The Story Behind Inception

Remember the ad campaign for The Matrix way back in 1999?

You know, the What is the Matrix? one. Funny to think that just 11 short years ago, nobody had any clue what they were in for.

Well, just a pinch over a decade later, Christopher Nolan’s first post- Dark Knight project, the ambiguously titled Inception , is causing similar levels of head-scratching, web speculation and full-on fanboy aggro.

Not that we’re going to spend the next few pages making lazy comparisons. But, really, it’s pretty commendable.

In this film-crazed world, where on-set spies leak details by the truckload and copies of scripts are fished out of landfills by over-eager groupies who just can’t wait eight months ‘til the release , keeping anything under wraps is something that deserves a congratulatory pat on the back.

Maybe even a cigar.

Well, we’ve done some digging (yes, we are the aggravated fanboys, and we want facts dammit ). What is Inception ? Who’s in it? Just what the heck is it all about? And, more importantly, why should we care?

We investigate...

Read our Inception review .

Next: Case File One: A "small" story [page-break]

Case File One: A “small” story

To begin the investigation, let’s travel back a year to February 2009.

It’s seven months since Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight gripped the world, dodging the killer sequel curse to produce something that big bruv Batman Begins could be proud of.

We gave it five stars, and called it “a dazzling, determined superhero classic”. Added we: “Ledger puts Nicholson in the shade. With Batman Begins Nolan set the bar; with TDK he's just raised it.”

Time for Batman 3 , right?

Wrong. Just as Nolan took a break to helm a more personal project after Batman Begins , forging pretzel-shaped period piece The Prestige , the director decided to make something outside of the Batverse before contemplating a third stab at the superhero franchise.

So, what would it be? A taut, small-budget thriller? A character-driven, introspective drama? We waited with bated breath.

Nolan joked about making a “very intimate, small story that happens to be photographed on a ridiculously large scale”. But what would it be?

Finally on 11 February, 2009, Warner Bros confirmed that they would be producing Mr Nolan’s fifth film, the curiously tagged Inception . They had already pre-emptively bought the director’s spec script after Dark Knight mopped up.

“Chris Nolan is a visionary filmmaker who continually raises the bar with each movie he makes,” said WB Group president Jeff Robinov. “We are thrilled to be collaborating again with him and [producer wife] Emma on this exciting new motion picture.”

Shooting was to begin in summer 2009, with a summer 2010 release date pinned down. But what would it be? Nobody was talking when it came to cast or plot details.

The Hollywood Reporter confirmed that Nolan would be working from an original, self-scribed script , and that the film would be “a contemporary sci-fi actioner set within the architecture of the mind”.

Yeah, fancy vagueing that up for us?

Read our Inception review .

Next: Case File Two: The Players [page-break]

Case File Two: The Players

Between the months of March and April, a torrent of casting reports came flooding in.

First signed was Leonardo DiCaprio, who would play the film’s lead, a “CEO type”. He kept pretty schtum as well.

Next, Nolan approached Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy and Ellen Page. They all swiftly signed the dotted line – Cotillard as DiCaprio’s wife, Page a young grad student. Murphy’s role remains a mystery.

On 3 April, Michael Caine cleared up rumours that he was involved by poo-pooing any reports tying him to the project.

“All I know is that Christopher Nolan, who writes and directs Batman is doing a picture called Inception , and I’m not in it,” the British ledge said. “So I think another Batman film is a long, long way off. Long Way. I would say three years, must be.”

Just four brief days later, Caine back-tracked on his statement, confirming that he had been recruited to the project after all.

“I think there might be a part for me. Just a tiny part. Chris and I are very good friends so I’ll do that little part. I think I’ll work about three days. It’ll be extraordinary, wait until you see this one. I think if I say another word he’s going to kill me!”

As interest in the project began to pique, Joseph Gordon-Levitt joined the project. Unsurprisingly, when he spoke to MTV he revealed that he and the rest of the cast had been asked not to talk to the media about the specifics of the film.

“Here’s the thing… I can’t wait to talk to you about [ Inception ] but I’ve been very specifically asked not to talk about it. I want to respect [director Chris Nolan's wishes] because I love his movies and I’m so honored and grateful to be working with him.

“He’s got a really specific idea and way he wants people to be presented with this thing.”

As May dawned, Ken Watanabe and Tom Hardy both joined the team, concluding its principal casting.

We were still none the wiser.

Read our Inception review .

Next: Case File Three: On Location [page-break]

Case File Three: On Location

In June, two things happened.

First, we discovered that filming had commenced in Tokyo. Working under the title Oliver’s Arrow , Inception ’s shoot was plagued by photographers attempting to catch a glimpse of DiCaprio, Watanabe and Gordon-Levitt as they went about their business.

Dark Knight story writer David Goyer confirmed “they just started shooting” while attempting to field Batman 3 chatter. “You know, talk to [Nolan] after he finishes Inception , which he’s shooting right now.”

Filming continued around University College London, where the Wilkins building’s library was transformed into Paris’s national library, the bibliotheque of the 'Ecole de Architecture'.

Later, a scene being shot in the Flaxman Gallery saw Caine’s character introducing DiCaprio and Page’s characters. As the trades surmised that Page was actually DiCaprio’s sidekick as well as a young graduate, an on-set spy said:

“Michael Caine looked like he was playing a similar character to the one he always plays lately, Ellen Page looked like a plucky young student, and Leo di Caprio just looked moody and ‘focussed’ (toying with the toothpick-in-between-the-teeth look).”

As details began to slip through the cracks, we also learnt that Gordon-Levitt and Hardy were playing Arthur and Eames, working associates of DiCaprio’s nameless CEO. Page earned her name ‘Ariadne’, and Watanabe’s Saito was revealed as the film’s central villain.

