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Christopher Nolan: Deconstructing Inception
Welcome to THE DIRECTORS SERIES PODCAST, a show dedicated to appreciating and deconstructing the work of contemporary and classic film directors. In the show, we breakdown the careers of film directors like Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, The Coen Brothers, and Paul Thomas Anderson just to name a few. From their early works and short films to their blockbuster achievements and Oscar glory.
THE BLOCKBUSTERS BEGIN is the second chapter of THE DIRECTORS SERIES’ examination into the films and careers of director Christopher Nolan, covering his trailblazing forays into big-budget studio filmmaking. In this episode, we deconstruct with 2010’s Inception.
LINKS AND RESOURCES FROM THIS EPISODE
- Watch: The Directors Series on Youtube
- Download Chris Nolan’s Screenplay Collection in PDF
- Watch: Inception
- The Directors Series Film Director Essays
- Rise of the Filmtrepreneur®: How to Turn Your Indie Film into a Moneymaking Business (FREE AUDIOBOOK)
- $1 Closed Captions for Indie Filmmakers – Rev ($10 Off Your First Order)
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- Shooting for the Mob (Based on the Incredible True Filmmaking Story) (FREE AUDIOBOOK)
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- Storytelling Blueprint: Hero’s Two Journeys
- The Dialogue Series: 38 hours of Lessons from Top Hollywood Screenwriters
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- Indie Film Hustle® Podcast
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- Inside the Screenwriter’s Mind™ Podcast
With the staggering success of THE DARK KNIGHT, director Christopher Nolan was in a prime position to make whatever he wanted. Rather than capitalize off his momentum with a third Batman film, he turned instead to a long-gestating passion project he’d been thinking about since he was a teenager.
He’d always been fascinated by the experience of dreams, drawing many parallels between the nonlinear logic of dreamscapes to his professional practice as a filmmaker. He pitched his initial kernel of this idea to Warner Brothers after the completion of INSOMNIA, describing it as something of a horror film set within the architecture of the mind. With the studio’s approval, he went off to write it as a spec that he would simply deliver as soon as he finished it.
That process would ultimately take eight years, its slow pace dictated by the rigorous mind pretzels required in formulating its plot as well as his expansive and time-consuming forays into the Batman universe.
Given the name INCEPTION, the script that Nolan delivered to Warner Brothers in 2009 was a far cry from what he had initially pitched– indeed, he had orchestrated an action thriller so complex and stunningly inventive that it could be thought of as the ultimate “high concept” movie.
Naturally, the price tag to realize such an effort would be enough to stop other filmmakers in their tracks, but INCEPTION’s $160 million budget was easy ask considering Nolan had just delivered one of Warner Brother’s most successful films in its century-long history. Even then, the studio had to partner with Legendary Pictures just to cover it all. In relatively short order, Nolan and his producing partner/wife, Emma Thomas, were off shooting his seventh feature film– one of the most ambitious and original visions cinema had ever seen.
INCEPTION is structured as a fantastical heist set, in Nolan’s words, within the architecture of the mind. While the story is packed with an overwhelming amount of fantastical imagery, arguably the most outlandish aspect is the proposed existence of experimental military technology that allows people to enter and act within an individual’s dreams.
Nolan’s story focuses on a rogue group that has repurposed this technology to extract information from a target’s subconscious in the name of corporate espionage. As mentioned in a previous episode, Nolan’s microbudget indie debut FOLLOWING can be read as something like a first draft of the story that would ultimately become INCEPTION.
Both films are structured as heists of the mind, and both feature a slickly-dressed character named Cobb. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the latter iteration– a major score for Nolan personally, as he had endeavored to work with the actor many times before and had thus far been unable to secure his participation.
It’s interesting, then, to note that DiCaprio’s portrayal of protagonist Dom Cobb seems to be a fictionalization of Nolan himself, from his unique intellectual acuity down to the external aspects like a shared hairstyle, goatee, and buttoned-down sartorial sense. The latest tortured hero in Nolan’s grand parade of them, Cobb is a reluctant ex-pat with a tragic past and is given the chance to return to his children in the States by a wealthy Japanese businessman named Saito.
Played by BATMAN BEGINS’ Ken Watanabe in a role that makes full use of his refined talents, Saito offers Cobb this last shot at redemption in exchange for a journey into the mind of a business rival with the aim to plant the idea of dissolving his company into his mind.
