BEDFORD, England — From a distance, Christopher Nolan's Gotham City sure doesn't look like much. The "skyline" begins to emerge over the horizon in the rolling green farmlands about 50 miles north of London, but there are no gothic spires or granite citadels, just the slanted, pocked roofs of two boxy metal buildings.
As you near the complex on a winding two-lane road, the immensity of the make-believe metropolis comes into focus: The structures that looked squat from afar are actually 15 stories tall — and as long as 81-story skyscrapers lying on their sides. Constructed more than 80 years ago to houseBritain'sRoyal Airship Works, the giant coffin-shaped sheds sat unused or ignored for years, waiting for some great undertaking, after the nation's flagship dirigible went down in flames in a horrific crash in France.
After the southern shed was renovated in 1994, it was used every now and then by rock stars preparing for tours (U2 and Paul McCartney among them) and the occasional Hollywood production. Then the 525-ton doors opened for Nolan in 2004, which is fitting given the fact that illusion, extreme architecture, old-school craft and colossal scale are screen trademarks for the British filmmaker best known for his three Batman films and "Inception."
After filming 2005's"Batman Begins"at his Gotham City, and putting in the facade of an elevated train station, Nolan's team added to the indoor cityscape for 2009's billion-dollar hit sequel "The Dark Knight," and then, for the topsy-turvy fights of"Inception,"special-effects guru Chris Corbould built a spinning corridor that made actors look like hamsters on a wheel. Nolan and production designer Nathan Crowley added a cruel and exotic underground prison for"The Dark Knight Rises,"which opens July 20 and will be Nolan's final take on the Caped Crusader forWarner Bros.
"I think my dad put it best when he visited and referred to it as the world's largest toy box," Nolan, back in Los Angeles, said with a rare relaxed chuckle. "That is somewhat how it felt to me. We'd wander around and feel it was a great privilege. … There's an awful lot of my history with the Batman films and also 'Inception.' It's all there."
If there was a documentary about the 41-year-old Nolan's life, that stroll around Cardington could set up a flashback to a key childhood moment: At age 7, he picked up his father's Super 8 camera and made a film with plastic action figures as actors. The pursuit possessed him. At 16, he began puzzling out a story he wanted to tell about dream control; so while other kids were climbing the levels in "Super Mario Bros.," the intense Nolan was piecing together the tale that became "Inception."
Nolan broke through in 2000 with his reverse riddle "Memento,"which earned him an Oscar nomination for screenwriting (two more nods followed for "Inception"). Yet even as he's become a top filmmaker whose films vie against CG-laden, 3-D spectacles for summer box-office bragging rights, Nolan is a decidedly old soul with an outsider aura.
An English literature major who rarely leaves the house without a suit coat, he has no email account, no cellphone and, here in this digital summer of 2012, his Batman movie is the only major popcorn release shot on film stock. He shuns 3-D, typically goes light on digital effects, and his stories and characters are serious, even grim — unlike the wisecracking heroes of, say, Marvel's "The Avengers."
As "The Dark Knight Rises" opens, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a sullen shadow of himself, and instead of his Batman mask he hides behind a scraggly hermit's beard. Eight years have passed since the murder of his true love, Rachel Dawes, and the fatal tumble of the deranged Harvey Dent. With the weight of those memories, the recluse must lean on a cane as he wanders a sealed-off wing of Wayne Manor.
Things get worse for Wayne and Gotham as a mysterious terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy) unleashes a campaign to sever the city from the outside world to punish the police and the Caped Crusader, who has not been seen for years. Some scenes of Wayne's reclusive bitterness evoke the landmark Frank Miller 1980s limited series "The Dark Knight Returns," which (along with"Watchmen") propelled much of the comics world into deep, dark grittiness for the next decade.
"The Dark Knight Rises" was shot in India, London, Glasgow, Pittsburgh, New York, Newark and Los Angeles. Last year, shooting a scene from the $250-million-plus production at the Senate House on the University of London campus, Nolan was watching the action unfold as Bale finished an intense sequence with Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard and Anne Hathaway. Hathaway plays Selina Kyle, the femme fatale traditionally called Catwoman, and after the group had run through the scene multiple times, Nolan walked over to her like a baseball manager taking the temperature of a jittery pitcher.
His advice? Take down the supervillain intonations creeping into the dialogue, Hathaway recalled later on set, still clad in her character's skintight, black battle togs. "There's no mustache-twirling in Gotham City," she said. "That's why what Chris does is really special and celebrated and successful. This is not making fun of the material. It's serious."
Bale agreed, adding that while Nolan's Batman movies "have the roller-coaster element and the visual spectacle" required of any superhero film, they veer away from the one-liners and irony that defined Gotham City movies in the 1990s.
Though Nolan's actors are clear about the tone he wants to set, they say they are often in the dark about what the director is actually putting together until they watch the completed movie.
"The things he's doing in these films, a lot of it I don't get to see — I'm not aware of it — until I sit and watch the finished film," Bale said as Nolan and his crew prepared for a scene of total civic chaos.
Joining Bale in "The Dark Knight Rises" is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who co-starred in "Inception," as a police officer named John Blake given a special assignment by Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman).
Nolan said a primary goal of the third and final installment in his Batman series is to create "a unified statement, a real ending, a true conclusion." The filmmaker collaborated with David S. Goyer on the story for the new film and then co-wrote it with his brother, Jonathan Nolan — an approach that held throughout the trilogy. The third act of the third film does have jolting twists and turns and an exclamation-point ending.
But more than that, he said, is that the trilogy is a tale of different levels — the heights of the city, the street level and the underground of caves and sewers. "The Dark Knight Rises" presents a story where greed, hypocrisy and false justice bring down the city's bridges, stadium and government.
"We really wanted a cast of thousands, literally, and all of that for me is trying to represent the world in primarily visual and architectural terms," Nolan said. "So the thematic idea is that the superficial positivity is being eaten away from underneath; we tried to make that quite literal."
The film seems sure to be parsed for political messages and controversy with its images of financial market abuse, politicians behaving badly and an ongoing social debate between a cat and a bat. To Nolan, all of it is the swirl of circumstances needed to get Bruce Wayne back in the cowl.
What's next for Nolan? He and wife Emma Thomas are producing "Man of Steel," the Superman reboot with star Henry Cavill and director Zack Snyder (Nolan also co-wrote the film with Goyer).Warner Bros. executives have made it clear they would like Nolan and Thomas to have a similar guiding hand on the next Batman movie.
After "The Dark Knight Rises," moviegoers might expect a respectful recess before another Batman movie, but the character is too powerful an engine for sales of toys, video games, apparel, comics and home video to leave parked in a quiet Batcave. Just as Sony already has a newSpider-Man team in theaters (just 10 years after the start of the first trilogy), Warners is approaching the Caped Crusader as an open-ended, almost seasonal question: What's our next Batman plan?
The answer right now, by all indications, is a reboot with an anointed replacement (perhaps the director's brother, Jonathan Nolan, or his Oscar-winning cinematographer, Wally Pfister) or an outside candidate such as Nicolas Winding Refn ("Drive") or Ben Affleck ("The Town").
Nolan himself is the most interesting question mark. Does his persistence on "Inception" hint that he might return to a long-simmering project, such as the Howard Hughes film he flirted with a decade ago? Nolan has often spoken of his fondness for James Bond films, and he certainly shows an affinity for globe-trotting projects.
The director said all he's thinking about is a vacation.