The fast and the fu­ri­ous

It’s about as dark as a su­per­hero movie is ever likely to get, with a re­mark­able per­for­mance from the late Heath Ledger at its heart. And The Dark Knight is also rewrit­ing the rules when it comes to box-of­fice suc­cess. Don­ald Clarke talks to its di­rec­tor

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

LATE LAST week­end, it be­came ap­par­ent that The Dark Knight, Christo­pher Nolan’s stun­ning new Bat­man film, was set to be­come the most highly praised and most fi­nan­cially lu­cra­tive su­per­hero film of all time. It is, there­fore, no sur­prise to en­counter a curious buzz hang­ing about the press jun­ket at Lon­don’s Dorch­ester Ho­tel on Tues­day. But this is ridicu­lous. ITN have parked their van be­neath a tree in front of the build­ing. Else­where, well-ironed mi­cro­phone jock­eys from the BBC and Sky stare grimly into cam­eras.

The me­dia hub­bub is, of course, in­spired by an in­ci­dent in­volv­ing Chris­tian Bale and his fam­ily. Ear­lier to­day, the po­lice in­ter­viewed the ac­tor, star of both The Dark Knight and the pre­ced­ing Bat­man Be­gins, in con­nec­tion with a heated al­ter­ca­tion be­tween Bat­man and Bat­mum. (By now, you may know the true facts be­hind this un­likely in­ci­dent.) Inside the ho­tel, a dozen jour­nal­ists hang around the Warner Brothers press pack wav­ing an­gry tape recorders. No­body ad­mits to know­ing where Bale is or whether he will turn up for fur­ther in­ter­views.

All this serves as an un­wel­come dis­trac­tion from the The Dark Knight’s as­ton­ish­ing per­for­mance so far in the United States. Costar­ring the late Heath Ledger as a ruth­less, mo­tive­less Joker and a lantern-jawed Aaron Eck­hart as Har­vey Dent, the lawyer who will evolve into the de­monic Two Face, the film comes across as an ur­ban crime epic with flavours of Michael Mann and early Francis Ford Cop­pola. So, it’s very, very good. But there must be some­thing more spe­cific; some spirit of the age that has turned it into such a phe­nom­e­non. No other pic­ture has man­aged to hoover up $158 mil­lion on its open­ing week­end.

“What I wanted to do first was make sure that it re­paid the in­vest­ment the stu­dio put into it. But I never ex­pected this,” Christo­pher Nolan, a po­lite young man with a way­ward fringe, says thought­fully. “But I haven’t tried too hard to fig­ure out why it has been such a phe­nom­e­non. I’ve been a film fan all my life, and th­ese things are al­ways im­pos­si­ble to fig­ure out. But there is clearly a zeit­geist as­pect about this that de­fies my anal­y­sis.”

Well, you could see the film as a dis­cus­sion of the moral per­ils that loom when rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the state sanc­tion ex­treme re­sponses to ter­ror­ism. The Joker, played as a kind of har­lequin tramp by Ledger, acts not for money – nor, it must be said, for re­li­gion or ide­ol­ogy – but for the sheer joy of do­ing evil. He is a ni­hilist guer­rilla.

“Yes, I was sur­prised how of­ten the word ‘ter­ror­ism’ creeps into the film,” Nolan says. "You don’t want to frighten peo­ple. You don’t want them to think of this as a real-world story. You want it to be es­capism, but there is no get­ting around the fact that he ter­rorises the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion. There­fore, he’s a ter­ror­ist. If he is go­ing to stand for real an­ar­chy, then he must be about de­struc­tion. He must be a bomber.”

Now, stay with me here Chris, while I risk get­ting car­ried away. If The Joker is a ter­ror­ist, then Bat­man could be seen as a liv­ing em­bod­i­ment of The Pa­triot Act, ex­tra­or­di­nary ren­di­tion and state-spon­sored vig­i­lan­tism. The film finds time to ques­tion the cosy re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Dark Knight and Gary Old­man’s com­pli­ant po­lice com­mis­sioner. As events progress, the cops be­gin to re­alise that (to gar­ble a cliché) their vel­vet fist fits un­com­fort­ably in Bat­man's iron glove. “Yeah. At what point does that prag­matic re­la­tion­ship de­stroy the pu­rity of the orig­i­nal in­tent?” Nolan says. “If there is an idea in the film, it is to do with that con­flict be­tween prag­ma­tism and ide­al­ism. How far can you go down a dark road to achieve a par­tic­u­lar good be­fore you en­dan­ger that good? Our world – and par­tic­u­larly Amer­ica – is deal­ing with that now. The film doesn’t pre­tend to have an an­swer to that.”

