If it weren’t for Michael Uslan, we definitely wouldn’t be celebrating the 25th anniversary of Batman this week. In fact, Uslan is the reason there are any Batman films in theaters at all. You see, Uslan and his producing partner Benjamin Melinker are responsible for every live action Batman movie from 1989 to Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, plus 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as well as the animated Mask of the Phantasm and even The LEGO Movie. Basically, anytime Batman’s been in a movie, you can thank these guys.
When he attained the rights to make movies of the character in the late 70s, no one save for Uslan ever imagined that Batman would be the center of a multibillion-dollar grossing film phenomenon. Not even the brass at DC Comics! Only Michael Uslan — a self-described blue collar, comic fanboy from New Jersey — knew the world was ready for a “dark and serious” take on the Caped Crusader. In honor of the milestone anniversary of his labor of love, Michael agreed to sit down with me to talk about how he ultimately brought his vision of Batman to the big screen. Part One of our conversation is below.
KEITH: Can you believe it’s been 25 years since Batman already?
MICHAEL: No, I cant believe it. I really can’t. When I think back on the ten years that it took us to get that first movie made — from the time we acquired the rights from DC Comics — and if you go beyond that, it was really fourteen years, and if you go beyond that, it really goes back to about eighth grade for me — the night I had my own Bruce Wayne moment.
When you first vowed you’d tell your own Batman stories.
It’s been a long haul, over a lifetime. What I thought, naively, was a fairly quick, slam dunk approach to get a dark and serious Batman movie on the screen turned into a life’s journey. And that was part of the reason, after speaking at about 80 different colleges and universities, I decided to write my memoir The Boy Who Loved Batman, to document how a kid with nothing more than a dream and a passion, with no contacts or relatives in Hollywood, not coming from money, just being a blue collar kid from New Jersey, how this all was able to happen. Sometimes, it seems like a dream. Other times, it seems like a nightmare, but at the end of the day, all of the suffering and disappointment and grief at being told “this is a terrible idea,” having doors slammed in your face. Somehow, at the end of the line, it’s all been worth it.
I guess the question is, as you mentioned before — not having a Hollywood background, being a blue collar kid from Jersey — how did you get the keys to the kingdom?
Here’s a spoiler alert for everyone who would like to hear the intricacies of how I maneuvered all of this, and it has to be set in the context of the time. And you’re right. How does a veritable kid in his 20s buy the rights to Batman? How the hell could that possibly happen?
It’s like buying Apple stock in the 70s, right?
Something like that! And the real answer, Keith, is nobody else in the whole wide world wanted them.
That’s so hard to fathom now in 2014, isn’t it?
In the 1970s, Hollywood was controlled by studio execs, agents, financiers who were influenced by Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the nonsense that came out in the mid-50s. So the people that I had to deal with were largely people who, at best, thought that comic books were cheap, probably lurid. And at worst thought they were potentially harmful to kids. So when you have that, it creates an atmosphere of people looking down their noses at comics. So even if they weren’t harmful, at the very best, they were valueless.
I mean, I know that in the 70s and 80s, no one took the idea of a comic book superhero movie seriously and no one could have predicted the Batmania that came along in the late 80s.
Starting at the very beginning, no one placed any value on Batman at all during this period. When I went into DC to buy the rights, I went to a wonderful man who had mentored me into the comic book business: Sol Harrison who was vice president at the time — Carmine Infantino was president. And Sol knew how much I loved the history of comics and how I was always asking about stories directly from the sources. And they knew how much I loved it, appreciated it. So when I told Sol that I wanted to buy the rights to Batman, and do dark and serious Batman movies, he blanched and said, “Michael, for god’s sake, don’t do this. Since Batman [the television series] went off the air, he’s been as dead as a dodo. Nobody’s interested in Batman anymore. I don’t want to see you lose your money.”
Basically, you went from being a fan to getting the keys. But even when you got the keys, you couldn’t start the car right away. It took over a decade for you to see your vision on screen.
Understand when DC Comics was acquired by Warner Communications at the time — and the folks at Warner Publishing were very much high society types — people were embarrassed to have to admit that they now owned a comic book company. I was told point blank that the only reason they bought DC Comics was for Superman because they felt that was the only property that had value beyond comic books that could be made into a movie with loads of merchandising. Batman had his moment. There was no other value anywhere in the DC library other than Superman.
You mentioned Batman having his moment in the 60s, but it could be argued that Batmania of the late 80s rivaled, if not trumped, the phenomenon in the 60s in terms of Batman’s ubiquity. Did you feel vindicated?
Well, sure. I believe to this day that the first Batman movie was one of — if not the best — traditionally marketed movies in history. What other movie can you recall in which posters went up in city after city, without the name of the movie on it? Only a gold oval with a black bat? And of course the studio told us that 11% of people didn’t even see a bat but a reverse image instead of teeth and tonsils.
