INTERVIEW: Lee Shapiro
Posted by: Bill "Jett" Ramey (Follow @BATMANONFILM)
Date: July 28, 2005

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following interview took place on BOF in 2005.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

"I'm much better talking about my projects than I am talking about myself and would much rather just provide a link to my bio on IMDB than waste valuable website space. Plus, I've always said that if anesthesia ever became scarce, you could use my biography instead.that or a blunt object-both equally effective. But if you really want something, let me know, and I'll provide it."

Below is Mr. Shapiro's bio:

Lee hails from Dallas, Texas. His love for graphic arts and motion pictures give him a great visual sense in the medium of film. As a film student at the University of Central Florida, he specialized in animation, which paved the way for him to be an animation intern on the Steven Spielberg series, SeaQuest DSV (1993) (TV), and the Art Director at Star Mountain, a computer animation company.

Lee's gifts not only lie with graphics, but also with the written word. These two talents merged when he wrote an episode of the animated series, "The Tick" (1994). He also wrote and directed his thesis film, "Parental Advisory", which won a Crystal Reel Award. He has lent his talents to a number of motion pictures, from the independent thriller Jack-O (1995) to Born on the Fourth of July (1989) to RoboCop (1987). His other production work includes production design on "Ice Blue" and "A Twist in the Tale", assistant direction on "The Hunt for EPCOT Ed-Ventures", and producer and assistant camera on "On Art and Inspiration," winner of the Florida Film Festival's student documentary category.

He has also earned acclaim from studios with a screenplay adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, as well as his original screenplays From the Ashes (2004), "Sinkhole", and "Batman: Darknight", all written in cooperation with Stephen Wise. Both "Sinkhole" and From the Ashes (2004) have won several screenwriting competitions, including the BlueCat National Screenwriting Competition and the Writer's Digest National Writing Competition, and they are currently in the running at three others. His other writing credits include some Orlando Predators commercials; the pilot episode of an animated children's series entitled "Remnant"; and a couple of episodes of the syndicated series "SciFi Wasabi". Presently, he is in the process of writing two new features - "Bookwurm" and "The Hollow" - as well as the pilot for a new, reality TV series.

In addition to his creative abilities, Lee is heavily involved with his church and enjoys travel, cooking, reading, water-based sports, drawing, movies, theater, and gaming.

So, how did you get involved with a "Batman 5" project? It was called "Batman: Dark Knight," correct? Describe the premise of it if you can.

"The title was actually 'Batman: DarKnight,' as an additional homage to the made-for-TV vigilante movie, 'Dark Night of the Scarecrow.' We wanted to emphasize the Dark Knight, as well as the nature of our script-a dark night.

Bruce Wayne is in self-imposed seclusion from life, because he feels he has lost his greatest weapons in the fight against crime: his mystique and his enemies' fear. Dick Grayson attends Gotham University, trying to discover who he is apart from his guardian and unwilling to return as Robin without him. Meanwhile, Dr. Jonathan Crane uses his position as professor of psychology at Gotham University and as resident psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum to conduct his experiments in fear. During a vengeful confrontation with a colleague, Dr. Kirk Langstrom, Crane unknowingly initiates Kirk's transformation into the creature known as Manbat. The unsuspecting denizens of Gotham scream for Batman's head, believing the Manbat's nightly hunts to be the Dark Knight's bloodthirsty return to action. Bruce dons cowl and cape once more to clear his name and solve the mystery behind these attacks. Eventually, Dick ends up in Arkham Asylum under Crane's unsympathetic watch, Kirk struggles with his "'man vs. monster' syndrome as he longs to both reunite with his wife and get revenge on Crane, and Crane exacts revenge on those responsible for his dismissal from both Arkham and the university while encountering truths about his past."

Besides our inclusion of Manbat and using fear as a theme (like 'Batman Begins' did), I liked our treatment of the Scarecrow the best. Not only did he not employ goons to do his dirty work, but also he wasn't a wimp who just infected people with his toxin then sat back and enjoyed the show. He was very actively involved in their demise, employing grisly weapons such as a pitchfork, sickle, and scythe. He deployed his toxin by means other than just gas: throwing strands of straw laced with his "'fear-o-mones.' We also gave him a unique yet accurate origin whereby he was born without the ability to sense physical touch-a true scarecrow. Definitely not one of your 'over-the- top' villains.

During an unrelated pitch at Warner Bros., we-my writing partner, Stephen Wise, one of the creative execs, Greg Silverman, and myself- got on the topic of Batman; the fourth movie had been released in theaters the previous summer. We pitched an idea to return the story franchise to its dark roots, which they liked, but what really hooked them was our concept of including the Manbat as one of the antagonists. Within two or three months, we sent the first draft to Joel Schumacher's company, since he was still signed to direct at the time, as well as to Tom Lassally, who was then the director of development at Warner. Not too long after both parties received it, Joel was no longer slated to direct and Tom had left Warner. Soon afterwards, Lorenzo DiBonaventura, who was the president of worldwide theatrical production at Warner at the time, requested a copy of the script. We also sent it to Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan, who have been executive producers (because they own some of the rights to the property) on every Batman film. Lorenzo eventually passed the script along to Jeff Robinov, who replaced Tom as Batman's director of development. He is the one who finally passed on our script.

Now this was after "Batman Triumphant," correct? What - if anything - do you know about that project?

