Matt Reeves: Shadow of the Bat

Arguably his most intimate character study since 2010’s Let Me In, an adaption of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s adolescent Swedish Horror novel, Matt Reeves has chosen a daring mould in which to craft The Batman. Purposefully abandoning the traditional super-hero architype, Reeves has instead delivered a case-study in trauma, focusing on the damaged orphan seeking identity and purpose through introflection and emotional ambiguity. A take on the Batman / Bruce Wayne dichotomy that effectively strips back our perceived mythos to instead embrace the raw vigilante, struggling to control his violence and incapable of self-actualisation, instead focusing his intellect on Gotham’s more sadistic crimes.

Reeves trademark ability of bringing a sympathetic awareness to humanities darker aspects is on full display with The Batman, and while many a fan and casual viewer alike may have been caught off guard by the casting of Robert Pattinson in the titular role, Reeves confidence and foresight has proven remarkably succinct, with Pattinson bringing a complexity and gravity to the role that is impressive, even in todays elevated comic book movie genre.

“I mean the casting is everything, right? The whole idea is you’re trying to take all of these iconic beloved characters, but you’re trying to reinvent them and bring new specificity and life to them.” Explains Reeves during a recent interview that saw Warner Brothers begin their post-pandemic media blitz.

“What’s interesting is that weirdly, Rob was an obvious choice for me. When I was writing, and we began focusing in on the idea of a Year Two Batman, of the idea of there being a Batman who was around 30, I started looking at actors in that age range.

“I’d been following Rob’s performances since Twilight. He’d been making so many interesting choices including a movie called Lost City of Z, made by a friend of mine and a really wonderful filmmaker named James Gray. I’d read the script and James had told me that he’d cast Rob, so I was excited to see it. Then he showed me a cut of the movie.

“When Rob came on, he had this insane beard… I was like, “Who’s that?” He had all this charisma, but I was like, “Who’s that guy? I love this actor.” And then I was like, “Wait. Oh, that’s Rob Pattinson.” And then, I just started looking at all his movies.

“Someone else had suggested I check out Good Time by the Safdie Brothers and something clicked in that for me. There was something about Rob’s performance in that movie, he had such a propulsive, obsessive desperation. He’s very kinetic and intense but also, in his eyes you could always sense this vulnerability. It was that mix; this idea of somebody with a tremendous, almost dangerous drive, and then being able to see those moments of vulnerability.

“From that moment forward, I was like, “I want it to be Rob,” But also, I knew he’d been working with Claire Denis (High Life), and James Gray, and David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis) and all of these different people, so I thought that maybe he might not even have an interest in coming back and doing a blockbuster, or being Batman?

“It almost felt like this crazy “Who knows if he’ll even want to do this?” As it turned out, it was fated because he was a huge Batman fan and when he found out I was doing the movie, he started tracking it on his own. So we weirdly were thinking about each other from the opposite sides. And then, when we met, we just really clicked and really hit it off.”

But while Robert Pattinson undoubtedly serves the film as its enigmatic core, taking on the unenviable position of facing judgment from the legion of fans who have invested themselves in the DC fandom, the Twilight alum by no means carries the film on his own, with Reeves having assembled an intriguing ensemble, each of whom craft unique, compelling depictions of their respective DC characters. Front and center opposite Pattinson is Zöe Kravitz as Selina Kyle, Jeffrey Wright as James Gordon, Andy Serkis as Alfred Pennewise, Colin Farrell as Oswald Cobblepot aka The Penguin, and of course the film’s primary antagonist Paul Dano, whose take on the Riddler removes any form of kitsch to instead deliver a remarkably sociopathic performance.

Jeffrey Wright as James Gordon

“You know what’s really interesting?” Asks Reeves with unmitigated enthusiasm for his cast. “Having written the movie with Rob in mind, I also wrote the movie with Paul Dano in mind – very weird. I guess it’s one of the blessings of also doing a Batman movie. Those are two actors who, in the writing, I wanted. And then I pursued them, and now those are the people who ended up in the movie. It’s so strange.

“I think Paul is just such a brilliant actor. He loves to do what I love to do, which is when I am making something, I like to go on a search. I do a tremendous amount of preparation and Paul’s the same. But then on the day, you try to be open to something unexpected and that’s when you catch lightning in a bottle. I think what was so fun for me is I love to do a lot of takes but actually, Paul likes to do just as many, if not more. I might do 40 takes and he’d be like, “I think I’d like to do some more” and so then we do 41.”

“Paul was fantastic. The cast was amazing all the way across. When I started looking for people for Selina, I really liked what I’d seen of Zoë’s work, but it was one of those things where I’d met with a bunch of different actors, but she and I really connected. I just felt like she had an understanding of this character and her spirit. And then, Rob came in as he had to do a screen test in a bat suit, while I was casting Selina Kyle, so I had Zoë come in and read with Rob. That was a really amazing day because you just never know what the chemistry is going to be like between the actors. They knew each other, so they had a kind of familiarity with each other, but there was a great energy. Zöe just grabbed onto the role, and I was like, “Oh, she’s definitely Selina Kyle.”

