Six astonishing films. Six key collaborators. Six exclusive essays. An intimate insight into an enigmatic genius. In this, our last essay, Jonathan Nolan tells us about his relationship with his older brother and the delicate writing process required to bring the likes of The Joker and Bats to life.
"Chris has a plan. Chris is going to make a movie. He’s nine years old, shooting with our dad’s super 8 in our house in Evanston, Illinois. It’s a stop-motion science-fiction spectacular, starring his buddies from the neighborhood. I want to help out, but it’s not going to happen — I’m only three.
"I’m small, but I’ve been hanging around long enough to learn a secret: when they hit that shutter, it’s indelible. Forever. I wait. Jump in front of the camera, waving my hands. I can see my brother frown behind the viewfinder — what’s that little asshole doing in the frame?
"This is our first collaboration.
|For my 13th birthday, Chris buys me a copy of The Dark Knight Returns.|
"A few years — and films — later, Chris has another plan. He’s going to try to dust off the Batman franchise, working from a script he’s written with David Goyer. Do I want to come along for the ride? I spend the next six months in a hotel room in Surrey, trying to think like a ninja.
"I watch Batman Begins’ opening night at Grauman’s Chinese with a sell-out crowd. I’m nervous as hell. Will it work? Gordon flips over the Joker card at the end and the audience erupts like they’re going to tear the place apart. I’ve never heard a noise like it.
"The studio calls. The movie played. Is there more? Is there anything left to say?
"Sure. Why not? Chris has a plan.
"They’ve got the story mapped out in cue cards in Chris’ garage. Chris walks me through it. The cards get sparser towards the end, but the last one’s a doozy: our hero is on the run.
"So are we. Writing with Chris is writing at speed — on taxis, jumbo jets, boats, trams. London, LA, Chicago, Hong Kong. Chris has tech scouts, meetings with actors. I tag along. We figure out the script on the way — one long transcontinental argument, batting ideas back and forth. Bruce Wayne would be proud.
"Everywhere we go, Chris is met by department heads with a million questions. He makes decisions on the fly — costumes, sets, shooting schedules. We’re in a warehouse as one of the stunt drivers does donuts in a naked batmobile chassis, massive tyres squealing as I try to shout questions about the third act over the noise.
"Chicago, again. Chris has to climb up half the buildings in town to find one that Batman can stand on, looking purposeful. Back in the hotel, I start to set up my printer. I can’t. A massive candy sculpture commissioned by the hotel occupies the entire desk — a chocolate film reel projecting a sugary image of my brother, directing a scene. I give Chris a hard time about it for days.
"The script comes out in a flood. We have the benefit of working on the shoulders of 70 years of great writers, all thinking about the same character. It’s like writing with a posse. Bruce, Alfred, Lucius and Gordon are easy, now, like old friends. The Joker is new territory, but he turns out to be the easiest character to write. Maybe I should see a shrink. Then I remember Chris making me watch Fritz Lang’s take on Dr. Mabuse all those years ago. I fight the feeling that he’s been planning this project since we were kids.
"Back to LA. Chris’ garage is filling with models of an evil-looking motorcycle. I keep writing on the Warner lot. There’s a bust of Batman behind my desk; Batman T-shirts in the coffee shop; a 40-foot Batman mural over my parking space. They all glower: ‘Don’t screw this up.’
"Then, just like that, I’m done. Off the merry-go-round. The script is complete. They start shooting in Chicago. I call to check in. What’s Heath doing with the role? They can’t describe it — it’s the way he moves, and this voice he’s using. What’s it like? High? Low? They can’t describe it — it’s just amazing.
"I take a quick trip out to set. I get a laugh, back on the streets we spent time on as kids, watching Chris working his crew like some mad conductor, with helicopters and trucks and machine-guns instead of instruments. He looks like he’s been doing this all his life. Because he has.
"They wrap. I fly the first five minutes out to New York for a sneak preview — IMAX reel in the overhead bin, each frame as big as a postcard. Six hundred kids are lined up outside the theater, faces painted. They look like an army. It feels like something huge is lumbering towards us, some tectonic shift.
"By the time the movie comes out it’s been an exhausting ride, exhilarating and heartbreaking in equal measure. I’m not sure if any of us knows what will happen next. The studio winds it up, and sets it loose. It tears out across the countryside like Godzilla. Opening night, I watch 14 screens fill to capacity for a midnight showing at the Arclight in Hollywood. It seems like everyone is watching this movie, all at once — except for us. Warner can’t find us tickets anywhere in Los Angeles county.
"Chris isn’t there — he and Emma are on the road, of course. Japan? Chicago? I hope they found them a ticket, wherever they are. I sit at the bar and watch people line up to watch a two-and-a-half-hour-long, pitch-black comic-book movie. Then I hoist a drink to my brother, to whom, apparently, someone forgot to explain the word ‘compromise’.
"Six months later things finally calm down. The magazines and the movie fans chase off in search of new horizons. The rollercoaster pulls up to a halt. Time to get off. The studio calls. Is there more? Is there something left to say?
"Yes. Yes there is. Chris has a plan."
This article first appeared in issue 253 of Empire Magazine. Subscribe today.