HEAT VISION

The Battle to Make Tim Burton’s 'Batman'

Thirty years after the hit, Kim Basinger, producer Michael Uslan and actor Robert Wuhl recall tense table reads, alternate castings (Michelle Pfeiffer as Vicki Vale?) and convincing Hollywood the Dark Knight had potential: "Not only did they turn us down, they basically said, 'This is the worst idea we've ever heard.'"
1989's 'Batman' became a hit after spending years in development hell.   |   Warner Bros./Photofest
Thirty years after the hit, Kim Basinger, producer Michael Uslan and actor Robert Wuhl recall tense table reads, alternate castings (Michelle Pfeiffer as Vicki Vale?) and convincing Hollywood the Dark Knight had potential: "Not only did they turn us down, they basically said, 'This is the worst idea we've ever heard.'"

Today, Batman is one of the biggest superheroes in Hollywood. He's the kind of character whose casting inspires intense scrutiny and lots of opinions from the public. And why not? Whoever wears the cape and cowl could bring either box office billions or public shame for studio Warner Bros.

Hollywood's obsession with Batman began thirty years ago on June 23, 1989 when Tim Burton, Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson showed doubters that The Dark Knight was worthy of the big screen. Batman earned a massive $411.5 million globally, but faced a tough battle to the big screen that involved rejection from nearly every studio in Hollywood and its leading lady being re-cast at the last minute.

Batman has an origin story that begins in the most unassuming of places — with a twenty-something comic book geek attending college at Indiana University in Bloomington. In 1972, Michael Uslan landed on the radar of Sol Harrison, the vice president of DC Comics in New York, because the junior in college was teaching the world’s first-ever college accredited course on comic books.

“Sol said that what I was doing at Indiana was very innovative and good for the whole comic book industry," Uslan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Sol and DC’s then President Carmine Infantino, flew me to New York and they offered me a job.” Uslan worked in New York in summers, and he was put on retainer while he was at Indiana.

At the time, DC Comics had been acquired by Warners Communications, a division of Warner Publishing. “The Warner Publishing brass, generally speaking, were not a bunch of happy campers that they owned a comic book company,” Uslan says. “They only saw value in Superman.”

In the following years, Uslan graduated from law school and cut his teeth in the film industry at United Artists. His time there prepared Uslan to make his dream of producing a dark and serious Batman movie a reality. His first stop: getting the film rights.

“The day came when I went back to Sol Harrison and said, 'Sol, I want to buy the rights to Batman,’” Uslan recalls.  “Sol was genuinely apoplectic. He was very fond of me, which I greatly appreciated. He said 'Michael, Michael for God’s sake don't do this. I don't want to see you lose all your money. Don’t you understand that after Batman went off the air on TV the brand became as dead as a dodo? Nobody’s interested in Batman anymore’ I countered with, ‘But Sol, nobody’s ever done a dark, serious Batman feature film. This is almost going to be like almost a new form of entertainment!’”

Uslan had found a like-minded partner in former MGM executive Benjamin Melniker, and the two of them spent the next six months negotiating the deal for the Batman film rights. On Oct. 3 1979, this particular dynamic duo acquired the film rights to Batman.

Although Uslan has never publicly commented on the nature of the deal, he does say that the property was optioned for a substantial sum of money, the equivalent of how much producers of 1978's Superman had paid, even though DC thought Batman was worthless as a film property. Payments were due at six months, then payments every so many years until a Batman film went into production.

“It really was a high-pressure, ticking clock scenario,” Uslan says. “I had quit my job at United Artists and I went to L.A. figuring that every studio would line up at my doorstep, because they would understand the potential for sequels and animation and toys and games and everything that comes along with it.”

Uslan was stunned when he and Melniker’s pitch for a dark Batman film was turned down by every studio. “Not only did they turn us down, they basically said, ‘This is the worst idea we've ever heard,'” Uslan recalls.

A common practice in Hollywood is to get a star actor attached to a project to gain the studio’s interest. This path was not an option for Uslan and Melniker.

“Batman had been on TV in '66, '67, ’68… reruns were still on the air,” Uslan says. “There was no way a star was going to get on board with this without a full script or a director with a very specific vision as to how this was going to work.”

As a result, it took 10 years from the time they bought the rights to the day that the film was released. Ten very long years that Uslan refers to as a “human endurance contest.”

