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Christopher Nolan's 'Knight' vision

The director takes Batman to a dark place in a $180-million saga he's dedicating to the late Heath Ledger, who portrays the Joker to Christian Bale's Caped Crusader.

By Geoff Boucher

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

July 6, 2008

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THE BRITISH filmmaker Christopher Nolan has the mien of a passionate literature professor (passionate, that is, in the British sense of the term) and, last December, he spoke about the young actor Heath Ledger as if he were the most fascinating manuscript to cross his desk in years. "The bold decisions that Heath has made with this performance are fascinating to watch," said Nolan, who had one hand perched on his hip and the other holding a curled finger to his chin. "I think he's done something quite exceptional."

Nolan was in Los Angeles that evening to screen some early completed footage from "The Dark Knight," the second film in his reboot of the Batman mythos, which has Ledger in the role of the Joker. In super-hero cinema, the difference between a good film and a great film is the villain, not the hero, and it's telling that the six-minute sequence that Nolan brought with him did not include a single solitary frame of the franchise's caped crusader, who is again played by the lean and lupine Christian Bale. The screening audience of industry types and journalists were agog over Ledger's wicked and scabby character and, in the cocktail lounge after, Nolan was all smiles. "I really cannot wait," the filmmaker said, "for everyone to see the finished product."

The world will see that product July 18, when "The Dark Knight" opens across the U.S., but Ledger, of course, will not be around to enjoy it. The 28-year-old Aussie and his promising career will be remembered as an unfinished novel. Seven weeks to the day after that screening in Los Angeles, Ledger was found dead in his second-floor loft in New York City. Half a dozen different prescription drugs were found in his system, and an accidental overdose was the determined cause of death.

For Nolan and the cast of "The Dark Knight," the death was a bruising shock and, in the months that followed, an awkward professional challenge. A summer movie with a budget of $180million demands relentless pre-release promotion, but, especially with the always-proper Nolan at the fore, no one in this production wanted to make a crass or maudlin misstep. Nolan stepped forward to write an appreciation of Ledger for Newsweek, and not only was it thoughtful (Nolan on Ledger's short films: "Their exuberance made me feel jaded and leaden. I've never felt as old as I did watching Heath explore his talents."), the essay never once mentioned the film's release date. The cast picked up on the message.

"To have this film be successful and to have people see Heath's great work in it -- to appropriately honor that performance by bringing the film to the audience -- that became the goal for Chris and everyone involved," said Aaron Eckhart, who portrays Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, another grotesque madman who fights Batman for the soul of Gotham City. "Chris gave us a set where the actors felt very secure, they felt they could take risks. And Chris has continued to protect Heath and his performance."

In mid-May, at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Nolan was in the late stages of post-production on "The Dark Knight" and the marathon hours were taking their toll. There was stubble on his chin and half-circles under his eyes. "Come on in," he told his visitor, "but I must warn you it's quite loud inside. I mean, really loud." In the mixing suite, Nolan joined sound editors Lora Hirschberg and Gary Rizzo, who were laboring over a bank of control boards. Up on a huge screen in front of them was a frozen image of Ledger, a rocket-launcher in his hand and an expression of callous menace on his face.

Nolan ran through the scene a dozen times and pulled apart the barrage of different sounds, homing in on what he disliked ("Why am I hearing an air brake there? The truck is speeding up, that's a disconnect.") and what he needed ("In the first film, the roar of the Batmobile that we hear when the headlights first go on; let's go back and get that and use it right here."). The director stretched his neck and exhaled. "OK, we're getting there."

Bigger is better

THIS IS clearly the season -- and the decade, really -- for filmmakers who understand the calculus of explosions and the proper lighting of bulging biceps; Hollywood has been throwing larger-than-life heroes at the cineplex at a dizzying rate, with Iron Man, Indiana Jones, the Hulk, Hancock and Hellboy leading the florid parade. But there is within "The Dark Knight" a level of subversive menace and ambition that sets it apart from the popcorn slugfests, although it may in fact be too unsettling to reach the $300-million box-office numbers of the comparatively sunny exploits of "Iron Man." "The Dark Knight" is many things, but it is not the feel-good movie of the summer.

Nolan looked up at the screen and, again, the image was of Ledger's Joker, his chalk-white face set off by a lipstick "grin" that emphasizes the jagged scars that curl up from the corners of his mouth. Throughout the movie, Ledger probes those scars with his tongue, the way some toothless people incessantly chomp their gums. He also walks with shoulders bowed and his chin out and down, like a hyena. This Joker has green hair and a purple suit, but there's little else that evokes Jack Nicholson's flamboyant take in Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman." Actually, if anything, Ledger here is closer to Nicholson's eerie ferocity in "The Shining."

Stepping out to take a break, Nolan ran a hand through his hair. The 37-year-old was wearing a sports coat and vest -- it's his standard look, far more formal than many of his generation -- and he began to talk about his new film in terms of a search for the dark heart of society and the blood-red line between justice and vengeance. It's still a super-hero gizmo movie, of course, but "The Dark Knight" delves further into Nolan's familiar themes of moral uncertainty, madness and the cost of vendettas, which gave shape to "Memento," "Insomnia," "The Prestige" and his first trip to Gotham, the 2005 "Batman Begins."

