26 Things We Learned from Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ Commentary

"I remember meeting Prince in the Batcave."

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter looks to the sky for a signal and then settles in for Tim Burton’s Batman commentary.

This past weekend marked the 30th anniversary of Tim Burton‘s blockbuster comic book adaptation Batman (1989). It remains a favorite for many, and Warner Bros. recently released the first four Batman films — two great ones by Burton, two other ones by Joel Schumacher — onto 4K UltraHD/Blu-ray. They’re solid releases for films of varying quality, and in addition to the restored pictures the discs are also packed with extras.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for…

Batman (1989)

Commentator: Tim Burton (director)

1. This was one of the first films to alter the studio logo at its start, and Burton recalls “it was kind of a struggle, but now I notice we’re able to do it every single time.”

2. He’s always felt the title sequence of a film is important for setting a mood, so he used it here to make it clear from the start that “this wasn’t the TV series.”

3. People expected him to take a goofy tone with the film, “but that was the furthest thing from my mind.” He wasn’t a big comic book fan, but he loved Batman and the psychology of the character meaning he knew he wanted to stay true to that idea.

4. In designing the look of Gotham they went more for timeless and alternative design rather than futuristic.

5. He met with numerous actors for the title role who fit the traditional “square-jawed” and heroic look, but he eventually realized “there’s a reason why a guy dresses up as a bat, he’s trying to create a menacing persona.” Michael Keaton has the crazy eyes, but physically he’s someone who would need costuming to make him seem scarier.

6. He doesn’t even recall a conversation as to alternatives for the Joker as Jack Nicholson was “just so perfect. He is the Joker.” He adds that the only real worry was that maybe Nicholson was too perfect for the role. “You want to make it the Joker but retain Jack.”

7. “This was the first time I’d experienced the Hollywood trend of, you’re making a big movie, you have a script that we all seem to like and then all of a sudden it unravels.” He’s not a fan of that part of the experience, but he says budget fluctuations caused changes to be made. He seems to specifically be addressing how Nicholson’s presence led to a higher budget, adding “I don’t remember adding stuff for him and taking stuff out from other people, necessarily, I mean the script may have changed for certain reasons.”

8. He recalls being nervous on an early days of shooting in part because this was his first big film, but it was compounded by working with Jack Palance. Their first day, he called action on a scene of Grissom (Palance) coming out of the bathroom, but the actor didn’t appear. It built into a conflict with some yelling as Palance angrily told him “I’ve made over a 100 films, how many have you made?” Burton adds that “he was good for the part. Can’t think of anybody else who could be Jack Nicholson’s boss.”

9. “I love Michael Gough.” Burton’s a big fan of his work in genre films through the 50s and 60s.

10. One of the reasons why he wasn’t much of a comic book fan was that he “didn’t know which box to read first” as far as following the story through the panels.

11. He doesn’t think Keaton could have found his Batman voice until he put the costume on. The actor was able to internalize better as he couldn’t hear people inside the cowl. “It was like talking to a deaf person.”

12. Pinewood Studios is a magical place for Burton, and he recalls finding new corners to explore and shoot in every time he visited.

13. He praises composer Danny Elfman as someone who “gets the right mixture of light and dark.”

14. After Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988), this was his first attempt at giving a film “a reality that I’ve never really worked with before.”

15. Part of his attraction to making a Batman film was his identification with many of the hero’s traits including the split personality, his desire to remain hidden, and his trouble with relationships and communication.

16. He credits the film with being the first to make a darker comic adaptation and acknowledges it’s now incredibly common.

17. “That’s my handwriting,” he says at 1:00:58 as Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) holds the note with the gas mask, “so you can say how bad. I was trying to do a good job, so back to school for me.”

18. Jerry Hall was hired as the role called for a model, “but she’s also a good fainter.”

19. He recalls the good fortune of being in England for the film’s production as he missed out on all the gossip, criticism, and attitude from people complaining about his and Keaton’s involvement.

20. The Batmobile was the second most important design element after Batman’s costume, and he recalls discussing the “perversity” of the vehicle. That’s what led to the “weird sort-of round thing, the sort-of jet engine thing” at the front of the car “which almost has a strange, obscene quality. There’s just something aggressive about it that we liked.”

21. He realized early that he has immense appreciation for actors who are good at improvisation “as long as it kept within the spirit and the form of what it is.”

22. The idea of having Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent excited Burton as Two-Face would have made an eventual appearance in a sequel, but it sounds like we might have been lucky that it never happened. “I love the idea of somebody like him, because then you could do like a black/white thing… again the duality thing which is so crucial to the Batman material.”

23. He recalls getting flack for letting Vale into the Batcave, but he still feels like they were staying pure to the comics. “There were some near death threats,” he says, adding that it gave him a reason not to attend conventions for quite a while.

24. He took older films like The Man Who Laughs (1928), vampire movies, and the work of Val Lewton as inspirations for Batman.

25. The film’s success was a surprise, although he acknowledges that both success and failure always surprise him.

26. “There’s a few moments I think in the film where the technology is a little shaky. That’s one of them,” he says, referring to the Joker’s fall at 1:58:29.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“There were times he was making strange noises for no apparent reason.”

“I was the type of person who was not the greatest communicator.”

“I detected a craziness in a good way about her.”

“It’s probably the only time I’ve ever been terrified of anybody.”

“I probably wasn’t a good people person at that time or whatever.”

“I can’t say being in a used, dark, dank chemical plant was the most fun.”

“I was sick pretty much every day working on this movie.”

“I’m not sure how this happened.”

“I had never heard the term ‘franchise’ before, but now that’s all you ever hear.”

“I always thought Batman is black.”

“We didn’t shoot that scene where he beats the crap out of Alfred.”

Final Thoughts

Burton starts strong on this track, both in quality of observations and non-stop chatter, but by the halfway point we start getting more than a few gaps of silence. Still, though, his enthusiasm for the film and filmmaking is abundantly clear, and when he is talking it’s often two steps behind his thought process. He jumps around excitedly, and while it feels like rambling at times it’s done with energy and an ultimate purpose. It’s a fun track for fans of both Burton and the Batman.

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

Rob Hunter: Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.