Surprisingly, Uslan actually turned down the opportunity to make a Batman film prior to Burton’s 1989 film. “We had a company tell us that they would do us a favor and make our movie, but it had to be in the '60s Batman redux with the POW and the WHAMS. I said, ‘No way!’”

At one particular meeting, Uslan recalls feeling particularly dejected and being asked, “Are you sure you don't just want to do it that way? Isn’t getting a movie done better than having no movie done?'”

Uslan replied with, "Yeah I'm sure, I am not going to let it happen that way. We're just not going to do it."

After that heart-breaker, Uslan sat down with partner Melniker and bemoaned their situation.

“It’s just sad that everyone has been saying no," Uslan recalls saying. The older and wiser Melniker responded with, “It’s pretty ironic that the last person to say ‘no' was you. Do you know what you are?"

Uslan recalls responding with, “Yeah, an idiot." Melniker shook his head and replied, “No, you’re Batman's Batman. You are defending him, you are protecting him."

Melniker then mentioned Casa Blanca Records, a company known for being the “Kings of Disco.” That company had two main executives, one of them being Peter Guber, whom Melniker had met years earlier and thought might be open to their pitch.

Uslan didn’t understand the point of pitching it to a record company, but Melniker got a tip that they were getting a cash infusion from a European company to begin a film division.

Uslan and Melniker pitched their take on Batman to Guber over a phone call and he immediately wanted to meet in person. Days later, Uslan and Melniker pitched it to Guber in person, and the young executive was sold on Uslan’s vision for the dark and serious Batman film. They agreed to put up the development money and thus began a journey to the big screen.

The Casa Blanca deal for Batman was originally supposed to be a Universal Pictures release, but through a veritable game of hot potato as companies were bought and deals unraveled, it went to Orion, then a ten-month negotiation at 20th Century Fox fell through, before Batman ultimately landed at Warner Bros. with producer Jon Peters.

Guber, Peters, and Warner Bros. were drawn to the animator-turned-director Tim Burton, who was coming off the visually gorgeous box office hits Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice (which starred Keaton).

Uslan remembers the key words that Burton told him regarding this Batman adaptation.

“Tim said, ‘This is not a movie about Batman. If we're going to do it seriously, this is a movie about Bruce Wayne,’” Uslan recalls. 

Actor Robert Wuhl, who played the journalist Alexander Knox in the film, recalls his thoughts on Burton's vision from their early conversations. “I was not a fan of the TV show, and the idea of this new direction from Tim appealed to me greatly,” Wuhl says. “Peters and Gruber didn’t even want to go as dark as Tim, but Tim stuck to his guns and you gotta give him credit for that.”

Despite Burton’s previous box office successes, it wasn’t clear how he’d deliver another box office winner, especially with the controversial casting of comedic actor Keaton in the lead role. Keaton’s casting sparked a backlash, with tens of thousands of letters sent to Warner Bros in protest.

"When we shot in London, people were calling Batman Mr. Mum instead of Mom,” Wuhl says of the jab on Keaton's 1983 comedy Mr. Mom. “I always knew Michael would deliver and I knew the letters wouldn’t faze him. Michael is tough. But you wonder, if social media had been around back then, if Warner Bros. would have stood up to it… the reaction was that strong.”

Uslan recalls a different strategy for finding Burton’s Batman. “When it started out, we were all talking about having an unknown play Batman the way Christopher Reeve was unknown prior to Superman… that made all the sense in the world to me."

When Uslan got the news about Keaton, he was in the same mindset as most of the fans. “I thought they were joking when they told me Michael Keaton was cast,” Uslan recalls. “We've been at this for seven-and-a-half years now to do a dark and serious Batman and they appeared to want to hire a comedian."

Uslan’s faith in the future actor came from seeing an early screening of Keaton’s 1988 addiction drama Clean and Sober. “After seeing that film, I said, ‘I take it all back. This is a great, serious actor.’” 

Unlike the modern day practices of handing out portions of the script, or in some cases sharing fake scripts on high-profile projects like Batman, the cast received the entire draft.

“I actually died in the original script,” Wuhl says.

In the original script, Wuhl's Knox is knocked unconscious while defending Vicki Vale, the photographer and love interest for Bruce Wayne. She was ultimately played by Kim Basinger, but Blade Runner’s Sean Young was originally cast in the role.

Wuhl recalls the two very different table reads that took place before the film’s principal photography. “Jon Peters, Tim Burton and the entire cast were there at the first reading and it went really well,” Wuhl says. “Afterwards, everybody gives their input in pecking order… so it was Jack, then Michael, then Sean, then me.”

