Note: very minor spoiler near the end of the interview.
Here's what you need to know about Inception: it's too good for words to actually describe. Trust me on this, your brain will most likely have melted by the final frame. If you want to know a bit more about what went into its creation, as well as how the mind of the filmmaker behind it -- writer-director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) -- works, then keep reading because what follows is the first of three interviews I conducted with Nolan and the movie's stars. By the way, if you have no idea what Inception is about, you're not alone. The most you should probably know before sitting down in the theater is it involves men and women, played by folks like Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page, who stage a sort of heist inside the dreaming world.
Cole Haddon: This is your first large-scale movie based on an original idea. What gave you the confidence to take that leap?
Christopher Nolan: A comic book adaptation, a remake of another film ... a sequel, these are all things that I've done before. The interesting thing about an original concept is that particularly with the sort of 10-year gap it took me from my sort of initial set of ideas, and finishing the screenplay, by the time you get there, you've lived with those ideas for so long that it really isn't that different from working from somebody else's story, for example. As with Memento, when I adapted my brother's short story, the same thing happens. You take this story on as your own, and because the screenwriting process is a very long one for me; it takes years really to put a script together. By the time you get there at the end, it starts to feel a little bit irrelevant as to where you started from. So the experience has been quite similar, in fact.
CH: Given how wonderfully complex the concept of Inception is, it strikes me as a movie that could have only gotten made following the commercial success you had with The Dark Knight. Did that freedom empower you to push the boundaries of what you can do, or did it put more pressure on you to fit it into, perhaps, a slightly more conventional, even more audience-friendly structure and shape?
CN: I was asked after doing The Dark Knight whether I felt any particular pressure on the next film, and it's not really the case. I put it this way: I felt a responsibility. It's not that often that you get to have a large commercial success and then have something that you want to do that you can excite people about, so it's a great opportunity, and the responsibility we felt in doing that was to make what we felt was the best film possible -- the most interesting film possible because, obviously with the success of The Dark Knight, we were in a position where the studio was prepared to put a lot of faith in us and trust in us to really do something special. Those opportunities are very rare for filmmakers, and I felt a responsibility to really try and do something memorable with it.
CH: You've done a fantastic job of keeping Inception a mystery for the past year. We all knew it was being made, that it was being released, but more than that? Not much. At a certain point, does secrecy become a form of hype? And how do you balance that secrecy with the need to give audiences enough to want to buy a ticket?
CN: Well, it's certainly difficult to balance marketing a film and putting it out there to everybody with wanting to keep it fresh for the audience. My most enjoyable movie-going experiences have always been going to a movie theater, sitting there, and the lights go down and a film comes on the screen that you don't know everything about, and you don't know every plot turn and every character movement that's going to happen. I want to be surprised and entertained by a movie, so that's what we're trying to do for the audience. Obviously, we also have to sell the film. It's a balance that I think Warner Bros. is striking very well. I suppose that at a point, keeping something secret does lend itself to its own degree of hype, but I don't really think of it as secrecy. I just think of it as an appropriate. You know, we invite the audience to come and see it based on some of the imagery and some of the plot ideas and the premise, but we don't want to give everything away. I think too much is given away too often in movie marketing today.
CH: Agreed. Now, to get into the actual subject matter of Inception -- the dreaming world. Have you been fascinated by dreams your whole life, and do you think about them differently since you started working on this movie?
CN: I've been fascinated by dreams…since I was a kid, and I think the relationship between movies and dreams is something that's always interested me. I liked the idea of trying to portray dreams on film, and I'd been working on the script for some time, really about 10 years in the form that you've seen it in, where [there's] this idea of this kind of heist structure. I think really, for me, the primary interest in dreams and in making this film is this notion that in your mind, while you're asleep, you can create an entire world that you're also experiencing without realizing that you're doing that. I think that says a lot about the potential of the human mind, especially the creative potential. It's something I find fascinating.
CH: You mentioned you liked the idea of trying to portray dreams on film. Did you want to explore the concept of cinema as a layer or type of dreaming?
