"I think ours is of an older school, ours is more of 'The Matrix' variety and the concepts of different levels of reality," Nolan said. "The whole concept of avatars and living life as someone else, there's a relationship to what we're doing, but I think when I first started trying to make this film happen it was very much pulled from that era of movies where you had 'The Matrix,' you had 'Dark City,' you had 'The Thirteenth Floor' and, to a certain extent, you had 'Memento' too. They were based in the principles that the world around you might not be real."
Cillian Murphy, the Irish actor who played the Scarecrow in the two Batman movies and is one of Cobb's targets in "Inception," said that Nolan is creating a body of work that feels somehow more mature than some of his bright- fantasy peers. "It's the fantasy world, but it's the one that the mind itself can create or fall into, so the audience can access it in a different way than these other movies where you go to another planet or something," Murphy said. "It's the place the mind goes, and it's often very dark and always interesting."
Cast into a strange world
The cast for "Inception" is peppered with Nolan favorites, such as Murphy, Ken Watanabe (who was in "Batman Begins") and Michael Caine (who appeared in the director's last three films), as well as veteran actors such as Tom Berenger whose face fits the filmmaker's universe of grim choices and gun-metal hues. The film gives much of its prime screen time, however, to a pair of younger actors: 29-year-old Gordon-Levitt, who grew up on screen in the television comedy "3rd Rock from the Sun" and solidified his film profile with "(500) Days of Summer," and 23-year-old Ellen Page, who was nominated for an Oscar for "Juno." Those two play junior partners in DiCaprio's dream team.
Sipping tea in her trailer during a break in shooting last year, Page seemed a bit overwhelmed by the set, which was housed inside the converted old zeppelin hangar. "I've never really seen anything like this," she said. "It's humbling." It's the same place that Nolan used for his Batman films; Arkham Asylum, the Narrows and other Gotham City landmarks are still standing, waiting for the inevitable third Batman film that will almost certainly be Nolan's next project. That topic, though, is verboten on the "Inception" set, as is the Superman franchise that Nolan and Thomas will be trying to get off the ground in the next few years. ("I would never ask, and you shouldn't either," Murphy said with an expression of alarm. "He's got enough on his plate without us getting all fanboy on him.")
"Inception" plays to Nolan's two proven strengths -- massive scale and psychological puzzles -- but Page said what makes him a singular filmmaker is that he would attempt a summer film that evokes literature and architecture in an era when other directors seem to be tilting toward a video-game aesthetic.
"There's a tangible realism even when it gets crazy, and somehow that makes the jeopardy feel more real," Page said. "It's like reading a Haruki Murakami novel -- it's fantasy, but instead of feeling like some strange surreal world it feels very honest. The emotional spine of the story is there too, which is the key to his movies. There's the big scale, but the sincerity isn't left behind. The story is complicated but never confusing."
Time will tell if Nolan can build a major commercial success out of his mysterious blueprints, but he has already proved to be the rare blockbuster director willing to wander the dream world of challenging cinema.
"I always find myself gravitating to the analogy of a maze," he said. "Think of film noir and if you picture the story as a maze, you don't want to be hanging above the maze watching the characters make the wrong choices because it's frustrating. You actually want to be in the maze with them, making the turns at their side, that keeps it more exciting . . . I quite like to be in that maze."