Ariadne: “Why is it so important to dream?”
Cobb: “In my dreams we’re still together.”
I thought it was just me. Since last March, I started having these incredibly vivid dreams. Spending most days in the same environment – unable to freely mobilize. I felt like we were living in an altered reality. I found myself napping or shutting my eyes and thinking about things past – being with loved ones or traveling to Paris. At other times all of my different fears related to being near people, forgetting to wear a mask, washing my hands or even going to the grocery store would amplify in my subconscious. I even had this very specific dream where I imagined – like the final episode of “Newhart” – that everything we’ve endured had been a dream – but unfortunately, I woke up. Later, I found out I wasn’t alone, and others were having similar experiences. Maybe that’s why I have hung on to cinema so wholeheartedly during this period. The oneiric quality of cinema – which filmmakers like Luis Bunuel and David Lynch have understood and explored – has given me a sense of reassurance.
Recently I re-watched Christopher Nolan’s masterwork “Inception” (2010) and what a buzz to see it through our current perspective. I enjoyed being fully immersed in a film about dreams that blurs the lines between what is real, what is imagined, and what is possible. This genre bending – and totally original – action film has some audacious set pieces that can electrify any jaded filmgoer while stimulating you intellectually. When characters defy gravity and start fighting on the walls in a rotating hotel hallway – and you understand the physics of why it’s happening – is pure cinema ecstasy. As delirious as watching Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling to the tune of “You Are the World to Me.”
Leonardo DiCaprio – who has become a most intelligent leading man – is “Dom” Cobb, a high-tech thief who can infiltrate people’s dreams – create elaborate imaginary worlds in which he can dominate the victims and steal their ideas. Cobb’s unable to be with his children for he’s been wrongly accused of the death of his wife. Japanese businessman Saito offers a chance to clear his name and return home. In return, Cobb has to do one last demanding job. This time around instead of stealing, Cobb needs to implant an idea – an inception – in the mind of a rival corporation’s heir. To do this job –he has to build a team of experts that includes a dream architect, a forger and a chemist. As I write this plot description, I realize how preposterous it all sounds, but it makes sense as you’re watching it unfold. The internal logic of the world created by Nolan kicks in – and you’re in for the ride. The film is ultimately a sci-fi metaphysical heist. Think “Ocean’s 11” but with an ambitious time-bending and epistemological twist to it. During a 10-hour flight, the competitor, Maurice Fischer, will be induced into a shared dream state – three layers deep into which our crew will operate. There’s a problem though. Cobb is haunted by guilty memories of his wife – Mal – and like a classic femme fatale she will create havoc to the mission.
This very high concept is accomplished with panache and dizzying efficiency. The mathematics of the construction of the script as well as the visuals is mind blowing. It’s so refreshing to be in the hands of a Hollywood filmmaker who doesn’t condescend to his audience – instead he challenges us -and encourages to be on our toes. Scene after scene we’re put in a state of wonderment. When Cobb enlists the dream architect appropriately named Ariadne he explains that people never remember how a dream begins – we find ourselves in the middle of the action. Nolan begins his film in the same way – and our mind is urged to quickly keep up with the developments. Ingenuity abounds. A created dream landscape starts disintegrating with its walls exploding with water. A Parisian street folds unto itself in unbelievable fashion.
Nolan has always been a terrific director of actors – and he has gathered a formidable ensemble that besides a fantastic DiCaprio includes Nolan regular Michael Caine, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, Josepha Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy.
Christopher Nolan’s largescale vision makes for fun and stimulating cinema.
