…the apartment of my character, ‘The Young Man’, was my flat in Iliffe Street, Walworth. Which is also where the bat was.
Keen-eyed viewers have spotted a Batman logo on the door of the flat. Some call it ironic (incorrectly), others say it’s prescient. Actually, I’d put it up in 1989 when I moved there; there was a film out called Batman that year…
And that was the way we made the film. None of the sets were designed, few were dressed. We made do — or rather, Chris chose places he thought were suitable and would take little arranging.
So far, so coincidental.
But it doesn’t stop there, as a screen grab Nolan’s next film Memento (2000) recently surfaced featuring …a Batman logo:
If you zoom in to the top right of the frame (timed at 0:47:58 on the DVD) you can see the logo for Batman alongside one for Superman.
What’s nice is that the conversation is relaxed but intelligent (I liked the use of the term Nolan-verse) and full of passion about the Batman character and films.
One point that stuck out for me was when they mused on the fact that Warner Bros actually greenlit and stumped up the cash for a blockbuster as ambitious and dark as this – so props to the suits at Burbank for allowing Nolan to bring his vision to the screen.
A few years ago a friend of mine showed me the first DVD of An Evening with Kevin Smith and I was surprised how funny and engaging he could be on stage (especially as he plays Silent Bob in his movies). But some of the stories are hilarious.
There is no doubt that this film has transcended its comic book origins to become one of the most accomplished and ambitious blockbusters in years.
As I couldn’t make the IMAX screening I had to go to the standard 35mm one earlier in the evening, so when I catch it on IMAX next Friday I’ll write something about seeing on that format.
But even in a conventional cinema it is probably worth beginning with how I felt as it ended – drained. There is a lot of stuff going on and at just over two and a half hours it looks and feels like a serious crime epic, rather than a conventional summer movie.
The realistic approach to the Bruce Wayne character and Gotham City worked well and has really reaped dividends with this sequel, which not only builds on the foundations established that film but makes this a richer and more rewarding experience.
In the same way that the first film rebooted our expectations of a comic book movie, this one takes it to another level – imagine a dark, sprawling and realistic crime saga set in a modern city, that just happens to have Batman and The Joker in it.
Emboldened after the success of the first film, director Christopher Nolan and co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (with story credit by David S Goyer) have crafted a spectacularly ambitious summer blockbuster, one that has many layers and twists alongside some brilliant work from the cast and crew.
The story, set in a Gotham City soaked in crime, violence and corruption, revolves around three central characters: Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), a billionaire vigilante dishing out justice at night time; Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the District Attorney boldly taking on organised crime; and The Joker (Heath Ledger), a mysterious psychopathic criminal wreaking havoc on the city.
What’s quite startling about the film is the way in the plot doesn’t just revolve around Batman – it gives equal weight to Dent and Joker, forming an impressive triangular narrative.
Added to that, some of the supporting cast (especially Gordon) are given much stronger roles than you might expect for a film of this type.
Most impressively of all, these different strands are developed in ways that are engrossing and genuinely surprising – at times it is so layered, with key sequences often having parallel consequences.
There are points when the narrative (especially in the later stages) stretches to near-breaking point, so exhaustive are the plot lines and events on screen.
But despite the almost suffocating nature of the storytelling, it gives the film a grandeur and seriousness that complements the darker tone of this rebooted Batman franchise.
As for the action, it follows the script in being similarly dense, and some of the big set pieces – especially two key sequences – have an unpredictable and chaotic quality to them.
This at times makes it a little dizzying (I can only imagine what they felt like in IMAX) but also refreshing for this kind of movie, where the beats and outcomes are often too predictable.
What I particularly loved was the old school stunt work in the chase sequences and that actual (although presumably disused) buildings were blown up – it was a raw, effective contrast to the type of CGI-driven sequences that have become the norm for big budget blockbusters.
The performances too are a revelation for this type of genre movie. Bale continues his solid work from the first film but Ledger and Eckhart bring much more to their roles than what might have been expected.
As The Joker, Ledger has managed to completely reinvent him as a wildly unpredictable psychopath who brings Gotham to it’s knees.
Although – due to his tragically early death – there was always going to be added interest in his performance, he really is outstanding.
