Starlog (June 2005)

THE NEW DARK KNIGHT

Edged with darkness, Christian Bale begins his journey as Gotham City’s haunted hero.

Christian Bale is cool. He’s a handsome, soft-spoken guy with a light beard and friendly demeanor. But don’t get used to him – he disappears when the camera comes on. In his 20-year career, Bale has successfully transformed himself from a child actor to a versatile chameleon with a diverse collection of quirky, compelling characters to his credit. He was the peaceful Jesus of Nazareth, bloodthirsty American Psycho and creepy, misunderstood Machinist. Now, Bale tackles one of the most popular characters in comics, Batman.

In Batman Begins, billionaire Bruce Wayne is haunted by memories of his parents’ murder, and embarks on a worldwide quest to become a force against crime. On his journey of the soul, Bruce is imprisoned in a foreign country, learns various fighting styles and overcomes his childhood fear of bats before returning toGothamCityin a one-man crusade to clean up the corrupt metropolis.

While the Batman movie series collapsed under its own weight – with dense art direction, thin storylines and hammy stars camping it up – Batman Begins is a lean, mean attempt to clear the decks and return the character to his grim comic book origins. At the helm is Christopher Nolan, director of the dark, smart Memento, with a script by David Goyer, author of the bleak, bloody Blade movie trilogy.

By casting the daring, unpredictable Bale as the new Dark Knight, the filmmakers announced they were truly taking the franchise in a new direction. “I expect very good things from Batman Begins. The film looks like I thought it would,” Bale professes. “It’s the genesis of Batman. This isn’t a prequel, a sequel, none of that. It’s the beginning, and doesn’t refer to any of the other films whatsoever.

“Batman Begins is far more human than the previous pictures. It has more depth. Batman isn’t even in the first half of the movie. This is about his early days. We’re telling the great story of how Bruce Wayne came to be Batman, so it’s the beginnings of Bruce Wayne. A very large part of the film is taken up with that, before you see any Bat-ears at all!”

Previously, whether Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer or George Clooney, Bruce Wayne was a pretty bland and boring leading man, but Bale says that isn’t the case in this story. “Bruce is actually one of the more interesting characters,” he asserts. “He’s a complex person, and the journey he takes is a great one. In many ways, it’s similar to the lost seven years in Jesus Christ’s life. Jesus disappears, and everyone wonders, ‘Where did he go?’ Suddenly, he’s back and on his mission. We’ve done the same deal here with Bruce Wayne.

“Bruce disappears off the face of the Earth and everyone thinks he’s dead, but as an audience, we partially get to see what he’s doing. He delves into the underworld and tests himself. Bruce wants to become a different creature, somebody who is comfortable around crime and violence, so he can understand his enemy. He ends up in jail, then returns after seven years with a mission about what he’s gonna do regardingGotham.”

Behind the Mask

Bale’s Batman is a true creature of the night. “Faced with him, you should be unsure [of whether he’s good or bad],” the actor says. “I never wanted him to be somebody who stood still and said, ‘Hi, I’m Mr. Batman. How are you?’ It should be like witnessing a very rare and dangerous animal in the jungle, something you glimpse momentarily. I intended to become a different creature, because when he puts on that mask, Bruce ceases to be human.

“There’s a sense of animalistic rage in Batman – he’s attempting to take his pain, guilt and anger to do something good, even though his impulse is to rage, break bones and inflict damage. So there’s always that conflict in him, but Batman doesn’t kill. I really tried to remember that, and I also referred to the graphic novels. I had them on the set with me all the time, because I love the imagery.

“In many ways, the Bruce Wayne persona – the playboy, the cad, the businessman – is the real mask, the performance,” Bale argues. “That isn’t a healthy state of mind to be in. I’m not saying he has multiple personality disorder, but that would be an interesting way to take it. This film explains how Bruce comes to create the Batman and why. It’s based on his own fears: He’s afraid of bats after falling into a cave as a child. We’re keeping that; it’s very prominent in the film.”

