A Sense of Ending
A conversation between Christopher Nolan, Jonathan (Jonah) Nolan and David S. Goyer, chaired by co-producer Jordan Goldberg
JORDAN GOLDBERG The editor of the book, Walter Donohue, has likened the work the three of you have done on the trilogy to scaling Mount Everest. And now that you’ve come down from the mountain, what do you think of your accomplishment?
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN When you look back at the three films together, I can’t imagine having done them as one project, the way Peter Jackson did with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That to me would be inconceivable. The only way I am able to do films is to put into each film as much as I can, trying to make it as big as possible. So at the end of this trilogy, I look back and see a lot of scale, a lot of different things we did and a lot of places we went to.
DAVID S. GOYER What amazes me is that going back nine years ago to when we first started talking – you were clear even when we were working out Batman Begins that you wanted to take each film one step at a time and not do sequel bait. And I remember when we started talking about The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, how it was a very organic conversation – we would just sort of cast about whether or not there was a story worth telling. What’s remark able to me is that it wasn’t planned as a trilogy, and yet you look at the final film – and it feels like a perfect fusion of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight – it’s just remarkable how unified the whole thing feels, but yet it was done in this piecemeal fashion.
CN I wouldn’t say ‘piecemeal’ so much as an ‘evolving’ fashion, wanting to live through the process as we were creating it. We certainly had conversations very early on about where would this story go if you were to do sequels, but we quite consciously pushed those questions to the back-burner and said we don’t want to save anything or hold back anything. We want to put everything into every story we’re telling – and then see where it goes. We had the pleasure of living through the story and evolving the story over time. To go back to the Lord of the Rings analogy, those books were written over time. So, Peter Jackson had the advantage in that that time had already been put in; he was able to take that and see it as a whole from the outside. For Batman Begins, I felt we needed to live within it and take our time with it and try to make one great film. And then, if we were interested in doing another, try and make another great film. I never really thought we’d get to three films, but I’m very glad we did. And I think they do hold together as one cohesive story.
DSG I certainly never thought we’d get to three films. I was kind of amazed when we got to The Dark Knight and thought, [laughing] ‘There’s no way we’re going to do another one!’
JG After reading all the scripts, again, it occurred to me that what you guys have done collectively is turn a piece of pop-culture iconography into a modern-day hero’s story that will stand the test of time because it comes across as a contemporary myth. Was that the intent? Was that part of the design? The scripts speak to what it means to be a hero, and in doing so, define the nature of the modern hero.
JONATHAN NOLAN I don’t know how conscious that was – or whether that was a consideration for Chris and David in terms of talking story about these films. When I was in high school, I had a Latin class where we had to read the Greek epics: the Iliad and the Odyssey. What struck me about the Iliad was the reason for its enduring appeal is it’s an examination of what it means to be a man: how to make decisions, how to reconcile irreconcilable things, what to do with feelings of anger and revenge. And I think, to a degree, maybe some of that filtered into the writing of the trilogy. What’s interesting to me about the Bruce Wayne character is that he wrestles with these things; that there is a code at play, one that’s very difficult. One of the key differences between our films and the previous films was revisiting the canon in terms of the idea that Batman doesn’t kill people. He’s this incredibly dark, vengeful, wrathful character, but he has a moral code. Underneath all that darkness, you’ve got a good guy that looks like a bad guy. He has this one rule, as the Joker says in The Dark Knight. But he does wind up breaking it. Does he break it in the third film?
CN He breaks it in …
JN … the first two.
DSG Well, in the first, it’s a kind of yes and no. I think you’re referring to Rā’s al Ghūl, when Batman says, ‘I won’t kill you, but I won’t save you.’
CN Yeah, he gets by on a technicality with that one.
JN He does, but I remember calling you up at one point – I think you’d already shot the scene – and I said, ‘You know what, I’m not sure … I’m not so sure about that one.’ What I loved about that, in the fullness of three films, is that it looks like there’s an evolution, as you were saying.
CN Yeah, but I didn’t know Batman didn’t kill people when I signed on for the project. It was David who broke that news. And I was like, ‘How do you make that work?’ I said to the MPAA on the The Dark Knight: ‘Do you have any idea how hard it is to make a contemporary action film where the protagonist doesn’t carry a gun? Doesn’t kill people?’ But I think that’s an important part of why he’s a mythic figure, rather than just a conventional action protagonist. It’s actually a very important reason why I’ve stayed interested for so long in his story, because you’re having to deal with somebody wrestling with issues that it seems important to wrestle with. So there is great stock placed in life in the way there is in real life. I think too many of these protagonists in action movies are fully formed as characters. Their struggles tend to be insincere somehow, put in there simply for dramatic purpose. Whereas with Bruce Wayne, the struggle to make something good of what’s happened to him in a negative sense seems very much a defining characteristic of who the guy is. That has kept me interested in him.
