Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Christopher Nolan talk ‘Inception’
By Todd Gilchrist
HollywoodNews.com: Last week, journalists and critics got their first official look at Inception, Christopher Nolan’s genre (and mind-) bending new movie. Friday morning in Los Angeles, Hollywood News joined that lucky group of reporters to ask members of the cast and crew questions about the film. Writer-director Christopher Nolan and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt spoke at length about the challenges and opportunities they tackled in the process of making Inception.
[Note: Although “Hollywood News” is used to distinguish questions from answers in the text below, our journalist was just one of many reporters asking questions of the filmmakers.]
Hollywood News: For the actors, besides the obvious of working with Christopher Nolan, I wanted to know, for each of you, if you’ve been fascinated by dreams in your lifetime, and if you thought differently about them since working on this film.
Christopher Nolan: I’ve been fascinated by dreams my whole life, since I was a kid, and I think the relationship between movies and dreams is something that’s always interested me, and I liked the idea of trying to portray dreams on film. And I’d been working on the script for some time, really about ten years in the form that you’ve seen it in, where this idea of this kind of heist structure. I think really for me, the primary interest in dreams and in making this film is this notion that your mind while you’re asleep you can create an entire world that you’re also experiencing without realizing that you’re doing that; I think that says a lot about the potential of the human mind, especially the creative potential; it’s something I find fascinating.
Leonardo DiCaprio: You know, it was interesting being part of this film, because I’m not a big dreamer; never have been. I remember fragments of my dream, and I try to take a traditional sort of approach to researching this project and doing preparation for it. Read books on dream analysis, Freud’s book on the analysis of dreams and tried to research it in that sort of form. But I realized that this is Chris Nolan’s dream world; it has its own structure and its own set of rules. And doing that, it was basically being able to sit down with Chris for two months every other day and talk about the structure of this dream world, and how the rules that apply in it …The only thing I’ve sort of obviously extracted from the research of dreams is that I don’t think there’s a specific science you can put on dream psychology; I think that it’s up to the, obviously, the individual; obviously we suppress things, emotions, things during the day — thoughts that we obviously haven’t thought through enough, and in that state of sleep when our subconscious, or mind just sort of randomly fires off different surreal story structures, and when we wake up we should pay attention to these things.
Hollywood News: Chris, you’ve done a great job of keeping this film mysterious for the past year we’ve all know it’s in the works and coming out. Is there a danger that a certain point even secrecy becomes a form of hype, and how do you balance that with what you want people to know about this film?
Christopher Nolan: Well, it’s certainly difficult to balance marketing a film and putting it out there to everybody with wanting to keep it fresh for the audience. My most enjoyable moviegoing experiences have always been going to a movie theater, sitting there and the lights go down and a film comes on the screen that you don’t know everything about, and you don’t know every plot turn and every character movement that’s going to happen. I want to be surprised and entertained by a movie, so that’s what we’re trying to do for the audience. Obviously, we also have to sell the film; it’s a balance that I think Warner’s is striking very well. I suppose that at a point, keeping something secret does lend itself to its own degree of hype — but I don’t really think of it as secrecy; I just think of it as an appropriate … you know, we invite the audience to come and see it based on some of the imagery and some of the plot ideas and the premise, but we don’t want to give everything away. I think too much is given away too often in movie marketing today.
Hollywood News: There’s a moment where Ellen’s character expresses a little bit of confusion about where they are and who’s dream they’re in and so forth. Were there any moments when you were working on the film where it was so kind of complex and involved that it was confusing at all to you?
DiCaprio: What was very interesting for me was reading the original screenplay — and obviously this story structure was extremely ambitious in the fact that it was simultaneously, you had four different states of the human subconscious that represented different dream-states, and each one affected the other. What Chris talked about very early on with us was being able to go to these six different locations around the world [and what] was startling to me in how complicated the screenplay was was seeing it in a visual format; that’s the magic of moviemaking. You clearly identify one scenario with the other, and it’s a completely different experience. The snow-capped mountains of Canada, or whether you’re in a van or a L.A. elevator shaft or Paris or London — you experience it and you have a visual refrence. And it was a lot easier to understand than I ever thought it would be. And that’s a testament to how engaging movies are, and the visual medium is.
