Their films, styles and storylines couldn’t be more different, but directors Christopher Nolan, Baz Luhrmann and David Fincher share a common conviction: that mega-budget spectacles aren’t just for the kids.
With their biggest budgets ever — burning through a collective sum of roughly $500 million — and commanding brigades of production crew and effects personnel, they maintained a steadfast commitment to making, as Luhrmann calls them, “large-scale adult cinematic works.”
Both Nolan and Luhrmann evoke “Lawrence of Arabia” when speaking of their respective epic entertainments “The Dark Knight” and “Australia,” while Fincher calls his latest, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “the kind of movie that Hollywood used to make.” Indeed, such mammoths are a rare breed these days — but with A-list stars, or in the case of “Batman,” a dependable franchise — here is ample proof they are still possible.
But how did they accomplish this task, making serious, Oscar-caliber movies that justify such an enormous bottom line?
For Nolan, pyrotechnics and visual effects are not antithetical to sophisticated, character-driven storytelling but, rather, inextricably related.
“I always felt the way to get the most visceral experience was by having characters you care about, and all the grand-scale effects would be enhanced by that,” he says. “It’s not a competition between character and action. Credible characterizations drive the action.
“That’s the essence of movie storytelling,” Nolan continues. “It’s always based on the human element, and you try to build the spectacle from that.” On “The Dark Knight” specifically, Nolan says the many explosions and mayhem “builds out directly from the character of the Joker and Heath Ledger’s performance.”
Similarly, Luhrmann says, “It wasn’t just about watching things blow up.” In making the film’s climactic Japanese airplane attack “operatic,” he says, “What I tried to do was lock it down to those personal, emotional, internal experiences that happen during a cataclysmic event. This is why films of this scale are not financed anymore, because you have to walk this razor’s edge of being both broadly and wildly entertaining while at the same time addressing something of universal human worth.”
If Nolan and Luhrmann grounded their big-scale efforts in the character-driven filmmaking in which they got their start (i.e. “Memento,” “Strictly Ballroom”), Fincher tackled the immensity of his biggest project to date by dividing elements into their component parts, and then conquering them. “How do you eat a whale?” asks Fincher rhetorically to describe his process. “One bite at a time.”
“If you read the script,” says Fincher of the decades covered in “Benjamin Button,” “you might go, ‘Holy shit.’ But when you plan it out, and you say, this is going to be in a tank at Sony, and this is going to be in Montreal, and you start breaking it down into its fractal pieces, it’s a lot of material, but it’s not as huge as it seemed upon first blush.”
While Fincher admits he spent some 25 months worrying about whether the special effects would succeed — whether Brad Pitt’s 80-year-old face would look credible on the body of a small actor — he was perfectly comfortable working with those high-tech tools needed to pull off the illusion. “I work in Hollywood,” he says. “Isn’t that the fun part?”
Fincher describes himself as a “workflow guy,” heralding a data-processing system called PIX (Project Information Exchange), which includes everything related to the film from the script to location photos to dailies, as “one of the ways we made ‘Benjamin’ possible. To me, that’s as important as making the digital process work or having the right camera,” he says. “It’s not just about the aesthetic, but how do you communicate that aesthetic among 350 people?”
Nolan and Luhrmann also faced technological hurdles unique to their big-budget productions. Nolan famously shoots major action setpieces with as little CG as possible; the production actually flipped an 18-wheel semitruck on a Chicago street. But shooting major scenes with the cumbersome Imax camera, a first for a major feature, presented plenty of problems.
“The most obvious physical burden is the size of the camera,” says Nolan, “the size of the film stock, the weight of the camera, the time it takes to move the camera — and they’re incredibly noisy, which makes it difficult to record sound.”
But Nolan says the extraordinary resolution more than made up for the challenges, both in terms of action and character. “It allows you to give the audience an incredible roller-coaster ride in a car chase, but it also allows you to make the Joker’s first close-up something very memorable,” he says. “You can imagine what he smells like; that’s how close you can get.”
On “Australia,” Luhrmann managed to evoke a 1940s-50s feel by marrying on-location filming — 1,500 actual heads of cattle running through the Australian Outback — plus studio pickups, CG effects and old stock footage, which was then rebuilt by computer to match with the newly photographed scenes.
“We had to invent a lot of the processes,” he says. “It wasn’t easy.”
But above and beyond marshalling tons of cattle, horses and kids, navigating new types of effects and the 100-degree Australian desert with a crew of hundreds — as well as balancing that with the needs of Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman — Luhrmann says the ultimate challenge was fear. “The white-knuckled terror that surrounds a director because of the huge fiscal investment,” he calls it.
But like his fellow epic auteurs, Luhrmann would put that fear “in a steel box every morning,” he says, and just get down to work.
Fincher, meanwhile, puts it this way: “You look at it and go: What do we need to say, what do we want to say, and when push comes to shove, go with what we need to say, then prioritize and fight like hell to get what you need to pull it off.”