Reportedly, original plans called for this Dark Knight to have the white-slit eyes seen in the comics. “It was discussed very, very briefly,” Bale confirms, “but we couldn’t do it because there’s too much we have to play with in the eyes. We felt people would miss out if they couldn’t see what’s going on inside him. I’ve always liked when Batman has sinister eyes that look all black. I didn’t care for seeing a lot of white when I was playing him.”

However, Bale was excited about his director. “Chris is the reason I wanted to do this,” he admits. “When Chris came on board, just the fact that they asked him, a really interesting director, to do it showed they didn’t want to copy the same thing we had seen before. And that’s what I was interested in: creating something new. I’m not a comic book fan at all, but I read Arkham Asylum and was really intrigued by it. That graphic novel is nothing like the Batman TV series or movies. It’s much more interesting. Then I read Batman: Year One and Batman: Dark Victory and thought, ‘This is great stuff! There’s an amazing character here, and the way they play it is fantastic. So why hasn’t there ever been a good movie made of it?’

“Chris and I gelled. In our first conversation, Chris told me he wanted to focus on those graphic novels: The Long Halloween, Batman: Year One and Dark Victory. I explained how I felt it should be done, and he felt the same way. Chris had read the graphic novels, too, and couldn’t understand why the Batman films had never been done that way before. We thought that was by far the most fascinating approach to Batman.

“We focus on Bruce and Batman, whereas in the other movies, I always found the villains much more compelling. That was the main revelation to me in reading the graphic novels – Batman’s the most interesting character. He’s on-the-edge. He’s the Dark Knight! A knight is supposed to be in shining armor, but even though Batman is doing good, he could just as easily flip over and be the ultimate villain.”

When Bale went up for the role, “For the screen tests, I wore one of the old Batsuits. It didn’t fit exactly, so they had to adjust it. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to play it exactly the way I would want to see it played, and if they don’t like that, I don’t want in anyway. I don’t care to see it done the way it has been done before.’

“I came back from the screen test and gave my wife [Sibi Blazic] a taste of what I had done. She looked at me and said, ‘You’re insane!’ “Bale chuckles. “Sibi told me, ‘You just blew it. Man, you were too extreme! I love what you did, but they’re never gonna accept it. This is Warner Bros. They’re gonna look at you and go, “He’s nuts!” ‘

Happily, they didn’t. They unanimously said, ‘That’s the way we want to go.’ I knew from that point on we had free rein, once they said, ‘We want Christian and we want Chris Nolan.’

“I find that, to do any character satisfactorily, you have to own it yourself,” he continues. “At some point, you have to say, ‘Regardless of what others want, this is how I’m gonna do it. Let the chips fall where they may later on.’ Because if you don’t do that, you’re not gonna do anything. I had a strong opinion on how I was gonna play Batman, and it was supported by Chris and the studio. I just went for it!

“To me, it’s the true way Batman should be played. If people think differently, that’s a shame, but they didn’t get the job of playing him and it’s my responsibility to have a belief in what I’m doing. If you’re too concerned about reactions and consequences, you’re gonna have a nervousness in the way you portray the character. I felt the same way when I played Jesus [in the TV movie Mary, Mother of Jesus]. The main thing Chris had to guide me on was the physicality, because I was extremely scrawny and skinny when I came onto the project [after shedding  65 pounds for The Machinist]. He was terrified I wouldn’t look believable playing the Dark Knight, but we got that worked out.”

How did his family feel about his landing the role of the famed Caped Crusader? “It was a good thing,” he says. “Unfortunately, my Dad never knew about it… I lost him. But it was a bizarre experience for everybody: my mom, my wife, my friends. They were like, ‘You… Batman? How the hell does that work?!?’ But I find that’s true of almost every part I play. The people who know me always say, ‘You’re nothing like that! How can you do that?’ And I tell them, ‘That’s the point. I’m an actor. I don’t have to play characters who are like me all the time!’ “

And that’s fortunate. The versatile Bale discussed his murderous role as the American Psycho in Fangoria #192 and his heroic turn battling dragons in Reign of Fire in Starlog #302.