Hollywood News: The score and the sound design for this film are phenomenal; it’s almost like another character. Chris, can you talk about that a little bit, how you constructed that?
Nolan: I like films where the music and the sound design, at times, are almost indistinguishable. And one of the interesting things that happened early on is the Edith Piaf song [“Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”] was always in the script — long before Marion came on the film — it had always been that choice of song — and right at the beginning of our post-production process, I had to make the decision of “Do I get the sound department or do I get the music department?” Do I get Hans to manipulate that track until it sounds as if you’re hearing it through the dream, where it slows down and gets massive and all the rest. There was an interesting way to go; what I decided to do was give it to Hans and let him run with it and see if in some way it might inform elements of the score, because we always knew, we talked in early conversations about how towards the action climax of the film, there was going to be a need for the score to interweave seamlessly with this source cue, which is and extremely difficult technical thing to do.
Hollywood News: My question is for Joseph and for Chris — can you tell us a little more about the Fred Astaire fight sequence, and the training for it and the zero-g situation in the elevator?
Nolan: I’ll leave Joe to tell you the bad stuff, but, really, the thing I just want to point out that people might not be aware of is that we had a stunt guy who looks exactly like Joe made up perfectly — and he stood there three weeks on-set and didn’t do a thing, ‘cause Joe insisted on doing absolutely everything himself, apart from, as I’ve been reminded one shot — one shot where the stunt guy performed. Everything else he did himself, and he just did the most incredible job with these bizarre rigs and these bizarre sort of torture devices.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Thanks. It was just about the most fun I’ve ever had on a movie set; it was also, probably, the most pain I’ve ever been in on a movie set, physically — but you know, pain in a good way, like in the way I guess athletes must get when they have to put on their pads and they tape up their ankles and they get a little beat up throughout the day, but that’s just part of slamming yourself into walls and jumping around all day. I was really grateful to the whole stunt team — Tom Struthers, who Chris has worked with before, and he and his guys really took me in and taught me a lot and let me do it, because I’ve had the opposite experience, where stunt teams can be a little demeaning– not demeaning, but, exclusionary towards actors. To speak to your Fred Astaire comparison, I get a kick out of that, ‘cause she’s talking about there’s this dance sequence in a Fred Astaire movie from 50 years ago? Okay, longer ago than that — where it’s a similar effect, and I was thinking about it, and I came up with an analogy. Because Inception does contain a similar technique, and it’s sort of how Sesame Street and Star Wars both use Jim Henson puppetry? It’s similar technique, but to very different effect.
Hollywood News: Mr. Nolan, you listed Pink Floyd’s The Wall as one of your primary influences, and I was wondering. The dreams in that are very sexualized, which is something that doesn’t appear very much in this film; was that something you shied away from?
Nolan: Well, there are certain areas, when you’re talking about dreams, the analysis of dreams and how you might examine them in the film that you do want to avoid, because they would probably be either too disturbing for the sort of action film genre that we’re working in or funny. And so one of the things we talked about, tonally, I talked about with Leo, we talked a lot about in the period when we were looking at the script very closely is never tipping over into comedy, this funny version. I mean, one of the things all these guys have done in their performances, which I think is extraordinary, is that they’ve created very subtle differences in the way the characters appear in the dream levels and in reality — they’ve never made it funny. They’ve never taken it to that comedic place. And certainly I think there’s probably a great comedy version of this movie somewhere — but I don’t want to make it.
Hollywood News: Did you particularly want to touch on the concept of cinema as a layer of our dreaming?
