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Inception - Christopher Nolan interview

Christopher Nolan, director of The Prestige

Interview by Rob Carnevale

CHRISTOPHER Nolan talks about the making of Inception, his passion and interest in dreams, and why he likes to keep his projects as simple as possible while making them.

He also discusses his love for the IMAX format, his views on 3D and whether the ability, or technology, to access people’s dreams could ever exist…

Q. The concept of Inception has been in your mind for the best part of a decade, can you talk about the initial inspiration and how it developed?
Christopher Nolan: I’d always wanted to address dreams in film-making and do something set in this world. About 10 years ago I focussed in on the idea of exploring a technology that might allow people to share dreams, and the uses and abuses of that, and came up with the idea of trying to tell a heist story, or do a heist film set in the world of dreams with the technology that would allow somebody to penetrate somebody else’s subconscious. The idea was always to tell a large-scale action film with an unusual twist to the world in which it takes place.

Q How difficult was it to keep things secret about Inception? You succeeded…
Christopher Nolan: It’s difficult to keep anything fresh for an audience these days. With technology being what it is people seem to know everything there is to know about a film before you’ve even made it. For me as a filmgoer, I like to sit in the cinema as the lights go down and not know what I’m about to see unfold on screen. And every time we go to make a film we do everything we can to systematise things so we are able to make a film in private. Once it’s finished then it’s for the audience to make of it what they will.

Q. Can you talk about some of the challenges of making this movie, which used so many locations and so few effects?
Christopher Nolan: For me, the underlying tone is summed up by Leo’s character who says in the film the dreams feel real while we’re in them. So everything we did in a production sense was trying to retain a tactile sense of reality to the world of the dreams, so they felt like possible worlds even as impossible things were happening. That posed challenges for all the departments in terms of things like a freight train barrelling down the street smashing cars. We wanted to do this for real so it would feel possible for the audience and we wouldn’t have an obviously surreal quality to things. That’s why we travelled to real locations all round the world, shot in blizzards and so forth. But hopefully that adds up to some greater sense of reality to the world of dreams.

Q. Do you see a similarity between dreams and filmmaking?
Christopher Nolan: Well, from my point of view as a director it’s certainly the case that now that I look at Inception as a finished film it’s probably as close as I want to get to making a film about filmmaking. I think in writing the script and trying to imagine a creative process whereby you create an alternate reality for someone within the story, I think I naturally gravitated towards the creative process that I know: which is when you try to create an alternative reality for an audience, you put together a very talented team of people and have to figure out their particular angle and the reality you’re trying to put together. When I watch the scenes in the film where this guy’s team is putting the whole plan together, it reminds me very much of the process of filmmaking.

Q. You’re an old school film-maker, how long do you plan to survive in the digital age? And can you reveal more of your views on the development of IMAX, perhaps with more mobile IMAX cameras, 3D – because I understand you’re not very keen on post 3D conversions?
Christopher Nolan: Well, I wouldn’t want to bore everyone with an answer to so many technical questions wrapped up in one. People who know me know that I could speak for hours about these things passionately. But the bottom line is that this film was made in a traditional way. It was shot on film, we cut the negative… the reason I do that is that it’s the best way still to get the highest quality in the shortest amount of time for the least amount of money. So, in my view it’s by far the best way of doing things technically. It also gets better and better as fewer and fewer people do it because you go to the labs and they give you a lot of attention. Whereas, when I was starting out as a 16mm filmmaker struggling it was all you could do to get the lab to process your film.

As far as future developments, I’d love to see IMAX developed more with lighter cameras, but at the same time the costs are extensive given how few people shoot with those cameras. 3D is something we’re looking at but I see at the moment significant technical limitations to the presentation formula – mostly with the dimness of the image and the fact that you have to wear glasses, etc, etc. The post conversion process can be done very effectively… we actually did tests on this film but decided we didn’t have enough time to get it to the standard we wanted. But it’s perfectly possible to do it. You just have to do it with enough time.

Q. Was the inclusion of the song Je Ne Regret Rien, by Edith Piaf, a special nod to Marion Cotillard [who played Piaf in La Vie En Rose, and won an Oscar]?
Christopher Nolan: The Piaf song has been in the script for 10 years. Marion Cotillard coming on to the project was just a nice coincidence, really. I thought about changing it, knowing I would get this question every time. But I liked the idea of the connection but it was pure coincidence. I just wanted something with a very distinctive opening that could be used in the way it is.

Q. How did the process of creating the dream world of Inception compare to creating the real world created for Batman? And did it make you want to revisit the world of Inception sometime in the future?
Christopher Nolan: With every film you take on you try to establish the rules of the world… taking on the idea of dreams you have a burden because you have to set some kind of limitation because dreams are infinite and have infinite potential, which is the thing that makes them fascinating in the first place. But that also makes them hard to address in drama because anything can happen, therefore how can anything matter?

The key thing for that in my mind was to make it the story of a con, the story of the fooling of a character. Because as soon as you’re talking about trying to fool somebody, or take on the heist idea of trying to create a reality for somebody else, naturally you must adhere to certain rules, certain limitations of what they could be doing in their dreams so they don’t fracture the illusion of reality. As far as my interest in the world, that lay in creating one that could have infinite possibility through its rules and through its geography, if you like. Certainly, what I want for the audience is to leave the cinema with the feeling of potential or possibility for that world.

Q. Which was the most challenging action sequence as a director?
Christopher Nolan: In some ways the most challenging were the scenes involving Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the gimbal. We were very fortunate to have Joe doing them because he’s not only naturally very acrobatic but is dedicated to making that illusion. I think he underplayed slightly in his answers so far, but the difficulty of what he was doing was extraordinary. He was hanging upside down for hours at a time with choreographed fight scenes. But he makes it look extremely natural, extremely easy and that’s why those illusions work. For me, it was a huge risk building these sets in this way with these huge rigs. If Joe hadn’t wanted to do it or hadn’t been as good as he was we’d have been in terrible trouble. I have no idea what we would have done.

What turned out to be the hardest, because in some ways it was the most ambitious, was we had to shoot all these scenes in heavy rain. They were specifically scripted in heavy rain but we had to shoot in Los Angeles in the middle of summer. That could be very tough because we didn’t want to do it all through visual effects. So, we put rain towers at the top of buildings and things like that. But dealing with any kind of conditions like that makes everything tricky in terms of the equipment and keeping people dry when they need to be dry. That was very challenging.

Q. Do you think we’ll ever have the technology to access other people’s dreams?
Christopher Nolan: I don’t think we will, no. I think that whilst I enjoy playing with the idea as a science fiction idea, and as a jumping off point for the story, I came away from the experience thinking it was extremely valuable. But our dreams are private and we have the opportunity every night to look at our lives in a different way and process them with no consequences. So, I don’t think it would be a god thing. Also, when you start really thinking about the potential of the human mind and its ability to create an entire world while you’re sleeping, I come away feeling like our minds are not remotely understood by science and that makes it very unlikely that such a technology could exist.

Q. How important was the success of The Dark Knight in helping to sell Inception to the studio system?
Christopher Nolan: I think having had the success we did with The Dark Knight – which I think we were all happy with and surprised by frankly – it certainly made it a lot easier to go to the studio with something different. And it did get the backing of the studio. At the same time I have to acknowledge that I went to them nine years ago with the concept and they were definitely up for it. It was actually me who decided I wanted to wait. I’m not ready to make this yet, I can’t finish the script, I don’t know how to do this sort of thing yet. So, I think a lot of things came into play, including me growing into the film, in a sense.

Inception opens in cinemas across the country – including IMAX – on Friday, July 16, 2010.