"Yes. 'Batman: Triumphant' was written by Mark Protosevich, and as far as I remember, involved the Scarecrow as its prime nemesis. Through the use of his fear gas, he caused Batman to confront his worst fear: the return of the Joker, which was just a device to make the film more marketable and once again lessened the Scarecrow's character. In addition to this, I believe Harley Quinn was in the movie and supposedly upset with Batman for killing her 'puddin,' even though she had never been introduced in the first movie (or since)."

How intent was Warner Bros. on getting Batman back on screen after "Batman and Robin?" And what do you know about that process?

"To the best of my knowledge, they were gung ho right after the release of 'Batman and Robin,' but that eagerness subsided over time in favor of making the right choice for the next installment. I don't think there ever was a time when they didn't want to make another movie, but I know there was a time when their eagerness and our desire to wait collided. We felt that the main thing the franchise, as well as our particular story, needed was distance from the last movie. Regardless of their decision, time did serve the franchise well."

They passed on our script sometime in late 2000, but as far as we know, ours was in the running the longest. I think there was one other story after ours but before Miller's and Aronofsky's 'Batman: Year One,' but Warner passed on both within a few months of their receipt. All in all, I think there were only 4-5 story ideas before 'Batman Begins,' which is a low ratio for Hollywood."

Have you seen "BATMAN BEGINS?" If so, what's your thoughts about the movie?

Yes, I have seen it twice, and I enjoyed it better the second time, mainly because my expectations were no longer a factor. Overall, I enjoyed it better than the previous four, mainly because it dealt with the subject matter in a serious, real world fashion. I loved the casting and the performances (except for Christian Bale's voice as Batman) and appreciated the use of non-CG special effects, as well as the lack of one-liners. Production-wise, I didn't care for the cinematography during the fight scenes, which didn't seem very choreographed. I also didn't enjoy the audio mixing because the dialogue was difficult to understand in several spots (luckily, I had already read the script).

Story-wise, my main gripe was with the Scarecrow. Not only was he underdeveloped as a character (no origin or motive), but he was treated like a pawn or story device. He was menacing for a time, but his departure was laughable. I liked that both antagonists were believable and not over-the-top, and I hope that future development is planned for both.

Also, I don't know if anyone else noticed this, but this particular storyline (wealthy man fed up with society flees it in search of something else, ends up in the Orient, trains under a mysterious master, returns to use his newfound abilities for good, ends up fighting a fellow trainee) was very similar to one in 'The Shadow' with Alec Baldwin."

How hard do you think it was to get people to the theater for a Batman film after "BATMAN AND ROBIN" was so bad?

"I think Warner's marketing has constantly misfired by using casting to bring in more people to see a Batman film; the worst offense of which was Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. Additionally, a franchise is best served when you don't cast a star; not only do stars demand higher salaries, which can squelch more important budget items (or sequel opportunities), but also they have a harder time becoming a character or at least being recognized as that character because they're already so big themselves. Batman is a known quantity that will probably draw crowds regardless of sporting name talent (either as cast or crew). I think people would have gone to see another Batman movie even if it had only been a year or two after 'Batman and Robin,' but the numbers wouldn't have been as big-at least at first- especially if the marketing hinted at the new film being anything like 'Batman and Robin.'

If the film is good, however, word will spread and people will come. Hollywood needs to learn that a film's success is not measured in opening weekend box office revenues, but in theatrical longevity. And story is the elixir that promotes that longevity.

Many people assumed that BEGINS was a "prequel" to the first four films. Was there anyway to avoid this?

"I don't recall too many people thinking that, but it makes sense given Hollywood's current trend of making prequels. Most adamant fans of the series, however, knew better because they have been following it (online or elsewhere) for years. You're never going to be able to completely avoid someone thinking something totally different than what you intended; that's the nature of art. If they still come to see your movie in the theater, however, then mission accomplished. Once they've seen it, they'll know better. Those who won't see it because they think it's a prequel either wouldn't see it regardless or will learn otherwise and eventually come too."

I agree totally. Now, many fans have criticized Warner (but not me - I think it was handled well) for how they marketed "BATMAN BEGINS." It was very low key. Any thoughts about that?

I am a huge fan of subtlety. I don't like hitting people over the head with things or sensationalism. I feel that marketing should complement rather than subvert the other areas of filmmaking, through whatever methods are appropriate to each film.

If by 'low key', people think there wasn't enough hype or advertising about "Batman Begins", then I think they're wrong; if they mean there wasn't enough shown, then I still think they're wrong. If you remember, the first Batman film relied primarily on the strength of The Bat logo over every other form of advertising and marketing. Yes, the stars were hyped, but the audience knew little to nothing about what to expect or what they were going to see.

Exactly. Lee, what do you have going on right now you would like to share with us?

"Beyond my ongoing pleasure to teach and mentor upcoming filmmakers in my 'regular' job, I am currently slated to edit an independent feature entitled 'The Magic Hour' which was written by my writing partner, Stephen Wise, and will be directed by him too. I also just finished writing the pilot episode for a new reality TV series and have been marketing a feature-length screenplay, 'From the Ashes,' to agencies and festivals; it has already won a few awards. I am also finishing another feature script entitled "The Hollow" as well as working on a teaser trailer for two different franchise properties that I can't speak about yet, though one of them is a Warner Bros. property. I hope to have the opportunity to write the script for either (or both) should their respective owners decide to adapt them into movies."

Thanks Lee! Fantastic stuff.

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