For screen car buffs and comic book aficionados alike, it's always a special moment when a new-model Batmobile makes its debut.
With each new iteration of Batman on the big and small screens, Hollywood filmmakers have faced the increasingly exciting -- if occasionally daunting -- challenge of redefining the Dark Knight's ride for a new audience. The latest in that line is production designer Patrick Tatopoulos, previously a concept artist, creature designer and a film director himself ("Underworld: Rise of the Lycans") who was tapped by his prior collaborator, director Zack Snyder, to help realize the cinematic world of "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice."
With a passion and imagination for the vehicle that comes across as loud and clear at the roar of the Batmobile's high-octane engine, Tatopolous joined CBR News for an in-depth look at how he took a new version of the world's most famous fictional car from napkin sketch to the streets -- as well as hinting that there are still some tricks under the hood to discover in the upcoming "Justice League" films.
CBR News: If there's ever a job that can bring out the little kid in somebody in the absolutely most cool and grownup way, it's got to be the job of designing the toys for Batman.
Patrick Tatopoulos: Zack told me, "This is not 'Dark Knight' meets 'Man of Steel.' But it's actually 'Man of Steel' meeting our Batman." That became really, really interesting for me, and I said, "Are we creating a new Batmobile? Are we creating a new Batcave?" He said yes, and I was like, "All right, cool -- I'm so in!" It was amazing -- Batman is my favorite superhero.
I'm not kidding! 15 minutes later, I stepped in a coffee shop around the corner. I was so pumped that I started to draw the Batmobile. The first sketch of the Batmobile -- which I still have, actually -- became a bit of a deal because the Batmobile never changed from the very first sketch. It stayed the same. Sometimes things come really quickly, sometimes they drag a bit. In this case, I just was so excited and inspired, the first sketch became the template. I went back to show it to Zack, and he said, "Yeah, that's it. That's the car. Love it."
My inspiration were two things: first, I always wanted to bring back to the Batmobile that gothic, classic look, the cockpit further back, more of a Tim Burton Batmobile, like [1989 "Batman" production designer] Anton Furst, if you may -- the very first one. I thought this was important, that we keep that classy feeling to the car. Although we're in a modern movie, I think those things are important. Bring back the sense of a cape flowing in the night, that kind of thing.
Second of all -- and to me it was very important -- I always felt the Batmobile, in essence, the way they're conceived and achieved, are very low to the ground, and when they land, they land hard for a car you want to use everywhere. The vibe about the Batmobile -- and you may not see that so much on the very first movie, but you'll see it coming your way -- is that car can actually raise itself and lower itself. I always felt, if I'm Batman and I'm driving anywhere in the city, anywhere on the countryside, I want a car that can raise and lower itself. That sort of defined the proportion of the car.
When Zack came back, he said, "This is great. I always wanted this thing to feel more like a tank, but not being the Tumbler [from the Christopher Nolan films]." So it was kind of a way to marry all those things together.
Tell me a little bit about the comic book Batmobiles that added to your vision. Were there particular ones that you'd seen in different comics that lingered in your mind?
If you talk about the comic books, I would say, not really. The whole vibe was very much like "The Dark Knight [Returns]," like Frank Miller... Those are inferences that we strike, and things that you have in the back of your mind, because you feel this is one of the best look of it, one of the best expressions of that character. That said, I think it's very important that you don't step into a project like that with re-opening all those books, or just getting photos or images. Then, you repeat things that have been done.
Tell me about some of the gadgets and the other cool flourishes that got added, either by what was needed by the script or by things you just thought were going to be cool to build.
There're basically a lot of areas in the car we haven't completely explained. I wanted to do a car that doesn't say, "This is what I do -- end of story." I don't want to reveal too much because of these movies that are coming, but there's a lot of places in the car where those things were thought out, the way those things are going to come and what is it going to do.
