EDITOR’S NOTE: In 2004, Warner Bros. invited me to visit the set of BATMAN BEGINS in the UK. Unfortunately, I was unable to go due to my “real job” (coaching football and teaching history). However, BOF was able to attend as I sent Paul Wares in my place. Below you’ll find part one of BOF’s BATMAN BEGINS set visit report by Paul Wares. – Bill “Jett” Ramey
In late spring of 2004, the internet was rife with the news that a casting agency was looking for around a thousand extras in Bedfordshire near Milton Keynes in England. It was well assumed that the film the casting agency was working for was BATMAN BEGINS. The movie had been in production at the Cardington Hangers just outside Bedford for a couple of months at this point. Although the production was supposed to be secret an amazing amount of signs with the initials T.I.G. (“The Intimidation Game” – BATMAN BEGINS codename) could be seen around the location. I travelled to Bedford for one of the casting calls and got my name put down as an extra. You can imagine my utter delight and surprise when I got a call back for a shooting day. When I contacted the company I was told I would be contacted within the next few days with the details of my costume fitting. Two days past and I heard nothing. So I contacted the agency, only to be told they had no record of my listing and that I would not be called.
My euphoria turned to despair. I was utterly devastated. My chance to be on set and part of a BATMAN movie – one of my life long dreams – had been shattered. During the months of the BEGINS production I had made contact with several sources on the film, who’d been leaking me small tidbits of information and as great as this was, I still felt pangs of sadness.
Then came another opportunity, thanks to the founder and editor-in-chief of this wonderful site. My good friend Bill “Jett” Ramey had been telling me for a couple of months that WB were considering BATMAN ON FILM to be part of a set visit in late summer 2004. Jett had been planning to go himself, but due to the lateness in the year of the set visit, he knew it would be very unlikely that he would be able to go due to work commitments. As the weeks progressed, it became clear that the visit would actually be happening and Jett very kindly asked if I would go in his stead and represent BOF. I have to admit, it was an amazing honour to be asked, but I also felt incredibly guilty at supplanting him, in what could be a once in a lifetime event.
Quite honestly, I also had my doubts that this would really happen. I fully expected to be once again disappointed at the last minute. Then on the Thursday, before the visit was due to take place at about 1am, I received an email. It was the itinerary for the day. I opened the attachment and couldn’t believe my eyes. I got halfway through the document, before I woke my then heavily pregnant girlfriend to tell her the details of the event. Not only would I be on set, but I would get to see the suit, the car, Gotham City and interview, Larry Franco (Producer), Emma Thomas (Producer), Chris Nolan (Director), Christian Bale (Batman/Bruce Wayne), Gary Oldman (Sgt. Gordon) Nathan Crowley (Production Designer) and Day Murch (Key Costume Effects).
What follows here and over the course of the next week are the results of that amazing encounter.
On the day of the visit, we started out from London at about nine. It was approximately a two-hour journey from the London hotel to the set. As we approached the Cardington Hangers I could hear the other Genre/Internet Journalists gasp at the enormity of the two huge aircraft hangers. We could only wonder what marvels could be created in buildings of this size. We entered through the gates and started towards the main hanger, there we were met by security and our hosts escorted us into the building. We were led into a room with a number of chairs facing a huge plasma screen. As we were seated one of the amazingly friendly AD’s switched on the plasma screen and suddenly we were in Gotham, staring at Batman and Gordon having a conversation. It was if I was witnessing a living, breathing comic-book.
It was at this point that we were introduced to Larry Franco, a gentle speaking American Producer, with a wealth of credits to his name, including 1992’s BATMAN RETURNS. If anyone knew how much Batman meant to Warner Bros. after the debacle that was BATMAN AND ROBIN, it was him. “The BATMAN franchise is a big deal for WB and nobody wants to fail at it. I think whenever you make a movie you’re under a huge amount of pressure. None of us go out to make something that people aren’t going to like. Unless you have such a great ego, that it doesn’t matter. It was starting to go south and we’re trying to head it North.”
The question was, how to make it go North. WB had been trying without much success to try and get Batman back on the big screen since B&R’s box office disappointment in 1997. The audience had become so jaded with the franchise, why would they respond any differently to this version of the classic character? “I think because it’s reality based,” says Franco. It’s an origin story. It tells you why he becomes Batman, it tells you how he becomes batman. It tells you all the things you secretly wanted to know.” One thing was certainly evident from the pictures we were being shown on the plasma screen, Batman had certainly returned to his dark roots. The lighting was dark and moody and the smoke machine had obviously been working overtime. “This is not smoke for lighting this is smoke because there is trouble at mill,” explains Franco.
I have to confess, it was very strange hearing that very English expression being used with a strong American accent, but then such cross pollination was a theme running through this film. With such a strong English cast portraying, in some cases at least, quintessential American icons. “Well I think an actor is an actor is an actor,” says Franco. “A really good actor is a really good actor and I don’t think it makes any difference we’re they’re from. They’re cast because of their abilities not where they’re from.”
