Three Go Mad In Gotham…
In the summer of 1989, a little movie called Batman became one of the biggest-grossing films of all time, taking $406 million in ticket sales, with a further $750 million added to the coffers through the ubiquitous merchandising goodies. Now, with Danny De Vito as The Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman replacing Jack’s Joker to do battle with The Dark Knight, Tim Burton has done it once again, with Batman Returns taking a record-shattering $47.7 million in its first three days in the US. Jeffrey Ressner reports exclusively from the set of the summer’s biggest smash…
MICHAEL KEATON IS sitting in his trailer on a backlot of Warner Brothers’ vast Los Angeles studio complex, cracking lame jokes as his face is systematically smeared with greasepaint and he is slowly transformed into his alter-ego, the brooding hero of this summer’s—or indeed any summer’s—biggest hit, Batman Returns. The greasepaint finally entirely covering his mush, the short tufts of his curly hair are carefully tucked under a nylon headband by a make-up assistant who then begins to paint large black circles around his eyes. When it’s all finished, nearly an hour later, Michael Keaton looks exactly like a raccoon in a hairnet.
Suddenly, the awful screech of a car’s brakes shatters the quiet of the California evening. Keaton leaps from the chair and bolts out of the door, doing a classic double-take when he spots a large black machine chugging loudly in front of his motor-home.
“It’s the Batmobile!” shrieks Keaton, his almost childlike excitement explained by the fact that this is not, in fact, the sleek rocketcar designed at vast expense for the new movie, but the original Gotham City cruiser from the old TV series starring the paunchy Adam West as The Dark Knight. Keaton, clearly awestruck by presence of such a legendary vehicle, races over to it, gently caressing the familiar bubbled wind-shield, the ominous Bat-face on the hood, the long scalloped fins jutting out from the back.
“Drive me to the set,” Keaton orders his stunt double, David Lea, who had managed to track down the Batmobile, driving it on to the studio lots as a practical joke. Now Keaton wants in on the joke too, and together they roar towards the busy soundstage where stunned crew members, extras and technicians promptly drop what they’re doing to simply stand and stare. Screeching to a halt, Keaton is just about to open the car’s door when he suddenly has a better idea: standing up, he hops out of open cockpit with one fluid, graceful swoop.
“If Adam West could do it,” he giggles, giving the audience one of his his trademark cocky smirks, “so can I.”
Suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, comes director Tim Burton, the man responsible for proving Warner Bros’ massive investment in Batman Returns to be a sound financial gamble, and he is making it more than clear that it is now his turn, bounding towards Keaton like some great gangling teenager.
“Get out of here and let me go for a ride,” he barks, jumping into the passenger seat and holding on for dear life as Lea careers around the set, giving a toothsome grin and a jolly thumbs-aloft salute to passers-by. By now, everyone is singing the old TV theme as the car barrels down the street, makes a dramatic 360-degree spin, and charges back to the cheering crowd. Finally, Tim Burton calls a halt to the fun and games, suggesting everyone thinks seriously about getting back to work. The mirthsome interlude has taken less than half-an-hour, but even such a momentary delay that can do nothing but add to Batman Return’s estimated $80 million budget.
“Just to look at the old Batmobile,” muses one crew member with a long knowing chuckle, “must have cost then $100, 000…”
“TIM BURTON IS ALL OVER THE place!” bellows Bob Kane, the comic book visionary who created the neurotic superhero Batman back in 1939. Today, walking around his bright, airy condominium just below Sunset Boulevard filled with colorful oil renderings of the Caped Crusader, The Joker, The Penguin and Catwoman, the gaunt and softly spoken Kane is discussing his role as spiritual adviser on Batman Returns. Already more than happy with the movie depiction of his creation in the original Batman, Kane appears genuinely puzzled when asked about Tim Burton’s manic yet highly stylized approach to moviemaking.
“Tim doesn’t relate to you as a very seriously concentrated director,” he muses. “He’s running around doing things, he’s got rips in his pants and his wallet is ready to fall out of his pocket. You wouldn’t think he’s on top of things. But he’s right there, and he’s got his finger on it.”
