In the days leading up to my interview with writer-director Christopher Nolan for the epic conclusion of his Batman trilogy with "The Dark Knight Rises," I stumbled onto an interesting split photo online. In one half, there was Christian Bale's Batman, captioned with the words, "I never said thank you," and in the other, there's a picture of Nolan that read, "And you'll never have to."
Of course, anybody who's followed Nolan's Batman films, which kicked off in 2005 with "Batman Begins," knows those are the words that concluded the movie -- words that almost seem prophetic today given the enormity of the Batman legend -- and the honor it's been for the revered filmmaker to have had the opportunity to tell his stories in the first place.
"Taking on a great pop icon like Batman -- and there are not many of them who've been around as long as he has -- it's a huge privilege and a massive responsibility," Nolan told me, humbly. "You've got all kinds of people all over the world hugely invested in who that character is, so you have to be true to the essence of that."
Of course, with the responsibility, Nolan said he had to respect that huge core of fans' feelings about the character. Ultimately, though, his job is to do what he feels right as a filmmaker to tell the story in "The Dark Knight Rises."
"We went into the film knowing, yes, the fans have a lot of passionate feelings about these characters, and that's the reason we're doing it. So that's a great driving force. But we also went into it with the spirit of what I think the fans want more than anything -- a sincere attempt to make a great movie. That's what does the character justice," Nolan explained. "It might not have been the film somebody else would have made, but Batman's sustained all kinds of interpretations over the years. It's one of the things that contributes to his history as a great character. This is our telling of the story, and 'The Dark Knight Rises' is our conclusion of it."
"The Dark Knight Rises" picks up eight years after the conclusion of "The Dark Knight," where Batman (Christian Bale) was branded a fugitive after he assumed the blame for the death of Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent. Within that time frame, at least, the lie had worked. With the truth about what really happened kept under wraps by Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), the city rallied to thwart criminals under the anti-crime Dent Act.
But the peace in Gotham for nearly the past decade is about to turn into chaos: There's a slick cat burglar, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), whose intricate identity-theft scheme draws Wayne out of his self-imposed exile from the public eye; and an ominous, masked strongman Bane (Tom Hardy) -- whose brute-force reign of terror over Gotham convinces Wayne he must bring Batman out of the shadows.
Opening in theaters and on IMAX screens Friday, "The Dark Knight Rises" also features the return of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman as Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox, respectively; and new to the ensemble are Joseph Gordon-Levitt as intuitive young cop John Blake, and Marion Cotillard as Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate.
On the whole, Nolan said his Batman arc was in some sense conceptualized as a trilogy, yet he made each film like it was going to be his last. Even when Nolan included The Joker's calling card at the conclusion of "Batman Begins" -- an open invitation of sorts to a sequel -- no follow-up film, or films, for that matter, were set in stone.
"You can never take for granted that you'll get to make another film or that people would want to see another film from you. Maybe that's just my superstitious nature," Nolan said. "So certainly, we tried to put everything we had into 'Batman Begins' and tried make the best film that we could."
Nolan said it was only after "Batman Begins" came out that he decided explore to what the Joker would mean to the story, and ultimately, the Batman legend even further.
"Having made 'The Dark Knight' with Heath Ledger in his seminal performance as The Joker -- once again putting everything we had into it -- after the dust settled and after the film had done its thing, myself, David Goyer and my brother, Jonah, wanted to see where Bruce Wayne goes," Nolan said. "We wanted to see what he was going to become of after that and where the story is going to go."
After Ledger's haunting, posthumous Oscar-winning performance, Nolan knew for "The Dark Knight Rises" that he had to find villain in the Batman lore that would provide something different than the psychological terror The Joker imposed upon the Caped Crusader and the citizens of Gotham.
"What we knew after the end of the second film was that we had an ending for the third. We knew where Bruce Wayne's story was going, but then we had to construct the tale that would get us there. We needed to find an antagonist for Batman who would primarily be a physical adversary," Nolan recalled. "We didn't want to tread on anything Heath had done with The Joker. We wanted to do something that we hadn't done before, which was to put Batman opposite an adversary who could trade blows with him. We wanted to create a very palpable tension in the audience of not knowing who's going to win that fight. Bane gave us a really great opportunity to do that."
Fortunately, Nolan didn't have to look far for the right person to portray Batman's new nemesis. Having worked with Hardy on "Inception," Nolan knew the actor was the perfect choice to embody the ruthless, rock-solid villain filled with rage and terror.
"I think that Tom Hardy has done with the character is going to be frightening and unsettling to people in a way they really haven't experienced before," Nolan said.
The great thing is, Nolan added, Hardy doesn't only bring menace to the role with his physical presence, but through his expressive eyes. More than half of Bane's face is covered with a menacing apparatus, so communication through his eyes was tantamount to make Bane an effective character. They are the windows to Bane's soul, after all, and that soul is severely damaged.
"This is a tormented soul, and he's taking that torment and making sure everybody else on the planet feels that, too," Nolan said. "When you work with a talent like Tom Hardy, you know you have a really unique thing going, so I was very, very keen in convincing him to take on this role. What I knew he'd respond to, and he did, was the good news and bad news of it all."
Nolan recalled saying to Hardy, "The good news being, 'We've got a great character for you to take on,' and the bad news is, 'You're going to have to cover your face, and you're only going to have your eyes, eyebrows and voice to work with. You you're going to have to terrify people with that. You're going to have to find an intent of malevolence that really makes people quake in their seats.' Tom saw the fun of that and just went for it."
On the flip side, Nolan said he saw in Hathaway a pair skills of that would result in the performance he needed from her.
"She can project a very minutely-observed psychological characterization. She can build a character from the ground up in a very realistic way the best film acting requires," Nolan remarked. "Yet, she can also go on a stage and entertain 1,000 people, and fill a room with her energy and her vibrancy."
The combination of those sensibilities, Nolan said, is exactly what's needed for the dual role of Selina Kyle and her alter-ego, also known as -- but not referred to in the film as -- Catwoman.
"She's playing a real character in a grounded universe that we're trying to create, yet she's taking on an iconic status, so you need those two things, to play both sides," Nolan said. "It's very rare that you can find actors who can do both things."
As audience members prime themselves to find out Batman/Bruce Wayne's end game in "The Dark Knight Rises," Nolan said he's thrilled that audiences are seeing the story told the way he wants to tell it. A traditionalist filmmaker, Nolan shot "The Dark Knight Rises" on film as opposed to digital, and more than 70 minutes of it in IMAX to present it the grandest format possible. In addition, he's shot as many visual effects as possible in-camera with real sets and vehicles, and used CGI sparingly.
Perhaps Nolan's greatest ode to the film school of old, though, comes with his admiration of the silent movie era, which was his inspiration for the breathtaking visual scale of the film. Starting as a boy who shot 8 mm films on his dad's movie camera, Nolan knows better than anybody that, if you don't respect the past, there is no future. And "The Dark Knight Rises" is his ultimate gesture of respect to the medium of film as a whole.
"I love movies and love the history of movies. With it -- just as you have the history of the Batman comics to draw on with all their great writers and artists -- you have this great history of experimentation and innovation of the past masters of moviemaking," enthused Nolan, who turns 42 at the end of the month. "You'd be crazy not to study that and avail yourself to that, and look beyond the trends of today to see the moments of what's been done in the past. They may surprise you and surprise the audiences of today when they're represented again."