This post has been corrected, as indicated below
There’s nothing sentimental or soft about Gotham City, and that seems to suit Christopher Nolan just fine. The 41-year-old filmmaker fills the screen with grim architecture, hard-luck faces and gun-metal hues; tricks of the mind are his narrative specialty, not affairs of the heart. Still, last Thursday, eating his dinner standing up in a movie theater lobby, Nolan confessed that even he got a bit misty during the final shooting days of “The Dark Knight Rises,” which is (by all appearances) his final visit to the world of Batman.
“I tend not to be too emotional on the set, I find that doesn’t help me do my job,” the writer-director said between bites. “But you definitely get a little lump in your throat thinking that, ‘OK, this is going to be the last time we’re going to be doing this.’ It’s been quite a journey. Hopefully, reflecting that journey — by all of us who made the films — in the three films together will make it so they have a real span to them, some real heft.”
Principal photography on “The Dark Knight Rises” was completed in mid-November after an intense six-month shoot that took Nolan and his veteran crew to India, Scotland and the United States as well as Cardington, England, their home base, where Gotham landmarks are set up inside a massive and moldy, old zeppelin hangar. The movie hits theaters on July 20 but, of course, Nolan is far from finished. He took a break from the editing room last week only to show seven minutes of “Rises” footage to journalists and bloggers; it’s the same seven-minute preview that, starting this Friday, moviegoers will be able to see as a special trailer before screenings of “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” at select IMAX theaters.
For a vast tribe of movie fans, the taciturn Nolan is a figure of fascination and there’s a massive amount of interest in the finale of his Gotham trilogy, which so far has made $1.4 billion in worldwide box office, broke records in home video and generated hundreds of millions more in merchandise and licensing deals. Amateur and professional photographers dogged the “Rises” production across the globe and every week brought new rumors about the film’s plot, characters, vehicles or costumes. Nolan doesn’t spend much time surfing the Internet (this is the guy who doesn’t have a cellphone or email account), but at a small reception after the Universal City press screening he said he welcomes the Bat-mania for what it represents.
“It’s terrific, to have people that interested in something. It reminds you that it is a real honor to work on something that means so much to people,” Nolan said. “I’d love to be able to claim that I invented the whole thing and that’s why they’re interested. I did not. I’ve been given a very precious thing to do my best with, to look after and not to let people down. There’s a certain amount of fear that comes with it and intimidation but it’s also a great privilege. [As for the fans], they want it to be great, they want to go enjoy it and they’re fascinated by it. You know, there’s always controversy regarding things that people will disagree with but hopefully they appreciate the effort of trying to make something good.”
That effort to be good brings back newly minted Oscar winner Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and a supporting cast with Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Anne Hathaway, Morgan Freeman — all Academy Award winners or nominees — and Gary Oldman who may soon be one. The screenplay, written by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan Nolan, is based on a story concept by the director and David S. Goyer, and it starts eight years after the final scene in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” Bale has already confirmed that this is his last time in the cape and, because of the film’s tag line, “The legend ends,” many fans are wondering if this movie will dare the unthinkable and actually kill off the caped crusader.
The preview trailer on “Ghost Protocol” will, no doubt, mark the beginning of a larger, intensified fan conversation about the movie. Warner Bros., which has already said goodbye to Hogwarts and “Harry Potter” this year, will try to fuel that fire and all of Hollywood is worried about the seasons ahead; it’s been a blue Christmas so far for the industry — the domestic box office for all releases this past weekend was $78 million, the lowest total since September 2008 — and it’s revealing that in the eyes of many fans the biggest movie event of this holiday season is the seven-minute preamble to a film that won’t reach theaters for another six months.
Nolan thinks big and IMAX is a part of that. The filmmaker loves IMAX and views it — and not stereoscopic 3D — as today’s best approach to cinema spectacle and, as he put it last Thursday, the “grandeur of the movies.” He and his Oscar-winning cinematographer, Wally Pfister, again put up with the bulky, noisy IMAX cameras for some of the big action sequences in this third Batman film and Nolan said that if the edit of “Rises” goes as he expects, about 45 to 50 minutes of the finished film will have been shot with IMAX cameras.
That’s about twice as much IMAX footage as the last Batman film, “The Dark Knight,” the highest-grossing film of 2008. It was four years ago this month that Nolan hosted a similar preview of “The Dark Knight” and showed the opening sequence of that film, the bank heist that introduced the world to Heath Ledger’s bold and searing take on the Joker. (That opening sequence was then shown, as a trailer, to moviegoers who saw “I Am Legend” at IMAX theaters.) This new “Rises” preview footage has some of the same rhythms of that now famous robbery scene from the second movie; both play with the ideas of masks and identity, both present modern takes on the classic double-cross and, most of all, they show villains with a flair for mind-blowing exit strategies.
The “Rises” opening sequence takes place mostly in the air; it shows hooded prisoners being transported on a CIA plane and it reveals that this film’s evil mastermind, Bane, played by Tom Hardy, is not to be underestimated no matter the setting or situation. The sequence required some intense aerial work for Nolan and company and, as always, the director’s emphasis was on in-camera effects and stunt work as opposed to the pixelated painting that is the norm in today’s computer-generated Hollywood.
