Executive Producer Michael E. Uslan discusses The Dark Knight Rises and a new memoir entitled The Boy Who Loved Batman
The Dark Knight Rises is poised to be the biggest film in cinematic history, opening next summer as one of the most anticipated film projects of all time. But it almost wasn't to be. In his new book The Boy Who Loved Batman, executive producer and franchise rights holder Michael E. Uslan takes fans through the long and arduous process of getting Bruce Wayne and his dark alter ego Batman to the big screen, starting when he bought the rights in 1979, to the production of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, through the new trilogy being directed by Christopher Nolan today.
We recently caught up with Michael E. Uslan to chat about his memoir, the now in production The Dark Knight Rises, which continues to shoot in Los Angeles, and what the future holds for this franchise. The following is our conversation.
Good morning, Micheal. I want to kick this off by asking you about all of these set photos and videos that have flooded the Internet. We see new images coming in every single day from The Dark Knight Rises. It wasn't like this just a year or two ago. Now, we are seeing everything before the film even heads into the edit bay. As an executive producer, what are your thoughts on this burgeoning trend? Does this help or hurt a movie?
Michael E. Uslan: I'd like to answer that one as a fanboy, really, more than as an executive producer. I think it's the fanboy in me speaking. It could also be a little bit of the baby boomer in me speaking...But I don't get it! When I go to see a movie, I try my hardest not to know anything about it. I want to know as little as possible going in. Maybe I have seen a trailer. But that is the extent of it. In this day and age, it's hard to do that. No matter where you turn, from TV shows, to the internet, to sites you might troll, to the newspapers and magazines...Everywhere you turn, there are photos being seen, news stories being released, on, it seems like, every genre of picture, revealing every secret behind it. Every draft of every screenplay. Every twist and turn. I just want to be enveloped in the blackness of the theater, and lose myself in the experience. I want to be transported and entertained at the same time. Just for me, as a fan, to go out of my way and find out all of these details, and to know every thing that is about to happen before I go in...That really diminishes the experience. For me, anyways, as someone who just loves movies. I really don't get it, personally. And this trend doesn't work for me as a movie fan.
It's a bombardment, and it doesn't really work for me either. I like the trailer for Unbreakable. Where you see next to nothing of the film, and just get a sense of it. There's no mystery left anymore.
Michael E. Uslan: I completely agree. I have had to jump up and turn off TV sets. Switch off the radio. I have walked out of theaters, just to avoid knowing anything about the comic book movies that have come out just this past summer. They were inundating me everywhere I turned. It is challenging, and it really shouldn't be.
How much of a hand do you think the studios have in how these photos, images, and videos are released? Because, if you look at some of these photos closely, it doesn't add up. The other day, we saw Michael Shannon in his costume as Zod. His back was slightly turned to the camera. But it was obvious that the photographer, who was made to seem like a "fan on the street", could have shot the costume from the front as well. He could have taken a number of pictures. But this one from the back is the only one he got? I get a sense that the studios are actually pushing this, and are controlling, on some level, what we see...
Michael E. Uslan: Personally? It's just a guess...I don't think so. In this day and age in which we live, fans are connected. Word gets out where films are shooting. There are people in the trees. There are people behind doors. There are people positioned all over the place. They are trying to get pictures, or a look...I seem to think, just from my own experience, that's where most of it is coming from.
Its also been interesting to see how quickly the shooting titles of these projects become known. We knew The Dark Knight Rises was shooting under Magnus Rex before one frame of film was shot.
Michael E. Uslan: The thing is...There are a lot of fans working in the industry, now, too. Everybody talks. I have no idea how that stuff leaks. Let's put it in context. When I started collecting comic books and becoming a fan, it was about the most isolated hobby in the world. I had no idea there was another kid alive who was as into comic books and superheroes as I was. There was no way to find out which comic books were coming out next week. Why certain comic books I read and collected, I couldn't find any more. Out of the blue, new companies would pop up. I would see something like Thunder Agents #1. I couldn't begin to grasp where this thing came from. It was a different era. Now, comic book collecting is the biggest community that is out there in terms of fans in any genre, or type of pop culture. It has changed completely. It has been an amazing thing to watch over the decades.
I was at the tale end of that in the 80s. Where you still didn't quite have the access to the behind-the-scenes of it that you do today. This summer, we had Thor and Captain America come out, and a lot of fans really griped about Thor, in particular. I didn't see it in theaters, because it didn't sound very good. I watched it the other day on DVD, and I thought it was very entertaining. I would have loved it as a kid. It's a well-made movie, yet people still bitch. I don't know if its just fatigue, or where the general audience is right now, but they can't seem to sit and enjoy anything...