Nolan: Well, I think for me when you look a the idea of being able to create a limitless world and use it almost as a playground for action and adventure and so forth, I naturally gravitate towards cinematic worlds, whether it’s the Bond films and things like that. So without being too self-conscious about it or without too much intention as I was writing it, I certainly allowed my mind to wander where it would naturally and I think a lot of the tropes from different genres of movies, heist films, spy films, that kind of thing, they therefore sort of naturally sit in that world.
Hollywood News: Leo, what did you love about this character and toughest action moments?
DiCaprio: Well, look, like I said before, this was an extremely ambitious concept that Chris was trying to pull off here. He accomplished it in flying colors. There’s very few directors I think in this industry that would pitch to a studio that they wanted to do a multi-layered almost at times existential high action, high drama surreal film that’s sort of locked in his mind. And then have an opportunity to do that, and that’s a testament to the work he’s done in the past. Watching his work and certainly in Memento and Insomnia, he’s able to portray these highly condensed, highly complicated plot structures and give them emotional weight and have you as an audience feel fully engaged along that process. So for me, it was a matter of sitting down with Chris and being able to really form the backbone of a character that had a real sort of cathartic journey and really had almost – – create a scenario where it became like a giant therapy session. At the end of the day, these different layers of the dream do represent a psychoanalysis, him getting deeper and deeper and closer to the truth of what he needs to understand about himself. That in its own right is immediately intriguing and Chris and I got to work and talk a lot about the different concepts of that and what Cobb has been through in the dream world, what his past is. Certainly what Marion’s character represented and I had a lot of wonderful talks with Marion as well about some of the sequences at the end that start to become very surreal and disturbing at times. So as we were talking more and more about the character, it all became more and more exciting. I think all of us mutually here felt like this was a journey that we had to be a part of. It was extremely exciting.
Hollywood News: And what was the toughest action?
DiCaprio: The toughest action sequence, I think that the sequence in Morocco was pretty tough because I had to run through a crowd of people. I felt kind of like a pinball because I was bouncing from Moroccan to Moroccan and falling into various vending machines. That was a little bit tough but at the end of the day, you’d be surprised. We pulled off a lot of stuff in a day’s work that was pretty spectacular. All of us, everyone here did. It was a very professional team that took care of us.
Hollywood News: Following up on that, this is another chameleon-like character with lots of secrets. Are those the roles you’re attracted to or is that what’s pitched you?
DiCaprio: I don’t really question when I read a script. If I feel I can be of service to that role, if I feel like it emotionally engages me, it’s something that interests me and obviously if the director is somebody that has the capacity to pull off the ambitious nature of whatever they’re trying to do in the screenplay, I never question that. So I guess a lot of my films have been more serious in tone but that’s something that I don’t try to deny. Look, I’m a very fortunate person. I get to choose the movies that I want to do. I have a lot of friends in this industry that don’t get to do that. I grew up in L.A. A lot of my friends are actors so I realize every day how lucky I am to have this opportunity, so while I’m here, I’m going to try to do exactly what I want.
Hollywood News: Leo, do you see this as a dark phase in your career and are this and Shutter Island bookends?
DiCaprio: Bookends? I don’t know. I think that, like I said before, these were characters and filmmakers and plot structures that I was compelled to do and I’m lucky to be able to do, so I jump on those opportunities. I traditionally have always tried to work with the best directors I can. These types of films that are psychologically sort of dark at times, I find extremely exciting to do because there’s always something to think about. There’s nothing more boring than to show up on set and say a line and know that your character means exactly what they say. It’s interesting to have an unreliable narrator in a film and that’s what both of those films have been. Both these characters are unreliable to themselves and the characters around them. So that sheer notion was extremely exciting to me.
Hollywood News: Are you playing the reprehensible J Edgar Hoover?
DiCaprio: Yeah, I’m talking to Clint Eastwood about playing J. Edgar Hoover who had his hand in some of the most sort of scandalous events in American history. Everything from the Vietnam War and Dillinger to Martin Luther King and JFK. It’s about the secret life of J. Edgar Hoover.
Hollywood News: And his personal life?
