This article was first published in Empire Magazine Issue #2 (August 1989).
There were no half measures when Hollywood finally decided to make Batman. Gotham City, home of The Dark Knight, would be an unprecedented sight, to be built at Pinewood, Buckinghamshire. For three months last year helicopters flew overhead to try to catch a glimpse of this forbidden city as the dramas unfolded down below. Iain Johnstone was on the set. This is his exclusive report…
The 95-acre back lot at Pinewood Studios has been the setting for some of the loftier visions of movie designers down the years. The heroic amphitheatres for Superman One, Two and Three, the original city of Alexandria before Elizabeth Taylor's illness shifted it to Italy and most of James Bond's exotic trouble spots were all lovingly created here in this Hollywood of the Home Counties. Today, though, even these spectacular inventions are a step down from the striking sight that stops any visitor in their tracks.
The shocking first impression is of waking from a dream and emerging into Magritte's vision of New York City. Everything works. American cars are parked, shop windows are dressed, the cafes are full of tables and soda fountains. Over there in the town square stands the city hall, beside it the Flugelheim Museum and the cinema; beyond it, further up the main street, are the imposing steps of the cathedral. Fire hydrants stand at allotted intervals, the signs flash "Walk/Don't Walk" and - most miraculous of all - steam comes out of the manhole covers and gratings, just like winter in the city. Something, though, is not quite right here. Look up. These buildings are 40 feet high but they are still merely the stumps of buildings, as if a marauding giant had slashed them off at the knees with his cutlass.
Welcome to Gotham City, Buckinghamshire, Monday October 10, 1988. Day One in the filming of Batman, the most eagerly-awaited movie of the year
For the next three months, Pinewood Studios would be strictly no-go to all but the 300-strong crew of technicians and supporting players, the ubiquitous security men, the people from Warner Brothers, and Michael, Tim, Kim and Jack. As in Keaton (Batman), Burton (the director), Basinger (Vicki Vale) and Nicholson (The Joker). Daily arrival at the back lot was a rigid routine of displaying credentials to get through security, with any attempt to pass go without the proper authority resulting in a swift diversion back to the production office to start all over again.
It takes more than a closed film set, however, to keep today's scoop-hungry photographers at bay. Not long into shooting, one tabloid hired a helicopter with a lensman on board to snap a rather blurred shot of the city below; others simply attempted to bribe extras to take cameras in with them. It was obvious that the Batmobile would eventually have to venture out for the location scenes not taking place at Pinewood and it was duly followed and some more blurred photographs published. The unit publicist was offered and refused £10,000 for the first pictures of Jack Nicholson as The Joker. The police were later called in when two reels of footage (about 20 minutes' worth) were copied in an attempt to make a pirate video.
The unlikely catalyst for this cat-and-mouse game, unprecedented even in the long tradition of big-name big-budget movies, is a grown man who answers to the name of Bruce by day but who, as soon as night comes, takes to dressing up in a bizarre outfit that earns him the title Batman. First created 50 years ago, this odd creature started life in the hands of American cartoonist Bob Kane (see below.), resurfaced via the camp TV series of the 60s and was then rehabilitated in Frank Miller's recent book The Dark Knight Returns.
For this 1989 movie incarnation, scriptwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, along with director Tim Burton, were heavily influenced by Miller's book in which the Caped Crusader is portrayed as a lone vigilante wreaking his revenge on the various malefactors of a lawless Gotham City. This is a vengeful hero for our times, the age of Dirty Harry or Robocop striding into town and dispensing individual justice, the age of Bernhard Goetz trying to do the same on the New York subway. As with Bob Kane's original model, this Batman would be a troubled soul, mentally scarred by the brutal slaying of his parents and determined to sort things out. This toughening up of the cosy TV figure was but the first of a number of shocks in store for a generation who equated Batman with sensible jerseys, grey tights and an annoyingly hypnotic theme tune.
"When I was at art school we talked about the three most recognisable images. One was Mickey Mouse, one was Coca-Cola and the other was the Bat insignia."
First off, there was the choice of actor to fill the famous cape. The square-jawed hulk determined to expunge all evil from Gotham City would be played by the off-beat, wisecracking star of Beetlejuice, Michael Keaton. The announcement that Keaton had landed the part led to an uprising among Batman devotees. The offices of Warner Brothers were swamped with 50,000 letters of protest complaining that Keaton had no chin and not enough hair. He was too glib, too scrawny, simply not the right man for the job. "Treating Batman as a comedy is like The Brady Bunch going porno" wrote one distressed fan. And it wasn't only the fans who were troubled. Producer Jon Peters also found himself under severe pressure from within the Warner Bros organisation itself.
