Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ — Hollywood’s first existential heist film

April 11, 2010 | 12:45 p.m.

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.”

Christopher Nolan

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’sShutter 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.

Christoper Nolan and Leonardo diCaprio


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.

Inception spinning room

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.”

Christoper Nolan on the set of Inception

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


Inception poster

Bigger than Batman: Nolan takes on “Incepetion”

SCOOP: Nolan breaks silence on Superman and Batman

 “Inception” hits the streets of Downtown L.A. 

Forget crossovers: Nolan says his Batman doesn’t play well with others

Nolan on his billion-dollar Batman: “It’s mystifying to me.”

Mel Gibson says viking film (with DiCaprio) may be his last

Bryan Singer on his return to “X-Men”

Raimi’s Spider-Man regrets: “I would have done everything differently”

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.]


39 Responses to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ — Hollywood’s first existential heist film

  1. Chee says:

    Thanks for all the information and the pictures! I really can't wait for this movie! :D

  2. Eternalist says:

    Hello, Geoff! Great article.
    From your writings you've stated that you've read the script. What do you think about Inception's accessibility to general audiences?

  3. Geoff Boucher says:

    Well that's the big question. I think some people thought that "The Prestige" was too brainy or complicated for a mainstream audience (I would actually say it was hurt more by the timing of it's release and confusion with "The Illusionist") but I think the film will do very well indeed…

  4. Eternalist says:

    Very cool! Love the blog, keep up the great work!

  5. shirley says:


  6. Jake says:

    Geoff, I really appreciate your pieces on this film (and the Hero Complex blog in general). I've been following your blog for over a year and I'm very pleased with what you've been able to churn up, especially with "Inception," since the film has been shrouded in such secrecy. Without you I don't think we'd know half as much as we do about the film! I can't wait to see what more you have on this film. Thanks again!

  7. George says:

    Looking forward to more of these Geoff, great job!
    You mentioned in the article that Page and Gordon-Levitt get a significant amount of screentime. I'm wondering if Tom Hardy gets as much to do since reports from WonderCon didn't mention much in regards to his character.

  8. Andre says:

    Great article again Geoff. Thanks for the video of the Wondercon interview too. That question about a potential twisted female character appearing in a Nolan film was no doubt a sly Catwoman question. Looks like Marion Cotillard is playing the femme fatale in 'Inception' perhaps in a similar vein as Carrie Anne Moss in 'Memento'? Looking forward to more 'Inception', 'Batman 3' and 'Superman' updates Geoff! Cheers.

  9. KHjll says:

    I got goose flesh the first time I saw a trailer.

  10. Psykomyko says:

    I honestly believe this film is gonna be something special. This film is so important also. If it's a flop at the Box office, then people just don't want original films.
    I just can't wait for this film. No matter what happens at the box office, I'm just so happy that Chris Nolan is making this film.

  11. Glass says:

    Fantastic work Geoff! I'm so jealous that you've been able to get so much in-depth information on this film.
    In the article you mention that Leo's character is named Dom Cobb? Is that short for Dominic?

  12. Geoff Boucher says:

    Glass: I'm assuming that Dom is short for Dominic but I didn't ask specifically.
    Cobb is a name Nolan likes; remember "Following"?

  13. Glass says:

    Yes I do. Thanks for answering, I hope we hear more from your blog in the coming weeks.

  14. Musechocolate says:

    It's a dream that survived after so many years.

  15. George Sharon says:

    Love the article and the new images. I'm a tiny bit confused Mr. Boucher, what exactly do you mean by "existential" in relation to the film? Do you mean it in the traditional sense or something different?

  16. Nate says:

    Great article, I'm pumped about this one! I don't know that this is his FIRST foray into science fiction… wasn't The Prestige just that? I know there were elements of truth with Tesla and such, but. . .

