Bruce Wayne has had a tough time in Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City. His house burned down; his girlfriend died; he became the city’s most-wanted fugitive; his costume looks really uncomfortable. But in Nolan’s third and final bat film, The Dark Knight Rises, the director gives Batman a gift that’s almost always eluded the character over 73 years’ worth of comic-book stories: a true ending. “That’s the difference between a movie and a comic book,” says Nolan. “And we have always treasured that difference.”
You had your doubts that Catwoman could fit into your version of Batman’s world — what did it take to get over it?
We threw away the idea of Catwoman completely and finally found a way to make that character live and breathe credibly and in our world. We constructed almost a film noir femme fatale, a grifter. That’s something I could get my teeth into creatively.
And with no purring.
[Laughs] Exactly. Certainly, that was never going to make it in. But we’ve been through the same process with Christian on Batman, and very much with Heath on the Joker: There’s the sense of you go, “OK, throw out everything you know about the icon; construct it as a real character.” And then you wind up with a finished film, going, “OK, you know what? We kind of have a version of all of it in there.” She does look like Catwoman. We found a way to put ears on her head that makes sense — for me, that was a big thing, figuring out that she has night-vision goggles, and she flips them on her head, and it makes a shape that looks like ears.
From Batman Begins on, you go to great lengths to justify every detail of these characters in real-world terms. Has anyone accused you of taking it all too seriously?
No! [Laughs] The idea was to take Batman and give him the grounding of any other movie hero from a Seventies or Eighties action movie. To me, it’s just more entertaining when you can believe in the world and accept the physics of it. You don’t want people to have to just suspend their disbelief. That always sort of short-circuits the drama; I want to see the filmmakers put the work into making you believe in this thing.
The movie’s incredible opening IMAX sequence, with Bane’s people attacking a plane in midflight, is even more over-the-top than the Hong Kong scenes in the second movie — are you trying to out-Bond the James Bond movies?
Well, that’s always the attempt. I grew up watching those films obsessively. For me, the Bond films in the Seventies and Eighties always stood for the pinnacle of that kind of action, adventure-entertainment with real stunts, a lot of exotic locations. That for me is what represents scale in movies. A lot of the guys working on that opening sequence did the Bond films for years, and I avail myself of their expertise shamelessly.
It’s also convenient that Morgan Freeman essentially plays Q.
[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t think I’ve been too subtle about the ways in which I m ripping oft those movies. But I think because everybody else enjoys them, they’ve been kind of OK to let me rip them off and just kind of go with it.
You actually had stuntmen in midair; you actually built a massive set of Gotham City’s sewers. How averse are you to CGI?
I don’t want to sit back and say to the computer-graphics guys, “Go make it from nothing.” So we try to use the visual effects for what they’re best for, which is enhancing something that we’ve actually shot. There’s great things you can do with computers. There’s a lot of very fine visual-effects work in the film that people literally don’t even see — which is how they should be used. We try to keep up our end on the set and shoot absolutely anything we can.
The criticism you hear of more CGI-heavy movies is that they somehow feel weightless.
That’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid. Animation is always going to feel slightly different to the audience than something that has been photographed for real and has a real weight to it. The world is too complicated to simulate mathematically. However sophisticated your tricks are, the audience is always going to be able to tell the difference on some subliminal level.
“Some men just want to watch the world burn” has become one of the most quoted lines in the past decade or so of movies. How did that particular Michael Caine monologue in the second movie come together?
It’s something I wrote quite a long time before I actually started writing on the script. While my brother was writing the first draft, I had these odd bits and pieces — I write these sort of stream-of-consciousness monologues sometimes for a character that I know I’m going to use pieces of, but I don’t know where or when. The idea was that it seemed absurd to us to try to provide a traditional motivation for a character like the Joker, who has to stand for absolute anarchy and chaos. I was looking for a way to express that.
Not once in The Dark Knight Rises is the word “Joker”spoken. I assume that was quite deliberate.
Very deliberate. I can only do what feels right to me, and to me, having lost a friend and a colleague, it felt like it would be very reductive to try and incorporate that somewhere into our fictional universe, and so I chose, out of respect for Heath, to completely not address the question of the Joker in this film.
If not for the tragedy of losing him, would this have been a very different film?
[Long pause] That’s a parallel universe, so I have no idea. It would be a very different world in a lot of ways.
In the new movie, you have Bane more or less trick Gotham’s 99 percent into rising up against the rich — is that intended as an anti-Occupy Wall Street statement?
I’ve had as many conversations with people who have seen the film the other way round. We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks. We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that’s simply a backdrop for the story. What we’re really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open. We’re going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it’s not doing any of those things. It’s just telling a story. If you’re saying, “Have you made a film that’s supposed to be criticizing the Occupy Wall Street movement?” — well, obviously, that’s not true.
But the movie certainly suggests that there’s a great danger of populist movements being pushed too far.
If the populist movement is manipulated by somebody who is evil, that surely is a criticism of the evil person. You could also say the conditions the evil person is exploiting are problematic and should be addressed.
You must have your own opinions on all this.
Oh, I’ve got all sorts of opinions, but this isn’t what we’re doing here. I love when people get interested in the politics of it, when they see something in it that moves them in some way. But I’m not being disingenuous when I say that we write from a place of “What’s the worst thing our villain Bane can do? What are we most afraid of?” He’s going to come in and turn our world upside down. That has happened to other societies throughout history, many times, so why not here? Why not Gotham? We want something that moves people and gets under the skin.
Some people would say, inherently, from the beginning, that Batman is a right-wing character, who establishes law and order by pummeling criminals with his fists.
Yes, if you assume Gotham is the same as a place like New York City, but that’s not the case. The corruption that drives Bruce Wayne to become Batman is very extreme. So, you know, your concept of “Does the end justify the means?” shifts according to the backdrop. And so the challenge of Batman Begins was to make us OK with the idea of vigilantism. The films genuinely aren’t intended to be political. You don’t want to alienate people, you want to create a universal story.
A lot of people would argue that all art is political.
But what’s politics?
So would Bruce Wayne vote for Mitt Romney?
Before or after Bruce goes broke?