Unlocking the Secrets of Inception, Christopher Nolan's Most Mind-Bending Movie...So Far

Inception is one of those movies that begs for a rewatching—10 minutes after you've finished, let alone 10 years after its original release

By Natalie Finn Jul 16, 2020 7:00 AMTags
Inception 10th anniversaryWarner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

Ah, Inception, the movie you saw and then needed to see again because you were all like "wait, what?"

The most mind-bendy of Christopher Nolan's pleasantly mind-bending oeuvre, the 2010 film about a security team whose specialty is taking information directly out of someone's subconscious—"it's called Inception"—caused endless theorizing about what was real, what was a dream and whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio's Dom Cobb, the most skilled extractor of secrets in the not-exactly-legal business, ever reunited with his family.

And it's really, really fun to look at.

Leonardo DiCaprio's Best Roles

At the premise, Cobb and his team construct reality-resembling dreamscapes for its targets and then, while the people are asleep, engage them in those vivid constructs, with the goal being to get out before the dream collapses.

Watch: Leonardo DiCaprio's Most Oscar-Worthy Roles RANKED

Because when the dream collapses in Inception, so goes the whole world, tilting at precarious angles, literally folding in half and crumbling back into nothingness—a special-effects feat that has been endlessly imitated, much like the Wachowskis' slow-motion fight sequences in The Matrix.

So before the top stops spinning, take a look at some of the secrets that went into the making of one of the most baffling, entertaining and slickest-looking movies of the last decade. 

Also, SPOILERS AHEAD. Maybe. Who knows, we could be wrong about all of it...

Christopher Nolan started writing Inception in 2001 after he finished shooting Insomnia with Al Pacino, so the production was truly years in the making.

When he banged out those first 80 pages, he wasn't known for splashy filmmaking, the intellectual twists and turns of Memento aside. So looking back, getting the job of rebooting the Batman franchise for Warner Bros. helped pave the way to get Inception made: one, because The Dark Knight was a capital-B Big movie in every sense of the word; and two, its billion-dollar box office resulted in a fairly blank check for Nolan to dream big. 

First Brad Pitt and then Will Smith were offered the role of tortured secret-extraction expert Dominic Cobb before it went to Leo—but neither said yes within the proffered 48-hour window in which Nolan wanted an answer, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The story, on paper, was difficult to visualize, so star Leonardo DiCaprio had a lot of questions.

"Leo spends a lot of time in preproduction with the writer and director," Emma Thomas, Nolan's wife and production partner, told The Hollywood Reporter in November 2010 as awards season officially got underway. "So Chris and Leo spent weeks and weeks just combing through the script. The work he did on his character with Chris made the movie less of a puzzle and more of a story of a character audiences could relate to."

Added DiCaprio: "I needed to know implicitly where we were. It got incredibly confusing at certain points in the beginning, but the more we talked, the more I understood."

"I think that's the fun of it," Thomas concluded about the purposefully ambiguous story and its layered visuals. "The first 50 times I saw it, I'd say something new was revealed every time."

"A lot of these concepts and these visuals have been stirring around in [Nolan's] mind for the last 10 years, so I tried to take a really traditional approach to researching this project and read about Freud and the analysis of dreams," DiCaprio shared with the BBC in 2010.

The actor, then a three-time Oscar nominee (and now a Best Actor winner for The Revenant), said he wasn't much of a dream guy, but Inception wormed its way into his subconscious.

"I entered the dreamscape and applied all the rules of Inception" while he was asleep, he told NPR. "I knew I was dreaming, but I also didn't know that I had done this film, or I was in a movie about the dreamscape. And I got to manipulate it from being a horrific nightmare into something quite positive."

For Paris to start combusting around the dream Dom has crafted for potential hire Ariadne, an architecture student he'd like to add to the building team, "we used high-pressure nitrogen," Corbould explained to The Hollywood Reporter.

"Everything was very directional. My aim was to have the paper cups on the table not move. I created the whole set in my workshop and did about 20 tests. I sat in three of them. I was very confident about safety, but there's that adrenaline rush when everything goes off around you."

The debris flying around them was digitally enhanced.

"We were there," DiCaprio told the BBC in 2010. "He doesn't use a lot of green screen—[Nolan's] a very cutting-edge film maker, but he's very old school in his approach. He immerses his actors right into those environments and makes you react as if you were there."

