SET VISIT: BATMAN BEGINS
There may be no more anticipated film this year (especially for geeks like us) than this summer’s Batman Begins. After 1997’s abysmal Batman and Robin, the Dark Knight was sent to an early retirement on the silver screen. In the years since, there has been talk of reviving the series, but that sour taste from the last film kept Warner from pulling the trigger.
Then came a novel idea. Why not start at the beginning and move towards a darker origin story? Suddenly everything started to fall into place. Numerous directors and casting choices for the Dark Knight were discussed. The ultimate choices were somewhat of a surprise, but in a very, very good way. Christian Bale had long since been a fan favorite as a choice to portray Batman, but it seemed unlikely that the studio would go with a non-A list actor. Then they did. Christopher Nolan’s darker material seems perfectly suited for the Batman world, but since he hadn’t directed a blockbuster in the past, it also seemed likely that the studio would choose a director with more proven box office success. Suddenly, Nolan was announced as the helmer. The rest of the casting choices could not have been better: Michael Caine as Alfred, Liam Neeson as Henri Ducard, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Gary Oldman as Lt. Gordon, Ken Watanabe as Ra’s Al Ghul, Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane (a.k.a. The Scarecrow), Tom Wilkinson as Carmine Falcone and Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. It was, at once, the unlikeliest of casting and also the best cast ever put together for a superhero film.
When I got the call this past September that Warners was inviting IGN to come visit the set in London, I was slightly giddy. Within a few days of hearing the news, I found myself on a plane heading nearly 6,000 miles from LA to London. I arrived in jolly old England a scant 11 hours later and was taken to a hotel where I awaited the next morning’s bus trip to the sets about an hour outside of London, near Bedford. Now I finally get to tell you all about the incredibly cool adventure.
The sets are housed within the Admiralty Hanger No. 2, one of the largest hangers in the world. The floor area is the size of 16 Olympic-size swimming pools. It would take a ludicrous 8,338 of London’s double decker buses to match its volume. Within the enormous structure awaited the set of GothamCity.
We are first taken through portions of downtown GothamCity. The set is nearing the end, this being day 126 of 128. The cityscape is virtually limitless. Today they are shooting some pickups with Bale and Oldman and some stunt work with one of Batman’s doubles. There are fog effects throughout the Gotham set. Above us, the ceiling is barely visible and almost seems to go on forever.
In terms of the previous Batman films, the sets are probably most reminiscent of the Gotham in Tim Burton’s two films. In many ways, the look is even darker, if that can be imagined. Much of Gotham appears run-down and worn-out. Trash and graffiti is strewn across many of the streets and brick building sides. The area which we got to tour in the greatest detail is a slum-like section referred to as ShantyTown. The buildings within this area are crowded together, nearly on top of one another. We climb the stairs to the roof of one of the buildings where we can look out at the rest of the huge city. A few buildings over, a stunt scene is being prepared. One of the stuntmen, Buster Reeves, is dressed in a Batsuit. He scales the side of a building upside down and looks into a window.
We walk briefly by the Arkham Asylum and stop to look at the outside. Like much of this area of the set, the building looks dark and gloomy, but hey, this is an insane asylum after all, right? The Asylum is aged and warn, with a steep stairway heading up to the front entrance.
On the far side of the building is a small section of the Gotham expressway. This area is primarily used for shooting smaller sections of the car scenes which were shot in Chicago. The streets are fully detailed, with green exit signs hanging above the roads.
In the course of the day, we spent a long while with the designers of the Batmobile. The amount of information they provided was so extensive that I will actually be writing up a separate article to take a closer examination of this impressive machine and provide some new info from the designers. I’m aware that the vehicle has taken some heat from fans, but after seeing it in person, I totally get the design. It looks truly intimidating and functional. It isn’t flashy, but that seems to make sense to the Batman character. I mean, would Batman really want a flashy, sleek sports car or a functional vehicle that can tear through anything it needs to? For now, a few details on this mean machine: The Batmobile was built from the ground up and, unlike the previous Corvette body used in the recent films, this one is not based on any production vehicle. Looking somewhat like a Hummer, a tank, a Lamborghini and a Stealth Bomber rolled into one, it’s painted a non-reflective flat black. The machine can really move out, clearing 0-60 in about 6 seconds flat. There are 400 pounds of torque housed within and, when turned on, it roars to life in unmistakable fashion.
