Anticipated more than a precious drop of ketchup, praised and panned before it was ever seen and declared both brilliantly original and forced and over-thought (not unlike this sentence), Inception was at the very least, a feast for the eyes. Because director Christopher Nolan prefers physical magic to green screens and computers, his apt crew found creative and interesting ways to bring Nolan’s ideas to life. For those of us who enjoyed the film, it was in no small part due to the wizardry of fully rotating sets and brilliantly choreographed explosions and floods. And hey, those actors were pretty easy on the eyes too. Ambiguous ending or not, Nolan did a heck of a job bringing his dreamworld to life, incorporating enough of a shared experience to take us along on his fantastic ride.
1. The idea for Inception began with Christopher Nolan about eight years prior to the film. He became fascinated with thoughts of how dreams are created in your own mind, as you experience it. The script didn’t just sit in a drawer, it changed every couple of years; Nolan would go back to it and make revisions. Though written from his own experiences of dreaming, the director felt there were certain things that were common to peoples’ dreams and those are what he incorporated, like the kick—the idea of falling when dreaming.
2. The director gave Cillian Murphy (Fischer) the script to read over and choose a part he thought was right for himself. (Nolan and Murphy collaborated on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight; Murphy will reprise his role as Dr. Jonathan Crane /Scarecrow in The Dark Knight Rises). Of Murphy, Nolan has said, “He has the most extraordinary eyes, and I kept trying to invent excuses for him to take his glasses off in close-ups.”
3. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is also the name of the main character in Nolan’s first film, Following. Both Cobbs are thieves (of a sort).
4. Production Designer Guy Hendrix Dyas was inspired by Nijō Castle and found examples of traditional Japanese architecture that had been recreated as brand new. He and Nolan thought it was really weird and strange and liked it, so that’s where they started with the look of the film.
Nijō Castle walls:
5. Special Effects Supervisor Chris Corbould said doing the castle set was interesting because part of the dream becomes an earthquake. Normally if he was doing an earthquake film, the set would be built onto some sort of rig that would shake it, but because of the size of the set, it wasn’t feasible. Nolan also felt the myriad of devices that can shake a camera looked too mechanical, so all the earthquake effects are done “the old-fashioned way, by (the operator) shaking the camera, combined with special effects. Additionally, a lot of objects were pulled by rope or dropped down from boxes above.
Stunt coordinator, Tom Struthers spoke of pretesting everything so they knew it was safe to put Leo (DiCaprio) in the room. The earthquake scene was choreographed so DiCaprio knew exactly where to be at each moment. Of the actor, Struthers said, “Leo is very focussed; you knew that when you said to be “here” he would be there in that position. From A to B he does exactly what you choreograph, which makes it very easy to put effects around him.
6. Nolan said the flood in the castle was a challenge for Cobold to put on film, putting the performers in the middle of a very real and powerful event. Corbould had a plan to use big metal shipping containers full of water, using a dump tank method to do the scene. But it became immediately apparent that they wouldn’t be able to have the actors anywhere near it, let alone the stunt performers. What the Effect Supervisor and his people came up with was “an extremely clever method of using air cans.” Corbould explained that the flooding was achieved by using underground pressurized containers which were hit sequentially (forcing water out of containers up over the set). Because the water was coming from about 20 feet above, it created the impression of a wave coming towards camera. They wanted an atomized look, rather than a big dump of water and as Corbould explained, it’s a shot you have to get right the first time.
7. Johnny Marr, musician, songwriter and guitarist for The Smiths, Electronic, The The and Johnny Marr and the Healers (among others), played guitar as part of Hans Zimmer’s score. Zimmer also scored The Dark Knight and won an Academy Award and Golden Globe for his work on The Lion King. Of Marr, Zimmer said, “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.”
8. Nolan based roles of the Inception team on those of filmmaking; Cobb is the director, Arthur is the producer, Aridane is the production designer, Eames is the actor, Saito is the studio, and Fischer is the audience. The director said, “In trying to write a team-based creative process, I wrote the one I know.”
9. Nolan wrote the part of Saito for Ken Watanabe after working with him on Batman Begins.
10. After Evan Rachel Wood turned down the part of Ariadne (Ellen Page), Carey Mulligan, Rachel McAdams, Emily Blunt, Emma Roberts and Taylor Swift were all rumored to have been considered. James Franco was first offered the role of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Brad Pitt and Will Smith were reportedly offered the Cobb role before DiCaprio and Kate Winslet declined to portray Mal (Marion Cotillard).
11. Nolan always loved the work of artist, M C. Escher; loved his prints and said Escher does a wonderful job of expressing paradox and infinity. Nolan wanted to try the concept of the Penrose Steps—the infinite staircase—wondering how it could be built it in the real world. The director originally asked (Production Designer) Dyas if a Penrose Step could be built; Dyas said “Of course you can—but actually, it’s almost impossible.”