DSG Over the past nine years it seems like there have been lots of movies that have taken the Batman Begins approach, but I think what was novel at the time and what felt prescient is the fact that in the other iterations of the Batman films and many other super hero films, the characters are fully formed or fully emerged. The whole premise of Batman Begins was not just watching how he built the utility belt or what not but how, step-by-step, he went from an orphaned child to a man who had a hole in his heart, to eventually become this mythic figure. In retrospect, it seems obvious, but, at the time, I think it was very novel. And it was your guidance that we approach it as if it were a real story, and that we really do the diligence of showing how a person could go from A to B in that way. And what was exciting to me was that the previous Batman films had never really done that. They had just jumped from a little flash of Bruce as a boy seeing his parents killed to suddenly he’s Batman. Even in Miller’s Batman: Year One they pick him up when he’s returning to Gotham and seven years have elapsed.
CN There’s another aspect to that – relating back to what we were talking about in terms of how we made the films over time, from the inside – which is: when you look at the three films now, the characters have aged. When you look at Christian in Batman Begins, when he’s playing the young Bruce Wayne, in the flashbacks he just looks like a kid. And you look at him in The Dark Knight Rises – and it’s with very little make-up. But if we had made the three films in one go, if we had conceived the story in one go, I don’t think we would have achieved that reality of the passage of time, that reality of the aging of the characters – the way Gary Oldman is older and Sir Michael Caine is older. There’s a reality to the shifts that I think is really amazing. It gives the three films scale, because the stories are written to accommodate those shifts. It gives a timeline, a real timeline to the films. We’ve exaggerated it slightly going into The Dark Knight Rises, but you feel a sense of history behind it.
DSG The other thing that struck me in watching The Dark Knight Rises – I don’t even remember how much of this was conscious or not at the time – I know with Batman Begins, we talked about how Gotham was a sort of proxy for his father’s legacy – not just Wayne Manor but Gotham itself. That’s why when Rā’s al Ghūl goes after it, it’s such a stake through the heart. It’s interesting to watch how much Gotham plays as a character in the three films, how the stakes to Gotham escalate from movie to movie into the incredibly horrific stakes that you guys did so beautifully in the realization of The Dark Knight Rises. It’s interesting to me how much Gotham is a part of Bruce and vice versa.
CN For me, one of the most important bits in The Dark Knight Rises is when Alfred says, ‘I never wanted you to come back to Gotham.’ Talking about when he left. It’s surprising and it’s shocking, but there’s a real logic to it. And I think it ties in with what you’re saying: Gotham is his parents. Gotham is his tragedy. He cares very deeply about it and he doesn’t want to leave it behind but, at the same time, it’s a prison. It’s the prison of his past, and Alfred starts to realize that. But I think Gotham’s a fantastic hyper-real arena in which to discuss contemporary ideas without being pretentious about it, without being overly political or anything. I enjoy having that parallel universe.
JN Yeah, it’s kind of the money-laundering of those contemporary issues. But it’s true! I remember having conversations with you about Batman Begins, where we’d sit around saying, ‘Are we too close to some sort of contemporary issue? Are we too close to it?’ But you were thinking, no, it’s different. It’s through the lens of this different universe that allows you to consider it for what it is.
CN And that’s why Gotham has always been multiple cities to us in the way that we shot it. You don’t want it to be Chicago or New York. You want it to be its own place. The look of it has evolved in the three films; it’s changed, depending on what we wanted to emphasize. But we’ve always tried to make it eclectic, so whenever there’s a shot that’s too recognizable of a particular city, we tended to change it slightly – at least flop it, or something like that. I think it’s a powerful way of exploring the dynamics of a contemporary American city, particularly in The Dark Knight. I think that was a huge part of the crime epic – the idea that the great playground for these characters was this city. I think it’s used for different effect in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s more about isolation – the isolation of a community in jeopardy.
DSG There’s a remarkable shot in the latest trailer of the bridges blowing up outside Gotham. The siege of Gotham in the new film I found very arresting in a way which will shock and surprise the audience. And I mean that in a good way. I was very impressed by what you did there. And after seeing The Dark Knight Rises as an audience member, I’m just not used to being so moved by a super hero film.
