Lighting the Knight:
A Taste for the Theatrical
Even with Nolan's growing reputation as a solid, reliable and responsible filmmaker, things didn't fall into place without question.
"By the time we got going, literally in pre-production we still didn't have permission from the studio; the studio was still reviewing it. So Chris mapped out the whole post process because the studio was concerned that we would not be able to do all the post work necessary, particularly in visual effects. Because, remember, if you're going to IMAX, the visual effects have got to be done in 8K. Unheard of."
Nolan and Pfister started to do their homework and put together a presentation for the studio, explaining everything from how much the film costs to how long it takes to reload the IMAX camera. Nolan then put together the post-production pipeline in a very logical way.
"Nobody else could seem to figure it out," Pfister said. "The editors didn't really know how it would work. The post-production people at Warners didn't. And Chris said, 'Look, it's very simple.' Like the mathematician genius that he is, he mapped it all out. I took a picture of it with my digital camera, he put it on little index cards and mapped it out."
All that homework paid off. The marketing department picked up $8 million and the production absorbed the remainder.
Then history began – once again. Finally given the green light, the team started shooting and the very first Dark Knight scenes filmed were filmed in IMAX.
A Better Class of Criminal
With production underway, casting of the Joker, a character every bit as iconic in Gotham lore as the Batman himself, generated considerable speculation. Of course, anyone who tackled the role would have to fight his way out from under Jack Nicholson's shadow. The casting of Heath Ledger at first blush seemed like an odd choice, particularly given it's one of those roles any actor would relish and would leap at the chance to play.
The marketing team at Warner Bros. put those first IMAX scenes, involving the Joker's bank robbery, to work early by attaching The Dark Knight Prologue to the IMAX release of I am Legend late last year. Those first six minutes served as an introduction to the Joker and calmed many nerves. The ensuing hoopla with additional trailer footage further built up the anticipation.
Unfortunately, Ledger never got to enjoy the rewards of his efforts. Ledger's death in January spotlighted the actor's immersive approach to acting. He had previously commented in interviews that the Joker was a tough character to shake; that coupled with an intercontinental lifestyle as he traveled between New York and London while working on Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, led to an untimely death due to an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.
Heath Ledger as the Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.
As Pfister observed Ledger on set, he saw a young talent who was a natural-born artist.
"Heath was a lovely guy," Pfister said. "He was not only a brilliant actor and great artist, but was just a lovely kid, too. And I call him 'a kid,' he was 28 years old, compared to me – you know - he was still 20 years younger than me so I guess I've 'earned the right' to say that. But Heath had phenomenal creative energy, and he brought it to the set and his fast, quick, quick mind and quick way of processing things. And I think the real sad thing about it is, you know, Heath maybe in 10 years could've won the Academy Award as a director. He was heading toward directing."
Ledger showed Pfister and Nolan some of his directorial work, which took the form of a couple short films, some commercials, music videos, and even a piece of animation.
"We were really blown away by how good the work was, and how creative and interesting," Pfister said. "I know he would've made a phenomenal commercial director. He had it, man, he was an artist. He was a consummate artist across the board and I think he was capable of anything artistically."
Following Ledger's death, Nolan wrote a sweet, touching memorial that appeared in the Feb. 4, 2008, issue of Newsweek.
In the article, entitled "Charisma as Natural as Gravity," Nolan wrote, "One night, as I'm standing on LaSalle Street in Chicago, trying to line up a shot for The Dark Knight, a production assistant skateboards into my line of sight. Silently, I curse the moment that Heath first skated onto our set in full character makeup. I'd fretted about the reaction of Batman fans to a skateboarding Joker, but the actual result was a proliferation of skateboards among the younger crew members. If you'd asked those kids why they had chosen to bring their boards to work, they would have answered honestly that they didn't know. That's real charisma – as invisible and natural as gravity. That's what Heath had."
He then goes on to explain, "I made him an offer – knowing he wouldn't take me up on it – that he should feel free to come by the set when he had a night off so he could see what we were up to."
Ledger did take Nolan up on the offer and Pfister could see Ledger gathering quite a bit of value out of such a visit.
"The reason, I think, that Heath was showing up on set with a skateboard is because he knew that Chris Nolan was a master and I think he wanted to observe and I think he wanted to watch him work," Pfister said. "I think it was more than just kind of wanting to hang out, I think he wanted to watch the master at work when he's not behind the camera and concentrating on his performance. He wanted to sit back and observe, because Chris Nolan is a master.
"For my money, and I know I'm biased, I think this man is the next Orson Welles, the next Stanley Kubrick. I really believe if you look at the body of work, if you look at Memento, Insomnia, Prestige, Batman Begins, and Dark Knight, and Following, you look at this body of six films from a man who's 37 years old, I think you're looking at a genius. And I think it's time that people recognize that. We just screened Insomnia and I forgot how phenomenally crafted that movie is.
"I was so blown away by that film again, it was shocking. Once again, as Nolan will do, it's got so much depth to it. There's layers beneath the layers."