"When you're reading it, everything has such fluidity to it that you don't even really think about, like, 'oh, I'm going to be swimming out of a submerged vehicle!'" Ellen Page told Fandom Entertainment at the time. "It's not really till you're on the day that you're like, 'Oh, wow.' But I love that stuff."

She also said, "It's amazing to shoot something this large and on this scale, but when you're working with Chris it actually feels quite intimate. And he's just a filmmaker—there's no ego attached. He's just there, and he's present, and he's an absolute pleasure to work with." (And for the record, Page was sitting in a chair.)

Ariadne, Page's character, is named after the princess who, in Greek mythology, gave Theseus a ball of thread and a sword so he could find his way through the labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur. 

"I don't know how many people pick up on that association when they're watching the film," Nolan told Wired in November 2010. "It was just a little pointer, really. I like the idea of her being Cobb's guide."

The zero-gravity effect that starts to take over as a dream is collapsing was achieved with a number of different rigs to put each actor in a variety of positions, so that the finished product is the edited result of a slew of different shot angles using separate rigs.

Otherwise identical corridors were built vertically and horizontally, so that an actor could be dropped into the vertical hall with a rig and end up looking, like Joseph Gordon Levitt's Arthur—Cobb's partner and logistics manager of their operations—as if he's floating down a regular hallway.

Gordon-Levitt, in a behind-the-scenes featurette, said he'd been told by people who'd experienced zero-G was that it was the most relaxed they'd ever felt. "What I did is the exact opposite of that," he said, recalling Arthur's hallway dream fight. "In order to make it look like that was the case, I actually had to keep every muscle tight, because I was supporting myself. I didn't have to worry about making myself look as if I was having a hard time. I was having a hard time."

And sometimes it was the set that moved. Talking about a scene between Dom and the business heir played by Cillian Murphy whose subconscious they're trying to break into, DiCaprio told the BBC, "Normally if we're just looking at floating green balls and a blue background we'd feel differently, but literally he put the whole set on an axis and we had to hold on for our lives while we were performing."

$160 million almost seems like a quaintly small figure for the budget of a movie with pioneering special effects that look this good and live action that was filmed on four continents over the course of seven months, followed by almost a year of post-production.

But modest or not, Inception made $830 million worldwide and was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture. It won four, for cinematography, sound mixing, sound editing and visual effects.

Chris Corbould, who later shared the Oscar win for Achievement in Visual Effects with Andrew Lockley, Pete Bebb and Paul J. Franklin, described the Inception script as "fascinating but difficult. It took awhile to understand what was going on."

Michael Caine, who plays Dom's mind-melding mentor and former father-in-law, has been in eight of Nolan's movies (counting his voice being heard in Dunkirk and the upcoming Tenet).

Their long and fruitful collaboration started with Batman Begins. "He came to the front door of my house in the country with a script," Caine recalled to The Hindu in March 2020. "I could see him through the glass but I couldn't recognize him. The moment he introduced himself, I knew exactly who he was because I was a great fan of his three small films."

When Nolan explained his vision for Alfred as more surrogate father to Bruce Wayne than butler, he was in. "So, I did the movie and it was one of the greatest things I have done in my life," Caine said.

"All the films I have made with him have raked in over a billion dollars, so he has to have me in a film even if he has no part for me," the British screen veteran joked. "In Dunkirk, I was only a voice-over and I got billing in the credit title."

And while they may be dear friends by now, Nolan doesn't talk business at the dinner table. "I know him so well—I had dinner sitting next to him, last night, for three hours," Caine told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. "And I know nothing about his next project."

DiCaprio credited Marion Cotillard, who played his late wife Mal, whose death Dom is wracked with guilt over (and, naturally, constantly sees her in visions that make her seem alive), with helping him better understand what was driving his character.

"Because not only is she an extremely talented actress, but she was really game for these types of strange, philosophical conversations about how to play a scene," he said on NPR's All Things Considered in 2010.

Coincidentally, Shutter Island also came out in 2010, starring DiCaprio as a grieving U.S. Marshal whose wife was killed in a fire, and he and his partner played by Mark Ruffalo are investigating the disappearance of a prisoner at the asylum where it turns out the arsonist is. Except that's not what's happening at all.