  17. GilMS79 says:

    Super excited about this film, especially since Gordon-Levitt is in it. After Heath Ledger passed away and questions about who might be a good fit to attempt following him as the Joker, Gordon-Levitt was the only actor that came to mind. Imagine my surprise when I learned the cast of this film!
    Anybody else agree?

  18. Tomás Cornejo says:

    A great article!!!!
    Im totally waiting for Inception right now!!! Nolan rules!!! And the music was composed by Hans Zimmer… YEAH!!!!

  19. Too-Ticky says:

    I'm looking forward to this movie tremendously, it looks absolutely great.
    However, I do think people overestimate just how intelligent or inaccessible Nolan's films are. This article makes him out to be some sort of Kaufmanesque filmmaker crafting complicated philosophical works, when his movies are really just smarter-than-average blockbusters. I love the hell out of his movies, but they aren't particularly cerebral experiences.
    Still can't wait for Inception though, and with a concept like it has, it might end up surprising me with its intelligence.

  20. Emiel says:

    Was reading this article and struck by the reference to Haruki Murakami, my favourite writer. Although the movie is not based on a novel, as I read everywhere, it is worthwhile to point out the book "Paprika" by Japanese author Yasutaka Tsutsui (often mentioned in one go with Murakami). People who like the movie and Murakami should also read this book; it seems to share its dreamreading/influencing part with the movie; actually when I read this book I was thinking about the Matrix and how impressed I was the first time I saw it. I thought it would be cool to make a movie out of "Paprika". I bet that Nolan has got this book on his shelfs….

  21. Shilpi says:

    The core idea of the movie inception is taken from my brother's book – "The Dreampickers"!

  22. christopher reichert says:

    dreams francis bacon the work

  23. […] don’t like making references to movies, but I can’t help noticing that in every heist movie, at one point or other, the gang is all […]

  24. Greg says:

    This was absolutely the most fantastic film I have ever seen!

  25. joe bob says:

    if you don't like the movie then you obviously don't understand it

  26. Elvis Clines says:

    There are many subject standards that I want to tell you here: 1. Critical topic 2. Hot topic that consists of several positive and negative effects 3. Main results after this topic end 4. Must create solving-problem side and technical effects 5. Create quick summarize that give reader a time for making future research. Thanks for giving me opportunities in commenting your site, especially if you want to give summary point for that. Nice time to see you.

  27. […] ON THE SET: “Inception,” Hollywood’s first dream heist […]

  28. The VFX in Inception were incredibly impressive. It’s interesting to read about the process behind it and all the work that went into creating those stunning images. The success of this film is owed in large part to the VFX and the talented artists behind it all. I think a big part of this success was due to the fact that the filmmakers approached a VFX studio directly to handle the film in its entirety. This allows for better cooperation between artists and a broad scale understanding of the film’s intentions, rather than parceling off the film into pieces to be assigned to different studios, which creates a disjointed artistic experience. Please read more about the VFX industry and see some of the work that is being done Boogie Studio:


  29. Pete says:

    I wonder if Nolan got some of his ideas from the Seth books (by Jane Roberts). Seth talked about building cities in your dream state back in the late 60's and early 70's. If so, it'd be nice for Nolan to give Seth some credit, his teachings are amazing.

  30. I wanted to declare that it is really awesome to discover that some other person also brought up this as I experienced challenges locating exactly the same info in a different place. This was the very first location that shared with me the answer. Thank you.

  31. […] an interview with the Los Angelos Time, Christopher Nolan was asked about Inceptions connection to movies like […]

  32. George says:

    I fail to see who this film is existential. It is obviously an intellectually layered project with philosophical depth, but you do very little to state what it would mean to be an existential heist movie and even less to show that this movie meets any such criteria. Disappointingly this article simply seems to be suggesting that this film is "deep" or "brainy" and the use of the term existential is frustratingly vacuous.

  33. […] 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 […]

  34. […] 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 […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

E-mail It
Powered by ShareThis