Though Batman Begins was a huge success upon its release in the summer of 2005, director Christopher Nolan felt no rush or obligation to make a sequel unless it was going to be a step up.
“You don’t want to be giving the audience a retread of the first film,” Nolan says. “You’ve got to offer something new and different, and it was a little frightening to look at how few great second films there were. But we saw that as an interesting challenge.”
With The Dark Knight now completed and awaiting release July 18, moviegoers will get to see if they think Nolan succeeded. With early reviews and buzz overwhelmingly positive, it seems that making a Batman movie that’s even darker and more intense is about to pay off handsomely.
Nolan says that coming up with a story that worked was a challenge, but there are advantages to working with the restrictions placed on the film by the character’s traditions and even by sticking to a PG-13 rating rather than going for an R. “We’re always helped by the fact, that Batman of all the summer movie heroes, he’s the one who will not kill people, he won’t use a firearm. So that poses certain restrictions on the storytelling but it actually I think makes you take things in a more interesting direction.”
The film will garner a lot of attention for being the final role of Heath Ledger, whose performance as the Joker is so startling, terrifying and compelling that talk of an Oscar nomination is flying around Hollywood. Nolan says that Ledger approached him very early in the writing process, only shortly after it was announced that there would be a sequel to Batman Begins that would feature the Joker.
“I knew he was an extraordinary actor from his other work and I knew from sitting there talking to him that he’d figured out how he could do this,” Nolan says. “We just saw the character the same way, and when somebody that talented wants to take on something so daunting, that is confident they can do it, I’ve never felt so sure of anything.”
Nolan says that had Ledger not broached the subject, he probably would not have thought of the actor for the role. “I’m not sure it would have occurred to me because it was a very unusual match up, really. I think probably I would have assumed he wouldn’t have been interested.”
The director also disputes the notion that so dark a role affected the actor or played a part in his death Jan. 22nd from an overdose of prescription medication. “He was a very fine actor and a very fine actor’s job is to create an artificial character, find a reality for that while the camera is running. And he was, of the actors I’ve worked with, he was one of the easiest, most delightful presences on the set.”
He in particular recalls delighting Ledger with a scene in which the Joker infiltrates a hospital by wearing a nurse’s dress and a wig. Ledger also stunned the director by perfectly executing a difficult shot in which he walked out of the hospital while the building exploded behind him.
“We rehearsed it for hours and hours and hours, because obviously it was a one-take thing and the building was blown up for real, it did drop behind him exactly for real,” Nolan says. “And he hit every mark absolutely perfectly, never looked back, which I think would have been an extraordinary thing for him.”
Nolan had to recast a major role from the first film, when actress Katie Holmes was unable to reprise her part and Maggie Gyllenhaal was tapped to play assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes. “It’s always tricky to recast a part, because you know that it’s going to be a little tricky for the audience to pick up the change,” he says.
Another new addition is Aaron Eckhart as crusading prosecutor Harvey Dent — a character whose heroic rise and tragic fall provides an important element that the anarchic Joker could not. “In conceiving the story, we realized that Harvey Dent was going to have to form the emotional backbone of the story. The Joker, he’s not that, the Joker’s always going to be this catalyst for other characters,” Nolan says. “So what I needed from Aaron was somebody who could project this very confident, relaxed, heroic, sort of All-American hero figure — kind of the young Robert Redford sort of thing is what we were after. Within that, he always as to play fair with the audience, just clue them into the fact there’s a little more going on there, that there are things at work there that might go one way or the other depending on the circumstance.”
Several sequences in the film were shot using IMAX cameras and film stock, which is significantly larger and slightly more complicated. One such sequence involved Batman perched atop the Sears Tower in Chicago that actor Christian Bale decided to do himself.
“I thought he was crazy,” says Nolan. “But then I know our stunt guys had a way to do it really safely, so that the only real hurdle he had to overcome was his own fear. I wouldn’t do it. I’d be absolutely terrified.”
The shot also was a case of playing off real-world conditions, which were less than ideal the evening this was shot. “It was very foggy, very misty, and they radioed down at the time that visibility was poor and they didn’t want to do it,” Nolan says. “And I said, ‘Go ahead and shoot it anyway’ because something great might be there and I think it’s a very beautiful shot. It’s often the case that the technical limitations you come up against actually give you something more interesting than you would otherwise have.”
One thing that won’t show up on the DVD release are deleted scenes, with the director saying he tries not to write or shoot scenes that don’t stand a good chance of getting into the film. As such, the script was structured in such a way that scenes could not be removed without damaging the entire structure. That also helped in the editing of the film, with the director only cutting 10 minutes from his original cut by trimming scenes here and there.
As for whether Nolan will return to direct a third Batman film — many of the actors, including Bale, are signed to a third film — is too soon to say. “To be honest, I have absolutely no idea. We just finished this film; I mean I really just finished work on it last week. We’ve got to get it out there and see what people think of it. And I’m very bad at multitasking; I really do one thing at a time.”