Inception (2010)

We’ve previously discussed Christopher Nolan’s deep interest for Architecture and how he’s made a career out of marrying both Film and Architecture, but it’s his 2010 film, Inception, that is his most Architectural film.


In its first introduction to the world, Inception was advertised as a film “set within the Architecture of the mind.” The film spends its time dealing with (and manipulating) Architecture; notably, the city folding onto itself, the meticulous designing and constructing of different spaces, and so on.


The film even features an “Architect” character. Ariadne (Ellen Page) is a graduate student recruited by Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is responsible for designing complex spaces. In a literal sense, Christopher Nolan puts the power of the film in the Architect’s hand; like a screenwriter, an Architect is responsible for the initial blueprint and structure.

Christopher Nolan has stated that he was inspired by the works of Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher, who designed “impossible objects” and optical illusions. In a sequence that features the Penrose Steps, he explores the concept of Paradoxical Architecture. The Penrose Steps, also known as the impossible staircase, was originally conceived by Lionel Penrose and his son Roger Penrose in 1958. The Penrose Steps are a two-dimensional depiction of a staircase which form a continuous loop. It’s an Architectural concept that can exist in 2D, but not 3D. In the film, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) introduces Ariadne to the concept of the Penrose Steps, and explains that she must create "tricks" within the Architecture that she designs for the dream world.

The filmmakers were faced with the task of creating something that can’t exist in the real world, and using a medium like film to execute the idea. The production team constructed models and used traditional methods to create the steps, opting for an authentic approach rather than one that could have been created digitally. Paul Franklin, Visual Effects Supervisor, notes that the “steps have to be built in such a way that when you view them from the topmost level of the staircase lines up with the bottommost level of the staircase. We were able to make computer models of all of this and work out exactly the dimensions of the steps that have to be built and where the camera has to be in three-dimensional space to be able to film it.”

This meant having a particular lens on the camera at a particular height and distance so that it’d effectively hide the cheats and trickery. Christopher Nolan uses Filmmaking to show the steps from a certain angle – an optical illusion – and brings an impossible concept into reality.

© 2017 Interiors (Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian)

The Neon Demon (2016)

Nicolas Winding Refn’s trilogy of sorts – Drive (2011), Only God Forgives (2013), and The Neon Demon (2016) – have taken his career into very interesting places.

We’ve previously written about the use of space in his films, including the elevator in Drive which serves as a space for transformation for its protagonist, as well as the boxing gym in Only God Forgives, where two characters engage in a fist fight. In both sequences, it’s the choreography of the actors and the staging of bodies that the filmmaker is most interested in.                     

Interiors spoke with Nicolas Winding Refn about the influence of architecture on his films and his use of cinematic space.

The Neon Demon (2016)

“I love the idea of creating, and whether it’s a drawing or a building, it’s the act of creativity that I very much like and enjoy. I love the sense of space, how you define the space and the architecture of both the structure of the film, like the structure of a building, and then the individual rooms. I love the idea of transformation and using space to transform in.”

In his mind, it’s the individual filmmaker’s approach to the space itself that results in a unique representation of that world. “I think it’s hard being original in anything. I find it more interesting looking at it from a perspective. If you wake up every morning with the agenda of purely creating based on your instincts then whatever space you’re in that may have been photographed or seen a thousand times will always become different because you will have singularity. So, originality is not really a truthful existence. It’s more of a definition of an abstraction, but what’s more pure is singularity and then forcing yourself to look at surroundings in a different way.”

This is best evidenced in Drive, a film shot entirely in Los Angeles, but was unique to Nicolas Winding Refn because of his unusual relationship with the city and the fact that he was so unfamiliar with cars. “I don’t have a driver’s license, I have no interest in cars, but I’m very good at shooting curves. I’m very good at photographing cars like a pin-up magazine. The idea of LA being a dark fairytale landscape. I don’t live in LA. The minute you are a stranger in a strange land, you will always look at it in a different way, no matter what. That’s one of the advantages of always moving from space to space with whatever you make.” This approach is also true for Only God Forgives, filmed in Bangkok, which he calls “an alien country” with a “science fiction surrounding” for someone from the West.