Completely immersing himself the role, he creates a villain who is scary, funny and unpredictable. Caring only for chaos and death, The Joker uses his considerable ingenuity to alter a city and the two figures (Batman and Dent) who can save it.
Eckhart has perhaps received less press but Harvey Dent is no less important to the story – in some ways his character is where Batman and The Joker meet.
He radiates an old-school charisma and integrity that fits his crusading DA perfectly, making his later problems all the more powerful.
Another interesting aspect of the script is the way in which it taps into modern fears about terrorism and the struggle to fight for good in a world that has become severely infected with violence and evil.
Many aspects of the film raise interesting questions and parallels. Can we see Batman – a sophisticated force for good caught up in a moral dilemma – as a metaphor for the US military? Could The Joker – a psychopathic enigma wreaking terror on society – be a twisted version of Osama Bin Laden?
The fact that a comic book adaptation subtly provokes these questions is daring, but what’s also clever is that they have mined the comic books (especially The Killing Joke) for themes and story lines which have a contemporary echo.
What is behind on all this mania? I think this is a film that appeals to many different types of audience: fanboys eager to see a cool comic book adaptation; Batman fans; summer moviegoers keen for escapism; cinephiles who loved Nolan’s earlier films (especially Memento) and those caught up in the recent hype.
Time will tell how well it will ultimately do, but for now I can’t wait to see this on an IMAX screen next Friday.
Have you seen The Dark Knight? Why do you think it has become such a success?
It is one of the most eagerly awaited films of the year and so I thought I’d write about the history of Batman on film, how the franchise was rebooted under director Christopher Nolan, the latest film, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker, how some of the film was shot on IMAX and the viral marketing campaign.
Hopefully the videos, images and links will help you get in the mood for what looks like one of the most interesting blockbusters in quite some time.
I’m seeing it tonight, so I’ll put up some reaction over the next 24 hours, but in the meantime let’s begin with the history of the caped crusader on film.
Similar in tone to the original it was also a big hit, grossing $266 million worldwide, although not as big a hit as the original film.
However, Tim Burton had grown weary of the demands of making summer tent pole movies and when the director and Keaton opted not to come back for a third film, Warner Bros took the character in new – and lighter – direction.
Some cast members, such as Michael Gough and Pat Hingle, were kept on but the film was markedly different in tone and style. Despite that, it was still a huge hit and led to another sequel two years later.
Batman and Robin was the fourth film in the franchise and was scheduled to be Warner Bros biggest blockbuster that summer.
However, things started to go wrong when Val Kilmer (like Keaton before him) refused to return and was replaced by George Clooney, who was then breaking into mainstream movies after the success of the hit TV show ER.
However, the camp tone, poor script and shoddy direction all contributed to a mess. It would be 8 years before another Batman movie but in retrospect the release Batman and Robin was quite interesting.
The negative advance buzz saw a major studio realise that online buzz could have an influence as much of it was fanned by Harry Knowles of Ain’t Cool News, a site then just over a year old.
Harry posted negative reviews from people who had seen advance screenings and the film – which opened to respectable numbers – never did the business the accountants at Burbank were expecting.
Knowles accurately summed up how a lot of people felt in his review, saying:
Because no matter how bad you have heard this film is, nothing can prepare you for the sheer glorius travesty of the 200-megaton bomb of a film this is.
This film is so bad, so awful, so vanity ridden with horrible over the top performances, that nothing I can say, can prepare you for it.
Even George Clooney seemed to agree, joking that:
“I think we might have killed the franchise.”
But it is interesting to note how his career has progressed since then. He would soon go on to be a major star, often appearing in films that were more left field than many might have expected.
For director Joel Schumacher it took a while to recover – he even recorded a semi-apologetic commentary for the DVD release – and he went back to basics with the low budget Tigerland, a film that effectively launched Colin Farrell‘s movie career.
REBOOTING BATMAN WITH CHRISTOPHER NOLAN
In the following years things started to get a little interesting.
After the success of X-Men in 2000 and Spider-Man in 2002 a rash of comic book adaptations hit the big screen and it was a logical move to start from scratch and give the character a reboot.
