Christopher Nolan on How Villains Defined ‘The Dark Knight’ Trilogy More Than Batman
Christopher Nolan may have left Gotham City behind. But in a wide-ranging two-hour talk at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday, the director offered a unique take on his “Dark Knight” trilogy.
“To me, each film is a different genre,” Nolan said, about the movies starring Christian Bale as Batman. “They tend to be defined by the villain.”
Nolan explained that he saw 2005’s “Batman Begins” as a straightforward origins story. “The villain”–Henri Ducard (played by Liam Neeson)–“is an appropriate adversary,” Nolan said. “He’s a mentor-turned-enemy.” Next, came the second movie in 2008 with Heath Ledger. “‘The Dark Knight for me was always a crime drama in the mold of a Michael Mann film. The Joker was a terrorist, an agent of chaos set loose.” Finally, in 2012’s the grand finale, “The Dark Knight Rises,” co-starring Tom Hardy, Nolan envisioned “this historical epic. Bane as a militarist foe helped that.”
Interestingly enough, Nolan didn’t necessarily see himself launching a “Batman” franchise, when he took the job at Warner Bros. 13 years ago. “We hadn’t planned on doing a sequel,” Nolan said. “So shifting genres and the nature of the antagonist felt the way to take the audience on a journey and tell them something different about Bruce Wayne.”
Nolan admitted that he approached the comic-book world through a different lens, as a noir-thriller. “Yes, it’s a superhero, but it’s based on ideas of guilt, fear, these strong impulses that the character has,” Nolan said. “Bruce Wayne doesn’t have any super powers other than extraordinary wealth. But really, he’s just someone who does a lot of push-ups. In that sense, he’s very relatable and human. I think that’s why I gravitated towards it.”
When asked if his “Batman” paid homage to James Bond, Nolan admitted a connection. “We mercilessly pillaged from the James Bond films for certain aspects,” Nolan said, adding that they wanted to make him as compelling as 007. He noted how Gotham’s chief inventor Lucius Fox is similar to Bond’s Agent Q, who has a closet full of gadgets. “But I think if I made my version of James Bond, ‘Inception’ is far more guilty of that than ‘The Dark Knight,’” Nolan said.
Nolan’s visit to the Cannes Film Festival (his first) was for the premiere of a 70 mm print of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which screened on Friday. “Films that are made in an analog way ought to be presented in an analog way whenever possible,” Nolan said.
Nolan spent much of his talk explaining why he preferred shooting on film instead of digital. “Film still stands as the best analogy for the way the eye sees,” he said. “For my purposes, I find it to be the most immersive and emotionally involving tool for drawing the audience into the story.”
Nolan first saw “2001” at the age of 7, in London with his dad, after it had be re-released on the big screen following the success of 1977’s “Stars Wars.” “I think what I’ve carried about that experience as far as my own films is really just a sense that films can be anything,” Nolan said. “What Kubrick did in 1968, he simply refused to acknowledge that there were any rules you had to play by in terms of narrative.”
That was a lesson that he carried with him throughout his career. “It’s incumbent on us to push whatever boundaries we can and not be beholden to the theoretical rules,” Nolan said.
His 2000 indie breakout hit “Memento” proved that. “It’s often referred to as a non-linear film, and it’s not,” Nolan said. “It’s intensely linear, but it runs backwards. For that reason, you couldn’t eliminate a scene, you couldn’t change the order. I had to do that in the script stage.”
Nolan gave credit to his wife, Emma Thomas, who produces all his films. “Emma is my longest and closest collaborator,” he said. “It’s great to be able to work with people who don’t have an agenda other than helping make the best films you can. It surprising how difficult it is to forge those relationships.”
Another family member who has doubled as a co-worker has been his brother, Jonathan. They wrote much of the “Dark Knight” trilogy in rooms—or “in the back of cars, boats, planes”—together. “‘Interstellar’ was a project [Jonathan] had written for Steven Spielberg many years before,” Nolan said. “I took that screenplay and combined it with ideas of mine own while he was doing other things.”
Nolan grew up wanting to direct, but he majored in another subject in college. “I studied English because that was the academic subject I was best at,” Nolan said. “What I found when I studied it, it greatly informed my filmmaking process, my writing process. I began to become at ease with the literary concepts that underline criticism.” The younger version of him struggled with the concept of authorial intent not lining up with a reader’s interpretation. “In studying English literature, storytellers grasp evocative symbols,” Nolan said. “They do have … subconscious layers of resonation. That is something I needed to learn and get on board with.”
Nolan described his style as a director. He doesn’t like to employ a second unit because he prefers to shoot every scene himself—even if it’s a quick shot of an actor’s hand. “There’s performance in those gestures,” he said. On movies where he had to divide up those scenes, “it always bothered me afterwards,” he said. “If I’m the director, I have to be shooting all the shots that go into a film.”
He also doesn’t use a common prop in Hollywood. “I don’t use a monitor on the set,” Nolan said. “I stay by the camera. I want to see where things are in a three-dimensional space.”