Beneath the Cape

Born in Wales, Bale was raised in England, Portugal and California. “I’m a very confused person,” he jokes. “My identity is not Welsh and not American, but in recent years, it has become more American than anything else. I have lived here since I was 17, and I have played more Americans than any other nationality, so I have a bizarre standing in this country where I understand it. I live here, it’s my adopted home, but because of my upbringing, I will always be a bit of an outsider with an objective view about what’s going on.

“Batman travels well,” he adds. “Everyone around the world knows Batman – it’s quintessential American mythology. And because it’s an incredible mythology, as an actor, I’m able to be a shapeshifter, analyze it and play it. I just took to the part.”

When he donned the cape and cowl, “It was a kick as well as a high,” Bale says, “because when I put on that suit and looked in the mirror, I was staring back at myself. My first reaction to seeing myself in the costume was like looking at a creature that was not me at all. And that’s how I liked it. I did not want to recognize myself. I never wanted to be Bruce Wayne in a Batsuit when I was playing Batman. It’s an alter-ego he becomes. I saw Batman as a separate character.

“But Batman Begins was a long shoot, seven months, and you can start to get blase about it. ‘Oh yeah, I have the Batsuit on.’ That’s why I kept [the comics’] images around me at all times, to remind myself of that initial feeling, because it was a very strong feeling when I first put the outfit on. I saw myself as a dangerous animal. Frankly, I had to do that out of necessity, because I felt like an idiot when I was just standing around in the Batsuit!

“I couldn’t hang out in that costume,” Bale insists. “I had to be in control, I had to be focused and I would always remind myself that this is someone who is fanatical. Plus, there was a physical stamina I needed when I was inside the Batsuit. When I first put it on, it felt like I was scuba diving – kind of claustrophobic – and I would just sit in it for awhile. I found I couldn’t wear the suit without feeling like some beast—it just happened organically, and I went with as much aggression and rage as I could. I border on appearing like a bad guy when I have it on.”

In the first Batman movie, Keaton could not even turn his head. “They’ve made many advances in the suit,” Bale says. “They kind of cooked it… really. It was like a kitchen, where they boiled up all these ingredients to achieve a certain level of mobility and rigidity in different areas. I think, by far, I had the easiest of anybody [in the Batsuit], short of Adam West, who was running around in a cotton get-up. They came up with good stuff, and it was much more mobile than the other costumes.”

Of course, no Batman origin would be complete without a trip to Crime Alley, where young Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents’ murders. “Oh yes, that’s in there,” Bale says. “Bruce as a child is played by a fantastic young actor, Gus Lewis. Batman Begins is about watching the journey of this man dealing with the enormous pain, guilt, anger and feeling of impotence over this incident. I wanted to base it in reality – a point-of-view of the pain and trauma he had been through as a child – and really look at it.

“Because of who Bruce is, nobody will give him credibility – nobody feels he can understand danger because he has been so sheltered. We see him venture out in the world, purposely putting himself in danger’s way to test his mettle and learn if he is a coward or not. Bruce needs to find out if he can fulfill the promise he made to his parents. When you think of the mental effort it takes to maintain that one promise for 20 years, this guy is like a saint. So the film examines that a great deal, because we wanted the audience to understand the immense pain Bruce is going through.”

The murders lead to the first meeting between the future Batman and Commissioner James Gordon. “Gary Oldman plays him, and he’s quite good,” Bale comments. “They meet when Bruce is a young boy, right after his parents are killed, and they make a connection. Years later, when Gordon is a detective, Batman returns, and he knows that Gordon is a good cop in the midst of a city of absolutely corrupt policemen. Batman realizes that Gordon is someone he can recruit and have as a partner.”

Beyond the Cowl

Liam Neeson plays the French assassin Henri Ducard. Created by Sam Hamm for Detective Comics, Ducard teaches Bruce stealth in the catching of criminals. “Ducard is an interesting person,” Bale says. “He’s Bruce’s mentor, but he’s also a questionable character. He teaches Bruce things that he’s able to use later on as Batman.”