We also spent quite some time with the designer of the Batsuit and will have more details of the suit’s construction in another upcoming article. At this point, most of you have already seen the suit in the trailer and the photos released so far. It bears the closest resemblance to the Tim Burton Batman films. The cape is larger and more encompassing and the yellow bat symbol has been replaced with a much more subtle black bat symbol spread across the chest plate.
After wandering the sets and poking our noses into every nook and cranny we could find (or were allowed into), we were brought into a side room while we waited to talk with Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan. In the meantime, a plasma screen was brought into the room so that we could watch scenes that were being filmed between Bale and Oldman. Nearing the end of such a lengthy and massive undertaking, the mood on set was lighthearted. As Oldman stutters over his words, he busts into a laugh.
Not being a comic fan himself and turned off by the kind of corny, spoof-like versions of the Batman legacy in the past, Bale admits that the project wasn’t of great interest to him when he first heard about it. “The first time, I never really thought, ‘Wow, Batman would make a great movie, from the TV series or anything,’ and hadn’t been able to show a great deal of interest in it until a friend of mine, who is a comic book fan, lent me ‘Arkham Asylum…’ I didn’t expect anything like that. Not being somebody who’s accustomed to comic books, it was really unusual to me. So then I looked at a few others. I looked at ‘Batman: Year One,’ [by] Frank Miller and ‘The Long Halloween’ and I saw they were superb. [I] hadn’t realized before that it was that interesting of a character, because I think all that I’d seen before was that the villains were fascinating in Batman always, and suddenly I was reading these and it was like, ‘Well he’s by far the most interesting…’
“Initially, what I had heard rumored was that there was going to be a much lower budget Batman made where they were maybe going to go very dark with it. And I thought, ‘Yeah, that sounds really interesting.’ So I started getting on and calling my agents and saying, ‘Can you find out about this?’ And then I heard, ‘No, they’re going to go with a big one,’ and I kinda thought, ‘Eh. That would probably not be the one that I would be interested in.’ And then I heard Chris Nolan was going to be directing it, which altered everything. I hadn’t been anticipating that they were going to go in that direction. I met with Chris, spoke with him and just thought, ‘Yeah, this is definitely the right one to do.'”
Christopher Nolan, on the other hand, had to come to the studios and prove to them that he had a worthy vision for the future of the Batman franchise. His previous works – The Following, Memento and Insomnia – have all been of the darker variety, but none really bring to mind a large scale blockbuster of Batman’s scope. “I mean obviously they had this great character sitting there and they weren’t doing a thing with it because the previous round of sequels had kind of run their course. So I had heard they were kind of looking for something to do with it… [They were] looking for somebody to have a vision for what they’d do with it. And I was just very interesting in the idea of creating a Batman from what I thought had never been made, which is in a way the one which you would expect them to make first, which is the origin story and the journey of the character from an ordinary person to Batman…”
Despite the perception most have of him as an indie director, Nolan had harbored the secret desire to make a blockbuster. “Yeah,” Nolan laughs. “I don’t know why. Now I’m beginning to wonder why I ever wanted to do this? (Laughs) But no, I mean I have. I grew up watching huge blockbusters and remember really enjoying them as a kid and everything, so I’ve always enjoyed films that create a whole world and provide escapism really as well as create worlds outside of the one that you are in, so it’s been a great opportunity to actually try that.”
When the casting choice of Bale was first made, he was already headlong into the preparation for another demanding role in Brad Anderson’s The Machinist. For that part, Bale dropped a startling amount of weight to portray the emaciated Trevor Reznick, nicking the scales at a mere 130 pounds. “I finished The Machinist in July and then we started filming on this at the end of February. But yeah, I did have a lot of work to do just because, you know, it’s one of those parts that you have to be in decent shape for it visually, but also I did need to be [ready] for what we were filming, just dealing with being in that suit for 12 hours a day. [I’d be] eating, just eating like crazy, just trying to put on like pounds and pounds and pounds. And I actually went way overboard. By the time I arrived in England, Chris kind of looked at me in shock and went, ‘God, you’re like some grizzly bear,’ because I arrived with long hair and a beard and stuff and I was, like, filling up the hallway. By that time, I had put on a hundred pounds from the day of finishing The Machinist to arriving in January in England… It wasn’t a healthy way to go. I could lift a lot of weights, but you ask me to run across the room and I would have been exhausted. So when I got here, that’s when I really had to start leaning up and doing a lot of running and all that stuff and brought my weight right back down again.”
