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'The Batman' production designer on creating an entirely new language for The Riddler's apartment

It took between a year and a year-and-a-half to bring Riddler's apartment and ciphers to fruition.

By Josh Weiss
The Batman (2022) Paul Dano Riddler

There's a moment in David Fincher's Se7en where, shortly after the police infiltrate John Doe's apartment, Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) touches on the extensiveness of the twisted ramblings found in the killer's abode. "If we had 50 men reading in 24 hours shifts, it'd still take two months," the seasoned and jaded veteran says to the young and brash Detective Mills (Brad Pitt). 

Not only is this meant to drive home the sadistic worldview held by Doe (and the meticulous way in which the man goes about his criminal activities), but it also serves as a testament to art director Clive Piercy and designer John Sabel — both of whom put in a great deal of work to craft this madman's library: an assemblage of notebooks punctuated by a cramped writing style that espouses skin-crawling ideologies.

The journals — which Sabel wrote himself over a reported course of two months and cost of $15,000 — were hand-sewed together with surgical needles and sutures in an effort to drive home the killer's obsessive-compulsive tendencies. In short, production design can go a long way in selling your cinematic world, especially if the narrative revolves around a depraved lunatic with a penchant for intricate puzzles and methods of murder that are as sickening as they are creative.

Now, almost three decades later, moviegoers can recapture that sense of foreboding and Fincher-esque discovery with a cache of items from the Riddler's (Paul Dano) apartment featured in writer-director Matt ReevesThe Batman.

***WARNING! The following contains minor spoilers for the film!***

The Art of The Batman PRESS

Recently released via the website from the movie, the folder of images ranges from nigh-illegible journal entries, to diagrams of unique torture devices, to voyeuristic photographs of prime targets, to crime scene photos of the place where Edward Nashton hangs his roll of duct tape after a busy day (less of a home and more of a ghastly shrine to the rampant corruption in Gotham City).

"The Riddler is the one who wove this web. The whole narrative structure of the film is based on the clues and the past of the Riddler’s journey and mission," production designer James Chinlund tells SYFY WIRE. "I think throughout the entire writing process, Matt was really the one who had to craft this incredibly detailed and intricate detective story and web of clues and ciphers and all sorts of things that lead Batman to the final outcome ... I think in a certain way, Riddler’s apartment — aside from its importance to the narrative — it’s really almost like this museum of the process that it took to make the movie. I think you’re seeing so much detail and so much careful thought that Matt brought to crafting this detective story."

While the film does run just shy of three hours long, it can still be difficult to spot every single piece of minutiae that pops up on the big screen. Indeed, it may take The Batman home release for viewers to break everything down, frame-by-glorious frame.

"I think in a lot of ways, people take that for granted," Chinlund adds. "Not only did we have to make all that stuff, but Matt had to conceive all of that incredible detail. So we were designing ciphers and a whole interface for the computer and the thumb drive sequence and the build for the rat maze. It flows on by you in the movie, but I think when you get to the Riddler’s, you go, ‘Oh my gosh! Look at all this!’ We were hoping that the impact would be one of just sheer awe at the relentless drive that the Riddler brought to his mission in the same way that Batman brought that drive to his mission. And, for me as a filmmaker, [the drive that] Matt Reeves brought to his mission, trying to bring these worlds to life. I think it really is a visual representation of the relentless madness of the character."


The Riddler-based design process alone took between a year and a year-and-a-half to complete. "We had to develop a language, a physical written language," Chinlund explains. "The language of the cipher and then there was his handwriting in the journals, which were incredibly detailed and sort of obsessive-compulsive. And then there was also the computer aspect; the interface when he’s live-streaming and his interface at the ‘el rata alada’ url. It was a powerful operation in and of itself while we were also tasked with making the rest of the movie."

Chinlund and his team might have felt a bit more pressure, had they not been afforded more time by the lengthy production hiatus caused by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago.

"The break was obviously horrific in a lot of ways for the world. But I think for us, it was a real blessing in a lot of ways," says the production designer, echoing comments made by Reeves in April 2020. "It did allow us to catch our breaths and sort of reorganize and regroup. It gave us a bit of a second prep and we absolutely took advantage of that. A lot of our sets were up, but [for] things like the Riddler’s [apartment] I think it really allowed us to refine what we’d been doing and be a bit more precise in the end."

Ever since the first teaser trailer dropped at DC FanDome in August 2020, audiences have drawn comparisons between this Dark Knight reboot and the films of David Fincher — not only Se7en, but to Zodiac as well.

"I think a lot of Matt’s references go back further than that. Klute, for example, and the films of [Alan J.] Pakula were a real touchstone for him and our world development," Chinlund concludes, referring to the influence of '70s conspiracy thrillers like Chinatown and All the President's Men. "[But] I think the influence of Se7en is undeniable. Obviously, we love that film and Fincher’s work, so it definitely had its place. But I think the real origin for Matt goes back further into the ‘70s. Just capturing texture and grit of that world. That was really what was leading us forward. But there are obvious parallels there in the fact that it’s a web of clues and crime and all that sort of stuff. There’s no denying that Se7en was an influence as well."

The Batman is now playing in theaters everywhere. Since its big screen debut earlier this month, the film has made almost $600 million at the global box office (domestically speaking, it surpassed $300 million in North America this past weekend). Just prior to the weekend, DC announced a Riddler prequel comic written by Dano and illustrated by Stevan Subic. Issue #1 goes on sale this October.

The Batman PRESS