That movie grossed $205 million in the U.S., and critics hailed it as the necessary pendulum swing back from Joel Schumacher's campy "Batman & Robin," forever remembered for putting future Oscar winner George Clooney in a nippled Batsuit. It's telling sign of the times that right now, across Hollywood, there is a building buzz that Ledger might receive a posthumous Oscar nomination for his work as the Joker. (If he does, it would couple with Johnny Depp's nomination as Jack Sparrow to prove that summer vehicles are starting to win the artsy heart of Hollywood after occupying its box-office brain this whole decade.)

Nolan cowrote the screenplay for "The Dark Knight" with his younger brother, Jonathan. They also co-wrote "The Prestige" and, before that, "Memento," the $5-million movie that earned them an Oscar nomination for its intricate, reverse-order noir tale. The director said the job hasn't changed with the soaring budget and expectations.

"The job of the director is to consider what particular shot you are shooting and how that shot will advance the story," Nolan said. "There are many, many decisions to be made, but really, if you think of the job in terms that simple, it will guide you to what needs to be done next."

Bale has become Nolan's on-screen muse. Right now, the 34-year-old actor is working with director McG on "Terminator Salvation," and reached on set he was cagey about Nolan.

"I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint you greatly; I'm of the inclination that I won't discuss or analyze an artistic relationship for fear of changing it or undermining it somehow," Bale said. "But clearly he's a director who is very focused and knows what he wants but is open to the collaborative process and finding unexpected things in performances. He makes you feel very safe and prepares you for success."

Is Nolan as unflappable as he seems? "I can tell you that my favorite memories are from these snapshots I have in my mind of Chris just losing it. When he starts laughing, really laughing, he's gone and it's something to see."

Great expectations

THERE weren't too many unforgettable moments at the MTV Movie Awards this year, but there was at least one: A faux "viral video" was shown with Robert Downey Jr. meeting a sullen teenager who had seen "Iron Man" three times. Downey is elated until the pudgy kid gives his review: "It'll do until 'Dark Knight' comes out."

That about sums up the intensity of genre fans who are treating the Nolan franchise as the most astute comic-book adaptation to date -- or at least a contender for that title with Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" and Bryan Singer's "X-Men." "Batman Begins" took the familiar legend but rooted it in a more realistic Gotham than Burton ever presented and, in many ways, its nihilism pulls as much from Don Siegel's "Dirty Harry" and Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" as it does any Saturday morning cartoon.

" 'Batman Begins' was about the process of Bruce Wayne finding himself and his purpose and making himself an instrument of that purpose," Nolan said. "The advantage of this second film is that he is now fully formed and we can go straight into the story."

"The Dark Knight" will be parsed for political themes -- Batman's trustworthy aide Alfred ( Michael Caine) at one point rebukes his boss for trampling privacy rights in his fight against terrorism -- but Nolan steers clear of too much analysis, at least for the moment. Plot security was intense during shoots in Chicago and Hong Kong to preserve "all the things we want the audience to see for the first time when they sit down in the theater in the dark." A major character is murdered in the film, and when the end credits roll, Batman is in a far darker place.

This much can be said: "The Dark Knight" finds a new political force in Gotham in Harvey Dent, a crusading prosecutor, and a deranged new criminal in the mysterious Joker. Batman, meanwhile, is ready to hang up his cowl after watching the distorted shadows cast by his growing street legend. Back from the first film are cast members Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, while Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes in the role of Rachel Dawes. For Nolan, the movie is an unsettling crime film, not a super-hero escapade.

"I think in the past there have been movies in the genre, even movies made by very good directors, where there comes a moment where you realize they do take what they are doing seriously," Nolan said. "The approach we have is take the tropes and iconography of the action-hero genre and ground it in a reality. Real life is more tactile, more threatening, more emotional. The experience is amplified. I very much consider it my job to entertain the audience. I learned some things watching 'Batman Begins' in a crowded theater with the audience. . . . I don't make movies for myself."

Leave the small-fry home

ONE OF the secrets that Nolan has guarded the longest with "The Dark Knight" is the visage of Eckhart's Two-Face character after his violent disfigurement that leads him away from law and order and toward ferocious revenge. Nolan's film is PG-13 and is clearly not for young children (there is one sequence, in fact, in which a terrified youngster is directly threatened by one of the villains), but the director said he had actually pulled back on the horror of Two-Face's seared flesh.

"I didn't want people to actually look away so much they were missing the film," Nolan said with a chuckle.

For the Joker, Nolan went back to the first appearance of the character in comics back in 1940, when the leering clown showed up without any sort of back-story and simply started killing people. That's how the Joker enters Nolan's Gotham, not unlike, Nolan pointed out, the toothy intruder of "Jaws."

"You don't care where the shark came from," Nolan said, "you don't care who the shark's parents were."

In one harrowing scene, Ledger does explain his cheek scars to a victim -- and then, later in the film, he delivers a second creepy monologue with an entirely different explanation. The revelation: The Joker is a liar, even to the folks eating the popcorn. It's one of the compelling nuances of the movie. There are many others. Maybe that's why Nolan declined to talk about his own emotional journey with the movie and its lost star. "I think we've said as much as we can about Heath. We want to do right by him. I'm proud of his work in this film, and I'm excited to have it seen, but I think in respect to him and his family, perhaps it's best to just let the film have the final word."

geoff.boucher@latimes.com