Photographed by Stephen Vaughan © Warner Bros., Legendary Entertainment, Syncopy, DC Comics
By Tim Pelan
In October 2005, shortly after his groundbreaking and seemingly stand-alone Batman Begins was completed, writer/director/producer Christopher Nolan ruminated. “You know, I am thinking about another one. I never thought I would… Will it feature The Joker?… certainly the ending of Batman Begins suggests a pretty strong path…” That would be the leaving of a Joker playing card at a crime scene, and cop Jim Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) talk of “escalation,” partly caused by Batman’s (Christian Bale) emergence. “We wanted to suggest possibilities for how the story would continue,” Nolan expanded, “not because we knew we were going to make a sequel (they didn’t), but because that was the feeling we wanted the audience to leave the theatre with. The ending of Batman Begins was specifically aimed at spinning off that element of the mythology in the audience’s mind so that they could imagine what The Joker would be in that world.” In retrospect, it’s no surprise Michael Mann’s epic crime drama Heat is such an influence on Christopher Nolan’s return to his unique Batverse with The Dark Knight in 2008. Batman has long been known (along with Sherlock Holmes) as “the world’s greatest detective” and the grounded world Nolan created for his cowled hero was ripe for expansion out of the soundstage poverty row of The Narrows to Gotham’s glittering downtown (on location Chicago) now exposed to the anarchic atrophying influence of the creepiest clown prince of crime expression to date, Heath Ledger’s Joker. The Dark Knight even has its own “coffee house” meet between the two antagonists, in the police HQs interrogation room (more on that later). Expansion also meant exposure, Nolan’s first experimentation with the IMAX format for spectacular action (the whole opening daylight bank heist specifically tailored to that format, and sold as a self-contained teaser in special previews), and improving the bat suit to withstand scrutiny out of the shadows. Above all, if Batman Begins was about pervasive fear in the dark, The Dark Knight was about the consequences of reaping what you sow from that fear—anarchy, paranoia, escalation, The Joker playing a long game without rules in broad daylight. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” Michael Caine’s faithful Alfred warns Bale’s Bruce Wayne. The Joker is baldy called a terrorist here, who just wants to upturn the city’s moral code. A frustrated Dark Knight can’t save the city, but maybe a white knight can…
Speaking at a BAFTA’s A Life In Pictures event reflecting on his career in the Autumn of 2017, Nolan stated that the conditions under which he was allowed to make The Dark Knight were abnormally relaxed in these days of locked release dates before a single word has even been written (with an unusual game-changing interactive promotional campaign in the lengthy run-up).
“That’s a privilege and a luxury that filmmakers aren’t afforded anymore,” he told host Edith Bowman and the crowd. “I think it was the last time that anyone was able to say to a studio, ‘I might do another one, but it will be four years.’ There’s too much pressure on release schedules to let people do that now but creatively it’s a huge advantage. We had the privilege and advantage to develop as people and as storytellers and then bring the family back together (after a story treatment from Goyer, Nolan wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan).”
The Dark Knight stands out from many superhero films which culminate in what Matt Zoller Seitz calls “Things crashing into other things.” “I’ve stopped making fun of the Nolan films’ solemn pomposity because the director’s deranged passion for each moment makes the whole trilogy feel singularly alive,” Seitz says in the piece. “Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises are honest-to-God auteurist statements in a genre that’s increasingly scared of them.”
Moments, loaded with weight and meaning, from the most seemingly innocuous conversation to the biggest stunt. Batman and the Joker arguing morality, whilst Gotham’s citizens on one ferry and another full of convicts debate whether to pull the pin on the bomb aboard the other’s craft. Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox aghast at Batman’s mass surveillance technique to track down the Joker, hijacking Gotham’s cell phone network, an echo of the ramping up of the surveillance state in the wake of 9/11. “Spying on 30 million people wasn’t in my job description,” Fox tells him. This is the first time Fox and his boss interact without the buffer of Bruce Wayne, and the polite fiction of the nature of their contract. Here, Bilge Ebiri writes, “Bruce presents himself to Fox as Batman so that his superhero persona can absorb the shame of what he’s done.” Aaron Eckhart’s crusading District Attorney Harvey Dent, making inroads into the prosecution of Gotham’s ingrained organised crime (with a little help from Batman, securing the mob’s bagman in an extra judicial Hong Kong away trip. “Gotham needs a hero with a face (or half of one! as The Joker arranges),” Bruce Wayne tells Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Prosecutor Rachel Dawes. Rachel is dating Dent, and Bruce naively believes she’ll come back to him if, with Dent’s success, he can lay down the Batcowl, once and for all.