"One of the most powerful men in Hollywood went as far as to call Warners' chairman Steve Ross and tell him casting Michael was such a horrible idea it would bring Warners to its knees," recalls Peters. "The entire studio would crash. Heaven's Gate revisited."
Luckily, Peters, who with his partner Peter Guber had nurtured the project for nine years, was in a strong position to repel such assaults. Rumoured to be the inspiration for Warren Beatty's Shampoo, Peters had quit hairdressing in the late 60s to move into the film business. By the beginning of the Batman rumpus he and Guber had laid claim to the title of Hollywood's most dynamic production duo with a stable of films such as Flashdance, The Witches Of Eastwick and the Oscar-strewn Rain Man. Peters, strongly encouraged by Tim Burton, believed that Michael Keaton filled the requirements of a "comedian who had an insane streak - funny, charming, with that all-important dark side" and, whatever the flak, Michael Keaton was the man to bring Batman alive on the big screen.
Along with the toughening up of the Caped Crusader and the choice of Keaton, the announcement of Tim Burton as director did little to soothe Hollywood nerves. Burton, who only turned 30 during filming, had brought an original and manic visual sense to both PeeWee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice but had never been near an adventure movie in his brief career. Now, he was to steer a $30 million film, complete with complex visual effects, logistical nightmares and a sceptical 300-strong British crew. Again, Peters was adamant that this particular boy wonder was the right choice.
"We'd been trying to work with various different directors and various different writers over nine years" he recalls, "but not until we met Tim Burton did all the pieces begin to fit. Things happen when they're meant to happen. Mark Canton (Warners' President Of Worldwide Motion Picture Production) told me I had to meet this young, innovative, crazy, talented kid. So I saw his first short film Frankenweenie, and I thought it was very inventive. And when I watched Beetlejuice, I was just blown away."
Burton and Keaton, friends from working together on Beetlejuice, started to plan the development of the character and the plot. Jack Nicholson was the expensive (six million dollars plus a healthy percentage), natural and popular choice for the leering Joker, Kim Basinger was drafted in as love interest and photographer Vicki Vale after Sean Young had injured herself in a horse riding accident and the full Batman line-up arrived at Pinewood last October. Ahead lay a winter of shooting from dusk to dawn and the small matter of building a city fit for a hero putting the world to right.
The Batmobile: based on a Chevrolet Impala chassis. The cockpit is voice-activated, so that a whisper from the driver can make it bulletproof. A grappling cable shoots out of the front hubcaps, while bombs are launched from the rear end.
The Batwing: a jet fighter with 30-foot sickle wings based on the Bat symbol. A two-foot replica of the Batwing was also built, complete with explosive charges, for the spectacular crash sequence in the film.
The model replica of Gotham City: two models were built, both five-foot high and both in perfect electronic working order. One was used for views from the model Batwing, the other for aerial shots of the model plane.
Tim Burton stands in the middle of Gotham main street. In front of him 500 extras go berserk as they flee from the lethal green gas emitted by The Joker's deadly balloons. Behind him is a whole range of cameras and a host of technicians. Burton looks like a cross between Lord Byron and Tiny Tim. His dark trousers hug tightly to his legs, but the rest of his clothes droop off his body as if they're trying to escape, save for his thick black crepe-soled shoes which are clipped on like old-fashioned ski boots. His face is pallid, his nose retroussé and his hair is shoulder length, wild, wiry and out of control. He never sits down, never shouts, and manages somehow to conduct a series of one-to-one conversations with successive members of his cast and crew at a soft and leisured pace more often found in a bus queue. When asked what attracted him to Batman, he brushes his hair out of his eyes with the back of his hand and smiles with a faint hint of embarrassment.
"It's funny, I was never a gigantic comic fan," he admits. "But I just love the image of Batman - a guy who dresses up as a bat - and the image of The Joker and some of the extreme characters. I remember when I was at art school we talked about the three most recognisable images. One was Mickey Mouse, one was Coca-Cola and the other was the Bat insignia. So it's a very powerful image."
Translating this image on to the big screen was not always an easy job for the youthful director.
"Michael and I were always trying to figure out how he should stand, how to pose," recalls Burton. "We'd latch onto something good in one shot and then we'd use that stance in another shot and it looked so bad it was embarrassing. Before we got it right we'd say 'you've gotta move slow' and it would look ridiculous. So we'd say 'right, you've got to dart about like a bat' and then he'd look like a bad silent movie star. We kept laughing about it, because it's like kids playing around, this guy in a Batsuit. We felt we were out in the backyard playing superhero - but with a lot of money."
