I Like Bats: Producer Michael Uslan Remembers Batman ’89 And The Alternate Films That Could Have Been [Interview]
Michael Uslan's name may not be known to most comic book fans, but he is probably one of the most important figures in the cinematic history of superheroes. He obtained the film rights to Batman in the late 1970s, spent ten years fighting to bring a project to fruition, and since the completion of Batman '89 twenty-five years ago has been credited as producer or executive producer on every major cinematic Bat-project since (including Batman: The Animated Series, Mask Of The Phantasm, the Christopher Nolan trilogy of Dark Knight blockbusters, and the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice film). He's a life-long comic fan, a pop-cultural historian, a conversationalist, and an author (his memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman, is an essential read for anyone interested in comics and comic-influenced media).
As the man largely responsible for Batman '89 existing at all, there's no person better suited to tell not just the story of the film's production, but the long and winding path the project had taken over the preceding decade on its way to success. But besides the unusual story behind Uslan's relationship with the Dark Knight on film, the producer told us about his broader goals for Batman and comic books in general, which went far beyond simply making a successful motion picture.
ComicsAlliance: So let's start with a bit of prehistory. It took you a decade to get Batman on the big screen. How did you obtain the rights in the first place?
Michael Uslan: Well, you're asking the right question – how does a kid in his twenties buy the rights to Batman? Do you want the unglamorous truth, or would you like the stuff that legends are made of? The answer, truthfully, is nobody else on the planet earth wanted them. When I went in to do this, I went to see Sol Harrison, who was originally Production Manager at DC Comics, and then later became Vice President and President of DC Comics. Sol had mentored me into the comic book business. He called me after he saw me on TV, when I was teaching the world's first accredited college course on comic books at Indiana University, and he said that Carmine Infantino and he had seen me on TV and were reading about me in newspapers. They thought what I was doing was wonderful for the whole comic book industry, and asked if they could fly me to New York to talk about ways we could work together. So this fanboy geek totally went crazy – I mean, DC Comics for God's sake!
They flew me out there with my girlfriend, and offered me a job where they would have me working there summers, and then they would put me on a retainer when I went back to college. It was Sol who mentored me there, and that led ultimately to my writing The Shadow, and then – the dream I'd had since I was eight years old – writing Batman. And when I started writing Batman, I realized my dream had come true, and I needed a new dream!
And that was when I remembered a night in about 8th grade, a cold January night when the Batman TV show came on the air. There was nobody in America more excited, waiting in more anticipation for it, and when it came on, I was both thrilled and horrified by what I was seeing. I was thrilled that Batman was on TV, the car was cool, everything was great, but then I realized that the whole world was laughing at Batman. He was being played as a joke. And that was [the world's] one and only reference point for Batman back then. And that kind of killed me.
So from that moment on, my goal was to show the world what the dark and serious Batman was, that was created in 1939 by Bob [Kane] and Bill [Finger] and expanded on by Jerry [Robinson]… And try to erase these words "POW", "ZAP", and "WHAM" from the world culture.
And this was my moment. I explained it to Sol and said, "I want to buy the rights to Batman and make dark and serious movies" and he was shocked and upset. He said "Michael, please don't do that. I don't want to see you lose your money…you have to understand, the brand is dead. Since [the TV show] went off the air, nobody is interested in Batman anymore." And I said, "But Sol, if I do it the dark and serious way, nobody's ever seen a comic book or superhero movie like that – it'll almost be like a new form of entertainment."
He said, "Is there any way I can talk you out of this?" And I said, "No." And that led to a six-month negotiation. I, in the interim, found the greatest partner in the world in Ben Melniker who is a legend in the movie business – he started with MGM in late 1939 – and on October 3rd, 1979, we acquired the rights to Batman. I quit my job, I went out to Hollywood not knowing many people at all, having no relatives in the business and not coming from money, and had every door slammed in my face. Every single studio told me that I was crazy, that it was the worst idea they'd ever heard… And that began what would become the ten-year human endurance contest that I had (which I detail in my memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman). But that was a rough, tough ten years of everybody telling you how lousy you are and how bad your ideas are. It really tests your mettle as a human.