A decade ago, you wouldn’t have pegged Christo­pher Nolan for a di­rec­tor of block­busters. Raised in Chicago and Lon­don – though still un­shak­ably English in ac­cent and tem­per­a­ment – he taught him­self how to make films

in his back gar­den as a teenager. Af­ter knock­ing to­gether a no-bud­get, vaguely avant­garde fea­ture called Fol­low­ing in 1996, he went on to at­tract se­ri­ous at­ten­tion with the tem­po­rally un­hinged thriller Me­mento. He stum­bled into Bat­man Be­gins af­ter Dar­ren Aronof­sky, di­rec­tor of Re­quiem for a Dream, got the boot, but, de­spite his back­ground in a qui­eter sort of ac­tion cin­ema, man­aged to make some­thing gen­uinely fresh out of the fran­chise re­boot.

Nolan, like Michael Mann or Kubrick, is clearly in­tensely in­ter­ested in de­tail. You sense that ev­ery bolt and screw has been se­lected with the great­est of care. Yet, a glance at the turns by Guy Pearce in Me­mento or Bale in 2006’s The Pres­tige will con­firm that he is also a very tal­ented di­rec­tor of hu­man be­ings. You are prob­a­bly al­ready sick of read­ing that “there is talk of an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for Heath Ledger” (sim­ply write the phrase and you have au­to­mat­i­cally gen­er­ated the “talk”), but one can­not deny the queasy sin­gu­lar­ity of the Aus­tralian’s per­for­mance.

How much of the con­cep­tion of The Joker was down to Heath? How much was in the script?

“It is hard to un­pick that ex­actly,” he says. “Heath was a very imag­i­na­tive per­former, not just in how to play some­thing, but also in terms of ideas. There is a good scene where

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he at­taches a grenade to a thread from his coat. That was a punch­line that he came up with. He was in­volved with the nar­ra­tive as well as the char­ac­ter.”

When Ledger died of an over­dose in Jan­uary, Nolan’s first thoughts were, of course, for his friend and for the oth­ers mourn­ing him. But the movie busi­ness is a ruth­less mistress and, within weeks, the di­rec­tor and his kitchen cabi­net – his wife, Emma Thomas, has pro­duced all his films and Jonathan Nolan, his brother, helps write the scripts – must have been forced to make cer­tain dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions. Did the death af­fect the edit­ing or pro­mo­tion of the movie?

For the first time in the in­ter­view, Nolan looks un­com­fort­able. He shuf­fles to the side ta­ble and sets about mak­ing him­self a cup of Earl Gray tea.

“Not at all. There were no real dif­fer­ences to our approach,” he says firmly. “I get asked that a lot. But the only thing I could do was to fin­ish the film as we had in­tended and de­liver the per­for­mance as Heath in­tended it.”

This is a lit­tle sur­pris­ing. Some view­ers have al­ready felt that (giv­ing noth­ing away) cer­tain as­pects of the end­ing sug­gest that a de­gree of diplo­matic fil­let­ing has gone on. “No. Not a bit of it.” What about the pro­mo­tion? It seemed as if images of Heath were pulled from ad­ver­tise­ments in the weeks af­ter his death?

“I re­ally would pre­fer not to talk about that if that is okay,” he says with un­mis­tak­able fi­nal­ity. “That re­ally is not my bag. I just do what I am told.”

Fair enough. Nolan leans to­wards dis­cre­tion once again when I raise the in­evitable is­sue of a third film. With The Dark Knight, Chris has pulled off the very tricky busi­ness of pleas­ing both the pop­corn munch­ers and the goa­teed men in berets. Warner Brothers, which will greatly en­joy that har­mo­nious com­bi­na­tion of pres­tige and cash, will surely en­gage it­self in an act of col­lec­tive pros­tra­tion as it seeks to get him to sign on for an­other episode.

“Look, I do one thing at a time and I have just been ham­mer­ing away at this one,” he says ami­ably.

That’s a politi­cian’s an­swer. So, he is re­fus­ing to even dis­cuss the is­sue at present. Is that right?

“Erm. Yes. I am not talk­ing about that sub­ject at this stage. What I will say is that we didn’t with­hold any­thing for a third film. There was no process of sav­ing some­thing for a third film. We have tried to make this film as de­fin­i­tive as we pos­si­bly could. We wanted to pair off with the first, but we wanted this to be an en­tity in its own right.”

In truth, Christo­pher Nolan is now in that scary po­si­tion of be­ing able to do what­ever the heck he wants. If he wanted to in­vade Poland or travel to Uranus, Warn­ers or Uni­ver­sal or Fox would find the money to let him try. That power could paral­yse even the most self-con­fi­dent of men. Af­ter all, it is over a decade since James Cameron di­rected Ti­tanic, the most suc­cess­ful film of all time, and the beardy Cana­dian has yet to re­lease an­other pic­ture.

“Oh yeah. Look, when the Fri­day-night fig­ures came in, be­ing the nat­u­ral pes­simist I am, I thought to my­self: now I am com­pletely screwed for my next film. Noth­ing is ever go­ing to be as suc­cess­ful as this. Is it? Then again, that is a won­der­ful prob­lem to have.”

Shot­gun smile: Heath Ledger as The Joker and, be­low, Christo­pher Nolan

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