The Neon Demon, however, sees him relocating back to Los Angeles, where he explores the mythology of Hollywood. The opening sequence of the film plays with audience’s expectations. The film opens on close-up of Jesse (Elle Fanning), her face covered in blood, as she lays still on a couch with her eyes open. Who is this young girl? Is she alive or dead? Where are we? 

The Neon Demon (2016)

“The idea is that you would start on a close-up that was an abstraction because there was no sense or space around it, so that automatically becomes the focus point.” The camera slowly pulls away and reveals more of the space as the room begins to define the setting. “The space, the use of the space, is telling the story.” In this sense, Nicolas Winding Refn is interested in how space can tell the story and how architecture has an impact of context.

Where does Nicolas Winding Refn go from here? “The space that technology has created is very intriguing to me. It’s endless compared to where we were just a hundred years ago.”

© 2016 Interiors (Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian)

Back to the Future Part II (1989)

Back to the Future 2 (1989) Director: Robert Zemeckis (Scene: 00:18:16 - 00:21:10)

The cultural impact of Back to the Future Part II (1989) has far exceeded the cinematic influence that the film has had. Back to the Future Part II is one of the rare occasions where certain scenes from the film have had more significance than the film itself. The two most notable scenes from the film include the self-lacing Nike Air Mag sneakers and the Mattel Hoverboard. The film’s hero, Marty McFly, is introduced to both while visiting his hometown of Hill Valley in the year 2015.

Robert Zemeckis depicts Marty McFly’s hometown in 2015 as a peaceful neighborhood; far less dystopian than films like Blade Runner (1982) and I Am Legend(2007). Back to the Future Part II constructs a light-hearted depiction of the early 21st century. In terms of architecture, Robert Zemeckis has designed a familiar town square with very little futuristic elements, other than large digital projections and holographic advertising. 

Robert Zemeckis creates a unique sequence, much like the skateboard scene from the original Back to the Future, where Marty McFly must escape from a gang of misfits. Back to the Future Part II elevates this premise by showing Marty McFly’s difficulty in learning how to ride the Hoverboard and the board’s limited capacity over water. In both cases, he showcases Marty McFly’s ingenuity in not only being able to escape but also in being able to architecturally analyze the town square and find his way out.

© 2015 Interiors (Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian)

Tom at the Farm (2015)

Tom at the Farm (2015) Director: Xavier Dolan

Xavier Dolan’s film, Tom at the Farm, like Michel Marc Bouchard’s play, depends largely on its setting of Québec’s rural panorama. The film starts by taking its audience out of the city and into the country, as we follow – quite literally – Tom (Dolan) into the farm via an aerial shot of his car.

This opening scene of the Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu is 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Montreal, Tom’s place of residence and employment. This lengthy drive immediately emphasizes the distance of the farm from the outside world.

The difference, however, between film and play is how individual spaces are represented; rather than restricting the space like the source material, which consists only of a kitchen, a barn, and a bedroom, Dolan opens his film up. In the press book, he states a desire for removing Tom from the farm a handful of times. These include scenes at the funeral, his visit to the doctor, and a trip to a bar. In these instances, we see Tom interacting with characters other than Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) and his mother Agathe (Lise Roy); more importantly, we see him continuously coming back to the farm, further suggesting his consenting captivity.

In Dolan’s first three feature films, his characters’ sexuality always played a key focal point of the narrative. In I Killed My Mother, he plays the role of a conflicted homosexual teenager; inHeartbeats, he plays one-third of a love dual who becomes infatuated with the same man; inLaurence Anyways (which does not feature the writer-director in an acting capacity), his focus shifted onto a larger scale, focusing on the epic love story of a man who decides he wants to live the rest of his life as a woman. Tom at the Farm, which is a change of direction for the filmmaker in terms of both style and content, is more subtle in its exploration of such themes. The character of Tom isn’t explicitly stated as a homosexual; even his reason for attending Guillaume’s funeral is slowly unraveled.

