Back in 2010, Christopher Nolan was in that precarious position experienced by so many fine filmmakers: he had to follow up an instant classic. His previous film, The Dark Knight, was nothing short of a phenomenon. A box office titan and critical darling, the film was literally one for the ages: a big, bold tale of a city in crisis. Never mind its comic book origins, The Dark Knight is a city story every bit as mesmerising and thoughtful as Michael Mann’s Heat, John Sayles’ City Of Hope and Sidney Lumet’s Prince Of The City. It showed Christopher Nolan to be a director of prodigious and uncompromised brilliance, and a man who could push through daring subject matter despite working right inside the grinding gears of the Hollywood hit factory.
Rather than diving straight into another installment of his Batman franchise, Nolan instead chose to use his considerable industry power to reignite a project that had been gnawing away at him for nearly a decade. The film was Inception, a mind bending meld of sci-fi, thriller and post-modern philosophy. In short, this was a dream project for Nolan, and the director finally has the industry clout to start up this cinematic engine. “I first pitched the idea to Warner Bros. right after I shot [2002’s] Insomnia, so that would be about nine years ago,” Nolan told FilmInk in 2010. “They were interested and excited about it, but I ultimately decided that I wasn’t ready to finish writing it. I wanted to write it on my own, and then bring it back to them. I didn’t think that it would take nine more years though! I got busy in the meantime, and I wasn’t emotionally ready to finish the story. It’s a story that I’ve grown into a little bit, and Leo’s involvement has completed that process of finding the emotional importance of the story to me.”
Leo, of course, is Leonardo DiCaprio, who took on Inception’s lead role of Dom Cobb, a skilled thief, and the absolute best in the dangerous art of “extraction.” In the film’s recognisable but futuristic setting, a paradigm-shifting new technology allows Cobb to steal valuable secrets from his targets by burrowing deep into their subconscious during the dream state, when the mind is at its most vulnerable. Cobb’s rare ability has made him a coveted player in the cutthroat world of corporate espionage, a new frontier for white collar, piercingly intelligent criminals. Cobb’s criminal facility, however, has also made him an international fugitive and cost him everything that he has ever loved.
As the film unspools, Cobb is offered a chance at redemption. One last job could give him his life back, but only if he can accomplish the impossible: inception. Cobb and his team of specialists have to pull off the reverse of what they’re best at: their task is now not to steal an idea, but to plant one. It could be the perfect crime – and a big-time payroll – but there’s an enigmatic, dangerous enemy emerging on the edges of this precarious game of the mind. This adversary will throw the ordered and isolationist Dom Cobb into freefall, and put his team of specialists in danger.
With its brilliant cast (DiCaprio was backed by a typically impressive Nolan ensemble including Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Tom Berenger and then-rising-star Tom Hardy), trippy premise, stunning images of collapsing landscapes, inverted action, philosophical probing, hyper-stylised dream sequences, and diverse shooting locations (Tokyo, London, Paris, Tangiers, Calgary, Los Angeles), Inception was a provocative and ambitious affair, even after the epic vision that was The Dark Knight. It was also something else special: a big budget tentpole flick not based on pre-existing intellectual property. “I’ve been interested in dreams since I was a kid,” Nolan said in 2010. “I’ve always been compelled by the idea that your mind, when you’re asleep, can create a world that it perceives simultaneously: you’ve literally created a world in your dream, and you’re not aware that you have, and you perceive it as if it really exists. That, to me, has always been the most profound demonstration of the infinite potential of the human mind. I wanted to find a way to explore that through story, and through film. At some point, nine or ten years ago, I figured out how to approach it from the point of view of a heist movie. What if you could enter somebody’s dream, and somebody’s subconscious? How could you use it? What could you do with that idea? That was a fascinating way to address the question of what the relationship of objective reality is with our subjective view of the world. In the late nineties, there were a lot of films, particularly The Matrix, that were embracing that idea. The concept was a synthesis of a lot of different influences. The investigating of different realities was also something that we did very much with Memento.”
Since his 2000 breakout indie hit Memento, Nolan quickly established himself as a fascinatingly against-the-grain yet still devoutly commercial filmmaker, as titles like Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige and The Dark Knight wowed both critics and audiences. Nolan also displayed a predilection for deeply flawed protagonists, which continued with Inception. “I’ve always been interested in genres like film noir that deal with the imperfections of human beings,” the director said. “They take a character with a seemingly implacable façade, and then they find a crack, which they open up. That’s where a lot of great drama comes from. When I’m writing, and when I’m figuring out what I want to do with a film, I’m looking for those cracks. I’m looking for those interesting stress points for a character, because that’s what makes the film exciting.”
Wearing those cracks was Leonardo DiCaprio, who joined Guy Pearce, Al Pacino and Christian Bale in the ranks of Nolan’s cinematically tortured leading men. “I didn’t write specifically with any actors in mind,” the director said of his process for Inception. “I try not to do that because it can be a little limiting for the character. Leo is somebody that I’ve been trying to work with for years now though, and I finally managed to convince him with this one. He brought an incredible amount of emotional veracity and focus on the truthfulness of the life of the character and how that informs the story. He’s extremely demanding in that respect; for Leo, the script really has to support the emotional logic of the character. That has made Inception a much finer film than it would have been. It certainly made it a film that I feel extremely emotionally connected with. I’d always known that Leo was a great actor, but I was surprised as to how much he is absolutely driven and disciplined to relate everything to the quality of the performance and the piece – not just the character, but the whole story. That’s everything to him: making a fantastic movie. That’s all that he really cares about, and it’s very refreshing to work with somebody like that. He’s not at all motivated by: ‘How am I gonna appear to the audience as a movie star?’ He purely wants to explore the craft of acting and storytelling, so it’s very exciting to work with somebody like that.”