“It is not about saving the world, and its twisty-turny narrative still stands out as one-of-a-kind,” Scott Mendelson wrote for Forbes. “It is a big-budget comic book movie which offers life-sized action (the big action sequence is car chase which eventually becomes a single motorcycle versus a single truck), life-sized stakes (there are hundreds of lives at stake by the end, but it’s entirely possible that one or both of those ferries will get blown up) and the smallest-scale climax (three men and a kidnapped family pleading with each other in the ruins of a recent explosion) I can recall in a major comic book movie. The Dark Knight is a huge movie that tells a small story.”
What the subsequent DC-verse and other “grimdark” takes on superheroism comic book tales forgot was the often wry underscoring and rounded emotional depth of Nolan’s caped copper. “Why so serious?” it self-referentially mocked. Sam Mendes, when directing James Bond box office behemoth Skyfall, acknowledged The Dark Knight in particular as a big influence—“What Nolan proved was that you can make a huge movie that is thrilling and entertaining and has a lot to say about the world we live in.”
“I think that with large scale movies that are going to reach a lot of people, when you construct the script, when you construct the film, what you’re always trying to do is tap into people’s view of the world we live in,” Nolan said to Total Film in 2008. “You’re trying to be relevant. But I think if you try to do that in any conscious political sense you’re going to be somewhat violating the terms of the type of entertainment you’re trying to make. What we’re trying to do—and tried to do with the first one as well—is to be very unconscious in those associations. To just write a world that seems relevant and frightening and inspiring and just has a power over us.
The way we portray Harvey Dent, we followed this thought that there’d be some edge to the character all the way through, that there would be a very positive impulse that could be taken in a very negative direction. Aaron does a marvellous job of presenting a psychologically credible character throughout the movie—that overall tragedy, the overall arc of Harvey Dent and Two-Face. It’s in him right from the beginning, there’s something there that can be manipulated or abused or through circumstance turned into something awfully dark.”
Certainly some of the imagery is incredibly potent. Multiple buildings–a central police station, two warehouses, a hospital—are blown up as part of the Joker’s convoluted machinations. A “suicide bomber” with a boobytrapped cell phone sewn into his abdomen. The Joker screwing with the populace in loaded messages of terror, demanding the head of Batman. As Harvey Dent fake-outs an announcement that he is the Batman and is taken away in an armoured convoy to Central Holding, all part of an elaborate ruse to ensnare The Joker, a fire truck aflame blocking their path evokes the chaos and upending of societal norms after 9/11, the convoy diverted to the lower level.
Jim Emerson’s once hotly debated video essay “In the Cut” critiquing the editing grammar of this tunnel chase scene always seemed silly to me, and, partly because it is cut short, rips it out of context and the film’s overall storytelling logic. Emerson breaks it down in editorial choices, and how they tend to differ from the norm. He concludes that the (partial) scene is disjointed, often breaking the rules of direction of action on the screen. To be fair, he merely states that this is an examination of how it breaks the bounds of film grammar norms. Polygon has an excellent article considering this breakdown, what it neglects, and its malign influence in the form of “Honest Trailers” and so on.
“This convoy scene holds up in the end,” the article states, “almost exclusively because of the juxtaposition of what follows immediately after. ‘In the Cut’ is a biopsy, which ends before one of the most memorable and flat-out thrilling action sequences of the film: the Batpod being unleashed.
Part of the importance of the convoy scene is that apart from the early aerial shots, the sequence is intended to feel claustrophobic, tense, and as confined as Dent is in the back of the police van—or perhaps as confined as the officers feel once they’re forced to veer off-route and into the tunnel. The shots, the action, and the editing are cramped and off-kilter. The camera and the cuts are jumping back and forth higgledy-piggledy because the characters are all feeling uneasy and out of their element.
Once the Batpod emerges from the crippled Batmobile, the camera movement and the editing shift. When Batman’s weird little motorcycle comes flying out of the smoldering wreck of his hulking urban tank, he’s liberated and mobile. So too is the tone, the pace, and the mise-en-scène of the film. (Sorry, film school word.)
There’s little confusion in the edits as Batman goes flying along at street level. We’re treated to long, gliding shots behind and alongside the Batpod as Batman carves his way toward Dent and the Joker. The cramped nature of the previous sequence is gone. This is Batman in control. The editing, pacing, and shots demonstrate total control.” Indeed, once the Batpod is released the Batman theme swells momentarily. It’s “all part of the plan,” according to Nolan.
