The filmmaker charged with
reviving the big-screen Batman takes a break from the franchise
to adapt ‘The Prestige,’ a tale of
rival magicians in an era of emerging sciences.
by Mike Russell
Nolan loves to fool you.The 36-year-old director is a master
of misdirection. “Memento” played with time. “Insomnia” played
with reality. “Batman Begins” played with identity.
Point out that all his
films trick their audiences, and he’s delighted to agree. “That’s one
of the things movies are really good at,” he says. “There’s
nothing better than when you’re sitting in a cinema
and a film surprises you somehow. Not necessarily with
a narrative twist; it just does things you don’t
expect … that make sense.”
director is a master of misdirection. “Memento” played with
time. “Insomnia” played with reality. “Batman
Begins” played with identity.
Point out that all his films
trick their audiences, and he’s
delighted to agree. “That’s one of the things
movies are really good at,” he says. “There’s
nothing better than when you’re sitting in a cinema
and a film surprises you somehow. Not necessarily with a
narrative twist; it just does things you don’t expect … that
Nolan’s latest film, “The
Prestige,” takes this obsession with misdirection to
the next level. Co-written with his brother Jonathan, this “fairly
loose adaptation” of Christopher Priest’s novel
follows two dueling 19th-century magicians (Hugh Jackman,
Christian Bale) as they try to outflank each other with ever-more-eleborate
feats of magic. Eventually, one enlists the help of real-life
electrical wizard Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) — blurring
the lines between science and the supernatural in the process.
And, true to form, Nolan says
he and his brother “constructed
the narrative along the lines of a magic trick. Our film’s
structure builds to a final reveal.”
He’s less revealing when it comes to dishing on any
of the tantalizing films he has in the pipeline — including
his “Batman Begins” sequel “The Dark Knight” and
a big-screen remake of the legendary spy-fi TV series “The
Prisoner.” But we thought we’d ask anyway.
In Focus caught Nolan between
bouts with the final sound mix on “The Prestige.” Topics covered: legerdemain,
Tesla, Howard Hughes, “The Prisoner,” the Bat-myth,
artfully impenetrable DVDs and David Goyer. An edited transcript
THE MOVIE AS
IN FOCUS: You decided to
make “The Prestige” instead
of proceeding directly to “The Dark Knight.”
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN: Well, my brother and I have been working
on “The Prestige” a very long time — six,
seven years. We were going to make it before “Batman
Begins,” actually, but it didn’t work out time-wise.
When we finished “Batman,” we were very keen
to get back to it. I’ve been fascinated by magic and
how magic is made for a long time.
I think there’s a strong narrative element in the way
a trick unfolds. We really wanted to build the narrative
along those lines, rather than trying to present stage magic
The novel sort of does that
Yeah. The novel’s large and complex. We had to simplify
There’s a fascinating relationship between the essence
of an audience’s experience of magic and the audience’s
experience of film — the key being that people know
it’s a trick, and that’s part of the attraction.
You know it’s not true. And the entertainment would
not be there under any condition if it was real. And what’s
strange is that both magicians and filmmakers spend the whole
time trying to make things as convincing as possible.
Hugh Jackman’s character has a line in the film where
he says, “If I saw a woman in half onstage and the
audience thought it was real, they’d run screaming.” Once
you step beyond that as a magician, you’re in the realm
of a psychic or medium, which is very different.
Many 19th-century magicians were mythbusters. They loved
to expose hoaxes.
Yes. I think a lot of them saw it as an abuse of their talents — their
power to make magic on a stage. Presenting it as reality
The novel gets into that much more than the
film does. We don’t deal in the film with psychics and mediums and
so forth. But we do explore the burgeoning revolutions in
science — the early days of electricity — and
the tension between things that appear to be magical and
are just real.
It surprises me that Nikola
Tesla’s life hasn’t
been covered more extensively on film. His work was so important,
and his rivalries so extreme — and there are so many
crackpot tales and conspiracy theories floating around the
Nikola Tesla, in our film, is a very small but pivotal character.