With nearly $45 million in fact. According to producer Peters, "the picture itself will cost a little over 30 million dollars. With prints and ads, it's another 10 or 15 million dollars." At this level of investment, Burton was able to plan Gotham City on a suitably grandiose level.
"It was always important to me, especially when dealing with these extreme characters, to set them in an arena where you believe them. Gotham is a bit of a caricature of New York, a timeless American city. You take the New York skyline and squeeze it just a little bit tighter, the buildings would be a little bit taller, bigger, heavier. The juxtaposition of styles would just be a little more cramped together - brownstone, huge metal encasings. I see the sets as an extension of the characters and I wanted to create a playground for these nuts to run around in. A unique place, not too futuristic, not too period. It could be the present or it could be any time."
Burton's infectious enthusiasm slows for a moment and then he pauses and smiles.
"As if hell had erupted through the sidewalks and just carried on growing."
"We wanted to get all the intimidation that comes out of Batman's image into the car. It's everything a young boy would love to drive."
The job of executing Tim Burton's vision fell to Anton Furst, production designer on the movie. His last job was turning London's Docklands into Vietnam for Full Metal Jacket and for Batman he will magically turn these 40 foot high stumps of buildings into thousand foot high skyscrapers on screen. His eyes gleam as he explains the tricks of his trade.
"You see these very powerful, meaty footings of structures and you know that it's the bottom of something enormous. We did it before in The Company Of Wolves where we just had roofs and the bottoms of trees. I don't think the audience ever noticed that they didn't see the rest of the tree because your mind does the rest for you. It's the same here. The cathedral we built is a Gaudi skyscraper with elements of Hitchcock's house on the hill. We've taken a lot of period architecture and then locked on a lot of modern architecture. The Flugelheim Museum is a joke on the Guggenheim in New York but taken into an unbelievably industrial look. This is New York without planning permission for 300 years, factories built on top of apartment buildings, fascism, brutalism, any form of uglyism. The zoning they did in New York was to step back the skyscrapers to get light in the street; we've done the opposite, cantilevering them forward so you get oppressive canyons."
It's in and around these canyons that Batman does most of his work, leaping from building to building, hanging from parapets and then swinging through the night air. Occasionally, though, he resorts to travelling in style in either the Batwing or the famous Batmobile. The Batwing, also designed by Furst, is a jet fighter with 30-foot sickle wings based on the Bat symbol so that it too is a component of the carefully crafted Dark Knight image.
In the early hours of this bitter winter morning, however, the Batwing is in serious trouble. It has just crashed in flames at the foot of Gotham Cathedral, Buckinghamshire, and only the specially sculpted Batsuit with its pectoral body armour has saved our hero from a severe roasting. A trail of flames snakes down the street.
A few days later, the same scene will be shot again. This time, though, the Batwing is a two foot replica and the spectacle that is Gotham High Street is now reduced to a five foot high model. Ideally, the model version should have been shot before the full-size action sequence so that the real Batwing could then end up in the same position as the model. Unfortunately, film shoots don't always go according to plan. Veteran visual effects supervisor Derek Meddings - the man who put Superman into the sky - is used to such last-minute changes.
"The way the schedule worked out they had to do theirs first" explains Meddings. "I now have to match their shot and the problem is that the model Batwing now has to continue down the street and crash on to the Cathedral steps. The model's all wired up so that there are charges in the wing and various parts of the fuselage which go off when it hits the road or a car and then it has to explode so it blows off the wing. It's not easy to time all the charges to go off because of the speed we're having to pull it."
Meddings has created two exact replicas of the high street, both five foot high and both in perfect electronic working order. One is for views from the Batwing, the other for top shots of the plane.
No models, however, can replicate the extraordinary Batmobile, again designed by Anton Furst for the movie. Twenty feet long with a 141-inch wheelbase, it's as black as Guinness, low-slung, with a flaming turbo booster at the back and a pair of machine guns closeted in its aesthetically rounded wings. A grappling cable shoots out of its forward hub-caps to enable the driver to execute incredible 90 degree turns while out of the rear hubs come something more lethal: bombs. The cockpit is voice-activated and just a whisper from the driver can make it 100 per cent bulletproof. This is an automobile that out-Bonds Bond.
"We didn't want to put it into any particular period of time" explains Furst. "We looked at jet aircraft components, we looked at war machines, we looked at all sorts of things. In the end, we went into pure expressionism, taking the Salt Flat Racers of the 30s and the Stingray macho machines of the 50s. We wanted to get all the intimidation that comes out of Batman's image into the car. It's everything a young boy would love to drive."
