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Want to understand Inception? Read the screenplay!

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Many of us have watched Christopher Nolan's Inception a few times by now, trying to follow the dizzying multi-layered storyline. But there's no substitute for reading the actual shooting script, with Nolan's hand-written notes. Here's what we've learned from it.

Oh, and if you still haven't seen Inception, there are huge spoilers here.

Inception: The Shooting Script came out a little while ago from Insight Editions. Most big movie tie-in books are more focused on cool images and fun observations about the challenge of bringing the special effects and key action sequences to life. But Inception gets the art movie treatment, with a really nice paperback edition of the screenplay. There are eight pages of color concept art, and a ton of storyboards — plus a few of Nolan's own handwritten notes and diagrams. And there's an ultra-revealing introduction, in which Nolan gets interviewed by his brother Jonathan. For anybody interested in the creative process behind this film, this book is pretty much a must-have.


So what can you learn about Inception by reading this book?

First of all, that Christopher Nolan was fascinated by the themes that fill Inception from early on. In fact, he had two different ideas — a story about dreams that he'd been working on forever, and a corporate thriller that he'd been working on for about a decade. When Nolan was in college, they offered free breakfast until nine AM, so he would roll out of bed, get the free breakfast, and then go back to sleep, since he'd been up until four the previous night. The extra two hours of sleep he got after the free breakfast were different, as he explains to his brother in the introduction/interview:

[I]n that slightly weird, discombobulated sleep I discovered that you can have active dreams, and that when you realize you are dreaming, you can control the dream. I thought to myself that was really amazing. I remember having a dream and saying to myself, "Okay, there's a bunch of books on the shelf. If I pull a book off the shelf and look at it, can I read the words in the book?" And I could, because your brain is making up the words in the book. Or you could be walking on a beach in your dream and pick up a handful of sand and you'd be looking at all the grains and thinking, "Well, my brain is putting all the millions of grains in this handful of sand."


In the introduction, Nolan also explains to his brother that he couldn't crack the ending of Inception for a long time, because in earlier drafts of the script, the figure that Cobb keeps meeting in the dreamworld was a former business associate who had double crossed him. "His partner in crime, who had betrayed him and so forth. But that didn't lead anywhere emotionally. It didn't have any resonance. And as soon as it became his wife, that flipped the whole thing for me. That made it very, very relatable."

And Nolan cops to having a running motif in his films of dead wives and dead girlfriends. "I've written quite a few dead wives, that's true. But you try to put your relatable fears in these things."

The most fascinating two pages of the whole book are one diagram which Nolan made, in which he tries to keep track of all the different dream levels and the stuff that happens in each of them. I can't properly reproduce it here, but here's what it looks like:


You really have to get the book to see it properly, but this sketch shows how Nolan was struggling to make all the pieces fit. It's full of little notes. Like a list of "linear narv. elements," that include "dream extraction of combination," "planting of combo," "letter in safe," "Fisted own letter/crack own safe, Take own letter to Browning (Perhaps as part of hostage exchange)," and more. And you can see that one point he thought the "dreamer" in the hotel level would be Eames and the "dreamer" in the hospital level would be Arthur, instead of the other ways around.

He also seems to have considered two choices: if the "heist" and "escape" were separate, then "sends must be part of linear dream narrative, kicks must be parallel action building to coincident climax." But if the "heist" and "escape" could be made "as one," then the kicks must be both "part of the linear dream narrative AND parallel action building to coincident climax." He reminds himself, "The linear dream narrative is paramount, the kicks are the visceral icing on the cake." And there's another note: "Every dream TRENDS CHAOTIC."


There's also another urgent note: "REM. dreamtime problem... (i.e., if 10 hours is actually needed, where's the danger of overage, + can't you set an external clock?" Next to that, he's scribbled: "must FIX this."


And then there's the script itself — reading through it, you can't help but be struck by how tight it is. There are pretty much no wasted notes, and all of the dialogue is pretty much dead-on — with a few exceptions, like some of the chunks of exposition. The shooting script is remarkably close to what ended up on screen, although I think one or two lines were cut here and there, and when you read it on the page, you notice lots of clever touches — like in the "hotel" dream level, Eames is disguised as a blonde woman who gives her phone number to Fischer — and the phone number is deliberately the same as the possible safe combination Fischer blurted out in the "hostage" level earlier. (And of course, it also provides the hotel room where they put Fischer under again, and that safe combination turns out to work later, in the hospital level.)