Things didn't go as well at read No. 2.

“All sorts of people flew in for this one,” Wuhl says of the read, which had Warner Bros. execs and producers in attendance. “More than a few of Sean’s lines were lost in the rewrite and about halfway through, she made a comment that 'I feel like I'm disappearing from the pages.' And then proceeded ... for the rest of the reading to read in a monosyllable, monotone voice. It sucked all the energy out of the room.”

Wuhl says that while it did not go over well, Young was also not wrong about the reduction of the character. “I've seen Sean since then and we're friendly still to this day, and it’s true she was disappearing from the page,” Wuhl notes. “After that, more Vicki Vale was added to the script. But the way she sabotaged the rest of the reading with all the brass there on the most expensive movie of all time… people’s jobs are on the line. That was a really touchy moment.”

As principal photography was set to begin, Young had a horse riding accident that left her unable to perform the role. “To some Warner Bros. executives, this was a blessing in disguise. The fact is they were very happy to replace her," says Wuhl.

Following the injury, producer Jon Peters was gunning to have Michelle Pfeiffer take over the role of Vicki Vale. That casting choice, according to Wuhl, was blocked by Keaton himself. 

“To put a little fly in the ointment, Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer had previously dated and broken up," says Wuhl. "At the time, Michael told me he was trying to get back with his ex-wife. Keaton was firmly, and underline firmly, against that casting of Pfeiffer and he and Peters got into it.”

Pfeiffer would go on to replace a pregnant Annette Bening in the Batman sequel, 1992's Batman Returns, portraying Selina Kyle/Catwoman to much praise.  

Kim Basinger was the first choice for the Vale replacement that was universally approved by the creative team, and she was immediately asked to fly to the set.

“I remember just getting a call saying, “How quickly can you get over here?’” Basinger recalls. “I think I was in a parking garage or something and I remember thinking, ‘Wow… London… Batman.’ I didn't really know what I was getting into; I certainly couldn’t comprehend the scope of it.

When Basinger walked on set, she was awestruck at the design and scope of Gotham City. “You don’t realize until you’re there that they built this whole city in London,” Basinger recalls of the stunning set from Burton and production designer Anton Furst. “I felt like I was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I should have been looking around for the lion or the Tin Man.”

Despite arriving with the film in full production, Basinger brought her own creative vision for the character of Vicki Vale and how she would fit into Gotham. “I wanted her to be tough in the newsroom, but I wanted her to be feminine like Cinderella,” Basinger says.

Burton was open to ideas from the cast, whether it was improvising in the scenes or even rewrites.

“I love collaboration and I feel that if you've got an idea, bring it on the table. And if I'm wrong who cares.” says Basinger. “Tim was really great when I would write a scene or came to him with an idea we would explore it.”

Wuhl also recalled Tim’s openness on set. “The character of Knox was clearly on the page, but Tim would let you play,” he says. When the police take away two Batman-traumatized thieves, Knox asks the cop if Batman is on the police payroll. Wuhl improvised, “And if so, what’s he bringing down, after taxes?”  Wuhl also improvised “The King of the Wicker People” line as Knox and Vicki Vale examine the statues in Bruce Wayne’s mansion.

Throughout the film, Vicki Vale and Batman are repeatedly rising into the air, hanging from ledges and falling. The stunt work was something Basinger embraced with enthusiasm. “I’m a dancer and an acrobat in a lot of ways, and heights are not a problem for me,” she says.

In one scene, Vale lies about her weight in a line that seems dated today but reflected the era.

"I loved that moment in the movie when we're supposed to go up on the grapple gun and Batman asks Vicki's weight and she says 108," Basinger says. "The sort of lie that stops them both from reaching the rooftop ... Body shaming wasn't a thing then, you couldn't be skinny enough. It wasn't pro curves like Kim Kardashian ... I do love the joke with Vale and how Batman calls her out on it. Michael could always pull off that kind of dialogue."

Basinger’s willingness to participate in stunts wasn’t without its consequences.  In the film’s finale,  Batman and Vicki Vale are hanging off the ledge while the Joker jumps up and down on the bricks above them. “Jack was really going for it and jumping hard on that set,” she says “The debris started falling and a big hunk hit me on the head and I ended up with a concussion.”

Basinger put a lot of thought into Vicki Vale’s character and her wardrobe, having a particular white dress flown over on the concord.