What Burton has his finger on at the present moment is, of course, the sequel to one of the most profitable and hyped movies of all time. When we last left the caped crusader three short years ago, he had just got the better of The Joker after a battle in the belfry, presented Gotham City with a cool new bat signal, and had Kim Basinger climb into the back seat of his limousine. Meanwhile, in the real world, Batman earned more than a $406 million in worldwide ticket sales, $150 million on video and $750 million in merchandise, including bat-pyjamas and bat-vitamins. It was more than just a movie, it was an industry.
Although a sequel was an obvious move, neither Michael Keaton nor Tim Burton had been signed up in advance—indeed, after the release of the original, Burton publicly described a sequel as “a most dumbfounded idea”. Both eventually caved in to Warner’s wishes, however, after the studio bent over backwards to satisfy their requests, with Keaton declining to get involved until his salary was seriously increased, and Burton refusing to come aboard until he was happy with a script—not an easy task considering his mixed emotions about the original film.
“There’s parts I liked, but it was a little boring at times,” says the 33-year-old Burton with typical candour. “Oftentimes with sequels, they’re like the same movie except everything gets jacked up a little. I didn’t feel I could do that; I wanted to treat this like it was another Batman movie altogether.”
After a disappointing first draft by Batman’s screenwriter Sam Hamm that had The Penguin and Catwoman going after hidden treasure, the next scribbler brought in to attempt to please the tousle-haired auteur was Daniel Waters, screenwriter of 1990’s cult black comedy Heathers and the similarly insane Meet The Applegates. Clearly more on the Burton waver-length than his predecessor, Waters came up with a social satire that had an evil mogul (Christopher Walkers) backing a bid for the Mayor’s office by The Penguin.
“I wanted to show that the true villains of our world don’t necessarily wear costumes,” says Waters, although fans of the 60s TV show will perhaps also recall the episode called Hizzoner The Penguin, Dizzoner The Penguin which similarly had the bird-brained criminal running for Gotham’s highest office. Besides the political slant, Waters also contributed a more profound understanding of Catwoman, giving her character deep psycho-sexual overtones and turning the feline foe into a decidedly 90s feminist.
“My idea was to ground her supervillainy in feminine psychology,” considers Waters, “which is a volatile thing to begin with. It was Tim’s inspired idea to give her this ripped costume that shredded worse whenever she got into trouble.”
Although writer Wesley Strick would later refine and soctor the script, it was Water’s draft that finally encouraged Burton to sign on the dotted line and start gearing up for production. His enthusiasm was clearly contagious, with Keaton joining up almost immediately afterwards, and Danny De Vito coming on board to play The Penguin after a single meeting with Burton. All that was left was the casting of Catwoman, a decision Burton made as soon as he left the cinema having seen Annette Bening in The Grifters.
Bening, of course, dropped out of the production when she became pregnant with the small human being that was to become Kathlyn Bening-Beauty, leading to the legendary visit to the set by the “Slightly” eccentric Sean Young, who stormed on to the lot in full Catwoman custome, demanding an audition.
“I didn’t even to talk to anyone,” sulked Young afterwards—hardly surprising since Tim Burton has admitted that he actually hid behind his desk when he heard Young was at large on the Warner lot. “Hollywood is just a bunch of weenies…”
Subsequently, of course, Michelle Pfeiffer was offered the role, nabbing a percentage of the gross and a flat fee of $3 million—about $2 million more than Bening was offered. Indeed, Pfeiffer may well have been the best choice after all, since back in 1988, after separating from her husband, she spent a few months dallying with her fellow thespians; as well as walking out with her Married To The Mob co-star Alec Baldwin and her Dangerous Liaisons partner John Malkovich, there was another actor in her little black book: one Michael Keaton.
“They have a lot of spark flying between them,” admits Batman Returns co-producer Denise Di Novi, garnering a disapproving look from her director.
“Let’s not get into that,” sighs Burton wearily. “We’ve got enough problems on this movie already.”
Finally, with the team in place and all their small requests dealt with, and with what amounted to a blank cheque from those nice people at Warner Brothers for the special effects and sets sticking out of his back pocket, Tim Burton and his merry band were at last ready to start shooting…
BEGINNING IN EARLY 1991, two of Hollywood’s largest sound-stages—Stage 16 at Warner and Stage 12 at Universal—were prepared for the production of the monumentally complex sets for Batman Returns, as were eight other buildings on the Warner lot, at least 50 per cent of which was at occupied by Gotham City. Stage 16 became home to the mammoth Gotham Plaza, based on New York’s Rockefeller Centre and covered with white foam and polyester fabric stuffing to stimulate snowdrifts. Universal’s Stage 12, meanwhile, housed the Penguin’s underground lair, an enormous tank filled with half-a-million gallons of water and a simulated ice floe island. Before Burton even began considering the structure of the movie, the studio had made clear that—within reason—money was not an object.
