THE BAT CLOSES IN FOR THE KILL
Batman is back, and not only is he deeper, darker and more sinister than before – he’s Welsher too, and has had four genuine £1 million, 100mph Batmobiles built for him. John Hiscock reports.
It is nearing midnight and the street leading to Chicago’s Franklin Bridge is jammed with hundreds of extras dressed as riot police, firemen and paramedics.
Someone hoses down the street to give it a wet-by-night look while lights and cameras are moved into position and police cars, men on horseback and film production assistants mob the entrance to the bridge.
Everyone is waiting for the Batmobile to roll into position for a stunt involving a car jump across the Chicago River.
Calmly supervising the apparent chaos is the 33-year-old British director Chris Nolan, who has never before directed an action film, let alone anything like Batman Begins, the £100 million production that Warner Bros executives hope will revive the lucrative Batman franchise, which crashed with the disastrous Batman and Robin in 1997.
Nolan, whose previous films include the low-budget Memento and Insomnia, won the job on the basis of his enthusiasm, ideas and a promise to return Batman to its roots in character drama. Unlike Tim Burton’s gothic Batman fantasies, Nolan has opted for gritty urban realism, delving into just how and why Bruce Wayne became Batman.
“This Batman is grounded in reality,” he explains, leaning against the bar of a nearby restaurant during a break in filming. “He has no super-powers; all he has is his wealth, which he uses to obtain the technology he needs to do what he has to do.”
While the choice of Nolan may be something of a gamble, an even bigger roll of the dice is his casting of Christian Bale, a British actor relatively unknown to American audiences, as Batman.
The Welsh-born Bale, who as a child actor starred in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun and in 2000 played the serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, is portraying Batman as a sinister figure.
Bale’s Batman is far removed from the campy, comic-book character played by Adam West in the 1960s television series and darker than previous film Batmen Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney, whose nipple-studded Batsuit made the Caped Crusader more of a laughing stock than a hero.
“This Batman remains in the shadows and is fuelled by a great deal of rage,” says Bale, 30. “He has tremendous anger. He’s not a knight in shining armour, because of his personal need for revenge.”
Nolan has surrounded Bale with virtually an all-British crew and cast, which includes Michael Caine as Bruce Wayne’s butler and guardian, Alfred; Gary Oldman as Lieut James Gordon of the Gotham City police department; and Liam Neeson as Wayne’s mysterious mentor, Henri Ducard.
Most of the filming is being done at Shepperton, where a dank, monstrous Batcave has been built, complete with lagoon, waterfall and subterranean bachelor pad. In a converted airport hangar, Nolan’s crew have built a full city block of Gotham, much of it based on the slums of Kowloon in Hong Kong, which were torn down in 1994.
For added realism, many of the outdoor scenes are being shot in Chicago, which is standing in for Gotham City.
City officials have co-operated by blocking off streets to allow the high-tech, armour-plated Batmobile to roar through the city at speeds of up to 100mph, and some of the city’s buildings are being used for spectacular stunts involving Batman and the arch-villains, Scarecrow, played by Cillian Murphy, and eco-terrorist Ra’s Al Ghul, played by Japanese actor Ken Watanabe.
Nolan studied 65 years of Batman comics to come up with Batman Begins, the story of how a young Bruce Wayne sees his parents murdered and then, after a long exile, returns to Gotham as a 25-year-old bent on seeking revenge. “Batman is one of the great figures of pop culture, but there has to be a good reason for making this film,” says Nolan.
According to the new storyline, which Nolan concocted with David Goyer, Wayne’s family’s military subcontracting business, Wayne Enterprises, has been seized by shareholders who have dumped the company’s most ambitious designs and their inventor, Lucius Fox, played by Morgan Freeman, on the scrapheap.
Wayne befriends Fox, using his designs to create Batman, just in time to take on the villainous Scarecrow, who is intent on poisoning all of Gotham.
But the starting point for Nolan’s vision was the Batmobile. For a full year he and his British production designer Nathan Crowley holed up in the garage of Nolan’s Los Angeles house working on a design for the Batmobile that would make sense for the story.
“I wanted to make sure that the Batmobile, like everything else in the film, is possible and believable,” says Nolan.
Unlike the Batmobiles in previous films, this one is a genuine, high-speed, militaristic vehicle – a muscle-car for a tortured soul. A cross between a Lamborghini and a Humvee with three engines – one of them a jet – the front is covered with jagged plates of armour.
Four have been built at a cost of £1 million each and stunt driver George Cottle swears they are among the fastest vehicles he has ever driven.
The man at the centre of all the activity and expense, Christian Bale, treats everything with a cool nonchalance and is seemingly undaunted by the responsibility he bears. Like the character he portrays, he is something of a loner and takes his job seriously.
“This is probably the biggest film I will ever do, and if I didn’t treat it seriously, nobody else would,” he says. “I wanted to make Batman more like a creature, more like a beast, than a human being. I didn’t want him to be just a funny bloke in a fancy-dress costume. You’re either going to look like a complete fool or you’re going to look like a bad-ass. So you have to look like a bad-ass.”
His female lead, American actress Katie Holmes, 26, who plays the Gotham district attorney Rachel Dawes, has no doubts about her co-star. “He’s a great Batman,” she says. “I got the chills when I first saw him in his costume. Christian’s ideal for the part because he’s got a bit of a dark side, too.”
Bale began acting in British television commercials when he was nine and appeared on stage with Rowan Atkinson in the comedy The Nerd.
His film break came when, at 13, he won the leading role in Empire of the Sun. He moved to America in 1992 to portray the pro-labour leader of a band of urchins hawking newspapers in the ill-fated Disney musical Newsies and then played Laurie in Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women.
He followed that with Velvet Goldmine and several low-budget and not very successful films until he undertook his most challenging role of Wall Street stockbroker-cum-serial killer Patrick Bateman in the controversial American Psycho.
He had just lost 80lbs for his role in the psychological thriller The Machinist when he was cast as Batman, so he had to work hard to quickly regain the weight.
Now he is struggling to keep cool and retain his weight in the confines of the neoprene-and-foam-latex Batsuit. “It’s hot, dark, sweaty, claustrophobic and it gives me a headache,” he says with a grin. “But I’m not going to sit around whining about it.”
Due for release next summer, Batman Begins may not yet mean anything to cinemagoers, but the odds are that they will be seeing plenty of Christian Bale in the next few years: he has already signed up for two Batman sequels.
By John Hiscock.