SPOILER ALERT: The following interview contains spoilers about the DC Universe Original Animated Movie, “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.”
The latest of the DC Universe Original Animated Movies, “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths,” arrives in stores Tuesday and CBR News chatted with groundbreaking producer Bruce Timm about the release that features Superman (Mark Harmon), Batman (William Baldwin) and the rest of the world’s greatest heroes facing off against Owlman (James Woods) and the other super friends’ evil mirror images from an alternate DC Universe.
The story kicks off with a “good” Lex Luthor (Chris Noth) arriving from an alternate universe to recruit the Justice League to help save his Earth from the Crime Syndicate, a gang of villainous characters with virtually identical super powers to the Justice League.
Written by award-winning animation and comics writer Dwayne McDuffie (“Justice League of America”) and co-directed by Lauren Montgomery (“Wonder Woman,” “Green Lantern” First Flight”) and Sam Liu (“Superman/Batman:
Public Enemies”), “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths” was originally conceived as a bridge story to explain the expansion of the JLA between its two iterations in “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited.”
Timm shares his thoughts on how the story morphed (and how it didn’t) from its original concept, what would have made the Martian Manhunter love story sub-plot even more poignant and his general views on the what the new leadership team in place at DC Entertainment will mean to future DC Universe Original Animated Movies.
The storyline for this project was original intended to be told between the final season of “Justice League” and the first season of “Justice League Unlimited.” Did you always know that you would come back to it one day, and can you explain how it came to be used for “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths”?
We finished up the first “Justice League” series and we got the order to do another season of the show. Cartoon Network had asked us to re-brand the show and to not do anymore two-parters, and they left it to us to figure out what that meant: re-branding the show. We came up with the idea of expanding the roster of heroes and doing more stand-alone episodes, but with an overall arc, and all that stuff that eventually became “Justice League Unlimited.” At the same time, it was kind of planned that we were just going to jump into that new iteration without a whole lot of explanation. It was like we went from seven heroes to 50 some odd heroes and one Watchtower to a whole system of floating Watchtowers over the Earth. We actually wanted it to be a bit disorienting like that. “Ooh, wait a minute, what happened?” But we did plan on eventually on telling that story of what happened in between the two series.
Right around the same time that we were developing “Justice League Unlimited,” we came up with this story, which at the time was called, “Worlds Collide,” which explained how the two series connected and what happened in between, and we used the Crime Syndicate from the comics, who are a group of supervillains, who are kind of like the evil alter egos of our guys and the main antagonists of that story. [When} we wrote the script, the idea was that we were going to do both the movie and “Justice League Unlimited,” simultaneously. We knew we had a longer lead time on the movie, so we knew it was going to come out on home video some time after “Justice League Unlimited” premiered, but that was OK. But ultimately, for one reason or another, just as were getting ready to get a green light on “Worlds Collide” – we actually already had the cast in place – we were getting ready to pull the trigger on it and the plug got pulled. They said, for whatever reason, “We don’t think we should go ahead with this.”
So it was put on mothballs, and ultimately at the time, I think that was a good idea, because I was able to focus more of my attention on the series, and that turned out to be a lot of fun and ultimately became my favorite of all of the shows that we worked on from “Batman” onward.
But we had the script lying around that we really, really liked that Dwayne [McDuffie] had written, and it kept coming up in conversations. It was like, “It’s a shame that this script exists and we can’t do it. What should we do with it?” Should we put on one of the other DVDs as a pdf file, just so people could read it? Or should we turn it into a comic book?
DC was all excited about doing it as comic book miniseries for a while there, but ultimately all of that stuff fell through and, years and years later, we were working on these DCU movies, the DTVs, and we had a couple of scripts that were in development that weren’t quite gelling. We had a slot open – we really needed a movie for the first quarter of ’10 – and we have to get something in the works. All along, I’d been going, “We’ve got ‘Worlds Collide.’ It’s still sitting there.” And they said, “Yeah, but it’s too close to the TV continuity. Yadda, yadda, yadda,” and then I happened to be reading one of the current “Justice League of America” comics that was coming out at the time and, weirdly enough, Dwayne was writing the comic at the time. I was flipping through it and I was like, “Wait a minute. A lot of the people, who are in the Justice League, at the moment, in the comic were a lot of the characters that we played up a lot on the series, like Black Canary and Vixen. And I happened to notice the design of the Watchtower that they were using was our Watchtower from the animated series. It was almost like the two continuities had kind of weirdly merged. So I got the idea that, without a whole lot of trouble now, we could actually retro-fit “Worlds Collide” into a DCU movie with minor alterations – the biggest, of course, being swapping out John Stewart for Hal Jordan, and obviously, we’d have to go in and redesign the characters because we didn’t want it to be exactly the same style than the TV series. But ultimately, Dwayne’s original script was about 95 percent intact and everybody signed off on it and away we went.
When I spoke to Dwayne, he said he didn’t know what actors would be playing what characters, so he wasn’t writing Batman for William Baldwin or Superman for Mark Harmon. Was that a difficult choice to go with bigger name Hollywood actors versus the usual suspects from the animated series?
