INCEPTION – BEHIND THE SCENES
BEHIND THE SCENES
Director/writer/producer Christopher Nolan reveals that he began creating the world of “Inception” almost a decade before he made the movie. “About ten years ago, I became fascinated with the subject of dreams, about the relationship of our waking life to our dreaming life. I’ve always found it to be an interesting paradox that everything within a dream–whether frightening, or happy, or fantastic–is being produced by your own mind as it happens, and what that says about the potential of the imagination is quite extraordinary. I started thinking how that could be applied to a grand-scale action movie with a very human dimension.”
“Inception” hinges on the premise that it is possible to share dreams…dreams that have been designed to look and feel completely real while you’re in them. And in that subconscious state, a person’s deepest and most valuable secrets are there for the taking. Nolan elaborates, “At the heart of the movie is the notion that an idea is indeed the most resilient and powerful parasite. A trace of it will always be there in your mind…somewhere. The thought that someone could master the ability to invade your dream space, in a very physical sense, and steal an idea–no matter how private–is compelling.”
Producer Emma Thomas agrees, noting that the film had to maintain that balance between a thrill ride and an emotional journey. “It has elements of a heist movie, but one set in a more fantastical framework. It has huge action sequences, but it also has characters you truly care about, and there is a real emotional driving force throughout the movie.”
That driving force is largely embodied in the central character of Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. “In essence, that’s what was immediately engaging to me about the script,” says the actor. “It is this highly entertaining, complex thriller where anything can happen, but at the heart is one man’s quest to uncover a long-buried truth and to get back home. It’s also completely original; I don’t think anyone could say they’ve experienced anything like it before. That combination made me excited about working on the project, as well as with Chris Nolan. He is an expert at taking this kind of multi-layered storyline and making it true and tangible to an audience.”
Thomas comments, “Chris has learned a lot over the years in terms of making big movies, and a lot of those things have come into play here. But this film is something very fresh and very different and also quite personal. It gave him a completely clean and pure canvas on which to work.”
Nolan asserts that the central theme of the story is both personal and universal “because we all dream. We all experience the phenomenon of our minds creating a world and living in that world at the exact same time. There is also an incredible contrast in the world of dreams–they are so intimate and yet they have infinite possibilities in terms of what we can imagine. So the challenge was to blend the intimacy and emotion of what might take place in a dream with the massive scope of what our brains can conceive of. I wanted to create a film that would allow the audience to experience the limitless realities that only in dreams can we realize.”
“We knew the production of ‘Inception’ was going to have to be big because of the subject matter–you can do anything in a dream,” adds Thomas. “In fact, the scope of this film is greater than anything we’ve done before, even just in terms of the number of countries in which we shot.”
Production on “Inception” circled the globe, with principal photography taking place in six countries, on four separate continents. Over the course of filming, the cast and crew experienced a number of extremes, braving the heat of Tangiers in Morocco and traversing the snows of Calgary, Canada. Shooting also took place in Tokyo, Paris and Los Angeles, where the effects team generated a driving rain for a multi-vehicle action sequence, complete with a freight train plowing down the middle of the street.
Nolan also returned to the cavernous converted airship hangars at Cardington in England, where he previously filmed sequences for both “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight.” Although the actors were not subject to the elements while shooting interiors at Cardington, their equilibrium was challenged by gravity-defying sets that were designed to revolve a full 360 degrees, and another set constructed on a giant gimbal that put everything and everyone on “tilt.”
“To me, the material demanded a very large-scale approach,” Nolan attests. “That’s why we wound up shooting in six different countries, building enormous sets, and really pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved practically, as opposed to computer effects.
“It’s interesting because the human brain is often compared to a computer,” the director continues, “but the truth is that’s a very inadequate analogy because the brain is capable of more than we’ll ever know. For a filmmaker, that made it an ideal world to be delving into because there are no rules for what the mind can create, and a movie exploring that had to be the grandest form of entertainment.”
Assemble your team, Mr. Cobb.
And choose your people…wisely.
In addition to filming all over the world, “Inception” features an international ensemble cast, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Tom Berenger and Dileep Rao, who were all working with Nolan for the first time, as well as Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy and Michael Caine, who were reunited with the director.
Thomas observes, “The movie has some great roles, and the actors really responded to the material, which made the casting process very smooth. We felt very lucky to have such a remarkable level of talent. I think the actors were also inspired by the rest of the cast; they wanted to work together and be a part of it.”
They also wanted to work with Christopher Nolan.
Ellen Page affirms, “I am such a fan of Chris’s, so the idea of being a part of this film was very exciting. And I was blown away by the script; it was like nothing I had ever read. I completely disappeared into it, and when I finished, I was literally sweating. It was so conceptually original and so incredibly moving, with a powerful emotional spine that one can really connect to. It was phenomenal to work with a filmmaker who is able to create entire worlds, things you’ve never seen before, in such an amazing way.”
Ken Watanabe, who previously teamed with Nolan on “Batman Begins,” recalls, “When Chris called and asked me to join him, it was easy to say yes, because it was a wonderful opportunity to work with a director I loved working with before. And after I read it, I was even more pleased. So my heart and my head told me I definitely had to do this movie.”
“I was very excited by the script, and then when Chris told me the other actors involved, I knew it couldn’t get any better,” says Cillian Murphy, who was in both “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” “I think Chris’s films are intelligent and hugely entertaining, and this one fits that bill beautifully.”
“His mind is so rich,” Marion Cotillard says, “and that’s one reason Chris is such an extraordinary director and writer. On a movie as imaginative as this, you need a director you can trust–someone to take your hand and share his vision–and I trusted him 100 percent. He really inspired me and gave me the keys I needed.”
