STORY OF THE SHOT
THE DARK KNIGHT
THE STORY GOES like this: during The Dark Knight’s most explosive scene, in which clown-faced chaosmonger the Joker (Heath Ledger) blows up Gotham General Hospital — and director Christopher Nolan demolished an entire building for real — something went wrong. As Ledger walked out of the building with plumes of fire and debris bursting through windows behind him, everything unexpectedly fell quiet. The building, actually a derelict factory in Chicago, wasn’t collapsing as planned. Knowing it was a one-take deal, and figuring the SFX guys would fix it, Ledger improvised a ‘what’s up?’ gesture at the building before jabbing at his detonator. Suddenly, BOOM. The charges blew, surprising the actor, and the building came tumbling down. Good story. But it’s not true. “Yeah, I’ve heard that one many times,” says special effects supervisor Chris Corbould. “But no, it was all meant to be.” At the start of the shoot, Nolan had told Corbould, “I want to blow up more things than anyone’s ever blown up before,” to reflect the Joker’s personality. However, for this shot not only did Nolan want to bring down a building for real and capture it in a single, Joker-centred take (with only a cutaway to a crowd reaction and an aerial shot at the climax), he also wanted his principal actor to be walking out of the building during its initial, fiery paroxysms. During pre-viz, Corbould realised that meant splitting the explosions into two distinct phases.
“The first part where he’s walking out of the hospital is cosmetic stuff — directionally controlled film effects,” says Corbould. The second part was when “the proper demolition started”. This was arranged in close collaboration with a professional building toppling firm, who had vertically cut the interior of the factory into segments, meaning it would fall in a more visually interesting left-to-right wave, rather than straight down.
“So we very consciously put that dead moment in there just to provide a safety factor,” Corbould says — to give Ledger time to clear the site and jump into the safety of the school bus, which the supervisor had ensured was “bulletproof” with “armour-plated glass” (and in which Corbould himself crouched, ready to run out and rescue Ledger in case he tripped).
Ledger’s reaction remains as impactful as the real-life fireworks. That initial pause aside, he doesn’t once risk a peek over his shoulder. “He was so cool and calculated,” marvels Corbould of the late actor. “Heath sold the whole thing. He was absolutely perfect, bless him.”