Director Chris Nolan has always liked a challenge.
His breakthrough film Memento began at the end and ran backward. Five years later he resurrected the Batman franchise with his acclaimed Batman Begins and triumphed again with smash hit The Dark Knight.
His new film Inception, which he also wrote and produced, hits South African cinemas on 30 July. It is his first sci-fi film, and it tells the mind-bending tale of dream thieves working inside people's subconscious thoughts.
With a reported budget of $160-million and locations in Britain, Japan, France and Morocco, Inception combines the huge scale of his Batman films with the cerebral trickiness of 2002's Insomnia and 2006's The Prestige. Nolan spoke to Reuters about his new movie.
Q: Inception is about dreams. Do you have vivid dreams?
A: "I do, depending on my schedule. If I get up early, I don't really remember them. But I find dreams very interesting. I'm fascinated by them. They're one of the most mysterious processes of the human mind. And all films are like a dream state, in a way."
Q: The last time we spoke you said you wanted to make a "much smaller film" after the Batman films. What happened?
A: "It obviously didn't turn out to be that smaller film. It's a pretty complex, large-scale action film about dreams that hopefully combines some of the things I've been interested in exploring in my smaller films - memory, perception - with some of the grand scale techniques that I've used in bigger films, like The Dark Knight.
Q: Is it true you first had the idea as a teenager?
A: "Yes, I'd actually been interested in doing a film set in the world of dreams ever since I was a kid, and about 10 years ago I settled in on this heist movie plot and structure, but it took me the last 10 years to finish it and get it right."
Q: Why so long?
A: "It took me a while to figure out how to make an emotional connection with the material, as heist movies tend to be almost deliberately superficial in terms of emotion, and all about procedure. And I realised it had to be more about the human condition and human emotions, and that I had to work on the characters - the things that help an audience connect with the ideas, however crazy they may seem."
Q: Michael Caine, who has a key role, said that you went over to his house and made him read the script while you waited. He called you "the most secretive director I've ever worked with." Why so secretive?
A: "To be honest, it's more a case of wanting to work in private and finish the film before I show it to people. What I most prize is going into a cinema and seeing a film without knowing every single thing about it, so that hopefully you can be excited by it in surprising ways. And it becomes very difficult to do that when you have intense media scrutiny, so I try to keep it off the radar as much as possible."
Q: What did Leonardo DiCaprio bring to the project?
A: "I'd wanted to work with him for years, and of course he brings great acting chops and tremendous movie star charisma. The value of that is that the audience basically gravitates towards him and they feel comfortable with him as a guide and the emotional core of the story. He's one of those special performers who just draws the eye, whatever he's doing."
Q: This is a very serious film in the middle of all the summer popcorn movies. Are you worried audiences may not be in the mood for it?
A: "There are a few laughs, mainly from the supporting players. Leo was very dedicated to playing the emotional truth of the character, and that character is very serious and somewhat damaged. So there's nothing tongue-in-cheek about the film. But I think audiences can go and just enjoy the ride. There are ideas that might rattle around in your brain afterward, but I think most people will just enjoy it as an action movie, without analyzing it too much."
* Inception opens across SA on 30 July. Watch the mind-bending trailer here.