Newsweek (June 21st, 2004)

BAT OUT OF HELL

Seven years ago, ‘Batman’ was on life support. Now a gifted director is trying to resurrect the franchise. An exclusive visit to the set.

The only major cast member on the set of the new “Batman” movie who doesn’t have his own private trailer with his name on the door is Batman himself, actor Christian Bale. Michael Caine, who plays Batman’s trusted butler, Alfred, has one, as does Katie Holmes, who plays love interest Rachel Dodson. But what about Bale? If you’re looking for him, try knocking on the trailer door with a sign that reads BRUCE WAYNE. (That’s Batman’s alter ego. But you knew that.) If it all sounds a bit Method-actor fussy, well, it is. But Bale doesn’t come across that way. Between takes of a scene in the dank, monstrous Batcave – erected on a sound stage at Shepperton Studios outside London and complete with lagoon, waterfall and subterranean bachelor pad – Holmes tries to engage Bale,30, in a quick rehearsal. “Is Sergeant Gordon your friend?” she asks, running one of her lines. “Yes,” a fully costumed Bale answers in his thick, icy baritone. “He’s very warm, very comforting. I like to be held.” Later, Bale hums as a make up guy gives him a retouching. “The next one’ll be a musical?” the man asks. Bale grins. “Yeah, they’ll call it ‘Batman!’ with an exclamation point.”

Let’s just see how this new movie pans out first, shall we? After all, the comic-book franchise does have a checkered past. The new chapter, which will hit theaters in June 2005, is called “Batman Begins” – presumably because “Batman Sucked the Last Time So We’re Starting Over” was too clunky. After the cultural phenomenon surrounding Tim Burton’s operatic 1989 original, which rang up $251 million at the box office and untold more in bicycle caps and Prince cassette singles, the series plummeted over three sequels, bottoming out with 1997’s disastrous “Batman & Robin”, featuring George Clooney in a Batsuit studded with rubber nipples. But now there is buzz once again around the Warner Brothers franchise, and it’s all because of the new film’s 33-year-old director,England’s Christopher Nolan, the creator of “Memento”. “Batman is an absolutely iconic character, one of the great figures in pop culture, really,” says Nolan. “But there has to be a reason for making this film as opposed to just renting Tim Burton’s version.” The hiring of the Welsh indie actor Bale (“American Psycho”) was a healthy start – especially given the crass, movie-star jamboree (Uma Thurman, Arnold Schwarzenegger) that mucked up the later “Batman” sequels.

Warner Brothers might appear to be rolling the dice by handing over a $150 million summer blockbuster to a man who’s never directed an action movie before. But the real risk isn’t Nolan. It’s Batman. Seven years ago, moviegoers’ interest in the character had flatlined. Even Nolan admits he’s not certain enough time has passed for audiences to get excited about a new “Batman” movie. “But I know I am,” he says, laughing. So was the studio. When Alan Horn took over Warner Brothers four years ago, “one of his mandates was to get ‘Batman’ back out there,” says president of production Jeff Rabinov. “But it took time to find the right person to redefine the franchise.” Nolan won the job by vowing to strip away the later sequels’ bombast and return “Batman” to its roots in character drama.

As exhaustively as the “Batman” legend has been told on film and TV, one chapter has never received comprehensive treatment: the first one. As a boy, Bruce Wayne sees his parents murdered before his eyes and dedicates his life to avenging them. But how, and why, does he become Batman? Where do the suit and cape come from? (Burton’s film glossed over these questions.) Or, as Nolan puts it, “How did this guy who has no superpowers acquire all of these capabilities? He lives in the real world – it’s sort of New Yorkon steroids, but it’s our world.” Nolan pored over 65 years of comics and came up with this story: after a long exile,Wayne, now a 25-year-old scion, returns to Gotham City intent on kicking criminal butt. His family’s military subcontracting business, Wayne Enterprises, has been seized by shareholders, who’ve relegated the company’s most ambitious designs – and their inventor, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) – to the scrapheap. Wayne befriends Fox, using his designs to create an alter ego. And not a moment too soon because, naturally, there’s a villain on the loose named the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy of “28 Days Later”), who’s hellbent on poisoning all of Gotham.

It’s a comic-book tale, but Nolan promises that “Batman Begins”, which also stars Liam Neeson and Gary Oldman, won’t look anything like a comic-book movie. In contrast to the gothic fantasia ofBurton’s creation, Nolan has opted for gritty urban realism. At a converted airplane hangar an hour north ofLondon, his crew has built a full city block of Gotham, much of it based on the towering slums of Kowloon in Hong Kong, which were razed in 1994. But the starting point for his vision, the director says, was the new Batmobile. Last year Nolan holed up in his garage inLos Angeleswith production designer Nathan Crowley and hammered out a design that would make sense for the story. What they came up with is a drastic departure. The vehicle’s rear is stacked with four 44-inch Humvee tires, and the front is covered in jagged plates of armor. It looks like something Pablo Picasso might take to a monster-truck rally – a muscle car for a tortured soul. Perfect for Batman.

The Batmobile may have been step one, but on the set, nothing gets more attention than the Batsuit. Whenever Bale is in costume, two people trail him to keep it smudge-free; another person is charged with making sure his cape billows dramatically. On a converted parking lot at Shepperton, the crew has built an entire village of trailers, dubbedCape Town, where chemists and costume artists churn out neoprene-and-foam-latex Batsuits by the bushel. In the movie, the suit is translucent at first: it’s a futuristic military design complete with body armor and muscle-recovery devices.Waynesprays it black to camouflage it. “Chris wanted a serious, matte finish – not shiny or gloopy,” says costume designer Lindy Hemming. “We didn’t want to depart from the classic silhouette, but we also didn’t want to go too much in the homoerotic direction.” Got it: no nipples.

On this particular day, Bale has been in the Batsuit for nine hours, and his brain is starting to boil. But he keeps up his good humor. After one take, Nolan instructs him to try a line again with more intensity, and Bale answers with a riff inspired by “This Is Spinal Tap”: “How much more Batman can you get? The answer is: none. None more Batman.” Later, freed of his suit, Bale plugs his nose with a handkerchief soaked in Olbas oil, a Swiss remedy for headaches. “This is obviously the highest-profile movie I will probably ever do,” Bale says, taking a drag on his hand-rolled cigarette. “And sometimes on a huge movie like this, every take becomes an event. You can easily lose any kind of intimacy. But it feels as good as it can here, because at the core of this huge production is Chris Nolan.” And if “Batman” is going to begin again, it’s all up to the man at the top.

By Devin Gordon.