Nolan was an interesting choice, as he had only made two films up to that point – Following (1998) an ultra low budget tale of a writer obsessed with following people around London and Memento (2000), a dazzling neo-noir thriller about a widower (Guy Pearce) struggling with short term memory loss.
It won widespread critical acclaim for its innovative narrative structure – the screenplay was nominated for (but somehow didn’t win) an Oscar – and established him as major directing talent.
His next film Insomnia (2002), was a more conventional thriller about a police officer (Al Pacino) in Alaska on the trail of a killer (Robin Williams), who is haunted by guilt and is unable to sleep. A remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, it was still a highly accomplished piece of work.
Nolan said at the time of getting the Batman job that he wanted to re-imagine the franchise by:
“Doing the origin story of the character, which is a story that’s never been told before”.
In stark contrast to the Schumacher films, the emphasis here would be on portraying Batman realistically.
Entitled Batman Begins, it would show the origin story of how Bruce Wayne became a crime fighter who dresses up like a bat.
Christian Bale was cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Nolan stated that Richard Donner‘s 1978 Superman film was an inspiration, especially the first half which has – for a superhero movie – a long, extended backstory for the main character.
The latter comic book influenced the plot details of Bruce Wayne’s extended absence from Gotham City, the idea of a younger Commissioner Gordon (who in this film is a Sergeant) and the general setup of a corrupt city that is crying out for an outsider to bring justice.
Another important influence on the film was Blade Runner, which Nolan screened to his cinematographer Wally Pfister to show the kind of look and tone he was aiming for. The casting of Hauer (who came to fame as replicantRoy Batty) was also a nod to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic.
Batman: The Long Halloween was an important touchstone for the story. The 13-part comic book series takes place during Batman’s early periods of crime fighting and involves a mysterious killer who murders people around the holidays.
Along with District Attorney Harvey Dent and Lieutenant James Gordon, Batman has to solve the murders and uncover the killer. This film also sees the return of The Joker, a development that was strongly hinted in the final scene of Batman Begins.
Nolan was resistant in doing a full on origin story but was influenced by the iconic villain’s first two appearances in DC comics, which were both published in the first issue of Batman in 1940.
They even consulted Jerry Robinson, one of the Joker’s co-creators, about the character’s portrayal. Instead of a straight origin story they focused on his rise to notoriety, saying:
“We never wanted to do an origin story for the Joker in this film. The arc of the story is much more Harvey Dent’s; the Joker is presented as an absolute.
It’s a very thrilling element in the film, and a very important element, but we wanted to deal with the rise of the Joker not the origin of the Joker….”
He also cited Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke and Michael Mann’s 1995 crime drama Heat as inspirations for a story that would show Gotham’s key characters in the context of a crime ridden city.
HEATH LEDGER AS THE JOKER
Heath Ledger was cast as The Joker after Nolan had expressed interest in working with him in the past. After Batman Begins, Ledger went for an interpretation consistent with the more realistic tone of that film.
Reportedly, Ledger prepared by living alone in a hotel room for a month, formulating the character’s physical movements and voice, even keeping a diary of the Joker’s thoughts and feelings.
It would become a much darker character and he said that the Droogs of A Clockwork Orange and Sid Vicious were starting points for the character.
The aim was for a colder kind of sociopath, far removed from the lighter versions popularized by Cesar Romero in the 60s TV show or Nicholson’s in the 1989 film.
Ledger’s portrayal was key to a lot of the early marketing to the film and anticipation was high, especially after his Oscar-nominated performance in Brokeback Mountain.
However, tragedy struck on January 22nd this year when Ledger died in New York during a short break from filming Terry Gilliam’s forthcoming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. His work on The Dark Knight had been completed but it none the less was a deep shock to the film world and his colleagues on the film.
Heath was bursting with creativity. It was in his every gesture. He once told me that he liked to wait between jobs until he was creatively hungry. Until he needed it again. He brought that attitude to our set every day.
There aren’t many actors who can make you feel ashamed of how often you complain about doing the best job in the world. Heath was one of them.
When you get into the edit suite after shooting a movie, you feel a responsibility to an actor who has trusted you, and Heath gave us everything.
