At this point, it's probably safe to say that any person excited to Inception has either absorbed every single article on the internet about it, or shut off all routes to the outside world in order not to have the film spoiled for them. However, the truth is that Christopher Nolan's movie is surprisingly difficult to spoil, because revealing even most of the parts of its plot says little about how they are ultimately assembled.
That said, Cinematical joined a phalanx of press at the film's Los Angeles press day to discuss all of those unspoken details. Nolan, cast members Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, and Ellen Page, and composer Hans Zimmer eagerly offered their own explanations and observations about Inception, and we've assembled nine of the most important insights they provided into the construction and conception of the film that we feel won't betray that feeling of discovery when you finally watch it. (In other words, we preserved all of the juiciest parts of the picture's set-up, but protected spoiler-wary readers from knowing anything about how they pay off.)
1. According to Nolan, Inception isn't merely the culmination of his filmmaking career thus far, but the realization of lifelong obsessions. "I've been fascinated by dreams my whole life," he explained. "I think the relationship between movies and dreams is something that's always interested me, and I liked the idea of trying to portray dreams on film. And I'd been working on the script for some time, really about ten years in the form that you've seen it in, [with] this kind of heist structure. I think really for me, the primary interest in dreams and in making this film is this notion that while you're asleep you can create an entire world that you're also experiencing without realizing that you're doing that."
Admitting he first pitched the film after finishing his 2002 film Insomnia, he said the gestation period between then and now allowed him to more fully flesh out his ideas. "Really, the pitch was very much the movie you see, although I hadn't figured out the emotional core of the story," he revealed. "I think I sort of grew into the film in a sense. I had the heist theme, I had the relationship between architecture and dreams, the idea that you would use an architect to design a dream for somebody else and all of that. All of those things were in place for several years, but it took me a long time to sort of find this idea of emotionally connecting with the story."
2. Appropriately, Nolan relied less on research and existing information about dreams for his storytelling than his own ideas what the dream world would be like. "I took the approach in writing Inception that I did when I was writing Memento which is I tend to just examine my own process of, in this case dreaming, and try and analyze how that works and how that might be changed and manipulated," he explained. "How a rule set might emerge from my own process. I think a lot of what I find you want to do with research is just confirming things you want to do, but if the research contradicts what you want to do, you tend to go ahead and do it anyway. So at a certain point I realized that if you're trying to reach an audience, being as subjective as possible and really trying to write from something genuine is the way to go."
Nolan indicated he designed the film to synthesize the world of the imagination and the imaginary worlds within movies. "When you look a the idea of being able to create a limitless world and use it almost as a playground for action and adventure and so forth, I naturally gravitate towards cinematic worlds, whether it's the Bond films and things like that," he said. "So without being too self-conscious about it or without too much intention as I was writing it, I certainly allowed my mind to wander where it would naturally and I think a lot of the tropes from different genres of movies, heist films, spy films, that kind of thing, and they therefore sort of naturally sit in that world.
3. Despite the film's focus on dreams, star Leonardo DiCaprio prefers empirical information over imagination. "It was interesting being part of this film, because I'm not a big dreamer," DiCaprio admitted. I remember fragments of my dreams, and I tried to take a traditional sort of approach to researching this project and doing preparation for it. But I realized that this is Chris Nolan's dream world, and doing that, it was basically [about] being able to sit down with Chris for two months every other day and talk about the structure of this dream world, and the rules that apply in it."
Nevertheless, given that Inception is following in the footsteps of Shutter Island, a film similarly obsessed with the world of the mind, DiCaprio copped to an appetite for characters more complex than their description and dialogue suggest. "These were characters and filmmakers and plot structures that I was compelled to do and I'm lucky to be able to do," he said. "So I jump on those opportunities. I traditionally have always tried to work with the best directors I can. These types of films that are psychologically sort of dark at times, I find extremely exciting to do because there's always something to think about. There's nothing more boring than to show up on set and say a line and know that your character means exactly what they say."
4. DiCaprio and Nolan were ironically like-minded about their execution of the film's fantastical content, even if their respective approaches to it were different. "The earliest conversations I had with Chris is how both of us have a hard time with science fiction," DiCaprio indicated. "We have a little bit of an aversion to it because it's hard for us to emotionally invest in worlds that are too far detached from what we know. That's what's interesting about Chris Nolan's science fiction worlds – they're visually deeply rooted in things that we've seen before. There are cultural references and it feels like a world that is tactile that we understand that we could jump into and it's not too much of a leap of faith to make. But emotionally as well as far as the character's journey, I took everything as if it was [real] You have to. Otherwise you're not invested in the character, you're not invested in the character's journey, and you're not going to make it believable to an audience."
