SciFi (June 2005)

BAT TO THE BEGINNING

Christian Bale gets back to basics in Batman Begins – but can he save a stagnant franchise?

Christian Bale, the latest actor to put on Batman’s cowl and cape, learned at least one valuable lesson in the 18 weeks of shooting on Warner Brothers’ highly anticipated fifth film in the franchise, Batman Begins: Never complain about the suit.

Last September, he let slip to a reporter from the U.K. newspaper The Daily Telegraph that he thought the rubber costume was “hot, dark, sweaty, claustrophobic, and it gives me a headache.”

Before you could say “Holy prima donna, Batman!” the crew had worked up T-shirts with the entire quote on the back, much to the earnest Bale’s chagrin.

Speaking to SCI Fl Magazine later, he was appropriately chastened. “No, I’m not going to bitch about the suit,” he said when asked again about the uncomfortable costume. “There’s nothing more annoying than hearing actors bitch about their work and stuff like that, you know? I’m playing Batman, for God’s sake! That’s pretty fantastic.”

A lot of learning seems to have taken place on the set of Batman Begins, the much-delayed new film that Warner desperately hopes revives the ailing franchise’s fortunes and again puts a DC Comics character at the top of a box office that has been dominated for years by Spider-Man, X-Men and other Marvel super-heroes. (Batman Begins opens June 17.)

Batman, the iconic American comic character that arguably best captures both the idealism and dark violence of the American psyche, has been reinvented before, most notably by director Tim Burton in his broody 1989 blockbuster and its 1992 sequel. But an increasingly campy series of sequels, under the helm of Joel Schumacher, pinned the black bat’s wings more effectively than the Joker, Riddler, Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze combined. By 1997’s Batman and Robin, the franchise had devolved into arch parody with vaguely homoerotic overtones, and fans avoided theaters in droves. But the character retained its appeal: Batman: Dead End, a short film directed by fan Sandy Collora, was the talk of Comic-Con International in2003, inpart because it captured the comics’ gritty tone and tortured soul.

So how to resurrect the bat for a new generation of filmgoers? Start from scratch.

The process wasn’t easy. Schumacher himself was once attached to a fifth movie that would take the story back to its beginnings, ala DCsnoirish Batman: Year One graphic novel by Frank Miller and David Mazucchelli. Fortunately, Schumacher dropped off. Directors from David Fincherto Darren Aronofsky to Wolfgang Petersen were then connected to the project before Warner finally settled on Christopher Nolan in 2003.

Nolan, the British director best known for 2000’s innovative indie drama Memento, was not a natural choice for what was conceived as a big-budget, visual-effects franchise film, having never helmed anything like it. But he offered a new vision that Warner eagerly lapped up: Take the story back to its roots, and make Batman real.

“They had this great character sitting there, and they weren’t doing anything with it, because the previous round of sequels had sort of run its course,” Nolan said during a break in filming last September inEngland. “So I heard that they were looking for something to do with it. And I was just very interested in the idea of creating a Batman from what I thought had never been made, which in a way is what you would have expected them to make first: … the origin story and the journey of the character from an ordinary person to Batman. … It was a very appealing idea to me.”

Nolan’s guiding principle was to ground everything in the real world. If Bruce Wayne were real, how would he become a costumed superhero? Where would he get a batsuit, and why would he wear one? What would a real Batmobile look like, and why would he drive one? And what kind of inner demons would drive a person to such single-minded obsession?

Key to the success of this reconception would be finding the right actor to play the conflicted hero. Actors as varied as Ashton Kutcher, Guy Pearce and even David Boreanaz were floated as possible bat-leads before Nolan settled on Bale, the Welsh-born, California-educated actor best known for American Psycho and last seen as an emaciated, sleep-deprived factory worker in 2004’s The Machinist. Bale—whose commitment to his roles is so intense that he dropped 60 poundsto inhabit his Machinist character, Trevor Reznik—immediately got what Nolan was going for.
“It’s not referring to any of the other movies,” Bale said. “It’s not a prequel, not a sequel, none of that. It is just a beginning.”

For those late to the story, the Batman saga begins when Bruce Wayne, the child of a billionaire industrialist, sees his parents murdered during an abortive robbery. Traumatized, he undertakes a regimen of self-improvement to become a force of vengeance against evildoers. In particular, Bale embraced the character’s inherent duality: Bruce Wayne and the Batman, whom Bale refers to as “the creature.”

“I really attempted to become a different creature” as Batman, Bale said. “[Bruce Wayne] just kind of ceases to be human at that point. And frankly, I had to do that out of necessity, just because I felt like an idiot when I was just standing in the batsuit and being a guy. …You can’t hang out in that suit. You have to be in control. You have to be focused. …I would always remember about the fact that this is somebody… who is fanatical. If you think about the obsession that somebody must have to retain the pain and the anger from an incident that happened 20 years previously, and it’s still in the forefront of his mind, that’s an incredible obsession. That’s an unhealthy obsession. So concentrating on the fact that he’s attempting to take his pain and his guilt and his anger and the rage and do something good with it, even though his impulses are that he does just want to rage and break bones and do damage. So there’s always that conflict.”

In Batman Begins, Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer (the Blade films) also came up with a story dealing with the theme of fear and that introduces two lesser-known villains from the Batman universe: the Scarecrow, played by Irish actor Gillian Murphy {28 Days Later), and Ra’s Al Ghul, played by Japan’s Ken Watanabe {The Last Samurai). The film also stars Michael Caine as Alfred; Katie Holmes as Wayne’s childhood friend, Rachel; Liam Neeson as Wayne’s mentor, Henri Ducard; Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, formerly of Wayne Enterprises; and Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon of the Gotham City police.

