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Past Article

Christopher Nolan's Realistic Superhero
By Sean Axmaker
October 20, 2005 - 12:22 PM PDT

"Batman is the star."

Before Christopher Nolan made his fame with the structurally and dramatically ingenious Memento, he made his name with the similarly non-linear neo-noir Following, a black-and-white mindgame about a young man (Jeremy Theobald) who's obsessed with following people and is drawn into the world of a break-in artist (Alex Haw) who likes to peak in to the personal lives of his victims. His fascination with alienation and urban loneliness and the shuffled story structure is honed to dramatic perfection in Memento, a wickedly clever murder mystery told backwards, though the real surprise is how Nolan turns what could have been a simple gimmick into a dramatic inspiration and the source of tragedy revealed only as we fit the pieces together. And while his Insomnia, a remake of the Norwegian noir of the same name, sticks to a fairly linear narrative, he blurs the lines of fact and fiction and rattles our confidence in the truth through the increasingly hallucinatory perspective of its compromised hero, shifting the snowballing moral corruption of the original into a drama darkened by shades of guilt and accountability.

Not exactly the resumé one would expect for the director chosen by Warner Bros. to not only resurrect but also rejuvenate and redefine the iconic comic book hero Batman for the big screen. With the previous franchise driven to camp by Joel Schumacher's one-two sucker punch of Batman Forever and Batman and Robin and a parade of hit-and-miss leading men, Nolan had his work cut out for him. What he delivers is a film that embraces the psychologically shadowy side of the Dark Knight, a moody take inspired by the violent tales of the early comic books, the brooding comic book rebirth of the 70s and Frank Miller's gritty Batman: Year One revision. And he even manages to throw some of his trademark narrative shuffling into the telling.

In an all-too-brief phone interview, Nolan talked about the daunting challenge of taking on one of the most iconic heroes of the 20th century and the physical challenge of tackling his first action blockbuster.

Why Batman? There are tremendous expectations for such an iconic character. What did you want to bring to the screen that hadn't been done before?

For me, the exciting opportunity was that you had a studio with this phenomenal character, wanting to re-introduce the character to the big screen and looking for a fresh way to do it. I felt I had never seen a superhero story tackled with a real degree of reality, of seriousness, in a way, and Batman, to me, as the most mortal, the most ordinary in terms of abilities, of superheroes - he has no super powers - he's the natural choice for trying to tell a superhero story in a realistic manner. I just felt that would be something I've never seen before and something that would be really fun and exciting to do.

Did you feel you had some responsibility to the fans and the history of the character when you went about remaking him for the screen?

I felt an enormous responsibility in terms of the history of the character, and the way in which I viewed that responsibility was that I felt I had the responsibility to make the most sincere effort to make a great version of the character as I understood him from studying the history of the comics. You know that you're never going to please every individual interpretation of what Batman should be, but I felt strongly that what fans needed to see in a Batman film was somebody's most sincere attempt to convey the greatness of the character on film.

You face the same challenge as the X-Men and Spider-Man films, that is, decades of comic book history to sift through and to bring together in a single script, but your challenge is even more daunting. There are almost 70 years of Batman stories to draw from, with multiple interpretations within that run. Where specifically did you turn for inspiration?

I turned to David Goyer, who I co-wrote the script with. He is a comic book expert and I felt that his knowledge of the character was just going to be one of the tremendous assets to the process of distilling the essence of Batman. Together with him, and with his guidance, we went and talked to the guys at DC in New York and really started canvassing a lot of opinions about the essence of the character and really just dove into the archives at DC. It was just such a wonderful wealth of material. It's very inspirational when you're setting out to write the script.

Were there any particular writers or artists that stood out in that wealth of material, specific takes on the character where you said, "Yes, this is what I want to draw from"?

The O'Neil/Adams [writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams] period of Batman comics was something that really struck us as an interesting turning point. We've spoken a lot about Frank Miller and the more recent graphic novels and so forth, Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween and things like that, that are certainly huge influences on the film, but the Neal Adams period and the introduction of Ra's Al Ghul as a villain in the Batman comics was also a defining influence on the film.

