When Inception was released back on July 16th, the strikingly original film shook up a summer marketplace filled with derivative sequels and unfortunate remakes that had critics decrying the creative barrenness of studio films. Which is why writer-director Nolan garnered respect from Hollywood for using his clout from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight to film his own long, gestating spec script from an idea that had rattled around in his head for a decade. Inception is a movie with many layers and a dense plot, allowing Nolan to ride a familiar genre but then arrive at a new place. Sure, the box office was well-trod turf for him: $825 million worldwide. But, first, he had to imagine himself in the dream world of Inception before he took audiences there.
DEADLINE: How was writing Inception different for you?
NOLAN: What I try to do is write from the inside out. I really try to jump into the world of the film and the characters, try to imagine myself in that world rather than imagining it as a film I’m watching onscreen. Sometimes, that means I’m discovering things the way the audience will, with character and story. Other times, you’re plotting it out with diagrams and taking a very objective view. Writing, for me, is a combination of both. You take an objective approach at times to get you through things, and you take a subjective approach at other times, and that allows you to find an emotional experience for the audience. This was one of those projects that burned inside me for a long time, but I wouldn’t say in a completely unique way. I made a film earlier called The Prestige. For four or five years, that burned inside me. It was something I really wanted to crack with my brother Jonah, and eventually we did it. I certainly have other ideas I’ve not been able to crack that I see great potential in, sitting in the back of a drawer. You never quite know what you’re going to come back to and figure out how to make it work. You never quite know where that desire to finish something, or return to something in a fresh way, is going to come from. Every time I finished a film and went back and looked at it, I had changed as a person. The script was different to me. And, eventually, who I was as a writer, as a filmmaker, and what the script needed to be, all these things coincided.
DEADLINE: What breakthrough ended Inception’s 10-year script gestation period?
NOLAN: The final piece of the puzzle for me with the script I’d been trying to finish for about 10 years was figuring out how to connect emotionally with the central character in a way that would make it a more emotional story. The reason I got hung up on this is that I had first devised the rules of the world, using the heist genre as a way in. That genre embraces exposition and so it’s good for teaching a new set of rules to an audience. The problem is, heist movies tend to be a bit superficial, glamorous, and fun. They don’t tend to be emotionally engaging. What I realized after banging my head into a wall for 10 years trying to finish it is that when you’re dealing with the world of dreams, the psyche, and potential of a human mind, there has to be emotional stakes. You have to deal with issues of memory and desire. I figured out the emotional connection of the central character to the audience and made this about following his journey home to his children and his love for his wife. Those really were the final pieces of the puzzle that let me finish the script.
DEADLINE: While you were waiting for that solution, were there movies that came along that convinced you the technology was there to translate your visuals to the screen?
NOLAN: On The Dark Knight we really tried to push ourselves to achieve a lot of large-scale effects in camera, to really create a world by shooting on location, all around the world, and by doing very large in-camera gags like flipping an 18-wheeler truck on a busy downtown street, for real. Coming out the other side of that experience and having enjoyed it as much as I did left me feeling like we had a great team of people who could devise and photograph these kinds of visuals. I came away feeling well equipped to take on the world of Inception and the kind of outlandish imagery it would require. Most of the technology employed for the imagery of Inception is fairly old-fashioned. There is some newer technology that the guys at Double Negative brought to the table. The most daunting aspect of the visuals, for me, had always been things that had been based on in-camera technologies, like achieving zero gravity by building sets with different orientations and doing tricks with wires. Those techniques were based on seeing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 when I was a kid, falling in love with deception and the magical tricks he did to convince an audience there was zero gravity. The thing that really gave me confidence to take on my film had more to do with my own experience, rather than technology in other people’s films. It was more about having had the opportunity to do some really large-scale filmmaking and getting comfortable with the big machine that’s involved in that to really get a handle on pushing the envelope with what we’d be able to do on set and in-camera.
