Michael Uslan: Man Behind the Batman – Part 2

In Part 1 of our interview with producer Michael Uslan, conducted at Comic-Con International a few weeks ago, he talked about how he got involved with making the “Batman” movies. In Part 2, he talks about Constantine and a few of his other films in development, as well as the general state of comic book movies.

SHH!: You talked about how Hollywood viewed comic book movies back when you started working on “Batman.” Do you think more people get it now?

Michael Uslan: There’s been a sea change. The studios, after me and others were in the trenches battling for 25 years, they finally get it that comic book movies are not something that will be hot one summer and then cool the next. That it’s not a genre. It’s an ongoing source of stories and characters the same way screenplays and plays and novels are. So they finally get that. The second thing they finally get is that no longer in their minds do they equate comic book and superheroes. They finally understand, thanks to “Road to Perdition”, thanks to “Men in Black”, thanks to “Constantine” and “Sin City”, that no matter what you’re looking for—war, Western, humor, horror, fantasy—you can find it in the comic books. The third key change: For the first 20 years, you had that snobbery, that effete sense of looking down your nose at comic books. That generation is either gone or fast vanishing. The new generation of execs, agents and the talent pool are people who grew up with comics, they respect comics, they respect the artists and the writers and the editors, and as a result of that, not only do they embrace it, but the #1 talent pool for movies, TV and animation are coming out of the comic book field as well as the video field. And that is a tremendous change. I think we’re in the Golden Age of comic book movies.

SHH!: What do you think has to be done to bring those people who love the movies we’ve discussed into comic shops to buy the comics?

Uslan: To me, you can ask the same question here at Comic-Con. How can there be 100,000 fanatical and passionate people here, yet comic books are selling 20,000 to 40,000. It’s the same question: Where are all these people every Wednesday? I think part of the answer is that wider distribution is needed. You need to be able to show your wares in order for people to be able to buy it. If a comic book store is located in a bad part of town in a walk-up, parents are going to want to go and they’re not going to want their kids to go. Comic books have to become more visible in front of the general public and some new kinds of thinking are needed in order to do that. If you can go into your local McDonald’s where kids go every Saturday and there were comics there, or into your movie theatre and in the lobby when you go to see “Fantastic Four”, “Batman” and “War of the Worlds” there were new comics there. There’s gotta be an exploration of how better to market and distribute them. In the best of all worlds, as far as I’m concerned, you ask where do kids and teenagers and college students go and wherever they are, be it Blockbuster, Loews Theatres, McDonald’s…figure it out and get some comics out there. I think ultimately that’s more the answer, because comics, the quality of the product and the diversity of genres, have never been better.

SHH!: There’s an interesting phenomenon going on with comic book fans and the movies. None of them are too happy if the movie is too different from the comics. “Constantine” is a great example of this, because it got a lot of negative early flack because you had Keanu Reeves, a dark-haired American, playing the role. Can you talk about this desire to separate the movies from the comics?

Uslan: Two key things here: #1 that was critical to us was to get the full support of Karen Berger, the editor of the Vertigo line. We wanted to make sure that in her heart, she could stand up and say that this captures the essence of Constantine, the characters, the stories and most of that movie was derivative from various storylines that are found in the comics. Tim Burton said something to me early on, which directly applies to “Constantine”. At the time of the first “Batman” movie, when I had been dedicating my life to doing a serious dark version of Batman, I get a call one day asking what I thought of Michael Keaton playing Batman. So I laughed, because I thought it was a joke. “Great. Mr. Mom as Batman.” It took him 20 minutes to convince me he was serious. I thought he was going to destroy everything I had been working towards. He told me that first, he was a serious actor, and they actually set up a screening of the rough cut of “Clean and Sober” for me, but physically, he doesn’t look anything like Batman. He’s my height, he doesn’t have the musculature and he doesn’t have the square jaw. And Tim Burton said to me “Michael, a square jaw does not a Batman make. In cinema, it’s about the character and about creating a portrayal of an obsessed, driven to the point of nearly being psychotic Bruce Wayne, who I can get audiences to suspend their disbelief about, to buy into the fact that this is a guy who would get dressed up as a bat and fight crime in Gotham City.” He said “You want to do it seriously? That’s the only way I know we can do it without getting unintentional laughs from the audience. If I try to put Harrison Ford or Dennis Quaid or Kevin Costner, serious actors quote-unquote, in a Batman costume, I’m going to get unintentional laughs.” And as it turned out, he was exactly right. It was the greatest call and all of fandom, after me, learned that and then nobody wanted anyone else to play Batman.

The same thing’s true with Constantine. A British accent does not a John Constantine make. Blonde hair does not a John Constantine make. It is about the essence of that character and his personality, which is nailed in that movie, and I’m very proud of it. (Uslan’s partner F.J. mentioned that the turning point for the change in attitude towards Keanu as Constantine happened when Warner Brothers showed fifteen minutes from the movie at Comic-Con International.)

SHH!: Who found Francis Lawrence to direct that movie? I thought that he did a great job.

Uslan: I think he’s potentially the next Alfred Hitchcock. He’s one of the greatest storytellers around.

SHH!: Has Keanu been signed to do another movie yet?

Uslan: There are discussion ongoing at the moment.

SHH!: Have you thought about what comic property you might want to turn into a movie next?

Uslan: Having done Batman Begins, what do you do as a follow-up? And for me, the answer was “Will Eisner’s The Spirit.” You talk about special material. I think it’s one of the greatest creative works ever to come out of the comic book industry in the last 70 years. That is a great creative challenge, and I have a team working together. Everyone’s on the same page dedicated to making it happen the right away, and we’ve totally financed it independently, so there will be no studio involvement in the making of the film. We’re really pumped. Jeph Loeb is writing the script as we speak. The only thing I can say about the cast at this point is that Will once said, back when he created the Spirit, he always thought that Cary Grant would be the guy. For me, someone of a slightly different generation…50 years ago, James Garner would have been the perfect Spirit. He had the drop dead good looks, so you could believe that the Femme Fatales would all fall at his feet, and he had just the right wry sense of the humor that could pull off the Spirit. We need to find ourselves this new generation’s James Garner/Cary Grant. Well, one of the great things is that we got Will’s input on the movie. We ran everything by him, so we know his thinking, and now we have his wife Anne that we can rely on and also Denis Kitchen, who was on our Spirit movie panel [at Comic-Con].

SHH!: Is it true that you’re also involved with a “Shazam!” movie? It’s kind of a departure since you’ve set up this template for dark and serious comic book movies, and then you have Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family, who are bright and colorful and nice.

Uslan: Well, you gotta take a look at the marketplace. I don’t like to follow. I like to be called crazy and insane and ahead of time. I’ve heard it so much over my career that I kind of like it. So by going in a bit of a different direction, I think is great to be at the forefront of that. With “Shazam!” we’ve got something very special in the works, and we’re handling it with kid gloves and developing the script very, very slowly and making sure it’s nailed. I think we’re going to have some real exciting announcements later this year about that.

SHH!: You know that if that happens, you’ll have been involved with movies based on three iconic comic book characters who have been around for over fifty years, right?

Uslan: It’s so great for me. I’m taking all the characters that I grew up and I loved so much. I’ve taken my passions for them and made them my work. I don’t care how grey I’m getting. I feel like I’m 16 for the rest of my life. It’s a wonderful situation to be in.

Batman Begins is still out in theatres in some areas, while Constantine is currently available on DVD. Look for more about Michael Uslan’s other upcoming projects right here on Superhero Hype!.

Source: Edward Douglas