History has proven that, as a character, Batman is somewhat malleable. While a gritty, serious take on the character continues to be the flavor of the day, Batman has a silly side as well as evidenced by the 1960s Adam West TV show, the wackiness of silver age comics, and even the upcoming LEGO Batman Movie. But even on the more ‘serious’ end of the spectrum, there’s room for variety, and nailing down who your Batman is is an important first step for storytellers.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with some members of the action team that worked on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – specifically Second Unit Director Damon Caro and Visual Effects Supervisors John ‘D.J.’ Des Jardin and Bryan Hirota – and got to know a little bit about who the Caped Crusader is to them.
This is an excerpt from a larger interview. Look for the full interview later this week.
Before we started, you were mentioning the martial arts influence of what you brought to the way Batman moves in the movie. What were some of the other influences? I know a lot of people have talked about the recent series of video games – the Batman: Arkham games – because they’re a common reference point, and it’s somewhat similar to what you guys are doing. Was that a reference point, or do you think they were just pulling from some of the same things you were pulling from?
Damon Caro: You know, I’ve never played the game. I used to have more time to play games, but the last one I really delve into was Halo in the early 2000s, but I generally look at story and character and that guides me on how to choreograph, and stylistically what makes sense for this specific character. So, for Batman, I’ve been a fan for years obviously, so I certainly had, in my own head, had visions of how he would move, the sort of power and limitations – he doesn’t have superpowers, but what his training gave him – his strength training and his martial arts training- so everything was done from sort of an organic kindling of, “okay, let me feel what he’s like, let me think about this, let’s read the script, let’s talk with Zack [Snyder], and let’s come up with it that way. I generally don’t look at other things and then try and interject them or imitate them. Clearly I’m made up of my past experiences, my main instructor was Dan Inosanto, so obviously I have a huge influence from him and he’s in The Game of Death with Bruce Lee, so I’m going to have some of those leanings. I’m a fan of The Road Warrior, I’m a fan of Big Trouble in Little China, I’m a fan of all these various movies. There are influences ingrained in me, plus my martial arts training and years of stunt work, etcetera, so I bring all of that, but I really just try to feel and have it be more intuitive and then I wouldn’t say we wouldn’t run across something cinematic and go, “oh wow! That’s interesting!” That’d be something to try, but I never sort of look at other things and then try to imitate them there. I have heard other people suggest that, I’ve heard the relationship or comparison to the game, and that’s flattering because it wasn’t set out that way, but that’s cool how we just all have – it’s just sort of the universal consciousness that true fans know how they want this character to move and we just met at the same place through two different paths up the mountain, so to speak. Have you played the games?
Yeah, I played the first two. I didn’t play the most recent one, but I enjoyed the first two. They’re quite a bit of fun.
Caro: And you would say there’s similarities in it as well?
Yeah! The way it works in the game, it’s called the free-flow combat system, and where a lot of times game fighting can feel very clunky where you go up to one guy and punch him, then you have to run over to another guy and punch him, but they are able to very seamlessly string together the animations so you can be on one side of the room punching a goon and then a guy will come up behind you with a crowbar or something and Batman will flip around and grab the crowbar and slam it to the ground, and as you continue to build up these moves, Batman is able to leap further distances and cover more ground. It’s very clever.
Caro: Yeah a lot of love and a lot of care – with everything we do – but especially this one because this is where we really get to see Batman do his thing.
Sure, and as a fan, like you mentioned, I’m sure that was just so much fun to get to play around in that world. And in the grand scheme of the movie, what stands out about working on the warehouse versus the rest of the film? It comes at a sort of turning point after Batman reconciles with Superman, they realize their mothers share the same name and they’re able to make this connection and for the first time in the movie, Batman is acting more like the classic Batman we know and not someone motivated purely out of vengeance. How did that change the way you approached the scene versus other scenes in the movie?
John ‘D.J.’ Des Jardin: From my point of view, I was excited about it, and I think Damon and Bryan were too. It was like the first time that we’ve ever really seen Batman and I think it’s kind of our vision for the classic Frank Miller Dark Knight Returns Batman. It’s the first time we’ve ever seen him fight other than the Michael Keaton movie from 1989.
Bryan Hirota: That’s not exactly true because Christian Bale did fight Bane for about forty five seconds.