Eames: “We mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, Darling.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime and to rent on iTunes, Apple TV, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, FandangoNOW, Microsoft, Amazon Prime, Redbox and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Written by Christopher Nolan
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, and Michael Caine
Bringing “Inception” to the Screen
His wife and producing partner, Emma Thomas, remembers 2001, when Nolan showed her what he was working on. “It read enormous,” she says. “There was clearly a visual-effects component and lots of action. I read those 80 pages and thought, ‘My God, how would we ever do this?’ We asked ourselves, ‘Could we make it smaller?’ We realized that we couldn’t do that with a film about dreams because dreams are infinite.” Nolan pitched the idea to Warners that year and received an enthusiastic response. Ultimately, though, his doubts about realizing the ideas in his script, as well as the opportunity in front of him from Warners to reboot the Batman franchise, led him to set his “dream” project aside. Wise decision, according to Thomas. “Chris grew into this film,” she says. “He did ‘Batman Begins’ and learned an enormous amount.” With ‘The Dark Knight,’ he learned even more — in particular how to orchestrate big, complex action sequences, relying whenever possible on in-camera effects. He also assembled a crack effects team in Chris Corbould and Paul Franklin, both of whom would be instrumental in bringing Inception’s visual wizardry to life. When ‘Dark Knight’ went on to gross more than $1 billion worldwide, Nolan had the clout to get the budget ‘Inception’ demanded. Still, Nolan labored to get the script right — and, specifically, to enhance the human element to his story. “There was a certain amount of emotion there, but the script had elements of being a puzzle,” Thomas says. Persuading Leonardo DiCaprio to take the lead role of Dominic Cobb solved that problem. “Leo spends a lot of time in pre-production with the writer and director,” Thomas says. “So Chris and Leo spent weeks and weeks just combing through the script. The work he did on his character with Chris made the movie less of a puzzle and more of a story of a character audiences could relate to.” Says DiCaprio: “I needed to know implicitly where we were. It got incredibly confusing at certain points in the beginning, but the more we talked, the more I understood.” When DiCaprio signed, only a handful of people had read Nolan’s script. The filmmaker aimed to keep it that way, even as he proceeded to assemble Inception’s cast and crew. (hollywoodreporter.com))
The Making of “Inception”
London-based special effects supervisor Corbould, who worked with Nolan on both of his Batman films, remembers getting a call in spring 2009. “Chris said: ‘I’m pitching this script I’ve been working on for years. Would you come [to Los Angeles] and read?’” Corbould recalls. “This was Wednesday; by Sunday, he called again. ‘It’s a goer,’ he said, and flew me out the following week. The script wasn’t allowed out of a room. You go in, and they lock the door and say, ‘Give us a call when you’ve read it.’ ” Corbould describes that first read as “fascinating but difficult. It took awhile to understand what was going on.” But he immediately began imagining how to pull off the effects-driven set pieces, including a hand-to-hand fight in a zero-gravity room and an exploding Parisian street. “My mind was like a gear winding up,” he said. On the digital effects side, Franklin, who also worked on the Batman films, also remembers being locked in a room with Nolan’s script at Warners…Like Corbould, he began imagining how to visually translate the minimal scene descriptions. (For a sequence set in Paris, for instance, Nolan had written simply, “The city begins to fold in half.”) “Working with Chris is absolutely great, but he’s very challenging, too,” Franklin says. “He’s never satisfied with something you already know how to do. He always wants to go beyond what you did last time — to really sell the shot to the audience.”
As demanding as Corbould and Franklin’s effects duties would be, Thomas’ even more difficult task was to orchestrate Inception’s globe-spanning shoot. “Six countries,” Thomas says. “Logistically, a complete nightmare. We had production offices in London, Paris, Morocco, Los Angeles and Calgary prepping in parallel, and we started off in Tokyo. We had a hugely competent production team that ran things like an army, and we felt strongly that by going to all these places and gaining all these different textures, the film would feel bigger.” Each location presented a different set of challenges. “There are a lot of rules in Japan,” Thomas says. “Flying helicopters in downtown Tokyo — that was complicated. And then we were exploding buildings in central Paris, which they don’t like very much.” The Paris sequence has been one of the most talked-about in the film. DiCaprio’s Cobb and Ariadne, a graduate student dream-builder played by Ellen Page, sit at a bistro as the street and buildings erupt around them. Nolan didn’t want to rely on CGI; he wanted actual flying debris to give DiCaprio and Page something to react to. But traditional explosions were a no-go: Paris officials wouldn’t allow them, nor would the city tolerate noise above 110 decibels. “So we used high-pressure nitrogen,” Corbould says. “Everything was very directional. My aim was to have the paper cups on the table not move. I created the whole set in my workshop and did about 20 tests. I sat in three of them. I was very confident about safety, but there’s that adrenaline rush when everything goes off around you.” Says Franklin of the bistro scene: “It was a ballet of destruction.” In post-production, his team digitally enhanced the debris and added broken bottles and exploding cobblestones — material that was too dangerous to use during the shoot.
