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September 2014
Issue: August 1, 2010

DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: CHRISTOPHER NOLAN - 'INCEPTION'

HOLLYWOOD — Writer/director Christopher Nolan, who began making Super 8mm home movies as a kid, has always loved pushing the technical limits of filmmaking. His breakthrough 2000 film Memento, which he also scripted, began at the end of the story and ran backwards, while 2006’s The Prestige was a tour-de-force thriller about magic and illusion.

After successfully rebooting the once-hot franchise with his acclaimed 2005 film Batman Returns, starring Christian Bale as the brooding caped crusader, Nolan triumphed again with the 2008 $1 billion grossing sequel The Dark Knight, which marked the first time a major feature film had shot major sequences using the IMAX camera.

His latest film, Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is also his first sci-fi film, a mind-bending tale of dream thieves that he scripted, and that with its $160 million budget and locations ranging from Britain and Japan to France and Morocco, combines the huge scale of his Batman films with the visual and cerebral trickiness of Memento and 2002’s Insomnia.

Here, in a rare interview, the British director talks about making the film, why the thriller’s been shrouded in mystery, and his love of post.

Post: Last time we spoke you told me you wanted to make a “much smaller film” after the Batman films. What happened?
NOLAN: (Laughs) “This obviously didn’t turn out to be that smaller film. It’s pretty huge, pretty complex.”

Post: So what sort of film did you set out to make?
NOLAN: “A large-scale action film about dreams that would hopefully combine some of the things I’ve been interested in exploring in my smaller films —memory, perception — with some of the grand scale techniques that I’ve used in bigger films, like The Dark Knight.”

Post: Is it true you first had the idea for this as a teenager?
NOLAN: “Yes, I’d actually been interested in doing a film set in the world of dreams ever since I was a kid, and about 10 years ago I settled in on this heist movie plot and structure, but then it took me the last 10 years to finish it and get it right.”

Post: Why so long?
NOLAN: “It took me a while to figure out how to make an emotional connection with the material, as heist movies tend to be almost deliberately superficial in terms of emotion, and all about procedure. I realized it had to be more about the human condition and human emotions, and that I had to work on the characters — the things that help an audience connect with the ideas, however crazy they may seem.”

Post: I talked to Michael Caine recently, who said that you went over to his house and made him read the script while you waited. He called you “the most secretive director I’ve ever worked with.” Why so secretive?
NOLAN: “To be honest, it’s more a case of wanting to work in private and finish the film before I show it to people. What I most prize is going into a cinema and seeing a film without knowing every single thing about it, so that hopefully you can be excited by it in surprising ways. It becomes very difficult to do that when you have intense media scrutiny, so I try to keep it off the radar as much as possible.”

Post: What did Leo bring to the project?
NOLAN: “He’s very collaborative and very interested in story and his character’s role in that. We spent a lot of time refining the material and honing the story to make it work with his view of his character, and that was a very valuable process. And of course he brings great acting chops and tremendous movie star charisma, and the value of that is that the audience basically gravitates toward him and they feel comfortable with him as a guide and the emotional core of the story. So he brings this great combination and is one of those special performers who just draws the eye, whatever he’s doing in a scene.”

Post: You’ve always loved pushing the technical limits of filmmaking. How far did you go this time — over the edge?

NOLAN: (Laughs) “No, I wouldn’t say that, although we certainly did a lot of very interesting things. We shot in a lot of different countries, used some very interesting CG and built a lot of unusual rigs. We built several sets that could rotate 360 degrees that were self-illuminating. I think it all paid off quite nicely. We didn’t go down any paths that were dead-ends.”

Post: This was a very complex production. How tough was it?
NOLAN: “It was pretty hard and somewhat bigger than the Batman films, but a slightly shorter shoot. We shot for five-and-a-half months in six countries, so the logistics were extremely challenging, especially as there were a lot of different conditions, ranging from blazing sun to freezing cold and heavy rain. But that’s what this film demanded, a lot of different textures, and it all went quite smoothly in the end.”

Post: Do you like post?
NOLAN: “Very much, and I love editing and all the sound mixing and so on. I really enjoy the whole creative process of gradually refining the film over the months of post, and I’ve even come to enjoy the whole visual effects process and finally bringing those images to life. It’s very satisfying to see it all come together.”