D.J.: No, no, I don’t count any of that. There’s so little of that. And I actually like those movies, but when we got to doing this scene that’s when you realized, “Holy shit, he really hasn’t fought like the Batman who knows all these different fighting styles and an bring them all to bare.” We’ve never seen him do that and prove that he’s this thing to be feared. Anyone who’s going to do something wrong in the world, you’ve got to be afraid because it could turn into this. So thematically, this was the first that was exciting about that scene, and visual effects wise, It was not an overt visual effects scene. There’s a lot of stuff in that scene, and because Damon and me being able to work a lot in the past. It was fun to break down from that point of view, because we know we don’t want a change here because it’s going to inhibit the performance. Let the visual effects support the beauty of the choreography in the fight itself. It’s not like the Doomsday fight where they’re fighting a CG character. Therefore, I think, in a lot of ways it’s a lot more fun, and it’s also sort of the breadth and depth of the movie as a whole. Effects wise, special effects wise, visual effects wise, stunt effects wise, it’s a very rich movie that way and this scene showcases that richness.
Yeah, it has a little bit of everything in it.
D.J.: I keep forgetting that we even had to extend the set because the set ran out. It’s been a while since I’ve looked at it like that. But Bryan’s got a good side-by-side. It’s pretty cool. It’s fun to see the stunt-vis side-by-side.
Caro: I would say, of all the action sequences in that film, this is the one that’s held in the highest regard.
Yeah, I think that one stands out about the rest of the movie for a number of reasons. Like you were saying, it’s the first time we really get to see Batman in that way in live action, not to mention the way it comes at such a crucial turning point. Even more so than the previous scene, it’s the emotional lynchpin of the whole picture. It’s the point where these guys have talked about working together, but now we get to see what that actually means, and what this Batman’s like when he’s fighting for somebody else.
Caro: Yeah, it’s great that you brought that up because I couldn’t agree more. The moment is so pivotal; the fact that Superman trusts him when he says “Martha won’t die tonight.” There’s that moment where he looks at him, and he has to trust that he means what he says. And there’s that moment he recognizes, “This is something much bigger than my own concerns and my own fear,” and that’s why that desperation and that drive that we tried to put in it. I’m glad it came across because that was the desired goal. There is a passion and a ferocity and a he-will-not-fail attitude that blasts through that.
So what was each of your first exposure to Batman? Did you start with the comics, or did you get into the old Adam West show?
Caro: I think the Adam West show was almost the same time. I don’t collect comics anymore, but I used to as a kid, and I’ve never stopped being a fan of them, but I used to collect them, so it was probably simultaneous. I started collecting at, like, six-years-old. And the Adam West show was awesome, and I used to draw, and he was a great character to draw, and I used to always draw these DC versus Marvel posters with them all lined up, facing off. And he was always such an interesting character because, like I said, he doesn’t have the superpowers that Wonder Woman has, that Spider-Man has. He’s an interesting case study, and you can do so much more with him. Superman can punch you and just the wind from his punch would probably kill most humans. Batman is someone you can do a lot with in live action still because of his limits.
Right, and the character is so versatile as evidenced by the fact that we have so many different takes on him. You’ve got Adam West, you’ve got the Burton ones, you’ve got Christopher Nolan, and now you’ve got LEGO Batman.
Hirota: Damon was calling Batman America’s MacBeth. You’ve got so many takes on it, he strikes a chord with everybody in different ways. I grew up watching the Adam West show and loved it, and sometime in high school, when The Dark Knight Returns came out – I don’t even know how I got my hands on it, I think my brother bought it – but I remember reading it and it melted my brain because everyone had comic books, I’m not a big collector like D.J., D.J.’s a huge collector, but I liked Iron Man, I liked Batman. Sort of the more human characters is what I was drawn to. But when I first read Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, it really changed my mind about what comic books could be. Because it was very serious, and the Cold War-
Caro: It was very poignant at that time.
Hirota: You read it now, and it’s just whatever, but at the time that was a real thing. Like when The Day After aired on TV, it freaked everybody out. Everyone figured we were going to be nuked.
I mean, current political climate, who knows? I was just recently up at New Beverly and they were showing Dr. Strangelove, and boy, that takes on a whole different feeling post-election.
Caro: But that was the serious tone that that struck. And Miller succeeded in changing that.
It was definitely a seminal moment.
Hirota: And then he wrote Year One, which I thought was awesome also. It sort of touched on Batman at the end of his life, and then it went back to the beginning of his life, and I thought it was great.
Caro: And we were clearly inspired from The Dark Knight Returns. BvS was its own thing, but clearly there were influences of the caption and the story and what he brought to it.
Hirota: And Zack’s desire for the look of it.
Caro: 100%. I have no doubt.