To help him achieve this task, Cobb recruits a crew of professionals, each with their own specialty. In determining what particular talents would translate to the manipulation of the dream state, Nolan used the roles he knew best: the various positions of a film crew. As such, each member of Cobb’s team possesses expertise and experience analogous to the filmmaking process.
If Cobb is the director, then his manager/researcher, Arthur, is his producer. Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Arthur is cool, calm, and collected under pressure, but finds himself frequently tangling with Cobb over things he couldn’t have accounted for. The production designer finds her analog in Ellen Page’s Ariadne, a graduate architecture student who puts her talents to work designing the worlds of these dreams.
A charismatic master of disguise, Tom Hardy’s character, Eames, describes himself as a “forger”, embodying any role needed to manipulate the target much like an actor does. Saito acts much like a studio, bankrolling the entire operation and insisting on overseeing the process so that he can ensure his funds are spent wisely. All of the crew’s efforts are focused on manipulating the emotions of Robert Fischer, the petulant heir to a vast business empire.
Played by Cillian Murphy in his third of many appearances throughout Nolan’s work, Fischer becomes aware of the crew’s attempts to deceive and incept him. They must suspend his disbelief while appealing to his emotion, to the extent that they eventually bring him into the heist himself as an active participant. Knowing all this, it becomes clear that Fischer is akin to the audience, albeit a particularly savvy one that’s seen it all before and stands resistant to cinema’s transcendent charms.
Nolan’s supporting cast doesn’t quite deal in the same clear-cut filmmaking metaphors as Cobb’s crew, but they nevertheless turn in compelling performances that reinforce the director’s ability to attract some of the finest talents around. Since BATMAN BEGINS, Michael Caine has become a stalwart presence in Nolan’s work.
His performance here as a university professor and Cobb’s father-in-law, Miles, amounts to little more than a cameo in terms of screentime, but his presence injects a profound emotional resonance to the story by making him the last living link Cobb has to his own children. Marion Cotillard plays Cobb’s deceased wife, Mal, who killed herself over her inability to separate her dreams from her reality and now lives on as a malevolent projection of Cobb’s subconscious, sabotaging his efforts at every turn.
The character is arguably more of a plot device than a full-fledged entity, but Cotillard nevertheless gives it her all, creating a beautiful, menacing ghost who haunts not just Cobb’s dreams, but every aspect of his waking life.
Lukas Haas, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, and Pete Postlethwaite round out INCEPTION’s cast of note: Haas as the original architect on Cobb’s crew who’s given up to Saito’s colleagues when he bungles a mission; Rao as the chemist who creates the specialized sedative that enables shared dreaming; Postlethwaite, in one of his final roles, as Robert Fischer’s bedridden father; and Berenger as Fischer’s business partner and an advisor of sorts to Robert.
Visually speaking, INCEPTION is arguably Nolan’s most audacious work, filled to the brim with wild, impossible imagery. Nolan continues his creative partnership with cinematographer Wally Pfister, who would go on to win the Academy Award for his efforts here. INCEPTION reinforces Nolan’s commitment to film, as well as his preference for large formats over marketing gimmickry like 3D– indeed, the studio had initially approached him to shoot the film in 3D, but thankfully Nolan had the clout to flat-out deny their request.
Instead, he and Pfister capture their preferred 2.35:1 frame on good, old-fashioned 2D 35mm film. Despite his positive experiences shooting on IMAX cameras for THE DARK KNIGHT, Nolan doesn’t employ the format here, but he does use the 65mm film gauge for select shots. For an action thriller taking place entirely inside the mind, INCEPTION boasts a staggering, monumental scope consistent with his previous work.
Towards that end, Nolan blends classical and modern camerawork, mixing grandiose crane and helicopter aerial shots with visceral handheld setups and smooth Steadicam runs. The story also provides ample opportunity to explore varying frame rates, availing Nolan of techniques like speed-ramping and extreme slow motion to better convey the varying speeds of time across parallel tiers of dream space.
A somewhat-neutral stone & steel palette drives the overall color theory behind INCEPTION, but Nolan and Pfister take great pains to establish distinct looks for the various dreamscapes– especially during the climactic sequence, as a means for the audience to better track their orientation across a relentless cascade of cross-cuts and parallel action. The first tier, in which Yusuf wildly drives a van to evade his pursuers, uses a torrential downpour of rain to justify a foggy, cold look with a heavy cobalt color cast.
The next tier down is the hotel, rendered in a warm amber patina and pools of concentrated light. Going another level down, a snowy mountainscape topped by concrete fortress deals in stark monochromatic tones, with little else but the crew’s skin tones to provide color. Finally, we come to limbo–raw, unstructured dream space where decades can pass in a span of minutes in real-time. Nolan and Pfister use varying shades of gray here as if to suggest the pure building blocks of the subconscious before we color them in with our experiences and our environment.