“I wanted her to be all in white because the movie was so dark. Symbolically it made perfect sense, the film was about light in a dark world," says Basinger.

Basinger, who earned an Oscar for her role in 1997's L.A. Confidential, has played a myriad of roles throughout her career.  For Batman, she understood that Vale’s ultimate purpose was to serve the love story of Bruce Wayne, and try and pull him toward a normal life.

“The bottom line is I knew this was a love story. For Vicki Vale and Bruce Wayne, and also for the Joker as he stalks her. I had to be the damsel, I hate to say this, in distress, at the end,” says the star.

Basinger also felt a great deal of sympathy for Keaton in the rubber Batsuit. “I know they paid Michael well for the role, but that thing was built like a car… so heavy and hot,” she recalls. “He was in that all day for months, turning shoulder to shoulder to see.”

During the filming, Wuhl recalls the ending to the film was rewritten after Jack Nicholson and producer Jon Peters saw The Phantom of The Opera in London. “Phantom of the Opera was huge then, and they came back to set with a vision for much more climatic, operatic ending,” Wuhl recalls. “The late, great Warren Skaaren was rewriting the ending while we were shooting.”

The finale of the film sees the Joker dragging a captured Vicki Vale up to the top of a bell tower, with an injured Batman trailing behind.  As Batman faces off against Joker’s henchmen,  Vale and the Joker dance to a "Waltz to the Death” (written by composer Danny Elfman).

For Basinger, the waltz was an idea she developed with Burton. “Tim and I sat for hours really putting that dancing scene together and presenting it to Jack,” Basinger says. “He’d been trying to seduce me the whole film, so I felt like I needed flip it and seduce him to take his focus from Batman.”

Nicholson approved, and Basinger’s character showered the Joker with compliments as she kissed her way along his purple jacket sleeve. Basinger’s carefully crafted moment of getting jacket lint in her mouth is one of her strongest memories from the set. “I remember picking the piece of lint off my tongue, it was a perfect way of showing my disgust with him and it plays comedically as well,” she says.

For the Los Angeles premiere, Warner Bros. took over both theaters in Westwood. The public was clamoring for extra tickets and a chance to see the film’s stars. Wuhl cites the marketing team for building the public interest in the pre-online days. “The original trailer was just fantastic and Warner Bros. had billboards made with no words, just the bat symbol,” Wuhl says. “The biggest was right on Wilshire Blvd. in Westwood, and people went nuts for it.”

Basinger recalls her premiere look with candor and humor. “For opening night, I’d chosen to wear something really risqué and that was the beginning of me being touted as one of the worst dressed people that had ever walked any kind of red carpet,” Basinger says with a laugh.

“But I didn't care about any of that. It was a fun night and my whole family they came,” she says. “You could say I was a bit eccentric at times in some of the choices I made.”

Uslan recalls meeting several of the 1966 Batman series villains, which was a real treat. “It was great meeting the original rogues’ gallery from the show,” Uslan recalls. “It was unfortunate that [Batman actor] Adam West and [Robin actor] Burt Ward were not there.”

In the years since the hit, Uslan has continued to serve as a franchise executive producer for the Batman films. In recent years, he’s expanded his production slate with properties in the U.S. and China.

Both Robert Wuhl and Kim Basinger only appeared in the inaugural Burton Batman film, but their connection to the franchise went far beyond.

This year, Wuhl is appearing at several comic conventions in celebration of the film’s 30th anniversary (appearing next at Connecticut’s Terrificon August 11-13).  “I probably enjoy these events as much as the fans. It’s incredible when people tell you that you touched their lives,” Wuhl says. “My minor contributions, whatever they are… I’m just very grateful. I’m grateful to Tim for being such a visionary and to Michael and Jack for perfectly embodying those characters.”

Basinger’s career as Vicki Vale continued well beyond the film, as she continued to portray the character when she visited terminally ill children and their families. “After Batman, I went to children's hospitals like you wouldn't believe and I went for years,” she says. “I saw kids die and I went through the journey with their parents, but I would always go in as Vicky Vale.”

Basinger would often wear a dress that resembled the film’s wardrobe and make sure to keep the fantasy alive for them. “We would have these wonderful conversations and I would say that Batman was waiting on me downstairs in the Batmobile when we finished,” she says. “ I get chills just thinking about that. Anytime you can come in and make their world better, for even an hour or two, that will change their lives and it will change yours.”

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