The “keep it real” principle guided all aspects of the production. The batsuit was reconceived as the latest high-tech military body armor, painted black to avoid detection in the night. (One edict: No nipples.)

The Batmobile was given a complete makeover, designed and built from the ground up as a functioning “stealth” transport that actually accelerates to more than 100 mph. Designers call it a “sports tank.” (Driving between takes on the streets of Chicago, the otherworldy vehicle spooked a drunk driver, who sideswiped it accidentally, thinking it was some kind of alien craft that had touched down in the Windy City.)

AndGothamCityitself was envisioned, not as the deco-flavored fantasy metropolis ofBurton’s movies, but as a grimy, urban 21st-century “American Kowloon,” production designer Nathan Crowley said.Chicagostood in for exterior shots, and filmmakers built an entire city block inside a 12-story former dirigible hangar in the green English countryside an hour and a half outsideLondon.

It is here, on the 126th day of a 128-day shoot that a crucial scene from the movie plays out. The setting isGotham’s notorious slum, “The Narrows.” A dense yellow fog permeates the slum, which is all ceramic brick walls, fire escapes, crumbling graffiti-scarred facades and neon lights. The Batmobile pulls up. Batman leaps out and rushes to Gordon.

“There’s nothing to stopGothamfrom tearing itself apart in mass panic if they hit the whole city with this toxin,” Bale/Batman says in a menacing baritone.

“How are they going to do that?” Oldman/Gordon asks, befuddled. “They can’t get the machine off the island?”

“There’s the train. …The monorail follows the water mains to the central hub beneath Wayne Tower. If they get their machine into Wayne Station, it’ll cause a chain reaction that’ll vaporize the entire city’s water supply…”

“Covering Gotham in a fog of… ” Oldman hesitates. “Covering Gotham in a fog of… God!” Struggling to remember his line. “Covering Gotham in a fog of… thick sh*t!” he says with exasperation.

But Nolan doesn’t cut. Bale, undeterred, repeats his line.

“If they get their machine into Wayne Station, it’ll cause a chain reaction that’ll vaporize the entire city’s water supply.”

“Covering Gotham in a fog of fear toxin.” Oldman nails his line this time.

Batman: “I’m going to find Ra’s, and I’m going to stop him from loading that train. But I may need your help.”

Gordon: “What can I do?”

Batman: “Drive stick.”

Batman tosses Gordon the keys to the Batmobile. Oldman puts his hand up. The keys fly past.

Oldman laughs, breaking character. “I’m going home.”

Cut.

Later, Oldman is matter-of-fact about how to maintain the reality of a story that, at first blush, is ridiculous. “I honestly don’t know,” he said. “This morning we had a scene, and I was perilously close to … getting the giggles. …This morning was hard, because it did feel a… little cartoonish, comic book. But that’s our source material…. A Batmobile pulls up and out jumps a guy with a cowl and a big black cape. And I’m taking him seriously.”

But spend a few hours on the backstreets of Gotham City, crawl around the menacing Batmobiles (there are four working models) and examine the batsuit close up, and it all begins to feel like it just might happen.

Bale has already demonstrated that he will go to great lengths to achieve reality in his performance. For The Machinist, he went on a crash diet to get to Trevor Reznik’s120 pounds. Unfortunately, he had to put the weight back on quickly to play Bruce Wayne immediately following The Machinist.

“I finished The Machinist in July [2003], and then we started filming on this at the end of February [2004],” Bale said. “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. Visually, but also… just dealing with being in that suit for 12 hours a day.”

Bale not only had to regain the 60 pounds he lost, he also had to add weight to his normal 180-pound frame to play the muscular superhero. “[I was] eating, just eating like crazy, just trying to put on pounds and pounds and pounds,” Bale said. “I actually went… way overboard. By the time I arrived in England, you know, [director] Chris [Nolan] kind of looked at me in shock and kind of 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. I had actually, by that time, …put on exactly 100 pounds from the day of finishing The Machinist to arriving in January in England. And it was not very healthy. 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 had to really start leaning out and doing a lot of running and all of that stuff.”

At the end of it, Murphy said, “Christian, he just looks so fantastic in the suit. It’s great, because you’re like, ‘It’s Batman!’ He’s wonderful on set, and he’s so committed to it.”

With filming wrapped, anticipation is running high for the movie’s upcoming summer release. (There must be something in the air: Last September, while the movie was still shooting inEngland, a man dressed in a homemade batsuit scaled a balcony outsideBuckinghamPalaceinLondonin a political protest.)

Nolan admitted that he feels the pressure to revive the franchise. “A certain amount of pressure,” he said. “The pressure I feel, really, is just that responsibility, you know? He’s a beloved icon. Obviously there’s a lot of weight that comes with trying to interpret that. But beyond that, really, it’s just about having fun with it. Making a great film. Trying to.”

For his part, Bale – who has signed on for three Batman movies – said he doesn’t give such things a thought. “I think probably [the fan expectation is] beyond anything that I’ve experienced before, but I don’t really want to know about it, to be honest about it,” he said. “The weight of expectation, you know, it can be a daunting thing. Before I started, I remember having a couple of days. And I was thinking. I kind of got lost down the track of, ‘Oh, sh*t, what do people want to see?’ You know? And it ain’t the way to go. So instead, I just went, ‘I got to 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, yeah, I purposely try to keep that out of my head.”

What does he do to get away from it?

No complaints here. “I go out and kick the sh*t out of criminals to relax,” he says with a smile.

By Patrick Lee.