“We had a lot of fun on it,” Nolan said. “It was a tricky sequence to shoot but a lot of very talented people worked very hard on it. And I’m thrilled with the result. We shot it in Scotland. We braved the weather — it rains all the time there, a terrible place to do an aerial sequence, which is why no one has sort of done it before. You usually wind up in the desert or something for very practical reasons. But it really came off. We got very lucky with the weather and a lot of good planning went into it. I think it had a very unique look.”
(It certainly had a unique sound — Hardy, behind his mask, was difficult to understand for many of the people at the press preview. It will be interesting to see how that changes between now and next summer’s delivery of the film. Nolan and his team can certainly play with the sound and recorded dialogue to clear up the metallic muddle.)
With Bane — a brawny, brutal genius with a fearsome masked visage — Nolan surprised many observers because in his previous films he veered toward the more time-tested end of Batman’s rogues gallery (in the pages of DC Comics, the Joker, Two-Face and Scarecrow all date to the early 1940s, as does Catwoman, who will be a supporting character and played by Hathaway in this new film). Bane, however, first appeared in the comics in 1993 as the creation of Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench and Graham Nolan (no relation to the filmmaker). The director said it was Goyer who provided him with a four-color education in Bane.
“I didn’t know him very well,” Nolan said. “David Goyer got me a bunch of stuff on him and we looked into him. I only knew him by name, I wasn’t familiar with his back story. He’s a very cool character. And getting an actor like Tom to take it on, you know you’re going to get something very special. Tom is somebody who really knows how to put character into every gesture, every aspect of his physicality in the way that great actors can. He’s a very, very physical actor. He transforms himself and it’s there in every movement. He’s not afraid to look at a character from the outside as well as the inside so there’s a deep psychological branch to the character but also a very, very specific awareness of how he’s going to use his body and his appearance to express that character too. Christian is like that too, very much.”
The big question: Will Bruce Wayne still be wearing the mask and cape of Batman at the end of the film? In the pages of DC Comics, in the landmark 1993-94 arc called “Knightfall,” the brutal and canny Bane waited for the hero to be at his weakest point in body and spirit before delivering a (literally) crippling blow. In that story, Batman’s snapped spine left him looking for a replacement; that and the fact that the new film has “Rise” in the title has stirred plenty of speculation (not unlike Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta” epic or Lee Falk’s classic mythology for “The Phantom”) that a next-generation newcomer might inherit Wayne’s mask and the mission.
The addition of “Inception” co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt to the Gotham City cast as a young cop named John Blake certainly opens up some possible opportunities for a Batcave inheritance. N0lan is fine with all guessing games — again, it speaks to the fan passion — but don’t expect the cryptic filmmaker to offer any hints. He does say that he was searching for a story that would deliver a true finale and close out the trilogy in a powerful and definitive way. He also said that Bane will test the bone and muscle of Wayne with unprecedented savagery.
“With Bane, the physicality is the thing,” Nolan said. “With a good villain you need an archetype, you know, you need the extreme of some type of villainy. The Joker is obviously a particular archetype of diabolical, chaotic anarchy and has a devilish sense of humor. Bane, to me, is something we haven’t dealt with in the films. We wanted to do something very different in this film. He’s a primarily physical villain, he’s a classic movie monster in a way — but with a terrific brain. I think he’s a fascinating character. I think people are going to get a kick out of what we’ve done with him.”
As for moving the action ahead eight years, Nolan said that it was a way to give true gravity to the events that were portrayed at the end of “The Dark Knight,” when Batman essentially took the blame for the crimes of Harvey Dent and became a fugitive from justice instead of a tacitly approved vigilante.
“It will make a lot more sense to people when they see the film,” Nolan said of the leap forward. “But it’s not a great mystery — it’s the jumping-off point for the film — but it’s hard for me to articulate it. I think the mood at the beginning of the film will make a lot of sense. If I had to express it thematically, I think what we’re saying is that for Batman and Commissioner Gordon, there’s a big sacrifice, a big compromise, at the end of the ‘The Dark Knight’ and for that to mean something, that sacrifice has to work and Gotham has to get better in a sense. They have to achieve something for the ending of that film — and the feeling at the end of that film — to have validity. Their sacrifice has to have meaning and it takes time to establish that and to show that, and that’s the primary reason we did that. It’s a time period that is not so far ahead that we would have to do crazy makeup or anything — which I think would be distracting — but it gave them something to get their teeth into, particularly Christian in terms of [portraying] this guy who has been frozen in this moment in time with nowhere to go. He really has done an incredible job figuring out how to characterize that and express that.”
The true mystery is what Hollywood will make of Nolan — and vice versa — after he has truly left Gotham behind. Those are questions for another day but for the time being, the filmmaker seems pleased by the rare sensation of a sentimental journey: “It was pretty emotional as we would finish these characters and say goodbye to Alfred for the last time and say goodbye to Commissioner Gordon and eventually, with Christian, fairly close to the end, saying goodbye to Batman … it was a big deal,” Nolan said. “And with these newer characters too, finishing with Anne and all these guys. It was quite touching, I must say.”
[FOR THE RECORD, 4:05 p.m. Dec. 12 : An earlier verison of this post cited Gary Oldman as an Academy Award nominee but so far (somehow) he is not.]
– Geoff Boucher
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