The magic of the movies is a largely collaborative effort, involving at least hundreds, often thousands of unseen people working tirelessly to bring the world of a film to life. This was never more evident to me than on one day in August of 2011 when I was fortunate enough to visit the set of this summer’s blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises, the epic conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s story featuring the Guardian of Gotham City: Batman.
Presented here for the first time is this mind-blowing image of the scene we were able to witness that day: Movie magic in its purest form, with the crane camera following NFL wide receiver Hines Ward as dozens of explosive charges went off behind him, illustrating Bane’s destruction of the NFL stadium that plays home to the Gotham Rogues. The actual stadium location was, of course, Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, partially transformed into the Gotham stadium to depict that fateful game where Bane crashes the party and makes his presence felt in a major way.
Standing in the press box and looking down on the dozens of actors and stunt performers, hundreds of production workers, thousands of extras, and millions of dollars’ worth of sensitive motion picture equipment and special effects rigs really highlights for anyone how much of an undertaking it is to make a film, especially one on the scale of The Dark Knight Rises.
We were fortunate enough to sit with several key members of Rises’ production staff who gave us some very interesting tidbits about the film, the story it attempts to tell, the specific challenges and triumphs of their jobs on the picture, and how it will all combine into the $250 million behemoth known as The Dark Knight Rises, hitting theaters on July 20th.
One of the key people we were fortunate enough to speak with was Chris Corbould, an Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor who has a staggering 11 James Bond films on his resume, in addition to such hits as Interview with the Vampire, The Mummy, X-Men: First Class, his Oscar-worthy endeavor on Inception, and of course Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
Corbould didn’t shy away from the complexity of this film when we spoke to him on set, even calling the enormous scene being shot that day as part of “regular occurrences,” and that two of the big effects-heavy scenes that still needed to be shot at that point in the process were still a mystery, even to him, as far as how to photograph them. “I don’t know how we’re going to do them yet. (laughs) I can’t even tell you.”
He explained to us the process of figuring out how to crack a mystery like this, and basically told us that reliance on your team is essential.
“I’ve obviously got guys thinking about it and we’re throwing ideas around, but we haven’t [figured it out yet]. There are a couple of things we haven’t settled on, [as far as] the definite method we’re going to use. I don’t like to just rush into something, I like to keep thinking it, milling it over, talking to Chris [Nolan] about it and then a month, two months before we shoot it, you know, we look into how we’re going to do it, with Chris’s agreement, with my input. And then we might get the team working on it and then we move forward with it.”
Corbould also briefly talked about Christopher Nolan’s penchant for shooting things practically, as opposed to leaving it all up to computer-generated effects, unless absolutely necessary.
“Chris will always prefer to do it practically. That’s his mantra. Then [he and I] get into logistics: there are things that I can’t do for money reasons, safety reasons, budget reasons. There are things that I physically can’t do. So, that’s when the CGI thing comes in. But, he will always try and get us to provide elements for the CGI people to use, so it’s not totally created in a computer, but it’s a mixture of what we’ve done to enhance what is put into the scene. He’s a firm believer in doing things for real, he believes he gets better performances from his actors and thespians, you know. If there’s something going on, then that’s the way he’s always been and he seems to be sticking by it.”
Another key player we were able to speak with that day was Lindy Hemming, the costume designer. With a background in theatre having first receiving an education at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and producing costumes for plays in the Royal Shakespeare Company, Hemming transitioned to film costuming and received the Academy Award in her field for her work on 1999’s Topsy-Turvy. From there, she worked on such hits as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, before finding a home in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films starting with 2005’s Batman Begins.
As soon as Hemming begins speaking, it becomes immediately clear why she’s working on this film and this franchise: She reads the characters in the scripts and immediately visualizes them through her field, finding appropriate wardrobes for the dapper Bruce Wayne, the sophisticated Alfred Pennyworth, the grimy, grungy Joker, and now, the monstrous Bane. Hemming took us a little bit through the process of coming up with the typical wares as far as clothing, to the more unconventional fare of Bane’s mask and Catwoman’s headpiece. Thankfully (at least for this fan), Hemming started at the source material and began to work her way out towards the Gotham City of Christopher Nolan’s mind.