He’s Mephistophelean — a wizard, essentially,
who can give you what you want. That’s very much the
reputation that’s grown up around the real Tesla.
We fictionalize certain events, but the background
and essence of the character are fairly true to life, really.
Well, I don’t want to spoil anything, but in the book,
he’s treated as a steampunk, almost science-fiction
There are various things that Tesla is supposed to have done
that have not yet happened at a reproducible level in science.
He’s really the ideal character for taking you in more
of a science-fiction direction — because quite literally,
there are aspects of his career that are still residing in
that realm. [laughs]
Well, the wireless transmission of electricity, where you
can grab it from the air. That’s something he’s
supposed to have done in various quite extraordinary experiments
that have yet to be duplicated.
Tesla would perform extraordinary demonstrations very much
in the manner of a magician.
I’m reminded of the
Arthur C. Clarke quote about sufficiently advanced technology
That quote is extraordinarily applicable here.
You want to talk about “The Prisoner” at
[laughs] I don’t really have a lot to say about it. “The
Prestige” is the thing I’m sort of buried in
right now. David and Janet Peoples are off writing the script
while I do other things.
Will it embrace the absurdity
and broad satire of Patrick McGoohan’s take?
It’s too early-days to be in any way specific. But
I will say that the approach I applied to “Batman Begins” is
that you have to find a contemporary equivalent for everything.
You have to be creating something fresh.
Given McGoohan’s level
of authorship on the original, will he be consulted in
any way? Think
he could be lured
out of retirement to play Number Two?
You never know.
Will the 21st-century Rover be a big decommissioned weather-balloon
[laughs] It depends on the budget.
BUT HE WILL TALK A
LITTLE BIT ABOUT BATMAN
Much of “Batman Begins” was
about Bruce Wayne coming to terms with what he is and what
he does. Will you
need to modulate his inner struggle in a sequel?
What do you mean by “modulate”?
Well, at the end of the first
film, he sort of comes to terms with what he’s doing. He’s got this mission
now. So I’d imagine that mission will have to evolve
Oh, yes. Or the world … Let me put it this way, without
being too specific: When you embark on a mission, it’s
extraordinarily rare that things turn out according to the
mission plan. [laughs] The world is going to react in ways
you don’t expect.
He did indeed achieve a certain sense of purpose
or a certain resignation, in terms of how his life is going
to wind up
being dedicated to this — which is something that we
begin with. But the world itself responds to our actions
in ways we don’t anticipate.
You said something interesting
about introducing The Joker at the end of “Batman Begins”: “That’s
the point of the final scene. That [fighting evil] is not
going to be easy. It’s going to get harder.” Is
that a touchstone for the sequel?
Very much. Obviously, I can’t really talk much about
it at this stage — but I think if you watch that last
scene, it gives you a very, very clear direction of where
the story’s going.
When Commissioner Gordon
turns over that playing card, there’s
a sense of dread.
Are the villains going to try to define themselves as extremely
as Batman defines himself?
Yeah, in their own way.
Are you drawing any inspiration
from Alan Moore’s “Killing
Joke” — which made a point of grounding The Joker
not in this “Clown Prince of Crime” stuff, but
more in sadness and failure?
We’re drawing from the entire canon. I don’t
want to talk too specifically about it. The thing I will
say is that if you go back to the very first appearance of
the Joker in the comics …
Which I’ve read. And he’s
[emphatically] Yeah. And there’s a very clear direction … It’s
pretty surprising how clearly drawn that character is in
If you’ve read those
early stories, Heath Ledger makes sense as a casting choice.
It certainly makes sense to me.
We got to see a lot more
of Bruce Wayne out of costume in “Batman
Begins” than in the prior “Batman” movies.
He was also a lot more fun — buying hotels and engineering
corporate takeovers. Will Batman’s alter ego play as
prominent a role in the sequel?
Yeah. I mean, Bruce, to me, isn’t just Batman. There
are also aspects of Bruce Wayne that are private and public.