CN We’ve always tried to view it not as a super hero movie, not as a comic-book movie. Jonah’s point, coming into the process on The Dark Knight Rises, was that we have to really go there. You have to take it to the place you’ve threatened to take it for the past two films if you’re going to raise the stakes. And I think we managed to do that and hopefully still be entertaining and emotional. When I took over your [Jonathan’s] draft, my challenge was – I think you’d taken the audience to a very, very extreme place, which works if we can justify the heroic figure against it, so I needed to pull it back. All my work at that point was just to try and make that climb back up the hill. I think it does. It takes you to as scary a place as we knew how to make it. But those are the stakes. You try to do something very, very extreme for the story and for the audience because that’s what Bruce Wayne’s story demands if it’s going to have any kind of profound resolution. Other wise it would just be more of the same. I never wanted it to feel like another episode of Batman or Bruce Wayne’s story. This had to feel like the culmination of all of the things that he’s been dealing with in the first two films.
JN You make it the climactic balance. It’s sort of like the line you put into the second film when Dent says, ‘The night’s always darkest before the dawn.’ It feels like the third film has to ratchet up the tension and the stakes. But there were templates for it in the comic books. Through the years, as the writers of the comic books had gotten kind of bored with the stakes, they pulled off storylines like this, to varying degrees of success. If Gotham is that arena – that sort of battleground – then you turn it literally into a battleground, which makes it feel like the climax of it all.
DSG I have a question. Chris, I was always curious, given your initial reticence about doing a third film, what was the point in the story or the evolution of the script where you decided, ‘I get this. I can do it.’ What was the turning point for you, where you decided this was a story worth telling?
CN Well, for me it was about the ending, about figuring out the ending. I’d been very curious about where Bruce’s story was going. I actually had a dream about what I thought the ending for the film would be. There’s an important component of that dream that is in the ending of the existing film. And for me, that turned it around. I remember talking to you about that fairly early on. I mean, probably four years ago at this point.
DSG We talked about it within about twenty minutes into our first con versation! We talked about what that ending might be, which is just unusual.
CN For me, endings are everything. I did have the same thing on The Dark Knight. Once I figured out the feeling I wanted to get to at the end of that film, then I knew I had a project that I wanted to get into. For me, that’s everything in this kind of story, to know where you want it to go. And then it took years and years for all of us to figure out how to get there.
JG How do you think the trilogy has changed things, in terms of film-making and storytelling? Have the films changed the genre?
CN Well, there’s a lot more super hero movies, and they’re much better cast than they used to be. [Laughs.]
DSG Yeah! [Laughs.]
CN I think we definitely changed the casting of this genre of movies because we put together a phenomenal cast for Batman Begins. I talked to the studio about basing the casting on the Richard Donner model from Superman (1978), where he had all these great actors, like Marlon Brando, Ned Beatty and so forth. So we set out to put that kind of cast together and we did. And I think they left the film with a lot of integrity and dignity. And that started to open the field for these movies, in a way that hadn’t been there. And God knows a lot of films use our music as well! [Laughs.] Other than that, I don’t know. I mean, we never viewed it as a genre film.
DSG People in other interviews have asked me about the differences between the Nolan films versus some of the other super hero stuff. And, having been involved in some of the other super hero stuff, I think what a lot of the other comic-book franchises tend to do when they get to the sequels – well, I know this is what they do because I’ve been approached to do a couple with just this scenario – is, they say, ‘Okay, we’re doing Blank-man #2, and this is the villain we want to use. Can you tell a story with that?’ And your approach has always been, even from Batman Begins, to figure out what’s the best story that we want to tell about Bruce, or about Harvey Dent, and then determine which villains in the Batman canon fit with that story. It’s a much more holistic approach and completely flies in the face of the way that a lot of the other super hero films are developed. Consequently, it leads to a better, more organic way of telling a story, at least from my point of view.
CN Well, on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, when we started plotting out story movements, I literally had timings of action scenes – when they should happen and so forth. The action set pieces were pinned down, in terms of where they needed to be and what type of thing they needed to be, before we even really wove the story too firmly around them. But with The Dark Knight Rises, I said, ‘We’re going to abandon that approach completely and just try and figure out the story, where that story goes, and trust that the action will enter into it.’ And so we’ve definitely taken what you refer to as ‘a holistic approach’. We’ve definitely taken it as far as possible on this one. And I’m very happy with the results. There’s plenty of action in the film. As Jonah worked on the script and as we talked about it more and more, it has come to where it needs to be. But I do feel that this film – maybe more than the other two – definitely puts characters and story first.
JG In other super hero films the villains seem to have little complexity to them. The villains that feature in The Dark Knight trilogy, though, operate in a more realistic manner, albeit in an extreme one. This makes them scary because they feel true.
