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Q&A: Christopher Nolan on Dreams, Architecture, and Ambiguity + SET PHOTOS

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(Spoiler alert: Details and plot points about Inception follow.)

Christopher Nolan, director of Memento, and The Dark Knight, tends to let his twisty genre deconstructions speak for themselves. But he agreed to talk to Wired about the decade-long inception of his movie Inception (on DVD December 7). We talked to him about heists, architecture, and the difference between ambiguity and a lack of answers. Hint: One is better (looking at you, Lost).

Wired: Inception has such high ambitions. What did it take to get the script to work?

Christopher Nolan: The problem was that I started with a heist film structure. At the time, that seemed the best way of getting all the exposition into the beginning of the movie—heist is the one genre where exposition is very much part of the entertainment. But I eventually realized that heist films are usually unemotional. They tend to be glamorous and deliberately superficial. I wanted to deal with the world of dreams, and I realized that I really had to offer the audience a more emotional narrative, something that represents the emotional world of somebody’s mind. So both the hero’s story and the heist itself had to be based on emotional concepts. That took years to figure out.

Wired: You mix in other genres as well. There’s a bit of noir, and in the snow scene you play with the conventions of James Bond-style action-movies.

Nolan: I’m a lover of movies, so that’s where my brain went. But I think that’s where a lot of people’s minds would go if they were constructing an arena in which to conduct this heist. I also wanted the dreams in Inception to reflect the infinite potential of the human mind. The Bond movies are these globe-trotting spy thrillers, filmmaking on a massive scale. The key noir reference is the character Mal; it was very important to me that she come across as a classic femme fatale. The character and her relationship to Cobb’s psyche is the literal mani-festation of what the femme fatale always meant in film noir—the neurosis of the protagonist, his fear of how little he knows about the woman he’s fallen in love with, that kind of thing.
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Wired: In addition to genre-play, Inception is also a classic heroic epic—a Joseph Campbell The Hero with a Thousand Faces type of story.

Nolan: I’ve never read Joseph Campbell, and I don’t know all that much about story archetypes. But things like The Inferno and the labyrinth and the Minotaur were definitely in my mind.

Wired: There’s a character called Ariadne, named after the woman who helped guide Theseus through the labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur.

Nolan: Yeah, I wanted to have that to help explain the importance of the labyrinth to the audience. I don’t know how many people pick up on that association when they’re watching the film. It was just a little pointer, really. I like the idea of her being Cobb’s guide.

Wired: A common observation about your movie is that the grammar of dreams and the grammar of filmmaking have lots of overlap—Inception seems to be a movie about making movies. Saito is a producer, Cobb’s a director, Ariadne’s a writer, and so on. Was that your intention

Nolan: I didn’t intend to make a film about filmmaking, but it’s clear that I gravitated toward the creative process that I know. The way the team works is very analogous to the way the film itself was made. I can’t say that was intentional, but it’s very clearly there. I think that’s just the result of me trying to be very tactile and sincere in my portrayal of that creative process.

Wired: Have you read the online discussions of the film?

Nolan: I’ve seen some of it, yeah. People seem to be noticing the things they’re meant to notice, the things that are meant to either create ambiguities or push you in one direction or another. But I’ve also read plenty of very off-the-wall interpretations. One of the things you do as a writer and as a filmmaker is grasp for resonant symbols and imagery without necessarily fully understanding it yourself. And so there are interpretations to be imposed on the film that aren’t necessarily what I had in my head.

Wired: One of the rules in Inception is that, in a dream, you never know how you got somewhere. But in filmmaking, by necessity, you cut from one place to another—for example, from Paris to Mombasa. Does it indicate that Cobb is in a dream because you don’t see how he got to Mombasa?

Nolan: Certainly Inception plays with the relationship between films and dreaming in a number of different ways. I tried to highlight certain aspects of dreaming that I find to be true, such as not remembering the beginning of a dream. And that is very much like the way films tell their stories. But I wouldn’t say I specifically used the grammar of the film to tell the audience what is dream and what is reality.

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Wired: As a filmmaker, are you broadly trying to “incept” your audience? Are you trying help them find some form of catharsis through your work?

Nolan: Well, I think that there’s a fairly strong relationship in a lot of ways between what the team is trying to provide for their subject, Fischer, and what we’re trying to do as filmmakers. For me, a key thing is what Cobb says about how positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. I think that’s very true. I also think it’s noteworthy how the team must use symbols to construct an emotional narrative for Fischer. This is extremely similar to the way a filmmaker uses symbols to give an idea to an audience. The use of the pinwheel, for example, in Fischer’s emotional story. It’s a very cinematic device. A lot of people have related that to Citizen Kane. And that is exactly the point—it’s Rosebud, a visual symbol that sticks in your head from earlier in the story and then can take on new meaning later on. Inception definitely seems to be a film about itself, the more I talk about it. [Laughs.]

Wired: There’s also a distinct undercurrent about the importance of architecture.