The chase then ends with the incredible upending flipping of The Joker’s truck by the Batpod’s tripwires, an effect achieved in camera, with a real articulated truck (captured on IMAX, of course). Empire‘s Dan Jolin spoke to stunt wizard Chris Corbould during production of Skyfall, and Corbould recalled when Nolan came to him with this idea. “Would you mind if we made it a shorter truck?” he asked the director. Nolan had his heart set on this image. He was “quite insistent.” Corbould had a thought, and said if he absolutely couldn’t do it for real, they would use miniatures, as they had for other parts of the chase. The vehicle was tested, massive spikes shooting out of the cab, forming a pivot as the vehicle lifted. It worked. Nolan wanted to film it on Chicago’s La Salle Street, in the heart of the financial district—the road runs above multiple bank vaults. So Corbould had to find a spot of solid road, and make sure the IMAX camera would also pick up the top of the buildings behind the forty foot flipped in the air truck. Easy.
“The filmmakers received permission to shoot a number of action sequences in Imax; these would include the opening sequence, which depicts a huge bank heist, and the climactic closing scenes. By the time production started, four major action sequences were planned for Imax, but Chris and I knew that if we had the money and the cameras, and if it made sense, we would add other scenes,” says Pfister (Wally Pfister, Nolan’s regular DoP at the time). “For instance, we quickly decided to shoot all the aerial work in Imax because of what we’d gain in resolution.” In the end, 15-20 percent of the movie—roughly 30 minutes of screen time—was originated in Imax.”
The essence of the struggle and dilemma of The Joker’s threat is contained within Nolan’s favourite scene from the film, one that was “so important and so central.” It was one of the first scenes he and Jonathan Nolan tackled to understand the stakes at play throughout the film.
After the aforementioned sting concocted by Batman, Dent, and Commissioner Gordon to draw out the Joker, The Joker is in custody. But the Clown Prince of Crime (or Chaos, as this incarnation prefers), is several steps “ahead of the curve.” He has orchestrated not only Dent’s kidnap, but that of Bruce Wayne’s / Batman’s childhood friend and confidante, Rachel Dawes. After Gordon uncuffs him at the dimly lit table of the interrogation room and leaves, an electric confrontation follows between this wired freak and Batman’s barely controlled fury…
This key scene was filmed early on, so all involved had plenty of time to work on the nuances. Apart from the fight choreography, when an enraged Batman wails on Joker with his fists (and a nasty headbutt), the rest was largely unrehearsed. Heath Ledger had a lot of freedom with his interpretation of the role. Nolan said:
“Our Joker—Heath’s interpretation of The Joker—has always been the absolute extreme of anarchy and chaos, effectively. He’s pure evil through pure anarchy. And what makes him terrifying is to not humanize him in narrative terms. Heath found all kinds of fantastic ways to humanize him in terms of simply being real and being a real person, but in narrative terms we didn’t want to humanize him, we didn’t want to show his origins, show what made him do the things he’s doing because then he becomes less threatening.”
Costume designer Lindy Hemming had made improvements to the Batsuit, basing it on real-life body armour over a layer of mesh, with a more flexible neck piece. Now Nolan and Pfister felt it could stand closer scrutiny. At first the interrogation between Gordon and the Joker is lit only by a desk lamp. When Gordon leaves the room, a harsh buzzer sounds as the door is unlocked. Cut to the Joker looking irritated. The full harsh strip lights hum to life, to reveal Batman has been standing silently in the deep shadow behind him. Nolan pauses a beat for the audience to take this in, before Batman slams Joker’s head to the table—“not exactly” bad cop, as Joker and Gordon discussed.