Tom at the Farm is a film that deals with oppression and deception. Francis, on the surface, comes off as Guillaume’s homophobic, domineering brother who wishes to run Tom out of their home. Dolan, however, has said that they are both “wounded” individuals. Francis has known nothing his whole life, save for their family farm, and, since becoming head of the household after the death of his father, has been burdened with the responsibility of looking after his family. Francis, in essence, has been and always will be alone. Tom experiences a different kind of loneliness: the sort that derives from living in the city.

This film carefully examines the relationship between Tom and Francis, with each finding something in one another. Tom remarks that Francis reminds him of his lover, citing similarities in their voices, whereas Francis — who we learn is more or less sexually deprived — asserts physical dominance over the weaker Tom. This feeling of claustrophobia is amplified with a shift in aspect ratios, which happens twice over the course of the film.

Tom at the Farm borders on the perverse as a clear sexual tension rests between Tom and Francis. In his arrival at the farm, Tom enters an abusive relationship. Francis psychologically manipulates Tom, showing signs of Stockholm Syndrome as he starts sympathizing with his captor. Tom even starts repeating Francis’ words, and later, when Francis chokes him, Tom pushes him for more.

Their sexual dynamic coheres in a beautifully unexpected scene in which Tom and Francis dance together in a barn. In our floor plan, we diagrammed their dance, highlighting three key moments, including its beginning (1), Francis dipping Tom (2), and Francis shutting the music off when his mother walks in (3).

Francis’ advances become more direct over the course of the film. In a scene where Tom wakes up, he finds that Francis has pushed their beds together, suggesting the intimacy he desires. Francis also even states, “I know you like me,” urging Tom not to leave the farm. Francis very clearly sees Tom as a submissive partner — whether Francis had a similar type of relationship with his younger brother is never addressed or revealed.

Tom at the Farm is also a film that is very much concerned with exploring a continuous cycle of abuse. Sarah’s arrival highlights how brainwashed Tom has become. Tom, who desperately wanted to escape the farm earlier in the film, now considers Francis part of his family and even threatens Sarah when she wants to leave. It’s through her character that we see how manipulative Francis has been. It’s not until much later, when Tom hears the brutal story about Francis in the bar, that he finally awakens, which encourages his escape — but not before Sarah becomes Francis’ new victim.

This piece originally appeared on The Film Stage

© 2015 Interiors (Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian)

The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight (2008) Director: Christopher Nolan (Scene: 01:36:43 - 01:36:51)

The Dark Knight (2008) is often remembered for Heath Ledger's brilliant portrayal of the Joker. There are a number of iconic scenes of Joker throughout the film, but one of the most captivating moments in the film is only eight seconds long.

The scene occurs directly after the Joker pulls his deadly trick on Batman (Christian Bale) and James Gordon (Gary Oldman) about the locations of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

The Joker escapes from the Major Crimes Unit (MCU) by detonating a bomb inside the police station and drives away in a police car. The Joker hangs his head out of the backseat window. The scene works so particularly because of its sound design -- by drowning out the sounds of the city, the audience is transfixed on the Joker's facial tics. In these eight seconds, we feel like we are inside the mind of the Joker, from him smiling, licking his lips, shaking his face and hair, it's a haunting image.

In our diagram, we examined the movement of the police car down the street. Christopher Nolan captures the zig-zagging police car with a camera that is firmly planted on the side of the door, providing a unique juxtaposition that captures the essence of the film. The Joker lives in a world of chaos but remains steady and calm the entire time. There iss always a method to the madness. 