“Chris is an extremely talented filmmaker,” DiCaprio states, adding, “I also appreciated getting to collaborate so closely with such an unbelievable cast. We had lengthy conversations about our characters, and their individual histories and relationships. And Chris definitely encouraged that; he wanted every actor, no matter how big or small the part, to have a real sense of our characters and to bring something to the table to make them our own.”
Nolan offers, “It was fascinating to watch the actors evolve as a group, very much the way the characters do in the story. It really brought a richness to their scenes together. As a writer, you hope for that kind of chemistry, but it’s not until you get on the set that you see the cast bring out their characters’ idiosyncrasies and interesting inter-relationships. That’s a vital part of any movie, especially a heist movie, and I think these actors really delivered that.
“The film follows a team of very different people, each with singular skills, who are brought together to accomplish a very special task,” Nolan continues. “If any one of them fails, it can spell disaster, so each individual is integral to their success. And we understand everything they’re going through because we are on that journey with them.”
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dom Cobb, a master in the art of extraction. The actor notes, “Cobb has achieved a level of expertise that has made him very well known in the underground black market of individuals who are able to infiltrate people’s minds and extract information.”
“At the beginning of the film,” Nolan says, “we learn that Cobb is the best extractor in the game. He is hired by corporations to steal secrets they would otherwise never have access to. It’s all based on the persistence of an idea, the notion that any concept will stay fixed in the subconscious. It’s impossible to unlearn something, and that forms the basis for what an extractor is able to do in terms of retrieving information.”
The way extraction works is through a process called dream sharing–manufacturing the world of the dream and bringing the subject into that world, which feels completely real as long as they are in it.
But Cobb’s rare skills have also resulted in him being a wanted fugitive who can never go home. Thomas shares, “From the start, we know he is a man with a past that makes it impossible for him to go back to America. But his kids are there and that motivates him more than anything else. He’s willing to take any risk in his work if it means he can get home to what he loves most.”
For that reason, DiCaprio says that the approach he and Nolan took was that “no matter how surreal the dream state, everything needed to be grounded in our connection with the character; everything had to be emotionally charged. From Cobb’s standpoint there is something very real at stake, so all of his choices, his reactions, and how he deals with the people he’s working with is a means to one end: getting back his life.”
Nolan expounds, “Working with Leo early on, we really delved into the emotional life of his character. It was very important to him that that be the guiding thread of the story, and with it he is able to draw the audience through the complex story in a very clear fashion. That’s what great actors are able to bring to a project, and Leo made a massive contribution to the film. I think he is one of our finest actors and his performance in the film is extraordinary.”
Cobb’s longtime and most trusted colleague is Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. While Cobb is the master planner, Arthur takes care of the details. Gordon-Levitt asserts, “Arthur is the organized one, the one making sure everything is in its right place. The way I see it, Cobb is the artist and Arthur is the producer. He’s the one saying, ‘Okay, you have your vision; now I’m going to figure out how to make all the nuts and bolts work so you can do your thing.’ But as fastidious and professional as he is, Arthur didn’t want to apply his organizational skills to being a lawyer or doctor or any of the things he could have been because sharing dreams is fascinating. It’s not just a job for him. I think the technology of dream sharing is something that has inspired him since he first heard about it so, ultimately, it’s not the money he’s doing it for. He wouldn’t risk his life for a good paycheck. He loves it.”
Gordon-Levitt discloses that his character’s fascination with dreams is something they had in common. “I consider myself a creative person and dreams are where we’re all artists. Everything you do in a dream–everything you see, everything you hear, everyone you talk to–is your creation. That’s evidence of how powerful the creative mind could be if we were to let it, so it intrigued me to do a movie about dreams. You could call it a heist film, but I think of it more as a con artist film. I think of our characters as gentlemen thieves, and I identify with them because they are artists, or actors. They’re lying for a living…not just lying but manufacturing truth. They’re creating reality, and that’s what I do, too,” he smiles.
“Joe is a tremendous actor to work with–very charismatic, extremely dedicated, and also physically adept,” Nolan says. “He is a performer who doesn’t just find the internal life of the character but also projects the physical expression of that through his movements and expressions. And that’s good because there was definitely a very physical component to playing Arthur.”
To manufacture the world of the dream, one of the most vital members of the team is the architect. Ellen Page portrays Ariadne, a brilliant student of architecture, who is approached by Cobb for a job, which, Page concedes, “isn’t necessarily legal, but she is propelled by an intellectual curiosity that makes her unable to pull herself away from such a unique opportunity.”
That opportunity is to design and build places that could not exist in reality. Page offers, “When Cobb brings Ariadne into his world, so to speak, she immediately displays a natural ability to think outside the box and broaden her mind enough to facilitate what he’s trying to accomplish. She ends up becoming even more involved in the job as she discovers what’s really going on with Cobb and learns about things he can’t control. But, despite the fears that arise, she wants to try and help him in order for the team to succeed.”
Nolan relates, “In writing the script for ‘Inception,’ it was very important to me that there be a conduit for the audience–a character who is being shown this world for the first time and is eager to explore it. That’s how the character of Ariadne was born. It was also very important for the audience to see Cobb through Ariadne’s eyes and get to the core of that character. And when I met with Ellen, she had the perfect combination of freshness and savvy and maturity beyond her years. She is an extraordinary performer with incredible creativity and an innate curiosity of her own and, therefore, naturally infused Ariadne with those qualities. Ellen was able to balance the emotional life of her character with the need for Ariadne to bring the audience in and show them the truth.”
Page says, “I was excited that Chris had written an awesome role for a young woman who is intelligent and comfortable in her own skin. She is thrust into this completely new environment and unusual situation and deals with it very eloquently. She can very much hold her own, especially in a group that’s a bit of a boys’ club,” she laughs.