The scene was filmed in the Farmiloe building in London’s Smithfield, originally a Victorian sheet lead and glass manufacturer. Now it is used by many filmmakers, because of its varied interiors. Nolan described the look of production designer Nathan Cowley’s room as akin to “an abattoir”—grimy tiles, dirty safety glass and hard, grungy lighting and sharp surfaces, suitable for the ugly encounter to follow. Wally Pfister greatly overexposed the lighting. As well as showing the intimidating detail of the Batsuit, seemingly sucking light from the room into Batman’s dark fury, it also shows up in sickly detail, the decayed, cracked macabre make-up of the Joker’s “mask.” As they talk at first across the table, Nolan uses tight close-ups and over the shoulder shots, with a little drift to the camera. Heath Ledger bobs about slightly. “That way, even in a tight frame, you have this sense of strangeness,” Nolan said. By contrast, Batman is like a coiled spring, who lets Joker know exactly what he thinks of him. “Don’t talk like one of them, you’re not,” Joker remonstrates, sounding disappointed. In the Heat diner scene, McCauley and Hanna wariily see each other as professionals, flip sides of the same coin. By the time of The Dark Knight, Batman’s extreme methods have brought all the crazies out from under the floorboards. The Joker sees Batman as his eternal nemesis, the two of them forever locked in eternal conflict. “I don’t want to kill you,” he giggles incredulously. “You complete me.”
Batman’s rage truly erupts when Joker reveals Rachel is also in danger. He drags Joker bodily across the table and beats on him. “WHERE ARE THEY?!” he yells. He then drags a chair under the door handle, preventing Gordon from breaking it up. The camera is now all hand held, close in on the violence unleashed in this cauldron. Now it’s personal. “Tonight, you’re going to break your one rule,” Joker taunts Batman. “I’m considering it,” Batman growls, but he doesn’t get it. Joker knows he’ll only have time to save either Dent or Rachel—he’s counting on Batman feeling the guilt of letting one die. The Joker simply doesn’t give a damn. “You have nothing to threaten me with,” he giggles. “Nothing to do with all your strength.”
Batman’s impotence in the face of this is brilliantly revealed by Christian Bale’s eyes within the cowl, subtly registering his impossible dilemma. The Joker deigns to tell him their locations on his own terms, because “It’s all part of the plan.” And his only plan is to upturn Batman’s (and Gotham’s) moral code. As Christopher Nolan says, “How do you fight someone who thrives on conflict?”
Composer Hans Zimmer (he collaborated with James Newton Howard) on the subset of internet fanboys “losing their minds” about the late Heath Ledger’s casting, as told to Vanity Fair: “When Heath Ledger was cast, there was an outcry from an audience, forgetting that it’s not for us to ask what they want to see—it’s for us to make something they can’t even imagine. It’s a Batman movie, but not what you imagine a Batman movie to be. And it surprised everyone. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?”
Racked with grief at the loss of Rachel and twisted with rage that he was “saved” and she wasn’t, Dent sets out to get revenge on the bent cops who tipped off The Joker, but also Batman. To get to Batman, he kidnaps Gordon’s son, leading to that threeway confrontation mentioned earlier, in the ruins of the building where his beloved Rachel was torn from him. Gordon tries to reason with him—The Joker played them all. “Why was it only me who lost everything?” he snaps. “It wasn’t,” Batman replies. “You thought we could be decent men, in an indecent time. You were wrong. The world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased, unprejudiced, fair.” Batman saves Gordon’s kid, but he can’t save Dent. He then faces his own Kobayashi Maru scenario. To save Gotham, and keep the underworld bosses in jail, he has to take the fall for Dent’s crimes. It’s a hollow victory that will eat away at his soul, and Gordon’s. A far cry from the “snappening” of Marvel’s two-part Avenger’s Infinity War/Endgame plot, where we all know a bunch of the heroes will be back, no matter how much the filmmakers try to spin the “reset.” Nobody knew if there’d be another one after this, and when The Dark Knight Rises opened, it had no easy solution to the Batman’s woes. “Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
The Dark Knight was a critical and box-office sensation, yet it was snubbed when it came to the best picture Oscar nomination.
“The uproar over The Dark Knight’s snub set off a panic within the newly octogenarian Academy. The very next year, their 82nd, the governing body significantly changed the rules for Best Picture. There would now be 10 rather than five nominees.”
The Academy danced around The Dark Knight in its official statement. “After more than six decades The Academy is returning to some of its earlier roots, when a wider field competed for the top award of the year.”
After a couple of years, The Academy tinkered again, with a varying amount of nominees for best picture depending on voting percentages. The biggest surprise and delight since the restructuring was seeing The Dark Knight fan Guillermo del Toro’s sublime genre homage The Shape of Water take home the best film award in 2018. It may not have had the mass appeal of The Dark Knight, but to see a genre picture take home the big one was nice. As Ledger’s Joker might say, fishguy was just “a freak. Like me!”