He was drawn to the idea of "a completely unreliable protagonist," DiCaprio told NPR. But "I also can't help what I'm drawn to emotionally as an actor. I've never really questioned why I'm drawn to a certain piece of material, or [whether] I've done a specific type of genre before. I always look at them as unique experiences."

Tom Hardy didn't actually know how to ski when he signed on for the film, which includes a pivotal scene on skis for his character, identity forger Eames. So he learned.

"Chris said I lied to him when we first met about whether I could ski," Hardy told THR. "Who wouldn't? It's Chris Nolan. If he asked me if I could rock-climb, I'd tell him I could rock-climb anything."

They shot the scene in Calgary and, as the start date got closer, they prepared snow blankets to make the muddy hills look right—but then there was a huge snow storm and they got the backdrop they needed.

Hardy admitted he was nervous at first going to work with DiCaprio. "I had the fear of looking silly and failing, looking rubbish and letting the team down," the British actor said. "That lasted about a day. Leo was just brilliant. He's smart and sharp."

Among the two dozen movies and prestige series he's been in since, he collaborated again with Nolan on The Dark Knight Rises, playing Bane, and in 2015 he was the fur trapper Leo couldn't wait to hunt down and take revenge on in The Revenant, a role that earned Hardy his first Oscar nomination.

What's with the spinning top? And was it about to stop spinning?!

"I actually had a spinning top—I'd given it to my wife as a present at some point many years ago, and I just sort of stumbled across it one day," Nolan told Wired. But his was "very, very difficult to spin," so the one they gave Cobb had a shape more conducive to seemingly endless spinning.

Reminiscent of David Chase and The Sopranos finale, Nolan said that he's been asked about the top "more times than I've ever been asked any other question about any other film I've made."

"That's definitely the question," he told Entertainment Weekly in 2010. "It keeps coming back to that. What's funny to me is that people really do expect me to answer it."

Which wasn't to say he didn't have an answer—he did, just one that he wasn't planning to share. 

Of course, the nicest possible interpretation of the ending is that Dom is in fact reunited with his children—because even though the top has barely started to wobble, he sees their faces, finally.

"There can't be anything in the film that tells you one way or another because then the ambiguity at the end of the film would just be a mistake," Nolan assured EW, leaving one and all without definitive answers. "It would represent a failure of the film to communicate something.

"But it's not a mistake. I put that cut there at the end, imposing an ambiguity from outside the film. That always felt the right ending to me—it always felt like the appropriate 'kick' to me…The real point of the scene—and this is what I tell people—is that Cobb isn't looking at the top. He's looking at his kids. He's left it behind. That's the emotional significance of the thing."

Earlier in the film, the younger version of Cobb's son, who does not turn around, is played by Nolan's actual son. 

It's OK, not even being in the movie helped DiCaprio understand it.

Responding to Brad Pitt saying on Marc Maron's WTF podcast in December 2019 that he was a little fuzzy on some of the more ambiguous notes of Ad Astra, DiCaprio added, "That's like Inception for me. What happened? I have no idea." The three of them laughed.

"You're just focused on your character, man," Leo continued. "I do get involved, but when it came to Christopher Nolan and his mind and how it was all pieced together, everyone was trying to constantly put that puzzle together."

Asked if the movie made sense, DiCaprio replied, "Well, it depends on the eye of the beholder, I guess."

There's some Internet hypothesizing that the world of Nolan's next movie, Tenet, starring John David Washington as a time-traveling spy, is in some way linked to Inception—a prequel or precursor-to-those-events, perhaps. (Nolan did tell Entertainment Weekly in 2010 that he "always imagined Inception to be a world where a lot of other stories could take place.")

But don't ask Michael Caine, because he's not even sure what Tenet is about.

"All I had was one day's work and [Nolan] gave me my pages," the actor says. "I did my part and shot only with John David. I haven't heard anything since."

Tenet was supposed to come out July 17, but was postponed to July 31 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, after which Warner Bros. announced it's be re-releasing Inception on July 17 to whet fans' appetites instead. As of right now, Tenet's opening has been pushed to Aug. 12, and now Inception is due back in theaters July 31.

Nightmarish circumstances aside, sounds like a dream pairing.

As Dom explained in the first trailer for the film, which started haunting dreams and barroom debates on July 16, 2010: "A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules."

And no matter what was going on inside Inception, rewrite the rules is basically what Nolan's idea for a movie about dreams managed to do.