Originality In Dream Sequences A Challenge For Films With the success of the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream concept behind the film "Inception," NPR's Bob Mondello talks to guest host Audie Cornish about Hollywood's long obsession with the dream sequence.
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Originality In Dream Sequences A Challenge For Films

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Originality In Dream Sequences A Challenge For Films

Originality In Dream Sequences A Challenge For Films

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Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

One of the most talked about films of summer has to be "Inception." The Leonardo DiCaprio mindbender is all about manipulating people's dreams.

(Soundbite of movie, "Inception")

Mr. LEONARDO DICAPRIO (Actor): (as Cobb) You create the world of the dream. You bring the subject into that dream and they fill it with their subconscious.

CORNISH: Dreams have always been a handy dramatic device. They allow writers to explore alternate worlds, plots and what a character is thinking. And here to be our Freudian guide through the world of cinematic dreams is our film critic Bob Mondello.

Hey there, Bob.

BOB MONDELLO: Hello. Freudian, I don't know, but we'll try.

CORNISH: Well, I saw "Inception" and it used dreams in a pretty clever way, sort of layering of dreams. And...


CORNISH: But it's certainly not a new device and I hear that you can take us all the way back to the ancient Greeks to talk about this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: Well, I take everything back to the ancient Greeks. They had a word for everything. The earliest dream that I could find in Western drama was in "The Persians," a play by Aeschylus in 472 B.C., so that's pretty far back.


MONDELLO: The queen in that show dreams of her son's catastrophic military campaign and then discovers to her horror that her dreams were true. And as far as I know, that's the first time that a dream sequence was used in a drama that we still have.

CORNISH: So when did the dream sequence make its way into film?

MONDELLO: Oh, I think they got there as soon as filmmakers discovered that by doing a double exposure you could create a ghost. And in 1924 in a silent film, "Sherlock Jr." - this is my favorite dream sequence ever - Buster Keaton is a movie projectionist and he falls asleep and dreams that he leaves the projection booth and climbs up on the screen and gets incorporated into the movie.

And once he's up there, he's subject to all of the movie grammar, you know, like the quick cuts and the odd camera angles and mirrors that turn into doorways and all these neat cinematic tricks. Basically, Keaton was, in an amusing way, teaching the audience about film grammar.

CORNISH: And you can't really talk about dreams and movies, I think, without talking about "The Wizard of Oz," which has got to be, you know, one of the more famous dream sequences in film history.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Wizard of Oz")

Ms. CLARA BLANDICK (Actress): (as Auntie Em) There, there, lie quiet now. You just had a bad dream.

MONDELLO: It's all been a dream, starting with the tornado, basically. Everything that's in color turns out to be Dorothy's dream, but we don't find out about that until the very end.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Wizard of Oz")

Ms. JUDY GARLAND (Actress): (as Dorothy) But it wasn't a dream. It was a place, and you and you and you and you were there.

CORNISH: And of course, these days if you use the whole, it was all a dream conceived sometimes, that doesn't go over too well.

MONDELLO: It doesn't go over too well when they abuse it. I - filmmakers and screenwriters sometimes use dream sequences just to get out of problems that they've created for themselves in a script, you know, where it's so complicated that they suddenly realize that, oops, that's a dead-end for the script. And so they write themselves out of it by just saying, oh well, it was a character's dream.

CORNISH: Maybe that's why it's so abused in television where you have this sort of long, you know, periods of character developments so then all of a sudden it maybe feels like a cheap.

MONDELLO: Yeah. The classic example of that is "Dallas" where at some point they had written themselves so into a corner that they decided the whole eighth season was a dream.

(Soundbite of laughter)


MONDELLO: At that point, the audience sort of rebelled. It lost a lot of popularity at that point.

CORNISH: Dreams, of course, are such a natural fit for science fiction or, better, horror films, like "Nightmare on Elm Street."

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: I'm thinking of that, you know, you're so vulnerable when you're sleeping.

MONDELLO: No, you don't want to fall asleep because Freddie will get you.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Nightmare on Elm Street")

Unidentified Man: We got to stop this.

Unidentified Woman #1: How?

Unidentified Man: Don't fall asleep.

MONDELLO: Yeah, and science fiction uses it all the time. In "The Matrix," the characters were basically doing all of their zipping around through portals and things like that while they were asleep on a slab. In "Blade Runner," the title of Philip K. Dick's book that it's based on is, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" And "Blade Runner" actually uses that same notion that "Inception" does of planting memories that aren't real into somebody's head.

CORNISH: So the challenge for filmmakers is of course, you know, finding an original take on the dream sequence. And, tell me, how do you think that Christopher Nolan, the director of "Inception," did?

MONDELLO: Well, I don't know that I think it's original exactly, but I think that the things that he did with it, the visualizing of various different levels and things like that, are very clever. There's a sequence in there where there's - I'm hesitant about talking too closely about it because a lot of people...

CORNISH: Yes, don't give it away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: Right. But there's a trick with mirrors that I thought, you know, as we're looking at this, he's getting at the thing that Buster Keaton did all those years ago, that he's using the movie dream to illustrate something about cinema that we're sort of seeing how a special effect gets done.

CORNISH: Mm-hmm.

MONDELLO: And so it becomes more interesting when he starts to play with his own form there.

CORNISH: That's our film critic, Bob Mondello.

Thanks, Bob.

MONDELLO: It's always a pleasure.

(Soundbite of song, "A Dream that you Wish")

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) A dream that you wish will come true.

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