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If you walked outside today, maybe there would be a Batman in Chicago that could do the things that Batman does - and that reality is a very strong departure from the other Batman films, the makers of Batman Begins tell Jenny Cooney Carrillo while she visits the set and shares a steak with the new Batman, Christian Bale.

In 1968, Chicago was gripped by riots prompted by a clash between thousands of angry anti-Vietnam war demonstrators and police. Tonight, another riot is about to take place, but this time the police look surprisingly relaxed as they stand on the corner of a deserted city block wearing full riot gear. 

On closer inspection, one sees the back of their jackets stamped with ‘GCPD’ and it’s apparent that they’re officers from the fictional Gotham City Police Department in the movie Batman Begins – and the real ones are further back on the street, looking incredibly bored as they secure a six-block area of downtown from cars or pedestrians while a night shoot gets underway.

“Chicago is the template city for Gotham City but its bridges are used in our story as the only way on and off a section of Gotham called the Narrows,” director Chris Nolan says earlier in the evening, while his team orchestrates the logistics that simultaneously raise all the bridges in the city for a helicopter shot. Emma Thomas, Nolan’s wife and producing partner (along with Chuck Roven), admits that the city of Chicago has been incredibly supportive of the $135 million blockbuster shooting exteriors there for four weeks - hence this extravagant scenario of traffic being closed on and around all the bridges for most of the night. “There is a riot going on inside this prison area of the Narrows and they’re moving the bridges up so that the rioters can’t get out,” she describes the scene leading into the movie’s top-secret finale. “Of course it also means that certain people can’t get onto the island either, and you’ll see what that means when the Batmobile arrives!”

Chris Nolan is fully aware that the future of the legendary comic book franchise now rests in his hands, but he looks remarkably calm as he speaks through a megaphone to be heard over the roar of the helicopter. The filmmaker of Memento and Insomnia wasn’t even an avid Batman fan, he admits, when Warner Bros. first approached him to try and revive the legend of the Caped Crusader after George Clooney’s rubber-nippled Batman and Robin drew lashings from fans and critics alike in 1997. 

"Batman is an absolute iconic character"

“Batman is an absolute iconic character, one of the great figures in pop culture,” he admits, “but there has to be a reason for making this film as opposed to just renting Tim Burton’s version.”

And that reason, according to both Nolan and his star Christian Bale, was going back to the beginning. “How did this guy who has no superpowers acquire all those capabilities to fight crime?” Nolan muses. “He lives in the real world, sort of New York on steroids, but it is our world.”

Christian Bale was captivated by Nolan’s unique but dark take on the mythology. “I was very much a Star Wars fan and had all the action figures because it captured my imagination when I was young,” he confesses, “so I was never really into comic books until as an adult someone suggested I take a look at Frank Miller’s ‘Year One’, which was the first Batman comic book I ever read and that’s when I realized it was more interesting than I could have imagined.” 

Bale looks happy to be wearing his own jeans and a T-shirt after finishing up his scenes in Chicago the night before, now free of the rubber suit to enjoy a steak dinner at a downtown Chicago restaurant just blocks from where stuntmen ready the Batmobile for tonight’s scene. “Sure, they’re mass entertainment,” he adds, “but this is a different look at Batman and it leaves you with question marks.”

Um, such as? “He’s doing good things but he’s a dark knight for a reason,” Bale continues between mouthfuls. “He’s dressed in black, remains in the shadows and is fueled by a great deal of rage. It’s not all very pure at heart motivations that are causing him to do what he does. He wants to imitate the philanthropy that his father displayed but at the same time he has a great deal of anger where he has to stop himself from enjoying kicking the crap out of these people too much.”

"a massive get-rid-of-all-that diet"

Because Bale spends more time in this film as Bruce Wayne, Nolan ordered his young star to get into shape because he’d recently lost 25 kilos for the film The Machinist. “I worked out like crazy and ended up overdoing it because Chris had told me to get as big and strong as I could, but when I arrived in England to shoot, I was informed that I looked really fat on top of all that muscle and I had to go on a massive get-rid-of-all-that diet to be ready for actual filming,” he said. 

A comic book staple for over sixty-five years and a camp classic TV show of the 1960s, Batman was first brought to the big-screen in 1989 by Tim Burton, who also directed Michael Keaton in Batman Returns. Joel Schumacher took over the directing reigns in 1996, casting Val Kilmer in Batman Forever, and George Clooney in 1997’s Batman and Robin. The affable Clooney often brags that his rubber-nippled performance will forever secure his place in cinema history as ‘the actor who killed Batman’. But Warner Bros. became convinced there was another story waiting to be told after Chris Nolan passionately pitched them his idea. “It is one of the great origin stories of a comic character that hasn’t really been addressed in any kind of definitive cinematic form before,” Nolan says. “Even in the comics there were wonderful pieces of that story but there isn’t one definitive account and then I wanted to combine it with something else that’s never been done before, which is to take a grounded approach that takes on the reality of the story outside the comic book world.”

