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ON THE SET

'Inception' breaks into dreams

Director Christopher Nolan's latest is a heist movie with an unusual target: the mind.

April 04, 2010|By Geoff Boucher

Reporting from Cardington, England — July is the month when movies gets dizzy (or is it ditsy?) from the heat, and this year is no exception, with films featuring heartthrob vampires, evil aliens and the never-gets-old concept of talking dogs. But on July 16, in the middle of the usual popcorn parade, director Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. will deliver "Inception," a strange thriller that has been a Hollywood mystery for months thanks to its cryptic title and the fact that the studio has guarded the Nolan-penned script like a state secret.

So it was no surprise last summer that, at a musty old dirigible hangar outside London, Nolan welcomed a rare visitor to his "Inception" set with a guarded smile. "So you've read the script -- did you understand it?" Mazes and masked intentions are the specialties of Nolan, who burst on the scene 10 years ago with "Memento," a noir riddle told in two alternating narratives presented in opposite chronological directions -- a masterpiece of watchmaker cinema that earned Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, an Oscar nomination for their screenplay. In 2008, Nolan performed an even more impressive sleight of hand when he delivered a $1-billion success with the Batman movie called "The Dark Knight," the most cerebral of superhero films and one that barely used any computer-generated effects.

"Inception," the 39-year-old director's seventh feature film and his first foray into science fiction, combines the perception riddles of "Memento" and the sheer scale of "Dark Knight" with its $160-million budget and location shoots in Morocco, France, Japan and three other countries. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a specialist in the new branch of corporate espionage -- he's a dream thief who plucks secrets from the minds of tycoons after pumping them full of drugs and hooking them up to a mysterious contraption. The problem, though, is the land of nod can be volatile -- as can DiCaprio's character, Dom Cobb, who is a wounded dreamer after the loss of his beloved wife.

The movie may be Hollywood's first existential heist movie, and though that may not sound like typical fare for the air-conditioning months, Warners and Legendary Pictures are banking on the movie catching on as a brainy "Mission: Impossible" by way of "The Matrix"; the globe-trotting movie may have had its subconscious baggage packed by Sigmund Freud, in other words, but it also carries a passport stamped by Ian Fleming. DiCaprio says Nolan is the perfect director to turn that unlikely combination into a July hit.

"Complex and ambiguous are the perfect way to describe the story," DiCaprio said in a recent phone interview. "And it's going to be a challenge to ultimately pull it off. But that is what Chris Nolan specializes in. He has been able to convey really complex narratives that work on a multitude of different layers simultaneously to an audience and make it entertaining and engaging throughout. You look at ' Insomnia' or 'Memento,' these movies are working on so many different levels. That's his expertise; it's what he does best, as a matter of fact."

'Inception's' conception

For Nolan, "Inception" was an elusive dream. "I wanted to do this for a very long time, it's something I've thought about off and on since I was about 16," Nolan said during a break in shooting last summer. "I wrote the first draft of this script seven or eight years ago, but it goes back much further, this idea of approaching dream and the dream life as another state of reality."

Nolan split his youth between Chicago and London (he has dual citizenship) but, with his stately, professorial mien and Oxford dress code, he seems far more in touch with the banks of the Thames than the shore of Lake Michigan. Ever since he was a youngster, he says, he was intrigued by the way he would wake up and then, while he fell back into a lighter sleep, hold on to the awareness that he was in fact dreaming. Then there was the even more fascinating feeling that he could study the place and tilt the events of the dream.

"You can look around and examine the details and pick up a handful of sand on the beach," Nolan said. "I never particularly found a limit to that; that is to say, that while in that state your brain can fill in all that reality. I tried to work that idea of manipulation and management of a conscious dream being a skill that these people have. Really the script is based on those common, very basic experiences and concepts, and where can those take you? And the only outlandish idea that the film presents, really, is the existence of a technology that allows you to enter and share the same dream as someone else."

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