DEADLINE: What advantages did writing on spec give you?
NOLAN: I had actually gone in and met with Warner Bros years before, right after I’d finished Insomnia, and described the project when I was starting to write it. They wanted to hire me then to write it, but I turned away from that opportunity. I realized with a project like Inception I would be trying to cross certain boundaries of genre and push the envelope of what mainstream movies are allowed to with an audience. I felt it very important that I develop the script on my own. I had to finish it on the page, so at least there would be a specific and clear document in front of the studio of what this film was going to be. The advantage of writing on spec was I got to really thrash out in my own head how to make these things work, and then offer it to the studio for backing and collaboration. I don’t think I would have been able to develop this with someone else. I needed to at least get the first practical draft done on my own and then bring the studio into the process.
DEADLINE: Danny Boyle recently told Deadline he admires how you take $160 million and make it look like $320 million. What is the most stressful thing about steering such a large creative bet?
NOLAN: The most stressful and difficult part of steering a large movie like Inception is that you are taking on the responsibility of communicating with a very wide audience. You can’t ever hide behind the notion of, ‘Okay, they just don’t get it,’ or, ‘Certain people just don’t get it.’ You have to be mindful of the size of your audience, and you have to communicate in a way that lets them in. That can be difficult when you’re trying to do something more challenging. There really is a delicate balance between presenting people with elements that are unfamiliar, but still giving them an entertaining experience for their willingness to come on that ride with you and accept a certain degree of confusion. That’s the most difficult thing, but it’s also a challenge I’ve very much enjoyed over the last few films.
DEADLINE: Did Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures say yes when they read the script or did you have to show them visuals?
NOLAN: I try and get everybody on board with a project simply through the words on the page and my explanation of what I see, how I’m going to put these things onscreen and what they’re going to feel like. And so, the process of getting Inception greenlit was involving a wide group of people at Warner Bros, from creative and production, distribution and marketing. Everybody read the script. Then I came in and fielded a lot of their questions about how particular visuals were going to be done, and what the feel of the film would be, and very much about how the audience would be able to orient themselves to the film. That was always a concern by everybody who read the script. I was happy to talk about that, how we would use the design of the different dream levels to help orient the audience as the film rolls into more furious cross-cutting in the last third.
DEADLINE: How did you explain to them the three levels of dreams?
NOLAN: I told them one of the dream levels is in the rain, one of them is a night interior, one is outdoors in the snow. That meant that even in a close-up, you would be able to tell which level you were in as you cross-cut. They were very aware of the risky nature of the project, but they just got very excited about seeing the film.
DEADLINE: What checks and balances do you use to ensure that creatively you are not repeating yourself?
NOLAN: With The Dark Knight you had to strike a balance of familiarity with the audience. It is a sequel, and they want familiar elements, things they liked from the first film. But you always have to be very aware that the audience is extremely ruthless in its demand for newness, novelty and freshness. At script stage, we really tried to thrash that out—are we striking that right balance? Inception was very similar. We were trying to strike a balance between a certain familiarity and comfort zone in terms of genre and how they watched a film. That was mostly attended to by leaning on the formal elements of the heist movie structure. We were trying to strike a balance between giving the audience familiar elements to hang onto, and trying to re-contextualize those elements into something hopefully the audience hadn’t seen before. We dealt with this somewhat even on Memento — that was a very unusually structured film with its reverse chronology. I wrote the script to have a very familiar underlying rhythm to it, a conventional three-act structure in terms of the way the audience gets information from the beginning to the end. So there’s this substructure of familiarity with the film-noir genre and the three-act structure underneath this more complicated reverse-chronology super-structure. It is something I’ve always really tried to pay attention to. If you’re trying to challenge an audience and make them look at elements in a different way, you’ve got to give them a familiar context to hang onto.
DEADLINE: Did you let actors read a full script of Inception before they committed?