Which is all very well, of course, when the rewards for such a monumental endeavour are so potentially enormous. The problem, though, is that sitting at Pinewood Studios, just west of London town, there are the late Anton Furst’s vast sets built for the original Batman, untouched since 1989 and awaiting the inevitable return of the filmmakers for a sequel.
“I wanted to use American actors in supporting parts,” says Tim Burton of the fantastically expensive decision to make the second movie in Southern California, “and I felt Batman suffered from a British subtext. I loved being over there, but it’s such a different culture that things got filtered. They could have brought somebody else in for the sequel, and had the same sets, and shot in London, but I couldn’t do that because I’d have lost interest. I wanted to treat it like it was another movie altogether—there’s no point in doing the exact same thing again.”
And did the sheer scale of the whole affair ever affect the redoubtable Burton, leading him to wonder if really anyone can possibly keep a movie like Batman Returns in the head?
“There were moments,” begins Burton, clicking into typically existential mode. “There were moments sometimes when I’d just sit there, looking at the set and the way the light hit a certain thing—like a boom guy sitting up in the rafters reading the paper, and he’s got this incredibly beautiful shadow he’s projecting. It’s something no one else will ever see, but the juxtaposition of images makes you feel very private and very special, in a way.”
Of course, the sets (kept frozen to simulate a snowy winter and keep the penguins happy), the make-up (including two hours a day for De Vito), and the special effects (a collapsing Batmobile, helicopter umbrellas, computer-generated bats) were only part of the logistical nightmare confronting Burton. Because of inherently bizarre nature of the story—a bird-man and a catlady fighting with a batman—every technical and dramatic problem apparently took on almost surreal proportions.
“No one can fully understand the emotional and the psychological aspects of this,” insists Tim Burton. “The stress and the pain—you can’t put it in normal perspective because it’s completely absurd. You have people almost having a heart attack over how long somebody’s nose should be. Also, it’s very hard for the actors because everything is in the way of their acting. They’re not allowed to just walk on to the set and act, because of the technical nature of things.”
“We’ve been in this movie for three months,” adds Michael Keaton of the difficulty of acting around the effects, “and I’ve only completed one scene—and it’s not even a large scene. I’ll go a month between ending one part of a scene and going back and picking it up.”
Indeed, to keep a lid on the movie’s extraordinary visuals and technical wizardry, a number of ultra-paranoid security tactics were devised by Warner Bros. Picture ID cards were issued to everyone on set, with a ominous code name, “Dictel” (short, insists Burton, for “Dictatorial”) being stamped on sensitive documents. Art department personnel were advised to keep their office curtains closed at all times; no visitors were allowed near the sets, with even Kevin Costner being refused a peek; and everyone involved was required to sign a document guaranteeing tight lips all round. With some cast member suggesting that the obsessively tight measures were enforced to increase sales of an exclusive behind-the-scene book written by the unit publicist, and others insisting it was all about the studio desperately trying to keep images away from the t-shirt bootleggers, the Gestapo-type secrecy almost worked.
About midway through the shoot, however, a few test shots of Danny De Vito in costume found their way into the US tabloids, prompting Warner executives to employ a firm of private investigators to track down the culprit—a poly that ultimately failed.
“It was a big deal to them,” remembers production designer Bo Welch of the panic among Warner’s control freaks. “Every day we’d come into work expecting a big bust.”
