The Dark Knight represents something of a turning-point in superhero movies.While films about strong men in tights punching lumps out of one another have always made for decent box office, they had r...
The Dark Knight represents something of a turning-point in superhero movies.
While films about strong men in tights punching lumps out of one another have always made for decent box office, they had rarely been taken particularly seriously by film industry insiders.
All that changed in 2008 when Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight made a billion dollars, shot to the top of critical rankings everywhere, and earned a posthumous Oscar for co-star Heath Ledger.
Ledger's chilling, magnetic performance as Batman's arch-nemesis The Joker is undoubtedly the dark heart of the film. And we have some interesting details about that for you.
But there are a couple of other brilliant little details that make The Dark Knight the most important superhero movie of all time.
Heath Ledger designed the Joker makeup himself
Rather than the thick white theatrical panstick that was used to paint the face of Jack Nicholson in the 1989 Batman film – and infamously used to cover Cesar Romero's moustache when he appeared in the 1966 Batman film and series, the Joker makeup used in The Dark Knight was a mixture of joke shop clown makeup and high-street cosmetics sourced from a local pharmacy by Heath Ledger before production started.
Director Christopher Nolan was so delighted with Ledger's test shots that he asked the film's makeup department to use them as the basis for the Joker's look.
This Joker doesn't have the traditional 'chemical bath' origin of his comic book forebear, and so the traditional rictus grin is replaced by a couple of nasty-looking scars.
Prosthetics supervisor Conor O’Sullivan told Empire magazine: "Once I had it in my mind that it was going to be scars, rather than a fixed smile, I immediately thought of the punk and skinhead era and some unsavoury characters I had come across during this time. The terminology for this type of wound is a ‘Glasgow’ or ‘Chelsea smile’. My references had to be real. A delivery of fruit machines was made to the estate near my workshop and the man delivering them had a ‘Chelsea smile'. I plucked up the courage to ask him for a photo and he told me the story of how he had got his scars while being involved with “a dog fight”; needless to say I didn't pursue the matter, but the photos proved to be very useful reference."
O’Sullivan's prosthetic scars informed Ledger's performance. The Joker's constant creepy lip-licking was an effort by Ledger to keep the uncomfortable prosthetics in place.
Gerry Grennell, dialect coach on the film, revealed the tic started with Ledger trying to push the 'scars' back into position after they had been knocked out of position.
The 'truck flip' was real. And very expensive.
While we have come to accept that much of modern cinema is created inside computers nowadays – even details like Michael Douglas's younger face in Ant Man were CGI rather than traditional make-up – most of what you see in The Dark Knight really happened.
Director of photography Wally Pfister explained: “Chris Nolan kept challenging everybody to come up with ideas of how we could beef up these action sequences and do something no one had ever done before... this idea came up to flip this 18-wheeler over without use of CGI.”
At the climax of the film, Batman – riding his ‘Batpod’ motorcycle, duels with the Joker’s huge truck.
He uses steel cables to ‘trip it up’ and send it end-over and down a narrow street.
There really is a stunt driver in that semi rig as a piston shoots out of it and propels it into the air.
The driver, Jim Wilkey, did the stunt twice. Once for a rehearsal and to test camera angles and a second time that you see on screen.
The Dark Knight was one of the first times that the large-format IMAX cameras were used in a dramatic cinema feature rather than for nature documentaries.
Although Christopher Nolan tends not to use multi-camera setups in his work he made an exception for this stunt in order to be sure of capturing the most shots of this hard-to-repeat stunt.
In 2008 there were four IMAX cameras in the world and they were all trained on Jim Wilkey and his truck for this shot. At $250,000 per camera it was literally a million-dollar shot.
Perhaps it’s a blessing that the truck only fell on one of them.
After The Dark Knight there were, briefly, only three IMAX cameras in the world
It's a family affair
Christopher Nolan co-wrote The Dark Knight's script with his younger brother Jonathan. They've worked on a number of successful projects together, including The Dark Knight's followup The Dark Knight Rises, The Prestige and Interstellar.
Remarking on their collaboration, Jonathan notes: "I've always suspected that it has something to do with the fact that he's left-handed and I'm right-handed, because he is somehow able to look at my ideas and flip them around in a way that's just a bit more twisted and interesting. It's great to be able to work with him that way."
In another familial twist, Vincent Riotta - the British-born actor who dubbed over Heath Ledger's lines for the Italian dub of the film – was the son of the actor who replaced Jack Nicholson's lines in Batman.
Finally, in the scene where The Joker, disguised as a nurse, confronts the now-disfigured Harvey Dent he is wearing an ID badge that bears the name Matilda, which is his daughter's name.
The Joker scared the hell out of Sir Michael Caine
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One of the tensest scenes in the film shows The Joker and his gang bursting into a fund-raiser that billionaire Bruce Wayne is throwing for Assistant District Attorney Harvey Dent.
As Wayne's butler and confidante Alfred, veteran actor Sir Michael Caine was supposed to have a brief interaction with the villain as he arrives. But he was so rattled by Ledger's convincing performance as the sociopathic clown that he completely forgot his lines.
He later drew a comparison with Jack Nicholson's performance in Tim Burton's Batman:
“Jack was like a clown figure, benign but wicked, maybe a killer old uncle. He could be funny and make you laugh.
"Heath’s gone in a completely different direction to Jack, he’s like a really scary psychopath."
The Batpod is real. And only one man could master it.
It may seem overly sentimental to feel sorrow when a fictional vehicle bites the dust, but when the Batman’s iconic ‘Tumbler’ Batmobile bites the dust after an heroic sacrifice it’s hard to suppress a twinge of sadness.
But erupting from the shattered super-car, like a phoenix from the ashes, comes the Batpod - a fat-tyred monster motorcycle armed with.50-cal. machine guns, twin 40 mm cannons, and a grappling hook.
Designer Nathan Crowley’s concept for the bike looked amazing, but it proved entirely unrideable. The width of the tyres meant that it just couldn't steer.
And of course director Nolan wanted everything done for real.
The Dark Knight’s special effects supervisor Chris Corbould explained to Popular Mechanics:
"We skimmed layers of rubber off and then started changing the angles of the steering joints and things like that
“But that didn't stop the rear tires from blowing in test after test."
Stunt driver Jean-Pierre Goy collaborated with the production designers, trimming down the beast's rear wheel until he could just about pilot it. No-one else ever could.
While star Christian Bale expressed a willingness to try, the stunt was considered uninsurable.
Nevertheless, with Jean-Pierre Goy in control the Batpod barreling down a street towards the Joker, kevlar and carbon fibre frame flexing to adjust its geometry as it turns, is one of the iconic images of a truly innovative and amazing movie.
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