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
THE MAKING OF THE JOKER
An oral history of the decade’s greatest villain: from playing card to Oscar glory. Before release, you might not have fancied Heath Ledger’s chances. The last person to play the Joker was the legendary Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s first Bat-film in 1989—and here was that guy from 10 Things I Hate About You stepping into his clown-shoes. And yet Ledger convinced from the first glimpses, and blew us away in his first moments onscreen (in William Fichtner’s case, literally). Here, the filmmakers talk through the evolution of the greatest movie villain of the last decade… A version of this article was first published in the December 2009 issue of Empire magazine. Subscribe to Empire here.
Charles Roven (producer): When Chris Nolan brought his vision to Batman he went back to the core of the character from the Detective Comics, when the series first started. Batman Begins was, for all of us—led by him—a reinvention of that iconic franchise. So there was no reason not to treat Batman Begins as the first Batman, and the story continues on. In our history, once Batman began and started to clean the streets of Gotham City, the good news was he was taking on organised crime. But the bad news is that the guy who does it by running round in a bat suit and a cape will attract some pretty fringe people. And the most fringe and most dangerous—but yet the most entertaining—is The Joker. That’s why The Joker had to be in The Dark Knight.
David S. Goyer (co-writer): Even though Batman Begins ended with that tantalising thing with the Joker card, which is something that I had suggested fairly early on and that we thought would be really fun, it wasn’t like, “Oh OK, so here’s what the sequel’s gonna be.” It wasn’t really until maybe three months after Batman Begins came out that Chris sat down with me for lunch and said, “OK, let’s talk about a sequel.”
Christopher Nolan (director/producer/co-writer): I didn’t have any intention of making a sequel to Batman Begins and I was quite surprised to find myself wanting to do it. I just got caught up in the process of imagining how you would see a character like The Joker through the prism of what we did in the first film.
Emma Thomas (producer): From the very beginning of [The Dark Knight], as soon as Chris and (co-writer) David Goyer decided we were going to follow the lead set at the end of the first film and really deal with the character of the Joker, we knew what was going to be the big challenge: coming up against the iconography.
Jonathan Nolan (co-writer): What’s so great about these characters is they’ve been around so long and they’ve been through so many iterations that it’s a little like Shakespeare: it’s people coming in and having their own take on a familiar character and viewing it through a different lens. I think the Joker particularly was a lesson for me because that character can connect to the peyote stories of Native American mythology, and Loki in Norse mythology, and there are so many examples of a Joker-like figure that you can endlessly reinvent that character.
Goyer: I like the Burton films a lot, but the one bone to pick with film, television, anything: I just never felt that the Joker was scary. Chris and I wanted the Joker to be scary. Which is what led to The Dark Knight.
Roven: We were very fortunate that a lot of people really enjoyed Batman Begins, not just as a Batman film, but as a really good film. So we hoped that we would have a lot of goodwill with where we were going.
Sir Michael Caine (Alfred): When Chris called me [about The Dark Knight] I asked, “Who’s the villain?” He said, “The Joker.” I thought, “Oh, Jack Nicholson, who’s going to top that?” I thought for a moment “We’re in trouble here, that’s not a great decision. You don’t try and top Jack.”
Nolan: I had no reservations about following Jack Nicholson’s Joker. And that was very important to us deciding to do it. I certainly knew that, story-wise, who the character was going to be very different. Our version of The Joker was drawn very much from the earliest of the comics, really the first couple of stories where The Joker appeared. I think I made Jonah watch Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse prior to writing the Joker…
Heath Ledger (The Joker), speaking in August 2007: I was a huge fan of Jack Nicholson’s Joker, but, you know, having seen Chris’ first [Batman] film, I knew there was a big difference between a Chris Nolan film and a Tim Burton film. And so therefore there was enough room for a fresh portrayal.
Caine: I asked Chris, “Who’s going to play it?” and he said “Heath!” I thought: “Now that’s the one guy that could do it!” [laughs] My confidence came back. And then when I did this sequence with Heath, I knew we were in for some really good stuff.
Nolan: Obviously, I wanted someone with great talent for the part, but when I met with Heath and talked with him about the way I was looking at the character, it became very clear that he wasn’t afraid to take on such an iconic character, which is a tall order! When I first met with him on the project—he came on board very early—I talked with him about the anarchic elements that I saw as being the more realistic Joker, the guy who would actually frighten an audience, and he’d already come up with a lot of that on his own.
Ledger: Chris and I very much saw eye-to-eye on how the character should be played, and it was evident from the meeting that we had a project. We had identical images within our minds.