And where would Batman be without his faithful butler, Alfred? “Michael Caine, in terms of the past, is certainly the most informative of the supporting characters,” Bale observes. “First of all, he plays it so good, he’s funny, and you really get to feel and witness the pain that Alfred has been through – seeing someone he loves being tortured through his teenage years and not being able to reach out and help him. Everybody else is sort of controlled by Batman; Alfred is the only one who can get behind that mask. He knows exactly who Bruce is; he knows his weak points and how to push his buttons if he wants. Alfred is Bruce’s surrogate father.”

Bale also shares scenes with Katie Holmes (as Rachel Dodson) and Ken Watanabe (as Ra’s Al Ghul). And then there’s the sinister Scarecrow. Bale didn’t find it difficult doing dramatic scenes opposite something designed to drive away crows. “You have to ask him, ‘Was it hard to do dramatic scenes opposite a guy dressed as a bat?'” Bale grins. “It wasn’t tough for me, because Cillian Murphy is really, really good as both Scarecrow and Dr. Crane. And the Scarecrow’s look is great, in keeping with the dark design of the film. Crane uses a hallucinogen, so when you see the Scarecrow, it’s your own view of what evil would be.”

Batman Begins does show the superhero’s utility belt, Batarangs and other gadgets, as well as his reasons for them. “We have a nice backstory of how Bruce creates ‘the Batman,’ with a good, practical explanation of each gadget on the Batsuit,” Bale says. “Everything is explained in the movie. Nothing was taken for granted. We didn’t assume the audience would just understand it.”

As for Bale’s favorite Bat-gadget, “Which one do you think?” he laughs. “The Batmobile! What I love about it is they’ve come up with something radically different. Aesthetically, it kicks ass and looks stunning! There were a couple times when they were driving it down the street in Chicago, where they said, ‘We can load it on the truck or race it down there’ – and they raced it down there! People would see that thing going down the street, and everybody would stop and say, ‘What the hell is that?!?’

“There was even this guy who crashed into the Batmobile, this poor, drunken fellow who didn’t have a license and said he got so panicked when he saw the car, he thought aliens were landing! The stunt driver was in the Batmobile when the guy put the pedal to the metal and sideswiped it. The Batmobile has this effect on people, and it looks nothing like any Batmobile that has come before it. The vehicle has practical applications, which are explained, smart and make complete sense. That’s indicative of how we’re making the movie as a whole—including our explanations of the suit, cowl and all of Batman’s gadgets.

“The Batmobile is fantastic, but I wish I got to drive it more,” Bale remarks. “The guy with the coolest job on the set was the stunt driver. I received lots of attention the first few days because I had the Batsuit on; everyone was like, ‘Ohhhh!’ After a while, though, they got used to seeing me. But the stunt driver? Every time he came on the set, everybody was in awe! ‘Here comes the Man! He’s the guy who’s really gonna make the movie!’ It is stunning, the things he did with it. The actual engineering of the Batmobile is amazing. I don’t know much about cars, but our Batmobile is apparently the first vehicle made without any kind of front axle. And the 12 or 13 Batmobiles they built could really do the things you see in the movie.

“It’s a fabulous drive, too. I’ve always been a fan of motorbikes, but when you get in the Batmobile, you can’t help but love cars! You see all the work, there’s the smell inside it, the functionality of everything going on, and it screams in your ear when you get it up to a high speed. It really flies – the camera cars couldn’t keep up with it! They had to ask me to slow down. My heart was pounding every time I stepped out of it.”

Would Bale – who’s signed for three Bat-adventures – ever consider making the once-planned Batman vs. Superman! “It would have to be a good script,” he shrugs. “If that worked out, it might be fine, as there are a couple of graphic novels with a ‘Batman vs. Superman’ theme. But we’ll have to wait and see. Let’s find out if we get to make another one of these first!”

Perhaps a more important question is if the actor is prepared for the greatest challenge of all. No, not fighting the Scarecrow, driving the Batmobile or flying through the Gotham City sky. But is he ready to see his face on lunch boxes, backpacks, action figures and T-shirts? “Not at all,” Christian Bale smiles. “That’s gonna be really bizarre and interesting… I think it will be the trickiest part of it all! I’ve certainly never done that before, but it comes with a movie of this sort. So I think I’m ready for it…”

By Pat Jankiewicz.