MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Let's say you're an executive of one of Hollywood's biggest studios, and one of your most beloved franchises is lifeless, thanks to a string of uninspired sequels. To revive it, what do you do? Hire a proven A-list director, or hire a young man whose biggest claim to fame is "Memento," the low-budget, independent thriller with a story that's told backwards?
Well, Warner Bros. chose the latter, and The Batman was re-born in 2005 with the hugely successful "Batman Begins." And tomorrow, that young man, Director Christopher Nolan, returns to theaters with his second Batman movie, "The Dark Knight," another round for the Batgear and high-tech heroics.
(Soundbite of movie "The Dark Knight")
Mr. MORGAN FREEMAN (Actor): (As Lucius Fox) Well, I must say if the pads you'll use (unintelligible) quests, jumping out of an airplane is pretty straightforward.
Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE (Actor): (As Bruce Wayne / Batman) And what about getting back into the plane…
Mr. FREEMAN: I'd recommend a good travel agent.
Mr. BALE: …without a landing?
Mr. FREEMAN: Now, that's more like it, Mr. Wayne.
SIEGEL: That's Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox and Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne a.k.a. The Batman. The film also stars the late Heath Ledger as The Joker. Ledger died unexpectedly after filming ended. But back to Director Christopher Nolan. I asked him recently how he tried to make this well-worn franchise feel fresh.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER NOLAN (Director, "The Dark Knight"): It is a challenge with preexisting iconography. But what you get in exchange for that - that challenge of how to make something fresh - is you get access to an audience association with the characters that lets you tell a story on a very grand scale, in a very operatic manner, that you couldn't with fully original characters that people were seeing for the first time.
SIEGEL: You're working on themes of good and evil, the relationship between Batman and The Joker, and perhaps some ambiguity about morality and immorality. Can a Batman movie sustain that kind of gravitas, or is it simply, in the end - in the end, it's an adaptation of a comic book character?
Mr. NOLAN: Well, I'd like to think it can be both. It's really for the audience to decide what they get out of the film. But for me, it's always been paramount that the film, first and foremost, be a great piece of entertainment. But to make this kind of action movie entertaining, I feel that I have to take the subject matter very seriously. I have to invest all of my attention and focus in a very sincere way for a couple of years while I make the film. That, I think, is what hopefully will make the best film or hopefully will make the most entertaining film because the things in the movie are, in some sense, somebody believed in them. That's the feel that I most respond to in a large blockbuster, and that was very much what I wanted to bring to the telling of the Batman story.
SIEGEL: You mean, if you slipped into treating it like just a comic book story, and we know - if we saw a POW! explode on the screen, (unintelligible), in a way, that doesn't work, you have to take it more seriously than that?
Mr. NOLAN: I believe you do, not for any highfaluting reasons, really just so that as a viewer, when I get to see one of these films, I'm always a little bit letdown, I'm always a little bit frustrated when the filmmaker sort of winks at me.
SIEGEL: Mm hmm.
Mr. NOLAN: I feel a bit like that's for me to decide, you know, whether there's something inherently amusing about the genre. I want the filmmakers to have fully invested in the process of telling a story.
SIEGEL: You, by your own description, in making a movie, you are the surrogate for the audience or the person who's going to get to see this in a movie theater down the road. In that case, do you have to think like a teenaged boy for several months while you're making it? Do you put yourself in the mind of the people who will make or break "The Dark Knight"?
Mr. NOLAN: I think movies are more visceral and emotional than some other media. So, I think that it's not really a question of having to think exactly like a teenaged boy or whatever your target audience is. But I think that where movies, where large-scale movies really come to their own is when they speak a universal language, when they tap into more universal emotions and responses. But certainly, I try and think about the way I would've viewed this film as a boy. I think in making films, I'm really trying to sort of recapture that sense of things.
SIEGEL: There's a lot of whoa moments going on in the movie. A lot of moments that you kind of rise - and you say, whoa, look at that.
Mr. NOLAN: I think that's actually really the aspiration of this kind of filmmaking, is that there will be a couple of moments in the film where you really - it does make you want to applaud or cheer or whatever. I think that's a very important sort of milepost in the journey of a film like this.
SIEGEL: Talk about the character of The Joker, played in the movie by the late Heath Ledger, a Joker very - I think very much unlike Jokers we've seen before. What's the idea that you and your screenwriting partner and brother had here?
Mr. NOLAN: Really, we wanted him to be the most frightening possible version of this character, to be sort of as edgy as possible. And what I talked with Heath a lot about when we first met was the idea of him being a force of pure anarchy, of being someone who wouldn't play by any kind of rules, even criminal rules, somebody who wouldn't in any way be bound by the convention of society that he should be after something, he should have a plan and so forth.
What Heath had to do — and I think he did it in a really incredible way — is he had to balance the need for The Joker to be an iconic presence but be a human being and be somebody that you can listen to and believe that this is really how they operate, this is really how they view the world.
The flipside of that, though, is that you don't want to know too much about them as a human being. You don't want to humanize them too much, because what Heath and I talked about a lot is with these great villains, whether it's Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter or whoever, what we've sort of found is the more you find out about who they were as people, the less threatening, the less interesting, really, they are.
SIEGEL: So there's got to be a mystery about the character for it to work?
Mr. NOLAN: I think - well, mystery, also, there has to be a sense of absoluteness of the fully formed character. This is not an origin story for The Joker. The Joker - I'd like to say, you know, in this film, The Joker moves through the story like the shark in "Jaws". He's an absolute. It's not so much a mystery about the character. You're not sitting there wondering who his parents were, where he came from, and we sort of (unintelligible) in the movie. He simply is the force of chaos who's going to test every character in the story, and I think you know that from the very first second you see him.
SIEGEL: Do you remember the moment when you decided, I want to make movies, this is what I'm going to do in my life?
Mr. NOLAN: Not really. I mean, I started making sort of Super 8 films when I was about 7 years old with my older brother, Matt. And the truth is, sort of ever since then, it's been something that fascinated me and something that I've done in one form or another. So, it's been a sort of organic, just a growth, really. I mean, I've just, you know, made larger and larger and hopefully, better, more interesting films.
SIEGEL: What did you make the Super 8 movies of when you were 7 years old?
Mr. NOLAN: Well, starting when I was 7, before I'd seen the first "Star Wars," there were sort of military things using, you know, Action Man, which is the English G.I. Joe figure. And then, of course, as soon as "Star Wars" came out, that changed everything. And I think I made a series of film called "Space Wars." Imagine this (unintelligible) title, "Space Wars." That was what we did for years. It was all about models and blowing things up.
SIEGEL: What do you mean, you were working with miniatures and (unintelligible)?
Mr. NOLAN: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. You have your little "Star Wars" toys and you strap firecrackers to Millennium Falcon and blow it up and film it and see what you get.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: Although it's not that far off from what's happening in "The Dark Knight."
Mr. NOLAN: It's not. It's done on a rather larger scale, and it's not actually me, thankfully, having anything to do with the pyrotechnics, but it's just something I've always done and something I just really get a kick out of.
SIEGEL: Chris Nolan, thanks a lot for talking with us. It's been a pleasure.
Mr. NOLAN: Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: To hear more of my interview with Director Christopher Nolan, including the story of a cameo by a fabled thespian talent, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, go to NPR.org. "The Dark Knight" opens tomorrow.
From our studios in Gotham, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.