03/28/2008 02:46 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Batman's Burden: A Director Confronts Darkness And Death

Christopher Nolan, the director of "The Dark Knight" -- the follow-up to his 2005 franchise reboot, "Batman Begins" -- is unperturbed by the rain, but a tiny detail irks him. "Hey, buster!" he shouts to the stuntman, craning his neck skyward and raising his voice for the first time all day (politely, as ever, but enough so he can be heard). "Could you turn yourself a little more to the left?"

In so many ways this isn't what you'd expect of a $180 million Hollywood comic-book movie sequel with a zillion moving parts, a cast of thousands and sets from here to Hong Kong. Anyone else would shoot indoors, use digital effects or wait for clear skies; Mr. Nolan rolls with the weather's punches, believing that the messiness of reality can't be faked. Another filmmaker would leave a shot like this in the hands of a second-unit director, but Mr. Nolan doesn't use one; if it's on the screen, he directed it, and his longtime cinematographer, Wally Pfister, worked the camera. Stars on any other movie would have fled to their trailers to wait in comfort until needed again. Here, Gary Oldman is watching and shivering along with everybody else, cracking jokes to keep warm.

Yet Mr. Nolan, 37, has barely changed his approach to filmmaking since his 2000 indie-smash "Memento," the film noir in reverse starring Guy Pearce that Mr. Nolan's brother, Jonathan, dreamed up, and Christopher Nolan made for $5 million. "A movie is a movie," he says. So he's still scribbling new dialogue on the set, improvising camera moves as he goes, letting his actors decide when it's time to move on and otherwise racing through each day as if his money might run out. It's just that his jazz combo of a crew has mushroomed into a philharmonic -- with whole new sections of prosthetics artists,special-effects wizards and so on. "But we're still all riffing off of him," Mr. Pfister says.

That kind of maestro is just what Warner Brothers wanted five years ago when it hired Mr. Nolan to restore a jewel of a property that had become a laughingstock with Joel Schumacher's 1997 reviled "Batman and Robin," best remembered for George Clooney's nipple suit.

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