At the Paley Center’s premiere of “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part Two,” the finale of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment’s animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s 1986 Batman epic, the cast and crew were on hand to field fan questions and speak about the film’s creative process.
Moderated by filmmaker Kevin Smith, the post-premiere Q&A began as Executive Producer Bruce Timm, Director Jay Oliva, Dialogue/Casting Director Andrea Romano, Writer Bob Goodman, Robin voice actor Ariel Winter (“Modern Family”) and Batman voice actor Peter Weller (“RoboCop”) entered to thunderous applause.
Smith enthusiastically exclaimed that he watched both parts one and two of the animated DVD twelve times, tearing up on every single view, telling the panel that as a fan of the original graphic novel, he couldn’t be more pleased with how they adapted Miller’s story. “[The Dark Knight Returns] is kind of like ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ of comic books,” Smith declared. “It’s a very important book we all carry with us, and just like ‘The Catcher In The Rye,’ they’ve never done a movie of it because most people thought it’s un-filmable “The first time I watched, I watched it with great expectation because this is a big part of my life. It’s my Bible. I’m not joking around going, ‘This better be good.’ I would have hunted this man down!” Smith said, pointing to director Oliva as the room cracked up again.
“If you’re going to adapt comics that are seminal, important comics that are also going to be well-received by people, I figured heck! Let’s do Dark Knight!” Timm said.
The panelists laughed once again as Smith interrupted to ask Timm how he got the character design for the villain Bruno, a topless woman with only swastika-shaped tape on her nipples, approved without earning the film an R rating.
“You know, we didn’t think we were going to win the Nazi nipple battle,” Timm replied. “I thought for sure that would be the thing that pushed us over into R-rated, but apparently that’s not a big deal!”
Grinning, Oliva told the audience that Timm demanded he come up with alternate, toned-down scenes in case the swastika-nipples and Oliva’s violent Tunnel Of Love fight sequence between Joker and Batman had to be cut to avoid an R-rating.
“Joker’s stabbing Batman six or seven times!” Timm said of the scene. “We did tone it down a little; I think we took out one or two stabs.”
“My backup plan was to cut to hand puppets, like shadows on the wall,” Oliva joked.
As for his backup plan for dealing with the huge amount of innocent people the Joker shoots at point blank range in the Tunnel, “When the innocent bystanders were shot, I always thought we could ADR, ‘Oh, my arm! Oh, my leg!'” Oliva recalled as the audience cracked up.
The director also told the audience that when it came to directing the animation he tried to base sequences less on panels in the book and more on his experience reading “The Dark Knight Returns.”
“This movie is really about what I loved as a kid and how I saw it,” Oliva said. “It’s all shuffled around, scenes aren’t in the same order,” Goodman added, explaining that as the screenwriter, when it came to adapting the comic, he tried to stay away from getting caught up in translating panel for panel, changing the structure around and even adding lines in some parts.
“When you hit the block of thinking, ‘I’m going to add a line,’ that’s like someone going, ‘This Genesis makes no sense!'” Smith joked as Goodman laughed. Goodman said he added lines for Gordon in the ending funeral scene to tie the story’s themes together.
“Batman and Commissioner Gordon never intersect in the second movie. They are not in one frame together, and that was really weird. I struggled with that and thought, ‘Well maybe I’ll make up some scenes for that.’ And then instead there were ways to thematically connect them — really Gordon is carrying the mantle of Batman through the riots,” Goodman said. Bringing the dialogue to life was veteran director Romano’s job — but unlike Goodman, Timm and Oliva, Romano had never even heard of the Frank Miller comic.
“I learned so much from Bruce Timm,” Romano laughed. “That’s where almost all my [comic book] education came from.”
Reminiscing about their early ’90s work together, or as Romano teasingly dubbed it, “Before Ariel was born,” she told the audience “The Dark Knight Returns” was one of the more intense stories she’s directed.
“Thank God I didn’t know [about the story’s significance with fans], because I think I would have been overwhelmed with the responsibility.”
Winter, like Romano, had never read the 1986 graphic novel, taking the role based on the appeal of portraying a butt-kicking female Robin. Upon receiving the part, she had her comic book obsessed friends fill her in on the character details.