 © 2015 Interiors (Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian)

Birdman (2014)

Birdman (2014) Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu (Scene: 00:53:37 - 01:04:53)

There has been much said and written about the use of the long take in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014), and how its filmmakers stitched together numerous long shots in an attempt to make the majority of the film feel like a continuous scene. The film follows (literally) its protagonist, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an actor past his prime, as he plans his career comeback with a stage production.

Emmanuel Lubezki seems the ideal collaborator for the director’s vision. The cinematographer, known for his extended takes in films such as Y Tu Mamá También (2001), Children of Men (2006) and Gravity (2013), has made use of the technique as a way of bringing audiences closer to the action. Birdman is the culmination of his experimentation with the form, bringing together these ideas and creating an immersive experience with a sense of urgency.

The film, of course, uses digital effects and editing as a way of creating its illusion. Birdman’s cuts are hidden between instances of darkness, made possible through the work of production designer Kevin Thompson, who started his work by mapping out the entire film on a floor plan of the sets

The setting of Birdman is the St. James Theatre, which is located on 246 West 44th Street in New York. The St. James Theatre opened in 1927 during the birth of sound cinema and was designed by the architectural firm Warren & Westmore of New York, the same team responsible for the Grand Central Station. The theatre’s technical specifications were criticized, while its backstage was considered small by industry standards; as a result, the theatre was considered “inadequate” during these early years.

The filmmakers filmed at the St. James Theatre over a span of thirty days in April and May 2013 between a gap of time in between productions at the theatre, but the majority of the action in the film takes place backstage. These scenes were filmed at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. The filmmakers first started work on a soundstage in Los Angeles, where scenes were carefully blocked, choreographed and rehearsed with cast and crew, providing the production team with a thorough understanding of the specific dimensions of each of the rooms and hallways. This work was then transferred over into the constructed sets at the Kaufman Astoria Studios. Birdman is a film that attempts to reflect reality via artificial means -- a soundstage stands in for the actual location and numerous extended scenes are stitched together in an attempt to provide this illusion.

There is a sense that the world is closing in on Riggan Thomson, as his overwhelming stress cripples him as he readies for the opening night of his production. This feeling is expertly reflected in the film’s production design. The production crew made adjustments to the rooms and hallways, making them tighter over the course of the film, which results in the feeling that the surrounding space is literally closing in on the protagonist.

The film, despite its structure, is still broken down into scenes. In our floor plan, we examined the scene in which Riggan finds out about the cover story in the newspaper, in which Mike (Edward Norton) seemingly takes credit for the production (00:53:37 - 01:04:53). The scene begins outside Riggan’s dressing room with an impossible shot that moves through steel bars and into the interior space. In addition to the two characters in this scene, Riggan and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), we also hear the voice of Birdman mocking Riggan.

Riggan confronts Mike and their conversation spills into the kitchen, where both men wrestle near the water cooler. Riggan heads back into his dressing room, where Birdman continues mocking him. Riggan then starts destroying his room with his mind; without touching anything, he completely wrecks it. It’s interesting to note that once Jake (Zach Galifianakis), his friend and lawyer, interrupts this private moment, Riggan is no longer destroying his room with his mind; rather, he is physically causing the damage himself, which speaks to the subjectivity/objectivity of Riggan/Birdman.

The scene continues its careful use of mise-en-scène when Lesley (Naomi Watts) arrives. In their conversation, the loss of a “shot reverse shot” caused by the continuous filming technique is made up for by the blocking of the actors. The camera focuses on Lesley, while Riggan’s reflection is seen through the mirror. In many other instances, the film makes use of two shots of its characters as a way of making up for the lack of editing within the scenes. Birdman is a film that keeps its audience engaged within its singular location, despite all of its technical limitations. The film instead uses them to its advantage, coming up with inventive ways of exploring cinematic space.

This piece originally appeared on Archdaily

 © 2015 Interiors (Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian)