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The Truth About Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Hallway Fight In Inception

Whether you love or loathe the work of blockbuster auteur Christopher Nolan, one has to admire the filmmaker's devotion to playing outside of the box on even the biggest projects. Perhaps more importantly, Nolan is one of the few mainstream directors willing to craft tentpole fare as thrilling to the eye as it frequently is to the brain. 

Never before was Nolan's penchant for high-minded popcorn cinema more on display than with 2010's mind-bending sci-fi epic Inception, which followed the tale of a crack team of thieves who specialize in invading the dreams of powerful business sorts and extracting vital details of their secretive dealings. Those dream-thieving skills are put to the test, however, when the team is tasked with doing just the opposite by implanting an idea in the mind of a man set to inherit his father's business empire.

Like every Christopher Nolan venture, Inception takes an already complex narrative and proceeds to twist and turn it in ways even the savviest of cinéastes couldn't imagine. En route to a legit mind-f**k of a finale, Nolan bolsters his daring, twist-a-minute thriller with a handful of set pieces that match it in both scale and ambition. One of those Inception set-pieces continues to tower above the rest even over a decade after the film's release though. We're talking, of course, of the epic zero-gravity sequence which found Joseph Gordon-Levitt facing off against an armed foe in a rotating hotel hallway.

As vividly realized as it is wildly inventive, that scene remains the centerpiece in a film full of such moments, and arguably ranks as the Christopher Nolan set piece to end them all. Here's a few things you may not have known about the hallway fight scene in Inception.    

Inception's hallway fight is a practical effect

While there are countless elements to Christopher Nolan's films which set them apart from most tentpole properties, one of the most important is the director's insistence that as little special effects work as possible be done with CGI. Yes, that practical effects approach is what makes some of the most audacious moments in Nolan's films so unmistakably unique, particularly in comparison to the droves of computer generated action that's come to overwhelm almost every blockbuster released in the past two decades. And yes, it's the reason the hallway fight scene in Inception is such a dazzling cinematic delight.

If you want to know exactly how the iconic moment came to life, the folks at Cinefix pulled back the curtain on the scene, revealing that Nolan and his effects team actually constructed massive, rotating centrifuges (one vertical, one horizontal) not unlike the one Stanley Kubrick employed for 2001: A Space Odyssey to make the eye-popping moment happen sans CGI. They then constructed the hallway sets inside of the tubular behemoths before turning (literally) cast and crew loose to create the stunning visuals of the fight scene in question.

And while digital tech was eventually used to remove certain elements of the set in post-production, it's safe to say the use of a real-world environment and the almost complete absence of CGI helped make Inception's dream fight one to remember. 

The hallway fight required meticulous preparation from Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Not surprisingly, both the cast and crew of Inception endured rigorous preparation before stepping onto the hallway sets. They were, after all, stepping into a fully functioning centrifuge built to spin and twist and turn them about in ways only a dreamscape ever really could. As for Gordon-Levitt, he was frequently doing so connected to wires designed to help simulate a zero-gravity environment, meaning one wrong move might've resulted in serious injury. And given that Nolan was so committed to not using CGI to make the moment happen, Gordon-Levitt was required to endure the bulk of the action himself.

Per a 2010 interview with MTV, director of photography Wally Pfister (who one an Academy Award for his work on Inception) let slip that the actor actually trained for a two full weeks with the film's stunt crew before he was ready to step into Nolan's spinning set to fight a dream-made foe and the changing laws of nature. One can only imagine how long it took the stunt crew to work out the choreography of the scene prior to their actor's showing up for training.

Even a cursory look at the finished scene might leave one wondering how it only took two weeks to get them up to speed as it's not at all hard to imagine the ease of taking a fateful wrong step inside the moving set. However they managed, the inclusion of live actors in a live set makes the moment all the more thrilling in a visceral sort of way. And yes, Gordon-Levitt absolutely owns every second of the action.   

The hallway scene in Inception took weeks to shoot

As detailed by Pfister in that MTV interview, the hallway fight in Inception was a truly massive undertaking, reportedly requiring contributions from approximately 500 crew members. Because of the perilous nature of the shooting, and the time required between every camera set up, it also apparently took a full three weeks to shoot. "We'd run the fight scene for as long as the actors can pull it off," Pfister noted. "We begin with a camera that's not fixed to the set and shows a bit of the rotation, and then you quickly jump to where you're rotating with the set. It creates this bizarre, strange movement. It's an exhausting process for the actors. Having rotated on that set myself, it's really quite challenging and a very strange thing to get used to. If you jump at the wrong time, you could be falling 12 feet through the air. We kept coming back to it. We'd shoot out a part of a sequence and then the riggers would have to adjust something. We'd duck out and shoot something else and come back a few hours later and shoot more. The whole thing was spread out over about three weeks."

In Pfister's estimation, the juice was worth the squeeze in terms of not going the CGI route on the fight scene with the gifted DP going on to boast, "You've never seen anything like this before."

Inception's hallway fight was inspired by a popular anime

Of course, fans of anime legend Satoshi Kon (Perfect BlueTokyo Godfathers) might argue with Pfister's estimation that "You've never seen anything like this before." That's because Christopher Nolan's Inception borrowed heavily from Kon's 2006 flick Paprika, about a world where things go haywire after a machine which allows therapists to enter the minds of their patients falls into the wrong hands.

Nolan didn't only borrow plot elements from Paprika while constructing his Inception dreamscapes. In fact, he even went so far as to borrow key visual elements from the movie to the point of almost directly recreating certain scenes. Borrowing aside, the fact that Nolan actually found ways to recreate Paprika's nightmarish, near psychedelic moments in a live-action environment is nothing short of miraculous, as Kon is really pushing the bounds of dream worlds throughout.

And while certain "borrowed" moments in Inception were no doubt easier to conjure than others, it's almost impossible to imagine even contemplating the task of recreating the dizzying hallway scene in Paprika for a live-action film, especially without the use of CGI. If Wally Pfister is to be believed, even he was worried about bringing that moment to life when he first read through Nolan's Inception screenplay. "There are always scenes in a Chris Nolan script where I'm wondering how we're going to pull it off. When I was reading those rotating hallway scenes, I was blown away and also scratching my head."

That Nolan figured out it could be done, as well as how it could be done, and then actually did it — in the context of a summer blockbuster — is why he remains one of the most exciting directors in Hollywood today.