Unlike Ariadne, Eames is an old hand at dream sharing and has some history with Cobb, whether as allies or possibly even competitors. Tom Hardy plays the role of Eames, who, he notes, possesses surprising skills as a forger…and not just on paper. “In the dream world, Eames can project the image of anyone, so he’s actually forging an identity in a physical manifestation and can convince another person that he’s whomever the team needs him to be in order to aid their deception. What’s especially interesting for me about these characters is the idea of the antihero, the fact that what they are doing could be considered dishonorable, but you still root for them. That’s nice because it’s not just black and white; we have a lot of gray area to play in.”
Nolan says that, like his character, Hardy is something of a chameleon. “Tom is an actor who can absolutely jump into the skin of a character and inhabit a role, and he did that very effectively with Eames. He saw the potential of the character right away and brought a wonderfully cheeky quality to his performance, which I was delighted to see come through.”
Emma Thomas adds that there was also some comic relief in the banter played out by Hardy and Gordon-Levitt. “There is a fun dynamic between Eames and Arthur in the movie. Clearly, they have a rivalry that dates back before our story begins, but they also have a grudging admiration, even if they’d never admit it. They are a pretty funny duo to watch as the heist unfolds.”
Mal, played by Marion Cotillard, is the love of Cobb’s life. “Mal is a tricky one to describe because she is a mix of so many things,” the actress says cryptically. “But maybe it’s the kind of thing you don’t describe because different people can have different interpretations.”
“Mal is the essence of the femme fatale,” states Nolan. “Marion brought an exceptionally haunting quality to her performance. What she was able to do with just her eyes and her emotional openness is quite beautiful. And she and Leo together portray an incredibly moving couple. Underneath all of the action, I think ‘Inception’ is very much founded on a love story, and these two actors found the truth of that in a most remarkable way.”
“Leo is such a gifted actor. I have always been a great fan of his work, so it was amazing to work with him,” Cotillard says. “His commitment is total and his intensity is unlimited. You can see it in his eyes. When you share a scene with him, you can trust everything he does because he’s so authentic.”
DiCaprio has equal praise for his co-star. “It was wonderful to act alongside Marion. She can be strong and vulnerable and hopeful and heartbreaking all in the same moment, which was perfect for all the contradictions of her character.”
Ken Watanabe portrays the role of Saito, a rich and powerful business magnate, who offers Cobb a very special job with a promise of payment more valuable than money. Simply put, if Cobb can give Saito what he wants, Saito will get Cobb home. There is only one condition: Saito wants to accompany Cobb’s team on the job to be sure he gets what he’s paying for. Thomas says, “We refer to him as ‘the tourist’ because he has no expertise, but uses his financial influence to join the group.”
Watanabe observes, “At first, it’s only a business relationship, but as the story continues, Saito and Cobb develop an understanding and a respect. They need each other.”
Nolan says that he created the role of Saito with Watanabe in mind. “I wrote the part specifically for Ken because I wanted to work with him again. I enjoyed directing him so much on ‘Batman Begins,’ but his role was smaller and we didn’t have a lot of time together. This time I made sure he had a bigger part. Ken is an extremely charismatic performer, a true movie star. He is a consummate actor who knows how to get the most out of every scene. It’s just a pleasure to watch him work.”
The target of Saito’s business proposition is Robert Fischer, who is about to inherit control of his dying father’s multibillion-dollar empire. Cillian Murphy, who plays the part of Fischer, points out, “Despite his vast wealth, Robert is riddled with all sorts of insecurities, as one might expect of someone who has lived his entire life in the shadow of a hugely powerful individual. It doesn’t help that he has a very strained relationship with his father. So here you have a person who is about to inherit the world and is lacking for nothing except, perhaps, the thing he wants most: a proper relationship with his father.”
Thomas comments, “We were so happy to work with Cillian again. He’s a fantastic actor and he brought so much to his role. I think the character of Robert Fischer is especially interesting, because in a heist movie the mark isn’t always so multifaceted. But Robert becomes a very large part of the story’s emotional heart and a great deal of that is found in Cillian’s performance.”
One of the keys to carrying out Cobb’s operation is the use of a drug compound that enables multiple people to share different dream states. Dileep Rao appears as a chemist named Yusuf whom the actor describes as “an avant-garde pharmacologist, who is a resource for people, like Cobb, who want to do this work unsupervised, unregistered and unapproved of by anyone. Yusuf obviously has a monetary interest in helping Cobb, but he is also motivated by a burning curiosity. He has been experimenting with this stuff for so long and now he wants to see what it’s like.”
“The role of the chemist was particularly tough because you don’t want him to seem like some kind of drug dealer. He’s absolutely not,” says co-producer Jordan Goldberg. “He’s someone who is committed to the art of dream sharing and making it work in ways it hasn’t before. We needed Yusuf to be funny and interesting and obviously smart, and Dileep is all of those things.”
Completing the main cast of “Inception” is a trio of veteran actors who each play something of a paternal role to two of the characters. Pete Postlethwaite is seen as Robert’s dying father, Maurice Fischer, while Tom Berenger takes on the part of Peter Browning, who is Maurice’s longtime legal counsel, as well as Robert’s godfather. In fact, Berenger calls Browning more of a “surrogate father” to Robert, emphasizing, “Robert even calls my character ‘Uncle Peter’ because Browning has been with him his whole life and has probably spent more quality time with him than his own father.”
Michael Caine appears as Cobb’s father-in-law, Miles, who played a pivotal role in the younger man’s life. “Miles is a professor who taught Cobb about dream sharing,” Caine reveals. “Cobb ended up going against his advice and Miles doesn’t necessarily approve of what he’s done with that knowledge. But he still cares about him and worries about him all the time.”
