This is a longer version of my Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar cover story on “Inception,” the most ambitious film to date from director Christopher Nolan. Most of the interviews in the story were conducted last year on the set of the film in Cardington, England. I have also included a bit of video that shows my on-stage interview with Nolan and Emma Thomas, his producing partner and wife, at last weekend’s WonderCon in San Francisco.
July is the month when movies gets dizzy (or is it ditsy?) from the heat, and this year is no exception, with films featuring heartthrob vampires, evil aliens, Nicolas Cage and the never-gets-old concept of talking dogs. But on July 16, in the middle of the usual popcorn parade, director Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. will deliver “Inception,” a strange thriller that has been a Hollywood mystery for months thanks to its cryptic title and the fact that the studio has guarded the Nolan-penned script like a state secret.
So it was no surprise last summer that, at a musty old dirigible hangar outside London, Nolan welcomed a rare visitor to his “Inception” set with a guarded smile. “So you’ve read the script — did you understand it?” Mazes and masked intentions are the specialties of Nolan, who burst on the scene 10 years ago with “Memento,” a noir riddle told in two alternating narratives presented in opposite chronological directions — a masterpiece of watchmaker cinema that earned Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, an Oscar nomination for their screenplay. In 2008, Nolan performed an even more impressive sleight of hand when he delivered a $1-billion success with the Batman movie called “The Dark Knight,” the most cerebral of superhero films and one that barely used computer-generated effects.
“Inception,” the 39-year-old director’s seventh feature film and his first foray into science fiction, combines the perception riddles of “Memento” and the sheer scale of “Dark Knight” with its $160-million budget and location shoots in Morocco, France, Japan and three other countries. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a specialist in the new branch of corporate espionage — he’s a dream thief who plucks secrets from the minds of tycoons after pumping them full of drugs and hooking them up to a mysterious contraption. The problem, though, is the land of nod can be volatile — as can DiCaprio’s character, Dom Cobb, who is a wounded dreamer after the loss of his beloved wife.
The movie may be Hollywood’s first existential heist movie, and though that may not sound like typical fare for the air-conditioning months, Warners and Legendary Pictures are banking on the movie catching on as a brainy “Mission: Impossible” by way of “The Matrix.” In other words, the globe-trotting movie may have had its subconscious baggage packed by Sigmund Freud, but it also carries a passport stamped by Ian Fleming. DiCaprio says Nolan is the perfect director to turn that unlikely combination into a July hit.
“Complex and ambiguous are the perfect way to describe the story,” DiCaprio said in a recent phone interview. “And it’s going to be a challenge to ultimately pull it off. But that is what Chris Nolan specializes in. He has been able to convey really complex narratives that work on a multitude of different layers … and make it entertaining and engaging throughout. You look at ‘Insomnia’ or ‘Memento,’ these movies are working on so many different levels. That’s his expertise; it’s what he does best, as a matter of fact.”
For Nolan, “Inception” was an elusive dream. “I wanted to do this for a very long time; it’s something I’ve thought about off and on since I was about 16,” Nolan said during a break in shooting last summer. “I wrote the first draft of this script seven or eight years ago, but it goes back much further, this idea of approaching dream and the dream life as another state of reality.”
Nolan split his youth between Chicago and London (he has dual citizenship). But with his stately, professorial mien and Oxford dress code, he seems far more in touch with the banks of the Thames than the shore of Lake Michigan. Ever since he was a youngster, he says, he was intrigued by the way he would wake up and then, while he fell back into a lighter sleep, hold on to the awareness that he was in fact dreaming. Then there was the even more fascinating feeling that he could study the place and tilt the events of the dream.
“You can look around and examine the details and pick up a handful of sand on the beach,” Nolan said. “I never particularly found a limit to that; that is to say that, while in that state, your brain can fill in all that reality. I tried to work that idea of manipulation and management of a conscious dream being a skill that these people have. Really, the script is based on those common, very basic experiences and concepts, and where can those take you? And the only outlandish idea that the film presents, really, is the existence of a technology that allows you to enter and share the same dream as someone else.”