This may sound confusing and contradictory, but in terms of just branding the movie, the decision was made that we should really do everything in our power to separate it from the TV continuity as possible. I love Kevin Conroy. I love George Newbern. They’re terrific actors and it would have been easier, frankly, to cast them in this movie. But again, for the sake of branding, we decided we needed to go with other actors to play those parts to further separate this from the TV continuity. Of course, it’s always a challenge to go back and re-cast these guys. You just sit in the room with the director and with Andrea Romano, our voice director, and just brainstorm ideas. “Who would be a good Batman? Or would be a good Superman or whoever?” It’s an involved process but ultimately, I’m thrilled with the cast we did get and I think they all did a great job.
Were there any surprises, or did you always know, yes, James Woods will be a great Owlman?
Curiously enough, James Woods was the one person that actually ended up playing the same part that he would have played if we had gone ahead with “Worlds Collide” all those years ago. Back in the day, he was our choice for Owlman. Unfortunately, he and Andrea Romano, and I think even Dwayne, they might be misremembering it, because I’m pretty sure we had cast him as Owlman. They’re saying he was originally cast as Lex Luthor in the earlier version, but I’m pretty sure he was Owlman. Everybody else, we had a completely different cast in mind. We, frankly, thought he was a longshot. He’s a big name actor and he’s really, really good and too expensive. But at the time, he signed on for it, and years later, I was like, “Well, he was our original choice for Owlman. Let’s see if he would still be interested.” And he still was, and there we were.
Before, we get any further along, I was wondering if you can explain what your role is as producer on these DC Universe original animated movies. Originally, you were an animator and developed many of the character designs, but what’s your actual hands-on involvement on projects like “Crisis on Two Earths”?
[Pauses] I don’t do hardly any administrative stuff. My primary function is as a creative director. The biggest difference between what I’m doing now and what I did on say, “Justice League Unlimited,” is that I’m just spread a little thinner over lots of different projects now. I’m not as hands-on on a day-to-day basis with all the various projects that are in the works, but I do keep my hand in.
I try to be as involved as I can, from the earliest stages of development to the final post-production phase. But my time is just scattered all over the place, so I’m not always as focused on any individual project as I might like to be. Fortunately, I’m working with super, super, super talented directors like Lauren Montgomery and Sam Liu and Mike Goguen, so I can really rely on them a lot to handle most of the day-to-day functions that I used to handle – everything from art direction to storyboard direction – everything. And as I’ve become used to working with all of these people, I actually delegate more and more authority to them as time goes by.
My biggest problem is that I’m kind of a control freak. I like to get my way on almost every aspect of production. But like I said, I’ve really learned, over the years, to really rely on Lauren and Sam and the other directors and their individual tastes. I know the shows are in really good hands. Even if they make a decision that I may not have made, it’s like apples and oranges – it’s not my way would have been better, it’s just that they’re doing it a different way. It’s great too. So, I’m learning to let go of different aspects more and more.
With this particular project, was there a certain character portrayal that you really had to fight for or a plot point that you felt had to be included? Perhaps the Martian Manhunter love story subplot? I didn’t see that coming.
Well, the weird thing about that – and this doesn’t really answer your question – but the weird thing about the Martian Manhunter love story is that at the time, we were toying with the idea of actually leaving J’onn J’onzz behind on the alternate Earth. He was going to fall in love with this girl, and he was going to make the decision to stay behind with her on that Earth. We thought that would be a poignant thing for him to do. Ultimately, the reason we didn’t [leave him behind] was because when we were developing “Justice League Unlimited” at the same time, we said, “OK. Now we’re going to have this super-sized league of heroes; we’re going to need somebody to be the police dispatcher, who oversees where everybody goes.” It just made the absolute most sense in the world to use J’onn in that role. That’s actually kind of what they were doing in the comics from Grant Morrison’s run onward. So it made a whole lot of sense to keep him around for that, so we thought, we’ll still have him fall in love, but he’ll decide to go back to our Earth.
Now, the weird thing is that when we re-wrote the movie, the DC Universe version, we had completely forgotten that we were going to do that, which is too bad because it may have given that storyline a little bit more punch, if he actually stayed behind. But ultimately, it makes a sweet, little character moment in this big, sprawling action movie.
It’s weird. My involvement in any of the individual movies fluctuates on how much time I have to devote to it and also my interest in the story. This is one that we developed early on, and I actually had helped Dwayne plot out the script with James Tucker, as well. I was kind of attached to it a little bit more than some of these other ones, so I kept my hand in it a little bit more. And actually, at the time, when it was still “Worlds Collide,” we had gotten pretty far down the line in terms of developing the character designs for the Crime Syndicate and some of the other characters, and I didn’t want to have to just start completely from scratch again. So I actually dug those earlier designs out from my files and just had Phil Bourassa use those as his starting point.
And again, like I said, I do go to all of the recordings. I really enjoy the post-production aspect of production as much, if not more, than actual pre-production, so I enjoy being in the editing room with the editor and the director and sitting in with the composer when we’re doing the music. So, this one got a little bit more of my attention because it was a story closer to my heart.