“The first time, people got hyped up and then burnt out,” admit Tim Burton, sitting in his office during a break in editing Batman Returns, and looking a little hollow-eyes himself. “I know how I feel about that, and that what was so odd for me about going through the process. I’m a regular person in that way—if things get too hyped up I have a tendency to resist it. It’s like, ‘Enough already’. I felt what happened on the first one is that it got hyped up, and the movie can’t support that. So I thought it was best to forget all of that and try to make another movie completely…”
SITTING ON A COMFY BLACK leather sofa in his office at the Writer’s Building in the Warner studio complex, Tim Burton is feeling secure surrounded by his treasured toys. There are robots, dinosaur models, Mexican folk art skeletons, and enough other loopy artefacts to fill the next Pop Art show at the Royal Academy. Next to the Vincent Price autobiography and other books on a shelf are items like a Beetlejuice sweet display and a small metal box festooned with photos of masked wrestlers. There is also dead baby bat ghoulishly embalmed in a jar of formaldehyde—a gift, he’s quick to point out, not a personal purchase.
Burton leaves the office to head for a screening of the first rough cut of Batman Returns, hacked into vague shape just 48 hours after the director shut down the production and waved the cast and crew goodbye. Throughout the screening, Burton is remarkably quiet, grunting occasionally, but otherwise passing no comment whatsoever on the $80 million-worth of celluloid that is flickering before his eyes. As the lights go up, those few insiders attending the screening stretch themselves and look over to the director for some kind of comment. Smiling broadly at the assembled company, Tim Burton runs his hands through the Medusa-like shock of madness that passes for his hair, and gives his verdict on his latest baby.
“It’s six months of agony,” he chuckles mirthlessly, “compressed into two hours…”
“THE CROTCH,” ANNOUNCES rubber specialist Paul Barrett-Brown, “is always a problem.” The crotch in question belongs to Michelle Pfeiffer, or at least to her remarkably, er, provocative catsuit, which the Telford-based Barrett-Brown helped develop and create for Batman Returns, along with the batsuit and Danny De Vito’s Penguin garb.
Lovingly fashioned from purest latex rubber, the suit posed many a problem for its tailor, with that region apparently being the most troublesome, for two specific reasons. Firstly, throwing one’s leg above one’s head—as Pfeiffer’s kick-boxing stunt doubles were wont to do on a regular basis—puts a strain on the old “nether” regions. And secondly, there’s the question of, well, plain decency.
“The idea of rubber was hit upon because of its erotic and sexual implications,” admit the 50-year-old Barrett-Brown, a rubber enthusiast for three decades/ “The character moves from being a very sexually repressed, submissive extrovert erotic at-like female. But you can’t design the suit to be too tight because it would reveal the genital area so thoroughly that you’d get an X certificate. And although that’s not quite so important for Michelle, The Bat costume had to incorporate a generous codpiece to make sure Michael had a reasonable degree of comfort in that area.”
Barrett-Brown, a former British Leyland crane engineer, worked on the first Batman movie after costume designer Bob Ringwood saw an article on his weird and wonderful rubber clothing designs in the fetishist magazine Skin Two. He was bought in on the sequel to apply his skills to problems with the new outfits, and also to help update the Batsuit.
“The foam rubber body armour is more robotic, more macho,” he says of the Batman Returns designs. “Underneath the chest plate is a whole mechanical system of bolts and spikes which lock the front of the hood and the cape, which is so damn heavy. Otherwise, if he turned around quickly the cape would stay where it was.”
Te sheer weight of the costumes was likewise a problem with De Vito’s Penguin suit, with Barrett-Brown developing an internal air bladder to help reduce the weight. And then, of course, there’s the crotch-troubling requirements of the Catwoman costume, originally intended for the rather more, er, womanly Annette Bening.
“Michelle was somewhat less endowed than Annette and may have had a certain amount of uplift to help her fill out the costume,” reveals Barrett-Brown. “I don’t know about padding around her bum, but if anything, a small bottom is an advantage. It works well in that costume, which was tailored to fit nearly into the backside.”
Except that Pfeiffer got through not one, but more than 60 catsuits over the six-month shoot, at an estimated cost of $1000 a piece. Why so many?
“It’s easy enough to get into a rubber catsuit when you’re bone dry,” explains Barrett-Brown, who was forced to supply rubber repair kits in the form of glue and patches when he left the set, in case of punctures. “But once you’re hot and sweaty, you can’t put the same one back on again.”
And what of contingencies for other water-based bodily function?
“It’s a fact of life,” chuckles Paul Barrett-Brown, “that people who wear these costumes have to develop some sort of regular routine to minimize the need for powder-your-nose breaks…”
BATMAN RETURNS IS RELEASED IN THE UK ON JULY 10