It’s no rarity for blockbuster Hollywood directors to dream big. Dreaming big and smart, though, is Christopher Nolan’s specialty.
Nolan elevated the superhero thriller to high art with “The Dark Knight,” his follow-up to “Batman Begins,” which had the biggest opening weekend ever with $158.4 million.
He pushed the bounds of illusion and perception in the thrillers “Insomnia” and “The Prestige.”
Now Nolan is casting audiences into the subconscious of Leonardo DiCaprio and his co-stars with “Inception” – essentially, a heist movie taking place in people’s dreams.
The scale, action and visual effects are as grand as those in the biggest summer popcorn flick. “Inception” also offers a depth in theme, story and characters seldom seen in huge Hollywood spectacles.
“I view the film first and foremost as a large-scale thrill ride. That’s what it’s always been intended to be for me,” Nolan says.
“If it’s got more interesting ideas in it and whatever, that’s all intended to just rattle around in your brain and make you want to think a little bit more about this world that the film creates. That for me is a lot of fun in a summer blockbuster, really.”
Nolan and distributor Warner Bros. have played coy about “Inception,” only gradually revealing plot points to stoke the imagination of fans.
The movie’s trailers have been artful teases loaded with wild images: a train barreling through traffic down a city street, characters hurtling about the walls and ceiling of a hotel hall in a gravity-defying fight scene, a section of Paris tilting up and folding in on itself.
It’s fair to say “Inception” is the most-anticipated original film – something not based on a book, comic, game or other source – since James Cameron’s “Avatar.”
“There’s a lot riding on ‘Inception,’ ” says Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who co-stars as DiCaprio’s right-hand man in an operation to sneak into people’s dreams and steal their secrets.
“This is going to really send a very strong signal to the mainstream movie industry that if this movie does really well, you don’t need to have some sort of prepackaged, market-researched brand in order to make a big hit movie. What people really respond to is good storytelling and compelling human drama.”
While DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb makes his living as a corporate raider of the mind, the heart of “Inception” is centered around a new challenge – planting an idea in a man’s subconscious so he will awaken and act on it as if it were his own.
The characters tumble through layers of dreams within dreams, the action challenging both them – and the audience – to ponder what’s real and what’s illusion.
Writer-director Nolan, who turns 40 two weeks after “Inception” premieres, says he dreamed up the idea about a decade ago, as his independent hit “Memento” was opening studio doors for him.
The British filmmaker has been toying with how to use dreams in movies since his teens, though.
“I’ve become over the years more and more interested in the creative potential of the mind and the way that every night we’re able to create entire worlds,” Nolan says.
“The idea that you can be completely convinced while you’re asleep that you’re in a real situation, and you’ve created this room or whatever, and I’ve created you as a person, everything you’re saying I’m putting as words in your mouth, but I feel that I’m hearing them for the first time.
“That to me suggests infinite potential for human creativity, an infinite mystery to the way the human mind works.”
Hollywood has always been known as the land of dreams, but filmmakers now have technology at their disposal to hurl audiences into worlds approaching the limitless possibilities of their unconscious projections.
“The closest film for me would probably be the first ‘Star Wars’ that did this for my generation – create a world not just where you literally forget the world you came from, but you want to lose yourself in that world so much that you watch the film again and again,” Nolan says.
“I really think that that’s when the tools of large-scale Hollywood filmmaking are being used to serve their best ends. Really, it’s just creating an alternate reality for people to explore that they could never have imagined themselves.
“With ‘Inception,’ that is certainly my attempt to try and do that.”
Nolan next is returning to the franchise that made him a Hollywood heavyweight. His brother is writing the screenplay for a new “Batman” movie.
The director declines to discuss the prospects of an “Inception” sequel.
“I refuse to answer the question on the grounds that I don’t want to jinx the film,” he says. “My fingers are crossed, and I’m hopeful that the film is going to be a success for the studio, because they really supported me making a film that I’m very, very passionate about. But I’m very, very superstitious.”
Nolan’s also a bit incredulous about his climb from unknown indie filmmaker to top Hollywood director. He occasionally wonders if it’s all been a dream.
“At the risk of sounding cheesy and cliche, the truth is, I love what I do and I love my job, and there is an aspect of that being dreamlike,” he says. “It’s hard for me to credit the fact that I’ve managed to be able to do what I love doing, I mean, even get paid for it.
“There’s certainly some weird fear in the back of my mind that I’m going to wake up and find myself back where I started. But at least then I’d have all my scripts worked out.”