Batman: Michael Keaton On Justifying The Voice, Improvising Lines And More


by Alex Godfrey, James White |
Updated on

At Empire's exclusive Michael Keaton Q&A on Saturday night (the fascinating filling between a movie sandwich of 1989's Batman and this year's upcoming The Flash), he talked up his joy at reuniting with Tim Burton for the Beetlejuice sequel. But the not-so-small matter of Batman/Bruce Wayne was also discussed, including Keaton talking about the process of re-writing on set, developing the now-iconic "Batman voice" and working with Jack Nicholson.

It was after working on Beetlejuice together that Burton decided that his next project would seem them reunite. And, as it happens, it became the 1989 superhero movie that would forever alter a genre.
"I remember exactly where we were," Keaton told our Alex Godfrey. "He said, ‘I wanna talk to you about something… I just want you to read this, because I think I’m gonna make this movie’ What’s interesting if you think about this is that up until then, his and my relationship was only Beetlejuice. So there was something, I don’t know that I’ve ever asked him this, actually, but something gave him the idea and so he said, ‘go home and read it.’"

When the pair reconnected, Keaton was bursting with ideas for Bruce Wayne. "I said, ‘Well, no one’s going to do what I think, this is probably not going to happen, because I can’t imagine anyone would want to make the movie that I see’ and all I said, ‘listen to me Tim.’ And I started to go down the list of the guy, Bruce Wayne with him, my take on him and he didn’t say anything but his hair was long at the time and I could see it moving as he nodded, ‘yes… yes… Exactly.’ He’s a rare breed, a true artist and a true original. He was already seeing it and it was basically the Frank Miller stuff. And I wasn’t aware of all that stuff, I just knew what it was, but I knew I had to read the Miller stuff. And I thought, ‘oh, this could be interesting.'"

So what was Keaton's take on Wayne? "He’s depressed. I wasn’t really committing to it because I didn’t know what he’d say. Actually, I don’t know I thought he might say but if I was saying it to a studio exec, they’d say, ‘I don’t know if he’s really depressed… I’m not so sure…’ I was sweating bullets and Tim said, ‘Oh yeah, for sure.’ We also thought he was odd, an odd dude, which was fun."

Once they were actually at work on the film, there was still more invention to be found, particularly around Bruce's quirks. "I thought of a lot of funny stuff and I knew there was funny in there. It wasn’t written. You know the scene where Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) comes over for dinner at Wayne Manor? Tim said, ‘let’s go look at this room…’ It wasn’t a set, it was a giant house. The table was there and there wasn’t much else in the room and I remember going, ‘wow this guy’s life… He just rambles around.’ So we came up with the line where after she talks about the house, and I go, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been in this room…’ It’s funny, but also says everything. He’s been alone, except for Alfred."

Once he's in the suit, of course, Bruce needs to hide the fact that he's one of the most recognizable people in Gotham City. Which led to the actor and his director spitballing ideas to disguise that even beyond the suit and cowl. "I’m logical to the point of annoying people," Keaton laughs. "I actually bother people because I fall back to logic. And I remember standing there going, okay, how are we gonna do this?’ The scene was somebody standing right next to me and I said, this guy’s going to look at me and say, ‘hey, it’s Bruce Wayne!’ It’s as practical as ‘how does the audience really believe that people don’t go, "clearly this is Bruce Wayne dressed up on a rubber suit…"

And thinking more deeply about Wayne's particular mindset also helped develop the character. "He’s got two personalities. The guy is not psychotic but not far from it. Controlled psychosis," Keaton explains. "In order for me to justify all this, I can’t be changing the oil on the Batmobile and then saying, ‘well, I have to kill some people’ so he probably ends up going into some deep, deep trance, which is a scene that I don’t think ever made it in. How do you justify the voice? It’s cheesy but I figured once he’s in the trance, he doesn’t think like he does like Bruce Wayne, doesn’t act like he does. So the voice came out of that, it was a really practical thing."

Batman in the movie goes up against the Joker, played by iconic actor Jack Nicholson. Keaton recalls not being intimated, but nervous performing opposite someone he considers an icon. "He was one of the few guys I loved, the stuff he was doing back then, the different characters, not that they were all so different, but they were different movie characters. And he had such a power. I didn’t want to be foolish, I didn’t want to be too much. I thought, ‘this is going to be really interesting.’ And you’re standing there looking at a guy dressed — you’re both dressed in these outrageous things. But he immediately was cool, we immediately got on."

And one of their on-screen encounters led to an iconic line (one that Keaton repeats in The Flash as seen in a recent trailer) "I don’t think ‘Let’s get nuts’ was in the script, that was me," he reveals. "That scene was never really that good as written, to be honest with you. That was one of the days where we went round and round. I think Kim’s in it, me and Jack, nobody could ever find it. I thought, ‘okay, pressure’s on, man. Pressure. Is. On.’ I thought he’d probably said, ‘Okay, I’m kind of cornered, I only have one way to go and I’d better let this character know that we’re gonna throw down.’ There was so much figuring it out as we went along."

The Flash will be in cinemas on 16 June.

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