My 2011 Nashville Film Festival experience kicked off with the panel, Batman & Other Tales: An Evening with Michael Uslan. I couldn’t spend hours listening to him speak. He’s responsible for taking Batman away from Zap!, Wham! and Pow! and bringing it to the hero we’ve known since 1989.
Michael Uslan excitedly walks into the room with a trendy, light, black jacket on and a white Yankees hat. He’s toting a bottle of water and a bag of popcorn and sits down at the table beside Jim Ridley (The Nashville Scene), who wears a black Suspiria T-shirt and equally as giddy at the opportunity to be talking to the man solely responsible for Batman as we know him today. Michael Uslan dives right in to a quick summation of his life with comics.
Back then, there was no internet and comics weren’t cool. Comic book collecting was an isolated hobby and by the time one turns 15, you don’t bring up the fact that you collect them. Today things are much different. Comics are the basis for blockbuster movies, videogames & fashion. Uslan tells of his first exposure to comics at the age of 5 in barbershops and candy-store excursions with his older brother. Since age 8, Uslan’s goal was to write Batman comics. Uslan goes on to talk about how he created the very first college accredited comic book course at Indiana University, which led to phone calls from Stan Lee (Marvel) and Saul Harrison (DC).
Michael Uslan oozes success and for the first 45 minutes of the discussion he gives account after account of getting his “foot in the door” every time he saw a crack. He didn’t take the criticism to heart and he didn’t listen when his praises were sung. Uslan seized new opportunities when he saw them and created opportunities when there were none.
Time has flown by and there’s when we get to Batman. Uslan recalls his contrasted feelings of both thrill and horror at seeing the 1960’s Batman TV show. He was thrilled about the color, the car and the obvious amount of money spent on the show, but horrified that the whole world was laughing at Batman. He was determined to follow his dream and save this dying franchise. Amidst the voices of the masses pleading with him not to waste money on a dead franchise, Uslan bought the rights to Batman with partner Ben Melniker in 1979. 10 years of development later, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) was finally made, resurrecting an abandoned franchise.
Uslan had wanted Jack Nicholson to play the Joker from the very beginning. He took a newspaper that had the “Here’s Johnny” shot from The Shining in it and put white-out on Nicholson’s face and painted his lips red. Using this as his pitch prop, his campaign was successful in casting Nicholson the Joker. He admits that he was not as thrilled regarding the casting of Michael Keaton as Batman. He quickly saw the light and attributes this casting decision to the genius of Tim Burton.
1989’s Batman was the first dark and serious comic book movie ever made and Uslan discusses the thought process of resurrecting this franchise successfully. The audience had to believe that someone could dress up and fight crime yet keep a fantastical element to it. This film was more about Bruce Wayne than Batman. However, before they believed in Batman, they had to believe in Gotham City, which according to the script had to be like “hell on Earth.”
Uslan moves on to The Dark Knight and sings Christopher Nolan’s praises, claiming Nolan raised the bar. A movie about a super-hero can now be considered a great film and not just a great comic book movie. Nolan took the opposite approach than Burton. With the new films, they wanted to convince audience that this whole Batman thing is real and believable. Making Gotham City real was also very important to the success of this reboot. They needed to make it completely real, but not recognizable as an actual city in our world. This made the decision to shoot in Chicago a stroke of brilliance. Uslan comments on Nolan’s genius of casting Heath Ledger as the Joker, who is more of an uncontrollable terrorist in The Dark Knight. Everything about this film had to be real from the hero, the city, the villain and the technology. Batman (’89) is about Good vs. Evil. The Dark Knight is about Order vs. Chaos.
There’s no way I could put everything down on paper that Michael Uslan discussed, but I do know that he has an autobiography coming out later this year and am willing to bet he will share many of his great stories in his book. Michael Uslan seemed thrilled to be sharing is life story with us at the panel. He humbly discussed his achievements and was careful not to overly criticize other people, films, directors, etc. I could have easily listened to him speak for another 2 hours.
Also, Uslan mentioned a future project in the works regarding The Shadow and Sam Raimi. I can’t wait!