“But I mean, the cast is amazing! Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro who literally is an idol of mine. I just love John Turturro. I have always loved John Turturro. It was a very special experience to get to work with this group of actors. I’m so proud of the work they did.”

While The Batman will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) for its unique perspective and distance from the antagonistic DC Extended Universe, Reeves work on the familiar property deserves credit for its ambitious retooling of the Batman legacy, shedding any pretence to allow his players the freedom to operate and succeed within a respectful narrative that doesn’t shy away from its inherent darkness. A darkness both metaphorical and literal.

Reeves vision of Gotham is a beautifully rendered neo-gothic noir, cloaked in pollution, populated by the disenfranchised and haemorrhaging corruption. It’s a world in which any glimmer of hope is met with scepticism and distrust, presenting institutional violence as a desperate morality play. Coupled with a raw cinematic aesthetic, built on a silhouette of relentless rain and defined by an oppressive, claustrophobic lens, The Batman is a visceral experience that brings to mind numerous thematic elements prominent in 1970’s independent cinema, and which is starkly reminiscent of David Fincher’s grim 1995 thriller Se7en.

“The era you’re talking about was literally the visual references.” Says Reeves “The French Connection was one. Taxi Driver is one. A really big one is a movie that cinematographer Gordon Willis shot, which was not only visually important, which it was, but also thematically important, which is the Alan J. Pakula movie Klute starring Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda. That was an important movie as it related to Batman and Selina’s relationship. Klute [Sutherland], in that movie judges who Brie – the Jane Fonda character – is. And then ends up being drawn to her anyway. He’s naïve in a way, the way that Batman is.

“Batman doesn’t understand the ways in which he’s lived a sheltered life, and that Selina’s had to be a survivor, and so he doesn’t understand the challenge of what it is for her to exist in this city.

“And Klute had a lot of that texture in it visually. The way it looked was very important. I think that now with everything having moved to digital, everything has gotten so clean. Part of what’s amazing about some of those movies are the anamorphic lenses from the time, they were absolutely beautiful, but they were really imperfect. They weren’t very good lenses in certain ways, not technically. If you were evaluating on a purely technical basis, the lenses were pretty bad. The way the focus fell off and the bokeh, all those imperfections and the strange peculiarities of those lenses are really part of what gave those 70s movies a really unique look.

“So we used lenses that were really messed up. These lenses were not technically great, and we also weren’t afraid to let in texture. During heavy raining scenes, we would get water on the lens, and we would do everything we could to make it seem very gritty and practical. There were a lot of very, I would call them textural elements that drove the way that we shot.

“And then, even the way that we ultimately finished the film. We didn’t just go to negative; we went to IP so that you are essentially seeing a release print being scanned back. And so there’s all of this film texture. There’s real film grain.”

Reeves determination to gain as much imperfection to the films look is mirrored in the films more practical attributes, with a distinct low-tech vibe assigned to The Batman’s various tools of the trade. Notably the Batsuit itself, a collection of harden leather and assault gear that blends seamlessly into the fabric of the film’s stylistic ecosystem. A far cry from the pressure molded silicone renders of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Zack Snyder’s brutalist take from Justice League.

Further complimenting Reeves vision is the low-key design of Pattinson’s Bat Mobile. A minimalist take on 1970’s American muscle car culture and effectively utilized as a blunt force instrument. Mirroring Pattinson’s own unhinged fight style throughout the film, the vehicle is designed with the singular goal of decimating whatever lies within its path. Showcased in one of the films more ferocious action sequences, slyly underplayed within the film’s trailers, the sequence is a prime example of Reeves ability to handle solid action sequences without the overreliance of visual effects created in post-production.

“We’re using hard mounts on our chase.” He explains “I wouldn’t let anything happen on screen that couldn’t be done on set. There’s no moment where the camera does something in the CG world that it couldn’t do in the real world. We tried to make everything be bound by those rules, as if we were making this movie in that era and as a completely practical-based thing. So even though there are things in the movie that aren’t practical effects, they’re all created from the point of view as if they were.”

And while fans eagerly await the films March 3 release date, The Batman marks Reeves first directorial effort since the 2017 conclusion to his Planet of The Apes opus. But as the native New Yorker reminisces on The Batman’s legacy, its strange path through COVID and the controversies surrounding the current DCEU, he remains convinced by his initial attraction to the project, and the possibility of facing down another (alleged) film trilogy.

“It took five years from the moment that I signed on to this movie’s coming out. To invest that much of your life and your time; to care about it like that, but also to have felt that experience with the studio, it has resulted in something that I’m incredibly proud of. It’s not the story you usually hear when you talk about big blockbusters and studio filmmaking, but it was certainly the case for me.

“I think the version of this character; I wanted a version of the character that was still forming. A lot of times you see a version of this character where he has mastered himself to become Batman. Here, I wanted a version where, two years in, he still doesn’t have it down. He’s still figuring out what it’s going to take to be Batman. I wanted to take him and put him in this detective story, into a story that was going to unexpectedly become very personal and really shake him to his core. I think that Rob was the perfect choice for that.

“A lot of people ask, “Oh, okay, is there this cut or that cut?” This cut of the movie is THE cut. This is the movie as I want the world to see it. There is no other version of it and, to me, that’s an incredible thing to have been through. I feel very fortunate.”

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