From a distance, Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City sure doesn’t look like much. The “skyline” begins to emerge over the horizon in the rolling green farmlands about 50 miles north of London, but there are no gothic spires or granite citadels, just the slanted, pocked roofs of two boxy metal buildings.
But nearing the complex on a winding two-lane road, the immensity of the filmmaker’s make-believe metropolis comes into focus: The structures that looked squat from afar are actually 15 stories tall — and as long as 81-story skyscrapers lying on their sides. Constructed more than 85 years ago to house Britain’s Royal Airship Works, the giant coffin-shaped sheds sat unused or ignored for years, and waiting for some great undertaking, after the nation’s flagship dirigible went down in flames in a horrific 1930 crash in France.
The field mice had the run of the buildings but after the southern shed was renovated in 1994 it was used by occasional rock stars preparing for tours (U2 and Paul McCartney among them) or Hollywood production. The 525-ton door opened for Nolan in 2004. Cardington has since become a special home base, which is fitting given the fact that illusion, extreme architecture, old-school craft and colossal scale are screen trademarks for the London-born filmmaker best known for his three Batman films and “Inception.”
For 2005’s “Batman Begins” they put in the faux masonry of the Narrows and Arkham Asylum. Nolan’s team added to the indoor cityscape for 2008’s billion-dollar hit sequel “The Dark Knight” and then, for the topsy-turvy fights of “Inception,” special-effect guru Chris Corbould built a spinning corridor that made actors like hamsters in a wheel. More recently, Nolan and production designer Nathan Crowley added a cruel and exotic underground prison for “The Dark Knight Rises,” which opens July 20 and will be Nolan’s final take on the Caped Crusader for Warner Bros. “I think my dad put it best when he visited and referred to it as the world’s largest toy box,” Nolan, back in Los Angeles, said last week with a rare relaxed chuckle. “That is somewhat how it felt to me. We’d wander around and feel it was a great privilege…. There’s an awful lot of my history with the Batman films and also ‘Inception.’ It’s all there.”
If there was a documentary about the 41-year-old Nolan’s own life, that stroll around Cardington could set up a flashback to a key childhood moment: At age 7, he picked up his father’s Super 8 camera and made a film with his Action Man toys (that was the alternative brand that Hasbro used when it deployed its G.I. Joe-style toys in England and Australia). Film and storytelling as pursuits possessed him. By 16, he was already puzzling out a story he wanted to tell about dream control; so while other kids were climbing the levels in “Super Mario Bros.,” the intense Nolan was piecing together the tale that would someday became “Inception.”
Nolan broke through in 2000 with his reverse riddle “Memento” (it was based on a short story by his brother, Jonathan Nolan), which earned him an Oscar nomination for screenwriting (two more nods followed for “Inception”). Yet even as he’s become a top filmmaker whose films vie against CG-laden, 3-D spectacles for summer box office bragging rights, Nolan is a decidedly old soul with an outsider aura.
An English literature major who rarely leaves the house without a suit coat, he has no email account, no cellphone, and here in this digital summer of 2012, his Batman movie is the only major popcorn release shot on film stock. He shuns 3-D, typically goes light on digital effects and his stories and characters are not just serious, they’re grim — unlike the wisecracking heroes of “The Avengers” or the just-released “Amazing Spider-Man.” (If Tony Stark ever dropped by Wayne Manor you suspect the first thing he would ask is, “Why so serious?”)
As “Dark Knight Rises” opens, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a sullen shadow of himself, and instead of his Batman mask he hides behind a scraggly hermit’s beard. Eight years have passed since the murder of his true love, Rachel Dawes, and the fatal tumble of the deranged Harvey Dent. With the weight of those memories, the recluse must lean on a cane as he wanders a sealed-off wing of Wayne Manor. The world outside claws away at that isolation, almost literally in the case of Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), the femme fatale traditionally called Catwoman.
Things get worse for Wayne and Gotham as a mysterious terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy) unleashes a campaign to sever the city from the outside world; like a brawny butcher swinging a cleaver, there’s no hesitation or empathy that slows his hand as he goes about his wet work amid the body count. Anarchy spreads but the chaos is only a cover for Bane’s true plans — those, like the villain himself, are difficult to unmask.
Some scenes of Wayne’s reclusive bitterness and the urban bedlam evoke the landmark Frank Miller 1986 limited series “The Dark Knight Returns,” which (along with “Watchmen”) propelled much of the comics world into deep, dark grit for the next decade. The reminder of that raises a question for the (apparently inexhaustible) sub-genre of superhero films: Which will echo in the mind of filmmakers more in the years to come, “The Avengers” or “The Dark Knight Rises”?
Even with Cardington and its elbow room, the Nolan film logged a lot of airport time. “Dark Knight Rises” was shot in India, London, Glasgow, Pittsburgh, New York, Newark and Los Angeles. Last year, shooting a scene from the $250-million-plus production at the Senate House on the University of London campus, Nolan was watching the action unfold as Bale finished an intense sequence with Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard and Hathaway. After the group had run through the scene multiple times, Nolan walked over to Hathaway with the upbeat posture of baseball manager taking the temperature of a jittery pitcher.