Given how muted “Batman
Begins” was, in terms of tone and color, do you see
any risks in overstuffing a movie with colorful villains?
Well, you have to be careful about everything. [long, long
[laughs] Well. You’ve said, “I actually see
myself as a very mainstream filmmaker and always have.” Why
do some people keep pegging you — even after “Batman
Begins” — as an art-house director?
God, I have no idea. [laughs] The press tends to pigeonhole
filmmakers from where they begin — which is actually
not necessarily completely wrong — but I directed a “Batman” film,
and people still talk about my independent-filmmaking roots.
Ridley Scott is a favorite filmmaker of mine — and
for years, anything he did was immediately related to advertising,
because he started out there. He’s only just about
I certainly don’t have any complaints if people relate
what I do to the independent films I started with. I would
hope that all my films would have a personal and sincere
foundation — whether they’re on a grand scale
Certainly all your films
have trafficked in misdirection. Even in “Batman Begins,” with Liam Neeson’s
Well, Batman is an interesting case in point, because you’re
dealing with a mythic character. And one of the qualities
of mythic stories is familiarity — and, to a certain
I don’t mean “predictability” in its usual
pejorative sense. I mean it in the sense of the inevitable
thing — the thing that allows a story to take on the
There’s a tension in the storytelling between the familiar
elements that make up the myth and being able to surprise
people. What it ultimately amounts to is a need for the filmmaker
to achieve the inevitable in surprising ways.
Right. Superhero movies are
prone to discussions of whether they’re “faithful” or not … Superhero
fans want their characters to be comforting, in a way.
That’s exactly the tension I’m talking about.
It’s something I find very interesting. Because to
me, being faithful to the character in the story is not about
slavishly following a particular treatment of one comic or
graphic novel — it’s about distilling the essence
of the myth.
That’s always been the challenge of Batman, and its
strength. You treat the essential elements as mileposts,
and all the elements in between — all the other layers
and threads — can be fresh and different and surprising.
Get that stuff right, and you see the myth in a powerful
On a superficial level, when we approached
re-designing the Batmobile, we weren’t too specific about what it had
to be — other than that it had to be the most powerful
car you’ve ever seen. And it had to be black. Other
than that, we didn’t say, “It has to have a fin,” or
anything like that. And so you’re able to create something
completely original and fresh — a renewed concept of “the
most powerful car.”
Well, having read the original
comics, we’re just
lucky you didn’t make it a red sedan. Is the script
for “Dark Knight” finished?
I couldn’t tell you that.
Of course you couldn’t.
A script’s never finished with me. I write even as
we’re shooting. But we’ve been working at it
for quite a while now.
Will the title be “The Dark Knight”? Or do you
think it will end up being “Batman — colon — The
No, it’ll be “The Dark Knight.”
It sets such a tone.
Yes. Well, that’s the idea.
You’ve said you’re not a huge Internet hound.
Were you able to stay away from the ’net during the “Batman
Begins” pre-release brouhaha?
Yeah, yeah. Certainly, when you’re making a film that
everybody’s watching, you’re going to read a
lot of stuff about your film and you’re not necessarily
going to like all of it. So. If you’re happy doing
that, fine. If you’re not…
When you take on something like Batman, that
increases exponentially, and you’re already being hit from all kinds of other
directions … I don’t have e-mail.
You know, with “The Prisoner,” you’re
going to go through that again with an entirely different
Yeah. Well. You know. I’ve been through it once before.
You have to get on and do what it is you’re going to
do. Which is not the same thing as being in any way disrespectful
of the material. You have to take responsibility for yourself
and get on with it and do a good job.
Well, and certainly the recent “Snakes on a Plane” experience
shows that catering to the ’net doesn’t guarantee
a successful experience.
I imagine it would have made my experience on either “Batman” or “The
Prisoner” a lot harder, had that been shown to be a
way to make a film more successful.
HOWARD HUGHES and
the GRIM COMEDIAN
You’ve expressed great sadness at not getting to film
your Howard Hughes script with Jim Carrey. Can you tell us
how your film would have differed from “The Aviator”?