What was the second thing that happened? Well, news of the film’s budget. Those who had assumed that Nolan’s post- DK film would have a comparatively small amount of money to work with were about to get a very wet slap in the face.

Inception ’s budget was touted as being between $150-$200m.

Um, yeah. There goes our small-budget thriller theory. Just what was Nolan playing at? The Dark Knight ’s budget was an estimated $185m, and that film was heee-uuuge. Now, Inception was rumoured to have a similar – if not, bigger – cash cow.

As if validating the reports, Nolan bolstered a massive action sequence in downtown Los Angeles on 21 September, 2009.

It was a Saturday, but that didn’t stop four blocks of the area being transformed into one giant movie set, as a scene involving a train barrelling down a busy street was staged.

A permit announced in fine print that the filming would involve a “simulated car crash with train, breaking glass, simulated bullet effects on body and things, atmospheric smoke effects, weapons brandished . . . near hits & misses”.

A full report can be read here . Yeah, it sounds pretty epic to us, too.

Read our Inception review .

Next: Case File Four: Hyperbole and conjecture [page-break]

Case File Four: Hyperbole and conjecture

As shooting came to a close, hot-footing from London to Paris to Tangier to Calgary, work on the film’s CGI aspects commenced.

And as the techie guys squirreled away at their desks, feverishly working to get the film ready for its 2010 release, the interweb’s hype wheel started to crank.

Surely somebody knew what this film was actually about?

Some websites guessed that the plot might relate somehow to Peter Carruthers’ The Architecture of the Mind (it doesn’t), while April Fool’s Day jokes resurfaced implying that the story involved “a paraplegic who discovers a portal to escape his paralyzed existence through his own mind that takes him to another plane of existence”. It doesn’t.

A post on the Rotten Tomatoes forum said:

Inception is about entering peoples’ minds/dreams. A technology to do so has been developed and is done through an injection. DiCaprio and his team work to enter the minds of other characters in order to retrieve/plant information.”

There’s no confirmation on how accurate this plotline is.

Nolan’s wife and producing partner Emma Thomas spoke with the LA Times and confirmed the film’s scale, though denied that they were attempting to top their Batman adventures.

“It’s something that we had been talking about on and off for seven or eight years," Thomas said. "Coming off of the The Dark Knight , the only thing we really knew is that we wanted to do something more personal. It seemed like the right time to do this.

“The fact that it’s really just an enormous movie -- that wasn’t ever really a factor in the decision. This story lends itself to a movie of this size.”

Read our Inception review .

Next: Case File Five: Cuttings [page-break]

Case File Five: Cuttings

On Friday 21 August, Warner Bros launched Inception ’s official website.

Consisting of nothing more than a spinning top, it was a frustrating tease, and no amount of desperate, anxious clicking-while-standing-upside-drinking-coffee-off-a-teaspoon would reveal hidden portals in the site’s make-up.

Then, a teaser trailer premiered in front of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds . Just 58 seconds in length, it boasted a lot of pretty visuals, a thumping soundtrack, and absolutely zero information about what the film was actually, y’know, about.

It looked something like this:

Fast forward to 15 December, and suddenly the film’s website came to life.

A game entitled Mind Crime appeared, in which players were tasked with creating a maze for other users to play in. As a reward, players were given Inception ’s first one sheet.

It looked like this .

Spot something odd? Yes, pretty sharpish people put two and two together, and realised that this atmospheric poster bore a strange resemblance to the Dark Knight one sheet featuring the Joker.

Was it just another big tease courtesy of Nolan and co? Hard to tell with this lot. Still, buzz was gathering momentum, and a week later a new trailer for the film premiered in front of Sherlock Holmes .

It revealed a bit more:

Read our Inception review .

Next: In Closing [page-break]

In Closing

So, it’s January 2010. Almost a year since we first got whiff of Inception and all of its reluctant, fact-hording ways.

And what do we have to show for it? A heck of a lot of excitement for a start.

Clamping down on information in this information-heavy world has definitely had the desired effect, gradually building anticipation for the film without battering audiences over the head with needless over-exposure.

This month, Nolan finally broke his silence on the project and spoke with the LA Times , confirming that the combined ideas of Ian Fleming, the Wachowski Brothers and Sigmund Freud fed into his script for Inception .

“I think we’ve put a lot of different things into the pot with this one,” Nolan said while taking a breather from editing.

“I grew up watching James Bond films and loving those and watching spy movies with their globetrotting sensibility.... We get to do that here, not just geographically but also in time and dimensions of reality as well. We get to make a movie that’s expansive, I suppose you’d say, in four dimensions.”

Tantalising stuff. But Nolan doesn’t stop there, going on to call this the “biggest challenge” he’s ever undertaken.

“We’re trying to tell a story on a massive scale, a true blockbuster scale – the biggest I’ve ever been involved with,” the director says. “We tried to make a very large-scale film with The Dark Knight and with this one we wanted to push that even further.”

It's been 11 years since The Matrix blew our minds. And, obvious comparisons aside (the gravity-defying hallway clash featured in the trailer, for a start), it's the film that Inception seems to have the most in common with in terms of restricted media access and hushed, confused anticipation. So forgive us for drawing easy parallels.

It's too early to tell if Inception will have a similar impact to its sci-fi forbear, but it'll definitely be one to watch.

So... Case closed? Not by half - this baby’s only just getting started...

Like this? Read our

Inception review


Josh Winning has worn a lot of hats over the years. Contributing Editor at Total Film, writer for SFX, and senior film writer at the Radio Times. Josh has also penned a novel about mysteries and monsters, is the co-host of a movie podcast, and has a library of pretty phenomenal stories from visiting some of the biggest TV and film sets in the world. He would also like you to know that he "lives for cat videos..." Don't we all, Josh. Don't we all.