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An Interview with Christopher Nolan
by Scott Holleran
October 20, 2005
Photo Credit: Scott Holleran
© 2005 Box Office Mojo, LLC
Burbank, California—Like his movies, including this year's box office hit, Batman Begins (available this week on DVD), writer and director Christopher Nolan's office at Warner Bros. is entirely functional: a desk, chair and sofa surrounded by exotic Batman paraphernalia. During a recent interview, the British native, who has successfully reimagined the studio's lucrative Batman franchise, is forceful, confident and intellectual.
Having made the transition from making an independent favorite to an all-star blockbuster, the 35-year-old Nolan is working on science fiction, preparing for production of the Batman sequel—he took a call from Michael Caine during the interview—and steering his career higher and higher.
Box Office Mojo: Is Batman a hero?
Christopher Nolan: Hero has become such a bandied about word, used so broadly, and it ceases to have any meaning. Is Batman a hero? Certainly, he's more a hero than superhero [but] I think the word "hero" is very problematic. He has no superpowers, but he's a heroic figure. The reason to me he's heroic is because he's altruistic. He's trying to help other people with no benefit to himself and, whatever motivates him—and this was the tricky thing to really try and nail with Batman Begins as opposed to previous incarnations—is the difference between him and a common vigilante, the Punisher or Charles Bronson in Death Wish. To me, the difference is he is not seeking personal vengeance. We did not want his quest to be for vengeance, we wanted it to be for justice. That's what sends him looking for an outlet for his rage and frustration. What he chooses to do with it is, I believe, selfless, and therefore, heroic. And that, to me, is really the distinction—selfishness versus selflessness—and that is very noble. But it is a very fine distinction. I do think he is a heroic figure.
BOM: But he does gain a value—justice is a value, even to Batman. Is he really selfless—or does he want to have a life to call his own?
Nolan: To me, he's not selfish in terms of how the word is generally understood—he's not obtaining personal gratification in an immediate sense. He's having to obliterate his own immediate [short-term] self-interest. I could tap into the reality of the story if I felt that he saw his mission as an achievable goal.
BOM: So his is a higher, more rational form of selfishness, as against irrational, short-range immediate gratification?
BOM: What is the movie's theme in essential terms?
Nolan: The struggle and the conflict between the desire for personal gratification or vengeance and the greater good for a constructive, positive sort—something more universal. Because Batman is limited by being an ordinary man, there's a constant tension between pragmatism and idealism.
BOM: Are you a pragmatist or an idealist?
Nolan: I'm both—I have to be. In terms of the film, I have to be more idealistic, but at the same time, I have to be enormously pragmatic in terms of what is actually achievable in practical terms. Every day is a conflict between this ideal scenario, this vision, and how we actually do that in terms of time and the limitations. My job is to translate something abstract into something concrete.
BOM: Did you accomplish that in Batman Begins?
Nolan: Yes. I feel very pleased. We did some pretty outrageously ambitious things in making the film. We built what I believe is the biggest set for any movie. We shot in Iceland on frozen lakes. We didn't use any second unit—we did everything first unit.
BOM: Is it too long at two hours and 17 minutes?
Nolan: It's 2:20. 2:17 has been printed, but 2:20 is accurate. Three years ago, I went to the studio, and I told them roughly what the film was going to be, and I told them it would be two hours and 20 minutes long. The reason is that to me the epic scope of the story we were aiming for, combined with the fact that, in dealing with the origins of the story, you have to spend a lot of time before you even get to Batman. And you want a number of action scenes—you basically want a two-hour blockbuster movie plus an extra movement to the piece at the end with credits—which comes out at two hours and 20 minutes as opposed to two hours and five minutes. We had to start at the very beginning of the story, treating [Bruce Wayne] as a child—and spend time doing that, not just a montage, but really embrace the story—you need that extra room. When you look at the highest grossing movies, they're really long films, whether it's Titanic or The Sound of Music or Gone with the Wind. I always want a film I work on to be as short as it possibly can, and it took a while because there's a lot of story here to cram in. There aren't any deleted scenes on the DVD, because we never removed story; we just compressed it. So it's a furiously paced film, and we're very fortunate that musicians helped us achieve a unity with the right tempo.