DiCaprio: Yes, that will be in there definitely.
Hollywood News: Will you wear a dress?
DiCaprio: Will I wear a dress? Not as of yet. We haven’t done the fittings for those so I don’t think so.
Hollywood News: But it spans decades?
DiCaprio: It’s going to span his life, yeah.
Hollywood News: Christopher, what was your research into dreams and science? How did you come up with architects and their designs?
Nolan: I don’t actually tend to do a lot of research when I’m writing. I took the approach in writing Inception that I did when I was writing Memento about memory and memory loss, which is I tend to just examine my own process of, in this case dreaming, in Memento’s case memory and try and analyze how that works and how that might be changed and manipulated. How a rule set might emerge from my own process. I do know because I think a lot of what I find you want to do with research is just confirming things you want to do. If the research contradicts what you want to do, you tend to go ahead and do it anyway. So at a certain point I realized that if you’re trying to reach an audience, being as subjective as possible and really trying to write from something genuine is the way to go. Really it’s mostly from my own process, my own experience.
Hollywood News: For Chris, did you bring this in on time and on budget?
Nolan: Yeah, we did. We actually had a very, very efficient crew and this very professional bunch of actors. We were able to hammer through it and we finished early and we finished under budget so we really brought the thing off very, very smoothly which was great. We try to be as efficient as possible because I think in my process, I think that actually helps the work. I like having the pressure of time and money and really trying to stick to the parameters we’ve been given. Yeah, it went very smoothly.
Hollywood News: Did this get a Bond movie out of your system?
Nolan: Quite a bit of it, yeah.
Hollywood News: Did you consider 3-D? What was the decision?
Nolan: Sure, I mean, we looked at shooting on various different formats before we went to shoot, including 3-D technology but also Showscan, 65 mil, which we eventually fixed on. Then when we edited the film, we looked at the post conversion process and did some very good tests. But, when I really looked at the time period we had and where my attention needed to be in finishing the film, I decided that I didn’t have enough time to do it to the standard I would have liked. I think the question of 3-D really is one for audiences in a sense. The tests we looked at, it’s perfectly possible to post-convert a film very well. I like not having glasses when I watch a movie and I like being able to see a very bright, immersive image. So I think at the end of the day, I’m extremely happy to be putting the film out with 35 mil film prints very brightly projected with the highest possible image quality. That’s really what excites me.
Hollywood News: I read that you first pitched Inception around the time you made Insomnia. Can you share that pitch with us, and how did that change once you had the script written? And for the actors, what was the collaborative process like for you once you came aboard?
Nolan: When I first pitched the studio the project, it was about ten years ago, and I’d just finished Insomnia. Really, the pitch was very much the movie you see, although I hadn’t figured out the emotional core of the story – and that took me a long time to do. I think I sort of grew into the film in a sense. I had the heist theme, I had the relationship between architecture and dreams, the idea that you would use an architect to design a dream for somebody else and all of that. All of those things were in place for several years, but it took me a long time to sort of find this idea of emotionally connecting with the story. Because when I look at heist movies, and I wanted it to feel like a heist movie, they tend to be almost deliberately superficial; they tend not to have high emotional stakes, so what I realized over the years and the thing I got stuck on was that doesn’t work when you’re talking about dreams, because the whole thing about the human mind and dreams is that it has to have emotional consequences and resonances. And so that was really my process over the years, finding my relationship with the love story, the tragedy of it with the emotional side.
Gordon-Levitt: One thing I’ll say is that one of my favorite parts of working for Chris is that as well thought-out as everything was, he leaves room for spontaneity on the day, both from the side of the camera, that he and Wally [Pfister] work together in this very kind of organic way, and as well as from the actors. It’s nice to not feel like you’re just re-enacting a preconceived moment, but there’s room for an organic feeling to develop while the camera is rolling. Even amidst these enormous technical productions, Chris always prioritized making sure that sort of spontaneous and organic feeling could happen at the moment.
