In the closing moments of 2008’s The Dark Knight, Batman has neutralized the threats facing the people of Gotham City but at a great personal cost. In the public’s mind, he has become a villain to be hunted rather than a hero sworn to protect them. As Hans Zimmer’s score pulses in the background, he flees into the night, with the Gotham City police giving chase. Commissioner Gordon’s young son asks his father why Batman is running away when he didn’t do anything wrong, and Gordon answers, “Because we have to chase him … Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.”
That moment left audiences breathless, closing one film with the promise of another—a third film to finish the tale. Now, with the Summer release of The Dark Knight Rises, writer/director Christopher Nolan’s epic conclusion to the Dark Knight trilogy, that promise is being fulfilled.
When he started on his journey with Batman, Nolan didn’t anticipate that he’d now be finishing up his third film. But, he says, “Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and a trilogy of films naturally lends itself to telling a complete story.”
It’s a warm evening in Las Vegas, with mere months to go before The Dark Knight Rises is set to be released in theaters all over the world, and Nolan is on a rare break from the editing room where he’s cutting the film with editor Lee Smith. “For me, I have a couple of months more of this process,” says the lanky director, wearing a suit with his blond hair slicked back. “We’ve got the scoring in London. It’s the biggest story I’ve told and I’m very excited about it. It’s got an enormous amount of things in it that I’m very passionate about. So, at the moment I’m just really enjoying it.”
The Dark Knight was acclaimed by critics and audiences alike for transcending the possibilities of what a “comic book movie” could be—massive in scope, but anchored by the complicated emotions at the core of its haunted anti-hero. The film marked Nolan’s second chapter in Batman’s tale, the first being 2005’s Batman Begins. And even before production began on his last film, Inception, Nolan enlisted his collaborators David S. Goyer and the director’s brother, Jonathan Nolan, to begin conceptualizing and writing the screenplay for The Dark Knight Rises.
“It was a really big deal for Chris to decide to do a third one of these movies because I think he felt very strongly that for it to be worth doing, it had be to something different,” says Emma Thomas, Nolan’s partner and producer of all his films. “Chris and David spent a long time really mapping out what the story was going to be. It was a very long process because even whilst the script was being written, there was a lot of back and forth about all of it. It couldn’t just be another episode. It had to be a conclusion of the arc of Bruce Wayne and Batman’s characters.”
“Because the story is a collaboration between David and Chris, and the screenplay’s a collaboration between Jonathan and Chris, they were able to come up with what Chris thought would be something that expanded on the already unbelievable scope and scale established on the first two films,” adds producer Charles Roven, who has produced all three, along with Thomas. “But the goal was to also make sure that the trilogy ends in a very satisfying way and honors both the first two movies and the legacy of Batman.”
With The Dark Knight Rises, as in the previous films, Nolan and his award-winning team of collaborators have created a world as dark and complex as it is realistic, populated by characters that are undeniably human. “For me, the attraction of the character of Bruce Wayne was always that he doesn’t have any superpowers other than his extraordinary wealth,” the director explains. “So, you can approach him as a real person and through him, look at the world we live in and say something relevant that isn’t necessarily based in any particular genre. I consider them action movies, but beyond that, we try not to define ourselves.”
Roven sees the three films together as one massive spectacle. But, he adds, “Before he was able to make the big spectacle, Chris focused on the characters and the relationships, and as he expanded his scope of filmmaking, he made sure that he didn’t lose that aspect of what makes these films important. We want to be wowed, but we also want to care. That’s a consistent quality in every movie that Chris has made, and on the Dark Knight trilogy, he’s been able to keep to the great filmmaking in terms of the intimacy and the great character arcs, but also the wow factor just keeps increasing.”
By all accounts, The Dark Knight Rises is the definition of epic—shooting on location across three continents, with a daring aerial stunt sequence, a massive crowd scene involving explosions and over ten thousand extras, and a full compliment of new gadgets and vehicles—but for Nolan, the massive scale is almost secondary to the emotional headwinds the characters are facing.
“When you play these very big emotions on such a grand scale, it makes you feel all kinds of very strong emotions,” he says. “These characters let you do that. They are all operatic. They are larger than life and I will miss that because that is not something you can apply to the ordinary story. That’s the great joy of these characters.”
