This is the second of a three-part interview with Christopher Nolan, the director of “The Dark Knight,” which was released in mid-July 2008 and grossed over $1 billion in worldwide box office. The numbers are astounding, but even more startling is the fact that the 38-year-old filmmaker captured that kind of global audience with a movie that is relentlessly dark and finds its axis in the performance of Heath Ledger as the nihilistic and sadistic Joker.
I asked the London native to pick one scene in the film that he would circle as the essential moment in the movie, either in its service to the overall story or the film’s texture. He answered quickly.
Christopher Nolan: To be honest, it’s pretty easy for me. The scene that is so important and so central to me is the interrogation scene between Batman and the Joker in the film. When we were writing the script, that was always one of the central set pieces that we wanted to crack.
At what point in the production schedule did you shoot it?
On the set, we shot it fairly early on. It was actually one of the first things that Heath had to do as the Joker. He told me he was actually pretty excited to tear off a big chunk early on, really get one of the Joker’s key scenes up in the first three weeks of a seven-month shoot. He and I both liked the idea of just diving in, as did Christian [Bale, who portrayed Batman]. We had rehearsed the scene a tiny bit. We had just ripped through it a couple of times in pre-production just to get some slight feel of how it was going to work. Neither of them wanted to go too far with it in rehearsal. They had to rehearse some of the fight choreography, but even with that, we tried to keep it loose and improvisational. They wanted to save it all. We were all pretty excited to get on with a big chunk of dialogue and this big intense scene between these two iconic characters. It was quite bizarre to see Batman across the table across from the Joker [laughs]. I’m glad you asked this. You know, I could actually talk about this scene for hours.
We had a lot of time to shoot it too, because it was so early on. Quite often, as you get behind on other things and you run toward the end of the shoot, things can get very squeezed. But you tend to schedule the first few weeks very generously to give the crew and the actors and myself time to find our feet and find our pace. So we had a couple of days to do it.
Can you give me a snapshot memory from those days shooting the scene?
It was a great set built into a location. It had all of the advantages of feeling that we were in a real place. Nathan Crowley, the production designer, built these great mirrors and this long, tiled room that I really loved the look of; it had the feeling almost of an abattoir or something. That all fed into the brutality of the scene. We wanted to be very edgy, very brutal. We wanted it to be the point at which Batman is truly tested by the Joker and you see that the Joker is truly capable of getting under everybody’s skin. I’m realizing this now about that scene — I haven’t thought this through before — the synthesis of all the different elements that I’m most interested in within filmmaking all come in that scene.
The scene starts between Gary Oldman [as James Gordon] and Heath with the lights out, and [director of photography] Wally Pfister literally just lit the scene with the desk lamp, the table lamp, and nothing else. And then when the lights come on, Batman is revealed, and the rest of the scene plays out with a massive overexposure. He overexposed like five stops, I want to say, and then printed it down to bring some of the color back in. But it’s this incredibly intense overhead light which let us move in any direction. We had a handheld camera and shot however we wanted, be very spontaneous.
For me creatively, that had been about inverting the expectation. We’ve all seen so many of these dark movie interrogation scenes where somebody is being given the third degree. We just wanted to completely flip that on its head. And have the bright, harsh, bleak light sort show you the Joker’s make-up and its decay. The Batsuit was redesigned for this film. And unlike the suit that we had in “Batman Begins,” it’s capable of really being shown in incredible detail and still hold up to that kind of scrutiny under that bright light. The suit looked much more real and more like a functional thing this time. The whole scene was about showing something real and brutal and getting this real harshness.
There’s remarkable physicality of the actors in that scene. They are such different presences in the room: Christian is all dark mass and bottled fury and Heath has this spindly weirdness. …
Yes, and I think you start to see it even at the beginning of the scene where everything is in closer. There are tight close-ups with just a little drift to the camera. We start in a very controlled way, but even within that frame, the way Heath is bobbing in and out —and he’s actually bobbing in and out of the focal plane because, you know, it’s very hard to follow someone whose leaning toward camera the whole time. It actually really adds something. We’re continually trying to catch him with the focus. You really see his movement back and forth. That way, even in a tight frame, you have this sense of strangeness. On the other hand, you have Batman sitting there just very, very controlled, restrained as you say. Then there’s a point where it spills over into real physicality and he drags the Joker across the table. We go handheld at that point and shot the rest of the scene with handheld to be very spontaneous in its movement. They had rehearsed the stunts and the fight stuff very specifically, but we really let the actors work within that. I had never seen anybody sell a punch the way Heath was able to with Christian. I got the violence I wanted. What I felt was really important creatively for the scene was that we show Batman going too far. We show him effectively torturing someone for information because it’s become personal.
Christian and I had talked a lot on “Batman Begins” about finding a moment in that film where you actually worry that Batman will go too far. A moment where his rage might spill over and he would break his rules. We never found that moment. It just wasn’t there in that story. There was a lot of strength and aggression in the way he played the part, but I don’t think the story provided that element of losing control. What the Joker provides in the second film is the fact that his entire motivation is to push people’s buttons and find their rules set and it turn it on itself. And Batman of course places such importance on his rules, his morals. It’s what distinguishes him, in his mind, from a common vigilante. The Joker is able to twist him around and make him question his own approach and his own actions.
In the first film, the Batman’s most memorable moments of intense aggression feel more like theater — he’s doing it in a calculated show to scare people. The first movie seems to be about Batman’s fear; the second one is about his rage.
Exactly. That’s why we never found that moment of danger, the one we had talked about, where there’s this danger that Batman will just lose it and go too far. That rage is very much a central part of the story in ‘The Dark Knight,’ and that interrogation scene is the fulcrum on which the whole movie turns. I think Batman finds out — and Bruce Wayne finds out — a lot about himself in that scene. I was just delighted to get to see Christian show that rage. And it’s wonderfully balanced with Gary’s control as well. Even though everyone remembers the scene as being the Joker and Batman, Gordon played a very important part to setting it up and allowing this interrogation to happen. And then as he is watching from the sideline, he sees the exact point where this is going too far. He knows Batman well enough to observe this, to recognize it. He tries to get in, but Batman has locked the door. And what we get to lead to, by the end of the scene, when he’s just pounding on the Joker, I think Heath managed to find the exact essence of the threat of the Joker and who he is: He’s being pounded in the face and he’s laughing and loving it. There’s nothing you can do. As he tells Batman, “You have nothing to do with all of your strength.” There’s this sort of impotence of the strong and the armored and the very muscular Batman; he’s very powerful, but there’s no useful way for this power to be exercised in this scene. He has to confront that.