CN The villains in Batman have always been more important than they are with other heroes.
DSG Of all the big super heroes, Batman seems to have had the most interesting Rogues’ Gallery.
JN Oh, yeah, no question. And all of them distinct in their MO and their plan. What’s great about the Joker – when The Dark Knight was released, there was a lot of talk about the echoes and resonances with the global war on terror. He has nothing to do with that. The Joker’s an anarchist; a completely different mindset. He lacked a plan, which energized the question of, ‘Well, what’s he going to do? Why’s he going to do it? Does he have a plan? Does he not have a plan?’ That’s really the crux of the character throughout, in terms of his backstory, in terms of what he wants, right up until the moment he burns that pile of money. And even after that, you still think, ‘Is there a method or is there just madness?’ In terms of the trilogy, to the degree that there is a plan at play here – and I think there are some principles at play – the story has adapted to the circumstances of the ten years that we’ve been working on it. And I think, David, your point about other plans for super hero films – there does seem like there’s a corporate flowchart somewhere, in terms of, ‘Here’s our PowerPoint presentation for the next nine movies.’ It’s like, screw all that. Tell a story, center it on the character, and then figure out and harness how the villains resonate with that. When you guys settled on Bane as the villain for the third film, I thought there was something very powerful in that. I wasn’t totally familiar with the character of Bane at first, but when I was walked through what you and David identified as what was key about him – that there’s a lot of similarities, sort of photo-negative similarities between Bruce and Bane and their background – I thought that was powerful. And what’s hopeful for The Dark Knight Rises versus The Dark Knight is The Dark Knight had this incredible villain, a villain that truly threatens to outshine the hero. With all these other heroes, the villain’s sort of an afterthought. Magneto’s pretty cool. Lex Luthor is a great villain. But the Joker kind of outstrips –
CN The Joker’s your favorite, definitely. Right?
JN Yeah, he’s amazing. He’s iconic and, culturally, he plugs into something that’s been around for a long, long time, in terms of a sort of trickster-rabbit kind of idea.
CN I’ve come to like Bane a lot.
DSG Having seen the movie now – because of the extreme sort of perversion that Bane undergoes, in some ways he’s become my favorite villain of the trilogy. He is really terrifying.
CN I would say, for me, the Joker’s the most attractive, because he has that spark to him. But what I love about Bane is that I can believe in him more. There’s a militaristic underpinning to him that we’ve given him in the film that I think Tom [Hardy] took and ran with in his performance that I find very credible. He’s just all about power and strength.
JN Not even power, so much as revolution. Or the willing surrender of power, the fracturing of the paradigm by which power would matter and changing it to something else. My favorite aspect of the relationship between the Joker and Batman is this paradoxical relationship that we settled on: the Joker won’t kill Batman, Batman won’t kill the Joker, and they’re trapped in that paradox. That doesn’t lend itself to the arc of the films. The arc of this bigger story we’re trying to tell is that you get to this third film and Bane is a different kind of villain – what’s distinct about him from the Joker is that he has a plan. There’s no question he has a plan. We know exactly what his plan is. He states it in no uncertain terms in the trailer, which is that he’s going to destroy Gotham and then he’s going to kill Batman – or he’s going to let him die, rather. He’s going to break him, destroy his city, crush every thing, grind it into dust. Which, again, takes us back to the Homeric epic villains where the whole idea was to raze the thing to the ground, then salt the fields and just completely annihilate.
DSG Right. So that you destroy it for generations to come.
JN Yeah. There’s a historical sweep.
CN Yes. A historical sweep. When discussing the music with Hans [Zimmer], he was talking about dictators and about Hitler, the way Hitler would speak and so forth. And I think there is this historical sweep to Bane, an indomitable quality that I just find chilling. In the football stadium, there’s that close-up of Bane as he walks out and you just hate the man. You hate him in a way that you almost can’t hate the Joker because the Joker’s so much fun.
DSG The Joker’s fun, but he’s also crazy, so, to a certain extent, not completely responsible for his actions. Whereas I find Bane scarier because he’s not crazy.
JN He’s driven.
DSG He’s conscious of what he’s doing.
JN There’s a vendetta there, which is also very, very compelling. And what I found really compelling about the story from Batman Begins was this idea of what does the vigilante impulse look like carried too far? The moment when Rā’s al Ghū l says, ‘You gotta kill these people. You have to stamp them out.’ Bane is picking up some of the mantle of that. So it feels like a very fitting way to close the trilogy because you have a very linear villain – in the sense that he has this one goal and he’s thought it through and he’s already got a head start. One of the things that I loved about what you came up with in terms of story for The Dark Knight Rises was this sense of ‘It’s under your feet.’ There’s a rottenness because all this progress has been built upon all these lies that have been told. You’ve paved over the ruins of the past and they’re rising up to get back at you.