Post: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
NOLAN: “We did it all on the lot at Warners, except for our visual effects, which were done by Double Negative in London. We’d hook up via CineSync every day and conference in to discuss the shots and any changes, and we could speak to each other in realtime and examine the shot. It’s a very efficient way of working — in fact, for me it’s far more efficient than being in the same city. It’s all focused communication on exactly that show you’re working on and what’s in frame, and there’s no time wasted driving across town. It’s right there.”

Post: Did Double Negative do all the VFX?
NOLAN: “Yes, they did the entire show, which is kind of unusual now, but it was a great way of working. I wanted to take this back to more of a ‘70s model of how the visual effects team is incorporated into the production, rather than having a visual effects supervisor who then farms it all out to a bunch of different houses. So I wanted to work with just one set of people who were then dedicated to the project and who felt very much a part of the whole creative process, and Paul Franklin, who co-founded Double Negative, was our visual effects supervisor, and that worked out really well.”

Post: I know you’re not a big fan of visual effects, but there’s obviously quite a lot of visual effects shots in the film. How many are there, and what was your approach to dealing with them?
NOLAN: “We ended up with around 500, so there are quite a lot. I think visual effects have their place, and certainly in this film. We had a lot of things we needed to do with visual effects. My philosophy is to try and shoot something in-camera that they can then work with. I think that greatly improves the quality of visual effects.
“People think I didn’t use any visual effects in the Batman films, but we used quite a lot, obviously — a lot fewer than most comic book films on that scale, but still hundreds. The thing is that a surprising amount of what we do is based on what we’ve shot in-camera. So for me, visual effects work best when they enhance a shot.”

Post: The film reunites you with editor Lee Smith, who previously collaborated with you on the Batman films and The Prestige. Tell us about that relationship and how it works?
NOLAN: “We share a sense of humor, which is very important when you’re stuck in a room together for months. I love editing so I’m there every day, going through everything. He accommodates my somewhat laborious process of just starting from the beginning and looking at all the dailies again and gradually working on a cut. The Avid allows you to try a lot of different cuts and versions, so you can really investigate every single frame in great detail. He’s the fastest editor working today — blindingly fast and extremely talented, so a real pleasure to work with.” [Lee Smith and team used a total of seven Media Composer systems, cutting DNxHD 36. Audio work was done with Pro Tools.]

Post: Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?
NOLAN: “Both are crucial elements to storytelling, and I really enjoy working with both. I reunited with Hans Zimmer, who did the Batman films, and he came up with some very surprising things and did a great job and added a whole new dimension to the film.
“I also get very involved with all the sound editing and mixing, as particularly on this film, the sound’s a major player in terms of giving the audience information. So we spent a long time on the mix, which we’re also doing at Warners.” (See our interview with supervising sound editor/sound designer Richard King on page 38.)

Post: I know you’re a fan of film rather than digital. Did you even do a DI?
NOLAN: “No. We cut the negative and timed it photo-chemically. That gives you the best result by far, in the least amount of time, at the best price. It’s truly a great process. Most films seem to do a DI now, but I think it’s just a waste of time for most. If you don’t want to avail yourself of any particular stylization in the timing, then photo-chemical timing will give you the best possible quality, in hours rather than weeks.”

Post: Did the film turn out the way you originally envisioned it?
NOLAN: “It’s very much the film I set out to make, in general terms. In specifics, of course there are many things I could never have anticipated, and all the people working on it made it more than I could have hoped for.”

Post: What’s going on with your production company, Syncopy?
NOLAN: “I only like to concentrate on one thing at a time, but I have a couple of projects I’m considering. I’m not sure what’s next.”

Post: Any interest in doing a 3D film?
NOLAN: “Technically it’s very interesting, but as a viewer I’m not sold on it yet. I think the dimness of the image is a big problem. But I do think the post conversion process has promise, if that’s what audiences want.”

Post: What are the best and worst parts of being a director?
NOLAN: “The best part is that I get to be involved in all the different aspects of filmmaking. I don’t think there’s a worst part for me. I enjoy it all.”