Every scene in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight has been pored over so much in the decade since its release that it’s hard to remember how well it deployed the element of surprise. It’s a film that defies expectations about what’s possible in a superhero flick and subverts your expectations over and over again.
Case in point: the pencil trick.
Early on in the film, the super-villainous Joker (Heath Ledger) crashes a meeting of various Gotham City mob leaders and sells them on a plan to kill Batman. At one point, he says he’ll perform a “magic trick” by making a pencil disappear. He sticks a pencil into a table, point first. One of the mobsters, Gambol (Michael Jai White), orders an unnamed henchman (Charles Jarman) to attack the Clown Prince of Crime for wasting their time. The Joker grabs the poor man’s head and jams it into the pencil such that it pierces his eye and brain, killing him instantly.
It’s hard to imagine an audience member expecting that idiosyncratic fatality, and anyone who saw the picture on opening night can likely recall the gasps that erupted through the assembled crowd when the Joker executes his move. But how did this deeply memorable, nanoseconds-long sequence come together? We caught up with an array of actors and filmmakers who worked on the scene to get the inside story of the killing blow.
Richard Ryan (stunt coordinator): It was scripted that [Heath Ledger] would slam the pencil in and then one of the henchmen [played by Charles Jarman] would walk up, and Heath would slam his head into the table with the pencil going into his eye.
Nathan Crowley (production designer): Everyone was like, “Oh, how are we going to do it?” There are always loads of meetings and people wanting to do prosthetic stuff.
Ryan: There was talk of it being a CGI pencil. Would the whole thing be a visual-effects gag?
Nick Davis (visual effects supervisor): I think even Chris [Nolan] assumed we were going to have to do some CG. It’s not particularly difficult to build a CG pencil and track it in and kinda make it disappear out. But we shot it in IMAX, so you see it on a giant, great, big canvas. Wherever possible, we tried not to do unnecessary visual effects shots because, digitally, you can never really re-create an IMAX image.
Wally Pfister (cinematographer): There was no trick pencil. There was no pencil when his head hit the table so there is no place it’s disappearing into. There was nothing there when his head hits the table.
Crowley: At the end of the day, you just shoot it twice: one with the pencil and one without the pencil. Then the edit does its magic. The previous film Chris [Nolan] and I did was The Prestige. We spent like a year on this Prestige thing learning magic tricks and how you do tricks of camera.
Jarman: I remember Christopher Nolan saying to me, “Look, we’re going to do a couple of shots where you need to be able to take that pencil away.” We did a couple of half-speed rehearsals just to get the hand action of my right hand sweeping across, taking the pencil as my body was going down, and my head striking the blank surface. It was a little hairy, because the pencil’s stuck in the table. If, for some reason, I didn’t get my hand in time, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Well, possibly through a Ouija board.
We did something like 22 takes over two days. We had two different tables. The table that most of the takes were done on was galvanized rubber, so the table itself was fairly solid, and had this half-centimeter of rubber over the top. Now, that was supposed to make it easier for the impact. We tried it first with a real table, and, I’ve got to tell you, I think the real table was a lot easier. It was thinner. It gave more. It did sting a little, but when you strike wood, because it is a table, the whole thing flexes, so there’s that give. Whereas the galvanized rubber table, because of its density, there was less give. It kind of felt like putting a towel over a brick wall, and running into it. Not that I’ve done that many times, but I can just use my imagination.
Pfister: I remember there were wrinkles in the padded table after his head hit it one or two times and we wanted to try and avoid seeing those.
Ritchie Coster (actor, the Chechen): The thing about that weekend was just seeing what Heath Ledger was doing. I’d not seen the makeup before until he stepped out to do the first take. He did this [stunt], and my immediate reaction was, “Oh, God. You’re not doing that, are you?” And then I’m like, “Oh, yeah. He is doing that.” And it’s fucking brilliant.
Jarman: As we set the scene up, Heath Ledger was never in the room. I think it was part of his method acting. He would enter the room when he was being the Joker. He would leave the room being the Joker. It was a few days, and you just really didn’t see him in between, apart from the end when he did this kind of ceremonial handshake, and went around to everyone in the room. He was the consummate professional, stayed in character all the time. He only broke character once, which was when he first hit my head, and knocked me out.
Eric Roberts (actor, Sal Maroni): I had a physical reaction. I went, Oh, wow, oh, oh, okay, great, we got to do that! I thought it was real, at first. Like, Wow, wow, wow, something went wrong! It was that kind of reaction because it looked really good and really fast and it looked a little bit clumsy. So it’s like, Wait a minute, did it go right? And that’s how I felt watching it. But it was so cool to see it work because it did work. And it was nasty. It was freaking nasty.
Jarman: [I had] three [knockouts] that I can recount. My second day, my forehead came out to, I’d say, at least an inch from my head. The first [knockout] was for a couple of seconds, and I remember that daze and coming to. Because it was the first time, I didn’t want to mess the shot up. Heath actually asked me when I was coming to, saying, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m good.” Then he slipped back into The Joker again.
Ryan: Heath was delivering great stuff.
Jarman: You think less of yourself and more about the shot. You suck it up, and you go again. As I’ve got older, I’ve realized I wouldn’t be doing it in the same way now. The room is full of all of your idols, you don’t want to mess things up. There are a lot of people relying on it. If I do it properly, if I do it right, then the shot can move on. The director’s happy. You want people to be happy with what you’ve done, your performance. So, you focus on that.
Ryan: Charles is a lovely man and he did exactly what was needed to make it work.
Jarman: There’s a thrill-seeking side to it, but there’s also the science of, how can we make this look as real as possible, and be as safe as possible? Given all the parameters, I believe we got there. There’s no avoiding the impact — how it’s set up, it’s going to happen. But if I had a similar job like that come up again, I would be looking at more breakaways, or doing it in such a way that you could avoid the impact and concussion. There are certain ways of cheating the shot, so that it can look just as violent, and just as dramatic. You just do it differently.
Pfister: It’s kind of shocking that The Dark Knight ended up being PG-13. All of Chris’s movies would be PG-13 to open it up to a wider audience. Somehow, he always had some magic with the MPAA. Lo and behold, he has the pencil and I’m like, “You are not getting the PG-13 with that. There’s no way this is going in. He’s driving this pencil through a guy’s head!” And I was wrong. Chris was always right, whether you liked it or not. You’d be like, “Fuck you, you were right again.” With this pencil trick, I thought, If it has the right amount of levity, we’ll sell this and it won’t come off as being violent but it’ll come off as being a magic trick and it’ll come off as being a punchline. And it was!