Captain America was awesome. One of the funnest movies of the year...
Michael E. Uslan: I really liked X-Men: First Class this summer. You look at the numbers. Thor did $180 million at the domestic box office. It did great foreign. Captain America: The First Avenger is closing in on $175 million domestic. X-Men: First Class is at about $150 million domestic. You can't write them off and say that they didn't do well...
I wasn't saying that they didn't do well. I'm saying that there was a lot of unnecessary hate and criticism pointed at these movies that are quite fun and entertaining, and the visuals are also quite stunning. Yet people are angry with them nonetheless. There is a loud voice that seems unnecessarily disappointed with the movies. And sometimes, frankly, it doesn't make a lot of sense. Maybe there voice gets heard because it's the loudest. The fanboys, as you call them, are quite vocal about this stuff...
Michael E. Uslan: I would tend to believe that. The people I spoke with enjoyed Thor. When it comes to the fanboys, and Thor, expectations were really low. I think there were a number of people that were pleasantly surprised by what actually came through. But do you know what the essential thing is? Studios and producers really have to pay attention to the characters and stories. They can't just go option every comic book character there is, simply because it's a comic book. Everything goes. There isn't an easier way to make money in Hollywood today. Let's just option comic books. It all comes down to the great stories. The colorful and interesting characters that people can invest themselves in. The ones that they want to follow. That is the most critical thing for me. The second thing is, you have to have a filmmaker who gets it. Who has a passion for a character. Who has a vision for a character. Someone who really knows how to execute that vision. It's a hard thing to find. And its essential. The third thing is, and I have been in the trenches of Hollywood for thirty-five years, day by day, trying to make them understand this...Comic books and superheroes are not synonymous. Every single type of literature that you can find walking through a Barnes and Noble store, you can also find them in comic books and graphic novels. Every time there is another Road To Perdition, or A History of Violence, or American Splendor, I think it's a resounding victory for everyone in the industry, and everyone that loves the industry, to show that comics have grown up. Comics are more sophisticated. It's not just about a handful of superheroes.
Why do you think the character of Batman resonates so heavily, especially with the kids today? Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is this generation's Star Wars. Why do you think Bruce Wayne and his alter ego are more popular today than ever before?
Michael E. Uslan: I think there are three primary reasons. Reason number one: Clearly, he is human. His superpower is his humanity. People identify with Batman. That is an incredible thing to have in a world of superheroes. And I think it is stronger, and holds more, than people's affinity for Superman, or The Hulk, or even Spider-Man, as great as those characters are. I think it's the humanity of Batman, and how so many of his adventures are solved, not with his fists, but with his brains. I do think people love that. Number two: His origin story. The origin of young Bruce Wayne, who has his parents murdered right in front of his eyes, and at that moment makes a vow to get the bad guys...To get all of the bad guys...Even if he has to spend the rest of his life walking through Hell to do it...It is so primal. That story spans borders, it spans demographics. It also spans cultures. There are very few compelling stories like that, that people all over the world can really find fascinating. The third is the Stan Lee theory, which I adhere by thoroughly. Stan Lee says that heroes will only be popular and have longevity if their super villains are great. They are only as good as their super villains. It's only the villains that really define them at the end of the day. Batman, inarguably, has the greatest rogues gallery of supervillains ever created in comics. I think those are the three elements that really add up to it. One thing I'd like to add is this...The comics have been coming out every Wednesday since 1939. The credit has to go to the creators. The Artists. The Writers. The Editors. The Publishers. The people that have been bringing us Batman now for 72 years. They get us to come back every single week. They are keeping us intrigued. They are keeping us interested. The characters continue to evolve. We want to follow. We want to know what happens next. Is every storyline in 72 years great? No. But they really try. They try to innovate. They sometimes try gimmicks that work for a while, and don't work...But at the end of the day, there have been so many great stories about this great character, and the whole family of Batman characters, that I don't think its popularity is every going to diminish.
Christopher Nolan has proven himself time and again in this genre. We know he can make the best superhero movie ever made. Why do you think its necessary to have Joseph Gordon Levitt come out, and Tom Hardy come out, and tell fans to stop complaining, and to trust in Christopher Nolan? Why do you think, even after two great movies, there is still an element of doubt that pushes and compels these guys to come out and defend something that isn't even done shooting yet?
Michael E. Uslan: Look...Christopher Nolan is a genius. Christopher Nolan is the first director of the twenty-first century that should be studied in every film school. He has, single handily, and he deserves all the awards and accolades for this...But he has raised the bar for all comic book movies. When you walk out of a movie like Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, audiences, for the first time, won't have to say, "Wow, that was a really great comic book movie." They can now say, "That was a great film." The bar has been lifted. He has proven to all of us how much he gets this character. And that he has a passion for it. Like I said before, he has a vision, and he knows how to execute that vision. To me, it is the greatest thing in the world. You won't find a bigger cheerleader than yours truly.
