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'The Batman' production designer on turning Gotham City into 'a real place in America right now'
Matt Reeves' take on the Dark Knight's hometown is strikingly fresh and comfortably familiar at the same time.
When production designer James Chinlund got the call to help craft the world of Matt Reeves' The Batman, the Hollywood veteran (who has worked with industry titans like Darren Aronofsky and Jon Favreau) was understandably nervous. "I think I immediately went into the sweats as I thought about all the amazing iterations of Gotham that have come before me [and] the designers that I have so much respect for," he tells SYFY WIRE. "It’s sort of like, ‘How could we possibly find new space?’"
That initial wave of apprehension soon passed as Chinlund found solace in the idea of Reeves leading him and the rest of the crew "to the Promised Land. He found such an interesting take on Bruce and Batman; the idea that Bruce has turned his back on Wayne Industries and was really this self-made vigilante figure. It allowed me to start thinking about Gotham in a much more sort of method way."
The version of Gotham City in the Dark Knight's latest big screen reboot is nothing like audiences have ever seen before. It's a dark, dingy, dirty, and gritty metropolis enveloped in ominous sheets of rainfall on an almost constant basis (à la David Fincher's Se7en). In a lot of ways, Reeves' take on the city is a physical representation of the darkness swirling within Robert Pattinson's Bruce Wayne.
"If Gotham was a real place in America right now, how could we start to unpack that?" Chinlund muses. "We started into the [Batmobile] design and thinking about the car as a vehicle that Bruce had built himself and how could we show that visually? I love the idea of Bruce living in the city and living in the tower as opposed to living in the suburbs. It felt much more representative of who he might be and that led us to the Batcave as an old train station under that tower."
He continues: "As I started to follow those threads, it made me realize that we were finding new space and new bits of the world. It gave us a lot more confidence that we were gonna be able to deliver a Gotham that felt our own and new, and at the same time deliver to the fans a familiar feeling. That they felt like this is home [and would say] 'This is our Gotham that we know and love.' We weren’t interested in tearing that down, we just wanted to expand it and make it richer and deeper and make it feel like a complete world."
As Chinlund mentions in the official tie-in art book (on sale from Insight Editions April 15), the Batcave, which is located beneath Wayne Tower instead of beneath Wayne Manor, was inspired by an old train station that actually exists beneath the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. The legend goes that the station was built for high-profile guests — like POTUS, for instance — who could make a quick and safe getaway in case of an emergency.
"I really wanted it to feel like a space that was motivated by truth and history," the production designer adds. "I loved the idea of this elevator that went all the way from Wayne Tower at the top and led you straight down into this underground cavern. I would say the idea of this old, hidden train station under the Waldorf was really the kernel of the idea that we expanded [on]; just the idea that the Waynes were these moguls of industry [and] fathers of the city and would have access to something like that. That when they built their tower, not only did they have a tower, but they could build this whole underground complex as well."
One of Chinlund's favorite sets is the Iceberg Lounge where the the Penguin (Colin Farrell) and his incredibly powerful boss, Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), hold court. As a native New Yorker, the production designer based the club (and its crime boss's loft) on the Triborough area of his home state, again drawing on real-world history and architecture for a sense of genuine authenticity.
"I had heard this old story about Robert Moses, who was the father of the Parkway system in New York," he says. "This legendary, nefarious figure in New York history had an office under the Triborough Bridge under the toll plaza there and supposedly all of the money from the toll plaza flowed in a tube through his office. I always thought that was the most incredible layer for a bad guy, so combining that with the fact that I’d been to a few parties in the Anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge as a kid, it started to unpack this whole world."
For the scene in which District Attorney Gil Colson (Peter Sarsgaard) literally crashes the mayor's funeral service at Gotham City Hall, Chinlund and his team constructed the church-like interior from the ground up.
"It was a massive build because of the requirements of crashing this car through the crowd," he recalls. "We were really trying hard to find a practical solution for that scene, but I think in the end, it made sense for us to build it. It was a huge undertaking and I’m just so proud of the way that set came out. It was quite a journey getting there and not only did we get to build that entire interior onstage in this old blimp hanger outside of London, but then [we] got to establish that exterior in Liverpool. So it really touched on the incredible craft of the teams that we were using to build in London and then also took advantage of the architecture in the U.K. I think in a lot of ways, that set represents the triumph of our process. We really got to take advantage of the best of everything, and I think it really shows."