Our attention is once again turned to the plasma screen where a very powerful looking Batman is deep in conversation with Oldman’s Gordon. “There’s something going on here that I don’t want to tell you about, but you’re going to find out anyway because you’re going to be walking around.” Franco informs us, “but I don’t want to be the one. We are all sworn to such secrecy that we turn our scripts in we don’t know anything.” It’s certainly true that secrecy has been paramount concerning this production, with only the odd leaked picture of the movie surfacing. It’s also true to say that interest in this movie has been astounding, with a lot of fans having high expectations of the film. I asked Chris Nolan, the Director of BATMAN BEGINS how much pressure he felt to get this right. “The pressure I feel really is just the responsibility of (dealing with this) beloved icon, so obviously there is a lot of weight that comes with trying to interpret that,” the Director said in short break in shooting.
When asked what Christian Bale brings to the iconic character, Nolan has nothing but praise, comparing Bale’s work ethic to Bruce Wayne himself. “He’s marvellous, he just brings an incredible focus. The thing with Bruce Wayne, is he doesn’t have any superpowers unless you count his incredible will. Really he’s just an ordinary guy. I think one of the reasons the character is so appealing as a superhero. Christian has an incredible degree of focus and determination, which is what allows Bruce Wayne to do these extraordinary things. I think that’s the main characteristic of his personality.”
Inevitably, the question of sequels arises. “I’m concentrating on this one for now, but clearly the character has a limitless potential in terms of stories. He lasted as long as he has for that very reason.” Certainly that is very true, but with over 65 years worth of stories to mine, which comic books specifically influence Nolan’s take on the legend. “It would be very hard to point to one in particular. ‘Batman: Year One’ clearly, things like ‘The Long Halloween,’ but I think a lot of the 70’s Batman comics. The Adams/O’Neil period, a period where they were very influenced in the comics by the Bond films of the time. It really was that period that excited me, there was a tone of heightened reality. It’s a recognisable world, a contemporary world, and yet extraordinary things are happening within it. It’s trying to find a grounded basis in reality for all the extraordinary elements of the story.”
Thomas, who has produced all of Nolan’s films, muses over the perceived pressures of producing a studio film. “I don’t think we’re feeling that pressure specifically. It’s not like we’ve got the studio breathing down our necks saying this has to be a golden goose. More than anything else, Chris saw a story that he felt hadn’t been told and that he would really love to make. It’s almost like we’re not thinking what has gone before in terms of the movies. This is a separate film, it’s something that Chris is very passionate about and has always wanted to do.”
With such a cash cow at stake, Warners must want to keep a very close eye on the project though. Says Thomas: “We send them (the studio) dailies at the end of everyday. They’ve been here a fair amount, but I have to say that the experience with them has been amazing. They’ve been brilliant and they’ve been involved, but they’ve been very supportive rather than interfering. They’ve been very hands off since we’ve been shooting, obviously we went through the script process where we went through the studio notes. Chris went in early on when he first found out that they wanted to make another BATMAN film and he pitched them what he thought the film should be and then of course we brought David Goyer on and they came up with a much more firm idea of what the script was going to be. Then we went and we pitched that and the studio loved it, they absolutely adored what it was going to be. We were all very much on the same page right from the beginning, which I think was enormously helpful in just making the process go smoothly. So although we had very small notes from them and a lot of discussion about the direction of the film, we were very much on the same page before we started shooting. So they really let us get on with it, which has really been a brilliant thing because never having made a film of this size before I definitely thought we were going to have a lot more interference.”
This move is very surprising but also confidence building, certainly from a fan perspective as it was perceived that is was studio interference that lead to the franchise’s near demise. One finds it difficult to believe that they had this much freedom, but Thomas is adamant. “It wasn’t as though they said to Chris ‘This is what it should be, it should have these elements’ because they didn’t say that at all. All we knew is that they wanted to make a new BATMAN film, there were no parameters within which we had to work.”
From that point, there seemed to be an endless stream of casting coups. “The casting was a very organic process,” delights Thomas. “We started with Christian and we went from there. The next person was Michael (Caine) as Alfred. All of the cast we got were right for the role regardless of their nationality.” Indeed, but incredibly rare that such a top-notch cast should be attracted to a comic-book movie. “There was a combination of Chris Nolan directing this really great script, the casting of Christian really set the tone for what this film was going to be and I think that was something that was attractive to a lot of these actors and it’s really cool to be in a Batman movie,” Thomas explains. “One of the things that Chris always wanted to do with this that he talked to the studio very early on was to cast the film in the way that the ’78 SUPERMANfilm was cast. That was a group of really amazing, experienced actors doing fairly small roles although they were very important and that was something that Chris really wanted to do as well.”