That's what I'm saying. It seems to me that he's proven himself. So why do these actors have to come out and defend him? It doesn't make any sense. Why do you think people are still so quick to say that The Dark Knight Rises is going to suck? Do you think that's what's wrong with kids today? That wanting to hate is the first step they take in learning to like anything?
Michael E. Uslan: I haven't read any of that stuff, so I don't know. It must just be a part of the traditional negativity that sometimes comes out of the Internet, or not...I have no idea.
On The Dark Knight Rises in particular, it has been quite interesting to watch the secrecy of it, the leaked photos, opinions quickly bubble up, and then you have actors telling fans to shut up and wait...To trust in someone that has without a doubt proven themselves...It has to be strange to you as a producer...
Michael E. Uslan: I can't comment on that. I haven't read any of that.
Where do you envision the Batman series going next? There are a lot of rumors. This is supposed to be Christopher Nolan's last Batman film. There will be another new trilogy after The Dark Knight Rises, directed by someone new. There has been speculation that it will become a TV series. Can you tell us where Batman is headed in the future?
Michael E. Uslan: No. I really can't. The only thing I would direct your attention to is the new comic books. The comic books have kept this character vital, and intriguing, for seventy-two years. We are all still going back every Wednesday to see what's new. I think the character is that vital and that sustaining. He is going to be around for a long time to come.
Would you want to see it turned into a TV show once again? Or should it stay on the big screen?
Michael E. Uslan: The only thing I am looking forward to right now is July 20th, with The Dark Knight Rises in theaters, and October 18th of this year, with Batman: Year One, the animated movie, coming out direct to DVD and Blu-ray.
In terms of the animated series of Batman films, do you have an outline as to where you will be going with that next? What other iconic Batman stories will we be seeing brought to the screen?
Michael E. Uslan: I think some of the best people working in the business today are people who have been involved over the years with the animation side of Batman. I think some of the greatest Batman stories ever told have come through the animation. (The people behind this series) deserve all the credit for what they have been able to accomplish, and what they are able to do with the animation. It's the same with us fanboys...Everyone is a fan. Everyone loves the material. Everyone respects the creators. When you have that kind of environment, people are going to gravitate to their favorite story arcs of all time. That is a really cool thing to see happen. It wasn't like that when I first started out back in the 70s and 80s, when I started in the trenches, trying to convince Hollywood that you can do serious comic book movies. That you can do dark and gritty superheroes. When everyone told me I was crazy. That it was the worst idea they'd ever heard, and then they would slam the door in my face. So, we have come a real long ways. I give a lot of credit to the animation for that.
You have a great voice actor in Ben McKenzie, playing Bruce Wayne in Batman: Year One. I think he is going to blow a lot of people away when they see this in October. Why did you guys choose him to be your Bruce Wayne this time out?
Michael E. Uslan: I would not take the spotlight away from anyone working on the animation. I would let them be the ones to talk to about that.
Now, to touch on what you just mentioned, your memoir spans the entire history of you trying to bring Batman to the big screen, from the 70s to the 80s, to now...
Michael E. Uslan: Yeah. It does. I was a kid growing up as a comic book geek in the 60s and 70s. For me, I am a blue-collar kid from Jersey. Batman the TV series came on the air in January of 1966. I was thrilled that it was coming on TV. It was in color. And the car was cool. The opening animation looked like Bob Kane's work. But I was horrified that the whole world was laughing at Batman. That really killed me. That was the night I made my young Bruce Wayne vow. I said, "Someway, somehow, one day I will find a way to show the world the true Batman. The Batman. The 1939 creature of the night stalking criminals in the shadows." That became my mission in life. But I didn't know at the time...I didn't have any connections to Hollywood, so how do you do it? For me, it was a precession of years and years and years of doors slamming in my face. Through that, I learned some basic lessons. If you are burning with a passion, and you have a dream, and you feel the world should succumb to you, and you get off your butt and try to make something happen, you have automatically eliminated a lot of your competition. Once you get out there, you do have high levels of frustration, but you are willing to knock on doors until your knuckles bleed, and you have to keep picking yourself up, and dusting yourself off, and going back to knock again...That series of movies is about a bunch of bleeding knuckles. That is the bottom line to it. When everyone is telling you you're crazy, and everyone is telling you that you stink, and that your ideas are terrible, it really comes down to looking inside yourself, and believing in yourself, and believing in your work. You can have the greatest ideas in the world, but if you don't market yourself, and market your work, no one is ever going to see them. So, these are the steps that I outline in my book. From growing up as the kid who learned to read from comics before he was four, to the kid who graduated high school and had thirty thousand comic books, who filled up his parents garage so they could never get a car in the place, to the kid who went to the first comic book convention ever held anywhere on the planet. Back in seventh grade. How you make the steps, and how you get your foot in the door, and how you travel that path of the road not often sought, to make your dreams come true. The book is to let people know that I did it. If I can do it, there is no reason why anyone else can't do the same thing. It can be done. That is what I try to tell in the backdrop of giving everyone the history of comics. There is a lot of history of Batman. And there is the history and growth of comics, but there is more.