It was the success of “The Dark Knight” (which broke records as a home-video release and now stands as the bestselling Blu-ray ever) that allowed Nolan to put his most ambitious idea on the screen. Then there’s DiCaprio, who since the mega-success of “Titanic” seems to be working his way down a checklist of world-class filmmakers by teaming with Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Danny Boyle, Sam Mendes and, on four occasions, Martin Scorsese. The actor’s elite education has made him more than a fellow who shows up and reads his lines; his presence led to changes in the film that may make it more accessible to moviegoers.
“I’ve incorporated a huge number of his ideas,” Nolan said. “Leo’s very analytical, particularly from character point of view but also how the entire story is going to function and relate to his character. … It’s actually been an interesting set of conversations, and I think it’s improved the project enormously. I think the emotional life of the character now drives the story more than it did before.”
Critics of Nolan say he makes frosty films with no detectable human heartbeat, just the clicks and whirls of his intricate story gears. “He’s a cold guy who makes cold films,” says one top producer with ties to Warner Bros., although it easy to hear envy in the voices of industry peers who have watched Nolan become something akin to the Hitchcock of wildly lucrative superhero cinema. Regardless, it’s interesting to consider the contributions of DiCaprio (who is coming off another dark fever dream of a movie, Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island“) and how they meshed with Nolan’s own revised view of his original “Inception” story.
“I originally wrote it as a heist movie, and heist movies traditionally are very deliberately superficial in emotional terms,” Nolan said. “They’re frivolous and glamorous, and there’s a sort of gloss and fun to it. I originally tried to write it that way, but when I came back to it I realized that — to me — that didn’t work for a film that relies so heavily on the idea of the interior state, the idea of dream and memory. I realized I needed to raise the emotional stakes. What we found in working on ‘Batman’ is that it’s the emotionalism that best connects the audience with the material. The character issues, those are the things that pull the audience through it and amplify the experience no matter how strange things get.”
Altered states and untrusted perception are recurring themes in Nolan’s films: “Memento” is about an amnesia victim; “Insomnia” (2002) presents a corrupt cop addled by lack of sleep; “The Prestige” (2006) is about rival illusionists; and in the two Gotham City films (the first was “Batman Begins” in 2005) there are no truly super-powered citizens, but the senses are blurred by fear toxins and ninja mind tricks. In all of them, Nolan put a premium on achieving the unreal on camera as opposed to in computer, which runs counter to Hollywood’s obsession with the pixel possibilities of green screen and 3-D. With cinematographer Wally Pfister (Nolan’s director of photography since “Memento”) and special effects guru Chris Corbould (the man who built the Batmobile and has worked on a dozen James Bond films), the director put a premium on an old-school approach to movie magic.
Corbould’s teams, for instance, built giant rotating hallways and a massive tilting nightclub set to film the startling “Inception” scenes when dream-sector physics take a sharp turn into chaos. One of the film’s stars, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, spent long, bruising weeks learning to fight in a corridor that spun like a giant hamster wheel.
“It was like some incredible torture device; we thrashed Joseph for weeks,” Nolan said. “But in the end we looked at the footage, and it looks unlike anything any of us has seen before. The rhythm of it is unique, and when you watch it, even if you know how it was done, it confuses your perceptions. It’s unsettling in a wonderful way…we want an extraordinary thing that happens in an ordinary way. That’s always been the goal.”
“Inception” does have major computer effects: Several vivid sequences show a dream metropolis in churning calamity, a city skyline seems to fold in on itself as a dream begins to lose its shape and, unlike many Hollywood versions of dream surrealism, the scene has the look of a massive mechanical failure, not a morphing, liquid calamity. Nolan’s dreams have the sharp edges of Escher, not the surreal syrup drips of Dalí. Architecture is a major influence on the culture of the film too with dreams that are more like blueprints than poems. That speaks to Nolan’s longtime interest in architecture. A key scene in “Inception” was filmed at the architecture school at University College London, where Nolan was an English major and also met his future wife and producing partner, Emma Thomas.