NOLAN: The challenge is striking a balance between allowing the actor going to work on the project to feel in collusion, and like they’ll be genuine creative collaborators. When you go to an actor like Leonardo DiCaprio you have to be extremely respectful of his creative role in things. You have to embrace him as a fully-authorized collaborator. It was very important to show him a complete script and talk to him over a number of days and fill him in on every aspect of what I was going to do with it. But a guy like Leo is happy to do that within the context of privacy, and he was very gracious about understanding that if he didn’t want to do the movie, he wasn’t going to go around town telling everybody about it. You have to trust that in people. For me, getting into a collaboration with an actor is about trust, both ways. It was a great pleasure working with new people like Leo on this film. We had a lot of creative collaboration on the script once he came onboard; it became a hugely valuable part of the process. I don’t ever like to feel myself in the position to demand of an actor that they trust I’m going to do something worthwhile. I feel a responsibility to articulate what it is I’m going to do. Whether that’s showing them a full script or sitting down with them and describing my ideas in detail. It’s a very healthy burden on me as a film director to be able to articulate what I want to do, to inspire actors, rather than just saying, take it on trust I’ll be able to do something worthwhile.
DEADLINE: Why didn’t you shoot in 3D which studios like Warner Bros have made a priority?
NOLAN: We looked at shooting Inception in 3D and decided we’d be too restricted by the technology. We wouldn’t have been able to shoot on film the way we’d like to. We looked at post-converting it, actually did some tests, and they were very good. But we didn’t have time to do the conversion that we would have been satisfied with. Inception deals with subjectivity, quite intimate associations between the audience and the perceived state of reality of the characters. In the case of Batman, I view those as iconic, operatic movies, dealing with larger-than-life characters. The intimacy that the 3D parallax illusion imposes isn’t really compatible with that. We are finishing our story on the next Batman, and we want to be consistent to the look of the previous films. There was more of an argument for a film like Inception. I’ve seen work in 3D like Avatar that’s exciting. But, for me, what was most exciting about Avatar was the creation of a world, the use of visual effects, motion capture, performance capture, these kinds of things. I don’t think Avatar can be reduced to its 3D component, it had so much more innovation going on that’s extremely exciting. 3D has always been an interesting technical format, a way of showing something to the audience. But you have to look at the story you’re telling: is it right?
DEADLINE: Inception was lauded in Hollywood as a dose of originality in a summer largely devoid of it. Studios rely on tentpoles, but are they concerned enough about originality?
NOLAN: I’m not sure I’d put that down to studio reliance on tent poles. Maybe it’s just particularly working with Warners Bros, but in my experience with the studio system, they have always understood the need for freshness and not just something the audience has seen before. I’m not sure I’d pin it down necessarily to studio reliance on tent poles, because I think it’s as possible to make over-familiar small movies as it is to make over-familiar tent poles. In fact, the honest truth is that when you look at some of the more original successes over time, conceptually a lot of them are tent poles, from Star Wars to Avatar.
DEADLINE: Do you see an opportunity to revisit the world of Inception with a sequel?
NOLAN: I’ve always liked the potential of the world. It’s an infinite, or perhaps I should say an infinitesimal world that fascinates me. At the moment, we’re exploring a video game, which is something I’ve been very interested in doing for a number of years. This lends itself nicely to that. As far as sequels go, I think of Inception as one film, but that’s how I approach all my films. When I was making Batman Begins, I certainly didn’t have any thoughts of doing a second Batman film, let alone a third. You never quite know where your creative interests are going to take you, but when I was making Inception, I viewed it as a stand-alone movie.
DEADLINE: Since this is awards season, can you describe what it meant to you when Heath Ledger won the Oscar for The Dark Knight shortly after he died?
NOLAN: I was extremely gratified to see people responding to work that I knew was great. And I was very proud to have been a part in its creation, or at least in creating a world where a great artist could really show what he could do. It was a great honor to be in any way involved in that.