Pretend you're an executive at one of Hollywood's biggest studios, and one of your most beloved franchises is lifeless, thanks to a string of uninspired sequels. To revive it, do you hire a proven A-list director or a young man whose biggest claim to fame is Memento, the low-budget, independent thriller with a story that's told backward?
Warner Bros. chose the latter, and Batman was re-born in 2005 with the hugely successful Batman Begins.
Director Christopher Nolan's vision returns to theaters Friday with his second Batman movie, The Dark Knight, filled with plenty of Batgear and high-tech heroics.
Nolan tells NPR's Robert Siegel that for the past few years, he invested all of his "attention and focus in a very sincere way" into the film to create a great piece of entertainment.
"I feel that I have to take the subject matter very seriously," Nolan says. "That, I think, is what hopefully will make the best film or hopefully will make the most entertaining film, because the things in the movie are — somebody believed in them."
The movie stars Christian Bale as Gotham City playboy Bruce Wayne — aka Batman — and the late Heath Ledger as The Joker. Ledger died unexpectedly after filming ended.
A 'Force Of Pure Anarchy'
As Nolan was conceiving the role of The Joker, the director says he had candid conversations with Ledger about how to portray the menacing character.
"Really, we wanted him to be the most frightening possible version of this character, the sort of edgiest possible," Nolan says. "And what I talked with Heath a lot about when we first met is the idea of him being a force of pure anarchy, being someone who wouldn't play by any kind of rules, even criminal rules, somebody who wouldn't in any way be bound by the convention of society."
Ledger took his role so seriously, Nolan says, that he added a few quirks of his own, such as licking his lips menacingly.
"What Heath had to do — and I think he did it in a really incredible way — is he had to balance the need for The Joker to be an iconic presence, but be a human being and be somebody that you can listen to and believe," Nolan says.
"The flip side of that, though, is that you don't want to know too much about them as a human being," he says. "You don't want to humanize them too much, because what Heath and I talked about a lot is with these great villains, whether it's Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter or whoever, what we sort of found is the more you found out about these people, the less threatening, the less interesting really they are."
In part, it's building those characters that gives life to a great story. As a viewer of these kinds of films, Nolan says, he wants the filmmaker fully invested in telling the story. He says directors should allow the audience to decide what's funny or ironic without tipping them off with a "wink."
'Blow It Up, Film It, See What You Get'
Nolan got interested in making movies as a child. When he was 7, he and his older brother created military-themed Super 8 mm films around a version of the G.I. Joe figure called Action Man. That changed when Star Wars was released, Nolan says. Inspired, he and his brother made a series of films called Space Wars, which revolved around blowing up toy models.
"You have your little Star Wars toys and you strap firecrackers to Millennium Falcon [Han Solo's spacecraft in Star Wars] and blow it up and film it and see what you get," he says. "[The Dark Knight] is done on a rather larger scale and it's not actually me, thankfully, having anything to do with the pyrotechnics, but it's just something I've always done and something I really get a kick out of."
It's this passion for action and adventure that Nolan hopes will translate to the big screen in The Dark Knight, and that there are a couple of moments in the film where the audience is moved to applaud.
"Where large-scale movies really come into their own is when they speak a universal language, when they tap into more universal emotions and responses," Nolan says. "But certainly I try and think about the way I would have viewed this film as a boy. I think in making films I'm really trying to recapture that sense of things."