Hollywood News: This is your first large-scale idea based on an original idea. What gave you the confidence to take that leap of faith, and does that point the way for you to make more original projects going forward rather than working from existing material?
Nolan: I think the thing that some people find surprising about the source material if you will, whether it’s a comic book adaptation, a remake of another film, or if it’s a sequel, these are all things that I’ve done before – an adaptation of a short story. The interesting thing about an original concept is that particularly with the sort of ten year gap it took me from my sort of initial set of ideas and finishing the screenplay, by the time you get there, you’ve lived with those ideas for so long that it really isn’t that different from working from somebody else’s story, for example. As with Memento when I adapted my brother’s short story, the same thing happens – you take this story on as your own, and because the screenwriting process is a very long one for me, it takes years really to put a script together, by the time you get there at the end, it starts to feel a little bit irrelevant as to where you started from. So the experience has been quite similar, in fact.
Hollywood News: This feels like a film that seems it only could get made because of that commercial success you’ve enjoyed. But does that freedom to get it made empower you to push the boundaries of what you can do, or does it put more pressure on you to fit it into perhaps a slightly more conventional structure or shape?
Nolan: I was asked after doing The Dark Knight whether I felt any particular pressure on the next film, and it’s not really the case. I put it this way – I felt a responsibility. It’s not that often that you get to have a large commercial success and then have something that you want to do that you can excite people about, so it’s a great opportunity, and the responsibility we felt in doing that was to make what we felt was to make the best film possible, the most interesting film possible because obviously with the success of The Dark Knight we were in a position where the studio was prepared to put a lot of faith in us and trust in us to really do something special. Those opportunities are very rare for filmmakers, and I felt a responsibility to really try and do something memorable with it.
Hollywood News: You previously referred to your work in this film and in Shutter Island to a sort of therapy session. When you’re playing a character operating in an imaginary world, how does that change your performance? And when you do two films like that back-to-back, does one influence the other?
DiCaprio: It was something I certainly was aware of, but as far as both of them being locked in this dream world, and like I said, going on some kind of cathartic journey throughout the course of the film, that’s about where the similarities ended. This film couldn’t have been more vastly different than the other in its execution, so I felt safe and completely aware of trying my best not to repeat any of those themes. But to answer your question about how one acts in that world or that there’s something you need to be aware of or do different, I would say absolutely not, and that’s what was exciting about even attempting, you know, this was my first science fiction film. The earliest conversations I had with Chris is how both of us have a hard time with science fiction – we have a little bit of an aversion to it because it’s hard for us to emotionally invest in worlds that are too far detached from what we know. That’s what’s interesting about Chris Nolan’s science fiction worlds – they’re deeply rooted in visually deeply rooted in things that we’ve seen before. There are cultural references and it feels like a world that is tactile that we understand that we could jump into and it’s not too much of a leap of faith to make. Um, but emotionally as well as far as the character’s journey, I took everything as if it was – you know, you have to. Otherwise you’re not invested in the character, you’re not invested in the character’s journey, and you know, you’re not going to make it believable to an audience. Everything is real, in essence.
Hollywood News: Do any of your own dreams stand out that you don’t mind sharing with us? And what are you doing now or what’s different than when you started in Hollywood 12 years ago?
Nolan: As far as the dreams go, really I would only point to there are times in my life where I experienced lucid dreaming, which is a big feature of Inception – the idea of realizing you’re in a dream and therefore trying to change or manipulate it in some way. That’s a very striking experience for people who have it. It’s clearly in the film and a big part of it. As far as my filmmaking approach, the thing I always say which it might be hard for people to understand, I don’t know, but to me the filmmaking process has always been the same. So when I was doing Following, which was shot with friends, one day a week for a year and put the film together that way, it was exactly the same process. I think for me, what I’m doing on set is I’m watching things happen as an audience member and trying to just look at, what’s the image we’re photographing, how will that advance the story and what will the next image be. That process really hasn’t changed for me, and it’s strangely similar no matter how big the film gets.
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