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Dark Knight Review: Nolan Talks Sequel Inflation

by Anne Thompson
July 6, 2008 7:35 AM
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Darkknightbalebatman09halb600Finally, I would have preferred to see The Dark Knight in 35 mm, not IMAX. (I will go see it again when it opens July 18.) While the sequences that were shot with giant cameras were stunning at the IMAX venue--especially the deep detailed helicopter shots over Gotham and the amazing car/truck chase filmed in Chicago's freeway tunnels--I found the movie overwhelming. My brain starts to shut down when it gets over-pixillated, and this film goes on for two and a half hours. (Here's Justin Chang's review.)

My instincts told me when I first saw The Dark Knight trailer: Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins follow-up would fall into the trap of the summer tentpole sequel. It's not entirely his fault. The studio gives him his marching orders: top the last one. Make it bigger, better, bolder, more FX, more action, more scale and scope and characters (read toys). What else should a poor boy to do with $180 million?

Nolan delivered on the first Batman reboot and he does it again here. The Dark Knight will work at the boxoffice and keep the franchise alive.

In many ways, this movie functions as a western, with an honorable sheriff (Gary Oldman's lovable police detective Gordon), a nasty outlaw (Heath Ledger's extraordinary, anarchistic Joker), a lone gunman hero operating outside the law (Christian Bale's Batman) with loyal veteran sidekick (Michael Caine as Alfred), and the lovely lass that the outsider cannot have (Rachel Dawes, the delightful and wily Maggie Gyllenhaal).

And then--here's where the movie starts to go off the tracks--we have Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent, the too-virtuous-to-be-true D.A. who is in love with Gyllenhaal, thus forming a love triangle, as well as another Batman accomplice, inventor Lucius Fox (read James Bond's Q), played by the over-exposed Morgan Freeman. Then add a bunch of mafia guys led by deliciously wicked Eric Roberts.

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Somehow, David S. Goyer (who wrote the story), and screenwriter Nolan brothers Chris and Jonathan manage to play out all these plot strands. But they wind up with a half-hour finale on top of the two hour main movie, which is really about Batman vs. Joker, who wind up in an iconic face-off on a main street in Gotham. (Ledger dominates Dark Knight news coverage, natch. The LAT addresses the movie from that angle, while EW goes way overboard. Clearly, Warners is making an Oscar push for the film. Ledger's acting nomination is inevitable; while James Dean and others have been nominated after their deaths, only Network's Peter Finch has won a posthumous Oscar.)

Oddly, because The Dark Knight is busy servicing all these other characters, the movie doesn't spend enough time with its leading man, Bruce Wayne/Batman (BTW, Batman's basso-growly voice is silly).

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After twists and turns aplenty, some more satisfying than others, the movie comes to a gratifying conclusion (setting up the next sequel). But while Eckhart is winning as Dent, his character detour as Two-Face does not pay off.

I suspect that the filmmakers should have figured out the shorter version of this movie before they shot it, not after, because by then they couldn't cut it, according to Nolan (the full Q & A from one of my Guild spies is on the jump). Nolan shot The Prestige before he came back to work on the final drafts of the script. And by then he was locked into studio-mandated start and delivery and release dates.

My fantasy of the ideal version of this movie doesn't matter a whit, because it will play. The complexities of the plot are more fun to talk about than anything since Wall-E or Iron Man, and that makes Dark Knight one of the best movies of the summer. Maybe some dark over-nourishment is better than a simpler, structurally perfect masterpiece, after all.


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The PGA hosted a special IMAX screening of WB's "The Dark Knight," which flies into theaters on July 18. Following the screening, IT Pro editor Chris Green moderated a Q+A with co-writer-producer-director Christopher Nolan and producers Charles Roven and Emma Thomas.

Nolan on the challenge of topping "Batman Begins":

"Emma and I had never done a sequel so for us, the main challenge was to continue the story appropriately and keep it stylistically and tonally consistent. You want to move the story forward and make it somehow larger or more important without losing what worked in the first one."

Nolan on retaining the darkness and ambiguity of the characters:

"As co-writer-director, I was very involved with script, which I began working on at the story stage with David S. Goyer. We wanted to push these characters and test them in new ways. We wanted to use The Joker as a catalyst, not as someone who has an arc or learns anything in the story. I like to say that he cuts through the film like the shark in "Jaws." He's a force the other characters have to react to so he helped us push our returning characters forward and fortunately we were able to bring most of the cast back. Gary Oldman is an incredible actor who we first met with to play a villain in "Batman Begins." But we found that he's very unlike the characters he normally plays so we were lucky to get him to play Gordon who is a good man with a great sense of integrity. He had to be very restricted and subtle in "Batman Begins" and he enjoyed that challenge but at times it was like watching a Ferrari in traffic. It was fun to bring him back and have him tested and pushed further. The whole ensemble was prepared to push those characters and advance the story."