The set was fitted into a location (disused games company facility), a modern building constructed of steel and glass. The staircase was designed using the same wood that was in the facility, so as to fit right into the environment. Visual Effects Supervisor Paul Franklin explained, “You have to construct the staircase in such a way that when you view them from one angle, the topmost level winds up at the bottommost level.” Computer models were made and they worked out the exact dimensions of the steps that had to be built, as well as where the camera had to be in three dimensional space, to be able to film the stairs. Director of Photography, Wally Pfister noted, “It had to be done mathematically perfect; it had to be a particular length and particular height and distance and the camera had to drop in a particular way to hide the trickery.” Editor, Lee Smith explained the visual effects requirement was to remove the rig that supported the staircase (because the structure would have been dangerous had it not had a rig on it). “The staircase is visually quite dramatic and very carefully thought out.”
12. Nolan felt the train scene was going to be important to demonstrating that Cobb could bring dangerous elements into his dream at “the worst time imaginable.” He feels that grand scale events can make an action movie and wanted to take Inception to “the next level.” Because there were no train tracks in the street, they came up with a prefab train (on the body of a semi) that could be driven down the street. The original idea was to use a bus, but needed a bigger carriage. The frame of a Sterling tractor was stretched and the sides of the train made of plywood. The lower parts of the train were all manufactured using fiberglass molds taken from real train parts, so that everything had the correct texture and look. The front part of the structure was built into the steel, with over a ton of steel in front of the truck’s cab so when the train impacted things, it didn’t just shatter—it pushed the cars and smashed them up.
Nolan felt one of the things he was challenged with was to get across was the incongruity and strangeness of the train, so it didn’t feel like a regular train crossing. At first they only had a couple of cars but decided to have the train smash up many more cars and it made the difference. Cracks in the pavement were worked in, last minute, to show the roads being chewed up by the train wheels. Nolan said, “It’s a subtle thing, but it helps you realize the train should not be there.”
13. Christopher Nolan’s cousin, Miranda, plays the flight attendant.
14. Wally Pfister explained that the zero-gravity hallway fight scenes were achieved by using “…massive, rotating sets that twisted and turned and forced Gordon-Levitt to maneuver with utmost caution. Five-hundred crew-members were involved in the scene, which took a full three weeks to complete.” The sets were built in a London airplane hangar, including a horizontal hallway that rotated 360 degrees, a vertical one and a set with steel trolleys to which the actors were attached by wires (later erased using visual effects).
15. Gordon-Levitt trained with the stunt crew for two weeks and did most of his own stunt work. He had to learn how to do the scenes first straight, then with rotations. Of the disorienting work, Pfister said, “Having rotated on that set myself, it’s really quite challenging and a very strange thing to get used to. If you jump at the wrong time, you could be falling 12 feet through the air.” Nolan called the set a giant hamster wheel; “It was like some incredible torture device; we thrashed Joseph for weeks, but in the end we looked at the footage, and it looks unlike anything any of us has seen before. The rhythm of it is unique, and when you watch it, even if you know how it was done, it confuses your perceptions.” “It’s unsettling in a wonderful way,” Gordon-Levitt remembered, “it was six-day weeks of just, like, coming home at night fuckin’ battered…The light fixtures on the ceiling are coming around on the floor, and you have to choose the right time to cross through them, and if you don’t, you’re going to fall.” Costume Designer, Jeffrey Kurland noted, “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.”
16. At the Paris bistro (actually a small bakery) where a massive explosion takes place, high-pressure nitrogen was used to create the effect (real explosives were not permitted). Wally Pfister used six high-speed cameras (filmed at the highest possible frame rate, because Nolan wanted the explosions at the most extreme slow motion) to capture the sequence from different angles. Flying debris and further destruction was later added (using visual effects).
17. The van scene was shot at LA’s Commodore Schuyler F. Heim Bridge; the part where the van goes off the bridge was completed by shooting a van from a cannon. For the underwater portions of the scene, Cillian Murphy spoke of the challenge of not panicking, saying they had to hold their breath for “four or five minutes” in between breathing from scuba tanks.
18. The Cobb chase, filmed in Morocco, consisted of DiCaprio running “full tilt” in 100 degree weather, followed by Nolan and Pfister shooting film (engaged in what Nolan calls “a kind of guerilla filmmaking”) on the back of an ATV with a handheld camera, or shooting on foot, running backwards with a camera on a shoulder, mixed with wide, overhead shots.
19. The Edith Piaf song (“Non, je ne regrette rien” [No, I’m not sorry for anything]) was written into the script by Nolan and given to Hans Zimmer to weave into the score. Marion Cotillard portrayed Piaf in the 2007 film La Vie En Rose ; she won the Best Actress Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA, César Award, Czech Lion and Prix Lumière.
20. The mountains and a built-on-location fortress in Calgary proved challenging for both the crew and actors. Filming took place at a closed ski resort called Fortress
Mountain. Because it was so cold, the paint they were using to create the fortress structure would freeze as soon as it was put on a paintbrush; a small “lean-to” was created to paint parts in a heated area. They couldn’t bring in construction vehicles or heavy machinery, so everything had to be build by hand (using untreated spruce to ensure there wouldn’t be any lasting impact on the environment). Meanwhile, actor Tom Hardy and Nolan recall what happened when it was time for Hardy to do the skiing scenes: “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.” Said Nolan, “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.”