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'Inception': Dream a little dream

Christopher Nolan opens up about the 10-year odyssey of getting his film on screen

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For a guy feeling the heat, Christopher Nolan is doing a remarkable job of keeping cool. It’s a scorching July day in Hollywood, and as his kids splash in the family pool, the 39-year-old British-American director of Memento and The Dark Knight is clad in a crisp black suit and sipping hot tea inside the renovated garage that serves as his cinematic workshop. Until last week, the walls were papered with plans and designs for Inception, a sci-fi psycho-thriller, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, about thieves who steal secrets from people’s dreams. Now, three days before the movie’s July 16 release, all that remains for Nolan is to sweat the perception that his newest opus might be too confusing to be a crowd-pleaser. ”This is a real nail-biter,” says the director, sitting in a small office filled with heady tomes on Hitchcock and Scorsese, stacks of DVDs and video-games, and props and models from his films, including three Joker masks. ”I really want this to work for an audience. They just need to relax and go with it. Yes, afterward there could be disagreements about what things mean. But hopefully there will be a unified response to the roller-coaster ride of it all.”

Nolan can now ease up a bit on his cuticles. Inception took in $62.8 million during its opening weekend, an impressive haul for a 148-minute live-action extravaganza that isn’t a sequel or in 3-D or both. Credit DiCaprio’s box office clout (he also helped launch Martin Scorsese’s similarly mind-boggling Shutter Island earlier this year), Nolan’s growing rep, and an ad campaign showcasing the film’s dazzling images of crumbling skyscrapers, cityscapes bending upon themselves, and zero-gravity fisticuffs. The film also benefited from great reviews, including a few dubbing Inception an Oscar-worthy masterpiece. (Several less-impressed critics and bloggers have raised a fuss over the hyperbole of their peers — an outbreak of backlash reminiscent of that surrounding Nolan’s enthusiastically praised The Dark Knight.) Moviegoers, for the most part, think Mr. Nolan’s wild ride is a pleasure; according to CinemaScore research, Inception earned a B+ average from ticket buyers, with the under-25 set giving it an A. EW’s own sampling of audience reaction was dominated by admiration. One viewer called it ”a really cool concept. I was blown away.” Declared another: ”I loved its intelligence. You actually have to pay attention, which is not what we’re used to.” The harshest assessment? ”It was boring. I’m waiting for Dinner for Schmucks.”

Inception is certainly the summer’s we-gotta-talk-about-this movie, an experience that all but demands coffee-shop discussion and message-board debate over its plot, mysteries, and open-to-interpretation ending. (Do you think that top kept spinning?) For Inception newbies, here’s what you need to know, based on what we think we understand. DiCaprio is Cobb, a crook-for-hire who uses a combo of drugs and technology to infiltrate the sleep of corporate bigwigs and swipe inside information — Freddy Krueger as industrial spy. Cobb’s own noggin is a mess, a ruin of guilt menaced by the memory of his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). Because Cobb is suspected of murdering her, he lives in exile, separated from his two children. Yet he gets a chance to go home again after a businessman (Ken Watanabe) hires him to bring down a monolithic energy company led by a dying CEO (Pete Postlethwaite). The mission isn’t to ”extract” intel, but rather to plant an idea deep inside the subconscious of the mogul’s successor and son (Cillian Murphy) — an intricate process known as ”inception.” Cobb and his team of head-hackers (including Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy) must complete the caper before a maze of dreamscapes disintegrates into chaos — and before Cobb’s increasingly toxic psyche destroys them all.

See? Simple! The first half of Inception is dense with exposition as Team Cobb educates a new recruit (Ellen Page) about the rules and risks of manipulating the dreaming mind. The second half dives from dream to dream to dream to dream. How you feel about Inception most likely depends on how you feel about the pitch that hooked DiCaprio. Says the star: ”When you hear that Chris Nolan wants to make a film that’s about four different stages of the subconscious, that’s a psychoanalysis of a character coming to terms with his past, that’s set around the world, that’s a combination of Insomnia, Memento, and studio-system spectacle, you say, ‘This is gonna be a unique experience.’ ”

For Nolan, Inception is a true dream project. His producer and wife, Emma Thomas, recalls that her husband has been fascinated by the subject of dreams since their days at University College London, where Nolan studied English literature before opting to become a filmmaker. In the late ’90s, a premillennial boomlet of nervy flicks that played with perception and reality — The Matrix, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, Fight Club — sparked the budding auteur to develop his own brain-bending movie that would explore the creative process of dreaming. He decided to adopt a heist-flick model (think Ocean’s Eleven), in part because heist flicks always have a scene where the hero-thieves explain their schemes — a convention Nolan realized he’d need if he wanted audiences to follow his surreal saga.

Nolan says he pitched Warner Bros. on the premise for Inception after making Insomnia for the studio in 2002. The execs expressed interest, but Nolan decided he needed to develop his ideas further before pursuing a deal. This proved tricky. Since you can go anywhere and do anything in dreams, Nolan built a story that reflected his own cinema-soaked mind, inspired by everything from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to the wintry James Bond adventure On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But because he was not yet a maker of blockbusters, Nolan knew nobody was going to give him the dough for it all. He kept trying to mold his script into something smaller. He couldn’t. Recalls Thomas: ”Over almost 10 years, he pulled these pages out of the drawer and said, ‘Maybe I can do something with this now.’ He’d tinker, then put it back. It gradually developed.”

Then The Dark Knight happened. Nolan’s second Bat-flick grossed $1 billion worldwide and earned great acclaim and an Oscar for the late Heath Ledger. Nolan found himself in a position where he didn’t need to downsize his ambitions at all. ”It’s hard to convince a studio to give you a large budget to shoot an epic movie,” says the director, who declined to comment on the film’s cost, reported to be $160 million. ”When you’ve done it a couple times, there’s a lot more confidence.”

As he finished the Inception script in 2009, Nolan realized his fantastical notions about ”shared dreaming” weren’t just making for a far-out crime caper — they were also forming an elaborate metaphor for our digital era of immersive, interactive entertainments, for moviemaking and moviegoing, and for Nolan’s own artistic life. DiCaprio’s squad of dream thieves is analogous to a filmmaking operation, complete with director (DiCaprio), producer (Gordon-Levitt), production designer (Page), actor (Hardy), and financier (Watanabe). ”In trying to write a team-based creative process, I wrote the one I know,” says Nolan. In the movie, Cobb risks becoming lost in his own head and fights to reconnect with reality and return to his family. ”I can lose myself in my job very easily. Which is why it’s such an incredible privilege to work with my wife and work here at home,” says Nolan. ”It’s rare that you can identify yourself so clearly in a film.”

Other Nolan confidants quickly picked up on how personal Inception was to him. ”[The script] had a lot more emotion packed into it than anything Chris had written before,” says his longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister. ”Right away, it felt much more like Memento than one of the Batman pictures.” Indeed, like the films of his idols Kubrick, Ridley Scott, and Michael Mann, Nolan’s work is typically known for its emotional cool. But Nolan admits that Inception reflects an evolution of philosophy. ”As a filmmaker starting out, there was a resistance to emotion, because you so often see the insincere version of it in movies,” he says. ”Yet over time, and during the Batman movies in particular, I was forced to reexamine my own process of watching a film. What I realized is that what I respond to most is emotion — which is what audiences respond to the most as well.”

Nolan was lucky enough to land a leading man with a track record of helping high-minded directors connect with audiences via complex characters. ”I like playing unreliable protagonists,” says DiCaprio, 35, who spent three months working with Nolan to flesh out a credible backstory for Cobb. ”I couldn’t take a traditional approach to preparation. There were no references that I could grasp onto in the real world. To keep that story line consistent was difficult. Then again, if I’m on set, and there’s nothing to think about, that’s not a fun day at work for me.”

Nolan shot Inception last year in Tokyo, London, Paris, Tangiers, Los Angeles, and Calgary. A stickler for naturalism, he insisted that his actors and crew bring his vision to life without the use of computer-generated effects as much as possible, from having DiCaprio and Page sit at a table outside a Parisian café as said café blows up to asking the cast to feign peaceful slumber inside a van during a high-speed chase. ”The van sequences were much easier than doing five pages of dialogue,” says DiCaprio, ”and the whole set is tilting and we have to hold on to a bar in order to not slide off the stage.” Says Page: ”The amazing thing about Chris’ films is that despite the scale, there’s this honest, sincere base to it all. You can be blown away by action, but you also get asked a lot of interesting questions.”

Now if only the hype can make Inception a certifiable hit. A $62.8 million opening is proof of the public’s interest, but the film still has a long way to go to recoup its production and marketing costs for Warner Bros. and cofinancier Legendary Pictures. How does the studio plan to sustain Inception‘s momentum? ”We have a few things up our sleeve,” says a cagey Dan Fellman, Warner’s head of domestic distribution. Nolan — who’s currently developing a third Batman movie (written by his brother Jonathan) that’s reportedly set to start shooting next spring — hopes Inception will be widely embraced: ”You want a big audience, sitting in a theater, going on the ride together.” The director acknowledges that the fundamental gamble of making the film is reflected in the story itself. Inception posits that planting an original idea inside the mind is more dangerous yet ultimately more rewarding than merely trading off existing ideas. Nolan believes that at a time when Hollywood studios focus on sequels and franchise reboots, they need to produce new ideas, too. ”It’s definitely a risk for studios to support original material. But it’s an even bigger risk not to,” says Nolan. ”Even in making a sequel, you have to be fresh. You have to be different. You have to take risks.” (Additional reporting by Breia Brissey, Jace Brittain, and Grady Smith)

We couldn’t help but notice…Tom Hardy
Even if you’ve seen this 32-year-old Brit before — in Star Trek: Nemesis, say, or in 2009’s Bronson (where he earned raves as the titular criminal) — you may struggle to identify him as Inception’s ”forger,” Eames. ”I’m keen on transformation,” says Hardy. ”Very few people recognize me.” He should enjoy the anonymity while it lasts: He’s set to play the lead role in Mad Max: Fury Road. — ABV

How’d they do that?
To create mind-blowing effects, the makers of Inception used careful planning — and very little CGI. Here’s how they defied physics for one scene.

Christopher Nolan’s directive was clear to everyone in the cast and crew: Use CGI only as a last resort. So how did they pull off that memorable inverted-gravity fight scene in the hotel? ”We used every method known to the special-effects world,” says special-effects supervisor Chris Corbould. Three separate sets were built on the massive Cardington soundstage in England: a 100-foot hallway that could rotate like a log up to eight times per minute; a duplicate hallway standing vertically on its end so that Joseph Gordon-Levitt could hang down inside it to appear weightless; and a hotel room that also rotated 360 degrees. Gordon-Levitt says he’s used to producers asking him to work out for a role. ”It’s always ’cause they want me to look bigger,” he chuckles. ”Whereas for Inception, I had to go to the gym literally just to be able to pull this s— off.”

The idea was to keep moviegoers as off-kilter as the characters — even costumes and hair were stiffened to look right in a topsy-turvy environment. ”The moment an audience tries to answer ‘How do they do this?’ ” says cinematographer Wally Pfister, ”you cut to another shot that throws those rules out the window.” The most complex scene involved Gordon-Levitt spinning his stacked-up co-stars in zero gravity. So how’d they do that? ”I’m not gonna tell you,” says Corbould. ”There are certain things that Chris swears me to secrecy about. Sorry about that. I’ve got to work with him again!” — ABV

The Essential Christopher Nolan
Inception is hardly the director’s first head-trip. Each of his films has offered a new look at the human mind.

Memento (2001)
Nolan says he seeks to capture the imagination by ”trying to transcend the tyranny” of linear narrative. That ambition was evident with his breakthrough film, a neo-noir told in reverse about a man who can’t make short-term memories. Global gross: $40 million.

Insomnia (2002)
Nolan eased up on the complexity (slightly) with his first studio flick, a much-praised remake of a 1997 Norwegian thriller. Al Pacino stars as a flawed detective whose guilt-induced sleeplessness messes with his mind. Global gross: $114 million.

The Prestige (2006)
The twisty fantasy-novel adaptation about stage magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) battling over acclaim and a beautiful assistant (Scarlett Johansson) generated solid reviews but did little box office magic. Global gross: $110 million.

Batman Begins (2005)
The Dark Knight (2008)
The first film was a success, but the second was a phenomenon, an allegory about vigilante justice and morality enlivened by great performances, none better than Heath Ledger’s Joker. Batman Begins‘ global gross: $373 million. The Dark Knight: $1 billion. — JJ

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