THE Q&A

'Dark Knight' Director: My Responsibility to Heath Ledger

At ShoWest, Christopher Nolan explains how working to finish the new Batman movie helped him deal with the actor's death

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN (left, with Christian Bale) ''What I've tried to do with this film...was to try and make the best film in the first place.…
Image credit: Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN (left, with Christian Bale) ''What I've tried to do with this film...was to try and make the best film in the first place. The great sequels that I've enjoyed and looked up to over the years have managed to do that — there aren't many of them''

''I felt very lucky to have something to do,'' says director Christopher Nolan, when talking about the sudden death of Heath Ledger, who plays the Joker in his upcoming Batman movie The Dark Knight (opening July 18). ''I felt an enormous amount of responsibility to him.''

For months now, Nolan has been working to finish his film — something that he says has allowed him to better cope with the abrupt loss of his friend and colleague. Movie-industry dignitaries who attended the annual ShoWest convention in Las Vegas last Thursday got an early glimpse at what the filmmaker has created. Nolan presented a brief scene from the beginning of the movie, in which a group of thieves rob a bank wearing Joker masks and unleashing a startling amount of carnage. It was enough to pique Bat-appetites, but, without any extended look at Ledger's performance, it didn't answer many lingering questions. So when EW.com caught up with Nolan later, we asked him how the tragedy affected the movie, as well as what's next for him and the Batman franchise.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where are you now in the post-production process on the film?
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN:
I just finished my first cut, showed it to the studio last Friday. It's pretty exciting, actually: It's always one of those pretty nervy occasions, and it was really kind of fun.

Have you had the opportunity to take a moment and grieve for Heath Ledger?
Not really.

Sometimes they say that being able to work through tragedy helps you deal with it.
For me, for my process, just working straight through it and wrestling through it and working was actually — I felt very lucky to have something to do. Because for most of the people who knew him far better than I did, who were around him, it was very difficult for his family and everyone. I was very fortunate: I had something very specific to be getting on with — I felt an enormous amount of responsibility to him. So I've really had something to be doing. You always feel a sort of responsibility to an actor that you've clicked with and seen him do something great for you on set. As a director, you can really screw that up in the end; there's no two ways about that. So [I've been focused on] just getting on with trying to preserve the great performance that I knew he had given us.

Have you had to change a lot or do much differently?
No, not at all. You know, he was very proud of what he had done. [His interpretation of the Joker is] very much a character, an iconic character, and very much not [Heath]. So to watch it is actually enthralling and captivating and exciting — all those positive things. I know how proud he was of the part and I'm actually very, very excited to show it to people and have them see it.

When you presented footage from the film at ShoWest, you said that when Batman Begins came out in 2005 you were surprised to have won converts to the franchise — in many ways, I'm one of them. It was not a movie that I was expecting to enjoy.
That's the comment I've most frequently heard about the movie, very often from women: ''I did not expect to enjoy this. It is not the kind of film I normally enjoy. But I really loved it.'' And I was very blown away by that, because that was beyond my wildest expectations for the movie. I figured, Maybe we please the fans or we please the critics or maybe we please the general public — to kind of get all three, more or less, that was something that I never really expected.

People always use the phrase ''raising the bar'' — were there goals you set for yourself on this movie that you were trying to meet?
Yeah, very much. I'd never done a sequel — kind of never imagined I would; it's not something I had really seen myself doing. Even, on completing the first one, it has a great tease for the Joker, but I just wanted to send the audience out with a sense of possibility for what we might see, not specifically as a sequel. It took me a long time to come around, talking to [Batman Begins cowriter] David Goyer and Jonathan, my brother [and frequent collaborator], to figure out that, actually, there's something very compelling there. So what I've tried to do with this film, the only reason was to try and make the best film in the first place. And the great sequels that I've enjoyed and looked up to over the years have managed to do that — there aren't many of them. You know, whether you're looking at The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back — those are sequels that I think built on what the first ones did really amazingly well. And that's what we're aspiring to with this film.

Will there be another Batman movie?
I have no clue, I mean, I just...

Well, but you leave it open at the end of this one for there to be another one.
[Conspiratorially] Do we? How do you know?

One of your actors might have mentioned it.
[Laughs] Oh really? [Laughs]

Or hinted at it.
Well, he hasn't seen the film. [Laughs] The ending of the film is, we're trying for a similar sense of excitement that we had with the first film. But for me it's always about this movie. It's always about: I want people, when the credits come on this movie, I want their heads just spinning with excitement about what this thing we've seen was and what it might be. But it's very specific to this movie. Without sounding pretentious about it, I really do try and put everything I've got into the film I'm making at any one time, and, you know, see what's left in the end. [Chuckles]

Want more? Read EW.com's interview with Nolan's Dark Knight star, Christian Bale, who talks about his interest in a third Batman movie, his upcoming role in The Terminator, and how he felt watching footage of Heath Ledger at ShoWest.

Originally posted Mar 17, 2008