BATMAN ON FILM, 'The Dark Knight Fansite!' Est. 1998.

INTERVIEW

AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL USLAN - Part 2
DATE: November 11, 2005
Author: "Jett"


Michael Uslan

© Copyright 2005 William E. Ramey. All rights reserved.

Previously, we learned of Michael Uslan’s mission - if you will - to bring a dark and serious BATMAN film to theaters. A mission and process that proved to be a decade-long.

One of the biggest problems in bringing The Batman to the big screen was the mindset of the Hollywood execs in the late 70s and 80s - they just didn’t “get it.” To them, Batman was a goof, something from the “funny pages.”

And Uslan was not about to see Batman made a mockery of on the big screen.

JETT: How did you and Mr. Melniker pitch BATMAN?

MU: There was not term “franchise” like there is today. Ben and I used the idea that it was a “pre-sold” property. This is a property known all over the world to multiple generations. And if we do our job correctly, it will appeal to parents and grandparents who will share their experience with their children and grandchildren. For parents and grandparents it will be exciting and nostalgic, and for kids it will be exciting and new. And it would spawn sequels and animation and games and toys. And I was turned down by every studio in Hollywood. Every - Single - Studio.

The most common reason was “Oh come on Michael, no one has made a movie based on an old television series.” And I’d tell them that it wasn’t an old television series [laughs] - there’s a property underlying the whole thing! It was so hard to get through to that generation of studio execs. It was virtually impossible!

My two favorite rejections came from Columbia and my alma mater United Artists. At Columbia, the head of production said to me - shaking his head after I pitched my heart out - “Come on, Batman will never be a success as a film because our movie ANNIE didn’t do well.” I looked at this guy dumbfounded. And I asked him what did the little red-headed girl who sang “Tomorrow” have to do with Batman!? “And he said, “Michael, they are both out of the funny pages.”

JETT: Unbelievable!

MU: [Laughs] Now that was topped only by UA, where [laughs] an exec said to me that a film with Batman and Robin would never work as a film because ROBIN AND MARIANE wasn’t successful. Now that was about an aging Robin Hood and Maid Marian with Sean Connery! I just picked up all my materials, didn’t say a word and walked out of the room.

JETT: [Laughs] How close did we come to having the BATMAN movie be a big screen version of the 60s TV show? You know, there were rumors for years that Bill Murray was up for the role of Batman at one time. I know my fear back then was that was what we’d end up getting, you know. That’s what I thought was happening when I first heard that Michael Keaton had been cast back in ‘88!

MU: Bill, this was the stuff - and I use the word carefully - that I fought against all the time. All the time. When we first set it [BATMAN], we set it up at Casablanca Records. Which had just started a film division with Peter Guber and his partner Neal Bogart. And Ben [Melniker] had known Peter years back. In fact, Ben had interviewed Peter wanted to hire him to work [as an exec] at MGM when Ben was heading up that studio. Anyway, Ben said Peter Guber is a lot younger than these other execs we’ve been dealing with. He’s more hip and he may get this new approach we were looking to do [with Batman]. Peter says “Yeah, I get this - a dark, serious Batman. Come on out.” So we were out there in a couple of days, did the whole pitch in person, and he said “OK, let’s do this.”

Then the battles began to preserve what we had been trying to do - which was to create a comic book movie unlike any other comic book movie that had ever been done. Focusing on a character unlike any character in other comic book movies. This battle lasted for nearly twenty years - not just with BATMAN, but other things [comic book movies] as well.

As we all know, BATMAN finally ended up back at Warner Bros. Sam Hamm was brought in once Tim Burton was on board as director to work on the screenplay that would eventually become BATMAN.

The biggest controversy was the casting of The Batman himself. If you were around back then, you'll remember the absolutely HUGE backlash that Warner Bros. and the filmmakers received when it was announced that Michael Keaton would play Batman.

JETT: Michael Keaton as Batman.

