Emma Thomas met Christopher Nolan while they were both students majoring in English literature at University College in London, England, and they were married during their last year at the school. Hardcore film buffs, Thomas and Nolan organized a film society and arranged screenings of classic movies for their fellow students; then used the money they earned from selling tickets to produce a 16 mm black-and-white film (Following), which premiered at the 1999 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. While in Park City, they saw The Hi-Line, over at the Sundance Festival, and made it a point to find the film’s cinematographer, Wally Pfister, ASC. Thus began a creative partnership that would stretch over the breadth of Thomas and Nolan’s career – Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight – and their latest effort, Inception.
Thomas juggles many duties in helping to bring Nolan’s fertile, cinematic visions to the screen – reading scripts as they evolve, bouncing back ideas, and, of course, acting as mother to the pair’s three pre-teen children. She has, for the most part, hired the same production team over the course of her six films with Nolan, filling in elements as their global locations demand. [Inception was shot in six different countries!] As Bob Fisher discovered, there may not be another producer in the industry quite like Emma Thomas. Just please don’t ask her anything about Batman 3 until after she takes her family away on a vacation!
ICG: What’s your first memory of Chris talking about Inception? Emma Thomas: I can’t remember exactly when he first came up with the idea. He has been talking about this subject for some time. I read a script for the first time after we made Insomnia. He had only written 80 pages, and it was quite different than the final version. Either the timing wasn’t right or Chris didn’t feel he had gotten the story to the place he wanted. After we finished The Dark Knight, we were talking about what should come next. Chris pulled the 80 pages out of the drawer, and said, I think it will work.
What was the inspiration for the script? Chris has always been interested in dreams and what they mean. I remember him talking about the differences between dreams and reality years ago. He asked: The only thing that is totally safe is what is inside your head, but what if that isn’t even true?
How did that idea evolve as time went on? The idea evolved enormously in terms of what could be done. At one point we were talking about it being a small project, but realized it would be difficult to make a film about the infinite possibilities of the world of dreams while limiting ourselves in terms of scope. The story has changed a lot over the years as he thought about and worked on the script. The general concept has remained the same, but Chris added a lot of character development, which makes the film work on an emotional level. He learned that you could make a big movie with lots of exciting action and scale, which also has interesting and empathetic characters. I think some of the ways the story has evolved is a reflection of how his own life has changed. For instance, we had children, and that affects how you see the world. I think a lot of what happened in Chris’ life during the past eight years informed how the story changed in script rewrites.
Chris conceived the idea, wrote the script and directed Inception, but filmmaking is a collaborative form of storytelling. Share your thoughts about that. One thing I love and that amazes me every time we make a film is the fact that we can be anywhere in the world and everyone comes together as a team. We had a core group of people who traveled to six countries – France, Morocco, Canada, Los Angeles, London and Japan. The day after we arrived we were shooting in new places with new people supporting the core group with no compromises made.
And how did your director handle that challenge, from the producer’s point-of-view? I’m full of admiration for his ability to keep the big picture of what he wants audiences to see on the screen in his head while the rest of us concentrate on our pieces of the puzzle. Part of his job is shepherding collaborators.
He did a lot of brave things, including using the VistaVision format to film aerial scenes.
Chris is determined to put images on the screen that most closely approximate how people would experience those things in real life. He used VistaVision for plate shots in other films, but this time he used it in situations where the story calls for a completely immersive experience. You feel like you are a character in the movie when the images are as perfect as the VistaVision shots in Inception.
What was it like dealing with people in six different countries? It was definitely a logistical challenge, but we had a really amazing production team, (executive producer) Chris Brigham had a great team, but it was definitely challenging. None of us had ever done anything like this film before. We went to three countries on The Dark Knight. Six countries took it to a whole other level. Obviously, there were logistical challenges as well as trying to keep everyone we were working with in different countries on the same page. But Wally (Pfister) and many other people on the production team have worked with Chris before, and that simplified communications. Honestly, there were moments when I asked Chris, do you really need to produce this film in six countries? Can’t we make it four or even five! But, he had his vision of what the scope of the film should be to go with the subject matter. It went fantastically well without a hitch. We managed to finish early and under budget.
When I watched the finished film during postproduction, I was really happy that we did all the things we did. We can do amazing things on a set pretending to be in Morocco, but the energy feels different when we were shooting at real locations. There’s something almost indescribable about watching film that was shot in all those different places – it’s a different energy.
Tell us about the decision to use a Photo-Sonics camera. There is a lot of slow motion in dream and action scenes. Wally did extensive tests during preproduction. Chris and Wally wanted to do it right to the ‘nth degree. After seeing Wally’s preproduction tests, both of them agreed that using the Photo-Sonics camera was the best way to do it.
Did the story evolve as you were producing it? Chris is always polishing and refining scripts while we are shooting films, but the main themes are locked in. He spent a lot of time with Leonardo DiCaprio talking about his character during preproduction. Leo had an enormous impact on how his character is portrayed to pull the audience deeper into the story.
It sounds like he is more than a little flexible. There is no simple answer. Chris is flexible in terms of making changes in his script if he thinks something different will work better, but when you are shooting a movie in six countries, you have to do what it takes to stay on schedule.
How would you describe his collaboration with Wally? They are like one person during preproduction and on the set. One of them begins to explain an idea, and the other one finishes the sentence.
What role do you think movies play in our social culture? Are they just entertainment, or do you believe they affect how we think about the world? There are different types of movies. Some are pure entertainment, and others strive to be something beyond that. I like to think our films will stay with people beyond those two or two-and-a-half hours they are watching them, and make an impact on how they think and feel about things. There is a place for both types of films.
What are your observations about Chris and Wally’s collaboration? It’s an incredible relationship that has evolved over the years. I love watching them work together. There’s sort of magic on the set. There is no hesitancy or miscommunications. I’m not saying they don’t discuss options. They spent a lot of time during preproduction discussing the script and what was right for the movie. Wally has a great sense of story. Working on a film with the two of them is a dream for me because, apart from the fact that they create magic together, they are super fast and there is never any drama between them – just the mutual respect they have for each other. Chris had met with six, or maybe it was eight, cinematographers to talk about the script for Memento before he saw Wally’s film at Sundance. Wally was working on a film in Alabama. His agent said that he wasn’t sure that he would be able to fly into town to talk with Chris about the film. We are hugely grateful he made that flight. I have to believe it was fate that brought them together.
What do you guys do for an encore after Inception? We are going to go on holiday and think about that.
photo by Stephen Vaughan