Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Dark Knight Rises

“He wondered if this was something new…”

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"Back in the stateroom of the yacht..."

Note: This post is the fiftieth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 49. You can read the previous installments here.

When you’re taking apart a story to see how it works—whether as a fan, a critic, or an aspiring artist yourself—it’s often necessary to distinguish between two different kinds of narrative elements. One consists of the standard components that appear in the story to satisfy our expectations about the genre: a whodunit, for example, usually has a detective, a killer, a cast of suspects, and a series of clues, and most mystery writers assume that these pieces will be present before they’ve even come up with a premise. The second kind of element is designed to address the unique problems that this story alone presents: the details of character, setting, and incident required to enable the specific plot developments or twists that the author has in mind. And you can’t tell the difference until you’ve read two or more stories in the same genre, just as a scientist might need to examine multiple specimens to distinguish between the traits common to an entire species and individual variation. If you’ve only read one gothic romance, for instance, you have no way of knowing how many of those stock building blocks, from the orphaned heroine to the lonely house on the moor, are there primarily because that’s how the genre has defined itself. And it takes yet another level of sophistication to recognize that most of these elements exist because Charlotte Brontë needed them to tell a particular story in Jane Eyre. You can’t see the pattern until you have at least two examples to compare.

The same principle holds true for criticism—the best way to think about a work of art, after all, is to compare it to something else—and for the creative process itself, particularly when the artist is consciously drawing on more than one previous model. A sequel, even one that departs from the first story in surprising ways, always involves some degree of reverse engineering: the artist looks back at the original and tries to pick out the most important features, which create a sense of continuity between the old and new stories. (This usually, but not necessarily, means keeping some of the same characters, but it can also mean reproducing entire plot points or intangible qualities of tone.) And a third installment can draw upon two different models, which can both confuse and clarify the issue. When you mentally superimpose two stories, it naturally emphasizes the places where they overlap, and for the first time, it becomes possible to figure out which plot elements are essential to the series, rather than incidental solutions to specific problems. This is why an ambitious third installment can serve as a direct continuation of the second while simultaneously circling back to the first. Films like The Dark Knight Rises or The Bourne Ultimatum can struggle to manage those competing chains of meaning, which is why the fourth installment in a series often strikes off in a totally new direction: it becomes mathematically impossible, in the narrative equivalent of Metcalfe’s Law, to keep those connections straight when four or more stories are involved.

"He wondered if this was something new..."

But it’s often not until the third installment that we know what the series is really about, since it takes two stories to establish the pattern. When I was trying to figure out the plot of Eternal Empire, I was very mindful of the problem of honoring the precedent set by the first two novels while departing when necessary from the template they had established—if only because it gave me a way to structure a novel that I knew was going to be very complicated. As I wrote in a blog post back when the novel first came out: “In a sense, [Eternal Empire] ends up serving double duty: City of Exiles ends on a cliffhanger that the third novel needed to resolve, but it also reaches further back to the first installment, so the resolutions of these two books essentially unfold in parallel before converging at the very end.” These days, I’m less confident that I pulled this off successfully than I was when the book was released, but I know that I gave it my best shot. And even at the time, I realized, consciously or otherwise, that the best way to keep the plot from spiraling out of control was to copy the structural bones of the previous books wherever I could. As a result, each novel has three acts, cuts between three main characters, covers roughly the same amount of time, and uses a narrative funnel that accelerates the action until the last section encompasses the events of less than a day. These are all solid, reliable thriller techniques, but it wasn’t until I had two prior novels to analyze that I began to understand exactly what kind of story I was writing.

