The son of an English copywriter and an American flight attendant, director Christopher Nolan split his childhood between London and Chicago, where he would eventually film his career’s biggest hits: “Batman Begins” (2005) and 2008’s “The Dark Knight.”
For his latest, the cerebral thriller “Inception” opening Friday, Nolan went international again, shooting in Paris, Tokyo and Morocco. Yet the most spectacular scenery in “Inception,” in which a team of tech-savvy thieves extracts valuable secrets from the dreams of their sleeping victims, exists not in the physical universe, but in the mind.
It’s an idea Nolan, 39, has been nurturing for a decade — an adventure set in the subconscious, where the imagination, liberated from the constraints of reality, is free to do what it will.
“My primary interest in making ‘Inception’” he says, “is the notion that the mind, while you’re asleep, can create an entire world that you’re experiencing without ever realizing it. That says a lot about the creative potential of the human mind. It’s fascinating.”
Before immersing themselves in the hallucinatory maze Nolan first envisioned while basking in the success of his challenging 2000 breakthrough, “Memento,” his cast, including leading man Leonardo DiCaprio, diligently did their homework — to a point.
“I’m not a big dreamer,” says DiCaprio, 35. “I never have been. I tried to take a traditional approach to my research — I read Freud’s book on dream analysis — but this is Chris Nolan’s dream world. It has its own set of rules.
“Obviously, there are emotions we suppress during the day and underdeveloped thoughts that our mind fires off as we sleep. When they produce these surreal story structures, we should pay attention.”
Nolan credits DiCaprio with helping him develop the emotional arc of the story, which the director first pitched as a brilliantly imagined heist — clever enough, he says, but difficult to follow.
That satisfied neither Nolan nor his star, who worked together to make “Inception” more accessible.
“If you’re trying to reach an audience, writing something genuine is the way to go,” says Nolan, who prefers to inform his stories from personal experience rather than research.
“When I first pitched the project, I had the heist thing, and I had the relationship between architecture and [the composition of] dreams. But it took me a long time to find this idea of emotionally connecting with the story. And that has to happen — you have to take on the story as your own. By the time you get near the end, it starts to feel a little irrelevant as to where you started from.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
Running time 2 hours 22 minutes