Thomas confesses that she was worried at one point that Bale might not be able to do the film though, or that the studio wouldn’t support their choice. “The first time we met him he hadn’t started shooting THE MACHINIST yet and he was still dropping the weight. We were right at the beginning. David Goyer was writing the script, we had Nathan (Crowley, Production Designer) in our garage putting together bits of models and designing the batmobile. Chris was beginning to meet a lot of actors. I came to the meeting late and I didn’t even recognize him at that point he probably weighed about 140lbs and he still had further to go. Clearly he’s a very special talent who takes things very seriously. At that point we were a little concerned. We knew that even though we weren’t going to be shooting until March (2004) we were going to be expected to do screen tests with actors in September (2003). That was the biggest concern of all, how on earth are we going to put this skinny guy in the suit. I talked to his agent about it when we finally had our date for the screen test and he said he (Bale) was tiny, but he was sending him Pizzas every day. Sure enough when Christian turned up he was back to looking like Christian Bale, it was quite incredible. He’s amazing.”
The majority of fans would agree with Thomas’s assessment of Bales talent. I asked her if the fact that so many fans wanted Bale as the Dark Knight influenced their decision to cast him. “We were aware that Christian was the fan favourite and I’m sure on some level it influenced us, but more than anything else he was a fan favourite because he was right for the part. We all wanted the person who was right for the part and thankfully we were all on the same page.”
Once again the talk returns to sequel speculation and I asked Thomas if there were any firm plans in place at this stage. “It’s something that has been talked about, but we have quite a long way to go. There is a long list of people who are signed (for sequels). Christian is signed for multiple films, I believe three.”
The conversation returns to the internet buzz that the film is generating. “I read a fair amount of it and I’m very relieved that it’s been as positive as it has been so far. It’s very difficult for us because we’re so involved with the film and we don’t even really know what the film is going to be yet. I’m very happy that so far people seem to be happy with the choices we’ve made and I hope that they will continue to be happy. One of the biggest pressures about making a film like this, is that Batman is such a beloved character that not only do we have to match our own expectations, but there’s a lot of other people who’s expectations we need to live up to as well and that’s enormously important to us. Having said all that at a certain point we do have to focus on what we’re doing and make the best film that we can make and hope that everyone agrees.”
Thomas can’t resist referring to the juicy internet rumours of the past few months, particularly the Guy Pearce as Harvey Dent talk. “I love all these rumours, I won’t ruining it if I say he’s not in the film unfortunately. I’ve had to crush that one I’m afraid.”
Whilst Christian Bale was a very popular front-runner for Batman early on he wasn’t the first member of the production that was courted for his talent. The film couldn’t be made without a great script and Nolan knew very early on whom he wanted to write it. “Chris knew that he wanted to tell the story of how Bruce Wayne became Batman, because he felt that hadn’t been properly dealt with in a film and he met with a few writers, “explains Thomas. “David (Goyer) was someone that he’d met socially and he was a huge admirer or David’s work. He was one of the first people that Chris called because he seemed so perfect. David of course was in the middle of prepping Blade 3, he said “I’d love to do it. I’ve always wanted to work on Batman, but I’m busy. I’m sorry I can’t do it. So we were very disappointed. They talked a little bit about David’s ideas and what it could be. It was a really exciting conversation, which is why it was all the more depressing when he said ‘I can’t do it.'” Nolan was determined to get his favourite though. “We met with a bunch of (other writers) people, great meetings, but David was so much on the same page of what Chris wanted it to be. So Chris called him up and said ‘Please!!!’ and thankfully he agreed to do it. He only had a very limited amount of time and in fact for a certain amount of time he was working in our house in the morning and then going to the BLADE 3 production office in the afternoon. Because they had a very limited period of time Chris was very involved with him with the mapping out of exactly what the story was going to be and then David went away and wrote it. There wasn’t any time for endless back and forth drafts. It was a brilliant experience.”
Emma Thomas’s bubbly persona is such a breath of fresh air to witness on a film of this size. If she has a cynical attitude it is certainly well disguised. Certainly no easy task on day 126 of shooting (of 128). She is obviously having a good time seeing her husband make the kind of films he’s always wanted to make. “Of all the superheroes Batman has always been the one that Chris has been most interested in. People are always a bit surprised by this, but Chris has always wanted to make big movies that are about spectacle as long as they have a good story and Batman’s is an amazing story, so I think that it is something he’s always wanted to do. When I say spectacle it’s not like the last BATMAN film, but it’s not like MEMENTO either.” Thomas continues, “The thing that Chris loved about the idea of making this movie, is that it’s the sort of film that he would have loved as a kid. He is a huge fan of the first STAR WARS movies and SUPERMAN, I think he wants to make a film that will play on different levels. It is going to be a PG-13, I think certain things will go over the younger audiences head, but we’re hoping it’s going to be a film that plays to that audience as well. Chris has always wanted to make a film that kids are going to remember when they’re older as being ‘WOW.’ Those are the films that made him want to be a filmmaker, you know.”
One of the things that struck me most about the atmosphere on set was how friendly it was. It had the feel of a low budget independent film rather than a big budget Hollywood blockbuster.
As Emma Thomas, bids us farewell. The caterers appear. It is lunchtime already. I check my notes, my Dictaphone batteries and mentally prepare myself for the interview due to take place after lunch–the Dark Knight himself. Christian Bale. – Paul Wares