The director of "The Dark Knight" talks about the problems with teaming up Batman with other superheroes and also discusses the potential for an Oscar nomination for the late Heath Ledger.
This is the final installment of a three-part interview with Christopher Nolan, director of "The Dark Knight," the second-highest-grossing film in history and, by many accounts, the best superhero adaptation ever. But the London native has also shown a flair for intricate and sophisticated thrillers ("Memento," "The Prestige" and "Insomnia"), and in today’s interview he makes it clear that he sees his Batman character as being separate and apart from the crowded superhero cinema of today.
GB: Chris, this summer, "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk" signaled the true start of the "crossover era" in comic-book films with Marvel Studios putting an emphasis on the fact that their heroes coexist in the same world. DC and Warner Bros. may embrace a similar strategy, especially if the Justice League film project is revived. Does that concern you? Your Gotham doesn’t seem suited to that.
Nolan: I don’t think our Batman, our Gotham, lends itself to that kind of cross-fertilization. It goes back to one of the first things we wrangled with when we first started putting the story together: Is this a world in which comic books already exist? Is this a world in which superheroes already exist? If you think of "Batman Begins" and you think of the philosophy of this character trying to reinvent himself as a symbol, we took the position — we didn’t address it directly in the film, but we did take the position philosophically — that superheroes simply don’t exist. If they did, if Bruce knew of Superman or even of comic books, then that’s a completely different decision that he’s making when he puts on a costume in an attempt to become a symbol. It’s a paradox and a conundrum, but what we did is go back to the very original concept and idea of the character. In his first appearances, he invents himself as a totally original creation.
Nolan: No, correct, it’s a different universe. It’s a different way of looking at it. Now, it’s been done successfully, very successfully, in the comics so I don’t dispute it as an approach. It just isn’t the approach we took. We had to make a decision for "Batman Begins."
GB: A different path…
Nolan: Yes, completely different. It would have given a very, very different meaning to what Bruce Wayne was leaving home to do and coming back home to do and putting on the costume for and all the rest. We dealt with on its own terms: What does Batman mean to Bruce Wayne, what is he trying to achieve? He has not been influenced by other superheroes. Of course, you see what we’re able to do with Joker in this film is that he is able to be quite theatrical because we set up Batman as an example of intense theatricality in Gotham. It starts to grow outward from Batman. But the premise we began with is that Batman was creating a wholly original thing. To be honest, we went even further than the comics on this point. I can’t remember at what point in the comics history the idea came about that he was a fan of Zorro as a kid. I haven’t researched that, but I don’t believe it goes back terribly far.”
GB: I remember the movie-theater marquee with a Zorro film in Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” in 1986. …
Nolan: It definitely goes back before that. I’m pretty sure. I’ll have to ask [DC Comics President] Paul Levitz about it, but my sense is that it does go back further … but either way, we changed it. We didn’t have young Bruce going to see Zorro because a character in a movie watching a movie is very different than a character in a comic book watching a movie. A comic-book character reading a comic book is more analogous to a character in a movie watching a movie. It creates a deconstructionist thing that we were trying to avoid. That was one reason. But another reason was to remove Zorro as a role model. We wanted nothing that would undermine the idea that Bruce came up with this crazy plan of putting on a mask all by himself. That allowed us to treat it on our own terms. So we replaced the Zorro idea with the bats to cement that idea of fear and symbolism associated with bats.
GB: Which you did by putting Bruce and his parents in the opera house watching "Die Fledermaus," which also gave you an opportunity to enhance the operatic feel of the film.
Nolan: Precisely. That took us into that very realm that seemed to work on screen.
GB: You’ve said you aren’t sure what you next project will be. But clearly Warner Bros. looks at Batman as a core part of their movie business, perhaps now more than ever, and there are marketplace pressures on them to schedule the next installment of the franchise. Are you getting a lot of pressure to make a decision?
Nolan: They’re being extremely gracious. I have a very good relationship with the studio. They know that I really needed to go on holiday and take some time to figure what I want to do next. They’ve been very respectful of that, which is terrific and one of the reasons I enjoy working with Warner Bros.
GB: The nominations for the 81st Academy Awards will be announced in January. How meaningful would it be for the cast and crew of "The Dark Knight" if the late Heath Ledger is nominated for best supporting actor?
Nolan: I think the thing that has always been important to me in light of Heath’s death is the responsibility I’ve felt to his work. The responsibility of crafting the film in such a way that his performance came across the way he intended. Clearly, that has been the case. That’s one of the reasons I take such pride in the film.
I felt a great wave of relief, really, as people first started to see the performance and it was clear that they were getting the performance. It’s easy to forget with everything that’s happened what an enormous challenge it was for Heath to take on this iconic role. He rose to that challenge so admirably that any expression of people being excited or moved by his performance is a wonderful thing. Whatever form that takes. People coming to see his performance and getting it. It’s been extremely satisfying for all of us already. Anything that adds to that would be wonderful.
— Geoff Boucher
READ PART ONE OF THIS INTERVIEW: Why Christopher Nolan isn’t sure he will make a third Bat-film
ALSO Other Hero Complex conversations with filmmakers:
CREDITS: All photos by Stephen Vaughan from the set of "The Dark Knight" in Chicago. Christopher Nolan with Bat-signal; Christian Bale as Batman; Nolan directing Aaron Eckhart; Heath LEdger as the Joker with money to burn. All photos courtesy of Warner Bros.