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NEW YORK -- "The Dark Knight Rises" director Christopher Nolan stopped by the Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater Wednesday night for one of the Film Society's "An Evening with…" events. Scott Foundas moderated the discussion, which didn't focus on Nolan's full career, but rather, his experience with the character of Batman across a trilogy of films that has changed the landscape of blockbuster filmmaking and, indeed, the awards race itself.
Whether Nolan and his film are in a position in this crowded year to make good at the Oscars in major categories is debatable, but Warner Bros. is doing well by the director with one of the more compelling visual "for your consideration" campaigns of the year and plenty of reminding that Nolan broke the barriers of the ghetto-ized "comic book" film. And that's just where the discussion began Wednesday, as Nolan recalled what it was that attracted him to the project in the first place.
"I'm not a huge comic book fan," he admitted. "I've never pretended to be. It's very dangerous to pretend you're a comic book fan. They spot you pretty early…But what I saw was a very clear, identifiable gap in movie history, if you like."
That gap, Nolan said, pertained to an opportunity left in the wake of the highly stylized versions of Batman created by filmmaker Tim Burton, which he called "fantastic, but very 'Tim Burton,' very idiosyncratic." Nolan, as he's said numerous times, yearned for something more engrained in reality. Because despite the fact that his first exposure to the character was through the campy Adam West television series of the 1960s, what he always took from the comics was a sense of the real world.
There was also plenty of discussion about the James Bond franchise, which Nolan has always noted as a particular influence on his work. (And ironic, then, that the clearly "Dark Knight"-influenced "Skyfall" moved into the IMAX venues "The Dark Knight Rises" had camped out in over the summer). One of the first films he ever saw was "The Spy Who Loved Me," and at a certain point, the Bond films fixed in his head as a great example of scope and scale. "That globe-trotting thing, that idea of trying to get you along for a ride, that was very much a jumping-off point cinematically [for the 'Dark Knight' trilogy]," he said.
Foundas brought up the idea of action films in a post-9/11 environment and how that was something that played into the tonal shift of these films as well. "Batman Begins" was released in 2005 and started the thematic construct that would be shared across the trilogy's villains: terrorism.
"Interestingly, the Bond films, back in the 60s, they were very specifically about Cold War fears," Nolan said. "They introduced the threat of nuclear terrorism very specifically for the first time in movies and they were closer than people realize, in pop culture terms, to what people feared at the time. And I think that one of the things in taking on an action film set in a great American city post-9/11, if we were going to be honest in terms of our fears and what might threaten this great city, then we were going to come up against terrorism and how that might feature in the universe of Batman. And I think we approached it with a great deal of sincerity."
Ra's al Ghul, the Joker and Bane, thereby, serve as Nolan's central trio of adversaries seeking, above all, to destroy Gotham through terror, chaos and, ultimately, the cruel tease of hope.
Nolan noted that actor Liam Neeson, who starred in "Batman Begins" and briefly in "The Dark Knight Rises" as Ra's al Ghul, was a godsend. "The great thing about Liam is he can sell anything," the director said, before recalling one of the film's earlier scenes between al Ghul (then going by the alias Ducard) and his pupil, Bruce Wayne: "They're sitting by the fire and there's this line I wrote. Liam says, 'Rub your chest. Your arms will take care of themselves.' And I pictured Boy Scouts all over the world freezing to death because I just made up this thing. I don't go camping, I have no idea. And he says it and you believe it!"
There was also discussion of Nolan's interest in the process of things in his work. A film like "The Prestige" is very much caught up in the process of magic, for instance, the procedural nature of things and the physical elements at play. His work on the Batman films is no exception.
"It's something I enjoy, knowing and seeing a process of things come together," Nolan said. "I think that's a great pleasure in movies. But it's also a way of frankly circumventing a lot of the suspicion the audience might have of something. In the case of 'Inception,' when you're dealing with dreams, you risk alienating. 'It's not real, it's a dream.' The solution was to allow the audience in on the creation of the dream, so the dream is not fooling the audience, they're complicit in fooling a third party.
"Similar with Batman, if he just arrived fully-formed into an ordinary world, not a Tim Burton world, with the ears and the cape, it would be laughable. So the way around it was to see the symbolism, why he's doing that, and try to involve the audience in the mental process of figuring out what's going to make him frightening to criminals. It's one of the reasons in 'Batman Begins' we never show Batman clearly. We show him being a terrifying wraith."
Two clips from the film were shown: the montage sequence built around Ducard/Wayne's glacier sparring and a scene toward the end of the film when Bruce is forced to mimic disorderly drunkenness to get a house full of guests out of harm's way. The latter in particular, Nolan noted, reflected actor Christian Bale's considerable talent, juggling psychology and physicality with ease.
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