CA: So in that era, up until Batman: From The 30s To The 70s was published, aside from occasional reprints in annuals, there wasn't a lot to go on so far as reprints. There weren't omnibuses or archive editions reprinting classic stories, and certainly no digital comics. How were you able to go back and explore this history and discover the classic Golden Age Batman stories to properly learn the history of the character you were so passionate about?
MU: Well, this is a great question, because people lose the context of the times as history keeps moving forward… Jules Feiffer's book The Great Comic Book Heroes was the keystone for all of us who loved comics. And it was our first true look through a time tunnel back to the Golden Age of comics, with the reprints in that book, the way he described it – that was what set all of us off. And at the same time, circa 1963-1964, fandom was really beginning to organize. And fanzines were beginning to be mimeographed and published to a couple of hundred people at a time. And there was no Internet, there were no comic-cons, and we started to get in touch with each other. I lived in a void for most of my childhood – it wasn't until 5th Grade that I found one kid in my class, Bobby Klein, who also loved comic books. I thought I was the only kid in the universe that was so into it. I had no idea there were other people like me out there.
So that's the context of the time. In conjunction with that, we had a place that was a flea market near us. And every Friday night, the the guy who ran the magazine stand would come in with box after box, and pour out comic books onto a broken-down card table. And because these comic books were so old, he figured they had no value. So rather than sell them for 10 cents or 12 cents, what I was paying on the stands as I bought all the new stuff, these were 5 cents apiece. And that's where I got Mad #1-23, that's where I got Superman #2, Plastic Man #1, Captain Marvel #1, Archie #2, and basically filled out my entire collection. So when I finished high school I had well over 30,000 comic books, dating back to 1936. So that's how you filled in the gaps. They were accessible, they were cheap, the old 1930s/'40s/'50s comic books.
And Feiffer's book was critical, and the emergence of the new fanzines that had lots of articles on the history of comics – these were all the eye-openers, these were what got us excited, and this was what really gave birth to fandom, to the first comic-con, which was 50 years ago, this July… And it was exciting and wonderful to be there at the time and be within striking distance of New York, so I could visit the comic book companies, so I could interview all the creators who lived in the area, and attend the first comic-con.
CA: Before the Tim Burton iteration of Batman started to take shape, what was the closest you'd come to realizing this dream of a big screen Batman? In an alternate history, what other Batman movies could we have seen?
MU: Well, it started out where, when we got the rights in '79, the only real big action franchise was James Bond, and we were using Bond as the model for what could be. So the first writer and director that we approached were my favorite Bond writer and Bond director, Richard Maibaum and Guy Hamilton. So that was where we started originally, and then we set it up for development with Casablanca Records, which soon became Casablanca Records & Filmworks -- it was [producers] Peter Guber and his partner Neil Bogart at that time. That was in 1980, and the writer became Tom Mankiewicz. Tom was considered the top script doctor in the business for these kinds of movies. It was Tom who rewrote Superman, it was Tom who did a couple really good Bond films, Diamonds Are Forever was one of them… And Tom, of course, of the famous Mankiewicz family – one of Hollywood's leading families, from the Golden Age on. And he was terrific. I loved working with Tom, he really understood it and got it. The approach was a serious Batman, but it was very much in the style of Bond… it wasn't yet something that could be completely, totally, out-of-the-box breakthrough – that aspect of it wasn't something that happened until Tim Burton became involved in the project.
Along the way, who else…? I remember for about two minutes, Richard Rush was going to be attached as director – they had set up a screening for us of his movie The Stunt Man, for our opinion as to what he was doing. For about two years, I think, we were waiting for Ivan Reitman – he had gone off to do Ghostbusters before he'd come back to do Batman, but that didn't work out ultimately. A wonderful guy who I'd known for years, Joe Dante, was in for... I wanna say, about a year... that was following his success at Warner Bros. with Gremlins, but then he left us to do a movie called The Explorers at Paramount. So there were many different potential iterations.