Nolan: The only job that was ever of interest to me other than filmmaking is architecture. And I’m very interested in the similarities or analogies between the way in which we experience a three–dimensional space that an architect has created and the way in which an audience experiences a cinematic narrative that constructs a three–dimensional -reality from a two-dimensional medium—assembled shot by shot. I think there’s a narrative component to architecture that’s kind of fascinating.

Wired: Three times in Inception the camera takes a long pass over a city. You have Tokyo looking sort of fractal, Paris look–ing very rectilinear, and Mombasa looking very mazelike. What were you conveying?

Nolan: The idea of showing Mombasa as mazelike was, for me, a very specific narrative point in the film. When Cobb finally confronts Mal at the end and she brings up the idea that Cobb no longer believes in one reality, you need to have shown the audience the potential for the real world to have the same rule set as the dreams. The mazelike nature of Mombasa was very important for this.

Wired: So you needed to have a moment where the audience could believe that Cobb had lost touch with reality?

Nolan: You need to have several moments like that for the ambiguity at the end of the film to work and for everything that Mal says to Cobb—effectively he’s talking to himself, obviously—to resonate. It’s very important that the dream worlds reflect the same rules as what’s presented as reality. It’s also very important that the rules of the dream have analogies to what’s presented as reality. Like the fact that Cobb’s being chased by anonymous corporations around the globe, as well as the maze-like quality of some of the environments.

Wired: The last line of the movie is Cobb’s son saying, “I built a house,” and there’s a building made of blocks on the dining table. Most people in the movie are builders of one kind or another. What does that last line signify?

Nolan: That’s a tricky one. Anyone who’s worked with child actors, even ones as great as the ones in this movie, knows that you basically have to ask a kid to improvise and they’re going to say whatever they want to say. We certainly tried to choose the most apt takes. But yes, the film is about architects, builders, people who would have the mental capacity to construct large-scale worlds—the world of the dream. Everything is about how they would -create, whether it’s blocks or sand castles or a dream. These are all acts of -creation. There’s a relationship between the sand castle the kids are building on the beach in the beginning of the film and the buildings literally being eaten away by the subconscious and falling into the sea. The important thing in Inception is the mental process. What the dream-share technology enables them to do is remove physicality from that process. It’s about pure creation. That’s why it’s a film about architects rather than soldiers.

Wired: And they’re so deft with their creative abilities that they can literally use architecture as a weapon—with the Penrose staircase, for example.

I think it’s very analogous to the way people play videogames. When you play a videogame, you could be a completely different person than you are in the real world, certain aspects of the way your brain works can be leveraged for something you could never do in the real world. It was important, for example, that Cobb not be as physically skilled in the real world. And when he’s charging through Mombasa, I think Leo does a tremendous job of slightly differentiating his body language and the way he moves in that world. Of course, that can be based on what he believes of himself in that particular reality, so …

Wired: [Laughs.] Right. There’s a line that I think is key to the movie that’s referenced throughout: “Do you want to take a leap of faith?” What is the importance of that?

Nolan: Without getting too wild and woolly about it, the idea is that by the end of the film people will start to realize that the situation is very much like real life. We don’t know what comes next, we don’t know what happens to us after we die. And so the idea of the leap of faith is the leap into the unknowability of where the characters find themselves.

Wired: I’ve seen the line used to support two interpretations. One is that it’s proof that the entire movie is a dream, something reverberating around in Cobb’s subconscious.

Nolan: Mm-hmm.

Wired: And the other is that it indicates that you as the audience member have to take a leap of faith and decide whether the ending of the movie is a dream or not. Would you talk about where on that spectrum you fall?

Nolan: [Laughs.] I don’t think I can talk about that, no. The ambiguity is very much a part of the substance of the film—I’ll put it that way. The film does not specify one way or the other.

Wired: Early on, Cobb spins the top, puts the gun to his head, and the top falls. It seems that you’re giving the audience a baseline moment of reality.

Nolan: Well, we give the character a moment of reality. I like films where you’re receiving the story largely from a subjective point of view. And what I’ve tried to do with Inception is to explore this world through Cobb’s eyes. Through the entire film, as you see his dependency on that symbol grow and through Ariadne’s constant questioning of him, I think we start to understand that the whole reason he needs to spin the top at the beginning is because he’s lost his own sense of what’s real and what’s not.

Wired: Any other clues that you’d like the DVD audience to pay attention to?

Nolan: The one thing I have heard a lot is the kids are wearing the same clothes at the end. And they’re not. [Laughs.]

Wired: They’re not?

Nolan: No, they’re not. I’m not giving anything away there. Also I’ve read a lot of misunderstanding or misremembering of the way those kids are portrayed onscreen. But on the Blu-ray, people will be able to check, say, the ages of the kids.

Wired: The kids are in different clothes and are older at the end?

Nolan: Yes, two sets of kids! The younger version of the boy is actually my son, and it’s not him who turns around at the end. There’s no ambiguity here.