While Bale may not have been a huge comic fan himself, he admits that there was still quite a thrill to donning the cape and cowl on the first day of filming. “It was a great feeling, because we’d done a couple of camera tests beforehand, but it was the whole way, it was kind of just [to] stand there and turn around and everything. And inevitably, after six months of being in it, you kind of get used to it. I felt like a panther the first day. I did feel like some kind of wild animal. I don’t know if anybody else was looking at me like that way, I don’t know if I appeared quite as ferocious as I felt that I did, but I really felt like everybody was kinda looking and jumpy. And it does, it makes you feel like you want to kind of run and jump at people and beat the crap out of them. And, you know, it just gives you this great neck and this physique that just looks intimidating. It’s all kind of aggressive, it’s all pointed forward, it’s all very much like a predator…”
Besides eating, the preparation process for portraying the Dark Knight also required extensive martial arts and weapon training. After all the prep, Bale had hoped he’d actually get to do more than the insurance companies have allowed him to do. “I gotta tell you, I was up for doing a lot more stunts then they would ever let me do, you know? And there are exceptional stuntmen here as well that are obviously doing stuff that I could never do. We did a lot of wirework rehearsals before we started filming, and I think however, they got a bit of cold feet after the stuntman one day came down on the wire and just landed straight on his face. And so I think, at that point, they thought, ‘Let’s rethink just how much we’re going to let Christian do this.’ So, with all the enthusiasm in the world, I haven’t actually done everything that I can do and that I learned how to do in rehearsals. However, we’ve found this, Buster, the stuntman actually introduced us to this really great fighting form called Keysi, which has a very unique look to it. It’s a very brutal fighting style and really fits well with the Batsuit, and particularly with the ears and everything, just the way that it goes. And it’s very savage, very fierce, and I had to learn that. We have a lot of different fight sequences. I did learn every single fight sequence that’s in the movie. You know, I kind of tag-teamed with Buster, but I did have to do the whole thing. There’s nothing that, you know, I sat back and said, ‘I’ll be back there having coffee.’ And then [there were] a couple of times where I did manage to convince them to let me jump off a roof. They didn’t let me jump that high, but you know it was something. We were in Chicago outside and we were like six stories high and they let me jump off the one roof just onto the next one down, but you know it kinda looks like I’m doing a real high dive. (Laughs)”
Besides the physical aspects of the Batman character, Bale also had to find a way into the psyche of the deeply trouble hero. “In our story, it’s the early days, so you do see him as a very young boy and [then] you see him at like age 22 and then you see him again at like age 29, 30. For me there was never any intention of this from a young age whatsoever. He was very much bent on enacting revenge, of maintaining the promise that he makes to his parents, but specifically, I think that he kind of thought of it as a short term deal, you know something that he would be able to complete. And so, at a young age, initially he just wanted to take revenge on the person that killed his parents. And that doesn’t go to plan, and he has no other life then. He’s been kind of happy to be sent away for that. And so he hasn’t really planned anything whatsoever. So in this story, he disappears off on a journey. My take is that this is something, he never comprehends that this is going to be an ongoing thing, that he believes, ‘I can do this once and then I can kinda just get on with my life,’ and then it ends up just consuming him and sucking him in and not being something he can avoid doing, but also not being the healthiest of endeavors.”
Nolan talks about Bale’s dedication to the role: “He’s marvelous. He just brings an incredible degree of focus. The thing with Bruce Wayne is he doesn’t have any super powers unless you count that person’s incredible wealth. But really, he’s just an ordinary guy and I think that’s one of the reasons the characters so appealing as a superhero. Christian has an incredible degree of focus and determination, which is what allows Bruce Wayne to do these extraordinary things. I think that’s the main characteristic of him as a personality.”
One benefit of shooting in this isolated area of England is avoidance of the intense media and fan interest for the project. Bale is happy to remain unaware. “I think probably it’s beyond anything that I’ve experienced before, but I don’t really want to know about it to be honest, you know? The weight of expectation, it can be a daunting thing. Before I started, I remember I had a couple of days and I was thinking, I kinda got lost down the track of, ‘Oh s**t. What do people want to see?’ And it ain’t the way to go, so instead I just kinda went, ‘I gotta do something whether they like it or not.’ You know, you just have to do something that I’m going to appreciate how I would want to see Batman done and hope that that gels or that inspires the real avid fans of it. But no, I purposely try to keep that out of my head.”