CA: There's an entire multiverse of potential alternate Batman movies out there.
MU: Yeah! You could really do an alternate universe book dealing with all of this stuff!
CA: Now getting on to Batman '89 itself – you'd spent a decade building up to this, and you've finally gotten to the point where you have Burton in place, and it's finally happening. How involved were you with the details: bringing on Sam Hamm to do the script, finding the right designers, casting the movie?
MU: Well, first of all, the most important thing of all: it's really vital that all of the accolades here be directed at Tim Burton. Everybody has to appreciate that this young man at that time was a genius. And what he saw, what his vision was – he was proved right, and he proved that he knew how to execute it. Tim put together his team, and it was amazing.
When I met [production designer] Anton Furst for the first time, I got to say, "Oh my god, there's now two geniuses that are working on this film, this is incredible!" Anton and I became very, very good friends. And his contribution was not only to that Batman movie, but, like Tim, his contribution is long-lasting, right through to today. It's my contention that every genre picture made, not just comic book picture, but every genre picture is still now being influenced by Tim's vision, Anton's design work on Gotham City, the Batmobile, the look of the picture, and the musical notes of Danny Elfman. I think it was that revolutionary a picture, and that influential, right through the decades.
Another unsung hero of the original Batman tale is a wonderful guy, a top exec in Hollywood, Roger Birnbaum. Roger was responsible for bringing a lot of people onboard, and I never felt he got the notoriety that he should have; that he really did deserve.
CA: It's a bit tough to remember how risky and weird this all seemed at the time. In retrospect Batman was obviously a massive hit, but it was director best-known for a Pee-Wee Herman film, and an actor known for Mr. Mom and Johnny Dangerously playing Bruce Wayne/Batman.
MU: It was bold, and daring, and the beginning of what is now commonly known as "fan backlash." When fandom heard that Michael Keaton was going to be playing Bruce Wayne, it was one step short of torches and pitchforks surrounding the studio. And I can identify with that, because understand, I am that fanboy, I am that comic book geek and I have been since I was about three-years-old. And I was apoplectic when I was first told that Tim was thinking of hiring Michael Keaton. I thought it was a joke, and it took them quite a while to convince me that they weren't kidding.
But it was Tim who explained to me his vision for it, and why it would work – which showed to me the genius that he had. Because he was the one who saw this, believe me. It was: "This is not about the actor who plays Batman, this is about the actor who plays Bruce Wayne. This is all about Bruce Wayne. If we're going to do the first serious, dark comic book superhero, the only way you're going to get audiences around the world to go for it and believe in it is if from the opening moments of the movie you make them believe in Gotham City – it has to be the third most-important character in this movie. And next, you have to have a Bruce Wayne that they will believe is capable of putting on a Batman outfit and going out and fighting a guy like the Joker."
And he was very clear, number one: once we hired Jack Nicholson to play the Joker that we could not have an unknown actor play Batman, like they did with Superman – that Nicholson would literally wipe the screen with the guy. Number two: Tim said he did not know how to take a "serious actor" circa 1987 or so, and show him getting into a Batsuit without getting unintentional laughs from the audience. And then number three: Keaton is a great, serious actor, and he can create that portrayal of Bruce Wayne as a man so driven and so obsessed, to the point of being psychotic, that audiences will go, "Yes, that guy would get into a Batsuit." They would buy it, they would believe in it. And he was absolutely right.
They had to set up a screening of the rough cut of Clean And Sober for us, just to prove to me that Michael Keaton was a great, serious actor. And that did it for me, but then again, fanboy Michael goes to Tim and says, "He's my height, he doesn't have the muscles, he doesn't have the square jaw, Batman's got to have a square jaw." And it was Tim who said, "Y'know, moving from one medium to another… it's not the square jaw that makes Batman, it's Bruce Wayne. I can cheat height, I can carve musculature into a costume, this is the way it will work." And I only became convinced of it when I saw the first dailies, and then I knew he had it.