Wired: I was so convinced that they were wearing the same clothes.

Nolan: They’re very similar but not the same. That I would very much like people to notice, because it was a very, very difficult thing to pull off, taking two sets of kids all around the world and filming things two different ways.

Wired: Wait—is it the second set of kids just at the very end? Or do you interchange them somewhere else?

Nolan: I don’t want to specify too much.
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Wired: Wha?

Nolan: I was attempting to portray somebody trying to visualize something that they can’t visualize. It’s a combination of memory and imagining and dream, and all the different ways in which we as human beings are able to visualize things. The way in which kids appear throughout the film is a strenuous attempt to play with that.

Wired: Well, while we’re talking about the costuming, one of the unique advantages of having people in tightly tailored clothes and heavily slicked hair is that they can easily be made to look like they’re fighting in zero g.

Nolan: It definitely helped.

Wired: What was it like planning for that zero-g sequence?

Nolan: It can be daunting as your department heads come in and say, “Well, hang on a second, you’ve written this, but how are we going to pull this off?” But what I’ve found in every film is that the prac-ticalities of really doing things tend to inform the shape and design of the film in productive ways. A lot of the time I find myself very invigorated by the solutions to the practical realities we face, whether it’s in wardrobe or hair or photography or whatever. It’s those parameters which start to make the thing unique, make it what it is. I can’t really imagine myself ever making an animated film, because in an animation, you don’t have any of those tensions, those limitations. I’d be missing an important part of my -creative process.

Wired: Is that why you built a spinning set to the do the zero-g scene rather than do it in CG?

Nolan: Exactly. And so the look of what the characters are wearing, as you say, the hairstyles, the design of the environment, it all had to be practical for building those sets. The characters have to be effectively lit with lighting that can rotate. All of that has an effect on what the world of Inception is.

Wired: Where’d you get the idea for the spinning top as Cobb’s totem?

Nolan: I actually had a spinning top—I’d given it to my wife as a present at some point many years ago, and I just sort of stumbled across it one day.

Wired: Cobb’s top has an interesting shape. It’s a pseudosphere, the topological inverse of a normal sphere.

Nolan: The top I based it on was very, very difficult to spin. So the particular shape of the top we ended up using—which was custom made for the film by the prop department—has a particular center of gravity to enable it to spin practically and easily. All of the shots of the spinning top in the film are real.

Wired: In the movie you have five levels of reality, at least four of which are moving at different speeds through time, and you managed to pull off the distinctions among them using only color palettes. How afraid were you that you were going to lose people?

I was concerned, but I was invigorated by the challenge. And the crosscutting at the end of the film and the interrelationships between the levels were the jumping-off point for the whole project. That was what I first conceived of, and for 10 years I was trying to figure out how to get to that point at the end of the film. One of the things that gave me that confidence was that the last 20 minutes of The Dark Knight are based on very similar principles of crosscutting, parallel action. So we went into the climactic action of the film knowing the things you need to know to distinguish environments. One of the limitations we put on ourselves—Wally Pfister, my director of photography, and myself—is that we didn’t want to do any post-processing on the image. We wanted to have the distinctions there in the design and the feel, so I wrote it into the script. It’s raining in level one, it’s a night-interior in level two, and it’s an exterior with snow in level three. Even if you’re cutting to a close-up of Yusuf in the van in level one, you know where you are because the rain is there.

Wired: Let me try another reading on you: When Cobb and Saito are in limbo, they agree to a reality where Cobb can see his kids again—and at the end of the movie we’re still in limbo. Care to rule that out?

Nolan: If I start ruling things out, where do I stop? I will go as far as saying that wasn’t the way I read it. [Laughs.] How did you read the end of the film?

Wired: My reading is that the movie has purposefully done a couple of things to point you in different directions. I think at the end you’re supposed to remember the line about taking a leap of faith. For your own personal catharsis as an audience member, you have to decide what is real for yourself. So I personally choose to believe that Cobb gets back to his kids, because I have young kids. I want him to get home.

Nolan: People who have kids definitely read it differently than people who don’t. Which isn’t the same as saying there’s no answer. Sometimes I think people lose the importance of the way the thing is staged with the spinning top at the end. Because the most important emotional thing is that Cobb’s not looking at it. He doesn’t care.

Wired: Either way, he has found a reality where he got what he needed. I know that you’re not going to tell me, but I would have guessed that really, because the audience fills in the gaps, you yourself would say, “I don’t have an answer.”

Nolan: Oh no, I’ve got an answer.

Wired: You do?!

Nolan: Oh yeah. I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a sincere interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel cheated. I think the only way to make ambiguity satisfying is to base it on a very solid point of view of what you think is going on, and then allow the ambiguity to come from the inability of the character to know, and the alignment of the audience with that character.

Wired: Oh. That’s a terrible tease.


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Tags: film, interview, joseph gordon levitt, leonardo dicaprio, marion cotillard, tom hardy

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