Despite his disapproval, Miles also introduces Cobb to his most promising student, Ariadne. “He wants to help Cobb come home,” says Caine, “so, being a great judge of character, Miles makes an educated guess that she is the right one for the job and hopes for the best.”
Caine counts ‘Inception’ as his fourth film with Nolan, following “Batman Begins,” “The Prestige” and “The Dark Knight.” Nolan says, “It’s always good to have Sir Michael Caine in your film, and he was gracious enough to do this role for us. It’s a joy to have him on set.”
“As Michael says, he is our good luck charm,” Thomas smiles. “I don’t think we could make a film without him at this point.”
Behind the camera, Nolan assembled a group of artists and artisans to help him realize his vision of “Inception,” a process he suggests is not far removed from the work of Cobb and his team. “There are definite similarities between the way these characters create an entire world for someone to exist in and the way that filmmakers construct a reality for an audience,” the director asserts. “So, just as the character of Cobb puts together this extraordinary team of people, I wanted to do that behind the scenes.”
The production of “Inception” reunited Nolan with several of his previous collaborators, including director of photography Wally Pfister, editor Lee Smith, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin, and stunt coordinator Tom Struthers. In addition, Nolan worked for the first time with production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas and costume designer Jeffrey Kurland.
Notwithstanding some of the more illusory sequences in the film, Nolan, as is one of his trademarks, called upon his entire crew to accomplish whatever was attainable in practical terms, keeping CGI effects to a minimum. “It’s always very important to me to do as much as possible in-camera, and then, if necessary, computer graphics are very useful to build on or enhance what you have achieved physically. Regardless of the fact that the story deals with different dream states, it is crucial that, at every level, the world feels concrete because when we are in a dream, we accept it as reality. So whether we were filming a ski chase down a mountain, or going underwater, or simulating zero gravity, I always wanted to go to the absolute limit of what was possible to shoot,” the director states.
Not to say that the visual effects department wasn’t critical to the production. Nolan affirms, “I was confident that Chris Corbould and his special effects unit could figure out a way to run a train down the middle of the road in Los Angeles, but I knew it wasn’t feasible to fold a Paris street onto itself without the help of Paul Franklin’s group.
“I love watching my team react with a little bit of panic when I first present them with what I’m thinking,” Nolan admits, laughing. “But it’s astounding to watch the various departments break it down and then come up with inventive approaches to get it done. And at every stage of ‘Inception,’ everyone delivered in extraordinary ways.”
“Even when they feign horror,” Thomas teases, “I think they all truly enjoy solving whatever problem Chris throws at them, but they also appreciate that he is challenging himself along with them and he’ll be right with them in the thick of things.”
Further augmenting the sense of realism, a large portion of the film’s principal photography was completed on location. “It is vital that, even when the characters are in a dream landscape, it doesn’t feel like they are in a computer-generated world,” says executive producer Chris Brigham, who served as the on-set line producer. “I think it adds so much texture and believability to the storytelling that the action is taking place in real surroundings.”
Filming on “Inception” took the cast and crew from a skyscraper in Tokyo to a mountain in Calgary, from the exotic roads of Tangiers to the picturesque streets of Paris, and from historic London to modern Los Angeles.
Thomas says that, as beneficial as it was, “having such a global footprint was one of our biggest challenges. Traveling to six different countries meant we also had to have different production crews in each place. It went great, but it was daunting.”
A single idea from the human mind
can build cities. An idea can transform
the world and rewrite all the rules.
The earliest filming was done in Tokyo, where Saito makes his unusual business proposition to Cobb and Arthur, setting the story in motion. Opening on a skyscraper heliport, the scene transitions to aerial shots from Saito’s helicopter. Although that seemed fairly straightforward, Brigham contends, “It was actually somewhat complicated because Tokyo has very strict rules about where and how high helicopters can go. But it helped that we had a lot of cooperation from the local officials, who were terrific.”
“Chris has wanted to film in Tokyo for a long time so we appreciated the opportunity,” says Thomas. “We love the city; it’s such a sprawling, vibrant place and Chris really wanted to capture that on film.”
Production then moved to one of Nolan’s favorite bases of operation: Cardington, a converted airship hangar, north of London. There, the mammoth stage could accommodate the sizeable yet intricate sets that would test everyone’s perception of up, down and sideways.
One of the most complicated sets was a long hotel corridor that was able to rotate a full 360 degrees to create the effect of zero gravity. Designing and building it required a partnership between production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, and cinematographer Wally Pfister.
The filmmakers originally envisioned the hallway at 40-feet long, but as the plan of action grew, so did the set’s length, ending up at 100 feet. The corridor was suspended along eight massive concentric rings that were spaced equidistantly outside its walls and powered by two giant electric motors. “I’ve built revolving sets before,” Corbould offers, “but nothing as big or as fast.” Once the set was up and running–or rather turning–it could spin up to eight revolutions per minute.
Corbould also worked closely with Pfister to determine how to place cameras in the revolving set. “I prefer handheld cameras, but it turns out I couldn’t hold the camera while rolling upside down,” Pfister deadpans. “So Chris Corbould and Bob Hall, from my department, devised a way to mount a remote control camera on a plate that ran on a track underneath the floor.”
Since the entire length and breadth of the corridor were often going to be in camera range, Pfister could not have traditional movie lights hanging from the ceiling. Instead, he says, “We came up with a practical lighting scheme using sconces and pendant lights that were on dimmers, which gave me a lot of flexibility.”
Apart from the corridor, there was also a revolving hotel bedroom set, which had its own challenges. Corbould explains, “The room set was smaller lengthwise, but there were only two rings, so there was a lot more weight on each ring.”
