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On this episode of The Never-Weres, we sit down with producer Michael Uslan, who has owned the movie rights to Batman since 1979. Uslan tells us how the quest to get a Batman movie made began in the '80s, and how it evolved into the 1989 Tim Burton Batman. He also details the original Batman movie screenplays that never came to pass, many of which foreshadowed later Batman films, including Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.
ETHAN ALTER: There's been a long standing rumor that Ivan Reitman wanted you and Eddie Murphy to play Batman and Robin in an early '80s Batman movie. Did you ever talk to him about that?
BILL MURRAY: I talked to Eddie Murphy about it, and Eddie wanted to play Batman. That's as far as that conversation went.
ETHAN ALTER: One of the legends about the Ivan Reitman version is that he wanted Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy to be Batman and Robin. Can-- can you speak to the truth of that?
MICHAEL USLAN: That was purposefully kept away from me.
- I want you to do me a favor. I want you to tell all your friends about me.
- What are you?
- I'm Batman.
ETHAN ALTER: The Batman film franchise as we know it began with Tim Burton's 1989 blockbuster. But selling Hollywood on a dark and serious take on Gotham City's Dark Knight was a decade-long process. And producer Michael Uslan was there every step of the way. The New Jersey born Batman fan acquired the film rights to the DC Comics character in 1979, when he was still in his 20s. Even though his earliest vision for a Batman movie didn't make it to the big screen, he's still part of the franchise to this day. And when you listen to his story, you'll hear echoes of those never-were scripts in almost every Batman movie made since.
THEME SONG: (SINGING) Batman!
ETHAN ALTER: You've said, in the past, one of the reasons you wanted to get the film license for Batman was a reaction to the 1960s Adam West series, which, for you, was too campy.
MICHAEL USLAN: That's absolutely true. That cold night in January, 1966 is emblazoned in my head. And it took 20 minutes in before I realized it was a comedy. I was so upset, and that led to my infamous vow that I made that night in the-- in the den of our home, just like young Bruce Wayne had made a vow. And I said, somehow, someday, I will show the world the true Batman. And I will attempt to erase these-- these new words, pow, zap, and wham from the collective consciousness of the world culture. And that-- that began my mission.
When I got the rights to Batman with my partner Ben Melniker-- and Ben was a legend in the movie business-- it was Ben who put together movies like "Ben-Hur," "Doctor Zhivago," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Gigi," and those musicals. So I go out to LA to start pitching to the movie studios. I quickly, quickly found out that that generation of executives, and agents, and in a lot of cases, the talent pool itself looked down their noses at comic books. So I knew right from day one, I needed to do something to make them understand it.
So I wrote a first draft of a screenplay, called "Return Of The Batman." That script was about a Batman who was turning 50, and he was now in the penthouse apartment in the middle of Gotham City. There was no Batcave. There was no Robin. Dick Grayson was gone off to college. It was just Bruce and Alfred, and terrorism had arrived on the shores of America for the first time. Bruce Wayne was dragged back into this Batman thing, kicking and screaming, bitter, frustrated, cynical. He didn't want to do it. And it ended in act three, as they blew up all the tunnels and bridges around Gotham City and how the element of fear plays into the whole thing.
After I was turned down by every studio in Hollywood that told me it was the worst idea they ever heard, they said you're nuts. You can't do dark superheroes. You can't do serious comic book movies. Ben said, you know, Michael, we're being turned down by all the studios and many majors. But they're all older generation people. He said, there's a record company called Casablanca Records, run by Neil Bogart and Peter Guber, much younger than the guys we've been pitching to. He says, I think he's more hip and might get this where the others haven't. I pitched the project to Peter over the phone. He goes, wow, this is amazing. He says, can you be in my office tomorrow?
We're sitting around, and I'm pitching my heart out. And I brought all my "Batman" and "Detective Comics," and that's exactly what I wanted to show them. Keep them away from all the silly stuff. Peter said we're in. We're going to sequester you guys in a room with our lawyers and get the deal done. He says, but in meantime, who do you see in the director's list, in the writer's list? Now, at that time, in my humble opinion, the modern day movie blockbuster was started by--
- Bond. James Bond.