CA: One detail that tends to get overlooked is how surprising it was to put Batman in a black-on-black costume in the movie, but that choice was really felt in terms of the merchandising and marketing. When those black t-shirts showed up, they were EVERYWHERE.
MU: Very true. That summer of '89, you could not cross Times Square without running into 25 people wearing a Batman t-shirt or a Batman hat with the logo on it.
CA: I was living in small-town Virginia, and you couldn't cross the street without running into someone with a Batman shirt.
MU: People don't realize now that it wasn't just the box office impact – it was a worldwide cultural impact. Something transformative was taking place, it was so significant. It turned out it would be a game-changer for Hollywood; it would be a game-changer for the comic book industry in a lot of ways.
And the comics resisted it initially. Then, finally, they welcomed it – they darkened up Batman's costume and they began using Anton's designs for Gotham in the comics, and altered the Batmobile's look… Until the comics and the movies kind of crossed.
CA: Were you involved in the decision to bring Prince onboard to compose music? Though reviews of his soundtrack were wildly mixed, it certainly helped cement the film's status in the public eye, and was an element that gave the project a lot of legitimacy in many circles.
MU: Well, let's talk generally about the film industry, circa 1988. You had the major studios that owned the major record labels. It was a very common practice that, if they had a star on their label, or they had an upcoming group that was ready to break out, they would assign or request that their acts have a position in a film. So I think it was kind of a natural progression within the studio system for that kind of a thing to happen. And then it's up to the director to figure out if that works, if that can work, and how that does work. So generally speaking, that's all part of the process that begins at a studio level.
You know, there were two soundtrack albums that came out – there was the original soundtrack, the Danny Elfman soundtrack; and there was the Prince soundtrack. And I would say, of everyone I knew, probably 75% of the people bought only one. And 25% of the people bought both. And of the 75% that bought only one, they were very deeply rooted in the one that they bought.
CA: This was your project, your passion, but you seemed to stay pretty well out of the spotlight at the time of the movie's release – Tim Burton was making appearances, Peters and Guber were doing interviews...
MU: Well, the world of Hollywood is largely organized by a few companies, and they each have their own agendas. And Hollywood is a place of great egos, generally speaking…Hollywood is what Hollywood is. I have personally, in the almost 40 years of my career, shied away from living in Hollywood or being part of the inner circle of Hollywood, or making that the focal point of my existence on a day-to-day basis. My love for what I do comes out of my love for comic books, for these characters, and for the creators – most of whom I knew since I was 13-years-old, living outside of New York, at the beginning of comic book fandom, at the beginning of comic cons, the beginnings of fanzines. I knew them, I interviewed them, I talked to them, I became friends with them, they mentored me. And whether we talk about my work with Batman, or Captain Marvel, or whatever the character might be, I knew the creators. I met Bill Finger twice. I knew Bob Kane. Jerry Robinson was a close friend and mentor.
At the time of the first Batman premiere, that night, I was at the premiere hanging out with the creators, not the stars of Hollywood. That's just who I am, I'm the fanboy with the passion. Am I a corporate guy? Nope. Am I a studio executive, Hollywood guy? Nope. My love and interest remains with trying to do the best I can, to bring these characters to the screen with integrity, within a system that involves a lot of cooks, a lot of power, a lot of egos, and that's what I strive to do. I feel a personal obligation very strongly.
Do we always succeed? No. Like I said, there are a lot of cooks and those with the money ultimately have the final clout. But it is a career struggle that began first with trying to get comic books recognized, by executives that were from the Wertham era, who believed that comic books were, at best, cheap entertainment for 8-12-year-old boys, and at worst, things of lurid entertainment that were turning American youth into juvenile delinquents. People who looked down their nose at creators.
