When Inception was released back on July 16th, the strikingly original film shook up a summer marketplace filled with derivative sequels and unfortunate remakes that had critics decrying the creative barrenness of studio films. Which is why writer-director Nolan garnered respect from Hollywood for using his clout from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight to film his own long, gestating spec script from an idea that had rattled around in his head for a decade. Inception is a movie with many layers and a dense plot, allowing Nolan to ride a familiar genre but then arrive at a new place. Sure, the box office was well-trod turf for him: $825 million worldwide. But, first, he had to imagine himself in the dream world of Inception before he took audiences there.
DEADLINE: How was writing Inception different for you?
NOLAN: What I try to do is write from the inside out. I really try to jump into the world of the film and the characters, try to imagine myself in that world rather than imagining it as a film I’m watching onscreen. Sometimes, that means I’m discovering things the way the audience will, with character and story. Other times, you’re plotting it out with diagrams and taking a very objective view. Writing, for me, is a combination of both. You take an objective approach at times to get you through things, and you take a subjective approach at other times, and that allows you to find an emotional experience for the audience. This was one of those projects that burned inside me for a long time, but I wouldn’t say in a completely unique way. I made a film earlier called The Prestige. For four or five years, that burned inside me. It was something I really wanted to crack with my brother Jonah, and eventually we did it. I certainly have other ideas I’ve not been able to crack that I see great potential in, sitting in the back of a drawer. You never quite know what you’re going to come back to and figure out how to make it work. You never quite know where that desire to finish something, or return to something in a fresh way, is going to come from. Every time I finished a film and went back and looked at it, I had changed as a person. The script was different to me. And, eventually, who I was as a writer, as a filmmaker, and what the script needed to be, all these things coincided.
DEADLINE: What breakthrough ended Inception’s 10-year script gestation period?
NOLAN: The final piece of the puzzle for me with the script I’d been trying to finish for about 10 years was figuring out how to connect emotionally with the central character in a way that would make it a more emotional story. The reason I got hung up on this is that I had first devised the rules of the world, using the heist genre as a way in. That genre embraces exposition and so it’s good for teaching a new set of rules to an audience. The problem is, heist movies tend to be a bit superficial, glamorous, and fun. They don’t tend to be emotionally engaging. What I realized after banging my head into a wall for 10 years trying to finish it is that when you’re dealing with the world of dreams, the psyche, and potential of a human mind, there has to be emotional stakes. You have to deal with issues of memory and desire. I figured out the emotional connection of the central character to the audience and made this about following his journey home to his children and his love for his wife. Those really were the final pieces of the puzzle that let me finish the script.
DEADLINE: While you were waiting for that solution, were there movies that came along that convinced you the technology was there to translate your visuals to the screen?
NOLAN: On The Dark Knight we really tried to push ourselves to achieve a lot of large-scale effects in camera, to really create a world by shooting on location, all around the world, and by doing very large in-camera gags like flipping an 18-wheeler truck on a busy downtown street, for real. Coming out the other side of that experience and having enjoyed it as much as I did left me feeling like we had a great team of people who could devise and photograph these kinds of visuals. I came away feeling well equipped to take on the world of Inception and the kind of outlandish imagery it would require. Most of the technology employed for the imagery of Inception is fairly old-fashioned. There is some newer technology that the guys at Double Negative brought to the table. The most daunting aspect of the visuals, for me, had always been things that had been based on in-camera technologies, like achieving zero gravity by building sets with different orientations and doing tricks with wires. Those techniques were based on seeing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 when I was a kid, falling in love with deception and the magical tricks he did to convince an audience there was zero gravity. The thing that really gave me confidence to take on my film had more to do with my own experience, rather than technology in other people’s films. It was more about having had the opportunity to do some really large-scale filmmaking and getting comfortable with the big machine that’s involved in that to really get a handle on pushing the envelope with what we’d be able to do on set and in-camera.
DEADLINE: What advantages did writing on spec give you?
NOLAN: I had actually gone in and met with Warner Bros years before, right after I’d finished Insomnia, and described the project when I was starting to write it. They wanted to hire me then to write it, but I turned away from that opportunity. I realized with a project like Inception I would be trying to cross certain boundaries of genre and push the envelope of what mainstream movies are allowed to with an audience. (more…)