The demands on the cast and crew were multiple and ongoing during the seven-month shoot. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the role of Arthur, Cobb’s closest associate, spent days in a wire-rigged harness inside a rotating hotel corridor (constructed by Corbould) to perform a zero-gravity fight. DiCaprio, Page, Gordon-Levitt and co-stars Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe and Dileep Rao trained themselves to remain calm — seemingly asleep — while belted into a submerged van, relying on scuba tanks for air. Tom Hardy, who plays Eames, a “forger” who can appear in multiple guises in dreams, had to learn to ski for the final sequence set around a snowbound hideaway. “Chris said I lied to him when we first met about whether I could ski,” Hardy says with a laugh. “Who wouldn’t? It’s Chris Nolan. If he asked me if I could rock-climb, I’d tell him I could rock-climb anything.” Throughout, Nolan worked in collaboration, bouncing ideas off his actors and principal creative team and making adjustments on the fly…Collaboration was ongoing among actors, too: Hardy and DiCaprio sat and discussed their scenes at great length before shooting them. “At first I went in thinking, oh my God, I’d never worked with anyone who was that famous and well-known,” Hardy says. “I had the fear of looking silly and failing, looking rubbish and letting the team down. That lasted about a day. Leo was just brilliant. He’s smart and sharp.”…After seven months of shooting, the painstaking CGI work of post-production began. “Getting the bits and bobs to fall out of the hotel cleaning trolley [in zero gravity]? That’s one guy — months of lonesome work,” Franklin says. And the sequences where DiCaprio and Page wake up in Limbo City — the deepest layer of dreams in the film — “that required an absolutely enormous amount of work, a team of guys laboring for about nine months.” (hollywoodreporter.com))
About Editor Lee Smith
“Born in Sydney, Australia in 1960, Smith grew up watching the great Hollywood epics. “I remember my parents taking me to cinemas to see films like ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ … ‘Battle of Britain’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’” Smith said. “I [also] really loved ‘2001.’” That means he witnessed Anne Coates’ cut from match to sunrise in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962) and Ray Lovejoy’s cut from bone to satellite in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). “I think we’re the sum of everything that’s happened before,” Smith said. “They’re all embedded deep in my subconscious. … I have a pretty good memory for films. … I can see something 20 years ago like I saw it yesterday. … So I could be an idiot savant.” His passion was fueled by his father, an optical effects supervisor in the film industry. “I had another in-road … although he was in the commercial world not features,” Smith said. “My main job was making tea and sweeping around the place, but that’s the way to learn. You start at the bottom.” He worked his way up not as an editor but as a sound designer for Holly Hunter in Jane Campion’s ‘The Piano’ (1993) and Jim Carrey in Peter Weir’s ‘The Truman Show’ (1998). “I concentrated on sound for the first part of my career, then I did a transitional thing where I was working quite a lot with Peter Weir’s films as like a junior editor. Then I would be the sound supervisor or sound designer on his films, then eventually I became his editor.” He said his sound editing background is very informative to his job of film editing. “Sound is an incredible way to control people’s emotions and pace and rhythm,” Smith said. “It’s amazing what you can do subtly and subliminally. … I have an enormous sound library in my picture-editing [software] Avid that I draw on continuously as I’m cutting.” After his work with Weir, he formed a long collaboration with Nolan on the trilogy of ‘Batman Begins’ (2005), ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008) and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012)…After ‘The Dark Knight,’ Smith reunited with Nolan on the sci-fi masterpiece ‘Inception’ (2010), cutting together the “dreams within dreams” without confusing the audience. “That is the challenge,” Smith said.
“Chris does make very complicated films and I think my job in the whole process is to try to keep it as understandable as you can, because there’s nothing worse than a film where the audience gets lost to the point of being disappointed.” “The secret that we were always trying to do with Chris’ films, ‘Inception,’ ‘Interstellar,’ and ‘The Prestige,’ was being faithful to Chris’s original idea … but never getting into a point where you’d be sitting there as an audience member feeling that you’ve been left out.” Test screenings proved vital to see if audiences grasp the intricacies. “Those movies are very finely tuned,” Smith said. “Some people get them to great minute detail. Other people misunderstand them completely, but they still love them.” Perhaps the biggest challenge was ‘Dunkirk’ (2017), as Smith had to edit three intercutting timelines: a week on land, a day at sea and an hour in the air during World War II. “There was an enormous amount of cross cutting,” Smith said. “We did do a lot of jigging around with the aerial stuff. … We had to move that around, add and subtract where it came in, so the audience … wasn’t completely perplexed.” For his efforts, Smith won the Academy Award for Best Film Editing, receiving the award on stage from his former ‘Interstellar’ colleague Matthew McConaughey…he worked on Mendes’ World War I epic ‘1917’ (2019), which was edited to appear as if one continuous shot when really it was several long takes stitched together…” (wtop.com) A few of Smith’s other films include “RoboCop 2” (1990), “The Truman Show” (1998), “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003), “Batman Begins” (2005), “The Prestige” (2006), “The Way Back” (2010), “X-Men: First Class” (2011), “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), “Elysium” (2013), “Ender’s Game” (2013), “Interstellar” (2014), “Spectre” (2015) and “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” (2019).