Though plot details are scarce, Nolan tells us the story picks up eight years after the events depicted in The Dark Knight, after Bruce Wayne has saved Gotham but lost both his identity as a force for good and the woman who was closest to him in the bargain. Now, he’s isolated, having locked himself away from the public eye. “He’s frozen in time, really,” Nolan explains. “He’s given up being Batman because he’s not needed at this point. It was very important to us for the ending of the last film to have an effect on Gotham, and it has. Superficially, Gotham is in a much better place.”
While Nolan says it’s difficult to reduce the story to a word or a concept, “The jumping off point of the film is about the consequences of actions,” he notes. “A lot of very important things happened in The Dark Knight that formed a satisfying conclusion, and we’re trying to advance the effects of those events with reality and gravity. So, it’s about consequences. It’s about redemption. It’s about a lot of different things.”
It’s now an afternoon in Los Angeles, and cast-members Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have come together months after wrapping production.
“We’ve done our work; the pressure’s on Chris now,” says Bale, who has grown his hair down to his shoulders with the ghost of a beard on his chin—a completely different look from Bruce Wayne’s finely groomed profile.
In his fourth collaboration with Nolan (including the 2006 mystery The Prestige in addition to the Batman films), Bale trusted the director to create a worthy finale for the character he has embodied for nearly a decade. “Chris has always got a great combination of cerebral choices with the story and where he wants to take it,” Bale says. “Then he goes into the heart of each character, finding what’s underneath, which is the subtext throughout.”
As the film picks up eight years after The Dark Knight, Bale found his way back to Bruce Wayne by focusing on his internal journey from then until now, “What he’s been doing in that time; what he’s had to reflect upon,” he muses. “How long does somebody let this painful episode in his past continue to direct his life?”
Though Bruce remains surrounded by his trusted inner circle of Alfred, Lucius Fox and Commissioner Gordon (played again by legendary actors Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman, respectively), he is living with the consequences of choices he has made on his own. “Throughout the saga, Alfred has warned him what could go wrong,” Bale says. “So, this is crunch time for how much longer he can let it dominate his life. But can he give it up? Or has he become addicted to it?”
In Bale, Christopher Nolan sees a parallel with Bruce Wayne’s sense of discipline and focus. “He’s not Bruce Wayne,” the director states. “He’s playing Bruce Wayne, but I think he’s able to do that because he himself has an incredible dedication to his craft. It’s redundant to talk about roles where he’s lost weight or thrown himself into it, but it is indicative of a truly focused performer, an artist who just wants to lose himself in what he’s doing and commit to it absolutely. I think that’s something that can’t be faked. I think that actually had to be in the guy to play this role.”
Bale’s dedication also required the actor to climb back into Batman’s cape and cowl, which he laughingly describes as “a bittersweet thing.” “There are certain moments when you’re dying inside it, but you don’t want to admit it because you’re Batman on the outside,” he says. “The second you start complaining about the suit, you just recognize what a great iconic character you get to play and what an honor that is.”
Tom Hardy—who dons body armor and a bulky breathing mask as the menacing villain Bane—recalls precisely that moment. It happened in the midst of a massive crowd scene on Wall Street in Manhattan, during a fight sequence between their two characters. “It was the first time I ever heard Christian say he was tired,” Hardy remembers. “I was watching him for however many months getting beaten up and wet and cold, and he never said anything. Inside, I was dying, but I was thinking, ‘This can’t bother me because he’s not bothered.’ But on Wall Street, he just turned and said, ‘You know what? I’m exhausted.’ I said, ‘Me too.’”
“We stopped the fight and started hugging each other,” Bale adds.
Everyone at the table laughs, all recalling with humor and affection their experience making the film. Like Bale, Cotillard, Hardy and Gordon-Levitt had also previously worked with Nolan, on his Oscar-winning film Inception. “Chris likes to find people that he really trusts, so there is a continuity to his films,” Bale says.