“With Bane, maybe it’s whether people like it or not, you can see him with his mercenary men, and you can know in the story where he’s come from and why he is like he is. Following that route, he is much more… he’s armored, and he has nods to the straps of the wrestling suit he started with [in the comics] and he’s got an injury, which is why in the comic, he has to have Venom. And in our story, it’s slightly different, but it’s the same kind of idea. So using all those things and using the fact that he doesn’t come from the same technology as Batman. He doesn’t have Fox making all these things for him. His stuff has been made on the move over the mountains of the world, maybe in training camps.”
Hemming also discussed the patchwork nature of Bane’s attire, and how that informs the audience of his background.
“There is a slightly clunky element to him and that’s part of his story. But at the same time, the way he’s directed in the film, the menace is within him…he’s also an older character. He’s not a young kid. He’s an older man who, as you’ll see the film, you’ll know that he’s been around for a long time. So that’s as much as I can kind of tell you, but the reason he looks like he looks is he’s much more of a warrior/mercenary kind of man.
He was injured early in his story, Bane, if you know his story, so his outfit is pretty much the same, but there is a different outfit for earlier in his history, yes. But it’s still the same principal, that he’s suffering from pain and he needs gas to survive. He can’t survive the pain without the mask…”
Hemming also talked to us about the challenge of finding a practical usage for Catwoman’s trademark “ears,” and how she and the director shared a bit of a laugh about it, and how one of the inspirations came from the magnifying goggles of a dentist.
“Between Chris Nolan and I, we were trying to work out why that we think… how would a woman who is sort of modern and trendy and cool, why would she go around wearing ears? (laughs) So, there’s two nods to it in the film: one is that she is wearing ears, which you’ll see and is explained, but we said, ‘What is forming these ears? What’s the logic behind the ears?’ And the logic, you will see, behind the ears is that when the goggles go up, the shape of the goggles make the ears, and we think it’s really cool. We’re very, very pleased with it. (laughs) But oh God, we went through so many incarnations of how to make it happen, but I don’t know if you’ve seen jewelers when they have a jewelers’ loop or when you go to the dentist—that was my inspiration.”
Producer Jordan Goldberg also sat down with us. A co-producer with director Christopher Nolan since 2006’s The Prestige, Goldberg has also tried his hand at writing, turning in some respectable motion comics tied into the release of Inception, as well as having a story credit on the animated direct-to-DVD prelude to Nolan’s second Batman film, Batman: Gotham Knight. At the beginning of our sit-down with him, Goldberg discussed the fortune that the production had in securing the Heinz Field location for the monumental scene.
“One of our Executive Producers, Thomas Tull, is a part owner of the Steelers. He’s got a lot of good relationships with the organization. And back when – you know, when any time I guess when you put on a football thing, it’s a big to-do just because of all the moving parts involved in a football game. And so, I felt that, you know, to do it officially [we needed] very good working parts. And at that time we were thinking, we were talking about shooting in Pittsburgh, so it just seemed like the best marriage to kind of bring in the Steelers and as luck would have it a lot of them wanted to be in the movie, but they’ve never been in a movie before. They were big fans of Thomas’ other movies like The Hangover and stuff. So, I think the opportunity to be in a Batman movie, they really got involved.”
Goldberg also let us in on the difference in scope between this film and it’s critically acclaimed predecessor.
“Every story has to have a great ending. And I guess when you talk about it as a franchise, a trilogy, it keeps getting bigger and bigger. So yeah, you had to ratchet it up. I think that the scope and scale of this movie is, I don’t know. I didn’t think you could top the last one, but I think we have. And I think something like this helps you do that because it’s just a massive – any time there’s a football game, there’s a lot of kinetic energy out there and the stunt that we’re going to pull out there, you’ll see after lunch, the explosions we’re gonna do are pretty big. And it’s just, you know, the stakes are very high. And I think when you see the movie, when you see the final thing put together, it’s a pretty jaw-dropping spectacle, what happens in there.”
One thing people might notice about the man in the director’s chair is that he’s never made a sports film before, and apparently doesn’t watch football that often. So, how does Mr. Nolan go about shooting at least part of a football game? Goldberg explains.
