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Friday
Sep052014

With 'Dark Knight Rises,' Chris Nolan Closes Book on Batman

Dan MacMedan, USA TODAY
 

BURBANK, Calif. -- Christopher Nolan finds himself living a dual identity.

One personality is the non-stop studio publicity machine he had to become for The Dark Knight Rises, the final chapter in his Batman trilogy, which opens today as perhaps the most anticipated film of summer, if not the year. In this persona, Nolan finds himself bidding farewell to one of the most lucrative franchises in Hollywood history.

The other guise is guardian of spoilers. Part of that campaign has included parsing few clues to comic-book diehards, who he hopes will understand: The Batman is slowing down and nearing the end.

At least for Nolan.

"You can't keep doing these things forever like episodes in a TV series," he says. "I like the idea of a story with a beginning, middle and an end. Most directors don't get a chance to do that."

Most directors don't make $1.4 billion worldwide with just the first two movies. Nolan's Batman Begins did $373 million in 2005, followed three years later by The Dark Knight, which did $1 billion worldwide, including $533 million in North America, the fourth-biggest film on record here.

But final trilogy chapters can be tricky. Third acts aren't easy for Hollywood franchises (see The Godfather, Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean, among others).

While analysts expect Rises to be one of the year's biggest movies commercially, Nolan, 41, knows his legacy rests on more than box office. Fans — many of whom consider TheDark Knight to be the greatest comic-book film ever — expect an impressive curtain call.

"I've never seen excitement on this level, at least among the fanboys," says Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. "Nolan is one of the few directors who is a bigger draw than his stars."

The director, who has always been fond of big sets and real stunts, is wielding everything on his utility belt for this one, which he says was influenced by silent films such as Fritz Lang's 1927 visual masterpiece Metropolis. The $250 million Rises spanned five cities and two continents, and used more than 11,000 extras.

"I know people are thinking, 'When did Chris Nolan become James Cameron?' '' Nolan says of the Avatar and Titanic director. "But you have to put everything you have into the story, especially when people expect you to stick the landing."

Those expectations are to be expected when you change the comic-book movie landscape, as even the competition says he did.

"When I saw Dark Knight, I knew we were dealing with a brilliant mind," says Avi Arad, who produced four Spider-Man movies for rival Marvel. "He gets that chaos creates heroes. He's not afraid of the chaos."

Perhaps that's because he's been living in the middle of it since he approached Warner Bros. nearly a decade ago with an idea to reboot the franchise after the disastrous Batman & Robin in 1997. His concept was a trilogy that he considered to be "three chapters in one story. I like to think of it as one big film."

With the arc now completed, Nolan reflects on how the story has unfolded:

Batman Begins (2005)

Box office: $205 million

Backstory: Nolan always considered the period between Tim Burton's Batman in 1989 and his own 2005 iteration to be "a gap in movie history. The thing that should have been done a long time ago and wasn't done."

While Nolan adored Burton's film, he found the story to be a "very idiosyncratic, Gothic take on the world of Gotham."

Nolan, a comic-book fan who once gave his brother Jonathan an issue of Batman: Year One as a birthday present, felt the caped crusader needed the Man of Steel treatment, and used as his cinematic template Richard Donner's 1978 Superman.

"I loved what Dick Donner did. He did such justice to the character, and no one ever did that for Batman," Nolan says. "You tell an origins story and set it in a recognizable, ordinary world you can relate to."

Nolan also wanted to emulate Donner's choice of high-caliber supporting actors: Marlon Brando, Glenn Ford, Ned Beatty. So Nolan went for a similar pedigree in support of Christian Bale, including Michael Caine as Alfred the Butler, Gary Oldman as police commissioner Jim Gordon and Morgan Freeman as loyal scientist Lucius Fox.

The actors, though, were dubious. Caine remembers Nolan coming by his house one day, unannounced.

"He just showed up with a script under his arm," Caine says. "He said he wanted me to play Alfred the butler, and I thought, 'What will I do, ask Bruce Wayne if he wants a spot of tea? But I humored him. I told him I'd read the script and call him tomorrow."

But Nolan refused to leave the script with Caine, and had coffee in the living room while Caine took a half-hour to read it. "I was sold, and I'm lucky I was," Caine says. "My parts have gotten bigger with every film."

Oldman, too, raised an eyebrow. "Initially, I was a little puzzled," he says. "Here's a great director, did Insomnia, Memento, and now he's going to do a Batman movie? That franchise was dead, dead dead. And I couldn't see myself sitting around waiting for the Batphone to ring."

But Nolan never treated the franchise as a comic book property, and loathes "comic-book movie" as a term. He considers it a literary adaptation like any other. And casting a team of Oscar winners —Freeman and Caine have three between them — gave the film gravitas, Caine says.

"Look at what this guy did," Caine says. "Batman's scientist has an Oscar, and his butler has two. Chris is a director who takes every story seriously. That's how he gets big names."

The Dark Knight (2008)

Box office: $533 million

Backstory: With the success of Begins, Nolan got $185 million to make a sequel. This time, his template was Michael Mann's 1995 bank heist thriller, Heat.

"Batman Begins was an adventure story," Nolan says. "I always considered The Dark Knight a crime story. We wanted to put (Batman and Ledger's Joker) in a real city and let them go at each other."

While Begins required bigger sets and more exotic locales, "people think of Dark Knight as being bigger in scale," Nolan says. "I think that's because we shot more in the real world — real lobbies, real staircases — it felt bigger. Real life always feels bigger than anything you can create on a set."

So does death, Nolan says. Ledger's accidental drug overdose on Jan. 22, 2008 put Knight on a macabre historic course, both commercially and artistically. Fans made it the biggest comic-book movie on record until The Avengers supplanted it this year with $614 million. And Ledger would posthumously win more than a dozen supporting actor awards, including a Golden Globe and an Oscar.

On most occasions, Nolan was there to accept for Ledger.

"It was a tough time," the director says. "I've never been comfortable at those (awards shows) anyway. But I was very proud to be a part of what Heath had accomplished. You have an obligation to showcase the performance. You have to hold up your end of the bargain for great actors, anyway. But this was times a thousand."

Caine says Nolan's genuine-if-uncomfortable acceptance speeches underscored the filmmaker's personality. "He's understated, but people began to see what a talent he was at making all his characters feel real. He directed Heath to an Oscar. How many people do that off a blockbuster?"

The Dark Knight Rises (opens today)

Backstory: Nolan wouldn't shoot a scene of Rises until he plotted out the final five minutes, a typical approach for him.

"The ending comes first in pretty much all my movies," he says. "I have to know where it's going, and figure out the rest from there."

Those final minutes have been hotter online fodder than TomKat. To avoid leaks, most actors weren't given full scripts, just pages of the screenplay on a need-to-know basis.

Nolan, who used 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as his model of a trilogy-ender, says that he had long considered his version of Batman a trilogy, though he never "held something back for another movie. I'm very superstitious. I wanted to be sure people liked the one we just did before I could really start on another."

Still, he and Bale envisioned an arc larger than one film for Bruce Wayne, who has gone from playboy to crime fighter to renegade over the first two movies.

In Rises, Wayne must come to terms with being alone and outdated.

"One of the great things about this character is that the least relatable thing about him is his billionaire status," Bale says. "But the rest of it is understandable from an emotional perspective."

Nolan, too, is dealing with seeing the journey through more emotional eyes.

"I've spent nearly a decade of my life with this character," he says. "It's hard to explain, being a part of something that iconic. I'd be thrilled if, 30 years from now, there might still be an element to Batman that we brought. It's exciting to think you contributed to something bigger than yourself."

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