AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL USLAN - Part 1
DATE: November 8, 2005
© Copyright 2005 William E. Ramey. All rights reserved.
As a young child, I absolutely loved the 60s “BATMAN” TV series which starred Adam West in the title role. I thought it was serious, dead serious. Of course, this when I was around five - give or take a few years. As I’ve said previously, I credit this old TV show with being the reason that I’ve been such a big Batman fan my entire life. Also, it led to my fascination with the live-action depiction of the character.
As the 1970s arrived, I became a serious comic book reader. And by far, the majority of my comic books were those starring The Batman - “BATMAN,” “DETECTIVE,” “BRAVE AND THE BOLD,” “BATMAN FAMILY,” and others. The Batman I cut my teeth on in the comic books of the 70s was not the same character that was featured in the 60s TV series. I preferred this dark and serious Batman - The Dark Knight - compared to the campy, pot-bellied, Adam West version.
In December 1978 I went to a local theater to see SUPERMAN: THE MOVE. This film blew me away and it remains one of my favorite all-time films to this day. But even though it has been almost 30 years since I sat in that theater and watched Christopher Reeve’s classic portrayal of the Man of Steel, I clearly remember thinking “They have to do this for Batman!”
Fast forward a decade plus to June of 1989. Again I am sitting in a darkened theater watching another comic book character brought to life. But this time, it was my comic book character - my childhood hero was getting his due on the big screen in the excellent, Tim Burton-directed BATMAN.
Over the next eight years, I found myself in theaters for three Bat-sequels. During this span, we saw two directors at the helm and three different actors put on the cape and cowl as the Bat-franchise went steadily down the tubes. Through it all, the definitive BATMAN film had yet to be made. As good as BATMAN was in ‘89, the character had yet to have his SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE produced. Would the gosh-awful and insulting BATMAN AND ROBIN be it for The Batman on film?
Then came 2005 and BATMAN BEGINS. Thanks to Christopher Nolan, David Goyer, Christian Bale and company, The Batman finally got his definitive live-action film. And arguably, he is the focus of the greatest comic book based movie of all time.
But while we throw out accolades to Nolan, Burton, Keaton, Bale, and others, there is someone else that we need to tip our hat to. The man who I believe is the “Godfather” - if you will - of the BATMAN movie franchise.
The story of finally getting a Batman movie made is a fascinating one at that. It was not as easy as one may believe. In fact, it was a process that took well over a decade. So to tell the story, we have to go back a good deal of time and then progress forward to 1989.
JETT: So, you were always a Batman fan?
MU: Yes. When I was young, it was my dream to write “Batman” comic books. I identified strongly with the character. He had no superpowers and had the greatest rouges gallery. When I was eight, nine, ten years old, I always thought that if I studied and worked out real hard and I got the right car, I could do this - I could be Batman.
JETT: That's it! BOF received a lot of press around the time of BATMAN BEGINS, and I told all those guys the same thing! You always thought that maybe YOU could be Batman. Anyway, I know you worked for DC COMICS writing Batman stories. How did you get involved with producing a live-action BATMAN film?
MU: It was like an epiphany. It just hit me: “I want to make the definitive, dark, serious version of Batman - the way Bob Kane and Bill Finger had envisioned him in 1939. A creature of the night; stalking criminals in the shadows." And that became it, that became my focal point. If I knew then [laughs], how long it would have taken me to get that first picture done [BATMAN (1989)], I don’t know what I would have done. But that’s when everything started.
I went to see the president of DC COMICS - who I believe was Sol Harrison at the time - and I said “I want to do this.” And he looked at me like I was crazy. And Sol had mentored me into the [comic book] business, and I was very close to him. And he said “Michael, Batman is as dead as a dodo” - and that’s a quote - “since it went off on TV.” He says to me, “No one is interested in Batman. The only interest has been from CBS who wanted to know if the rights were available because they wanted to do a BATMAN IN OUTER SPACE movie." I said “Sol, I really believe I can do this.” He then advised me to go get credentials, and when I had the credentials, come back and see him. He assured me that in the meantime, no one would take the rights to Batman.
That’s when I went out and finished law school. I got a job working for United Artists as a motion picture studio attorney. And it was my almost four years at UA…where I learned how to produce movies. And where I met all the people in the business - agents and studio execs and entertainment lawyers, writers, directors, stars. So, it was the greatest training in the world. It was almost like graduate school
So I went back to Sol and said, “ OK, I want to do this.” Sol said, “OK, come on and I’ll introduce you to the guy you need to talk to." And that’s how the process began. Sol played a large role in getting Batman movie thing started and his contribution should be acknowledged.
JETT: The Tom Mankiewicz script [THE BATMAN]. How long was it the basis for the movie?
MU: Well, you got to go back to before the beginning. When I first landed the rights to Batman, it was about April of 1979. And the biggest impact in the field [comic book movies] at that time was the James Bond franchise - and by that I mean the more serious movies with Sean Connery - and SUPERMAN: THE MOVE. Tom Mankeiwicz was responsible for a couple of the greatest James Bond films. Beforehand, when we were just starting optioning the picture, we had conversations with Richard Maibaum. We talked to Guy Hamilton, who was a major Bond director. And those things were a great influence at the time. And Tom Mankeiwicz not only had a prominent role in many Bond films, but he also had a prominent role in SUPERMAN. So Tom was the most obvious of all the “superstar” writers of that time to talk to about formulating BATMAN.
But when he started writing - which would have been around 1980 - from my point of view, with BATMAN, we had the opportunity to create something different. To do the kind of “comic book movie” that had never been done before - a dark, serious, much more realistic approach. And Bill, it’s the same reason we were both drawn to Batman - I don't mean to speak for you but I think we're pretty much the same. We loved him as a kid because he had no super powers. His greatest super power is his humanity.
JETT: Exactly. That’s exactly right. He’s just a tremendous character.
MU: Yes he is. And he also has the greatest villains. That’s the reason certain superheroes survive the longest - they have best villains. And that is certainly another strong point for Batman.
Well, going back to the beginning, people - in the Hollywood community - weren’t understanding what I was saying [about a dark, serious BATMAN film]. “Batman is a pot-bellied funny guy with ‘Pows, Zaps, and Whams. It’s silliness. “ And I’d tell them “No it’s not.” They couldn’t get it. Even when I showed them [the dark Batman comic books - old and current]. And those were the only ones I showed Tim Burton - I only let Tim see the original year of the Bob Kane/Bill Finger run, up until the time that Robin was introduced. I showed him the Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers and the Neal Adams/Denny O'Neil stories. My biggest fear was that somehow Tim would get hold of the campiest Batman comics and then where would we be?
So I sat down and worked with a friend of mine on a script titled RETURN OF THE BATMAN - I’ve never talked about this before. This was in - whoa - this was still in the 70s. I wanted to do it not because this was what the film would be, but to give people some idea of just what the hell I was talking about! It really was about ten years before “The Dark Knight Returns” - it was that sort of approach to it. And that helped me convince a few people in Hollywood what I was trying to accomplish.
But the fact of the matter, by the time I acquired the rights to the character with my partner Ben Melniker - who is a legend in the motion picture business - it took us time to raise the money privately that we needed, and on October 3, 1979 we formed BATFILM PRODUCTIONS, INC. And acquired the rights to Batman.
And I was so sure that every studio in Hollywood was going to line up at my door to do BATMAN.
But to Mr. Uslan's surprise, that certainly was not to be the case!
NEXT: Mr. Uslan talks about the continuing struggle to get a serious BATMAN made and how it finally came to fruition. Plus, how Tim Burton convinced him Michael Keaton could and should play The Batman.