In designing the inside of the hotel sets, Dyas and his department had to bear in mind that there would be actors and stunt people working along every surface. “It became very apparent to me that if we were going to be bouncing people around the set, it needed to be made of soft materials,” Dyas says. “Fortunately, there are contemporary hotels that use leather and fabric to dress the walls, so we incorporated those soft finishes with padding underneath. We also had to make sure that objects like door handles and light fixtures would break on impact so no one would be hurt.”
That was good news to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and members of the stunt team, who spent a good deal of time negotiating the dizzying set for a major action sequence. Prior to filming those scenes, Gordon-Levitt spent weeks in training and rehearsing the action with stunt coordinator Tom Struthers and his team. Struthers says, “Normally, we would have to use a double for this kind of work, because when a set is revolving like that it can throw you around like a washing machine and be pretty disorienting. But Joe was strong and flexible, and we trained him to develop his upper body and core muscles. He worked really hard and did exceptionally well.”
“I definitely got in better physical shape than I’ve ever been in my life,” Gordon-Levitt states. “I had to be fit enough to pull it off, and I also had to learn to keep my balance and carry out a fight scene while jumping from surface to surface. In order to get it done, I couldn’t think of the floor being the floor and the ceiling being the ceiling. I had to think of it like, ‘This is the ground. Okay, now this is the ground. And now, this is the ground.’ It was just that the ‘ground’ was always moving under me. That was the mind game I had to play to make it work. That was also the most fun because no one else was controlling me; it was up to me to keep my balance. But the wires were a different story,” he adds, referring to other gravity-defying shots.
There were actually two versions of the corridor set erected at Cardington: one that rotated; and a duplicate hallway that was built vertically, so that its length became its height, so to speak. Gordon-Levitt had to wear a harness and wire for the scenes done in the vertical corridor, as well as in the hotel room set where he had to maneuver in mid-air. “Gravity and I went head-to-head a lot in this movie,” the actor kids. “But I loved it. I got to fly, which–I don’t think I’m alone in saying–has always been a dream of mine.”
Nolan states, “I was delighted that Joe wanted to do it all on his own, once it became evident that his skill was such that he could do it safely. It was a huge advantage in fusing the action with the character because with every punch, every kick, every bit of action, it’s all Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur.”
“I think a big part of why Christopher Nolan is so successful is that he strikes a really encouraging balance between having everything thought out and being open to spontaneity,” Gordon-Levitt remarks. “I saw it every day when, in the midst of these gargantuan technical feats, he made sure to leave space for the actors to be creative and prioritize their performances.”
Simulating zero gravity also influenced the work of costume designer Jeffrey Kurland and his department. Kurland notes, “The clothes in those scenes could not be hanging down because, without gravity, they would be floating. We had to do things like wire shoelaces to make sure they were standing straight out and tack down the men’s ties so they didn’t flop around at random.”
Like the vertical corridor, the set for the hotel’s elevator shaft also defied convention. Utilizing Cardington’s existing infrastructure, the crew built the elevator chute horizontally along one uninterrupted wall of the hangar. Pfister then oriented the camera so the elevator looks like it is moving up and down. To complete the illusion, the elevator cables had to be kept taut with absolutely no slack.
Putting everyone even more off-kilter, Corbould and Dyas masterminded a hotel bar set on a gigantic gimbal that enabled the entire room to tilt and then slowly right itself. Corbould says, “I’ve done many gimbal sets where you see everything shaking and it’s mayhem. This was quite different because as the whole rig was tilting, all you’re seeing are the angle of the drinks and the hanging lamps moving in unison. It really achieved the surreal effect Chris (Nolan) was looking for.”
Dyas adds, “It was quite a large structure to tilt fully. In simple terms, it was basically a seesaw controlled by two pistons that could be raised and lowered to get the platform to slant. I believe the entire set tilted to approximately 20 degrees, which doesn’t sound like much…until you try to stand on it.”
DiCaprio attests, “In the scene, Cillian and I had to carry on an intense conversation while the entire set was tilting. We had to hold on so we didn’t slide off, but we couldn’t react to it in the way you normally would; we just had to focus. It really does something to your perspective.”
In addition to filming at Cardington, the company also used several locations in and around London, including: the Flaxman Gallery at the University College London, where Miles introduces Cobb to Ariadne; the Victorian-era Farmiloe Building, where they created Yusuf’s pharmacy; and the modern steel and glass lobby of a former gaming company, where Arthur demonstrates the paradox of the Penrose steps to Ariadne. Dyas says, “We designed the staircase in the same style as the existing stairs in the facility, so it looks as if it was part of the background.”
Leaving England, the production relocated to France, where the scenes included a pivotal conversation between Cobb and Ariadne at a Paris bistro. The spot was actually a small bakery, which Dyas and the art department turned into a quaint sidewalk café. At a specific moment the entire area literally blows apart. Filming the explosion involved the close collaboration of Corbould, Pfister and Paul Franklin.
One obstacle was that the local authorities in Paris do not allow the use of actual explosives, no matter how controlled. Instead, Corbould’s department used high-pressure nitrogen to create the effect of a series of blasts that blow up the surrounding shops and stands and, finally, the café itself.
Corbould says, “We knew Leo and Ellen were going to be in the middle of the explosions, so we made everything out of very lightweight materials. Still, we did weeks of testing before I felt totally comfortable with it. And on the day we shot the scene, it was like the two of them were in their own safety zone; even the paper cup on their table didn’t move. It was a great shot.”
To ensure that they got the shot, Pfister’s team employed six cameras to capture the sequence from different angles. They also filmed it at the highest possible frame rate because, the cinematographer explains, “Chris Nolan wanted the explosions at the most extreme slow motion we could get, given the outdoor lighting–about 1,000 frames per second, more than 40 times the normal speed of 24 frames per second. In general, Chris has never been a fan of slow motion, but there are scenes in this film that demanded it.”