After the disastrous Batman and Robin, which was hated by comic fans and non-fans alike, the pressure is on to do the iconic hero justice. “[There’s] certain amount of pressure,” Nolan smiles. “The pressure I feel really is just it’s a beloved icon, so obviously there’s a lot of weight that comes with trying to interpret that, but beyond that I think it’s really just about having fun with it and making a great film…”
In the course of the seven plus years between Batman films, many ideas floated about or were rumored. We asked Nolan what basis he used for the story that finally got Batman Begins a green light. “Well, it would be hard to point to one in particular. I mean, ‘Batman: Year One’ clearly and things like ‘The Long Halloween,’ but I think a lot of the ’70s Batman comics, the Adams/O’Neil period, the period where they were very influenced in the comics by the Bond films of the time, the sort of Roger Moore James Bond stuff they were doing, and that was where kind of where Ra’s Al Ghul kind of entered the scene and it’s really that period that excited me. There was a tone to the piece that hadn’t really been looked at before or used before.”
In a previous interview, Bale had described the character of Batman as a creature. We asked him to further explain this: “I think actually, initially that word was a slip up of Michael Caine’s in a scene with Alfred. He said, I don’t think it was beast, but he said creature instead of whatever was scripted. I just find it to be more fitting, just because I’m not somebody that comes from a comic book-loving background. I didn’t have a great deal of knowledge about it, so when I first thought about Batman, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Well, there you go. It just is. You just accept it.’ I was thinking about, ‘Why? Why would he dress up like this? This is ridiculous. Either it has to be done like a spoof like the TV series was, or else to me it had to go somewhere else that I hadn’t seen before, and I just found personally, that when I put everything on, it just made you feel like a creature. I didn’t really feel human so much anymore, and I just liked that feeling and felt that it was appropriate for how I wanted to play him.”
Bale has been the target of some on-set ridicule from the crew for a quote he made in an earlier interview in regards to the Batsuit. “I’m not gonna bitch about the suit. There’s a quote from me that some of the people have on the back of their t-shirts that says, ‘It’s hot, dark and sweaty and it gives me a headache,’ which is absolutely true, but there’s nothing more annoying then hearing actors bitch about their work and stuff like that. You know, I’m playing Batman, for Gosh sake. That’s pretty fantastic. I’m not going to complain about getting a little sweaty in the suit. And also, they’ve changed it so much, so I hear, from the first movie that they made, so even though it may not feel like the most comfortable outfit to me, I know that others have had it worse.”
Even though Batman’s main mode of transportation is the legendary Batmobile, Bale says that he hasn’t gotten to spend too much time in the impressive machine. “I actually only drove the Batmobile for the first time last week. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Batmobiles, but a lot of them, they’re all specifically designed for doing different things. I’d obviously been in the Batmobile that you see me get out of in the movie and everything. As much as I would love to say it’s me driving the Batmobile in the movie, it’s probably not when you see it. I’ve never really been that interested in cars, and I realized why after going in the Batmobile, because that’s something else, being in that. Actually, first of all, seeing that the man right there designed the whole thing and built it, you know? And then just being in a car where you can see how everything works, that was fascinating… Usually you get in cars and, if it’s a nice car, it’s nice upholstery, so you’ve got to be dainty and, you know, it’s from an assembly line, so it’s impersonal. This is, you know the noise is incredible. It’s like having Ozzy Osborne kind of screaming in your ear the whole time. Actually, I was screaming as I was going along purposefully and I couldn’t hear myself at all. [It’s] a fantastic car and I’m in awe of the guys that are able to design something like that.”
There is already speculation building among fans as to whether Nolan will return to direct the likely sequels. So far, he is not attached to direct any follow-ups. “Well, I’m just sort of concentrating on this one for now to be honest. I’m trying to put as much into this one, but clearly the character has a limitless potential in terms of stories. I mean, he’s lasted as long as he has for that very reason.”
Stay tuned to IGN for more coverage from the Batman Begins set including interviews with Lt. Gordon himself, Gary Oldman; producer Emma Thomas; and the designers of the Batmobile and Batsuit.
By Jeff Otto.