In spite of the film's extensive surreal effects sequences, the majority of special effects throughout the film, such as the Penrose stairs, rotating hallway, mountain avalanche, and zero-gravity sequences, were created through practical methods, not through the use of computer generated imagery. The film only has around 500 visual effects shots, as opposed to most other visual effects epics which can have upwards of 2000 VFX shots.
In an interview with 'Entertainment Weekly', Christopher Nolan explained that he based roles of the Inception team similar to roles that are used in filmmaking - Cobb is the director, Arthur is the producer, Ariadne is the production designer, Eames is the actor, Saito is the studio, and Fischer is the audience. "In trying to write a team-based creative process, I wrote the one I know," said Nolan.
If you take the first letters of the main characters' names - Dom, Robert, Eames, Arthur, Mal and Saito - they spell "Dreams". If you add Peter, Ariadne and Yusuf, the whole makes "Dreams Pay", which is what they do for a mind thief.
According to Cinematographer Wally Pfister, Warner Brothers executives approached Christopher Nolan about making the film in 3D, but he refused the idea, claiming "it will distract the storytelling experience of Inception".
During production, details of the film's plot were kept secret. Christopher Nolan, who wrote the script, cryptically described it as a contemporary sci-fi action thriller "set within the architecture of the mind."
Christopher Nolan first pitched the film to Warner Bros. after the completion of his third feature, Insomnia (2002), and was met with approval from the studio. However, it was not yet written at the time, and Nolan determined that rather than writing it as an assignment, it would be more suitable to his working style if he wrote it as a spec script and then presented it to the studio whenever it was completed. So he went off to write it, thinking it would take "a couple of months", but it ultimately took nearly eight years.
When explaining why he thinks implanting an idea is not possible, Arthur says "don't think about elephants" to actually make Saito think of them and thus "insert" an idea into his mind. The line is a reference to the title of a famous cognitive semantics book, 'Don't Think of an Elephant' by George Lakoff. The book describes conceptual framing, the use of certain words to literally insert certain ideas about a subject into the listener's mind in a surreptitious way, e.g. implanting the idea that taxes are a bad thing by using the phrase "tax relief."
"Yusuf" is the Arabic form of "Joseph", the Biblical figure from Genesis 37-50, who had the gift of interpreting dreams. He was sold out by his brothers to slavery. Through his gift of dream interpretation he helped Pharaoh to prepare for the disaster of the "seven lean years" and was rewarded as a result. The same story is also told in the Quran.
Dom Cobb's main objective is to get Home. Dom is the word for 'home' in most Slavic languages (e.g. Russian and Bulgarian), derived from the Latin word "Domus". Words like 'Domesticated' and 'Domicile' all share the same "dom" root.
The role of Saito was written exclusively for Ken Watanabe because Christopher Nolan felt that although he had appeared in Batman Begins (2005), he did not have much screen time, and should therefore be given a more prominent supporting role.
One of the reasons why Christopher Nolan cast Tom Hardy as Eames was because of his performance in the film RocknRolla (2008). Hardy stated that he thought he was cast because of his role in Bronson (2008). He arrived on set only to learn that Nolan has never even seen Bronson.
A direct translation of the lyrics for the song "Non, je ne regrette rien" as performed by Édith Piaf is: "I regret nothing/no, I have no regrets/I regret neither the good things that were done to me nor the bad things/They are all the same to me/...The past is payed, swept away, forgotten/I don't care of the past anymore/I set my memories on fire/My agonies, and my pleasures/I don't need them any more/Swept away in the agonies of love/Swept away forever, I'm restarting with nothing..." Christopher Nolan has made a point of saying that he chose the song specifically for the movie, which is heavily concerned with the effect of memories on the psyche, and specifically the disastrous effect that not letting go of memories of love-gone-wrong can have on the subconscious--exactly what the song discusses. Also of note: in the original French, "I regret neither the good things done to me nor the bad things" is "Ni le bien qu'on m'a fait ni le mal," and since Cobb's wife is named Mal, that gives the line a double meaning.
The Édith Piaf song "Non, je ne regrette rien" is used as a plot device. Marion Cotillard played Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2007). Christopher Nolan has stated that this is "pure coincidence". After Cotillard was cast, Nolan intended to change the song to eliminate speculation on the subject, but composer Hans Zimmer persuaded him to keep it.
Marion Cotillard's character is named 'Mal', which is short for 'Malorie', a name derived from the French word 'malheur', meaning misfortune or unhappiness. The shorter version 'mal' means wrong/bad or evil (when a noun) in French, as well as some other Latin-based languages. Years after starring in Inception, Cotillard starred in the French film Mal de pierres (2016), whose original title is "Mal de Pierres" (Stone Pain/Stone Ache).
