THE ONE THAT CHANGED THE BLOCKBUSTER BUSINESS
THE SUMMER OF 1989 saw madness erupt all over the globe, and it was all thanks to a nocturnal mammal. “It was crazy, weird and bizarre,” says Sam Hamm, co-writer of Tim Burton’s Batman and one of the people responsible for the ensuing Batmania. “There’s nothing you could do but disassociate from it. To be honest, I found it kind of scary. I was grateful when things calmed down a little bit.”
The project, a fresh big-screen spin on the 1930s-created Caped Crusader, had been in development throughout the ’70s and ’80s, nobody quite sure how to make it work. CBS considered shooting a film where Batman went into space. Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy were, at one point, suggested for Batman and Robin. Peter O’Toole was in talks to play the Penguin. Then a gawky, geeky director named Tim Burton took the mantle, and things finally started slotting into place. Hamm, drafted in to put Burton’s dark but whimsical vision on the page, had a good feeling from the off. “I truly thought that Batman was ready to erupt as a phenomenon,” he says. “For a couple of years before the picture came out, you could not go down Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles without seeing young hipsters wearing Batman gear. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns had just started coming out as Tim and I got together. It was just this sort of presence in the air.”
Even so, there were hiccups. The casting of Michael Keaton drew the ire of furious fans, who had been promised a moody film, an antidote to the camp ’60s Batman — then told the actor who would be suiting up was Mr. Mom. “I admit, when I first heard the name Michael Keaton, I thought, ‘Really?!’” admits Hamm. “But when I thought about it for 15 minutes, I started to see it, because the deal is you don’t cast Batman — you cast Bruce Wayne.” The writing process was complicated by Warner Bros. executives insisting Robin be crowbarred into the script (“Tim and I spent a weekend at my house in San Francisco wearing out the carpet with our pacing, trying to figure it out,” Hamm recalls) before the notion was dropped for budgetary reasons. And the casting of the Joker, the movie’s Big Bad, turned into a headbanging protracted affair, with everyone from John Lithgow to Brad Dourif going for the role.
Early on in the process, Batman co-creator Bob Kane had sent Burton and Hamm a set of notes on their script: enclosed in the package was a photo of Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining, his face and hair painted white and green by Kane. The comics legend’s vision would, in the end, be realized, with Nicholson secured after much negotiation. And as the cameras rolled, it quickly became apparent that he and Keaton were perfectly matched. “Nicholson plays it as if he’s a vaudevillian who has contempt for his audience, and just wants to amuse himself,” extolls Hamm. “But it’s Keaton’s weight that allows him to go off the way he does.”
Batman hit big. In fact, it hit huge, making $412 million globally (enormous money at the time) and spawning a Prince soundtrack and endless merchandise (including Batman breakfast food, making him the first superhero to get both a serial and a cereal). “There was Bat-shit everywhere,” its writer laughs. “I felt like Bruce Wayne that summer because I would look at it all and nod my head, but I couldn’t say, ‘That’s me! I’m Batman!’ One day I saw a house eight blocks from mine, whose owner had painted the façade black and had a Bat-signal on the garage. And I thought, ‘This has gone too far.’ A lot of our constituency was seriously cracked.”
The entire affair rocked Hollywood and set the scene for the superhero-movie domination to come. Burton’s philosophy, taking these characters seriously and delving into their psychologies, would be pushed further by Christopher Nolan, although The Dark Knight would sadly fail to feature henchmen with matching Joker-jackets. Warner Bros.’ blizzard of merch would be repeated, and intensified, with subsequent Bat-movies featuring numerous changes of costumes in order to justify extra action figures.
Most of all, it proved that even the mustiest comic-book could be transformed, with the right filmmaker behind the wheel, into a four-quadrant blockbuster event. “Audiences now get to see in widescreen and color and surround sound the most extravagant action sequences that you could have imagined when you were a child paging through a 15-cent comic book,” Hamm says. “Batman happened to come along and demonstrate that there was an appetite for that kind of material. And so now that’s the world we’re living in.” NICK DE SEMLYEN
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THE ONE THAT MADE US ALL WANT TO BE GANGSTERS
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