Expectedly, a considerable amount of computer-generated imagery is necessary to fully realize limbo, as well as some of the more outlandish visuals the film presents. However, Nolan stays true to his convictions regarding the supremacy of practical effects, always using an in-camera element as the foundation of the shot and employing digital wizardry only when absolutely necessary.
As such, INCEPTION boasts far fewer digital effects shots than most spectacle epics of its ilk– 500 compared to today’s standard of 2000 plus. Nolan goes to great lengths to reinforce his legacy as a visual magician of the highest order– where other filmmakers would simply let computers digitally insert a train ramming through downtown traffic, Nolan drops a physical train onto a real street, rigging it up in the precise manner needed to achieve the shot.
In his pursuit of delivering the impossible through practical effects, he even manages to one-up director Stanley Kubrick by expanding upon the techniques he developed for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s mind-bending space station sequences. In order to realize a stunning hallway fight sequence in varying degrees of gravity, Nolan builds the entirety of the set on a massive gimbal capable of tilting every conceivable angle while also rotating a full 360 degrees.
By fixing the camera’s perspective to the set and not the actors, he’s able to create breathtaking images of fighting on ceilings and walls. This drive to shoot as much in-camera as possible informs Nolan’s overall visual approach, making us believe in the impossible while safeguarding his creation from the inevitable advances in digital effects technology that otherwise might date INCEPTION’s visuals as crude and primitive.
Nolan’s longtime production designer Nathan Crowley is absent here, leaving Guy Hendrix Dyas to act in his stead. The rest of Nolan’s core team of collaborators remains intact, with returning editor Lee Smith expertly navigating the labyrinthine and intellectually-dense plotting, and composer Hans Zimmer providing yet another instantly-iconic original score.
Zimmer’s innovative, minimalist inclinations would not only score him an Oscar nomination but would also go on to influence pop culture in surprising ways. A blend of old and new sounds, the score finds Zimmer recruiting The Smiths’ Johnny Marr to perform a moody electric guitar riff that recalls the midcentury cool of the James Bond films.
This element serves as the base of a larger electronic and orchestral texture, with thundering brass and lush strings that also would not be out of place in a Bond film. Nolan doesn’t employ needle drops often, so when he does, the audience would do well to pay close attention to its importance to the narrative at hand. In this regard, Nolan incorporates an Edith Piaf song directly into the storyline, becoming an audio cue that Cobb’s crew employs to sync up their timescales across multiple tiers of dreamscape.
Zimmer takes this idea and runs with it, slowing down the track to the point where it becomes an unrecognizable texture of raw sound and throbbing percussion. In the process, he achieves what is easily one of INCEPTION’s biggest contributions to pop culture– the brassy “BRAHM” blasts that countless movie trailers have since copied to the point of parody.
A film stuffed to the brim with the themes and imagery that Nolan has spent a lifetime exploring, it’s not inconceivable to see INCEPTION as the director’s most definitive work– even more so than THE DARK KNIGHT when considering its original storyline, unencumbered by the constraints of any pre-existing intellectual property.
The narrative affords Nolan the opportunity to explore and indulge in his fascination with the mechanics of time in a comprehensive and integral manner– befitting their place in a heist film, Cobb’s crew naturally races against a ticking clock, but they are uniquely positioned to alter the bounds of the race itself. The relativistic relationship of time across several parallel tiers of the subconscious becomes their ace in the hole.
By venturing deeper into a dream-within-a-dream, into a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream, and so on, Cobb’s crew finds that time slows down in proportion to the tier above it. What passes for a minute of real-time would be an hour in tier 1 of the dreamscape, while decades will pass in limbo during that same span.
Likewise, when Saito is shot early on during the heist, he’s able to regain some of his health, his wounds working slower and slower as he descends the various tiers. INCEPTION’s unique take on the mechanics of time is a singular signature of Nolan’s– only he could stage a twenty-minute action sequence within the time it takes for a van to plunge off a bridge into the water.
The heist format enables Nolan’s further exploration of functional style, evidenced in the slick, well-tailored suits that Cobb’s crew wear throughout the film as a manifestation of their professional attitude. The constant presence of suits, tactical combat gear, and even tuxedos can’t help but remind one of the James Bond films– no doubt an intentional move on Nolan’s part as a lifelong fan of the series.