“There was a feeling on set, amongst everybody, the cast and crew alike, of ‘Wow, we’re really doing something special here,’” remembers Joseph Gordon-Levitt. “That makes it fun because it’s not just a job. You put a lot of care into the work every day. And that doesn’t happen on every movie set.”
The young actor plays John Blake, a Gotham City police officer who proves his mettle to Commissioner Gordon and becomes one of his most trusted allies. He also shares a connection to Bruce Wayne in that he, like Bruce, is an orphan. “He looks up to him because of that,” Gordon-Levitt says. “I can understand wanting to find that commonality with somebody. I think that’s one of the many things that really distinguishes the way Chris approaches these movies. Ultimately, what he’s concerned with is well-rounded, nuanced, honest human characters. And that’s the case whether you are talking about Bruce Wayne or my character, John Blake. They feel like human beings, and, as an actor, that’s inspiring. Chris is really an actor’s director and even amidst all the spectacle and all this huge production value, he always prioritizes getting a real honest performance from his actors. And that’s obviously a lot more fun for me.”
Growing up, Gordon-Levitt was a Batman fan, which makes his role in The Dark Knight Rises something of a dream come true. “I think that for just about every person in western culture, Batman is a really sacred and iconic figure in our psyche,” the actor notes. “So, needless to say, I was excited to be involved and was intensely curious to see what he would do. And I won’t specify why, but I was not disappointed. It really does feel like a conclusion.”
Like her co-star, Marion Cotillard was also a Batman fan to the point that seeing him in the flesh—as embodied by Christian Bale—had a visceral effect on her. “I couldn’t even say hello because I was so impressed,” she recalls. “I’ve always loved Batman, and I thought that Chris totally reinvented this character, so I was proud to be in this movie. I couldn’t believe I was in this amazing world.”
Cotillard plays Miranda Tate, who, like Bruce Wayne, is a wealthy philanthropist in Gotham who is passionate about environmental causes. “They don’t know each other initially, but they meet and kind of understand each other right away,” Cotillard describes. “They both have a lot of money and are trying to use it in a good way, but there’s also tension between them.”
Though she was thrilled to be invited to be in the film, initially the Oscar-winning actress (for La Vie en Rose) did not know if it would even be possible for her to play a role. “I had a big project in my life that was growing in my belly,” she laughs, referring to her infant son, whom she was expecting at the time. “So, I called Chris and told him that it was unbelievable for me that he would think about me for his next movie because I had such a great experience on Inception. I would love to work with him again but it was impossible because he was starting the movie in May, and my son was born on May 19th. So, I told him, ‘If you ever find a way I could come later, I would really love to be a part of it.’ And he did it. When he called me, my son was not born yet and he said, ‘Do you think you will be able to work in June?’ and I said, ‘Yeah!’”
Having an infant on set was not as challenging given the family environment the Nolans engender on all of his film sets. “They are strong family people,” she says. “So, even though it’s a huge production and there are so many people on set, you really feel that you’re part of a family. All of these people have known each other for years, and the way they welcome newcomers is beautiful. It’s a beautiful way to work.”
Tom Hardy agrees, noting, “The thing about Chris is that he creates such a safe place to work, but it’s also challenging because this is a guy who flips trucks for real. So, you never know what you’re going to be asked to do. There are all kinds of pressures involved in a movie like this. It’s like test-flying a brand new aircraft for the military. There’s pressure that you’re going to crash it. But at the end of the day, if I opted out of the pressure then I wouldn’t be doing my job.”
Hardy plays Bane, the film’s destructive villain who presents a real threat to Gotham City and to Batman. “Bane is a serious piece of kit,” Hardy describes. “He’s not there to joke. He’s come to do business and there’s no frivolity or messing around. It’s very blunt and militant, very aggressive from the start.”
Nolan agrees, calling Bane “extremely efficient. He’s driven by a very specific set of actions and plans. Nothing is wasted. He’s much more of a physical adversary. In the first two films, we’d never presented Batman with a physical challenge, somebody who would literally stand toe-to-toe with him and battle in a physical sense. That’s an important part of who Batman is. He’s trained in fighting. He has honed his body. He’s an incredibly physical hero. So, we really wanted him for the first time in our movies to meet his match in somebody who’s truly a monstrous figure.”