Art Director Terry Ackland-Snow had the daunting task of fulfilling Furst's design.
"To decide on the chassis we started up with Mustangs and Jaguars and god knows what. Then we came up with this old Chevrolet Impala because it had a proper box chassis and not a sub-frame and we could cut and stretch it to the sizes we had worked out. It would have taken years to put the whole thing on a drawing board and work it out that way, so we decided to sculpt it in polystyrene and then we handed it over to a company called Protocol in London who build custom cars. Inside, the cockpit was based on the interior of an aeroplane so I went to British Aerospace and spoke to them about using one of their dashboards. And they said 'Of course you can't use one but here's the company we get our stuff from'. So I went along to this company and they helped us out. Terrific."
"I really wanted to steer away from that square-jawed look in comic books where Batman is a hulking brute because everybody in comics is a hulking brute."
With all the hardware in place, the focus of the three-month shoot shifts naturally on to the two men who will make or break this version of Batman at box offices around the world. Michael Keaton has the double burden of proving himself in the part and proving the numerous sceptics wrong. Now, still in the first month of filming, he seems to be searching for a secure hook on his dual role as Bruce Wayne and the Dark Knight. Robert Wuhl, who plays journalist Alexander Knox, has known Keaton for eight years.
"It's a very very tough part and I think he's tackling it in a real interesting way," observes Wuhl. "It's a mistake to talk about Batman, you've got to talk about Bruce Wayne who is the character. Bruce Wayne is a guy with far too much on his plate, his mind is a thousand ways, he can't focus, he's taking care of this, that and the other, and he's all over the place until it comes to crime. And then it's right here, he's like a hero, like now."
When he's not out wasting the hoodlums by night in the streets of Gotham, Bruce Wayne spends his days in his millionaire's retreat with only loyal butler Alfred (Michael Gough) and occasionally Vicki Vale for company. For these interior scenes, Keaton and entourage moved location to Knebworth House, one of England's premier stately homes and occasional rock venue, about 30 miles north of London. It's in these domestic scenes that Keaton gets his chance to indulge his undoubted comic talent, enjoying dinner with Ms Vale at either end of a 30 foot table and waltzing her past a disapproving Alfred. Both for Keaton and his onscreen hero, it all forms a necessary break in the strenuous business of waging war on The Joker, a contest that begins when Batman interrupts a heist organised by leading Gotham villain Jack Napier and allows him to fall into a vat of toxic waste. Napier, horribly disfigured, resumes his life of crime as The Joker, determined to concoct a formula to be injected into cosmetics that will twist a victim's face into an awful leer much like his own. For now, though, Keaton has problems of a more mundane nature.
"I couldn't hear because of the hood. It's extremely restricting and I have to learn to adjust within that. You're not really hearing your voice, not knowing how your voice actually sounds so you have to go inside and trust your instincts that what you're doing is correct."
Keaton's instincts were honed at the Comedy Store and Chicago's Second City workshop before he landed his first part as a morgue attendant who runs a dating agency in Night Shift. Then came the dad in Mr Mum, a gunfighter in Johnny Dangerously, a hockey player in Touch And Go and, of course, the ghost with the most in 1988's surprise sleeper Beetlejuice. As well as Batman, Keaton will also be seen this year as a reformed addict in Clean And Sober and an intermittently rational lunatic in The Dream Team. Not surprisingly, he was exhausted by the time he arrived at Pinewood.
"He was tired and he said himself 'do you really want me to play Batman?'" recalls Tim Burton. "But after talking with him about it and telling him what we wanted to do with it, he was very interested again. I really wanted to steer away from that square-jawed look in comic books where Batman is a hulking brute because everybody in comics is a hulking brute. Even the bank tellers are hulking brutes. The whole point is that he's not Arnold Schwarzenegger because if he were, then why would he need to put on a Batsuit? He's a classic character, somebody who puts on a costume, very Phantom Of The Operaesque, but instead of hiding physical scars he's hiding emotional scars. He's very deep, and very strong."
He needs to be. Take the climax of the whole three-month shoot, the final battle between good and evil as The Joker tries to dislodge Batman and Vicki from the parapet of the old cathedral's bell tower. They hang on by their fingertips while the propeller of a wind machine buffets them with rotor wash from The Joker's helicopter. Above them, 40 feet up on a scaffolding stands Tim Burton and his fleet of cameras. He calls out. "Let's do it once again."