You can see this clearly in the sequence of events that culminates in Chapter 49 of Eternal Empire. Both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles contain a plot twist that occurs at approximately the same point in each novel, involving the sudden death of a supporting character at the hands of an unexpected killer. This isn’t exactly unprecedented in this kind of thriller, and if it works, it’s all in the execution—and I think it works pretty well in both cases. (In fact, the two twists are similar enough that I went to considerable lengths to disguise it. This why the scene in the latter novel takes place in a car, rather than indoors, and it’s told from the point of view of the killer, rather than the victim.) I wanted a big twist in the third novel at more or less the same spot, both because I thought a reader would want it and because it served a useful narrative purpose: it occurs at a point where the story needs a jolt of energy to carry it through the last hundred pages. Because I couldn’t pull the same exact trick yet again, I ended up inverting it: instead of an unexpected death, it would be an expected death that turned out to be something else, with the reveal that Tarkovsky had conspired with Ilya to fake his assassination. It was like taking a piece out of the template, turning it around, and inserting it into the same place again to see if it fit. And it did. But if I hadn’t had two previous novels to study, I might not have known that anything had to be there at all. And I’m a little relieved that this series is over, because I’m not sure I’d be able to do it again…

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April 14, 2016 at 9:40 am

“He had played his part admirably…”

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"Laszlo, the bosun of the megayacht..."

Note: This post is the forty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 40. You can read the previous installments here.

A few weeks ago, I briefly discussed the notorious scene in The Dark Knight Rises in which Bruce Wayne reappears—without any explanation whatsoever—in Gotham City. Bane’s henchmen, you might recall, have blown up all the bridges and sealed off the area to the military and law enforcement, and the entire plot hinges on the city’s absolute isolation. Bruce, in turn, has just escaped from a foreign prison, and although its location is left deliberately unspecified, it sure seems like it was in a different hemisphere. Yet what must have been a journey of thousands of miles and a daring incursion is handled in the space of a single cut: Bruce simply shows up, and there isn’t even a line of dialogue acknowledging how he got there. Not surprisingly, this hiatus has inspired a lot of discussion online, with most explanations boiling down to “He’s Batman.” If asked, Christopher Nolan might reply that the specifics don’t really matter, and that the viewer’s attention is properly focused elsewhere, a point that the writer John Gardner once made with reference to Hamlet:

We naturally ask how it is that, when shipped off to what is meant to be his death, the usually indecisive prince manages to hoist his enemies with their own petard—an event that takes place off stage and, at least in the surviving text, gets no real explanation. If pressed, Shakespeare might say that he expects us to recognize that the fox out-foxed is an old motif in literature—he could make up the tiresome details if he had to…

Gardner concludes: “The truth is very likely that without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter, refusing to let himself be slowed for an instant by trivial questions of plot logic or psychological consistency—questions unlikely to come up in the rush of drama, though they do occur to us as we pore over the book.” And while this might seem to apply equally well to The Dark Knight Rises, it doesn’t really hold water. The absence of an explanation did yank many of us out of the movie, however briefly, and it took us a minute to settle back in. Any explanation at all would have been better than this, and it could have been conveyed in less than a sentence. It isn’t an issue of plausibility, but of narrative flow. You could say that Bruce’s return to the city ought to be omitted, in the same way a director like Kurosawa mercilessly cuts all transitional moments: when you just need to get a character from Point A to Point B, it’s best to trim the journey as much as you can. In this instance, however, Nolan erred too much on one side, at least in the eyes of many viewers. And it’s a reminder that the rules of storytelling are all about context. You’ve got to judge each problem on its own terms and figure out the solution that makes the most sense in each case.

"He had played his part admirably..."