After working with the director on Inception, Hardy leapt at the chance to do another film with Nolan and signed onto The Dark Knight Rises without even reading the script. “Chris actually called me on the phone and said, ‘Tom, there’s a character you might be quite good for but I’m not sure if it’s something you’d be interested in because it’s going to demand you to wear a mask, and I appreciate that as an actor you probably wouldn’t want to wear a mask for six months,’” the actor recalls. “He couldn’t tell me anything about the character, just that he had a mask and he was a bad, very bad guy. And I said, ‘Let me get this straight. You want me to come away and work with you around the world and I have the use of an entire stunt team and as many weapons as I want for six months and all I have to do is wear a mask?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, pretty much.’ So, I said, ‘I’m in. Absolutely,’” Hardy laughs.
The actor sees the mask as an indelible part of Bane’s identity. “If you look at mask work over history, they all have their own character,” he says. “Each mask is built specifically to draw out a specific character in Italian theater and whatnot. So, actually, a lot of the work is done by being camouflaged. You’re not self-conscious.”
That camouflage came in handy for some of Hardy’s more intense stunts. “I was on a walkway, holding onto the side of a building and very delicately walking out onto a platform about sixty feet high,” he remembers with a wry smile. “I wasn’t very manly, or masculine without the mask.”
“Bane is a phenomenally strong-minded character,” Bale adds. “So, you’ve got to be bold, and you’ve got a bold actor right here. Tom goes the distance. I mean, he goes way beyond what most other actors would do. He’s created a phenomenal villain.”
In The Dark Knight Rises, there is also a wild card in the form of an enigmatic cat burglar named Selina Kyle. “In this movie, we have two really strong female characters, which is always something that I’m happy about,” says Emma Thomas. “And Selina Kyle is great. You don’t quite know where you are with her as a character and she injects enormous amounts of fun and interest into the movie. I don’t really want to talk too much about it; I want people to see her because Anne’s great in the movie.”
Hathaway describes Selina Kyle as “intensely private and very mysterious,” the actress says in a separate interview. “She has her own code of ethics, which sometimes involves doing things that other people might consider questionable. I’m sure if you were to talk to her, she would be able to explain them to you. But she’s very private. She doesn’t give a lot away. That’s kind of all I can say about her.”
With her appearance in a black catsuit and spiked heels, she looks like every inch of Catwoman, but with a caveat. “Our version of Selina Kyle and Catwoman very much sits within the Chris Nolan version of Gotham City in the way that I think all of the characters fit within our universe,” Thomas says.
That quality is no more apparent than in the cat ears she wears. “She has these night vision goggles that she uses for safe cracking,” Nolan describes. “But they flip up when she doesn’t need them and they just happen to look like cat ears. That was an idea Lindy Hemming, our costume designer, and her concept artist really ran with and made work very well, because she’s Catwoman—she’s got to have that to be this icon.”
Hathaway’s personification of Selina Kyle seems the polar opposite of some of the comic roles the actress has played in the past. “I think what Anne has done will be extremely surprising to people,” comments Christopher Nolan. “I don’t think people have any idea what they’re in for with this character. She owns it in a way that was far beyond anything I could have hoped for and she makes it possible for you to believe in this extraordinary, beautiful, sexy, frightening, dark character. She makes it completely believable and compelling. I think people are going to be stunned when they see what she’s done.”
For her part, Hathaway relished sinking her claws into such a legendary figure. “It’s Catwoman,” she says, “one of the most famous, if not the most famous, comic book characters for a woman. But, also, it’s Catwoman in this franchise. I’m such a huge fan of Chris Nolan and the first two films, so the idea of being a part of it was really exciting. Just the fact that the opportunity was available when I was an appropriate age to play it seemed like the luckiest thing that could ever happen.”
On the film as a whole, Hathaway is equally enthusiastic. “I think that it will be surprising but very, very satisfying. I say, ‘In Nolan we trust.’”
As with The Dark Knight, production spanned the world to capture the kinds of real environments that define the look and feel Nolan hoped to create with the film. In addition to location shooting in the American cities of Pittsburgh, New York and Los Angeles, the filmmakers took cast and crew to the familiar stomping grounds of Cardington Studios, a massive airplane hangar where he also shot portions of The Dark Knight and Inception.