5. Marion Cotillard endured a similarly challenging process trying to come up with a coherent definition of Mal, her character, to work with from one scene to the next. "I had to base my character on different kind of inspirations that I had," she said. "Usually when I start to work and to prepare for a movie, [I look for] some inspiration - different kinds of human beings. It can be someone I know, someone I don't, a girl, a boy. Usually when I start, quite right away some inspirations come. This time I was waiting and nobody came, and I thought maybe I should be inspired by the blank page."
Ultimately Cotillard said she settled on a combination of her director's own dreamy creativity, and cues from DiCaprio's character – although for the sake of spoilers, declined to reveal which ones. "I started thinking about Chris Nolan's imagination and that was my inspiration, and that didn't take the form of a human being. Then I was also very inspired by Cobb because, because, because, because..."
6. Co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt's challenges turned out to be more physical than intellectual, but the young actor embraced them all the same – albeit to the boredom of the stunt team. Nolan revealed, "We had a stunt guy who looks exactly like Joe made up perfectly, and he stood there three weeks on-set and didn't do a thing because Joe insisted on doing absolutely everything himself, apart from one shot." Gordon-Levitt, meanwhile, described the process as an exhilarating combination of pleasure and pain. "It was just about the most fun I've ever had on a movie set," he said. "It was also probably the most pain I've ever been in on a movie set, physically - but you know, pain in a good way."
7. Inception reunited Nolan with composer Hans Zimmer, and the duo shared on of their most intimate and effective collaborations to date. "I like films where the music and the sound design, at times, are almost indistinguishable," Nolan observes. "And one of the interesting things that happened early on is the Edith Piaf song ["Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien"] was always in the script - long before Marion came on the film - and right at the beginning of our post-production process, I had to make the decision of 'do I get the sound department or do I get the music department?' What I decided to do was give it to Hans and let him run with it and see if in some way it might inform elements of the score, because we talked in early conversations about how towards the action climax of the film, there was going to be a need for the score to interweave seamlessly with this source cue, which is and extremely difficult technical thing to do."
Zimmer corroborated the unconventional nature of their work together on the film. "Chris and I have a strange way of working from the non-movie process," Zimmer observed. "After all these conversations and reading the script and more conversations, Chris went out and shot the films, [but] he wouldn't show it to me until I had written the music. Not out of meanness, or anything, it just sort of seemed an interesting idea to see if there was some synchronicity and letting me use my imagination to the fullest instead of being constricted by cuts and images. In a funny way, what I think we did was a sort of shared dreaming thing, and we did prove it's possible. Because when I finally saw the film, and when Chris had laid in all my music, I was actually surprised how well these two worlds existed together."
8. Inception has been buzzing on moviegoers' minds for more than a year, but the reason most don't know more about it is due to Nolan's dexterous and delightfully secretive marketing campaign. "It's certainly difficult to balance marketing a film and putting it out there to everybody with wanting to keep it fresh for the audience," Nolan observed. "My most enjoyable moviegoing experiences have always been going to a movie theater, sitting there and the lights go down and a film comes on the screen that you don't know everything about, and you don't know every plot turn and every character movement that's going to happen."
Nolan admitted that to a certain extent, that level of mystery manufactured its own amount of hype. "I suppose that at a point, keeping something secret does lend itself to its own degree of hype," he said. "But I don't really think of it as secrecy. I just think of it as we invite the audience to come and see it based on some of the imagery and some of the plot ideas and the premise, but we don't want to give everything away. I think too much is given away too often in movie marketing today."
9. Whether it's appropriate or ironic, Ellen Page, who plays one of the film's dream architects, is decidedly mum on making a case for seeing the film, even when asked. Prodded to provide an explanation of the film for her friends, Page demurred, "I say just please, don't ask questions and don't look at anything and just please go see it. I'm the last person to tell my friends to go see something I'm in, but this is definitely a film that I'm just so thrilled about. And I'm more thrilled about the fact that everybody seems so excited and I just feel so grateful to be in a Christopher Nolan film, let alone this film."
Page admitted that her own moviegoing motivation seems to run contrary to many of the other audience members that are her age. "Typically, I'm of the mind that I love how Chris does the quote-unquote secrecy, but I'm so young that I've been in a time when everything is on the internet. Sometimes I see a trailer and I'm thrilled to say that I've just seen the whole movie without paying for it," she said with a laugh.
"So I actually go the route of just don't ask – and don't sniff around. Just have an absolute blast and an exciting, cerebral time when you see it."