The super slow motion made the debris appear to momentarily hang in mid-air. Franklin’s visual effects department then augmented the sequence. “We painstakingly added more destruction and flying debris–in particular the bits of masonry, glass, and other objects that would have made it too dangerous for the people in and around the scene at the Paris location,” Franklin details.
Visual effects were also integral to completing other critical sequences where Ariadne begins to discover the infinite possibilities of building the world of the dream, including a scene on the banks of the River Seine where Ariadne recreates the landmark bridge called Pont du Bir-Hakeim.
By far, the most exotic milieu for the “Inception” cast and crew was Tangiers, Morocco. The coastal city doubled for Mombassa, where Cobb tracks down the best forger in the business, Eames, who, in turn, introduces Cobb to the pioneering chemist named Yusuf.
The “Inception” cast and crew arrived in Tangiers in early August, when the first thing that confronted them was the unrelenting summer heat. Nevertheless, Chris Brigham comments, “The great thing about Morocco is that there have been a number of big films shot there, and they have a talented local crew. Any time you are on location where they have experience with large productions and the people are comfortable having filming going on around them, it’s a big advantage.”
“Morocco is very inspiring from a visual standpoint,” adds Pfister. “The architecture is so completely different, with wonderful streets and corridors that gave us a fantastic canvas to play with. It really is a feast for the eyes.”
Nolan says he has reason to trust the cinematographer’s instincts. “I’ve worked with Wally on a number of films now, and he has an extraordinary eye. He is also always motivated by the concerns of the story and not just the look of the film. That makes him a tremendous creative ally in determining how we progress from one shot to the next to advance the audiences’ immersion in the world of the film.”
One progression–a pulse-pounding foot chase–was shot along the narrow streets and alleyways of Tangiers’ historic Grand Souk. Jordan Goldberg relates, “Cobb is trying to get away from people who are trying to catch or maybe kill him. It was probably a hundred degrees that day and, take after take, Leo was running full tilt. He committed himself completely and made it feel incredibly real.”
To capture the pursuit, Pfister says that he and Nolan engaged in what he calls “a kind of guerilla filmmaking. Chris loves that style of shooting and so do I. There are certain scenes where it applies more than others, and the chase was definitely one, so we used a combination of methods: we jumped on the back of an ATV with a handheld camera and flew through the streets with Leo running behind the vehicle; we did a bit of Steadicam work; we had wide overhead shots; and I did some shooting on foot, running backwards with a camera on my shoulder trying to keep everything in frame.”
Among the other scenes filmed in Morocco was a riot that was shot in the middle of the main market of Tangiers. The uprising was staged in three sections, with a mix of stunt people, members of Chris Corbould’s effects unit, and many local extras. “They pretty much wrecked everything in sight, but it was all done safely and it looked perfect,” Struthers says.
Crossing the Atlantic, filming on “Inception” proceeded in the Los Angeles area, where some sets were constructed on a Warner Bros. soundstage, including the interior rooms of Saito’s Japanese-style castle. Perhaps the most striking set was the magnificent dining room with its golden-hued, patterned walls and its ceiling covered in dozens of lamps. Guy Hendrix Dyas notes, “The walls of the dining room are based on a theme of pines and hawks, which was inspired by the Nijō Castle, built around 1603. But the sets were not intended to be any kind of historical reproduction; they also include other types of Japanese architecture, as well as Western influences. They are an amalgamation of different styles to give more of a general sense of Japanese culture rather than anything specific.”
Another design element that was influenced by Japanese culture is the tuxedo Jeffrey Kurland created for Saito. Ken Watanabe says, “With the tuxedo, Jeffrey wanted to evoke the feeling of a Japanese kimono, so he combined Eastern and Western fashion in a very interesting way. All of the suits he made for me had a very beautiful silhouette.”
Thomas states, “Jeffrey Kurland did an amazing job with the costumes on this film. “Nothing came from the store; every item of clothing was designed as an extension of the particular character who wore it–from Arthur’s conservative, tailored suits and dress shoes to Eames’ more flashy wardrobe. I especially loved what Jeffrey did with Mal’s costumes, like the gorgeous, flowing gown we first see her in. She is the femme fatale and her wardrobe reflects that.”
The Japanese castle sets also included a dramatic two-level great room with a beamed ceiling, large picture windows, and solid wood staircases going up to the overlooking landings.
Corbould reflects, “It was a beautiful set. You know, I often feel sorry for production designers because they build these really fantastic sets…and, nine times out of ten, we end up destroying them,” he grins.
“That was our running joke,” Dyas replies. “My people go to great lengths to meticulously build these beautiful set pieces and then Chris comes in and blows everything up. He did it to us again in Calgary…but he does it so well, how can I complain?”
True to form, Corbould’s team, including special effects coordinator Scott Fisher, rigged the castle set to collapse, culminating in torrents of water smashing through the picture windows. To flood the set, they used pressurized water jets, 12 on each side. Corbould explains, “We triggered them sequentially so we had a progression of water coming from the back of the room to the front.”
The special effects group produced another kind of downpour for a thrilling multi-vehicle car chase staged on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. To generate the drenching rain, the team rigged spray heads from the tops of the surrounding buildings. “It was definitely more than a drizzle,” Corbould says. “Everybody on the set was getting soaked all day long, including Chris, who was right there in the middle of it. He set the example for the whole crew.”
Emma Thomas attests, “Chris’s philosophy is that if he’s asking the actors and crew to do something, he should have to do it, too.”
