Q&A: 'Dark Knight' Director Christopher Nolan

Despite the smothering 90-degree heat and the brilliant afternoon sun, despite being interviewed on his own back porch in West Hollywood, just a few feet from the giant trampoline he bought for his four young children, Christopher Nolan, the director of "Batman Begins" and its forthcoming sequel "The Dark Knight," is wearing the same thing he always wears: a trim black suit. It's his uniform. His Batsuit, if you will. He's got 10 more just like it. Nolan is a meticulous guy, and he likes knowing where all his stuff is, including the two passports he habitually keeps in his inside coat pocket, just in case. His movies, especially his latest, match the man: thoughtful and precise, with a coiled, relentless intensity. "The Dark Knight" finds Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) coping with the consequences of his bid to obliterate crime in Gotham. The criminals have stepped up their game as well, led by that heckling hell-raiser the Joker, a psychopath who forces his victims to make unimaginable choices. The Joker, of course, is played by Heath Ledger, whose sudden death in January stunned Hollywood and has only ratcheted up interest in what was already one of the most anticipated performances—and films—of the summer. Nolan wrote a eulogy for the actor in NEWSWEEK that month, and he revisited the subject, along with many others, during a 90-minute conversation. Excerpts:

GORDON: This is a very grim movie.
NOLAN: Yeah, it is grim. But Batman is a grim character. It's a grim world. And that's part of the fun of it—it's operatic. It's exciting. But it's definitely grim.

It's also something of a grim time in our country, which is why so many themes in this movie feel relevant. There's a line about how heroes always become villains if they stick around long enough. The idea is that, eventually, we turn on our heroes.
Yeah, we do. There are all kinds of famous examples. We talk about Caesar in the movie. But also Winston Churchill, who was thrown out of office after World War II. We try to portray Batman as a real person, and if a heroic figure is a real person—someone who the entire population of a city puts their hopes and dreams onto—that hero will inevitably disappoint in some way. We will turn on them.

You also seem to be commenting on the impossibility of heroism in a brutal world, because any hero will inevitably be faced with unthinkable choices, and simply by choosing, the hero becomes a monster to many.
The Joker gets pleasure from taking somebody's rule set—their ethics, their morals—and turning them against each other. Paradox is the way you do that. Giving people impossible choices. What Batman is doing is heroic, but it can be seen in another way: as vigilantism, as a dark force outside the law. That's a very, very dangerous road to go down. He's always riding a knife edge in moral terms.

The film implies that Gotham's latest wave of psychos exist partly because of Batman, not in spite of him. His presence has unintended consequences in the same way that the U.S. presence in Iraq has consequences.
At the end of the first film we introduced the idea of escalation. Batman creates this extreme response to crime in Gotham—putting on a mask and jumping off rooftops. Well, what's that going to inspire from the criminals he's fighting? Batman has changed the world, but not all for the better. The use of force against an enemy is a tricky and fascinating thing to have in a story. And the film tries to make the point that everybody loses in these situations.

So it's not a stretch to look at Gotham and see shades of Baghdad?
Well, where I suppose I would see a parallel is the threat of chaos, which is something we very much deal with in this film. And in today's world, Baghdad is a powerful illustration of that. It's frightening to imagine in one of our own cities.

This is heavy stuff for a summer blockbuster.
[Laughs] In a way, but I hope it's also entertaining stuff. All of the political echoes that we're talking about—they're all things that rattle around in your brain afterward. The movie itself aims to be entertainment. But you've got to have some real fear that things are not going to turn out well. What we're trying for is genuine peril.

Your first Batman movie, "Batman Begins," was epic and globe-trotting. But "The Dark Knight" is almost entirely set in Gotham.
In making a sequel, one of the demands I felt was to make it bigger, to expand the canvas. But it was clear to me that, having gone around the world in the first movie, that wasn't the way to do it this time. I was thinking a lot about films like Michael Mann's "Heat," where you have a story that is contained within a single city, but that city feels like a truly massive place.