“I had always wanted to play a badass character,” Winter said. “What I liked about Robin was that she was not the wimpy girl who needed saving, she was saving everybody. She’s the hero in it, with Batman, and I love that.”
As for Weller’s turn as Batman, Romano and Timm stated that they had wanted to cast Weller in something for years, but “The Dark Knight” was the first time scheduling would allow it.
Before talking about Batman, Weller explained to the audience he had come to tonight’s premiere entirely because of Smith, who he had first met when Smith spoke at the Lincoln Center Film Library induction of “Buckaroo Banzai.”
“What he said for ‘Buckaroo Banzai’ in front of some fairly stuffy people who really take film criticism extraordinarily seriously and have a lack of a sense of humor — we were so leveled by how beautifully he put the social context and what ‘Buckaroo Banzai’ offered to the realm of moviedom that [John] Lithgow turned to me and said, ‘You know what? He should have marketed the movie when it came out!'”
Despite being friends with Frank Miller, whom he met while working on “RoboCop 2,” Weller stayed away from re-reading the story or reading anything with Batman in it while getting into character.
“There is no deep and meaningful resolute preparation you can do for it. All you can do, for me, is fuck my own head up by reading what everybody else wrote before,” Weller said. “This is a brand new Batman. This is Batman coming out of his cave middle aged. No one’s done this!”
“I had to make it clear Batman was being pushed way beyond his bounds,” Oliva said in reference to directing the Tunnel of Love fight scene. “At that point, I put the comic down, and I put the script down, because I thought to myself, ‘How do I get to Batman choking Joker and being shived right before he breaks his neck?’ I just tried to make it flow as much as I can.”
One of Goodman’s friends surprised the writer by standing up and asking how much “The Dark Knight Returns” influenced “Batman Beyond,” which both Timm and Goodman worked on, and if Goodman saw this animated DVD as a bridge between the two universes.
“I didn’t think a lot about ‘Batman Beyond’ while working on this,” Goodman replied. “But the DNA of this was in ‘Batman Beyond.’ We talked a lot about ‘Dark Knight Returns’ back then.”
“That’s really funny, because that’s not my recollection,” Timm rebutted as the audience laughed. “I thought, ‘What a brilliant idea to have Batman be an old man and passing the torch onto the new Batman!’ I’m sure that’s where I subconsciously stole it from, but I wasn’t conscious of it!”
As for dealing with the political undertones of the source material, Goodman admitted that while he was on the opposite side of the political spectrum from the conservative Miller, he felt “The Dark Knight” tore into both the Right and the Left.
“Reagan’s a conservative icon, and he comes off really badly!” Timm agreed. “We discussed the possibility of updating it, but we said, ‘Hell with it.’ It’d create more problems to do that if we swapped out Ronald Reagan for Dubya or somebody — what do you get for that?”
“That’s Frank, now!” Goodman joked as Weller’s phone began ringing onstage. While discussing the musical score, Oliva revealed that in “The Dark Knight Returns, Part One,” there is a hidden Easter egg for astute listeners — in one scene, a group of kids listen to a sound-alike song of the Sleeze Boyz novelty song, “The RoboCop.”
“Do the RoboCop dance!” Smith demanded after Oliva admitted he used to have the group’s dance memorized. Despite shouted requests, coordinated chanting from the audience and Weller’s curiosity, the director remained seated. “This is going to haunt me ’til I’m eighty,” the director laughed.
The last question came from an audience member who wanted to know what it was like to direct Michael Emerson as the Joker. “It was dreamy!” Romano said as the audience cheered. “When it came to casting this role, we knew we didn’t want to do what we did before… We knew we wanted it to be creepy and weird and scary, and we knew he could be all those things because we saw him do it!” A huge fan of Emerson’s from “Lost,” Romano even broke her own self-imposed rule of never casting someone she couldn’t work with in the same room, directing the actor’s recording session over Skype as she stayed in Los Angeles and he worked from New York. “When we finished the ADR…I said, ‘What did you think?’ He said, ‘It was the hardest acting work I’ve ever had to do,'” Romano recalled.
“You will go see many movies between now and the end of this year,” Smith said in closing. “I can go on record and project into the future. I don’t care who makes a live action Batman/Superman movie — it will never be as god as what you saw.”
“Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part Two” is available now on DVD, Blu-ray and as a digital download.