Nolan: We talked a lot about Alex in A Clockwork Orange, people like that. He’d come up with the same things independently. I looked into his eyes and I just saw… This guy knows he can do something here, he wants to get in and do this thing. And that was without even a script! I always felt—because people were uncertain about the casting; other people were a little surprised by it, I think—but I always felt very strongly that he was going to really put everything into his performance and really do something extraordinary.
Roven: We did consider other actors for the role, but I won’t tell you who. You can imagine that when you’re sitting around talking about who might be interested in playing the role, your mind runs to a lot of names. I’m not going to say that some other names weren’t discussed, but there was only one person that there was ever any serious exchange with.
Ledger: I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month and I just locked myself away and formed a little diary and experimented with voices. I ended up landing more with in the realm of like a psychopath, someone with no empathy. Very little to no conscience towards his acts. Which is fun, because there is no real limit on the boundaries to what he’d say or how you would say something or what he would do. And I don’t know; it’s always a very personal process in terms of how you land in the character’s shoes, so to speak. It’s a combination of reading all the comic books I could and the script and then just really closing my eyes and meditating on it. Also, there is something about the metaphor of working behind the mask, and from within a mask. It always gives you the license to do whatever you want.
Lindy Hemming (costume designer): What we were searching for at the very beginning of how to do this Joker, were images. I was looking through images of people who might have dressed like that in the pop world and the fashion world. You can imagine Vivienne Westwood meets Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Pete Doherty. You think of all those people who dress themselves up and are very interested in their appearance—and then we added into it the life of him. So whatever it is that’s wrong with him—made him be like this—means he doesn’t care about himself at all, really. He’s very sweaty and he probably doesn’t have a proper home. We were trying to make him sort of a… I don’t want to say vagrant… But a back-story for him that he really doesn’t look after himself.
Conor O’Sullivan (prosthetics supervisor): I was never given a concept or reason for the scarring before I started on the design of the Joker’s scars. Once I had it in my mind that it was going to be scars, rather than a fixed smile, I immediately thought of the punk and skinhead era and some unsavoury characters I had come across during this time. The terminology for this type of wound is a ‘Glasgow’ or ‘Chelsea smile.’ My references had to be real. A delivery of fruit machines was made to the estate near my workshop and the man delivering them had a ‘Chelsea smile.’ I plucked up the courage to ask him for a photo and he told me the story of how he had got his scars while being involved with “a dog fight”; needless to say I didn’t pursue the matter, but the photos proved to be very useful reference.
Ledger: It takes about an hour to an hour-and-a-half to get the makeup on. It’s pretty quick. They’ve come up with a new technology for the mouthpiece, as the scars are made out of silicone not prosthetic. My whole bottom lip is fake.
O’Sullivan: After a discovery on the film The Last Samurai, I realised that the best way to apply prosthetics was with a ‘carrier’ rather than just fitting them by hand after you’ve taken them out of the mould. This preserved the delicate blending edges as well as the integrity of the sculpture, whilst allowing you to make extremely soft pieces. It took myself and Rob Trenton three years and about £25,000 to work out the method. Once we had perfected the system we discovered that not only were you able to produce perfect, high-definition quality prosthetics on anyone, but it also took you less than half the time to apply—a real selling point when it came to dealing with expensive and tired actors!
Ledger: Then it takes 20 minutes to half-an-hour to paint the face…
O’Sullivan: On the test day Heath was very involved with the painting, and between him, John [Caglione, Jr, makeup artist] and Chris they gravitated towards a Francis Bacon painting that Chris kept referring to. The scarring set the position of the red ‘smile’ and gave a physical deformity to the whole thing, while the black-and-white makeup gave the ragged clown look.
Nolan: Our Joker—Heath’s interpretation of The Joker—has always been the absolute extreme of anarchy and chaos, effectively. He’s pure evil through pure anarchy. And what makes him terrifying is to not humanise him in narrative terms. Heath found all kinds of fantastic ways to humanise him in terms of simply being real and being a real person, but in narrative terms we didn’t want to humanise him, we didn’t want to show his origins, show what made him do the things he’s doing because then he becomes less threatening.
Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman): Heath was totally pushing it with The Joker. He was loving doing that. It was like seeing another actor, you know, going crazy with their role in the kind of immersion of it. And he was just… he was this sort of… punk, you know? An anarchistic, sort of crazy, uh… thing that was kind of crawling at you. He did a fantastic job.