Ariadne, in Greek mythology, was the daughter of King Minos of Crete and his queen, Pasiphaë. She aided Theseus in overcoming the Minotaur by giving him a ball of red fleece thread that she was spinning, so that he could find his way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth. The myth was also the basis for Richard Strauss & Hugo von Hofmannsthal's opera "Ariadne auf Naxos," a play within a play, just as the movie is about a dream within a dream.
The "Penrose stairs" (with a woman perpetually picking up papers) that Arthur shows Ariadne is a reference to a lithograph print by the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher. The print is usually called "Ascending and Descending" or "The Infinite Staircase", and was first printed in March 1960; Escher is well-known for his drawings exploring optical illusions and real architectural, mathematical, and philosophical principles rendered in fantastical ways.
Christopher Nolan's first film since his feature debut, Following (1998), that is a completely original work. All of his films between them are either remakes or based on comics, novels or short stories.
Just as Cillian Murphy's character was named Robert Fischer as a tribute to champion chess player Bobby Fischer, his father's (Pete Postlethwaite) character is named Maurice Fischer as an homage to artist M.C. Escher (full name Maurits Cornelis Escher), whose art was clearly an inspiration for many of the special effects in the film.
A series of numbers keeps appearing: the number that Fischer gives Cobb/Arthur is 528491, The two hotel rooms used are rooms 528 and 491, the number that Eames (as a woman) gives to Fischer is 528-491, the combination to the strongroom starts with 52, and the combination to the safe is 528-491. This is all to reinforce the importance of the number throughout the film. Mathematically, the number 528491 is a prime number.
The exterior of Fischer's snow fortress is based on, and actually contains some elements of, the Geisel Library at the University of California, San Diego, designed by famed futurist architect William L. Pereira.
When Cobb and Miles are first shown, Cobb mentions "Extradition between France and the United States is a bureaucratic nightmare." In Catch Me If You Can (2002), Leonardo DiCaprio's character is arrested in France and later extradited to the United States.
The IMAX 65mm format was earlier considered, as used in The Dark Knight (2008), but it was eventually ruled out due to extensive hand-held camera usage throughout the shoot. Due to its weight, it cannot be operated hand-held.
Mal's totem, a spinning top, is (probably) a reference to the Clifford D. Simak's story 'Ring Around the Sun' where the spinning top is used as a way to skip from one parallel Earth to another (by way of helping characters to concentrate).
Early in the film, during Mal and Cobb's conversation in a room within Saito's estate, Mal comments on a painting in the background. Cobb replies stating that Saito "is partial to postwar British painters". This is referring to the artist, Francis Bacon. The painting, "Study for Head of George Dyer", is of his late lover, whom he painted long after Dyer's death to perpetuate his memory.
This is the third film starring Marion Cotillard to feature a song by Édith Piaf. The previous were Chloé (1996) and Love Me If You Dare (2003), both films have "La Vie en Rose" in the soundtrack, while Inception has "Non, je ne regrette rien". Cotillard won the Academy Award for Best Actress portraying Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2007).
The barrel chairs in Saito's dining room were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1937 for Wingspread, the Herbert Johnson house in Wisconsin. Saito sits at the head of the table in a copy of the Willow Chair designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1903. This further plays on the Architect theme that is prevalent throughout the movie.
Marion Cotillard and Ellen Page star in this movie together. They both were nominated for 'Best Actress' category at the BAFTAs and for the Academy Award in 2008. Cotillard for 'La Vie en Rose' and Page for 'Juno'. Cotillard won both awards.
The character Cobb is an architect in this movie. The actor Alex Haw, who played another character also named Cobb in Christopher Nolan 's earlier movie Following (1998), is actually an architect in real life.
Working title: Oliver's Arrow, after both Christopher Nolan's second son Oliver and the character "Oliver Queen, Green Arrow" from a comic book published by DC, who also produces Batman, of whom Nolan made 3 movies.
The music for the third trailer is Mind Heist, composed by Zack Hemsey. He later released an EP "Mind Heist" in which each song has a different artwork. The change in the artworks (from a dark area with a rail to a train coming closer to revealing the scene was in a tunnel) is a reference to the scene where Cobb and Mal lay on a rail waiting for a train to come and kill themselves. The names of the songs also referenced this scene.
Lukas Haas plays The Architect, the member of the team who designs the dreamscape i.e. the world of the dream. In Lathe of Heaven (2002) he plays George Orr - a draftsman (similar to an architect) whose dreams change reality.
