Michael Uslan has been a producer for almost thirty years, and nearly all of his projects have been comic book related. He has been producer or executive producer on comic book properties such as Swamp Thing and its sequel, Return of the Swamp Thing, the Fish Police television series, Constantine, The Spirit, and, most notably, just about everything Batman related from Tim Burton’s 1989 offering on.
Uslan is making the rounds promoting his forthcoming autobiography, The Boy Who Loved Batman, set to arrive in bookstores from Chronicle Books on August 10, 2011. One of the interviews he gave recently was with Knowledge@Wharton through The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
The interview was wide-ranging, dealing with Uslan’s childhood to his work for comic creator rights to his comic writing experiences. But what he has to say about the way Hollywood views the comic book film is what caught my eye and deserves a little bit of analysis.
The tone of the interview is set with a question about Uslan acquiring the rights to Batman in the 1970s:
Knowledge@Wharton: In 1979, you acquired an option on the movie rights to Batman. You’ve never disclosed the price you paid.
Uslan: It’s irrelevant. In 1979 dollars, it was huge.
Actually, it was relevant because, as the interviewer reminds Uslan, his autobiography goes into how he had to sell his comic book collection to afford law school.
Later the interviewer asks about the first Batman franchise:
Knowledge@Wharton: Some of the middle Batman films were less successful, both critically and commercially. Was there a point when you became aware that the series was getting off track?
Uslan: Let’s talk generally in the movie industry rather than specifically. Generally, years ago you were dealing with simply movie studios. Today, the bulk of those studios are worldwide conglomerates that have their hands in many different businesses. Sometimes, unfortunately, people lose track of what is important. As a result, at some points in time, the tail begins to wag the dog. [These conglomerates] become way too focused on merchandizing, toys and Happy Meals, and begin to impose directives that movies should have three heroes, three villains, and each one should have two vehicles and two costume changes. Then the danger you run into — which I have seen over and over again — [is that the movies become] products that closely resemble a two-hour infomercial for toys, rather than a great piece of film that’s character-driven and plot-intensive. That’s sad.
There is another trap in the movie and TV industry, whereby people who do not understand the comics and who don’t have the same respect for the integrity of the character or its creators, are willing to ignore 20, 40, 60 years of history and mythology of a character, and make changes for nothing more than the sake of change or, on some occasions, for [the sake of] someone putting their own ego stamp on it so they can claim it as theirs. I have found that never works.
If, however, a company such as the current management at Warner Brothers, for one example, finds a great filmmaker with a passion for a character and a vision for a character, and gives that filmmaker everything he or she needs to execute that vision, that’s when you get great pieces of cinema like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises. For example, when audiences walk out of The Dark Knight, they no longer are limited to merely saying, “That was a great comic book film.” They can now say, “That was a great film.”
It’s interesting the way Uslan answers the question by appearing to side step the question. But savvy Bat-fans know that it was when Joel Schumacher took over the Bat-franchise with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin that the quality went down hill. Those films also corresponded with the addition of Robin and Batgirl to help Batman out, the group facing no less than four villains in each of the films (if you count Debi Mazar’s Spice and Drew Barrymore’s Sugar, henchwomen to Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face as full-fledged villains), and two blatantly obvious “Let’s-provide-the-film’s-tie-in-action-figures-with-another-Batman-and-Robin-to-buy” “Arctic costumes in Batman and Robin. It’s not hard to connect the dots to see that it appears that Uslan is laying the failure of the first franchise at the hands of the Warner Brothers marketing department.
However, it is a bit ironic to read Uslan’s statements in that second paragraph, considering that Uslan produced The Spirit, a film where Frank Miller seemed all too willing to ignore 60 years of history and mythology of Will Eisner’s character, and make changes for what appears to be nothing more than the sake of change or for the sake of Miller putting his own ego stamp on it so they can claim it as his. Same can be said for another film Uslan executive produced, Catwoman, and that films director, Pitof. And these are two of the worst comic book films ever made for that very reason.
Uslan then spoke on the mindset of Hollywood executives concerning comic book films:
Knowledge@Wharton: What’s your view on how Hollywood interprets comic book superheroes?
Uslan: I’m chagrined that in a lot of places, they still don’t get it. They’re still making changes just for the sake of change in comic book superheroes that are being brought to TV and movies.
I sat through a meeting in Hollywood where a production executive, who was approximately 26 or 27 years old, said to me and a very famous director, “The lesson of The Dark Knight is that all comic book movies must be contemporary, dark, gritty and violent.” I looked at the director and he looked at me, and we said, “Excuse me, what?” “Yeah, period pieces don’t sell,” [the executive replied.] I said, “Is that something that you have facts and figures to back up? Or is that just something you heard in the hallways that you’re regurgitating?” He said, “Well, everyone knows it.” I said, “Like Titanic?” And he said, “Well, that’s different. That’s history.” I said, “Like Indiana Jones?” He replied, “Well, that’s different.”
I said, “No, the lesson of The Dark Knight is if you respect the integrity of the character and have a filmmaker who’s passionate about it, with a vision for it, who can execute it, then that’s what you do. Otherwise, you guys will be on a kick to do The Dark Ant-Man, The Dark Flash and Casper The Unfriendly Ghost. And all you will do is continue to violate the characters.”
I have no idea who this unnamed production executive is, but odds are that he works or worked at Warner Brothers, because that essentially echoes the sentiment/philosophy that Warner Brothers Pictures Group President Jeff Robinov put forth in a August 22, 2008 interview with the Wall Street Journal and that we mocked here not long after. The WSJ interview took place after the very dark and very gritty The Dark Knight made oodles of cash for the studio.
On something quasi-unrelated, Uslan did have interesting things to say about the 3-D movie craze and if The Dark Knight Rises will play into it:
Knowledge@Wharton: Will The Dark Knight Rises be in 3-D or is Nolan doing it in 2-D?
Uslan: He and [cinematographer] Wally Pfister have said they would not shoot in 3-D. I totally believe he’s right. He’s going for something that feels very real…. I think 3-D doesn’t behoove that effort.
Knowledge@Wharton: Some industry observers have wondered whether 3-D is overhyped.
Uslan: One of the great experiences I had as a member of an audience was going on opening night to see the restored print of Lawrenceof Arabia at the Cinerama Dome [movie theater in Hollywood]. I couldn’t add to that. It’s a learning curve. And it’s not just about the technology developing; it’s about the techniques developing.
My biggest objection at the moment is to what Hollywood is always really, really good at — which is killing the golden goose by taking movies not shot in 3-D and playing with them in post production [to generate a 3-D image] to try to salvage bad pictures, or to come up with a flimsy excuse to charge $12, $15, or $18. When you inundate the public with a lot of bad movies in 3-D, just as fast as you turned them onto it, you will turn them off of it.
Personally, I can’t argue with that.