CN: Well, I think for me when you look at the idea of being able to create a limitless world and use it almost as a playground for action and adventure and so forth, I naturally gravitate towards cinematic worlds, whether it's the Bond films and things like that. So without being too self-conscious about it, or without too much intention as I was writing it, I certainly allowed my mind to wander where it would naturally [go] and I think a lot of the tropes from different genres of movies -- heist films, spy films, that kind of thing -- they therefore sort of naturally sit in that world.
CH: How did you go about researching dreams and the science behind them? It's a fascinating world you've constructed.
CN: I don't actually tend to do a lot of research when I'm writing. I took the approach in writing Inception that I did when I was writing Memento about memory and memory loss, which is I tend to just examine my own process of, in this case, dreaming -- in Memento's case, memory -- and try and analyze how that works and how that might be changed and manipulated. How a rule set might emerge from my own process. I do know because I think a lot of what I find you want to do with research is just confirm things you want to do. If the research contradicts what you want to do, you tend to go ahead and do it anyway. So at a certain point, I realized that if you're trying to reach an audience, being as subjective as possible and really trying to write from something genuine, is the way to go. Really, it's mostly from my own process, my own experience.
CH: You've cited Pink Floyd The Wall as one of your primary influences, but the dreams in that movie are very sexualized -- which is something that doesn't manifest in Inception. Was that something you shied away from?
CN: Well, there are certain areas, when you're talking about dreams, the analysis of dreams and how you might examine them in the film that you do want to avoid, because they would probably be either too disturbing for the sort of action film genre that we're working in or funny. And so one of the things we talked about, tonally, in the period when we were looking at the script very closely, is never tipping over into comedy, this funny version. I mean, one of the things all [the actors] have done in their performances, which I think is extraordinary, is that they've created very subtle differences in the way the characters appear in the dream levels and in reality -- they've never made it funny. They've never taken it to that comedic place. And certainly I think there's probably a great comedy version of this movie somewhere, but I [didn't] want to make it.
CH: I'd like to talk a little about Fred Astaire fight sequence Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets to engage in, as well as all the zero-G stuff you put him through. I don't think I've ever seen an actual fight take place in the absence of gravity before. It's really quite spectacular.
CN: I'll leave Joe to tell you the bad stuff, but, really, the thing I just want to point out that people might not be aware of is that we had a stunt guy who looks exactly like Joe made up perfectly -- and he stood there three weeks on-set and didn't do a thing, because Joe insisted on doing absolutely everything himself, apart from, as I've been reminded, one shot. One shot where the [actual] stunt guy performed. Everything else he did himself, and he just did the most incredible job with these bizarre rigs and these bizarre sort of torture devices.
CH: Did you ever consider converting the movie to 3D?
CN: Sure, I mean, we looked at shooting on various different formats before we went to shoot, including 3-D technology -- but also Showscan, 65 mil, which we eventually fixed on. Then when we edited the film, we looked at the post-conversion process and did some very good tests. But, when I really looked at the time period we had and where my attention needed to be in finishing the film, I decided that I didn't have enough time to do it to the standard I would have liked. I think the question of 3D really is one for audiences in a sense. The tests we looked at, it's perfectly possible to post-convert a film very well, [but] I like not having glasses when I watch a movie and I like being able to see a very bright, immersive image. So I think at the end of the day, I'm extremely happy to be putting the film out with 35 mm film prints very brightly projected with the highest possible image quality. That's really what excites me.
CH: Let's wrap this up, two more questions. Do any of your own dreams stand out that you don't mind sharing with us? And how has filmmaking changed for you since you started in Hollywood 12 years ago?
CN: As far as the dreams go, really I would only point to times in my life where I experienced lucid dreaming, which is a big feature of Inception -- the idea of realizing you're in a dream and therefore trying to change or manipulate it in some way. That's a very striking experience for people who have it. It's clearly in the film, and a big part of it. As far as my filmmaking approach, the thing I always say, which might be hard for people to understand -– I don't know -- but to me the filmmaking process has always been the same. So when I was doing Following, which was shot with friends one day a week for a year, I put the film together that way. It was exactly the same process. I think for me, what I'm doing on set is I'm watching things happen as an audience member and trying to just look at "
what's the image we're photographing, how will that advance the story, and what will the next image be?"
That process really hasn't changed for me, and it's strangely similar no matter how big the film gets.