When FilmInk asked Nolan to compare DiCaprio with his other leading men, Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, the director smiled and refused to take the bait. “The truth is that with great actors, you can’t really compare them. They find what they’re doing in a completely different way. They’re all incredibly dedicated but, at the end of the day, they’re all extremely different performers. The only thing that they have in common – other than their talent and the fact that they’re hard workers – is that emotional truth that you feel from the character. I can feel it when I’m filming it, when I’m sitting by the camera and they’re four feet away and I’m absolutely convinced – even though there are lights everywhere and 200 crew members – that they are that character. They’re in that moment being that person. That’s the extraordinary gift of a great actor. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great actors.”
So, what is Nolan’s process in dealing with those actors? “Every director has a different approach, and discusses the craft of acting differently,” he replies. “I’m mystified by what actors do; I don’t understand what they do, which is why I’m fascinated by it and, to me, what Leonardo brings, for instance, is an emotional truth which I recognise. I don’t tend to analyse it in terms of, ‘How is that happening?’ I just try and experience it, and if I can feel it, then that’s working for me and that’s what winds up in the film.”
Those actors all have great respect for Christopher Nolan, even if most of them appeared to have a lot of trouble tuning into his wavelength on the incredibly complex Inception. “It was a bit like eating an elephant really,” Tom Hardy told FilmInk in 2010, describing his struggle to comprehend Nolan’s lofty concepts behind Inception. “I got through it bit by bit.” Hardy leaned forward, and lowered his voice. “I’m not going to lie to you,” he confided. “I had to read the script about thirty times. It was far too complex for me! I relied entirely on Chris to walk me through the whole thing. That relationship with Chris was vital and essential to know (a) what was going on at any given time, and (b) to isolate specific scenes, objective by objective. But after a while, it became part of the process. I’d go up to Chris and ask him what was going on, and then I’d get back to work and mingle. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire process, even though it was very complicated.”
Despite his struggles with the script, there was no way that Hardy (who, of course, reteamed with Nolan on The Dark Knight Rises and Dunkirk) was going to pass up a chance to work with the visionary director…to the point of almost lying to get the role. “When Chris called me, I was in Pittsburgh doing Warrior, a film about cage fighting,” Hardy said. “I was desperate to be in any other film with nice people who didn’t beat me up. And Chris said, ‘Tom, can you ski?’” Hardy mimiced in a spot-on impression of Nolan’s crisp British accent. “I went silent because I knew that if I didn’t answer this question correctly, I may never work with Chris Nolan again. Ever. I cannot ski to save my life! With that silence, I thought that honesty was the best policy. Right? At least I was honest, so if I threw it away and I didn’t get the job, it was okay. ‘No, I can’t ski,’ I thought. He goes, ‘All right then, fine.’ But then, when we were shooting, he says, ‘You lied to me! You said that you could ski!’ And I said, ‘I did not! I was silent!’ He goes, ‘And in that silence, I knew that was the silence of a man who’s considering telling me that he could ski.’ Which I was! But I did ski in the end, and it was all good.”
Describing Nolan’s creative process, Hardy was impressed. “He’s like the admiral of a fleet,” the actor enthuses. “He’s got this entire war going on, and in the meantime, he’s chatting to you about what happened last week on TV. It’s just an incredibly relaxed environment to work in, which is so unusual. It’s a very admirable quality, which I’ve never seen in anybody. For me, this was a one in a billion opportunity.”
French actress Marion Cotillard, who plays DiCaprio’s wife – who haunts and guides him through various dreamscapes – in Inception, was equally perplexed by the film. “When I read the script the first time, I had to read it two more times,” Cotillard admitted to FilmInk in 2010. “First of all, I’ve always been fascinated by the dream states, and I felt that it was something so unique. I knew before I read the script that it was a story that Chris had had in his mind for many years, and I just really wanted to be part of it. I was immediately obsessed with it.”
Despite picking up an Oscar for her extraordinary work as legendary French singer Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose, Cotillard still found her Inception role to be a difficult one. “How do you play someone who is so mysterious and who has so many layers? How do you play someone who has so many, I would say, people inside of her? When I was in the process of preparing for the movie, I had so many questions to ask Chris, and he gave me all the answers. Sometimes from one answer, I wouldn’t really understand, but then I realised that he’d had this world in him for such a long time. I just had to surrender to my desire to understand everything. I just had to be driven by him, because he had all the answers. Because he was so sure about all those answers, I told myself that maybe I didn’t need all the keys, and that actually built how I trusted him. It was very interesting, because when we were shooting, sometimes Chris would come with new scenes, and suddenly something that was not written in the script made sense. It was on one of my last days that he came up with a new scene, and suddenly it was as if he had given me a new key that made me understand what I didn’t understand, but without needing to understand.”
Even the man at the centre of the film, Leonardo DiCaprio, struggled – and still struggles – to put together the pieces of Inception, which perhaps hints at the film’s enduring enigmatic legacy. What happened? I have no idea,” DiCaprio said on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast early in 2020. “You’re just focused on your character, man. I do get involved [with the story], but when it came to Christopher Nolan and his mind and how Inception was all pieced together, everyone was trying to constantly put that puzzle together.”
And we still are…
Inception: 10 Year Anniversary is in cinemas August 20, 2020