I could definitely see that in the film. It was in that period in the early 1970s that DC comics remade the character from a somewhat comic figure into a darker, more dangerous character, a creature of the night who uses his mystery and a kind of supernatural presence to play upon the fears of criminals and use that to give him his edge.

Yes, yes, that's very much what we were trying to do and very much what we found in the history of the comics, a real turning point in the early 70s period.

For all of the dramatic undercurrent of your films, you have become famous for your complex structures that fracture the timeline and piece it together in a different order in Memento and Following. Why bring that same fractured timeline to an adventure movie like Batman Begins?

It wasn't something I necessarily intended to do at the outset, but as soon as you start thinking about the scope of the story you're trying to tell - and it was very important to us that we embrace the entire scope of the origin story - it became very clear to me that the fractured timeline in the first half of the film would be necessary to condense the material we had. Because the non-linear construction allows you to treat in shorthand passages of time and so forth very effectively, without confusing the audience or without denying them the epic scope of the story.

I think cinema can thrive on the contrasts between a present day reality and a past reality that's so different. In the case of Bruce Wayne, we wanted to continually emphasize in the first third of the story the globe-spanning extremity, the extraordinary nature of his journey and how that shapes him as Batman. So we wanted to contrast this kid in Gotham with his very wealthy upbringing to this young man waking up in a Chinese prison. A non-linear structure became the natural way of doing that, and as people came to the film, it seemed like something they were quite happy to accept. It let us get a lot of story into very little time without cheating the audience out of the epic feeling of the story that we wanted to convey.

Your take on Batman is very focused on the character and is grounded in the idea that Batman is the real person and Bruce Wayne is this created identity to protect his Batman identity. So you've got this very conflicted figure. How do you find that balance within the film between the intensity of character and these big action scenes?

I think, in the case of Batman, I found the balance to be pretty exciting because I see Bruce Wayne/Batman not just as a duality but really as three people. I think the Bruce Wayne persona is one that's fun to play in a fairly large way and I view Batman as a persona as well, because I think there is a private Bruce Wayne that's between the two personas that we get to see and Alfred gets to see. And Batman, this specific persona of Batman as the physical expression, if you like, of the darker side of Bruce Wayne's nature, lends itself to a very large scale treatment and a very extreme-action treatment in terms of his interaction with criminals and his use of intimidation and so forth. So for me, it's kind of a natural fit, because, on the one hand, you have this physical expression of all his rage and darkness, and on the other hand, you have this very large, moneyed, luxurious playboy-dilettante persona that's also very cinematic in a different way but similarly large.

I think Christian Bale is one of the best actors of his generation and it was an inspired move to cast him in the film. What was the inspiration to choose Bale over a more established star and did you have to fight to cast him?

I think there was a freedom in casting Batman. Batman is the marquee name, in a sense. Batman is the star. We really were free to choose the best actor for the job and the only trepidation anyone in the studio felt was, having just done The Machinist, he was going to come to do his screen test probably weighing about 90 pounds. In fact, when he turned up for the screen test, he had put back on all of the weight that he'd lost for that production. And frankly, as soon as the studio saw his screen test, there was no question. He knocked it out of the park, as they say. He was very, very convincing.

You've never worked on a film of this scale, a film with such big action scenes and set pieces. What kind of challenge was that?

It presents enormous physical challenges for the crew, particularly because I insisted on doing things for real rather than employing visual effects, so there was a tremendous amount of stunt work and so forth. And I insisted on doing everything main unit, not using any second unit action crews. We wanted the whole film to have a consistency that applied to the action set pieces as well as to the character scenes. So for me it was very exciting to be able to do something on a scale that I've never done before, but it certainly posed enormous physical challenges for the production, from building a Batmobile that could really function and do all the things we needed it to do, to great stunts and people hanging off the edge of cliffs and so forth. But everybody really seemed to rise to it and really enjoy it.

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"Batman is the star."

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Sean Axmaker
A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.

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