"He's crazy. I love his honesty, because honesty is everything. He's really straightforward. He's the most highly sexed human being I've ever met. He's just the devil."
The other main location apart from Pinewood and Knebworth is a disused power station in West Acton - the place where Sigourney Weaver battled it out with the Aliens in 1986.
Today, a nastier, more sinister creature is stalking the gantries. The brim of his black hat is down, his coat collar up. He shoots at Batman but the bullet ricochets off the sculpted armour. Six million dollars worth of movie star hangs by his finger tips over a vat of toxic waste. This is the moment when Jack Napier disappears, only to come back as The Joker, the moment when an all-too recognisable Jack Nicholson leaves the film, only to bounce right back as a zanily-dressed, wise-cracking, lurid visual embodiment of pure perverted evil.
Nicholson first heard of plans for Batman from Jon Peters on The Witches Of Eastwick.
"I don't want to tell you about this now but there's a movie we're doing called Batman and you have to play The Joker," teased Peters. According to Peters, Nicholson responded with a glint in his eye and that laugh. His original part in the film was going to be three weeks. He ended up working for 106 days.
According to Tim Burton, Nicholson had a clear view on how the entire movie should look and feel.
"He told me 'I remember as a kid I liked Batman because it was the only comic book that took place at night, just make sure you don't lose that old black-purple ominous feeling'."
Nicholson embellished his part as written with a menace of his own making. He developed an eerie internalised dialogue with himself that added a chilling dimension to the character. In the Flugelheim Museum, he performed a dance to Prince's music, untutored by any choreography, which seemed the terpsichorean equivalent of the Pimp Roll in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire Of the Vanities.
Most people walk warily round Jack Nicholson on film sets even when he isn't rendered more unapproachable with The Joker's sickening grin. Kim Basinger, however, found it easy to get close to him.
"He's crazy," she gushes. "I love his honesty, because honesty is everything. He's really straightforward. He's the most highly sexed human being I've ever met. He's just the devil."
Michael Keaton relished the chance of playing opposite him.
"Jack is probably the person that I've always wanted to work with. I always thought we'd be much better as comrades or, at least, something where we complement each other. When you have as much Jack Nicholson in you as Jack Nicholson has, it has to come off the screen, so sometimes people assume you're going to get Jack Nicholson doing Jack Nicholson when in fact what he's doing is specific work on his characters. People confuse the two. The best thing about him is that you just get it all. He's willing to push it out as far as he thinks he has to push it. No fear."
Tim Burton is more succinct. "I don't think I have ever learnt so much from anybody."
As the three-month shoot draws to a close, there is but one small problem left to overcome. The ending. Jon Peters feels that the final scenes need strengthening and the on-set rumour is that he and Nicholson had gone to see Phantom Of The Opera and had been considerably influence by the denouement.
"Let's hope he doesn't go and see Les Miserables," noted Robert Wuhl, only half-jokingly.
Top re-write man Warren Skaaren was hastily recalled from America and, together with Peters, Burton and the stars set about cleaning up the final scenes. Miss Basinger was delighted to be in on the rewrites. "I loved the little bits and pieces we had to write, piecing this all together, it was magic," she enthuses. Particularly as it involved a final waltz with Jack.
"I've literally had it, so I'm just a load of oats, I'm just a live weight. And I let him just fling me around and carry me. I had no feet. Jack's a wonderful dancer, he'd dance and dance and he had this load of oats and he was saying 'oh I love you'. We worked this way for three days and he never crumbled."
The sound of box office records currently shattering in the States makes a sequel to all this more than possible, with The Penguin rumoured to be Batman's next adversary. Gotham City will remain intact until July 31 just in case, with the Pinewood chiefs waiting for that green light call. It stands deserted now, shabbier than it appeared on October 10, but still the perfect environment for a vigilante to go about his work.
The man who started it all 50 years ago walks up the main street and into the square. The sodium lights are out, the traffic signs no longer change but wisps of steam still curl out from beneath the manhole covers. Bob Kane sits down on a bench by the statue.
"I envisaged Gotham the way I see it now at Pinewood," he says, looking at the city around him. "They've got it - every building, every ash can, every brick."
The Making Of A Superhero
A distinguished looking gentleman walks up the main street of Gotham City, Pinewood. He stops to take a sip from a little bottle secreted in the pocket of his thick winter coat.
When it came to transferring Batman onto the big screen, director Tim Burton opted for an even meaner model of Kane's vigilante figure in favour of the Adam West made-for-TV version. The Joker and Vicki Vale are also Kane creations.
This article was first published in Empire Magazine Issue #2 (August 1989).