Indeed, INCEPTION at times feels like Nolan’s audition for the director’s chair on the Bond franchise, right down to the snow fortress ski chase designed to pay tribute to his favorite 007 films, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. The globetrotting nature of Nolan’s aesthetic, and INCEPTION, in particular, reinforces this notion, featuring the characters jetting around to exotic locales like Mombasa, Paris, and Tokyo as well as abstract interior spaces like limbo. Nolan even structures the climactic heist so that it takes place while his characters are flying over the Pacific.
Like THE DARK KNIGHT before it, INCEPTION also draws considerable influence from Michael Mann’s HEAT, in that Nolan stages his own version of that film’s iconic downtown LA shootout– albeit with a degree of restraint that keeps his efforts in service to the story and firmly out of the territory of full-blown homage.
As evidenced by the logo of Nolan’s production company, Syncopy, the iconography of mazes and puzzles have become a defining feature of his artistry– a conceit that INCEPTION revels in with its labyrinthine plot structures that turn the world around its characters into a giant Rubik’s Cube. Architecture and the malleability of the urban environment plays a big role in this regard, as the characters are empowered via lucid dreaming to actively reshape the environment around them.
This leads to some of the film’s most iconic imagery, such as the scene where Ariadne peels back the horizon as if it were on a hinge, causing whole city blocks to fold over on themselves. The plane of limbo becomes a veritable playground as the characters build entire cities for themselves, spending decades in an endless sprawl of imposing monoliths that grow more faceless and abstract as they extend outwards. It is here that architectural styles can clash together, achieving a strange harmony in their impossible pairings.
One need look no further than Dom and Mal’s earthy, craftsman-style home situated high above the city inside a sleek modern tower. INCEPTION makes brilliant use of this idea of paradoxical architecture, exploring the strategic value of impossible structures like the Penrose stairs, which only become possible from a singular point of view.
No discussion of INCEPTION would be complete without addressing its infamous ending, the implications of which are still hotly debated across internet forums and college dorms. In a film loaded with symbolic imagery, the closing image of a top spinning on the table– wobbling ever so slightly before abruptly cutting to black– is arguably INCEPTION’s most provoking one.
The audience finds itself left on a sharply ambiguous final note and an extremely frustrating one for those who prefer their movies to spell everything out for them. Is Cobb truly free of his dreams, or is he still trapped somewhere in his unconscious? The question has inspired numerous armchair detectives to suss out an objective truth– most investigations point to Cobb’s wedding ring as his personal totem, and the film’s key signifier as to whether or not we are currently in a dream state.
Cobb sports his ring in the dream sequences, but in his waking reality, he appears without it. When he lands in Los Angeles at the end of the film, he’s not wearing his ring. This, along with the presence of Michael Caine– who had only appeared previously in a scene ostensibly set in waking reality– should be our chief clue that Cobb has ultimately woken up and joined the objective timeline. However, even this is a deception– Nolan explicitly states via Arthur that one cannot use another’s totem, for fear of losing touch with reality.
Despite Cobb’s constant use of a spinning top, we know that it is actually Mal’s totem. This raises the question of whether Cobb has been lost in his own subconscious from the very start. To Nolan, the question is irrelevant– he’s gone on record to express his sentiment that it’s whether or not the top is going to topple that’s important, but rather, for the first time in the film, Cobb isn’t watching it.
After spending much of the film obsessing over this little spinning top, he has moved on emotionally, finding happiness in his reunion with his family. Far from a final “gotcha” twist, INCEPTION’s ending arguably hits a precise note, cementing the film’s murky ambiguity between dreams and waking reality while challenging his audience with the notion that our own realities can be just as subjective.
Billed on its release as “the new Matrix”, a staggering $100 million marketing budget endeavored to convey INCEPTION as an explosive head-trip that played fast and loose with the laws of physics. The number is all the more remarkable considering its release in an era where franchise filmmaking is king– in the absence of any pre-existent intellectual property, Warner Brothers leveraged the success of BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT to present Nolan himself as the franchise.
The strategy worked beautifully, driving worldwide box office receipts north of $800 million and generating a wave of critical acclaim. INCEPTION’s top-flight craftsmanship earned itself a small collection of golden statues come Oscar season, with the Academy celebrating the film’s technical innovations in categories like Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects. If THE DARK KNIGHT established Nolan as one of mainstream American cinema’s most valuable filmmakers, then INCEPTION chiseled it in stone and enshrined it in gold.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics, and Indiewire.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. You can donate to support the project at Patreon.
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