What’s really fascinating is how frequently Nolan himself seems to struggle with this issue. In terms of sheer technical proficiency, I’d rank him near the top of the list of all working directors, but if he has one flaw as a filmmaker, aside from his lack of humor, it’s his persistent difficulty in finding the right balance between action and exposition. Much of Inception, which is one of my ten favorite movies of all time, consists of the characters breathlessly explaining the plot to one another, and it more or less works. But he also spends much of Interstellar trying with mixed success to figure out how much to tell us about the science involved, leading to scenes like the one in which Dr. Romilly explains the wormhole to Cooper seemingly moments before they enter it. And Nolan is oddly prone to neglecting obligatory beats that the audience needs to assemble the story in their heads, as when Batman appears to abandon a room of innocent party guests to the Joker in The Dark Knight. You could say that such lapses simply reflect the complexity of the stories that Nolan wants to tell, and you might be right. But David Fincher, who is Nolan’s only peer among active directors, tells stories of comparable or greater complexity—indeed, they’re often about their own complexity—and we’re rarely lost or confused. And if I’m hard on Nolan about this, it’s only a reflection of how difficult such issues can be, when even the best mainstream director of his generation has trouble working out how much information the audience needs.

It all boils down to Thomas Pynchon’s arch aside in Gravity’s Rainbow: “You will want cause and effect. All right.” And knowing how much cause will yield the effect you need is a problem that every storyteller has to confront on a regular basis. Chapter 40 of Eternal Empire provides a good example. For the last hundred pages, the novel has been building toward the moment when Ilya sneaks onto the heavily guarded yacht at Yalta. There’s no question that he’s going to do it; otherwise, everything leading up to it would seem like a ridiculous tease. The mechanics of how he gets aboard don’t really matter, but I also couldn’t avoid the issue, or else readers would rightly object. All I needed was a solution that was reasonably plausible and that could be covered in a few pages. As it happens, the previous scene ends with this exchange between Maddy and Ilya: “But you can’t just expect to walk on board.” “That’s exactly what I intend to do.” When I typed those lines, I didn’t know what Ilya had in mind, but I knew at once that they pointed at the kind of simplicity that the story needed, at least at this point in the novel. (If it came later in the plot, as part of the climax, it might have been more elaborate.) So I came up with a short sequence in which Ilya impersonates a dockwalker looking for work on the yacht, cleverly ingratiates himself with the bosun, and slips below when Maddy provides a convenient distraction. It’s a cute scene—maybe a little too cute, in fact, for this particular novel. But it works exactly as well as it should. Ilya is on board. We get just enough cause and effect. And now we can move on to the really good stuff to come…

“That’s all I was asked to give…”

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"Bogdan spoke first..."

Note: This post is the thirty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 38. You can read the previous installments here.

Ever since I got it for Christmas, I’ve been slowly working my way through the special features for the Blu-ray of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, which, among its other pleasures, offers us the chance to listen once more to the voice of Christopher McQuarrie, one of the smartest men in movies. As with such legendary screenwriters as David Mamet or Robert Towne, nearly everything McQuarrie has to say is of interest, and his commentary track and interviews are loaded with insights into the challenges of making a huge franchise movie by the seat of your pants. (My favorite tip is that if you’re filming a scene with a lot of exposition, keep the characters in tight closeup, against a backdrop that can be easily recreated in the studio, just in case you need to reshoot the whole thing to accommodate a change in the plot.) And he tells an amusing anecdote about how the movie solved a tricky narrative problem. The film’s obvious high point is the lengthy sequence at the Vienna Opera House, culminating in the assassination of the Chancellor of Austria, but for a long time, they didn’t know how the killing tied in with the rest of the script. McQuarrie and his producer Tom Cruise brainstormed various possibilities, but they were all impossibly convoluted, and they only slowed down the story at a crucial hinge point. Finally, on the day of the shoot, Cruise came up with a single line: “Killing the Chancellor tonight was a statement—the start of a new phase.” And that, incredibly, was all they needed.

I love this kind of thing, in part because it echoes how Alfred Hitchcock solved a similar dilemma in North by Northwest—a movie that Cruise consciously evokes in Rogue Nation‘s opening scene. In his famous interview with François Truffaut, which was recently the subject of its own documentary, Hitchcock says:

My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, “What does he do?”
The counterintelligence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and an exporter.”
“But what does he sell?”
“Oh, just government secrets!” is the answer.
Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!

And the suspense genre, in particular, often boils down to an exercise in seeing how little information you need to get from one point in the story to another.