It's also very noticeable how much Ariadne remains the voice of the audience throughout — she's almost like a companion from Doctor Who, and we don't really see her doing the "architect" thing that much.


The other thing that really jumps out at you when you read the script on the page is how much all of this shouldn't work. There are a few too many contrivances that work in Cobb's favor, which you have to stop and question when you see them written down — like the ease with which they get Fischer onto the plane they want him to be on, where Saito owns the airline and the flight attendant is paid off. And the fact that Fischer not only trusts Cobb once he's introduced himself as "Mr. Charles," but Fischer pretty much lets "Mr. Charles" tell him what to do, in ways that go way, way beyond what you might expect from a piece of Fischer's subconscious protecting him from dream theft. And Fischer never wonders why Saito, his business rival, is not only on the plane with him, but is also one of the "subconscious projections" leading him to invade what he believes is Browning's mind. (Of course, the stuff with Mr. Charles and Saito is all a dream to Fischer, so maybe he assumes it doesn't have to make sense.)


What's very apparent on the page is that Nolan's super-tight, whip-smart writing is carrying you along so briskly, you don't ever stop to question any of this. Nolan is a master of suspension of disbelief — and yes, that's what Dom Cobb is supposed to be too. (At one point during the introduction, Nolan tells his brother that it never occurred to him before that Inception might be about the film-making process until Jonathan suggests it, even though Nolan has admitted as much in interviews since the film came out. Maybe this conversation between the Nolan brothers took place before those interviews, I guess.)

Most of all, the blend of dream weirdness and a conventional con-artist plot (Nolan refers to it as a heist plot, but really it's a con game, not a heist) simply should not work, and the fact that it does convince you on screen, and mostly convinces you on the page, is Nolan's greatest achievement. It helps a lot that the characters all come through sharply on the page, and they each have a distinctive voice, even without the A-list actors bringing them to life.


And then there's Inception's central mystery: what's a dream and what's real?

Like the film, the shooting script ends with Cobb apparently reunited with his kids, and he sees their faces for the first time in the film. And he puts his top down, leaving it spinning before he turns away — and we cut to black before the top can stop spinning. (That's where the script ends, and it doesn't mention anything about the sound of a top falling.) I don't know if I just missed this in the film, but there's also a scene in limbo where Mal is talking to Cobb and Ariadne, and the children are there. Mal says these are Cobb's real children, and calls their names. They turn around to face Cobb — but he covers his face and says they're not real. So he comes close to seeing their faces in limbo, but chooses not to. Also, at one point, Mal explicitly raises the possibility that Cobb has dreamed all the stuff about the faceless corporation chasing after him:

MAL: What are the distinguishing characteristics of a dream? Mutable laws of physics? Tell that to the quantum physicists. Reappearance of the dead? What about heaven and hell? Persecution of the dreamer, the creator, the messiah? They crucified Christ, didn't they?

COBB: I know what's real.

MAL: No creeping doubts? Not feeling persecuted, Dom? Chased around the globe by anonymous corporations and police forces? The way the projections persecute the dreamer? (Mal puts her hand on his face. Pitying.) Admit it, Dom. You don't believe in one reality any more. So choose. Choose your reality like I did. Choose to be here. Choose me.

COBB: (Rising anger) I have chosen, Mal. Our children. I have to get back to them. Because you left them. You left us.

MAL: You're wrong, Dom. You're confused... our children are here

A child's shout draws Cobb — James crouches on the porch, back to us. Philippa joins him, also turned away. Cobb watches, moved. Mal leans in close.

MAL (whispers): And you'd like to see their faces again, wouldn't you, Dom?

And that's when she calls to them, and they turn to show their faces. In limbo. (Update: Various people have written to me to tell me that that entire scene appears in the film — I guess it just jumped out at me more, when I read it on the page, and it's interesting to read through it.)


Anyway, if you're still puzzling out Inception and thinking of seeing it again, you might want to get this book instead. Having something to hold in your hands and page back and forth through again and again might just help you figure out what's real and what's illusion.

Top image: Inception concept art by Nathaniel West.