Michael Caine (Alfred): Heath’s Joker is incredible. He is very, very scary. I turned up every month or so to do my bit, then go back to London. I turned up and had to do a bit where Batman and I watch a video done by the Joker to threaten us. I had never seen him and he came on the television and I completely forgot my lines. I quit. Because it was so stunning. It was quite amazing.
Nolan: The Joker is very much an absolute, and Heath played it that way. What was incredible about the way he played it is it’s funny; he’s created an iconic performance, but there’s a vulnerability, there’s something… there’s depth to it, that’s just there simply in the way he plays it, but not in the narrative per se. Simply in the way he plays it, he just manages to make this guy real, and therefore, much more frightening, I think, because you can kind of believe in him, you can believe he could walk in the room and just start being particularly unpleasant, the way he sometimes does.
Bale: I really enjoy when somebody is pushing the work as much as he did. You can see how much he loved it. And I’m like that myself, so you can enjoy it that much more when you get a like-minded spirit. We were very good together.
Jonathan Nolan: Heath’s take on the character will probably be one of the absolute highlights of my career in terms of a great character, a great actor—that was an amazing thing to work on and to experience.
Aaron Eckhart (Harvey Dent): Heath was deeply loved on this movie. It’s very rare that when an actor comes on set every single day that the crew is excited. He generated an energy and excitement that is rare among actors. Chris’s eyes would sparkle whenever he talked about Heath. I had the experience of acting with him. Just as an actor, to watch somebody else who makes such bold choices and knows the material so well and is so committed to his character, it’s exciting for me as an actor because you’re really able to take your character to another level. Heath certainly did that. The movie obviously, in my opinion, in my heart is dedicated to Heath 100 percent. That’s really all I can say. The movie is his.
Ledger: It’s the most fun I’ve had playing a role. I’m really surprised Chris knew that I could do it. And I don’t know how he came to cast me. But yeah, it is the bomb. It’s definitely the most fun I’ve had, and the most freedom I had.
JONATHAN NOLAN ON ‘THE DARK KNIGHT’
This article first appeared in issue 253 of Empire magazine.
Chris has a plan. Chris is going to make a movie. He’s nine years old, shooting with our dad’s super 8 in our house in Evanston, Illinois. It’s a stop-motion science-fiction spectacular, starring his buddies from the neighborhood. I want to help out, but it’s not going to happen—I’m only three. I’m small, but I’ve been hanging around long enough to learn a secret: when they hit that shutter, it’s indelible. Forever. I wait. Jump in front of the camera, waving my hands. I can see my brother frown behind the viewfinder—what’s that little asshole doing in the frame?
This is our first collaboration.
For my 13th birthday, Chris buys me a copy of The Dark Knight Returns. This isn’t a comic book—it’s a tear in the space-time continuum, a grime-caked lens through which you can glimpse an entire alternate universe. I don’t know if I should put it on my bookshelf or bury it in the back yard, like a radioactive ember.
A few years—and films—later, Chris has another plan. He’s going to try to dust off the Batman franchise, working from a script he’s written with David Goyer. Do I want to come along for the ride? I spend the next six months in a hotel room in Surrey, trying to think like a ninja. I watch Batman Begins’ opening night at Grauman’s Chinese with a sell-out crowd. I’m nervous as hell. Will it work? Gordon flips over the Joker card at the end and the audience erupts like they’re going to tear the place apart. I’ve never heard a noise like it.
The studio calls. The movie played. Is there more? Is there anything left to say?
Sure. Why not? Chris has a plan.
They’ve got the story mapped out in cue cards in Chris’ garage. Chris walks me through it. The cards get sparser towards the end, but the last one’s a doozy: our hero is on the run.
So are we. Writing with Chris is writing at speed—on taxis, jumbo jets, boats, trams. London, LA, Chicago, Hong Kong. Chris has tech scouts, meetings with actors. I tag along. We figure out the script on the way—one long transcontinental argument, batting ideas back and forth. Bruce Wayne would be proud. Everywhere we go, Chris is met by department heads with a million questions. He makes decisions on the fly—costumes, sets, shooting schedules. We’re in a warehouse as one of the stunt drivers does donuts in a naked batmobile chassis, massive tyres squealing as I try to shout questions about the third act over the noise.
Chicago, again. Chris has to climb up half the buildings in town to find one that Batman can stand on, looking purposeful. Back in the hotel, I start to set up my printer. I can’t. A massive candy sculpture commissioned by the hotel occupies the entire desk—a chocolate film reel projecting a sugary image of my brother, directing a scene. I give Chris a hard time about it for days.