"That's all I was asked to give..."

This can also apply to what was once a series of scenes: to accelerate the narrative, you cut the sequence down to the one moment that gets the point across. Pauline Kael hints at something like this in her initial, mostly unfavorable review of Raging Bull:

[Scorsese] makes this movie out of remembered high points, leaping from one to another. When Jake is courting the fifteen-year-old platinum-blond Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), he takes her to a miniature-golf course, and their little golf ball rolls into a little wooden church and never comes out. The scene is like one of a series in an old-movie montage showing the path to marriage. But Scorsese just puts in this one step; probably for him it stands for the series.

Kael may be right, but I think it’s more likely that additional material was written, shot, or improvised, and Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker kept cutting it until they ended up with the one scene that they needed. Raging Bull, like Goodfellas and Casino, is full of this kind of compression because it covers a large expanse of time, but the same is equally true of stories that cover a lot of space. You try to skip as many transitional moments as possible, and sometimes you end up nudging the balance a bit too far in the wrong direction. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne magically reappears in the besieged Gotham City after escaping from a foreign prison, and the film doesn’t provide any information whatsoever about how he did it. It’s easy to say “Well, he’s Batman,” but the lack of even the slightest nod toward the problem momentarily takes us out of the movie—a rare but not totally uncharacteristic lapse in an otherwise superbly organized film.

Chapter 38 of Eternal Empire provides a nice example of a single moment that takes the place of what could have been an entire sequence. Earlier in the novel, I establish that Vasylenko has been sprung from prison solely because he can provide safe passage, using his connections with the criminal underworld, on Ilya’s journey across Europe. To justify this, I needed to provide at least one instance in which those contacts were employed, and it ended up taking the form of this scene, in which Ilya and Bogdan visit the home of a “bride of the brotherhood” in Yalta. It’s a cute little chapter, in which Ilya obtains some necessary equipment, learns about the next phase of his mission, and even has a brief moment of emotional connection with the woman who has given him refuge. (It’s a small touch, but it will pay off much later, in the very last scene of the entire trilogy.) What’s funny, though, is that this could have been part of a much longer story arc. In his previous appearance, Ilya was in Moldova, or nearly five hundred miles to the west, and I don’t talk at all about how he got from one place to another, although he certainly could have had a few adventures along the way. At this point in the novel, though, it’s more important to keep the story clocking along, so his encounter with Katya—whose background, I’m fairly sure, was lifted from a few paragraphs in Nicolai Lilin’s Siberian Education—has to stand in for the rest. I think that it works, and even if the reader momentarily wonders how Ilya got here, it doesn’t really matter. His next meeting, as we’re about to see, will be far more interesting…

“And what does that name have to do with this?”

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"The word on the side of your yacht..."

Note: This post is the thirtieth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 29. You can read the previous installments here.

Earlier this week, in response to a devastating article in the New York Times on the allegedly crushing work environment in Amazon’s corporate offices, Jeff Bezos sent an email to employees that included the following statement:

[The article] claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter is heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either…I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the [Times] would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

Predictably, the email resulted in numerous headlines along the lines of “Jeff Bezos to Employees: You Don’t Work in a Dystopian Hellscape, Do You?” Bezos, a very smart guy, should have seen it coming. As Richard Nixon learned a long time ago, whenever you tell people that you aren’t a crook, you’re really raising the possibility that you might be. If you’re concerned about the names that your critics might call you, the last thing you want to do is put words in their mouths—it’s why public relations experts advise their clients to avoid negative language, even in the form of a denial—and saying that Amazon isn’t a soulless, dystopian workplace is a little like asking us not to think of an elephant.

