STORY OF THE SHOT

THE DARK KNIGHT

Empire (UK) - - RE.VIEW - THE DARK KNIGHT IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DOWN­LOAD WORDS DAN JOLIN

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.”

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