Christopher Nolan On How the Art of Francis Bacon Inspired the Look of Heath Ledger's Joker

Photo: Tate Britain

An interesting connection between Tim Burton's Batman and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight has just come to light as the folks at the newly refurbished Tate Britain sent me some videos featuring directors such as Nolan, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach talking about how certain artists inspired their work.

To begin, for Nolan he focuses on the work of Francis Bacon, revealing how he couldn't find the right words to describe the look he wanted for the smeared clown make-up on Heath Ledger's Joker so he turned to a book of Bacon's art to relay his vision to Ledger's make-up artist, John Caglione Jr..

While it's always interesting to see a filmmaker's inspiration, what's even more interesting about this, to me, is the connection it draws between Nolan's Joker and Jack Nicholson's turn as the Joker in Burton's 1989 film.

Just below is the Tate Britain short with Nolan, but below that is a video featuring Bacon speaking over the museum scene in Batman, but the video freezes as The Joker stops one of his henchmen from destroying one of Bacon's paintings. It seems the inspiration for the character may have been around for some time.

A scene from Mike Leigh's JMW Turner film compared to the Turner painting that was recreated
A scene from Mike Leigh's JMW Turner film compared to the Turner painting that was recreated

Additionally, Mike Leigh discussed JMW Turner, the character at the center of his new, as-yet untitled film on the artist starring Timothy Spall. Above is a scene from the movie recreated from the painting seen in the lower right hand corner.

The same goes for the picture below.

A second scene from Mike Leigh's JMW Turner film compared to the Turner painting that was recreated
A second scene from Mike Leigh's JMW Turner film compared to the Turner painting that was recreated

Leigh describes the scene and how he positioned the camera exactly where it would have been and adds, "Nobody thinks that the painter in the Turner's little painting is Turner, but we've made it Turner and we've put three ladies in here and we've made a little scene happen. You go to this room and you experience the light coming in through this window and you really feel what you see in this little painting, which is the atmosphere, the mood, the spirit of the room and the light. Of course, light, more than anything, is what it's about."

Finally, Ken Loach is currently working on what may be his last feature film, Jimmy's Hall, a period drama set in 1930s Ireland, and he speaks in the video below on the connections between art and filmmaking, and explains why he'd rather spend time with William Hogarth and his servants than any of the fine dandies in other portraits on show at Tate Britain.

From Tate Britain:

These short films are part of a series in which leading creatives share artworks from Tate Britain’s collection that have inspired them.

The newly refurbished Tate Britain is now open to the public. Find out more and see how other top creative minds including musicians, photographers, poets, comedians, chefs and more have been inspired by 500 years of British art.

  • yrabadi

    Cool stuff for sure.

    I revisited Batman 89 just the other weekend, and it's astonishing how many similarities reside between it and TDK. It's also very interesting to see how the film plays now, and how much more in line with the spirit of comics Burton's work is compared to that of Nolan's. Good times.

    • jasonca

      Tim Burton admits to never reading a comic.

      • yrabadi

        That's fine, I'm not debating that. I'm just saying I find the films to be more in line with the spirit of the comics. He may not have ever read a comic (assuming he's being truthful), but obviously he did research on the characters, their worlds and found sources to pull from that were in line with those factors. Plus, Burton directed. I see the spirit within the story. Who's to say the writers never read a comic?

        • Brad

          Yeah, yeah: the "spirit", the "spirit". Is that code for "I like the tone better than the other film and I don't have an intelligent way to express my preference"?

          • yrabadi

            Dude. It's not an article about Batman... I only brought the film up because it's referenced and I was making a passing comment/opinion. I have no interest in delving deeper and trying to convince you of why I prefer one type of film to the next. I'm sure it would bore you to read it as much as it would me to write it.

            • Brad

              I am never bored by genuine insight and a critical awareness of the genre. Are you?

              • yrabadi

                Often. Especially if it's on an online forum where more than likely it will result in condescending comments. Don't need that in my life.

              • Brad

                You're "often" bored by intelligence. Your position is ironic, though: because you assume a genuinely insightful response will be ridiculed, you refuse to post one. Yet, because you have refused to post some further examples/evidence/insight to your comment, you'll inevitably be ridiculed.

              • yrabadi

                Ah, you got me. You're too clever for me.

                Or maybe it's as simple as me not wanting to discuss superhero films with you? Nah. Couldn't be that.

              • Brad

                So you post your opinion on a PUBLIC FORUM in order to NOT DISCUSS your opinion publicly? I remember - in university class - you could tell the people who genuinely were informed about the subject matter and those who weren't. It's a very simple test: all you had to do was ask "why" to their opinion. If they still had an answer that was clear and had logical examples, then you could tell that they were probably worth listening to. If they couldn't, then they would repeat the same opinion without expanding upon the idea or they would just try and shut down further discussion. All I've asked is 'why' and all you have in return is empty sarcasm. You can't actually articulate why one film is more faithful because you're not informed: you don't know the comics in great detail. Sure, maybe you've read a couple of comics, but that's it. It's not an eloquent opinion because you don't have an extensive knowledge of the source material. Having an opinion is different to having an insight.

              • yrabadi

                Okay Brad, here's the thing. This article touches on Nolan's TDK and mentions Batman '89. The focus of the article has nothing to do with contrasting/comparing Batman '89 to Nolan's series. I mentioned it briefly, in my original comment, as a passing comment and nothing more... Because, again, comparing the films is not the main point of this article.

                Then you jumped in with your 'Yeah, yeah: the "spirit", the "spirit".' comment, which honestly, straight up, came off as a dickish comment, in implying and assuming I didn't know what I was talking about... When really it's an opinion, anyway, but I digress. If it wasn't intended to be that way, fine - but that is how it came across on my end. So why would I want to continue in conversation with you if that's my initial impression?

                Even in your last comment, you make assumptions purely based on the fact that I have no desire in defending my opinion against you. I shouldn't have to. If you want to go ahead and link that to me not knowing what I'm talking about, that's your prerogative. But consider the opposite, that being, I've already wasted enough time going back and forward with you and I have no desire to waste more.

                So with that, I'll leave you with your assumptions. Feel free to respond but know I will not be doing so. And that's not necessarily because I have nothing to say, but more so because I have nothing to say specifically to you.


              • Brad

                "But consider the opposite, that being, I've already wasted enough time going back and forward with you and I have no desire to waste more."

                No, it's about what's more credible or not. I find it more credible that you don't know what you're talking about. If you did, you could have given a simple explanation about your position. Instead, you assert over and over and over again how much you don't want to waste your time ... by asserting how much you don't want to waste your time over and over and over again. You see, you don't have a REASON for why you don't feel the way you do. You just wanted to throw out an opinion ... because, but you lack the intellectual resources and self-awareness to illustrate why you think that way.

  • clarkcontraje

    Great article. The Batman connection is as crazy as the character.