Writers have recognized the negative power of certain loaded terms for a long time, and many works of art go out of their way to avoid such words, even if they’re central to the story. One of my favorite examples is the film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Coming off Seven and Zodiac, David Fincher didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a director of serial killer movies, so the dialogue exclusively uses the term “serial murderer,” although it’s doubtful how effective this was. Along the same lines, Christopher Nolan’s superhero movies are notably averse to calling their characters by their most famous names: The Dark Knight Rises never uses the name “Catwoman,” while Man of Steel, which Nolan produced, avoids “Superman,” perhaps following the example of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which indulges in similar circumlocutions. Robert Towne’s script for Greystoke never calls its central character “Tarzan,” and The Walking Dead uses just about every imaginable term for its creatures aside from “zombie,” for reasons that creator Robert Kirkman explains:

One of the things about this world is that…they’re not familiar with zombies, per se. This isn’t a world [in which] the Romero movies exist, for instance, because we don’t want to portray it that way…They’ve never seen this in pop culture. This is a completely new thing for them.

"And what does that name have to do with this?"

Kirkman’s reluctance to call anything a zombie, which has inspired an entire page on TV Tropes dedicated to similar examples, is particularly revealing. A zombie movie can’t use that word because an invasion of the undead needs to feel like something unprecedented, and falling back on a term we know conjures up all kinds of pop cultural connotations that an original take might prefer to avoid. In many cases, avoiding particular words subtly encourages us treat the story on its own terms. In The Godfather, the term “Mafia” is never uttered—an aversion, incidentally, not shared by the original novel, the working title of which was actually Mafia. This quietly allows us to judge the Corleones according to the rules of their own closed world, and it circumvents any real reflection about what the family business actually involves. (According to one famous story, the mobster Joseph Colombo paid a visit to producer Al Ruddy, demanding that the word be struck from the script as a condition for allowing the movie to continue. Ruddy, who knew that the screenplay only used the word once, promptly agreed.) The Godfather Part II is largely devoted to blowing up the first movie’s assumptions, and when the word “Mafia” is uttered at a senate hearing, it feels like the real world intruding on a comfortable fantasy. And the moment wouldn’t be as effective if the first installment hadn’t been as diligent about avoiding the term, allowing it to build a new myth in its place.

While writing Eternal Empire, I found myself confronting a similar problem. In this case, the offending word was “Shambhala.” As I’ve noted before, I decided early on that the third novel in the series would center on the Shambhala myth, a choice I made as soon as I stumbled across an excerpt from Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern, in which she states that Vladimir Putin had taken a particular interest in the legend. A little research, notably in Andrei Znamenski’s Red Shambhala, confirmed that the periodic attempts by Russia to confirm the existence of that mythical kingdom, carried out in an atmosphere of espionage and spycraft in Central Asia, was a rich vein of material. The trouble was that the word “Shambhala” itself was so loaded with New Age connotations that I’d have trouble digging my way out from under it: a quick search online reveals that it’s the name of a string of meditation centers, a music festival, and a spa with its own line of massage oils, none of which is exactly in keeping with the tone that I was trying to evoke. My solution, predictably, was to structure the whole plot around the myth of Shambhala while mentioning it as little as possible: the name appears perhaps thirty times across four hundred pages. (The mythological history of Shambhala is treated barely at all, and most of the references occur in discussions of the real attempts by Russian intelligence to discover it.) The bulk of those references appear here, in Chapter 29, and I cut them all down as much as possible, focusing on the bare minimum I needed for Maddy to pique Tarkovsky’s interest. I probably could have cut them even further. But as it stands, it’s more or less enough to get the story to where it needs to be. And it doesn’t need to be any longer than it is…

The Best Movies of 2012, Part 2

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper

Note: The first part of the list can be found here, along with an explanation of its many omissions.

5. Looper. As Rian Johnson’s online commentary for the movie makes clear, this is the ultimate rarity: a labor of love, developed over the course of a decade, that is immediately accessible and exciting, and which knows how to tell a complicated story in quick, economical strokes. The montage that follows one character’s life over three decades may be the year’s single most bravura sequence, and although Johnson isn’t quite as good at shooting action as he is at conceiving a twisty plot, that’s a minor flaw in an otherwise remarkably assured and singular movie. In a year in which Prometheus and John Carter confused effects with storytelling, this was a small masterpiece of grounded science fiction, and should stand as an example for many filmmakers to come.

Denzel Washington in Flight

4. Flight. In some ways, this was the movie that made me most hopeful for the future of Hollywood. It isn’t an independent film or the work of a visionary auteur: rather, it’s a solid mainstream picture, based on an ambitious original screenplay, with a major star and superb director willing to tackle thorny, uncomfortable issues of character and ethical choice. Above all, it’s a slick, entertaining movie for adults that puts technology at the service of a story that comes across as old-fashioned in its belief in narrative, performance, and big moral themes. The fact that it was brought in on a modest budget and enjoyed considerable popular and critical acclaim only underlines that this is the kind of movie that studios can, and should, be making all the time.

Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

3. The Master. At this point, Paul Thomas Anderson has evolved into a director of such peculiar, hermetic intensity that it would almost be more surprising if he delivered a movie that wasn’t so elliptical, mysterious, and deeply strange. Yet for all its apparent shapelessness, it delivers more scenes, moments, and images that linger in my memory than any other movie I’ve seen all year, as rendered by Mihai Malăimare, Jr.’s gorgeous cinematography, which was scandalously denied an Oscar nomination. Anchoring it all is the ravaged presence of Joaquin Phoenix, who gives what I emphatically believe is the year’s best performance: secretive, violent, and tender, with an Easter Island face that speaks more eloquently than any dialogue ever could.

Life of Pi

2. Life of Pi. The year’s most technically astounding movie is bound to be diminished on the small screen, but its achievement goes far beyond the most lifelike special effects I’ve ever seen. As a director, Ang Lee is both hungry for new challenges and capable of doing almost anything, and he indulges in a great deal of delicious trickery—changing the aspect ratio, playing with the visual possibilities that 3D affords—without losing sight of the story’s underlying humanity. The ending is heartbreaking and inevitable, and cuts deeper than it seems at first glance: this isn’t just a love letter to the possibilities of digital filmmaking, but a meditation on the meaning and morality of storytelling itself.

Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises

1. The Dark Knight Rises. Take this, if you will, as the testimony of an avowed Christopher Nolan fanboy, but even after the inevitable backlash and nitpicking—which I don’t think is altogether warranted—I still think that this is the movie of the year. Much of its power is inseparable from the beauties of the IMAX format, which Nolan and his collaborators employ as it has never been used before, to tell the epic story of an entire city on a massive scale. Even on Blu-ray, however, its pleasures remain considerable: Bane’s voice still rumbles menacingly, and it has a more shapely, satisfying story than any of its predecessors, to the point where I’d argue that it’s a stronger picture than The Dark Knight—which makes it the best comic book movie ever made. And at a moment when superheroes seem to outnumber ordinary mortals at the multiplex, it’s an achievement that I suspect will only look better with time.

Written by nevalalee

January 23, 2013 at 9:50 am

Christopher Nolan on the art of the reaction shot

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Director Christopher Nolan

Jordan Goldberg: In closing, what would you guys say you’ve learned through this experience?

Christopher Nolan: I’ve learned to get more reaction shots. [All laugh.] I’ve learned you can never have too many reaction shots to something extraordinary. Just on a technical level. In order to portray an extraordinary figure in an ordinary world, you have to really invest in the reality of the ordinary and in the reactions of people to him. That, to me, was what was fun about taking on this character because it hadn’t been done before. He is such an extraordinary figure, but if you can believe in the world he’s in, you can really enjoy that extraordinariness and that theatricality.

The Dark Knight Trilogy: The Complete Screenplays

Written by nevalalee

December 8, 2012 at 9:50 am

Holy spoilers, Batman!

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Warning: Massive spoilers follow for The Dark Knight Rises.