Early in the production, they touched down in a remote expanse near Jodhpur, India. “The locals thought we were nuts,” Bale says with a laugh. “We were out in 120-degree heat. I thought it was a great induction by fire into the whole thing.”
“We wanted a sequence that needed to be in the middle of nowhere, and the place where we shot is beautiful and clearly very remote,” says Thomas. “We actually went there with a very small crew, and it was an exciting way to start the movie.”
“It was nice to mix it up and go to different places,” Bale adds. “It makes it an adventure.”
The crew also took to the skies above Scotland to shoot the heart-pounding aerial sequence glimpsed in the prologue that was sneaked in theaters months before the film’s release. “The high aerial photography we did for real on camera,” Nolan comments. “We did a lot of aerial stunts. We did a lot of things with huge numbers of extras. Our biggest day we had 11,000 extras. We really tried to get a lot of scale and not resort to trickery until it was necessary. So, we have a very small number of visual effect shots in the film. What you’re seeing on the screen, despite there being a lot of technical wizardry from our CG guys, has a basis of reality. It’s something that we went out there and shot right down to Batman’s flying vehicle, The Bat, which is obviously not something we could really fly around. But we actually built it full-size. We built a rig for it to be able to move through environments in a realistic way.”
Producer Roven recalls The Bat being wheeled down a busy urban street during production and the incredible attention it attracted. “Wherever it goes, it attracts a huge following,” he says. “And it’s a great thing. The Batmobile was great, and the Bat Pod was a great piece of equipment, and then for Batman to have this sort of urban warfare mixture of a plane and helicopter … it’s a really cool toy. We all should have one,” he adds with a smile.
Special effects supervisor Chris Corbould has delivered miracles for Nolan on his past films but feels he was truly put to the test with The Dark Knight Rises, particularly the new flying vehicle dreamed up by Nolan and production designer Nathan Crowley. “When Chris came to me with the script, I knew after Batman Begins and The Dark Knight it was going to be a rough ride and he didn’t prove me wrong,” Corbould comments with his famously wry delivery. “They were tough films but this one has been relentless action from start to finish, with massive special effects. Obviously, one of the biggest creations was The Bat. It took a team of guys a long while to create that. It was Chris Nolan and Nathan Crowley’s creation and we just made it work. That was probably the biggest, biggest event.”
All of the action is captured with Wally Pfister’s Oscar-winning cinematography, a good portion of it using IMAX cameras. “We were looking for an operatic quality, for a large canvas feel,” Nolan states.
The Dark Knight marked the first time ever that a major feature film was partially shot with IMAX cameras, and Nolan has not gone back since. “When we projected it as prints on those large IMAX screens, it was clear to anyone who got to see it in that form that it’s a form of filmmaking utterly unlike anything else,” Nolan states. “The resolution of the image, the quality, the scale of storytelling that you’re allowed to do in that format—there’s simply nothing else in the world that lets you do that. It went very smoothly in The Dark Knight, and so in coming back to that world, we decided to shoot a lot more of the film that way.”
On The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan estimates over an hour of footage was shot with IMAX cameras. “All of the major action in the film is on IMAX,” he says. “We’re going to have a hundred of those screens around the world and I’m going to encourage as many fans as possible to really try and experience it that way because they’ll be seeing something completely unique that no one has ever done before. It’s going to be a very out-of-the-world experience. It won’t be to everybody’s tastes. But for people who are up for the ride, it’s going to be incredible.”
From Batman Begins to The Dark Knight to, now, The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan feels a great sense of completion at being afforded the rare opportunity to tell a complete story with such depth and breadth. “We’ve managed to put everything into this movie that I wanted to do with the character,” he reflects. “It’s done for me. And I’m very hopeful that audiences will respond to that because there is nothing more exciting than the conclusion of a very long story that you’ve been invested in. I’ve felt that in making the film, and I’m really hopeful that the audience is going to feel that way in watching it. That’s the great thing about entertainment, and I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to finish the tale.”