“We have a guy down there named Mark Ellis, who’s worked on a lot of sports films. Most of the sports films you’ve seen, he’s been the coordinator behind it all. Mark and I had been talking for a while and Chris had an idea how – what he wanted in the game and Chris dialed into the fact that this event should take place at the beginning of the game and the kickoff ‘cause you know, the kickoff is very iconic of any football game. So with that information, I was able to get it – we were able to design a very kind of easy play out there to kind of make the thing happen.”
The last of the production staff we had the privilege of speaking with was Tom Struthers, the man with the simple enough title for an extraordinarily complicated job: Stunt Coordinator. In addition to working on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight as an assistant stunt coordinator and the full coordinator for The Dark Knight Rises, Struthers has also coordinated the stunts for such films as Terminator Salvation, Season of the Witch, John Carter, as well as Mr. Nolan’s previous outing, Inception. Struthers has also worked in varying stunt capacities on films like Blood Diamond, The World is Not Enough, Braveheart, and Titanic. With that resume at his disposal, Struthers is the man coordinating the mind-boggling action of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.
Struthers makes no bones about the fact that there’s a lot more fisticuffs in Rises when compared with Begins and Dark Knight. “There’s a lot more fighting in this one than the previous two Batmans. We’ve still got an emphasis on vehicle work [with the Tumbler], but there’s a lot more physical interaction between Batman, Bane, and the other characters in the film.”
He also discussed the martial arts techniques that the characters have been using since the beginning of the series.
“The fighting techniques have evolved over the last two films. Basically, we started out with a technique that was put together by a Spanish and an English guy originally called Keysi, and it’s a mixture of all the different martial arts. Keysi is a mixture of jiu-jitsu, a mixture of Tae-Kwon-Do, it’s a mixture of Muay-Thai, it’s a mixture of everything really, and it was designed for the armed forces, basically. What we’ve done on this one [is] we’ve changed the format a little bit, we’ve taken it to another progression, we’ve kept a little bit of the Keysi [in addition to other methods]. My fight arranger, Buster Reaves, is very, very good and we’ve just taken it to the next level.”
Struthers also took time to praise Christopher Nolan in the way that he puts together the men and women who ultimately bring his vision to life.
“With the way that Chris Nolan puts a crew together, [he’s] very much hands-on with every department head. I mean, we’re all chosen by Chris. There’s no studio hire, there’s no agent hire. It is…we are hired by Chris Nolan. From Nathan [Crowley, production designer] and Wally [Pfister, director of photography] who’ve been with Chris since the beginning, to Chris Corbould. I was on the first two films with Chris, but as the stunt supervisor. Then he asked me and my crew to do Inception. We haven’t really changed the mix of the physical action crew, and neither has Chris changed Chris Corbould, Lindy in the costumes, or Nathan, so we all work together. And we all overlap dramatically, and that’s a difference with most movies, I think. Most movies I’ve worked on, most departments become very [insulated]…whereas we’re very much spread out. We interact a lot with the other departments.”
When asking specifically how Struthers interacts with certain departments, he was all too happy to tell us:
“With my side it’s mainly mechanical effects…because a film like this is probably about a 65% physical drama on Batman, maybe even 70%. So it’s a big interaction there. And then behind that we’ve got Nathan’s sets, which we talk to Nathan about, what we can do in his sets, what he can do for us to design with the size of the rooms and the whole exteriors. And then, Dan Grayson and Lindy Hemming in costumes, they’re very, very good to us. They help design costumes and put them together for the actors which is user-friendly for the environment we’re in. Which is very difficult, so as I said, a lot of departments become very interlaid.”
That was, in the briefest of nutshells, our experience talking with the people that helped make The Dark Knight Rises. This was a very enthralling place to be that August day in Pittsburgh, and what they pulled off continues to fill me with slack-jawed disbelief. The wait is nearly over, and whether or not the conclusion to Mr. Nolan’s story for the Dark Knight is satisfying or not is a decision only you can make. Regardless of where you stand, it sounds like this film will be one of the defining cinematic experiences of the year, whether you’re a hardcore Batman fan like yours truly, or just an average Joe (or Jane) that likes to watch good movies. Time will tell where this film will lie on this year’s slate, but like the last one, I’m sure it will create moments that will live forever thanks in no small part to the efforts of the talented people we were fortunate enough to speak with that day.
Be sure to see their efforts come alive on July 20th, when The Dark Knight Rises hits theaters nationwide.