At last, after building up to a showdown between a battered Batman and the terrifying Bane for more than two hours, The Dark Knight Rises treats us to what ought to be a genuinely startling revelation, in which Miranda Tate, Bruce Wayne’s lover and apparent ally, is revealed to be Talia Al Ghul, the daughter of his nemesis Ra’s Al Ghul, and the true mastermind of the plot against Gotham. This kind of twist is far from original, of course, but it’s expertly handled, and it benefits from the casting of the very appealing Marion Cotillard, of whom one couldn’t possibly think anything bad. (It also involves an elegant piece of misdirection, with a flashback that can be read two ways, as one might expect from the director of Memento and The Prestige.) Unfortunately, as I mentioned on Monday, I can only imagine how the scene must play to someone who didn’t know what was coming—because more than a year earlier, I had been assured by casting reports that Cotillard was playing Talia Al Ghul. And although the full story behind the rumor is somewhat more complicated, it still represents an inexplicable lapse at a time when studios have fiercely guarded the secrets of other movies, often to no real purpose.

Looking back, it’s interesting to see how the Talia Al Ghul rumors began to unfold. As early as January of last year, an article in the Hollywood Reporter noted that actresses ranging from Eva Green to Gemma Atherton (and even a few who weren’t former Bond girls) were being considered for a pair of female roles in the sequel to The Dark Knight, and it explicitly stated: “Sources say one character is Talia, the daughter of villain Ra’s Al Ghul.” The following month, in the same publication, Marion Cotillard’s name was mentioned for the first time, and the article noted that her role “is suspected to be that of Thalia [sic] al Ghul.” When the official casting announcement was released, however, Cotillard’s character was given as Miranda Tate, which didn’t stop rampant speculation that this might be Talia under another name. And in May, Cotillard even gave an interview, which reads very amusingly in retrospect, in which she blatantly lied to the Hollywood Reporter about her character’s true intentions: “She’s a good guy.” But does she stay that way? “Yes,” she insists.

In other words, it looks like Warner Bros. did attempt to walk back the Talia Al Ghul rumors after they became widespread, and for that, I suppose, they deserve some credit. For someone like me, though, it was too little, too late: as far as I was concerned, this character was Talia Al Ghul, and ironically, the studio’s initial secrecy only allowed the rumor to take hold. Reading over the original casting reports, it’s tempting to wonder what happened. Was the Talia Al Ghul story simply a piece of wild fan speculation—similar to the ones that had Philip Seymour Hoffman cast as the Penguin, Naomi Watts as Vicki Vale, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Alberto Falcone—that actually turned out to be true? Or was it a real tip from a studio insider that was subsequently disavowed? The “sources” cited in that first Hollywood Reporter story make me suspect that it was, in fact, the latter, which means that someone at the studio legitimately blew one of the few interesting surprises in any recent Hollywood movie. And I don’t think I would have taken the rumors at face value if they hadn’t been reported with such apparent authority.

So what’s a movie lover to do? Clearly, this was an exceptional case, in which just knowing the name of an existing character conveyed enough information to significantly undermine the experience of watching the film itself. And the studio did a commendable job of concealing a similar revelation about the character played by Gordon-Levitt—although this particular spoiler is now cheerfully offered by Google Autocomplete. But if you spend any time online, it’s impossible to avoid these sorts of casting rumors entirely. I don’t often visit movie rumor sites, and get most of my news from the A.V. Club, but in this case, I still ended up knowing more than I wanted to know. The bottom line, I guess, is that we should be skeptical of a studio’s motives for concealing or leaking information: secrecy, or the lack thereof, is just a marketing tool, which means that crucial plot points can be revealed without consideration for the audience, while other movies are cloaked in an atmosphere of great intrigue for no reason whatsoever. In short, we shouldn’t trust anyone. Bruce Wayne probably wishes he’d done the same.

Written by nevalalee

July 26, 2012 at 9:43 am

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