As we started my cut, I would wonder about each take we chose, each trim we made. I would visualize the screening where we’d have to show him the finished film—sitting three or four rows behind him, watching the movements of his head for clues to what he was thinking about what we’d done with all that he’d given us.
Now that screening will never be real. I see him every day in my edit suite. I study his face, his voice. And I miss him terribly.
All of Ledger’s scenes were unaffected and Nolan added no “digital effects” were used to alter his performance posthumously.
Recently Christian Bale has been quick to dismiss the idea that Ledger playing such a dark role had any part in his death.
Lauer: So much was made of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. It was such a dark role.
In some way, perhaps, do you think in real life, it caused him to slip across some line of reality and may have had some role in his accidental death?
Bale: Personally, I find it to be a complete lack of understanding of acting. I also find it very rude to try to create some kind of sound bite for such a tragedy. The man was a complex man, a good man, but you know what?
I saw him having the best time playing The Joker. He was someone who completely immersed himself in his role. As do I. But in the end of the day, he was having a wonderful time doing it, He couldn’t have been happier doing it.”
Watch the full interview here:
Nolan has dedicated the film in part to Ledger’s memory, as well as to the memory of technician Conway Wickliffe, who was killed during a car accident while preparing one of the film’s stunts.
SHOOTING ON IMAX
On a technical level, The Dark Knight is the first mainstream movie to have several major sequences shot in the IMAX format.
Nolan was particularly enthusiastic about shooting on the larger cameras, saying:
“There’s simply nothing like seeing a movie that way. It’s more immersive for the audience. I wish I could shoot the entire thing this way.”
Typically, feature films that play in IMAX cinemas are converted to fill the enormous screens.
With The Dark Knight the sequences shot in IMAX will fill out the full screen, whilst on traditional cinema screens they will appear more vivid than usual.
However, there were obstacles in shooting in the format such as the bulkier cameras (IMAX film stock is 10 times the size of standard 35mm), the extra cost and the noise they make, which made filming dialogue scenes difficult.
So far, showing films in IMAX cinemas doesn’t have a huge effect on the overall grosses as there are currently only about 280 IMAX theatres worldwide.
But The Dark Knight could be an important film in making the format more popular, as it will be released on IMAX the same day as it is in regular cinemas (in the UK there was nearly always a delay between the two).
Last December I saw the opening sequence at the BFI London IMAX and producer Charles Roven spoke to the audience afterwards about the film.
I noted down some of the discussions that came up in the post-screening Q&A:
Heath Ledger was cast as The Joker because of his range and his initial meetings with Chris Nolan about the character
3-D was never really considered as an option for the IMAX portions of the film
Prior to these Batman films he’d been trying to work with Nolan ever since he saw Memento
The Alfred/Bruce Wayne relationship continues
It is the first time Christian Bale has repeated a role
There is a sequence actually set in Hong Kong – they filmed a key sequence there where Batman jumps off a building. The idea of the setting was to get outside the world of Gotham and place it in a more believable context as a world city.
They aren’t even thinking about the villain for the next movie.
David Goyer, Chris Nolan and Jonathan Nolan wrote the first draft of the script and Jonathan wrote the later drafts whilst Chris was filming The Prestige.
The story is not directly based on anything by Frank Miller but has been influenced by him and other classic Batman writers.
Chris Nolan reportedly used the London IMAX cinema during the making of the film.
Gradually the site revealed itself to be “vandalized” with the slogan “I believe in Harvey Dent too,” and revealed the first image of the Joker. It was then replaced with a hidden message that said “see you in December.”
The site encouraged visitors to find letters composing a message from the Joker which said:
“The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.”
In October last year the film’s official website turned into another game with hidden messages, telling fans to uncover clues in certain US cities.
Those who finished that task were directed to another website called Rory’s Death Kiss (which was how the film was referred to on location). There fans could submit photos of themselves dressed as the Joker.
In December last year, the opening sequence of the film – which involves a bank raid featuring the Joker – was shown in selected IMAX cinemas before selected showings of I Am Legend.
After Heath Ledger’s death in January Warner Bros marketing campaign shifted a little, as up to that point the Joker had been a central part of the campaign.