Story-wise, we knew what we needed, those weapons are on the car -- the missile launcher, countermeasure devices, all the things you would expect for the Batmobile. But there's more, because we know we're not going to use that car only in one movie. We wanted to make sure we already have that car set up with all the options for us.
Walk me through some of the fun parts of bringing your concept to physical life in the construction of the Batmobile.
I knew we had to build the car fast -- we had just a few months to build this car. We didn't have, like, two-and-a-half years of development, which means the design was pretty much done, but not in any sense refined to the place it should be when you build a vehicle.
We hired Dennis McCarthy to start building the framework, the structure, the chassis, and all the stuff you don't see on the car: the true body of the car. Dennis McCarthy is a great car builder. He works on all the "Fast and Furious" movies. He's very talented, but more than that, he's a man that raced and still does race sports cars, so he came on board. As he was starting to develop the chassis based on the design that I had done, we kept refining the car. So we worked parallel. It was kind of crazy because the set designer was defining, and the engineer were defining some aspects of the car.
One reason I went with Dennis to build the car is because some other people, when I showed them the design said, "Wow -- it's going to be hard to find those big tires on the back of the car. Would you mind having two of them, or one big one? Would you mind to have it a bit smaller?" Don't give up right away! Show me that there's an effort to try to find those things.
And Dennis found those tires. He found them in Israel. The real tires for a car, they existed on that scale for what we needed. He found the type of tractor in Israel that people are building custom-made tires for, and they were exactly the size we wanted.
Tell me about that first time you actually saw the car being driven and in action. What was that feeling like?
Often, you find that you design something and then you take off because you have to do the rest of the movie. I was very lucky that the car was getting built when I there, every two days I was at the shop, being part of the process of building the car. I had that revelation of "Wow, I'm seeing my car!"
When the car was finished, we had to build two cars, parallel, at the same time. The second one was a bit backed up from the first one. We were achieving final detail and final testing on one to make sure we could apply it to the second car. I went to Detroit to start building the set -- the Batcave and everything -- and it was the middle of winter and it was snowy, and the car was shipped. It arrived in a big truck, and the day they unloaded the car, I was outside.
It was dark, and I hear the sound in the hangar and slowly it came down -- I filmed this. That was extremely emotional moment, to see that car with all the people around the studio at the time looking at this thing coming, driving super slow, the dark grey/black car, riding into the snow and positioning itself for a few shots -- it's like, whatever you do, even if you've seen it, whenever it comes it's in its own context in the place it should be, and you look at it.
Here's a key question: have you gotten to drive the car?
I did! The first time I drove it, it was just the chassis in the shop in North Hollywood where we built the car... I drove it there in the parking lot. It was kind of crazy, because that car is hugely wide. It's nine feet wide in a regular parking lot. It was incredible. The power was there, it was phenomenal.
The second time is when the car arrived in Detroit. The EPK people wanted an interview of me on the car, and I sat in the car to talk about it. Then they said, "Hey, you should drive it." We turned on the car and drove it. At the time, my wife was there and I just did one loop around the whole structure -- it was really great. I told her to come inside the car as well. We both jumped in the car. That was like, "No way -- this is just too cool!"
Ben Affleck is an old school comic book fan. Tell me about the effect that that car has on anybody who gets behind the wheel, but especially watching the guy playing Batman do it.
Ben is a very tall guy -- big guy. He's like six-foot-four. I mean, I'm not small -- I'm six-foot-two, but an extra two inches is a big deal. We did a big cutout of the car, full-size, to look at it on the wall. It was like, "It's not big enough. It's not scary, it's not going to work." We blew up the image and made it an extra ten percent bigger, and then that was the car. And I'm glad I did, because you fit barely in this car! You just squeeze in, it's almost like a Formula One when you sit in there.
Ben was having a blast in this car. He really embraced it. I believe, for an actor who's playing a part like this, it's almost become part of the language of the Batman if you're Bruce Wayne or if you play Bruce Wayne. All those elements are designed to shape the character that you are.