So they didn’t even initially put the name of the picture on it. And it became the coolest thing in the world. That summer of ’89, you could not walk across Times Square in New York 25 steps without seeing someone in a Batman t-shirt or a Batman hat. They had a problem that the bus-stops were being broken into and the posters being ripped off. Movie theaters were calling in not knowing how to deal with the problem of people asking for when the Batman trailer was going to be played. And they’d pay admission for that movie, watch the Batman trailer, and leave before the actual movie!
It was insane what was taking place. It had a cultural impact. It was not simply about box office records. For the first time ever, you had people on line for three days before the movie opened! It became almost like a social event. And remember, this was all pre-internet, pre-social media. It was an incredible experience.
Even though the internet didn’t exist yet, there were still bitter fanboys. The other thing about the ramp-up to Batman in the late 80s was the “controversy” surrounding the casting of Michael Keaton. It seems like every few years, we Batfans have to go through this moment where you have a bunch of naysayers criticizing a casting announcement — whether it’s Heath Ledger or Anne Hathaway or Ben Affleck — only to reverse course once the movie opens. You could say Keaton is the granddaddy of all of that. As the producer, but also as a fan yourself, what was your initial reaction when you learned Burton wanted Beetlejuice for Batman?
First, let’s back up a bit. From the beginning, I had taken the position, ardently, that Jack Nicholson was the only actor who could play the Joker. There’s a story I tell in my memoir: it was Memorial Day weekend, 1980 and I picked up the afternoon New York Post, which talked about two movies opening that weekend, one was The Empire Strikes Back and the other was a horror movie called The Shining. And there was the first time I had ever seen what was to become that iconic image of Jack Nicholson — the “Here’s Johnny” shot. When I saw that, I thought “Oh my god, this is the Joker!”
I tore that picture out out of the Post and as soon as I got home, I ran to my desk and took some White-Out to Jack’s face, took a red pen to his lips, and a green magic marker to his hair, and that was the Joker. I saved that picture all these years later and actually reproduced it in the book. That’s what I showed everyone connected to the Batman movies as to why Jack Nicholson had to play the Joker. So when Nicholson was hired, it was the greatest moment of my career to that point.
About ten days later, I get a call from one of the executives at the studio — he knew to break it to me slowly — and in our conversation, he asks, “so what do you think of Tim’s idea to have Michael Keaton as Batman?” And I laughed and said sarcastically, “that’s a great idea!” It took 20-30 minutes for him to convince me he was not joking. When I realized this was something on the verge of seriously happening, I was apoplectic. So when we all talk about how the fans go unreasonably crazy over the casting of a Heath or a Ben or an Anne–
That was you.
I was right there first in line! The difference between me and everyone else is I had access. I could then go to the source and ask him. I told Tim I didn’t understand. For all these years, we’d been working to bring a dark and serious Batman to the screen, how could you have a comedian play him? Also, forget that he’s a comedian, he didn’t have a square jaw, he doesn’t have the muscles, and he’s my height! And Tim just explained to me — in what, for me, defined the genius of his vision — that in going from one medium to another, “a square jaw does not a Batman make.” He said, “if we are going to be the revolutionary first movie to present a comic book superhero in a dark and serious way, in order to have mass audiences accept this and not laugh at it, it’s got to all be about a Bruce Wayne who audiences are convinced is so obsessed, so driven to the point of being psychotic, that they would understand why he would dress up in a batsuit.”
You couldn’t do that with other, more serious actors?
This is circa ’87-’88, so it was people like Dennis Quaid, Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner. Tim said he didn’t know how to show any of them getting into a batsuit without getting unintentional laughs from the audience. But with Keaton, first of all, he’s a really great actor, and as a result of that, they immediately set up a screening of the rough cut of Clean & Sober, and I came out of it saying, I take it all back! This guy is a terrific serious actor. Tim was absolutely right.
On my first day on the set at Pinewood Studios in London, there must have been 300 people around. At first, I could not pick Michael Keaton out of the crowd — even though he was in costume! He didn’t have his cowl or cape on, but he also didn’t jump out at me. But the first time I saw dailies? The genius of Tim Burton was crystal clear. He knew how to execute the vision he had, and it was incredible.
Twenty-five years later, even after the Nolan movies, Keaton’s portrayal is still a pretty high benchmark for any live action Batman. You could say, Keaton’s Batman set the precedent for a lot of superhero movie casting to come. I mean, just look at Robert Downey Jr. before Iron Man. It’s funny that Keaton is now always used as the exemplar of outside the box superhero casting and why fans shouldn’t overreact to casting announcements.
The answer begins with this question: do you believe the filmmaker cares? Does he or she have an understanding of the character? Does he or she have a vision and are they capable of executing it? That’s what it comes down to. Whether you’re talking about Tim Burton, Chris Nolan, Zack Snyder, these are people who are fans, who love these characters. While their particular vision might not mesh with yours, after 75 years, what is the true Batman anyway?