The main problem with filming the rainstorm in Los Angeles was that it was typically sunny without a cloud in the sky, which posed certain lighting issues. “After weeks of praying for it to be overcast,” Pfister jokes, “I finally gave up on that and started doing my homework to figure out how to shoot around the sunlight. I had great help from my fantastic key grip, Ray Garcia, who actually plotted the course of the sun for that day and then–using cherry pickers and guys on rooftops–set up a series of black flags that acted as louvers to block out the sun as we moved. It was incredibly efficient.”
The rain was not the only incongruous thing in downtown Los Angeles that day. Nolan and his crew also brought a freight train down the middle of the street. The director says, “The sequence with the train was a particular element that was important to get right because it’s a surreal image, but you want it to feel real. So it was a question of balancing the peculiar nature of a train running down a city street with the reality of it smashing into cars and the like. It is the kind of grand scale physical effect that I think can take an action film to the next level and make it jaw-dropping for the audience. No matter how big the action is, it has to be based on things people can relate to. Then you just have to exaggerate it about a thousand times,” he laughs.
Being miles from the nearest train tracks, it was obviously not feasible to drive an actual train down the street, so Tom Struthers came up with the idea of configuring a train engine on the chassis of a tractor trailer. However, the largest wheelbase they could find was still too short. Picture car coordinator Tyler Gaisford says, “We stretched the frame and drive train and then added a steel decking and bolstered the suspension to hold the extra weight, which ended up being about 25,000 pounds.”
The train was crafted as a replica of an actual freight train. Dyas says, “Parts of our train were manufactured from fiberglass molds taken from real train parts so that everything had the correct look and texture. Then it had to be matched in terms of color and design.”
Building the train was one thing, driving it was quite another. Gaisford clarifies, “Any time you have a vehicle that’s 60 feet long, about 10 feet wide and 14 feet tall, you’re going to have problems with handling, and the turning radius was notably absent. Also the driver had very little visibility because we built the structure around the cab, so we ended up putting little screens inside and we had cameras, front and back and on either side, which the driver could use to navigate.”
That driver was Jim Wilkey, the same person who drove the truck that did the famous flip in “The Dark Knight.” “He’s just the best,” Struthers puts it simply.
Another, more traditional, vehicle that becomes a centerpiece of the story is a white van that carries the main cast through some harrowing action sequences. Gaisford specifies, “There were actually 13 vans used over the course of production, and a lot of work went into modifying each one, based on how we were utilizing it–whether for interior or exterior shots, underwater, or in the rollover scene.”
The van used for the rollover was mounted on a rig that allowed it to rotate with the actors strapped inside. Struthers reveals, “They all had five-point harnesses under their costumes, like a NASCAR driver, so it was safe and comfortable. And they were all very game: after one time around, they were all ready to go again.”
Ellen Page confirms, “All the stunts I got to do on this film were an absolute blast. I love that stuff. As we were filming, I kept thinking that I couldn’t wait to see it all come together because I think it’s going to be really exciting, and I hope people go and enjoy the ride as much as I did.”
One of the vans was also specially prepared to go under water. “We removed the engine, drive train, and all liquids, and then steam cleaned it inside and out to eliminate any contaminants because of environmental considerations,” says Gaither.
Other Los Angeles locations included a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, which became Cobb’s team’s Paris workshop; the water tank at Universal Studios; the harbor in San Pedro; and an area in Palos Verdes, where they built parts of the exterior of Saito’s castle.
Moving to Calgary, Canada, the final leg of principal photography took place on a mountain near Banff. The location manager had discovered a ski resort called Fortress Mountain, which had been closed down. The fact that it had accessibility but was not open to the public made it an ideal filming location.
The majestic mountains also provided a breathtaking landscape…in more ways than one. Dyas recalls, “During scouting, we sped around on snowmobiles and the air kept getting thinner and thinner. At one point, the guides told us, ‘You need to be seasoned skiers or mountaineers to go further up to the higher peaks.’ They didn’t know it, but that was like throwing gasoline on a fire,” he teases. “The moment the words left that guy’s lips, I thought, ‘Oh no. Why did you have to say that?’ Immediately, Chris was like Shackleton: ‘Right! Off to the next peak!’ It was hilarious. We went as high as we could go within the safety confines of Fortress Mountain, but it was important to Chris because he wanted that spectacular natural backdrop.”
Several months before filming on Fortress Mountain commenced, the crew began erecting an austere multi-level structure, which had the imposing appearance of an actual fortress. The frigid temperatures hampered the crew’s efforts because “the moment the paint left the tin, it was already frozen solid,” Dyas says. “They had to devise a kind of lean-to that allowed them to heat an area long enough to paint it. Then they kept moving it as they went.”
Because of the location constraints, it was also impossible to use conventional construction vehicles. Without access to heavy machinery, the crew had to build the entire structure almost entirely by hand. Additionally, despite its outward appearance, there was absolutely no concrete used to make the fortress. Instead, it was fabricated out of untreated spruce to ensure that there would not be any lasting impact on the environment.
Once the set was built, there was only one thing missing. Thomas shares, “About a week before we were leaving for Canada to film an enormous snow sequence, there was still no snow. Chris had come up with some contingency plans of what we might do if we didn’t have proper snow, but nothing would have been as good as the real thing. Then about two days before we arrived, it started to snow. So we felt very lucky. But be careful what you wish for because, from that moment on, it didn’t stop.”
In addition to the snow, high winds whipped across the terrain, sometimes causing whiteout conditions. Nevertheless, the filmmakers used the prevailing atmosphere to their advantage. Pfister states, “When there were adverse conditions, the only thing to do was to embrace them. We made it part of the photography.”
Nolan agrees, “It was unbelievably cold and we were often shooting in a virtual blizzard, but I think what that adds to a scene is incalculable. Just being out there in the real conditions adds veracity to everything you do.”