MICHAEL USLAN: So I said, we got to go after the best of the Bond people. And to me, the two best writers of the James Bond movies, to that date, were Tom Mankiewicz and Richard Maibaum. Mankiewicz, he was the script doctor brought in on "Superman." And he was the one everybody behind the scenes said made it work. For director, it was Guy Hamilton.
What was important to me is that we showed the world that we're doing this in a serious way. I'm going to convince them that Bruce Wayne could be a real, young man with post-traumatic stress syndrome on this journey of self-discovery through life. I'm going to convince them that the Joker could be real today, as a modern day terrorist. I'm going to convince them that the tech, and all the gadgets, and inventions could be real.
- Get those wonderful toys.
ETHAN ALTER: Obviously, you've got-- Guy Hamilton falls out at a certain point. He's not involved. The two directors who are associated with the script are Joe Dante and Ivan Reitman.
MICHAEL USLAN: I knew Joe was a comic book fan. I thought this would be great. At the last minute, Joe got an amazing offer from Paramount to do a movie, "Explorers." And he was let out of his contract to go do "Explorers." And the next thing that came up with-- was Ivan Reitman. Ivan had, in his contract, that he could be preempted. Columbia Pictures had a right to preempt him, if they chose. And sure enough, part of my curse of the Batman, they preempted him to do this little movie, called "Ghostbusters."
BILL MURRAY: We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!
ETHAN ALTER: I wonder if you were thinking of names to be in the Batsuit. Were you thinking about people like Harrison Ford? Were you thinking about people like Tom Selleck, at that point?
MICHAEL USLAN: There was an actor's list, and everybody had input on-- into it. Studio people, production execs, producers, everybody had input on it. I remember seeing a list at one time and going, what the heck is Dustin Hoffman doing on this list? Well, the only answer was he was an a-list actor. So somebody threw him on the list. I remember Jimmy Caan's name on that list.
ETHAN ALTER: There's a rumor that Peter O'Toole was going to be the Penguin, who's featured in the script, as well. Was that true?
MICHAEL USLAN: No. The only time Peter O'Toole was mentioned came for me. And this-- again, this is from my perspective only. I don't know what other people were doing or saying. And that was my backup choice for Joker, not Penguin. I mean, take a look at Peter O'Toole's face, and it kind of makes a little sense.
ETHAN ALTER: How about the Robin piece of it. I wonder, like, who were you thinking of for-- for Robin?
MICHAEL USLAN: No Robin.
- Holy guacamole!
MICHAEL USLAN: And that was something I didn't struggle with. I fought tooth and nail against.
- Holy Benedict Arnold.
MICHAEL USLAN: And then, circa 1986, Tim Burton waltzes into our lives. And for me, it came with a call from my studio exec. He said, we want you to see a rough, fine cut of this young man's new movie for us, called "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure."
- I meant to do that.
MICHAEL USLAN: I come out of there. I tell everybody, this is the greatest marriage of art direction and direction I think I've ever seen. Wow, what an innovative, innovative director.
- Lieutenant, is there a 6 foot Bat in Gotham City?
- Nice outfit.
MICHAEL USLAN: That Batman movie, in '89-- it changed Hollywood forever. It changed the comic book industry, and it changed the world culture's perception of comic books, superheroes, and supervillains. The Marvel Cinematic Universe owns its existence to Tim Burton and the big idea.
ETHAN ALTER: When you look back at that Mankiewicz script now, just in the back of your head, like-- do you-- are you satisfied with it? Do you think it could have worked as a movie?
MICHAEL USLAN: If there was no such thing as development hell, and the first Batman movie was made in 1982, it would have been fine. It would have been that extension of Bond, the influence of Superman, and doing something in a serious approach to Batman. I look back at the tortuous times. And you go, well, was it worth it? And then you look. Well, you know, without those 7 and 1/2 years of development hell, we never would have had Tim. And we never would have had that revolutionary take that changed everything.
So I can sit back now and say, yeah, it was worth it.