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From a distance, Christopher Nolan's Gotham City sure doesn't look like much. The "skyline" begins to emerge over the horizon in the rolling green farmlands about 50 miles north of London, but there are no gothic spires or granite citadels, just the slanted, pocked roofs of two boxy metal buildings.
But nearing the complex on a winding two-lane road, the immensity of the make-believe metropolis comes into focus: The structures that looked squat from afar are actually 15 stories tall -- and as long as 81-story skyscrapers lying on their sides. Constructed more than 80 years ago to house Britain's Royal Airship Works, the giant coffin-shaped sheds sat unused for decades, waiting for some great undertaking, after the nation's flagship dirigible went down in flames in a 1930 crash.
The 525-ton doors opened for Nolan in 2004, and given that illusion, extreme architecture, old-school craft and colossal scale are screen trademarks for the British filmmaker best known for his three Batman films and "Inception," it's fitting that the Cardington sheds have become a special home base.
After filming 2005's "Batman Begins" here, and putting in the facade of an elevated train station, Nolan's team added a city block to the indoor cityscape for the billion-dollar hit sequel "The Dark Knight" (2009) and the scene where Batman and the Joker square off in a game of asphalt chicken was the memorable result. They made further modifications for "The Dark Knight Rises," which Friday and will be Nolan's final take on the Caped Crusader for Warner Bros.
Nolan broke through in 2000 with his reverse riddle "Memento," which earned him an Oscar nomination for screenwriting (two more nods followed for "Inception"). Yet even as he's become a top filmmaker whose films vie against CG-laden, 3-D spectacles for box office bragging rights, Nolan is a decidedly old soul with an outsider aura.
An English literature major who rarely leaves the house without a suit coat, he has no email account, no cellphone, and here in this digital summer of 2012, his Batman movie is the only major popcorn release shot on film stock. He shuns 3-D, typically goes light on digital effects and his stories and characters are serious, even grim.
As "Dark Knight Rises" opens, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is a sullen shadow of himself, and instead of his Batman mask he hides behind a scraggly hermit's beard. Eight years have passed since the murder of his true love, Rachel Dawes, and the fatal tumble of the deranged Harvey Dent.
Things get worse for Wayne and Gotham as a terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy) unleashes a campaign to sever the city from the outside world to punish the police and Caped Crusader, who has not been seen for years.
"Dark Knight Rises" was shot in India, London, Glasgow, Pittsburgh, New York, Newark and Los Angeles. Last year, shooting a scene from the $250-million-plus production at the Senate House on the University of London campus, Nolan was watching the action unfold as Bale finished an intense sequence with Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard and Anne Hathaway. Hathaway plays Selena Kyle - Catwoman. After the group had run through the scene multiple times, Nolan walked over to her like a baseball manager taking the temperature of a jittery pitcher.
His advice? Take down the supervillain intonations creeping in, Hathaway recalled later on set.
"There's no mustache-twirling in Gotham City," she said. "That's why what Chris does is really special and celebrated and successful. This is not making fun of the material. It's serious."
Bale agreed, adding that while Nolan's Batman movies "have the roller-coaster element and the visual spectacle" required of any superhero film, they veer away from the one-liners and irony that defined Gotham City movies in the 1990s.
Though Nolan's actors are clear about the tone he wants to set, they say they are often in the dark about what the director is actually putting together until they watch the completed movie.
"The things he's doing in these films, a lot of it I don't get to see - I'm not aware of it - until I sit and watch the finished film," Bale said.
Joining Bale in "Dark Knight Rises" is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who costarred in "Inception" and joined the Gotham City cast as a police officer named John Blake given a special assignment by Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman).
Nolan said a primary goal of the third and final installment in his Batman series is to create "a unified statement, a real ending, a true conclusion." The filmmaker collaborated with David S. Goyer on the story for the new film and then co-wrote it with his brother, Jonathan Nolan - an approach that held throughout the trilogy. The third act of the third film does have jolting twists and turns and an exclamation point ending.
But more than that, he said, is that the trilogy is a tale of different levels - the heights of the city, the street level and the underground of caves and sewers. "Dark Knight Rises" presents a story where greed, hypocrisy and false justice bring the down the city's bridges, stadium and government.
"We really wanted a cast of thousands, literally, and all of that for me is trying to represent the world in primarily visual and architectural terms," Nolan said. "So the thematic idea is that the superficial positivity is being eaten away from underneath; we tried to make that quite literal."