Like Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh in "No Country for Old Men," The Joker comes with no real back story, and over the course of the film gives several different explanations of how his face was scarred. Here Nolan emphasizes the old adage that sometimes "less is more":

"It's quite a familiar trope, really, if you look at Hannibal Lecter or one of these movie monsters like Darth Vader in the first "Star Wars." The more you find out about those fictional characters the less threatening they really are. Our decision with The Joker was to not deal with the origin story and to laugh at that convention. We wanted him to be absolutely threatening in what he represents as a force of anarchy and chaos," says Nolan. "That’s really the reason for Harvey Dent's prominence in the film. It's his story that has to provide the emotional backbone of the film. He's the character with an arc, with a rise and fall, who the audience hopefully connects with and follows."

Nolan on the screenwriting process:

"We did it the same way we wrote "Batman Begins." David S. Goyer and I spent 2-3 months working on the story, working out the main beats on index cards. We sent Jonah [Nolan, Christopher's brother] off to work on his own because I was working on another film so he had 6 months to do that first draft and he would show me stuff as he did it and I would look at it before he shared it with anyone else including Chuck [Roven] and the studio. After the studio read the first draft Jonah spent another couple months working on it and then I took it over when I finished the other film and over the course of 6 months in pre-production, Jonah and I still worked heavily on it through that time. One of the reasons the film is 2-and-a-half hours long is because we tried everything we could on paper to make the story shorter but that was the story we had. In the end we compressed it to the point where it was dizzying so then we had to flesh it out a little bit. We tried different versions and pulling out different story elements so we probably spent a year and a half working on the script.

Nolan on shooting in Chicago:

"One of the fun things about shooting in Chicago, where I grew up partly and have a great love for, is that it's not as instantly recognizable as New York but it has this great architecture and all kinds of great geographical features in terms of underground streets and all kinds of amazing skyscrapers. When you see Christian Bale on top of a tall building, that’s really him. It's an amazing helicopter shot with a great view and particularly for the IMAX presentation we wanted to use the original camera negative shot. I didn’t want the visual effects guys to change a couple buildings to try to pretend it's a different city. That seemed pointless, really. A lot of people prefer that technological approach but I prefer to think 'Well what would you have done 20 years ago? Does it really matter?' It’s a great big city and we wanted it to feel very real and in doing that you're naturally going to expose more of the location so the people who know the city will recognize it but people seem to enjoy that, particularly people from Chicago. Hopefully Roger Ebert will."

Nolan on the film's political relevance to today's world and Batman reflecting the rule of law and order vs. chaos:

"We try not to be particularly conscious of what we're doing. We try to write the story within this world and these characters and in the process, try to do something that affects us and the world we live in. When we look back at the finished product we see various parallels and relevancies but we try and just let that be a product of writing what moves us, what frightens and excites us. We trust that that will have some reality or some relevance but it would violate the terms of storytelling and the terms of the genre if you're too conscious of trying to make particular political points. I don’t think that’s what you're selling the audience I don’t think that’s what the ride is. I think ultimately if the film has relevance it's actually going to be more interesting to an audience but we like it to be subtext.

Nolan on Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes as ADA Rachel Dawes:

"Katie couldn’t do the film. She was unavailable. We offered it to her and very much wanted to bring her back but Maggie was someone I'd wanted to work with for years so when she offered to take on the role that was just delightful because I knew story-wise we needed the character to continue from "Batman Begins." We very much needed that connection with Bruce Wayne that we could tie to the Harvey Dent story and as Paul Levitz, who is the head of DC Comics said over dinner one night, 'With Batman, it’s a question of what's the tragedy? What is it that moves Batman?' Obviously in the first film we were able to rely on his origin story which is the greatest tragedy for him, the death of his parents. But with a new tale you need new fuel for that character who does deal in angst and whose story does rest on tragedy, so we were always looking to her character and that relationship to give us a different take on that."

Nolan on the influence of Alan Moore's "The Killing Joke":

"When I read "The Killing Joke" I don’t read it as unrealistic. Everything we did in "Batman Begins" and tried to push further in this film is based on the principle that you don’t worry about the medium. I'm not attempting to represent the medium of comic books on screen here anymore than I would a novel that I was adapting or a stage play. It’s a different medium and when I read a comic book I'm able to interpolate a real world from the drawings, and particularly works like "The Killing Joke" which are more stylistically contemporary to the time they were written and speak a little more directly to my generation. As far as the specific influence of "The Killing Joke," really we looked at the whole history of the comics and tried to absorb the highlights and commonalities from the evolutionary pool of artists and writers who've worked on the character for so long, looking at the common threads there. But I definitely feel the influence of "The Killing Joke," not so much in the specifics as in constructing some sense of purpose for an inherently purposeless character. That is to say The Joker is an anarchist. He's dedicated to chaos. He should really have no purpose but I think the underlying belief that Alan Moore got across very clearly is that on some level The Joker wants to pull everybody down to his level and show that he's not an unusual monster and that everyone else can be debased and corrupted like he is. If you look at the first two appearances of The Joker ever in the "Batman" comics, we were quite startled to look back at those and realize how close that character is to what Heath's done and what our story is. I think it's very close to the original incarnation of the character some 65 years ago."

PRIOR BLOG LINKS:

Batman vs. Iron Man.

Nolan talks.

[Chris Nolan photo courtesy LAT]

[Originally appeared on Variety.com]

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