Inception - Christopher Nolan, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cillian Murphy
Inception - Director Christopher Nolan with Leonardo DiCaprio and Cillian Murphy on set © Warner Bros Entertainment, Inc

We continue our conversation with writer/producer/director Christopher Nolan about his new Sci-Fi thriller Inception, where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Dom Cobb, invades people’s minds to extract their dreams.

Nolan talks about the joys of not seeing a movie in 3-D, how important a score is to a film, and keeping a shroud of secrecy around this picture as they shot it.

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?

Inception - Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page © Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Ariadne (Ellen Page) © Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

When I first pitched the studio the project, it was about 10 years ago, and I’d just finished Insomnia. Really, the pitch was very much the movie you see, although I hadn¹t figured out the emotional core of the story. That took me a long time to do. I think I grew into the film, in a sense.

It took me a long time to find the idea of emotionally connecting with the story. 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.

But what I realized over the years, and the thing I got stuck on, was that doesn’t work when you’re talking about dreams. 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.

The score and the sound design for this film are phenomenal; it¹s almost like another character. Can you talk about that a little bit, how you constructed that?

Inception - Christopher Nolan, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page © Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.
Director Christopher Nolan with Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page on set © Warner Bros Entertainment, Inc

I like films where the music and the sound design, at times, are almost indistinguishable. Right at the beginning of our post-production process, I had to make the decision, ‘Do I get the sound department or do I get the music department?’ Do I get Hans [Zimmer] to manipulate that track until it sounds as if you’re hearing it through the dream, where it slows down and gets massive?

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. 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 an extremely difficult technical thing to do.

Did you ever consider 3-D?

Sure, 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 like not having glasses when I watch a movie. 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 35mm film prints very brightly projected with the highest possible image quality. That’s really what excites me.

You’ve done a great job of keeping this film mysterious for the past year. Is there a danger that at a certain point even secrecy becomes a form of hype? How do you balance that with what you want people to know about this film?

Inception - Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt © Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) © Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

Well, it’s certainly difficult to balance marketing a film and putting it out there to everybody, wanting to keep it fresh for the audience. My most enjoyable movie- going experiences have always been going to a movie theatre, sitting there and the lights go down and a film comes on the screen that you don’t know everything about. 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. 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.

This feels like a film that couldn’t get made without the commercial success you’ve enjoyed. 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 a slightly more conventional structure or shape?

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 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 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.