You believe that there is a lot of life left in the Batman franchise. Why did you decided to write this book now? With another Batman movie still in production, and more possibly on the way? Is this the first part of a book series? Will you go back to this story sometime in the future?
Michael E. Uslan: After The Dark Knight was released, and it quickly became the second biggest grossing movie in history, my wife Nancy sat me down, and she said, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I thought really hard about it. There were two things that came up. I wanted to write more. And I wanted to talk to as many young people as possible; as many students...And let them know that you can make your dreams come true. As a result of that, since The Dark Knight opened, I have spoken at sixty colleges and universities. I found that I was impacting a lot of young people. That what I was telling them was not BS. That I was speaking from my heart. And that a lot of kids came back to me inspired by what I was saying. I realized that I needed to get this out there, and get it into as many hands as I could. This is proof positive that, whatever your dreams are, you can do it. For me, at this stage of life, and my career, the focus isn't merely on trying to entertain people for two hours at a time. But I am also trying to validate my own life and journey by impacting people in a positive way. That is something I really want to do. It is something I want to accomplish, and it's my next dream in life.
Its hard in this day and age to get kids to read. But this subject matter, and the way it is told, does seem very appealing to younger people, especially those who are interested in filmmaking...
Michael E. Uslan: I really hope so. The feedback that I am getting, the reviews, have been really heartwarming. In fact, it's overwhelming. We already have twenty-five amazing reviews on Amazon. Other sources of the internet. Fan websites. It's really been great. I think people understand that this isn't a gossipy book about what went on, on the set of every Batman movie, every day and every night...But, it is a really motivational book that talks about your dreams coming true.
Now, I wanted to ask you about the Swamp Thing rumors. I know you produced the television series. What is going on with bringing Swamp Thing back to the big screen?
Michael E. Uslan: I really can't tell you. That is something you'll have to get from the good folks at Warner Bros. or DC. The last thing I'd want to do is pull the rug out from underneath that in terms of anything they want to announce or say.
What about Justice League. You own the rights to Batman as a character. How does your involvement in getting him into a Justice League movie play out? How hands on will you be with that film?
Michael E. Uslan: I really don't want to address that one. I think everyone has to sit tight and see what the future brings.
And last question, which may strike you as kind of dumb, but we are seeing a real resurgence in 90s nostalgia. Is there any word on when we can expect a Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego movie?
Michael E. Uslan: Look, I love Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? It took us two and a half years to sell that to Hollywood. People were throwing us out of their offices left and right saying, "What, are you crazy? A show that is educational? Kids will turn it off in droves!" I said, "Yeah, but it is so entertaining, they won't realize they are being educated". It was only later when the Feds started tightening the screws on children's' television that we got the opportunity. People started to call us, saying, "Hey, remember that Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? thing? Do you want to come back in with that? Let's talk about that again." This was quite different from when we would come in, and they would hold crucifixes up in our face, and try to get us to back out of the office. It would be heartwarming to see a Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? revival. It would be really cool.
With all the weird things that get announced nowadays, I can't imagine we won't see a movie of that sometime in the future. Now, mentioning that you went to the first ever comic book convention, how do you view Comic Con, and how its change over the course of the last few years?
Michael E. Uslan: I love the fact that there are comic book conventions popping up everywhere. I just got back from Cincinnati's Comic Expo, it's their second year. It has grown in leaps and bounds, proving that there is a market, even in small cities, for small, well-done Comic Cons. What I like about the smaller ones, the regional ones, and even the New York City one, is that they remain very comic book centric. Other conventions are Hollywood centric, or video game centric, or Anime centric. I think there is room for all of them. But I would hope, at the heart of it, that the comic book spirit, and the focus on the comic book characters, and the creators, are not co-opted. I hope the soul of Comic-Con remains focused really on comic books. When it doesn't do that, I quietly shed a tear.
The Boy Who Loved Batman is available now.