In the early stages Zack said, "You know, I was thinking, maybe the car should never be clean and brand new. When you first see it in the garage, it should already be used. Like, it's got scratches, it's got repairs." That was, to me, the genius that Zack has. You go to the museum at Warner Brothers with all the cars, and there's only one that looks beat up and used, and it's ours. I think that's so much part of what the Batman should be.
Tell me about taking that design aesthetic and spreading it to the other elements of Batman's world, the Batcave and the various tools and weapons that he uses.
I had to find one object that would set up the tone and define the man. The car was that, as you know. The feel, the color of the car, the finishes, the roughness of the car, the elegant lines... All those things became a template for everything else. It started with color. I was talking to Zack about I want the dashboard to be orange, all the lights a burnt orange. The car is actually a very dark charcoal grey, it's not black.
All that language sort of became part of the Batcave as well. It's concrete, but it's steel. The steel that is, again, not black -- it's a very dark charcoal grey. We designed the lights with little accents of orange. Every object, the roughness, the shapes, the lines, the boldness of the elements of the car, became part of the cave itself, and so on with the props, with the weapons.
You got a chance, I'm sure, to see in person some of the other TV and movie Batmobiles. What was that experience like for you? I know that it's always a special thing for me to get to see them up close and personal.
If I look at the car, I understand the feel. Without watching the film, I know the theme, the look, the texture. Looking at the real Batmobiles... I had visited them, and there are cars in the lineup -- I'm not going to say which one of the cars just don't seduce me at all, that just to me are not telling the story, going in a place where it's not quite at least the way I would see Batman.
Then there's the ones that are revolutionary, and some that are very, very interesting. The Tumbler was such an interesting take on the vehicle. I highly admire the work they've done on the Tumbler. The boldness and deciding to go in a totally different direction than you would expect, to me, is admirable...I thought that was a very interesting take, a very smart take.
I go back to the Anton Furst one. There is a silhouette to it, so at night, when it's dark, it looks like a cape on top of an engine. I wanted the body of [our] car to look like a cape flowing -- that's why you have that big tail on the back. I think that Anton Furst one is a bit of that language as well; the car looks like a cape floating in the streets.
Then it gets into different looks for future generations, the car became a bit more shiny, with elements that kind of fits its era, its period. This is not really a criticism to the vehicle. It's just those are less appealing to me, but actually fit a period where people were in a different set of mind.
To you, what's the feeling knowing that your car is going to be an instant icon for people? It's going to be a toy, a model, a sculpture, it's going to be something that is looked at whenever a new Batman movie and a new Batmobile comes out. Your car will be looked at and reexamined and fondly recalled. What is that legacy part of the job mean to you?
I was talking with Zack about this, saying, "The movie's going to be released. How do you feel? It's crazy. It's huge. It's bigger than anything you've done before, in some ways." He says, "It's so much bigger than us." That, to me, was the perfect answer. The Batmobile, that iconic object that didn't come from me -- I didn't invent the Batmobile. This is such an iconic thing, it's such a cultural item that people have known for years. You're lucky to do an interpretation of it.
The power that comes from just the name of that object, that's your design, sort of drives you in places where your vehicle will become something a part of the story of filmmaking to a much higher level than what you could get just doing a generic film. It's just like, it is bigger than us.
Well, I'm glad that you're still getting to play with it. Are you having some fun taking it to the next level for what you've got planned ahead for the "Justice League" films?
It's actually extremely challenging to take a vehicle, design something in its raw shape, in its look, and then say, "How do you upgrade that thing next time?" Very often, we upgrade the wrong way. We actually end up losing the beauty and the boldness of the line of the vehicle because we're going to make this bigger, bigger, whatever. At the end of the day, your vehicle doesn't have any visual integrity anymore.
I'm excited about what I'm doing on the next phase, because it is another chance to develop the car, but I'm also very conscious. "Just watch what you're doing. Don't go in that place where it's all stupid stuff. You're adding to the car to make it cooler, and it's not." It's a challenge, but it's a really fun one.