CN We were trying to get at the Fritz Lang thing. The geography of the movie somehow telling you something about the story.
JN What felt very much like a natural fit to me for this character, this story, this villain, as a way of wrapping things up, was that Batman, of all the super heroes, he’s the haunted one. He’s the one who’s pursued by the damage he’s done. There’s that overall sense that there’ll be a reckoning with him. And so this film is that reckoning.
CN And there’s his struggle to do something positive with all of that. I just find it moving. And it keeps you interested because it’s a very genuine thing to have suffered in that way and see him trying to pull himself out of that and do something for the good. That’s the thing that connects the three films. That’s what made the end of The Dark Knight work well for me. It’s the Joker’s film for so much of the movie because he’s such an electric sort of presence. And with Heath’s performance, he’s such a motor for that film. But right at the end, Batman just takes it back. Bruce takes it back to himself. And, for me, that’s what makes that film work at the end. And that’s what kept me interested in finishing that story and seeing where that guy would really go next.
JG In closing, what would you guys say you’ve learned through this experience?
CN I’ve learned to get more reaction shots. [All laugh.] I’ve learned you can never have too many reaction shots to something extraordinary. Just on a technical level. In order to portray an extraordinary figure in an ordinary world, you have to really invest in the reality of the ordinary and in the reactions of people to him. That, to me, was what was fun about taking on this character because it hadn’t been done before. He is such an extraordinary figure, but if you can believe in the world he’s in, you can really enjoy that extraordinariness and that theatricality. And it’s been interesting to watch him play so much in the shadows and the darkness of Batman Begins, then step out in the twilight in The Dark Knight. And now, in The Dark Knight Rises, he’s out in the middle of the day, running around in that suit because we felt we’d earned the right to do that because you believe in it. That’s been an interesting evolution.
DSG It’s a really essential point – you’re absolutely right – because Batman is such a bigger-than-life character. One of the only ways to properly portray him is to show people’s reactions to such a bigger-than-life character. I never thought about that. I remember thinking how bold it was that you staged that big action sequence in The Dark Knight Rises in the day.
JN The moral of it for me has been – I don’t quite know when we started talking about this, but it just feels like your philosophy on this and we sort of carried it throughout – is leave nothing for the ride home. Put it all into the film. Don’t trust that there’ll be another one and, if there is going to be another one, trust that you’ll figure out what that’s going to be. It’s sort of the opposite of ‘Keep your powder dry.’ It’s ‘Blow all your powder up.’ Put it all into each film because you have no idea what’s coming down the line.
JN With this kind of outsized story, and a character this outsized, with the stakes raising and raising, you will find a way to reinvent and carry on. But if you start relying on these ‘hedging-bet’ storylines that people often want you to put into these sorts of films, it’s like, forget all that. Tell a really compelling story, burn it all down, and then see what’s left for the next time.
CN I agree.
DSG And another reciprocal rule that leads to the same result is simply, Chris, your edict from the very beginning when we were talking about gadgets and what not, not to use the conventional tropes of a super hero movie; that this is real and that we would need to be able to figure out for ourselves how could he actually do this. It led to a lot of conversations about how could he build all the stuff that he needed, all the individual components – well, by parceling out things to other subsidiaries of Wayne Enterprises and things like that. I think you were very smart to do that, which is that everything has to be credible down to the smallest detail, in terms of how he could have pulled this off.
CN Well, it’s what audiences demand in other action films, and it felt like we had to be true to that. But the other thing I would say we learned in these films is that, done right, something that has a parallel universe to it and an interesting set of ideas and fears will be interpreted politically in every which way by everybody differently. I found it pretty fascinating to watch people read bizarre political interpretations into what we’ve done. And I can only imagine what they’re going to make of this last chapter.
JN But you realize you have to let that go. To me, there’s no moral there other than the individual choices that Batman makes along the way. And this is where you take it back to the Iliad. One of the things I was fascinated about with the Iliad is, when you get to the end, there’s no Trojan Horse and there’s no winning of the battle. It just ends with Achilles and Priam negotiating over Hektor’s body. That’s the end of it. And you realize it’s not about war. It’s about a man. It’s about the individual decisions made by a hero and the difficult choices he faces and the odd, sometimes tacit rule-set that he forms over the course of it, answering the question of how far is too far? There’s some thing interesting behind all that.
CN Good enough?
JG Yes. Thank you all very much.