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Christopher Nolan on ‘Dark Knight’ and its box-office billion: ‘It’s mystifying to me’

Film director Christopher Nolan.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

This is the first of a three-part interview with Christopher Nolan, the director of the astoundingly successful summer film “The Dark Knight,” which has pulled in $528 million in the U.S. alone (a total second only to “Titanic”) and has worldwide grosses that are now approaching the $1 billion mark. The 38-year-old filmmaker has just returned home to Los Angeles (where he attended the Spike TV Scream 2008 Awards) after a month-long stay at Anna Maria Island on the west coast of Florida where, along with playing on the beach with his children, he contemplated the commercial success of his grim superhero epic — as well as the industry buzz about the film’s chances during the upcoming Oscar season. In today’s installment, he talks about the perceived politics of the movie, his plans for the future and that staggering box-office total.

Welcome back to L.A. So I’m curious, tell me one of the surprises you’ve had during the journey of this film after its release on July 18.

It’s funny, I’ve been asked a lot about the politics of the film. I dismiss all such analogies [laughs]. It really isn’t something we think about as we put the story together, myself, David Goyer and Jonathan [Nolan, brother of the director]. But I would point to the interrogation scene with Batman and the Joker — not that there is a specific political point, per se — but that I was interested in getting the actors to explore a paradox: How do you fight somebody who essentially thrives on aggression.

I winced when I read a lot of the political messaging that people said they detected in your film. I think a lot of that says more about my industry than it does yours.

[Laughs] Yes, you may be right.

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It seems to me that, more often than not in a genre such as the one you’re working in, most of the political messaging has more to do with the viewer than the filmmaker. It’s inferred, not implied.

I agree completely. Especially if you do it right. If you’re working in a genre that is heightened reality. I like to talk about these films as having an operatic quality or being on a grand scale and a bit removed from the rhythms of real life, no matter how realistic we try to make the scenes themselves. In this scene, for instance, we went for the gritty realism in the textures of it, but it is a heightened reality. We’re trying to work on a more universal scale. If you get that right, people are going to be able to bring a wide variety of interpretations to it depending on who they are. It’s allowing the characters to be a conduit to the audience. Allowing an audience to sit there and relate to Batman and his dilemma whether they are Republican or Democrat or whatever.

10 years later, re-read the L.A. Times’ coverage of ‘The Dark Knight’ »

“The Dark Knight” is closing in on $1 billion. How do you get your arms around that kind of success?

I can’t get my arms around it, to be quite frank. It’s mystifying. It’s terrific but at the same time it’s a little abstract, the numbers are so big. The biggest thrill for me would be, with the number of people who have gone to see the film, how “The Dark Knight” stood on the shoulders of the first film, how we were able to build the audience up and build the story up from the first film. That was really exciting to see. We were all pretty happy with the performance of the first film but so we really didn’t know, “Where does it go from there?” For it to become such a phenomenon is extraordinarily gratifying. I mean, I’ve spent now like six years or something working on Batman films. It becomes an important part of your life; you become very obsessive about it, and it’s pretty fun when there are other people sharing your obsession and going to see the film a dozen times or whatever.

Wrapping your arms around the scale of the success, as you ask, I don’t find that possible really. There’s something liberating in knowing that my next film, whatever it is, isn’t going to make as much money [laughter]. I don’t have to try for years.

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As far as a follow-up, have you considered “Batman and the Mystery of the Titanic”?

I think you may be right, that might be the way to go.

Heath Ledger stars as The Joker in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' "The Dark Knight."
(Stephen Vaughan / Warner Bros.)

Watching “The Dark Knight,” it’s very easy to imagine the Joker returning to Gotham, the way his fate remains unresolved. When you were writing the film, did you anticipate that the Joker would be back in the third film?

No, really and in truth, I only deal with one film at a time. I find myself sort of protesting this issue a lot. We’ve never attempted to save anything for a sequel or set up anything for a sequel. That seems improbable to some people because, particularly with “Batman Begins,” the film ended with a particular hook [with Jim Gordon showing Batman a Joker playing card announcing the arrival of a new villain in town]. But for me that was just about the excitement of people leaving the theater with the sense that now we have the character up and running. I wanted people to walk away with that sense in their head. You know, that he’s become the Batman in the movie. That’s why we had the title come up at the end, because it was “Batman Begins,” and it was all very specific to that.

Then I got excited about seeing where that character would go. It was planned in advance, but it followed in that way. But we tried our hardest to really do everything in this movie that we would want to see the Joker do and to get that in the fabric of the story as much as possible. We wanted the Joker’s final taunt to Batman to be that they are locked in an ongoing struggle because of Batman’s rules. There’s a paradox there. Batman won’t kill. And the Joker is not interested in completely defeating Batman because he’s fascinated by him and he enjoys sparring with him. It’s trapped both of them. That was really the meaning of it. Of course what happened is Heath created the most extraordinary character that you would love to see 10 movies about. That’s the bittersweet thing. It was incredible characterization. It is a bittersweet thing for all of us.

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After the massive, military-level operation of making “Dark Knight,” is there part of you leaning toward a smaller, more nimble sort of production next?

On one hand, yeah, there is a certain feeling to do that. After “Batman Begins,” I certainly felt like taking on something smaller, but one of the things I got such a thrill from on “The Dark Knight” was shooting on Imax and creating that massive scale and achieving that larger-than-life quality. So that’s a lot of fun. I’m drawn in both directions now. So maybe what I need to do next is a very intimate, small story that happens to be photographed on a ridiculously large scale. Or vice versa [laughs].

I’m not sure I even know what that means.

Yes, I don’t know what it means either [laughter]. But really what I know is that it’s about story at the end of the day. … But I do feel there is this tug to do big scale and small scale, so I don’t know. …

Maybe you need to make a small story in a huge place. “My Dinner With Andre” at the top of Mt. Everest.

Or in outer space. That might work.

Could you see actually yourself not making the third Batman film?

Well … let me think how to put this. There are two things to be said. One is the emphasis on story. What’s the story? Is there a story that’s going to keep me emotionally invested for the couple of years that it will take to make another one? That’s the overriding question. On a more superficial level, I have to ask the question: How many good third movies in a franchise can people name? [Laughs.] At the same time, in taking on the second one, we had the challenge of trying to make a great second movie, and there haven’t been too many of those either. It’s all about the story really. If the story is there, everything is possible. I hope that was a suitably slippery answer.

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