Nearly everything in Christopher Nolan’s world is more than it appears to be. In his hands his 2000 feature Memento became not only a taut thriller with a catchy psychological gimmick but also a calling card to a career of cinematic independence.
His most recent film, The Dark Knight, was not just a big-budget summer movie about a vigilante in a bat costume, but also a meditation on heroism and terrorism. Even the deceptively quaint home he keeps on an unassuming block in Hollywood has a dual identity: It doubles as his residence and the bunker where he has been finishing his first film since The Dark Knight, which in 2008 earned the all-time highest US domestic gross for a motion picture not made by James Cameron.
Yet for all the fanfare that will accompany Nolan’s new film, Inception, when Warner Brothers releases it today, most of its intended viewers will know almost nothing about it. At Nolan’s preference, trailers for Inception have shown little more than snippets of its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, and a nattily attired supporting cast in slow-motion action sequences. Intensifying the fantastical quality of these disconnected moments and their vaguely modern settings is the revelation that they are taking place inside a dream.
With these few bread crumbs Nolan and his studio are confident that their opaque and costly film will lure large crowds. They are betting that moviegoers have come to regard Nolan as a director who combines intimate emotions with outsize imagination and seemingly limitless resources — a blockbuster auteur who has made bigness his medium.
“When somebody’s spent years making a film and spent massive amounts of money — crazy amounts of money, really, that get spent on these huge films — then you want to see something extremely ambitious in every sense,” Nolan, 39, said a few weeks ago, sitting outside the garage that is now his editing suite.
“Of course,” he added with a dry chuckle, “there are all kinds of extremely ambitious failures
In Inception DiCaprio plays Cobb, the leader of a group of “extractors”: people who are able to participate in and shape the dreams of others. With these skills, extractors can teach clients how to safeguard secrets locked away in their subconscious, or how to steal them from unfortified minds. Presented with the inverse challenge of implanting an idea in someone’s head, Cobb assembles his team (including Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page) and designs an intricate mind heist that leads them through layers of dreams within dreams, and to a mysterious woman (Marion Cotillard) from Cobb’s past.
Creating the film’s multiple valences of reality took seven months of principal photography in six cities — Tokyo; Carlington, England; Paris; Tangier, Morocco; Los Angeles; and Calgary,
Alberta, at an estimated cost of US$160 million.
For Nolan, those statistics are humbling but necessary. “What I found is, it’s not possible to execute this concept in a small fashion,” he said.
“As soon as you’re talking about dreams,” he added, “the potential of the human mind is infinite. It has to feel like you could go absolutely anywhere by the end of the film. And it has to work on a massive scale.”
With Memento, his independent film noir about a man (Guy Pearce) seeking an assailant who has robbed him of his short-term memory, Nolan capably demonstrated he could make compelling movies at smaller scales.
But the experience of its release taught him a lesson about overnight success in Hollywood. Despite critical acclaim, Memento was passed over by several American studios and, in an unusual move, was distributed domestically by the company that financed it.
“It was like riding a bike into a sand pit at full speed,” said Jonathan Nolan, the director’s brother, who wrote the short story from which Memento was adapted. “We thought we’ve got this place figured out completely, and then we had to rebuild.”
Having yearned from an early age to make big, sweeping films in the mode of directors like Ridley Scott and Michael Mann, Christopher Nolan became more committed to his elusive goal and cognizant of how rare these opportunities would be.
“He’s always wanted to make these things really, really well,” Jonathan Nolan said of his brother. “Now the level of the audience’s scrutiny has roughly reached parity with his own scrutiny of what he’s doing.”
Those expectations have been inflated by Christopher Nolan’s intricately woven thrillers Insomnia and The Prestige, but mostly by the runaway success of his superhero films Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, which earned more than US$1 billion worldwide and a posthumous Academy Award for its co-star Heath Ledger. Figuring out how to follow that film, Nolan said, “could be paralyzing if you chose to take credit for the success rather than understanding that when you catch the zeitgeist in that way, that’s a very unique thing.” And, he added, “not possible to explain.”
Instead, after a monthlong vacation in Florida, he returned to the Inception screenplay he began almost a decade ago.
Though dreams have always been a staple of cinema, Nolan said that movies too often treat them like “a little TV program that we watch when we’re asleep.”
The crucial breakthrough to completing his Inception script was considering what could happen if multiple people could share the same dream. “Once you remove the privacy,” Nolan said, “you’ve created an infinite number of alternative universes in which people can meaningfully interact, with validity, with weight, with dramatic consequences.”
Warner Brothers, which has released all of Nolan’s films since Insomnia in 2002, had little hesitation committing to the enormous production he envisioned, knowing those details — and his involvement — would attract audiences.
“It’s being sold on the scale of the movie, the idea of the movie, the cast, the visuals,” said Jeff Robinov, president of the studio’s motion-picture group. “But Chris brings a lot to the party. There’s a big expectation around what his next movie’s going to be.”
For the Inception cast, the intricate screenplay Nolan wrote was tantalizing but occasionally perplexing. “It was a very well written, comprehensive script,” DiCaprio said, “but you really had to have Chris in person, to try to articulate some of the things that have been swirling around his head for the last eight years.”
In discussing Inception, Nolan occasionally became bogged down in long asides as he explained the intricate rules he devised for its dream world. (“I promise you, it’s not confusing in the film,” he said after unpacking one particularly Byzantine detail.) But he made no apologies for its ambiguous promotional campaign.
“It’s really, at its core, a big action heist movie, and it’s a movie that doesn’t try to bamboozle the audience continuously,” he said. Given the complexity of its universe, “it’s a lot harder to just put out a two-and-a-half-minute trailer, and everyone goes, ‘Oh, yeah, I know what that is.’”
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