Why is Chicago, not New York, your Gotham?
Well, I grew up partly in Chicago. And when Nathan Crowley, my production designer, first set up here in my garage, putting together composites of what Gotham might be, we started imagining a city with all these layers, with bridges and subterranean streets and tall skyscrapers. And at a certain point I said to him, "I know where this is. This is Chicago."

Everyone from the first movie is back except Katie Holmes. Maggie Gyllenhaal has taken over her role as Bruce's love interest. Isn't it disruptive to have a new actor playing an old character, with no explanation?
Well, it's not ideal. But this character is an integral part of the story. So when Katie didn't want to do it, I had no choice.

Prior to the opening of "Batman Begins," there were many published reports about dismay at Warner Brothers over the way Katie's personal life—specifically her romance with Tom Cruise—became an unwelcome distraction. Did that have anything to do with her not returning?
No, I asked Katie if she wanted to do the part, and she passed. You'd have to ask her for the exact specifics of it, but I would have been perfectly happy to have her back. And indeed, I offered her the part. But she couldn't do it, and Maggie stepped in, and she was great.

I know you are loath to talk about Heath, for understandable reasons, but there's no avoiding the fact that when you watch the movie, his performance is so exciting that it's the first thing you want to talk about.
Yeah, I know. I've been waiting all this time for everyone to see it, and working very hard not to screw it up.

What about Heath made you cast him?
I'd met Heath a couple times over the years about different projects, but nothing ever worked out. One time he gave me a speech that a lot of young actors have given me, where they basically say that they haven't achieved, as serious actors, what they want to before they're pushed into being movie stars. And of all the actors who've given me that speech, he's the only one that I would actually want to pay $10 to see give that kind of performance. And he did it in "Brokeback Mountain." The stunning lack of vanity, the sheer loneliness of that character—it's a staggering performance. So when I heard he was interested in the Joker, there was never any doubt. You could just see it in his eyes. People were a little baffled by the choice, it's true, but I've never had such a simple decision as a director.

You and Heath evidently had lots of conversations about shaping the character.
He'd call me from time to time, just to talk about what he was doing. And frankly, it was pretty hard to relate to on the other end of the phone—when he'd talk about looking at ventriloquist dummies and the way their mouths moved, the way the voice would sound as if it's disembodied.

When you heard him talk about ventriloquist dummies, did you think, "Where the heck is he going with this?"
[Laughs] Well, as a director, you say, "OK, that's kind of frightening." But what you're also hearing in the actor's voice is passion and intensity.

You've said that when you see the Joker, you can almost imagine what he smells like.
Yeah, you feel like there's a grime to him. I showed Heath some Francis Bacon paintings, which have a particular smudged, smeared effect that I thought was very evocative of human decay and corruption.

To me, the most unsettling part of his performance is that tic where he licks his lips.
Yeah, it's almost like this lizard thing. It's very insidious, very creepy. Well, as with a lot of things that Heath would do, at first I thought it was a mistake. Because the prosthetics on his mouth would come a little unstuck. But then it became apparent that he'd really found something.

There are a few lines in the movie that—unintentionally, of course—conjure thoughts of Heath's death. They are just odd, small coincidences in the dialogue. Is there anything a director can do about that?
I think that the key thing about Heath's performance, as it relates to the tragedy, is that it is so utterly unlike what he was in real life. And I think that makes it much easier to watch it and enjoy the performance as he intended it.

The marketing of this movie was unusually fraught, given what happened. Did the approach change at all after his death?
No, we're just putting the film out there exactly the way we always would have, which seems like the right thing to do.

How do you feel about promoting a movie under these circumstances?
[Pause] I don't know, really. [Pause] Honestly, I don't mean to sound unhelpful, but I don't really have an answer. What I wrote in NEWSWEEK was probably the best expression of what it's been like.

Christian has expressed enthusiasm for doing a third "Batman" with you. How about it?
All I can say is that, when we finished the first film, I didn't have any intention of doing a second one. And this time, I really tried to put everything that I ever wanted to see in the Batman story into this film. I wanted to make a great sequel, because there are very few great sequels. Really, I'm thinking only "Godfather: Part II" and "The Empire Strikes Back."

Can you think of any great third films?
[Laughs] I'll leave that for you to answer.