MU: I get a call from one of our execs from [Warner Bros.] one day. And this is right after we hired Jack Nicholson. In fact, if you go back to my seventeen page original memo I wrote in the beginning of 1980, that we were using as our “creative blueprint,” I had put in there that Jack Nicholson was the only one who could possibly play The Joker. So when Nicholson was hired it was one of the greatest days of my life - I was walking on air.

So anyway, I get this call from this studio exec and he says, “So Michael, what do think about Tim’s [Burton] idea that Michael Keaton play Batman. And I laughed - “Mr. Mom as Batman, very funny” I said. Seriously, it took him over twenty minutes before he could convince me he that he wasn’t just playing some kind of joke on me. And probably like you, I went haywire. [Laughs] I went crazy. I spent all these years striving to do a dark and serious BATMAN, we got Nicholson - how could this be?

Well, ultimately the genius of Tim Burton reared its head. And he explained to me why. He said “Michael, you wanted to see a serious BATMAN right? Do you agree with me with the signing of Jack Nicholson, we can’t go with an unknown like they did in SUPERMAN - Nicholson would wipe the screen with the guy.” And I agreed. Tim said, “I don’t know how to take any of today’s ‘serious actor’ and put them in the Bat-suit to fight crime without getting unintentional laughs” Back then, we would be talking about Dennis Quaid. Kevin Costner. Harrison Ford.


Michael Keaton - The first "serious" Batman


Michael Keaton, Tim Burton on the set of BATMAN

BATMAN 1989
BATMAN (1989)

So Tim says, “But what I do know, having worked with Michael Keaton on BEETLEJUICE, that with Keaton on board, we can create a portrait of Bruce Wayne that is do driven, so obsessed, so consumed to the point of being psychotic, I KNOW I can get an audience to suspend its belief. They’ll believe that he can dress up as a bat and go out and fight crime.”

Well, the first thing he had to do was prove to me that he [Keaton] was a serious actor. They then set up a screening for Ben [Melniker] and myself of CLEAN AND SOBER. I came out of it saying, “OK, absolutely, I take it all back. The guy’s a great serious actor. BUT [laughs], the guy’s about my height [laughs]. He doesn’t look like Bruce Wayne. He doesn’t have a square jaw. And again the genius of Tim Burton. He says, “Michael, a square jaw does not a Batman make.” And you know what, that’s hard for a comic book geek like me to swallow, but it was so utterly, utterly, true.

Tim also said in order to make this work, Gotham City has to be the third most important character in the movie. From the opening frame of the film, the audience must totally believe in Gotham City. If they believe in Gotham City, they’ll believe that there could be a Batman fighting The Joker. And it was the genius of Anton Furst who brought Gotham alive.

[Historically], BATMAN is the Bob Kane/Bill Finger of Batman of 1939. BATMAN BEGINS is the best Batman movie. BATMAN was revolutionary. When you discuss the BATMAN films, you must always talk about that first film in context to the time it came out, I mean it was totally revolutionary. And it impacted - and will impact - comic book and genre movies for decades.

Michael Keaton's portrayal of THE Batman was excellent and Anton Furst's Gotham City was indeed a place the audience believed in. Just as Mr. Uslan had dreamed, BATMAN turned out to be a comic book film unlike any before it. The hype that surrounded BATMAN‘s release in the summer of 1989 was unique, and has yet to this day been duplicated, in this author's opinion.

Michael Uslan had achieved his goal of getting a dark and serious BATMAN film made. Not only did it usher in the summer “blockbuster” and "event movie," but it changed what a “comic book movie” was forever. Without BATMAN, there would not have been a SPIDER-MAN, X-MEN, HELLBOY, SIN CITY, or even a BATMAN BEGINS.

The success of BATMAN did spawn sequels - 3 in fact - just as Mr. Uslan predicted when he originally pitched the project to Hollywood studios.

NEXT: Mr. Uslan talks about the fall, and the subsequent rebirth of the BATMAN franchise thanks to BATMAN BEGINS.

GO TO PART 3

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