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
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
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