The challenge of having to build a fresh interpretation of the much beloved Batman mythos might have felt insurmountable, had Reeves (co-writer on the screenplay with Peter Craig) decided to go with a different production designer for this project. Fortunately, he had the good sense to team back up with Chinlund, who served him well on the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes. A shorthand between a pair of seasoned filmmakers was definitely needed for a behemoth The Batman.
"I’ve never met anyone with more stamina or strength or drive than Matt Reeves. He is an absolutely relentless, single-minded leader, and it was so inspiring for me as a filmmaker to be able to ride at his side. We went through a pandemic together and the challenges of starting with nothing and building a massive team together and figuring out this world," Chinlund explains.
"For example, when you just think about the detail involved in the [Riddler's] ciphers and all those clues, he’s in all those meetings. His level of detail and specificity is mind-boggling. I think that’s the beauty of working with a filmmaker who’s writing their own material. The buck stops with him and he knows what he wants and has the energy and drive to get there. It’s a very small group of humans that could actually do what Matt Reeves did and I continue to be gobsmacked at his endurance and drive and ultimately, his creative vision. I think the world is feeling it now, just what a powerful filmmaker he really is."
Both Chinlund and Reeves have come a long way since that first anxiety-inducing phone call. According to the production designer, there is no greater sense of satisfaction than seeing "Rob Pattinson and Zoe Kravitz walking onto your set in costume for the first time and really realizing that these are real. When you plug Rob into the Batmobile and see him drive away. As a lifelong Batman fan, those are the kind of memories that you just can’t make up. It was such a powerful feeling. I don't know that there was any one moment in particular [that stands out] as much as the accumulation of the pride I felt at being able to build this world and bring it to the fans and see it come to life. It was an incredible dream come true for me."
And if you think you've spotted any Easter eggs, then congratulations, you've probably spotted them all! "I’m not sure I have any secret ones," admits the production designer. "Obviously, we have the Shakespeare bust in the Wayne Tower. It was a big one and points to the Adam West origin story for us. I think both myself and Matt grew up watching [the] Adam West Batman [TV show]. That was sort of my entree into the Batman world and so, it was fun. Obviously, our world is just so different, but it was fun to bring some of those things in."
Since it opened nearly a month ago, The Batman has accrued over $300 million domestically and over $600 million worldwide. While neither figure is close to the gangbusters performance of Spider-Man: No Way Home — which was able to cross $1 billion in a single week — they are still impressive for a dark, director-driven comic book effort whose runtime hovers just shy of the three-hour mark. It'd be a shame if Warner Bros. didn't give Reeves and his team the green-light to revisit this world in a second (and perhaps even) third chapter.
"The Batman was (and is) the perfect movie at the perfect time, and because of the film's incredible box office performance, there is clearly justification to the accountants to keep the party going for Matt Reeves' vision of the world of Gotham," says Paul Dergarabedian, Senior Media Analyst at Comscore. "However, the more important currency is the quality of the film, the critical raves, and fan response, all of which have been extraordinary. This represents a turning point and a huge opportunity for the DC brand to take it to the next level and set a course for consistent creative output, a cohesive universe, and, of course, big box office returns. The Batman may have been dark in tone and visuals, but the future is very bright for the cinematic world of the Caped Crusader."
"How lucky are we as filmmakers to be able to even talk about going back to Gotham and getting to do it again?" Chinlund says with apparent glee in his voice when our discussion turns to the prospect of a potential sequel. "I think we learned that the more you dig into the history of Gotham and the history of the comics, there’s just so much to explore. It’s so rich [and there are] so many incredibly talented artists and writers have come before us, laying all this groundwork and all of these threads and amazing characters and rich locations. I think there’s no shortage of ideas to be mined and if we get to go again, I just feel like I would be the luckiest guy. Because it’s such a fun world to play in and feeling the reaction of the fans and knowing know how well they’ve been receiving it and how much they’re enjoying exploring our world. I just really hope we get to go again. It’d be so fun."
The Batman is now playing in theaters everywhere.