Can you talk about the look and design of the characters in “Crisis of Two Earth, specifically any major differences between what they would have looked like had they been set in the same shared universe as “Justice League and “Justice League Unlimited”?
It’s tough, because on the one hand, if you look at the designs, if you stand back and look at them from a slight distance or maybe squint when you look at them or take your glasses off, they’re really not that different from what we did on “Justice League Unlimited.” Phil does have a lot of stylistic things in his drawing style that are similar to my own, but there are subtle differences, as well. He’s got a bit more detailed anatomy than me – still not super-detailed, nothing like anime or anything like that – like the contours of the arms have a little bit more indication of, “Oh, there’s a bicep there.” Or there is a separation between the pecs and the abdomen and stuff. So it’s subtle, but they’re there. In terms, of just the overall look for the background styling, it’s kind of similar, but we really wanted to push the color palette – we wanted to be really, extremely vivid with the colors. That’s just something that we’ve been experimenting with over time, and you never want to get to a point where everything is just like a default setting and be like, “Yeah, we know that works, let’s just do that again.” We’re always trying to push things in either a weirder direction or a more extreme direction. We paid a lot of attention to the color palette according to the time of day or the lighting situation, so Batman’s colors, for instance, are completely different from scene to scene to scene. There’s much more like a film approach to it when in animation, they actually mess around with the color palette to reflect the surroundings or the time of day and things like that.
It’s just something that we are always trying to improve on what we’ve done before and push the envelope every time. So this is one, I think, that really shows. The movie has a really, really slick, dynamite look to it. The production values are some of the best that we’ve ever had.
In the closing scene, there’s a tease that a membership drive is needed and we see Aquaman, Black Canary, Firestorm and the others. Normally, these animated movies don’t set up for sequels but is that scene a nod that we may see more of this version of the Justice League?
Ah [pauses], I don’t know. Maybe 50 per cent. It’s probably 50/50 that we’ll actually use this design or this continuity sub-universe again. I doubt it, probably. We are developing other Justice League film ideas for the future, but we really haven’t hit on one that we all love yet. And whether we go back and re-use these designs of this world or find something different really depends on the story. It’s basically just the ending from the original movie that literally leads into “Justice League Unlimited.”
OK, then. Is there any chance that we’ll see more stories told within the “Justice League”/”Justice League Unlimited” continuity?
Currently, there are no plans to re-visit that continuity but I’ve learned over the years to never say never because anything could happen but currently there are no plans.
“Crisis on Two Earths” isn’t even out yet, but quickly, can you share some news on “Batman: Under the Red Hood”?
It’s really good [laughs].
That’s about all I can say about it at the moment. It really is. We actually have the footage coming back from overseas, literally as we speak. We have two acts out of four, and it looks really, really solid. It’s a really cool story. It’s pretty darn dark but at the same time, it’s fun and emotionally involving, so I think it’s going to be a really terrific movie.
I’m a big fan of Bruce Greenwood and I think he’s going to be a great Batman. Can you talk a bit about that choice?
He’s awesome, frankly. I’ve been a fan of his for years. We’ve been trying to work with him for years on different projects, but we could just never get the stars to align, and this time, again, any time you have to re-cast Batman, it’s like, “Crap. We have to get somebody who can conceivably be as good as Kevin Conroy.” Bruce was somebody who jumped out at me, especially after I saw the “Star Trek” movie this past summer. I went, “Wow. He has an awesome, awesome voice.” I mean, like I said, I’ve been a fan of his for years, but I was really struck by how great he sounded in the “Star Trek” movie.
And Jensen Ackles is playing Red Hood?
Yeah, and again, he’s somebody that I’ve been following for a long time and I think he’s a really good actor. His voice had the right placement in that he sounded like a grown-up, but not too old, and he had the right kind of attitude. We knew he could be tough but with a sense of vulnerability, as well. So yeah, he’s a terrific actor.
What about you personally? Any chance that we’ll see some more comic book work from you?
Not really. I have a couple of things, kind of long-term things, that I’ve been talking with different editors about, but my biggest problem is that I just don’t have the time. This is a really demanding day job, and when I get home, I’m beat. The last thing I want to do is sit down and start drawing. And frankly, I’m getting old. I just don’t have the same energy as I did 10 years ago, but I wish I had more time to do comics because I really love drawing them. But I just don’t have the time. So, no, nothing on the immediate horizon.
Finally, I was wondering if you could share your thoughts on the shakeup, or I guess the re-alignment, at DC Entertainment last week and how you and your team fit into that new structure.
I don’t know that it affects us directly, yet. A lot of the stuff is too early to tell in terms of who’s going to be doing what. It’s fun to speculate, but like I said, a lot of it would be blind speculation at this point.
I’ve known Geoff Johns for a number of years and he’s obviously amazingly talented, so it will be exciting to work with him a little more closely on all of these things going forward. He definitely brings a lot to the party in this new position.
Your name came up in the forums and the op-ed columns as someone to be considered to fill one of these new leadership positions. Was that ever a real possibility?
Frankly, it never even occurred to me. No, no [laughs]. It never even occurred to me. It’s not even something that I would necessarily want.