On Monday, Warner Home Video celebrated the release of “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1,” the latest animated feature in its ongoing slate of original movies from the DC Universe, with a West Coast World Premiere at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles.
Speaking with reporters before the film screened for fans, executive producer Bruce Timm, director Jay Oliva, writer Bob Goodman and actors Peter Weller (“RoboCop”) and David Selby (“The Social Network”), discussed both the decision to introduce a new voice cast and the process of bringing the classic Frank Miller comic to the screen.
Produced by Warner Premiere, DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Animation, “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” is an adaptation from the seminal four-issue miniseries by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson. The film delves into the dark future of Bruce Wayne (Weller) and the citizens of his beloved Gotham, ten years after the reclusive billionaire has retired from fighting crime in as his masked alter ego, Batman. Facing middle age and confronted with the demons of his past, Wayne once again dons the cowl to bring order to a city out of control, finding new and old enemies, a new purpose and a new Robin in teenager, Carrie Kelly, voiced by “Modern Family’s” Ariel Winter.
For the last two decades, the immensely popular “Batman: The Animated Series” and the various spin-offs, movies and games that followed have relied on the iconic performance of actor Kevin Conroy as the infamous caped crusader, but for this cinematic re-telling, director Jay Oliva (“Young Justice”) explained that an entirely new cast was brought together in order to help retain the spirit and feel of Miller’s original work.
“There’s something about having Peter Weller, who is perfect as Bruce Wayne, and the fact that he played the part of ‘Robocop,” Oliva said. “That film had a lot of influences from ‘The Dark Knight Returns,’ so it was kind of almost full circle.”
Executive Producer, Bruce Timm echoed his director’s enthusiasm for Weller in the role and explained that because the comic was so rooted in the eighties mindset, the casting came from trying to find an action star from that era. “We were throwing out different ideas, like Stallone or Clint Eastwood or whatever, and somebody, I think it was Jay, mentioned Peter Weller and I’m all like: ‘Peter Weller — that’s awesome! Perfect!’ And sure enough, we brought him in and he was so good.”
For his interpretation of the aging Dark Knight, Weller, who worked with Miller on “RoboCop 2,” went directly to the comic for inspiration. “Batman’s always been a guy who’s got an emotional hole in him. He’s like doing all the good deeds in the world — fighting crime, but it’s not filling up the Bruce Wayne hole,” Weller said. “It’s interesting, isn’t it? It never really transforms the guy. The guy still has to go back and live alone as an isolationist and he never gets better.”
David Selby, who takes on the role of Commissioner Gordon, told reporters that the relationship between his character and Bruce Wayne at this stage in their lives appealed to him, and though he admitted to some trepidation in taking over a role that has been so memorably portrayed by numerous actors, the actor admitted to having a secret weapon. “I rely upon my director, Andrea [Romano] a lot. You know, she’s the audience, and she’s never shy about telling you — you know, she’s very specific, very to the point,” he said. “In voice [acting], we go so fast and we’re in a vacuum, so I’m not playing opposite anyone. Just me and the mic and you’re doing it, so it’s certainly challenging. You come away with a great respect for all the [actors] that do it, and you just don’t want to let any of the fans down.”
Keeping the concerns of those who have read and hold Miller’s groundbreaking story in such high regard in mind, Timm noted that the task of story adaptation fell to a writer very familiar with the DC animated universe. “Bob Goodman is one of the best writers we’ve worked with. He understands film, he understands comics, he understands the merging of the two,” Timm said. “Fortunately, his first draft was pretty spot on — you know, a couple of little dialogue tweaks here and there and we were good to go.”
Asked how one goes about adapting a classic graphic novel, the writer deadpaned: “Carefully.”
“I’m the right age that it was a big deal to me when it came out,” Goodman said, elaborating. “It’s kind of been my dream project to do this, and thankfully [co-producer] Alan Burnett knew it, so he called me when the opportunity arose. But in that phone call, when he gave me the job, he said, ‘Remain slavishly loyal to the source material — and also do whatever you need to do.'”
That creative freedom led Goodman to make perhaps his most major change, removing the inner monologue that is so prominent in the original graphic novel. “I know this is already a hot point of contention online, whether that was the right choice or not, but I’ll take the heat because it was my pitch that I actually fought for to DC,” Goodman said, explaining that externalizing the story takes the comic and moves it more convincingly to the animated realm. “I felt like, to do an animated movie that just has a lot of voice-over would have been a motion comic, not a movie. Hopefully people will feel that I did justice to the material, that I remained loyal to the ideas, but it’s a different animal. It’s a movie. I hope it’s the movie people want from those books.”
Goodman also had to contend with creating two standalone seventy-minute scripts that would combine to tell one large, cohesive story as “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2” will not be released until 2013. “It was an interesting challenge,” he acknowledged. “My job was to look at the source material. The good news is, it’s so rich, it’s so dense, that I literally still had to leave things out, even with two full movies.”
Weller concluded by noting that at its heart, “The Dark Knight Returns” is a redemption story, but he joked that Batman would never find that unless he got married and had a family. “I got married and I have a kid at 65, how about that?” Weller asked reporters. “Nothing rejuvenates you like being 65 and being able to say — and we wish that Bruce Wayne would say this — ‘I’m going to eat those little footies.'”
“The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1” is available now on DVD/Blu-ray and digital download.