired by the large-scale, the larger-than-life iconic worlds. You find that in the great Westerns of the past."

"The Dark Knight" has since become a larger-than-life film, garnering raves from serious critics and shattering boxoffice records on its way to becoming the biggest domestic grosser in Warner Bros.' history. Now it finds itself in the thick of the year-end awards race, unfamiliar territory for comic-book-themed films.

Nolan hadn't thought about how he would approach this film until 2005's "Batman Begins" was finished.

"When we started talking about doing another Batman, we had no sequel story in mind," says Charles Roven, who produced the film with Nolan and his wife, Emma Thomas.

Knowing only that the Joker would be a key element of the cast, Nolan started working on the screenplay with veteran writer David S. Goyer.

"We really worked the story until we knew it was down to its essential elements," Nolan says. "I don't think we removed anything major once we started shooting."

But Nolan already had committed to shoot 2006's "The Prestige" first, so he left his brother Jonathan (known as Jonah) to write a first draft.

Nolan says the genesis of the story came from "looking at all the history of the comics and trying to find inspiration. We really looked to continue the story from the first film very directly, looking at that last scene with Gary (Oldman) and Christian (Bale) on the roof, where (Oldman) talks about the idea that Batman's presence in Gotham will inspire an equally extreme response from the criminal fraternity.

"We knew we wanted to use the Joker as the representation of the escalating threat," he adds. "But we didn't want the Joker to have any kind of emotional arc. So we looked to the comics for what the emotional story would be -- and Harvey Dent/Two-Face's story seemed to be perfect for that.

"Being a writer-director, I spend a lot of time on the script -- first with Goyer, working out the story, and then with Jonah on the actual screenplay," he continues. "By the time we get on the floor to shoot, the script is fully worked out. Really, all the changes at that point are things the actors bring to their individual performances."

One of those performances, of course, was the late Heath Ledger's. The actor came on board before the screenplay was even finished.

"Heath was on a shortlist for the role," Roven says. "Out of the blue, it was Heath that called Chris. He had some ideas about the Joker, and he wanted to meet with Chris and talk about it. Chris was curious, so they got together and found they saw it going in the same direction of this relentless psychopath. Heath turned the role into what it was meant to be."

When Nolan came to shoot the film (he shot in Chicago, the U.K. and Hong Kong, benefiting from foreign and domestic rebates), he proved as forward-thinking as his inspiration was traditional.

Nolan shot six action sequences -- including the opening bank heist -- with the heavy and cumbersome Imax cameras, the first time a director had ever used Imax cameras for a traditional feature release. He didn't just want to blow up 35mm film for an Imax screen; he wanted the "crispness and clarity" that shooting in Imax would guarantee, he says.

He also wanted to achieve that expansiveness for the audience -- the same sort of expansiveness Stevens felt when he made "Shane," the first Western shot in flat widescreen color.

"Shooting those sequences in Imax was roughly three times the cost of shooting other scenes," director of photography Wally Pfister says. "There's the opening bank sequence -- that's about six minutes and it was the first we shot. We kind of learned on that and we decided to go from there. The cameras are incredibly heavy and can be really difficult to shoot action sequences, so we had to figure out a way to rig it to handle the weight, but to mount on the car hood or the truck.

"In the Batpod sequence, which is the biggest chase scene, we had to use this giant crane arm," he adds. "Actually, it's called the 'Ultimate Arm' -- and it is. We were able to get unbelievable footage since it allowed us to swing the camera around. There's the chase in the Lamborghini and of course the ending with the S.W.A.T teams in the building. I don't know if you have ever seen one, but there's a reason they need a crane. I tried one handheld shot on my shoulder in the S.W.A.T. sequence. And it was OK. But the scene with the Batpod was my favorite sequence. I really think that was an incredible accomplishment, to shoot that full sequence in Imax."

Despite breaking new ground with the Imax shots, Pfister says, "There was not as much rehearsing as you'd think, especially on a lot of the scenes shot in the Pruitt Building. Chris spent about three or four weeks working on the nuts and bolts -- and then we shot it. At times we had to hide the lights, because the (Imax) frame is so wide, so high, that you see everything and you lose the places you could normally hide them."

While Pfister concentrated on the lights, the production team focused on some of the most complicated stunt sequences ever staged.

"Obviously, the big stunt days were the most challenging," Thomas says. "The biggest one that stuck with me was the truck flip. Chris had this idea that we all sat down and talked about. Everyone was thinking it just wouldn't be possible, but Chris really wanted this to happen."

The sequence took place in the heart of Chicago's financial district. Aside from damage that could have been caused by something going out of control, the weight of the truck flipping in the air and crashing down on the street could have caused significant damage.

"There are bank vaults and utilities under the street -- the list goes on," Thomas says. "All of that had to be protected and taken into consideration. That night we were scheduled to shoot it at 7 p.m., but we actually shot it at midnight. It was a matter of minutes to shoot it -- but hours and hours of preparation went into it.

"It took about 18 weeks to work all of it out," she adds. "They had put these teeth on the front of the truck, which helped minimize the impact. There was very little damage to the street."

Although one stuntman died during the shoot, mostly it was trouble-free -- including the complex sequences involving the Batpod.

Neither Nolan nor Crowley had ridden motorcycles. Despite the insane demands of the design -- with two huge tires requiring phenomenal steering ability -- special effects supervisor Chris Corbould and his team were able to transform concept into reality.

Between stunt rider Jean-Pierre Goy's riding and the Imax camerawork, says Roven, "we came up with some of the best action sequences ever seen on film."