Well, no — because I haven’t seen “The
Aviator.” I can’t bring myself to. [laughs] But
from what I know of “The Aviator,” the key difference
is that we deal with Hughes’ entire life. I think their
film is about half of our film in terms of timespan.
You would actually have followed Hughes from cradle to grave?
Is it something you’ve
put in the vault, to haul out and film somewhere down the
The truth is, I struggled massively with the script. It
took about a year to write. And it finally came together
as “The Aviator” got a green light.
But the script just clicked. It’s the best thing I’ve
written, that I’m most proud of. Hopefully, it’ll
have its day. Patience is definitely part of this business.
You’ve also expressed
interest in interviews in doing comedy.
Oh, God. Have I?
You have. Although it may
simply have been in response to one of those questions
you ever do a comedy?”
The truth is, I find things in my films really funny. For
me, the most enjoyable laughter has come from serious movies
that find moments of absurdity.
There’s that great bit in “Memento” where
Leonard asks himself, “Am I chasing this guy or am
I running from him?”
Exactly. That’s my sense of humor. And there were screenings
of “Memento” where the whole of that reel played
like it was a Farrelly Brothers movie. Great fun.
Looking back, how do you
react to user frustrations that the “Memento” special
edition DVD required you to solve all those puzzles to
anything? Did you have
a lot of input on the puzzle aspect? Was it the right thing
I think it was definitely the right thing to do. My brother — along
with some other very talented people — really conceived
and was the brains behind how that DVD worked. We were absolutely
delighted with it, because we felt it was very much in the
spirit of the film.
I don’t know whether I should be admitting this, but
he and I have had the experience of chucking the film in
and forgetting how to make it play. [laughs]
This is kind of what I was asking about.
I’m not really sure if I should be admitting that or
not. But really — all you’ve got to do is hit “Watch.”
The thing with DVD is that it was in the fairly
early days of the medium; you could suddenly have all these
all these things around the film. You can create something
that expands the world of the film in all directions. And
I think the special edition of that DVD did that really well.
When you see DVDs where they’ve slapped together features
that are essentially re-cut EPKs, or they just put the trailer
on … there hasn’t been a lot of thought on how
to maximize the potential of the format. I think “Memento” made
it very important that we try to do something extreme.
MOVIE PUBLICIST: I have to drag Chris back on the set. One
Uh…. Will the Joker be the only villain in “Dark
Knight”? Can we safely confirm Ryan Phillippe as Harvey
Dent and Philip Seymour Hoffman as The Penguin/Cobblepot?
You struck out with your last question!
My editor wanted me to ask.
Is there another question?
Could you see your Batman
interacting with Singer’s
Superman? [Nolan laughs] Another strikeout?
One more. Third time lucky.
How did you come to collaborate
with David Goyer on “Batman
Wow. I’m sure I can answer that one.
I first met him years before, through mutual
friends one morning at breakfast. I remember chatting with
him and thinking
he was an interesting guy, and then, years later, checked
out some of his stuff — especially “Dark City.” I
was really impressed with the ideas in that film.
And when I was looking for somebody who really
knew the world of comics — who could set me off on the right foot
and really get me going in the right direction — he
seemed the obvious choice. But he was absolutely booked up,
because he was about seven or eight weeks from going into
production on “Blade: Trinity,” which he was
So we just spitballed a few ideas. And he
you can have these ideas. I can’t write the script
for you. I’m just too busy.” And then, over the
course of a week or two, I guess he just realized that he
couldn’t turn down the opportunity to write on the
film. He loved the character so much. So he came on for a
very short, intense period where we just thrashed out a story
and he wrote the first draft. He had to work very, very fast.
He’s a very quick writer.
Yeah, I’ve read that draft. There’s
such a strong idea at the core of that thing.
Yeah. A lot of the fun we had — which we’re also
having as we do “The Dark Knight” — is
throwing ideas around before anything is written. Just talking
about the script. He’s a tremendous collaborator.