Many of the action sequences in Calgary were accomplished on skis, which meant the actors had to be able to navigate the slopes to some degree. Tom Hardy remembers, “Chris asked me if I could ski and, for a moment, I was tempted to say yes, as any actor would in the situation: ‘So, Tom, can you ride a horse? Absolutely. Can you fly a plane? Yes, certainly. Do you ski? Oh, professionally,'” he laughs. “But I didn’t say that, because I knew I couldn’t ski to save my life and I would be found out as soon as we hit the slopes.”
Nolan confirms, “Tom never actually told me he could ski. But when I asked him if he knew how to ski, there was that very telling long pause where you realize someone’s deciding whether or not to tell you if they can ski…which I took to mean no. However, he got up to Canada in advance of us and took some intensive skiing lessons. He wound up being pretty good, which was helpful on camera.”
The skiers on Tom Struthers’ stunt team all had to be advanced, so he assembled some of the best, including two extreme skiers. Struthers says, “I had one guy, Ian McIntosh, who makes his living skiing avalanches and doing hundred-foot jumps off of glaciers. He was unbelievable.”
Nolan and Pfister also relied on experts to shoot the downhill and cross-country action. The cinematographer recounts, “About 85 percent of what we shot in Calgary was done with handheld cameras. I did some of it, but I am an amateur skier so it was hard for me to conceive of even getting down those hills, much less doing it with a camera in my hands. We brought in Chris Patterson, who specializes in ski photography for movies and commercials. What he was able to do holding that camera amazed Chris and me. He delivered some spectacular footage.”
There was also striking footage taken from the air, with the aid of helicopter pilot Craig Hoskins and aerial director of photography Hans Bjerno. Both previously worked on Nolan’s “Insomnia,” “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight.” Pfister says, “Between the wind and the snow, they braved some tough conditions and did a phenomenal job.”
Nolan says, “I think we experienced a number of extremes, from burning sun to heavy rain to incredible snowfalls, and that’s something we were after in making this film. We took our actors to the top of mountains and under the water and all over the world, and they rose to every challenge marvelously. I am a great believer in getting out there on location and confronting an environment because it brings so much to the credibility of the action. And, at the end of the day, I think it adds something to the feeling the audience has of being taken someplace they haven’t been before.”
Leonardo DiCaprio relates, “For the actors, it was so intriguing that we were essentially experiencing all of this for the first time, just as the audience will be. As a group, we were on this epic journey and were in a constant state of discovery and surprise. I think that’s going to be one of the most exciting things about watching this movie–realizing that there are unlimited possibilities and you never truly know what could happen next.”
After the cold of Calgary, the filmmakers welcomed the warmer clime of Los Angeles, where Nolan reunited with his longtime editor, Lee Smith.
Smith notes, “Chris enjoys the process of editing and is very decisive about what he’s looking for. It also helps that he has a remarkable memory for everything he put on film, no matter how long they shot. His recall never ceases to amaze me.”
“I love working with Lee in the editing room,” says Nolan. “He’s a perfectionist–he gets excited about the finer details of putting the film together. He is also incredibly fast, which is a huge advantage to me, and he has an innate ability to look at a sequence and gauge whether it’s going to work for an audience.”
“There is so much raw footage on a movie like ‘Inception,’ I have to rely on my gut in determining what works,” Smith says. “My first instinct is usually the one we agree on. I find the less we analyze it, the better chance we have of getting to the heart of the story.”
Collaborating with Nolan for the third time, composer Hans Zimmer used music to get to the heart of “Inception.” Zimmer emphasizes, “My focus was constantly on the emotional world of the story because, even when all is said and done about the astounding visuals, I think that is one of the great strengths of the film.”
Nolan states, “I always want Hans to be inspired by the picture, but I also like to hear where his imagination would go in interpreting the ideas of the script. Based on that, we start finding interesting points of synchronization between the movie and the music.”
Zimmer says that his first conversations with the director were about the arrangements and the orchestrations. “We talked about wanting big waves of sound, which would require more brass than strings, so I put together a huge brass section. We recorded them separately because there was no way that strings would have survived the onslaught,” he smiles.
One of the string instruments that Zimmer did spotlight was the guitar, played by legendary musician Johnny Marr, the guitarist for the seminal band The Smiths. Zimmer acknowledges, “The idea of incorporating a guitar in the score can be a little tricky because guitar and orchestra don’t always gel. But I kept thinking of Johnny Marr, who has influenced a whole generation of guitarists. The great thing was that as soon as Johnny played the first few notes, it was exactly how I’d imagined it…only better. And that’s what you expect from a great artist.”
Another great artist who is heard in “Inception” is singer Edith Piaf, whose voice “serves a function beyond the score,” Zimmer says. “I love that Chris wrote Edith Piaf into the script because there is a timeless romantic quality to her voice.”
Nolan remarks, “One of the decisions I had to make early on was regarding our use of the Edith Piaf song. Due to the nature of its place in the story, should it be handled by the sound department or Hans? I decided to give it to Hans because the song was going to have to weave into the score at some point, and he is a genius at blending music and sound together–figuring out the balance between instruments and synthesizers and voices and sound effects. It’s very exciting.”
“The aim is for there to be a complete sonic world for the movie,” Zimmer adds. “The instruments should bleed into the sound effects and the sound effects should bleed into the music.”
“There are scenes in the film where the score and the sound design are literally indistinguishable,” Nolan affirms. “What you wind up with is something that connects the different layers of reality the movie presents between waking and dreaming.”
Emma Thomas reflects, “Working on this film has made me think very differently about dreams and it’s definitely made me wonder about what I’m dreaming and how it ties into my life.”
Nolan concludes, “Once you start examining what the dream experience might mean, it invites people to think about their own dreams and what they reveal. It raises interesting questions about how we assess the nature of our own reality.”