It was the summer of 1989 and I wasn’t expecting much when my Dad and I arrived at the Odeon Marble Arch in London to be greeted by a large black and gold Bat symbol in the lobby.
For a young kid pre-Internet with no reason to read the trade press, not much was known about the new big-budget ‘Batman’, which had been directed by tyro Tim Burton and starred the unlikely Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader.
Two hours later and I was exhilarated, confused and scared. Exactly what you want from a comic book blockbuster. I bought a T-shirt, the Prince concept album, though decided I was a little too old for an action figure.
Of course, it could all have gone spectacularly wrong. Executive producer Michael Uslan had wanted to return Batman to his ‘Dark Knight’ roots since 1979. The studio bought the idea early on, mainly thanks to the success of the first ‘Superman’ in 1977. While superhero films weren’t the norm back then, producers realised that in the DC comic book stable, there was money to be had.
Early directors courted for the job included Joe Dante (‘Gremlins’) and Ivan Reitman (‘Ghostbusters’). All the while, the spectre of the camp Sixties series hung over the development process. “We were talking at one point about Bill Murray as Batman and Eddie Murphy as Robin,” remembered screenwriter Sam Hamm.
But it wasn’t until a then-27-year-old Tim Burton was brought in for a lunch meeting at Warner Bros. in July 1985 that things started to take shape. The studio wanted Burton for ‘Batman’ but he was still relatively untested, especially with a massive budget. He started working on a script with Hamm, but it wasn’t until ‘Beetlejuice’ became a box office hit that they really knew he could do it.
First though, they had to find their Batman. “The choice of Michael Keaton caused uproar at the time,” remembers Robert Wuhl, who played reporter Alexander Knox in the film. “The Ben Affleck thing was nothing compared to Keaton.”
“When they hung me in effigy, that was, for me, harsh,” joked Keaton subsequently.
But Burton knew he had his man. “He doesn’t look like a superhero,” said the director. “He looks like a guy who would need to dress up like a bat for effect.”
Emulating the casting of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, the filmmakers then set about getting a megastar to play the villain. Jack Nicholson was top of the list to play the Joker. To convince the actor, Burton went with producer Peter Guber to Aspen to meet the actor. Jack said they should all go riding. Burton didn’t want to, but was told by Guber that he had to. “It was a surreal moment,” said Burton.
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It worked for Nicholson and he signed on. It was an inspired choice. Though charming and witty, Nicholson revealed the inner sociopath in the character, just like Heath Ledger did years later. Said Jack: “I took this performance more seriously than anybody in the world.”
He was joined by Michael Gough as Alfred, Jack Palance as another baddie and Wuhl joined as Knox. Kim Basinger was a last-minute addition after Sean Young, who had been cast as journalist Vicki Vale, fell off a horse during pre-production.
But what marked out Burton’s film as a watershed for comic book superhero movies? Firstly, he pre-empted Christopher Nolan’s dark take on the character by 15 years. And frankly, Nolan’s version is nothing on the 1989 film.
The cast and crew wouldn’t see daylight for days on end thanks to shooting through the night during an English winter at Pinewood. Production designer Anton Furst – who won an Oscar for his work and killed himself not long after – made Gotham decrepit and nightmarish. Nicholson’s facial prosthetics had an air of the ‘V For Vendetta’ mask about them.
The final act of the movie was changed after Nicholson and producer Jon Peters went to see ‘Phantom Of The Opera’ and decided the ending of ‘Batman’ needed to take place on the roof of a tower. “[Screenwriter] Warren Skaaren came onto set [to rewrite the ending],” says Wuhl now. “My character died in the original draft. I was thrilled when they kept me alive!”
Even more impressive was the studio’s marketing campaign. It was one of the first movies to release on thousands of screens across the country. While the modern blockbuster had been born with ‘Jaws’ and subsequently ‘Star Wars’, the way in which ‘Batman’ merchandise flooded shops turned it into a cultural touchstone.
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Said exec producer Michael Uslan, “It’s hard now to explain just how unique the anticipation was for ‘Batman’.”
“Watching the marketing come together, you saw the machine at work,” says Wuhl.
A 30-second trailer was cut together to show audiences that this wasn’t anything like the Batman they remembered from TV. “I remember seeing the trailer for the first time at a multiplex and seeing the reaction,” recalls Wuhl.
People stole the posters and gave standing ovations to the preview footage. Prince’s album – he had written so many songs that they ended up releasing a full-length record on top of the tunes used in the film – sold three million copies in America alone.
Yet the reason why ‘Batman’ really succeeded is quite simple. “I think it’s a good movie,” says Robert Wuhl. “Tim Burton brought his vision to a new generation. And timing is so important – all the elements came together.”
As for me, I had bad dreams about the Joker for months afterwards. Meanwhile, my friends and I would say, “ever dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight?” before giving each other dead arms.
And if I ever felt I needed him, I would hear Danny Elfman’s swelling score in my head and glance up in the hope of seeing a Bat signal. Occasionally, I still look.
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Photos: Rex/Moviestore/Press Association