BOM: Is there anything you would change?
Nolan: No, it's exactly the film I want. It's not that you look and say it's perfect, but it's all the film I wanted to make. There's always compromise involved with that—but they're all my choices.
BOM: Do you read reviews?
Nolan: I can't really read them anymore. To me, the value of film criticism, always was—and I say was because I used to be fascinated by anything written about films—the discussion of film, not the verdict, from a critic you knew, whose reviews you read a lot of. As soon as you start reducing things to numbers, it becomes less valuable—subject to all sorts of misinterpretations. The test of films is ultimately the test of time.
BOM: Whom do you want the audience to root for: Batman or Bruce Wayne?
Nolan: It shifts. For a lot of the movie, you root for Bruce Wayne, but somehow by the end you end up rooting for the concept of Batman.
BOM: Since Batman is a means to an end, are you rooting for Batman so he can get back to being Bruce Wayne?
Nolan: No, I think you're rooting for Batman at the expense of Bruce Wayne. The feeling of the end of the film is the ending, or postponement, of the relationship with Rachel [the character played by Katie Holmes]—it's the ending of the Bruce Wayne story and the beginning of Batman—Batman begins.
BOM: But isn't Batman in business to put himself out of business?
Nolan: I think he is, but I believe that to be futile. There is no utopia. There is no Heaven on earth. We all sort of accept that—it's not possible. If you look at the history of the comics, there are a lot of interesting explorations of the father's life and organized crime, and the nature of the enemy changes. These things can't ever be perfect or balanced or reconciled—it's a constant struggle. As soon as we solve one problem in our lives, something else crops up.
BOM: Is it a malevolent or benevolent universe?
Nolan: I think it's a benevolent universe. Ultimately, I think what Batman is trying to do is tip the balance against corruption—and that's a specific type of evil that can't ebb and flow, and it can be defeated in a sense. I do believe that. That's why his quest makes sense to me.
BOM: That's against a prevalent view that we're all doomed and everything is dark and horrible—
Nolan: It's interesting that you say that because, particularly with Batman, there's a demand, particularly from the fans, that you treat it with appropriate darkness and, to me, it was never about making a darker film. It was about making a realistic film and, to me, there's great [virtue] in the character. The discussion we were having about heroism is something I've thought a lot about Batman because, yes, you can make him very dark but you can't ignore the question of his heroism and his inherent ability. Otherwise, he ceases to be Batman—he becomes a different character, the Punisher, the Crow. The fans can argue about what defines Batman, but the heroism—the positivity of what he's actually doing—isn't up for discussion. Again, it's not just about making him darker—it's about making him more realistic.
|Christopher Nolan on the set of Batman Begins|
BOM: For me, Batman's defining moment is when Lieutenant Gordon says to him, "I never thanked you," and Batman responds: "And you'll never have to." That's the cashing in of everything that's come before because that's when he stands for something—for something honorable…
BOM: …and he's not just this dark, martyred knight who's defined by torture and suffering…
BOM: …whereas in so many movies, the evil is more interesting, more compelling, than the good…
Nolan: Definitely. Yet the immediate response to Batman's standing up for what's good is a proportional escalation of evil, and that's not philosophical—it's not that it will always be that way—it's about how bad things have to get before things become good. Batman is positive, but I believe that, in the first couple of years, he's going to find an increasingly negative response from society, because the truth is that, when you have a powerful, negative city like Gotham, it didn't become corrupt by accident, and those entrenched people are going to respond very vigorously.
BOM: Sounds like a good sequel.
Nolan: Absolutely. And that's the point of the final scene. That [fighting evil] is not going to be easy. It's going to get harder.