About Writer and Director Christopher Nolan
“…He was born in London in 1970, to an English father — who spent time shooting commercials in Los Angeles and returned home with stories about the Beverly Hills Hotel — and an American mother, who had worked as a flight attendant. His childhood was apportioned between London and Chicago. Jonah, who is six years younger, told me that his very earliest memories were of his older brother making stop-motion space odysseys, painstaking processes of tweaking the gestures of action figures. They went to the movies constantly, and Jonah recalls that they brooked no distinction between the arty and the mainstream; they’d go to Scala Cinema Club in London to see ‘Akira’ or a Werner Herzog film one month and then go to the Biograph in Chicago to see ‘The Commitments’ the next. (When Jonah was 13 or 14, Nolan gave him two Frank Miller volumes, ‘Batman: Year One’ and ‘The Dark Knight Returns,’ which the two revered.) Nolan went to an English boarding school with a military inflection and then on to University College London, where he read English literature. He chose U.C.L. because of its film facilities, which included a Steenbeck editing suite. He and Emma Thomas, his wife, began dating in their first year. Together they ran a film society, screening 35-millimeter films to make money so members could shoot 16-millimeter shorts. Nolan made his first film, “Following,” on $6,000 over the course of a year, shooting perhaps 15 minutes of footage each Saturday. It’s a very clever con-man/murder drama that owes more than a little to Hitchcock, with a sliced-up, rearranged chronology that prefigures “Memento.” Emma moved to Los Angeles, for her job with the production company Working Title, and Nolan, who was having trouble raising money in the clubby world of English filmmaking, soon followed. He and Jonah discussed the idea for ‘Memento’ on their road trip from Chicago to Hollywood. They went on to film it over 25½ days on a budget of $4.5 million. After that, when he came across the script of “Insomnia,” a remake of a Norwegian psychological thriller, Warner Bros. had the option. Nolan was interested but couldn’t get a meeting. His agent, Dan Aloni, called Steven Soderbergh, an early fan of ‘Memento.’ Soderbergh told me that he “just walked across the lot and said to the head of production, ‘You’re insane if you don’t meet with this guy.’ My sense even then was that he didn’t need our help except to get in the door.” Everything happened very quickly. Nolan made the film on a budget of $46 million, and Soderbergh and George Clooney signed on as executive producers. Soderbergh visited the set in Alaska. “I got there and was having a conversation with Al Pacino: ‘How do you feel? How’s it going?’ Al said, ‘Well, I can tell you right now, at some point in the very near future I’m going to be very proud to say I was in a Christopher Nolan movie.’ ” The film went on to gross $113 million worldwide and showed Warners he could handle the demands of a studio movie…
…The success of ‘Insomnia’ was what gave Nolan a shot at the resurrection of Warners’ Batman franchise…In writing and shooting “Interstellar,” the chief constraints that guided him were scientific; the film proposes some potentially batty possibilities for gravity and space-time, but it felt essential to Nolan that the physics behind the movie be at least speculatively plausible. He and Kip Thorne, the Caltech scientist whose theories formed the germ of the original project, met every few weeks for about five months. According to Thorne, Nolan told him that he “wanted a movie that did not violate any well-established physical laws.” Even the graphics, Thorne told me, “are perfectly modeled — precisely what I think you’d see if you went chasing light rays around wormholes. They fit with Chris’s desire to have the graphics done in accord with the equations of general relativity.” As Nolan’s productions and their budgets have grown — ‘Batman Begins’ cost $150 million, ‘The Dark Knight’ $185 million and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ $250 million — those, too, have become another set of equations to optimize, and he has said that he writes his scripts to fit the production methods he’ll use…Though he was making his first Super 8 films at 7, it wasn’t until he’d made “Following,” in his late 20s, that he really began to understand film as a mode of mass communication. He toured festivals with that movie, and it was only when he saw 400 people in a room in communion with his film that he understood how dependent he was, and the film was, on their response…At the budget level I’m able to work at, I really try to give the audience the most technically compelling experience I can give, with picture and sounds, something they haven’t seen before.” (nytimes.com) His next film, ‘Dunkirk’ (2017), which he also wrote, centres on the evacuation of Allied troops from France during World War II. The action drama earned universal acclaim and was nominated for a number of Academy Awards, including best picture. In addition, Nolan received an Oscar nod for his direction. In 2020 he wrote and directed ‘Tenet,’ a time-bending action thriller that centres on a C.I.A. agent trying to avert a world war. (britannica.com)