Nolan and co-writer David (Blade Trinity) Goyer begin their story after Bruce Wayne’s parents have been murdered, and he’s being raised by his guardian Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) and trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine). Bruce sets out on a quest to the East to search for a way to avenge the murder of his parents and he receives help and training from the ninja cult leader Ra’s Al-Ghul (Ken Watanabe). At 25, he returns to Gotham City and with the help of rising cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), is intent on ridding the city of the crime that has overtaken it. He also discovers that shareholders have seized his family’s military subcontracting business, Wayne Enterprises, removing the company’s most ambitious designer, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), and Wayne befriends Fox and uses his designs to create an alter ego, just in time to deal with the villainous Dr. Jonathan Krane, aka Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) who is intent on poisoning all of Gotham. Oh, and did we mention that Batman recruits the beautiful assistant district attorney, Rachel Dodson (Katie Holmes), in his crime-fighting quest and she also happens to be the childhood friend of Bruce Wayne?

"the various incarnations into becoming Batman"

“Part of the fun of this movie is seeing the progression of when you first see something that is ultimately going to become the cape, the suit, the Batmobile and you see Bruce Wayne through the various incarnations into becoming Batman,” Chuck Roven says excitedly. “Chris was really intent on grounding this one much more in reality, so he did research on the gadgets and suit to come up with stuff that has really been developed by the military and exists in the world. The concept behind this movie,” he adds, “is that if you walked outside today, maybe there would be a Batman in Chicago that could do the things that Batman does and that reality is a very strong departure from the other films.”

That reality also extended, Bale points out, to the design of a brand new Batsuit. The suits were built from neoprene, which evolved over the past ten years into a workable fabric. The suits from the first film weighed in at 26 kilos and the new suit weighed only seven kilos, allowing Bale to get dressed in a mere eight minutes with plenty of access for bathroom breaks. Thirty five suits were made, with five of them fully functional. “We’ve taken it right back down to basics and Chris has based everything on practical military avocations and things that have been attempted for soldiering, not S&M nipples, thank God,” Bale grins. The film shot for 127 days, including 23 weeks in London, 4 weeks in Chicago and one week in Iceland but no amount of technology, it seems, could relieve Bale’s discomfort in having to wear that outfit for six months. “Yeah, it’s hot and dark and sticky and claustrophobic and gives you headaches, but shit, I’m not going to sit here and whine about it because this is something that I really wanted to do,” Bale insists. “So you put up with the headaches and the other stuff because when you’re putting on the Batsuit every day, you go, ‘Gee, I’m in the rubber again!’ and it’s cool to remember what I’m part of.”

While Nolan’s aim was to scale back the larger-than-life villains and flesh out the character of Bruce Wayne, he knew it would be disastrous to skimp on one of the franchise’s biggest stars, the Batmobile. “We started coming up with ideas in my garage while we were still working on the script,” Nolan recalls. Envisioned as a cross between a Hummer and a Lamborghini, Nolan and his design team bought toy models, cut them in half and pasted together a blueprint for what would eventually be a $3 million automobile. Taking three months to build, the car weighed 2 ˝ tons and featured a fiberglass shell, 350 cubic-inch Chevy engine, four tractor tires in the rear and two smaller tires up front, had a theoretical top speed of 160 kph and could jump more than 17 metres in the air. Eight cars were built in total, five that actually ran and two that could fire off a cannon.

"Batmobile made all the men on the set very happy"

“I know that Batmobile made all the men on the set very happy,” Katie Holmes laughs as she joins Bale at the restaurant on her night off. “It’s so much testosterone all in one car, I have a whole new appreciation for men’s fascination with automobiles.”

Emma Thomas brags; “we aren’t doing too many visual effects in this film, so the real spectacle is the fact that our stunts use real stunt teams and our Batmobile is a very practical car that does all those things for real.”

The reality apparently doesn’t extend to allowing a slightly peeved Bale to actually drive the car. “I got behind the wheel, but I just sat there going ‘vroom, vroom’ and not allowed to move,” he said with a sheepish grin. “There is no way I’m not going to drive this thing before we’re done, but I have a feeling they’ll be happier about giving me a go when I’m a little bit more expendable, like at the end of the film!”

With an option for two sequels in his contract, Bale may just have to wait a little longer for his own test drive.

[Batman Begins opens in Australia on June 16, 2005.]

Published June 16, 2005

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