I would say the first Batman movie was a breakthrough in many, many ways. Comic books today are considered cool and hip, they're the basis for blockbuster movies, hit TV and animated series. They're affecting fashion, and other aspects of our culture. You can see the original works of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and Wally Wood and Joe Kubert hanging in museums and galleries around the world. And this is the greatest thing that has come out of all of this.
So when you talk about who's in the spotlight and who's in front of the television cameras…you know, Hollywood is a funny place. And I couldn't be happier with, 25 years later, the story of what happened to Batman and how these movies came about. I am the happiest person on the planet earth that Batman is now the preeminent superhero. You pass by the Warner Bros. studio, you see the big display, and it's Batman [in the prominent position], with Superman right behind him. When I was growing up, that was unheard of – Batman was always the number two superhero, always.
CA: Tell us some more stories of getting Batman to the screen.
MU: One important event connected with this movie that's been largely overlooked by historians and reporters is the fact that Ben Melnicker and I were the first producers, I believe, in history to announce a major motion picture, initially, at a comic book convention. That took place at Phil Seuling's New York Con in 1980 at the Statler Hilton Hotel, which is now called the Pennsylvania Hotel (across the street from Penn Station). And the studio thought I was crazy to want to announce the picture at a comic book convention. They thought I was out of my mind, and I had to really fight hard and long. Finally, what they did was they allocated a small budget so that we were able to arrange this, and have a press conference at the Comic Con – we had a cocktail party for reporters and pros of the business. And they also couldn't understand why many of the reporters I had there were from comic book fanzines! We worked in cahoots with [former DC Comics President] Jenette Kahn, we had the Bat-Signal shown on the Empire State Building that night, we had buttons printed up… it was a little black-and-yellow button with the insignia on it that said "1980: The Year Of The Bat". Jenette spoke, I spoke, Ben spoke, and Bob Kane spoke, and we did the announcement there.
And it's so funny, because in this day and age, everybody assumes that any genre picture is going to be announced, or something's gonna happen at Comic-Con, but it never happened before we did it with Batman in 1980 – and there we were, nine years ahead of our time!
CA: What surprised you most in the film's reception and the marketing that followed? Was there any one thing that made you stop and say "yeah, we did it"?
MU: I think that one moment came for me on opening night. When we drove around, Nancy and I put the kids in the car and we drove around to different theaters, and we saw lines at every single theater that stretched, not just for one block, but for blocks. Lines wrapped around theaters. When we got out, we talked to people and they said, "Oh, we've been here 24 hours" or "We've been here two days, waiting to get in." This was before cell phones were common, before the internet and social media, and this was a social event that was spontaneously happening… I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I told my kids, "Please remember this, remember these images, look at what the impact has been of what we've done, what we've been able to accomplish."
The most incredible moment [of that year] was the night I was watching CNN, watching the Berlin Wall come down. And they were pounding at it, and they were coming through, one or two people at a time, I'm watching, it must have been 1:30 in the morning… and coming through the wall, into freedom, into West Berlin, is a kid wearing a Batman hat. I think if I had one individual moment that was an "oh my GOD" epiphany kind of moment for me, that was the moment.
CA: So in closing, looking back, what do you feel the is greatest legacy of BATMAN '89?
MU: What's important to me has never been who's in the spotlight, who's taking credit for this or this or this – I don't care. What's important to me is that the dignity and the darkness of the Batman that I knew, created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, evolved and enhanced by the work of Jerry Robinson and so many others over the last 75 years, is now embraced in a way that transcends borders and cultures. That's what makes me tick, and the rest of it is BS.
When we started out, to the world at large, comic books were very uncool. Anyone over the age of 12 reading comics was looked down upon: there must be something wrong with them, they must be stunted in some emotional way. There was a stigma attached to comic books by our society.
But that all changed. With this movie, comics became hip, became cool. It was the game-changer for the comic book industry, for the movie industry, and ultimately, for the worldwide culture.