There’s a temptation to frame the film as a comment on the “otherness” of modern life. These are the days, after all, of second-life movies such as “Avatar,” “Surrogates,” “Gamer” and the upcoming “Tron: Legacy,” all of which place a human consciousness into a separate being.
Nolan, though, shook his head when asked if his “Inception” is part of that cinematic conversation.
“I think ours is of an older school, ours is more of ‘The Matrix’ variety and the concepts of different levels of reality,” Nolan said. “The whole concept of avatars and living life as someone else, there’s a relationship to what we’re doing, but I think when I first started trying to make this film happen it was very much pulled from that era of movies where you had ‘The Matrix,’ you had ‘Dark City,’ you had ‘The Thirteenth Floor‘ and, to a certain extent, you had ‘Memento’ too. They were based in the principles that the world around you might not be real.”
Cillian Murphy, the Irish actor who played the Scarecrow in the two Batman movies and is one of Cobb’s targets in “Inception,” said that Nolan is creating a body of work that feels somehow more mature than some of his bright- fantasy peers. “It’s the fantasy world, but it’s the one that the mind itself can create or fall into, so the audience can access it in a different way than these other movies where you go to another planet or something,” Murphy said. “It’s the place the mind goes, and it’s often very dark and always interesting.”
The cast for “Inception” is peppered with Nolan favorites, such as Murphy, Ken Watanabe (who was in “Batman Begins“) and Michael Caine (who appeared in the director’s last three films), as well as veteran actors such as Tom Berenger whose face fits the filmmaker’s universe of grim choices and gun-metal hues. The film gives much of its prime screen time, however, to a pair of younger actors: 29-year-old Gordon-Levitt, who grew up on screen in the television comedy “3rd Rock from the Sun” and solidified his film profile with “(500) Days of Summer,” and 23-year-old Ellen Page, who was nominated for an Oscar for “Juno.” Those two play junior partners in DiCaprio’s dream team.
Sipping tea in her trailer during a break in shooting last year, Page seemed a bit overwhelmed by the set, which was housed inside the converted old zeppelin hangar. “I’ve never really seen anything like this,” she said. “It’s humbling.” It’s the same place that Nolan used for his Batman films; Arkham Asylum, the Narrows and other Gotham City landmarks are still standing, waiting for the inevitable third Batman film that will almost certainly be Nolan’s next project. That topic, though, is verboten on the “Inception” set, as is the Superman franchise that Nolan and Thomas will be trying to get off the ground in the next few years. (“I would never ask, and you shouldn’t either,” Murphy said with an expression of alarm. “He’s got enough on his plate without us getting all fanboy on him.”)
“Inception” plays to Nolan’s two proven strengths — massive scale and psychological puzzles — but Page said what makes him a singular filmmaker is that he would attempt a summer film that evokes literature and architecture in an era when other directors seem to be tilting toward a video-game aesthetic.
“There’s a tangible realism even when it gets crazy, and somehow that makes the jeopardy feel more real,” Page said. “It’s like reading a Haruki Murakami novel — it’s fantasy, but instead of feeling like some strange surreal world it feels very honest. The emotional spine of the story is there too, which is the key to his movies. There’s the big scale, but the sincerity isn’t left behind. The story is complicated but never confusing.”
Time will tell if Nolan can build a major commercial success out of his mysterious blueprints, but he has already proved to be the rare blockbuster director willing to wander the dream world of challenging cinema.
“I always find myself gravitating to the analogy of a maze,” he said. “Think of film noir and if you picture the story as a maze, you don’t want to be hanging above the maze watching the characters make the wrong choices because it’s frustrating. You actually want to be in the maze with them, making the turns at their side, that keeps it more exciting…I quite like to be in that maze.”
— Geoff Boucher
RECENT AND RELATED
Photos: Top, Ken Watanabe and Lukas Haas in “Inception” (Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros); Christopher Nolan, a portrait (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times); Nolan and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of “Inception” (Stephen Vaughan / Warner Bros); Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the spinning set of “Inception” (Stephen Vaughan / Warner Bros); Nolan peers up at the facade of a Japanese castle on the set of “Inception” (Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros). [For the record: An earlier version of this caption misspelled Haas as Hass.]