His advice? Take down the supervillain intonations creeping into the dialogue, Hathaway recalled later on set, still clad in her character’s skin-tight, black battle togs. “There’s no mustache-twirling in Gotham City,” she said. “That’s why what Chris does is really special and celebrated and successful. This is not making fun of the material. It’s serious.” (Hathaway is apparently a good listener, too, her wry and savvy version of Selina has franchise producer Emma Thomas especially eager for the release; the filmmakers heard the fanboy skepticism that greeted the casting. “I can’t wait for people to see what she’s done, she’s brilliant.”)
On the topic of tone, Bale agreed with Hathaway, adding that while Nolan’s Batman movies “have the roller-coaster element and the visual spectacle” required of any superhero film, they veer away from “the silly stuff.” The silly stuff was the enemy that Batman couldn’t beat at one point. Last month was the 15th anniversary of “Batman & Robin,” which presented George Clooney in a Bat-suit with Bat-nipples, and a very different version of Bane — he was essentially a mute, lab-created pro wrestler. Typical line from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze “No matter what anyone tells you, Bane, it really is the size of your gun that counts.”
The camp is gone and now the movies are assembled like intricate time pieces. The third movie, especially, has the calibrated plot gears and satisfying story clicks that made “The Prestige” and “Memento” multiple-viewing material for disciples of the director’s film. And while Nolan’s actors are clear about the tone he wants to set, they say they are often in the dark about what the director is actually putting together until they watch the completed movie.
“The things he’s doing in these films, a lot of it I don’t get to see — I’m not aware of it — until I sit and watch the finished film,” Bale said as Nolan and his crew prepared for a scene of total civic chaos. “There’s so much there in script but it comes together when Chris is editing it. He knows what it is going to be. That’s why he’s very decisive on the set. The pieces already fit together in his mind.”
Nolan said a primary goal of the third and final installment in his Batman series is to create “a unified statement, a real ending, a true conclusion.” The filmmaker collaborated with David S. Goyer on the story for the new film and then co-wrote it with his brother, Jonathan — an approach that held throughout the trilogy. The third act of the third film delivers a series of jolting twists and jarring turns and an exclamation point climax. Nolan’s finale takes Batman and his on-screen mythology to a place it has never been before.
While the details can’t be discussed, of course, the director enjoys broader conversation about the infrastructure. Fascinated with architecture, the filmmaker describes the rises and falls of his characters as if they are elevation points of a blueprint plan. He also presents the trilogy almost as a tale of different levels — the heights of the city, the street level and the underground of caves and sewers. “Dark Knight Rises” presents a story where greed, hypocrisy and false justice bring down the city’s bridges, stadium and the houses of government.
“We really wanted a cast of thousands, literally, and all of that for me is trying to represent the world in primarily visual and architectural terms,” Nolan said. “So the thematic idea is that the superficial positivity is being eaten away from underneath; we tried to make that quite literal.”
Due to commercial interest in the film and pundit culture of today, “Rises” will be parsed for political messages and controversy fodder. So much will be made of images of financial market abuse, politicians behaving badly, a terrorist attack at a professional football game and looting riots. To Nolan, the goal doesn’t seem to be commentary, he’s just looking for the believable swirl of circumstances needed to get Bruce Wayne back in the cowl.
What’s next for Nolan? He and Thomas (who met in college, married and have four children and eight feature films) are producing “Man of Steel,” the Superman reboot with new star Henry Cavill and director Zack Snyder (Nolan and Goyer also have a story credit on the film). Warner Bros. executives have made it clear they would like Nolan and Thomas to have a similar guiding hand on the next Batman movie.
After “Dark Knight Rises,” moviegoers might expect a respectful recess after Nolan’s Batman, but the character may be too powerful an engine (for the sales of toys, video games, apparel, comics and home video, etc.) to leave parked in a quiet Batcave.
Just as Sony already has a new Spider-Man team in theaters (just 10 years after the start of the first trilogy), Warner is approaching the Caped Crusader as an open-ended, almost seasonal question: What’s our next Batman plan? The impulse has fiscal logic for Warner Bros.; the kids from Hogwarts aren’t around to wave their wands over the box office grosses of the next decade and, well, “Green Lantern II” doesn’t have the right ring to it.
The best option may be a “Batman” reboot with an anointed replacement (perhaps the director’s brother, Jonathan, or his Oscar-winning cinematographer, Wally Pfister) or perhaps an outside candidate (Nicolas Winding Refn of “Drive” seems to be on the fans’ ballot while actor-director Ben Affleck delivered the tone-reminiscent “The Town” for Warner Bros., Tull and Legendary Pictures).
Nolan himself is the most interesting question mark. Does his persistence on “Inception” hint that he might return to a long-simmering project, such as the Howard Hughes film he flirted with a decade ago? Nolan has often spoken of his fondness for James Bond films and he certainly shows an affinity for globetrotting projects. If so that’s a suitcase he’ll pack another day. The director, who lives here in Los Angeles, said all he’s thinking about is a vacation.
– Geoff Boucher
RECENT AND RELATED