The script comes out in a flood. We have the benefit of working on the shoulders of 70 years of great writers, all thinking about the same character. It’s like writing with a posse. Bruce, Alfred, Lucius and Gordon are easy, now, like old friends. The Joker is new territory, but he turns out to be the easiest character to write. Maybe I should see a shrink. Then I remember Chris making me watch Fritz Lang’s take on Dr. Mabuse all those years ago. I fight the feeling that he’s been planning this project since we were kids.
Back to LA. Chris’ garage is filling with models of an evil-looking motorcycle. I keep writing on the Warner lot. There’s a bust of Batman behind my desk; Batman T-shirts in the coffee shop; a 40-foot Batman mural over my parking space. They all glower: ‘Don’t screw this up.’
Then, just like that, I’m done. Off the merry-go-round. The script is complete. They start shooting in Chicago. I call to check in. What’s Heath doing with the role? They can’t describe it—it’s the way he moves, and this voice he’s using. What’s it like? High? Low? They can’t describe it—it’s just amazing. I take a quick trip out to set. I get a laugh, back on the streets we spent time on as kids, watching Chris working his crew like some mad conductor, with helicopters and trucks and machine-guns instead of instruments. He looks like he’s been doing this all his life. Because he has.
They wrap. I fly the first five minutes out to New York for a sneak preview—IMAX reel in the overhead bin, each frame as big as a postcard. Six hundred kids are lined up outside the theater, faces painted. They look like an army. It feels like something huge is lumbering towards us, some tectonic shift.
By the time the movie comes out it’s been an exhausting ride, exhilarating and heartbreaking in equal measure. I’m not sure if any of us knows what will happen next. The studio winds it up, and sets it loose. It tears out across the countryside like Godzilla. Opening night, I watch 14 screens fill to capacity for a midnight showing at the Arclight in Hollywood. It seems like everyone is watching this movie, all at once—except for us. Warner can’t find us tickets anywhere in Los Angeles county.
Chris isn’t there—he and Emma are on the road, of course. Japan? Chicago? I hope they found them a ticket, wherever they are. I sit at the bar and watch people line up to watch a two-and-a-half-hour-long, pitch-black comic-book movie. Then I hoist a drink to my brother, to whom, apparently, someone forgot to explain the word ‘compromise’.
Six months later things finally calm down. The magazines and the movie fans chase off in search of new horizons. The rollercoaster pulls up to a halt. Time to get off. The studio calls. Is there more? Is there something left to say?
Yes. Yes there is. Chris has a plan.
Screenwriter must-read: Jonathan Nolan, David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan’s screenplay for The Dark Knight [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Listen to Christopher Nolan, his brother Jonathan Nolan, and David S. Goyer talk about how they created the best superhero film ever.
WALLY PFISTER, ASC
In the summer of 2006, during early preparations for The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan told Wally Pfister, ASC he was going to try to convince Warner Bros. to allow them to use the Imax format for a handful of scenes in their sequel to Batman Begins. Nolan had been interested in exploring the large format’s potential in a fictional project for some time. “I’ve always been fascinated by large-format photography’s immersive quality, the impact it has on the huge screen,” says the director, “and I’d never seen a fiction film or a Hollywood movie that employed that degree of immersion on the visual side.” —The Dark Knight shot by Wally Pfister, ASC, combines 35mm and Imax 65mm to depict the Cape Crusader’s latest adventure
“When I was a kid, that bank heist scene in Dog Day Afternoon was real,” Pfister recalls. “It was that whole time around The French Connection and Bullitt and The Seven-Ups. That’s what Chris was going for. Only we were shooting in Imax, this format where you’re used to seeing beautiful sunsets and helicopter shots of gazelles running across mountainsides. Instead, we’ve got machine-gun fire and Heath Ledger.”
Christopher Nolan talks through his incredible career, the visual nature of suspense + the most important relationship on-set.
“I needed a phenomenal actor, but he also had to be someone unafraid of taking on such an iconic role. Heath created something entirely original. It’s stunning, it’s captivating. It’s going to blow people away.” —Christopher Nolan
In loving memory of Heath Ledger (1979-2008)
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Photographed by Stephen Vaughan © Warner Bros., Legendary Entertainment, Syncopy, DC Comics. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
We’re running out of money and patience with being underfunded. If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below:
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in[newsletter]