Behind the Bat - Producing 'The Dark Knight'
There are many people whose hard work behind the scenes is essential to the success of a major motion picture like The Dark Knight, which brings Batman back to movie theaters on July 18th. But in the case of this film, even the producers were kept waiting by director Christopher Nolan as to whether he even wanted to direct a sequel to 2005’s successful Batman Begins.
“He makes up his own mind. He’s a one-picture at a time guy and he makes his decisions when he makes them,” says Charles Roven, a veteran producer whose credits include the recent TV update Get Smart, Scooby-Doo and its sequel, Idlewild, and Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. “He wanted to make sure there was a story worth telling and that he could expand on it in a compelling way for himself as a director before he made the decision to direct it.”
For a while, it looked like Nolan might write the film but not direct it, says Emma Thomas, who in addition to producing The Dark Knight is Nolan’s wife. “He was working on the story with David (Goyer) and the script with Jonathan (Nolan), but he hadn’t decided that he was going to be the director I think for a little while,” she says.
One important decision made early on was casting the late Heath Ledger as The Joker. Roven says it was the actor’s camp that first broached the subject. “He had heard the movie would have the Joker and we heard from him and his representatives that he was interested in meeting with Chris,” says Roven. “They had met in the past and I had done a film with Heath — The Brothers Grimm — but the bigger issue was that he had a great meeting with Chris. He knew Batman Begins and he knew the tone that Chris had set with that film.”
Ledger had an idea early on as to how he would play the Joker and it was obvious from the first moments he slipped into character that it was going to be different. “From the moment he stared shooting it, and the first day he was on set being that character, I think everyone on the crew knew that this was something really special,” Thomas says. “There was one day he came into the costume fitting and he tried on that nurse’s outfit and he had those socks on and he walked across the room and it was like, ‘Oh, my goodness! That’s the Joker right there.’”
After Ledger’s death from an accidental overdose of prescription medication in January, the producers said they first had to deal with their own personal feelings of loss and then address how the actor’s death would affect the marketing and promotion of the film.
“We waited the appropriate amount of time to mourn that loss, and then we talked amongst ourselves about what we felt would be best for the film and for Heath and for his family,” Roven says. “Everybody agreed, really, that other than the fact that he wasn’t going to be here — we couldn’t have him at the junket, if you will, to publicize the picture himself — then really we should do what we were doing and continue with the marketing campaign in every way that we had been doing it and planned to do it. And that’s pretty much what we’ve done.”
The filmmakers also discussed the reasons behind the departure of actress Katie Holmes from the role of Rachel Dawes, which was taken over by Maggie Gyllenhaal.
“She had a commitment to another movie that we just couldn’t schedule around it,” says Roven. The Dark Knight had a schedule of about 125 shooting days that ran from April to November 2007. “It was a really vast spread and I think that the schedule, it just didn’t work for her,” says Thomas.
At more than 2½ hours, The Dark Knight is a long film, though Thomas and Roven say there was no arguments with Warner Bros. about the running time and only about 10 minutes was trimmed from Nolan’s original cut. “I think (the studio) agreed with us that this is an epic story that needs some time to breathe,” Thomas says.
“In reality, the film is pretty much just the same length of Batman Begins — plus the prologue,” says Roven.
That prologue was one of six sequences shot for the film with IMAX technology. “Part of Chris’ vision when he decided he was going to do The Dark Knight, when he finally figured out that there was a story to tell and a way to tell it, part of the way to tell it was to shoot these sequences in IMAX,” Roven says.
The IMAX sequences were carefully planned for and tested, with the prologue being shot, finished and shown first as a kind of test run. “By the time we got to Hong Kong — that was actually our last sequence that we shot in IMAX — we were really good at this.”
Ledger was not the only loss suffered by the production. Conway Wickliffe, a special effects technician, was killed in a stunt-car crash in England while working on the movie. Roven says the accident took place away from the shooting set and was an unfortunate accident. The film is dedicated to Ledger and Wickliffe.
Ledger’s performance has been so well received that there already is speculation in the media and around Hollywood that he could earn a posthumous Oscar nomination. While such talk is gratifying, it’s not something that Thomas says she’s giving much thought to.
“We’re all really happy that everyone’s recognizing how great Heath is in the movie and what a great performance he gave,” she says. “For us at this point we just want to get the film out there and hopefully people will like it.”