One of Japan's famous "Bullet Trains" is seen early in the movie. This is a 700 Series Shinkansen on the Tokaido line from Tokyo to Osaka. Its distinctive "duck bill" nose and tail design helps to reduce the air piston effect as the train enters tunnels at speed.
Earl Cameron - listed as playing the 'elderly bald man,' was in the iconic The Prisoner (1967), in which he played the supervisor. The Prisoner is legendary for many reasons, but, in relation to this film, in The Prisoner, the unknown controllers used various methods to find the answer to why N°6 resigned - including hallucinatory drugs, as well as entering into, and trying to control - N°6's dreams.
The painting that Mal stares at in Saito's dream, greatly resembles work done by artist Francis Bacon. Both director Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger used Bacon's artwork as a visual reference for the character of The Joker in Nolan's previous film The Dark Knight (2008).
In the film, the characters are from five different continents across the globe performing major heist. Cobb, Arthur and Mal from US (N. America). Cobb fetches Ariadne from Paris (Europe); Eames and Yusuf from Mombasa (Africa). Saito is from Japan (Asia). Fischer from Australia.
When the crew arrives at Level One of Robert Fisher's dream, Yusuf is standing on a street corner in the rain. When Yusuf enters the car, Arthur and Eames tease him because the downpour was the result of his need to urinate after drinking too much champagne on the ten-hour flight to Los Angeles ["Couldn't have peed before you went under?"]. Dileep Rao also plays Dr. Max Patel in Avatar (2009) and has a scene with Grace Augustine where she tells him, "You see, they're just pissing on us without even the courtesy of calling it rain."
The film uses University College London as a location for a number of scenes, including when Miles introduces Cobb to Ariadne. Not only did Nolan study at the university, he has used it as a location for a number of his other films, such as 'Batman Begins' and 'The Dark Knight Rises'.
Between them, the cast of Inception currently as of the 2016 Academy Awards has 4 Oscar wins (2 for Michael Caine and 1 each for Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard) and 18 Oscar nominations (6 for Caine, 5 for DiCaprio, 2 for Cotillard, and one each for Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Tom Berenger and Pete Postlethwaite)
Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard and Ellen Page were all in the long list for a BAFTA nomination in 2011 for their performances in the film. DiCaprio as Best Leading Actor and Cotillard and Page as Best Supporting Actress, respectively, but they didn't make the final cut.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The slow, gloomy, blaring trombones in the main theme of the film score are actually based on an extremely slowed down version of the fast, high pitched trumpets in the beginning of the Édith Piaf song "Non, je ne regrette rien," which is used as a plot device in the film. Furthermore, when music is heard by someone who is currently within a dream, the music is perceived as slowed down. Thus, the main theme of the film score is almost exactly what the beginning of "Non, je ne regrette rien" would sound like to a dreamer. This thematic device is brought to its logical conclusion when the song plays at the end of the credits, signaling that the audience is about to 'wake up' from the film.
During an interview Christopher Nolan addressed the ambiguous ending, saying he believes Cobb makes it home to his children, although it is open to interpretation by the viewer. He further claimed that the point of not seeing whether or not the top stops spinning is that Cobb no longer obsesses over his dreams.
When Cobb asks his kids what they have been doing at the end of the movie they answer (turn on captions), "building a house on a cliff," referring one back to the beginning of the movie of Saito's house on a cliff. The movie explains to the audience the significance of Fischer's number in that it will subconsciously keep reappearing in dreams (e.g. the phone number, hotel rooms, safe combo); in light of this, the audience can watch the whole movie prepared and notice that the train that ran Cobb and Mal over in Limbo had a number on it. A combination of those numbers is used on the taxi cab that Mal and Cob get out of in the "real world," as well as in their hotel room in the "real world." Suppose the whole movie was a dream. If it was, then Nolan cleverly made the movie exactly 2 hours and 28 minutes for a reason, the song continually played to wake people up "from the dream" is 2 minutes 28 seconds.
Although Tom Berenger appears in several scenes, the only scene where his character is "real" (That is, when he's not a projection of someone else's subconscious or being impersonated by Eames) is his first appearance in Maurice Fischer's office.
There are 399 questions asked in the film, including "tag questions" (i.e. - "Subconscious is motivated by emotion, right?"). Cobb leads all characters with 113, followed by Ariadne (93), then Arthur (44).
Cobb gets off the train he gives the reason that he hates trains, this is foreshadowing him and Mal's time together as she always says "You are waiting for a train." and that's what kills her in limbo to take them back to real life.
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) intentionally dreams because he can't let go of his deceased wife. In the 2010 movie, Shutter Island (2010), with Leonardo DiCaprio, he had visions of his deceased wife and she came to his dreams several times throughout the movie.