Batman (1989), and the behind the scenes struggle with its ending

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It took urgent rewrites to fix the ending of 1989’s Batman, not least because one of its producers had spent $100,000 on a prop without telling the director.

Through today’s eyes, the budget for the biggest blockbuster of 1989 might look like spare change. Batman, directed by Tim Burton, cost around $35m to make (with a cash-rich back end deal for Jack Nicholson on top). That money was spent on star power, on taking over a good chunk of Pinewood Studios in the UK for its sets, and on the rest of the physical production itself.

Yet in the late 1980s, when Warner Bros pulled the trigger on the project, it was a huge gamble to spend that much on one film, a massive rolling of the dice from a studio that was struggling to generate hits. This was far from the sure bet that most comic book movies are regarded as today, and what complicated matters further was the number of cooks the project had.

As well as securing Tim Burton – hot off the back of Beetlejuice – to direct the film, the movie also had producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber inputting their ideas, as well as Warner Bros chiefs Terry Semel and Robert Daly. Lisa Henson was then the executive overseeing the film for the studio, and Mark Canton was pivotal too. Batman creator Bob Kane was a consultant on the project. And they all wanted their say.

Furthermore, hiring Jack Nicholson to play The Joker brought to the project someone who tended to have strong story ideas too, and that’s even before we get to the screenwriters themselves.

It was Sam Hamm who came up with the screenplay that ignited the film, but he found himself unable to continue work on the film due to a strike by the Writers’ Guild Of America. A further writer needed to be sought.

By this stage, writer Warren Skaaren had built up a strong reputation for his rewrite work on screenplays. In particular, whilst uncredited (a major bone of contention for him), Skaaren was heavily influential on the first Top Gun movie. Off the back of that, he moved onto Beetlejuice, Beverly Hills Cop II, and he was subsequently recruited for Batman, as well as the reunion of the Top Gun creatives, Days Of Thunder. He would juggle the two projects, and would struggle at times to do so.

Batman, for one, was proving taxing, not least because of the disagreements behind the scenes about the film’s tone. Nonetheless, Skaaren worked hard at numerous rewrites, covering tasks from giving Robert Wuhl (Knox) a verbal sketch for the tone of his character (Skaaren told him to play him “like Bernstein in Watergate”), through to earning the respect and trust of Jack Nicholson, who was having concerns over The Joker’s arc.

Nonetheless, Skaaren managed to juggle the assorted notes and deliver a script the production could press ahead with. He was in London to polish that off, before flying back to the US in the autumn of 1988 to start work in earnest on Days Of Thunder. He had no plans to return, given his other commitments.

But the problems were mounting on Batman in his absence. Notably, Sean Young – who was playing Vicki Vale – was injured a month into shooting, and the role needed to be recast. Kim Basinger would take the part on, of course, but rewrites were necessary as a consequence. Skaaren resisted the calls to go to London, and would deliver this work over the phone.

Yet eventually, there came the problem of the movie’s ending. The filming of this took place towards the end of the shoot, at the start of 1989, and there were sizeable concerns over it. Originally, the idea was a straight showdown of sorts between Batman and The Joker at the top of Gotham Cathedral. But at the suggestion of producer Jon Peters, the character of Vicki Vale was added into the finale.

Peters has also, without information Burton, greenlit building a 38 foot model of a cathedral bell tower, at a reported cost of around $100,000, anticipating its use in the finale. As a consequence, it was going to be written into the film and used.

When it came time to shoot the finale, though, it wasn’t making sense. As Burton would say – reported in Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters’ excellent book Hit & Run – “here was Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger walking up this cathedral, and halfway up Jack turns around and says ‘why am I walking up all these stairs? Where am I going?’ And I had to tell him I didn’t know”.

Burton, understandably, was exhausted by the gigantic production. Before filming began he’d had ‘pneumonia-like symptoms’, and then had to deal with the stress of no shortage of studio interference on top.

Furthermore, it was clear some time even before the schedule got to it that the ending was problematic. As Burton recalled in the book Burton On Burton, “we started out with a script that everyone liked, although we recognized it needed a little work. Everyone thought the script was great, but they still thought it needed a total rewrite”.

Skaaren, and the tale of this is told in the excellent book Rewrite Man by Alison Macor, had to bite the bullet and get a plane back to London. He spent a week of intensive work just before Christmas at first, working on the finale as well as other revisions. Skaaren found himself writing the final confrontation around the prop the studio had funded.

There had been an original plan that The Joker would kill Vicki Vale in the finale, which was ultimately nixed. And whilst few were entirely satisfied with the finale we eventually got, the confrontation, the dance, and The Joker’s ultimate demise were ultimately arrived at.

That said, even after Skaaren went home to return to his Days Of Thunder work, and even with British writer Charles McKeown on the Batman set to deal with problems that needed sorting there and then, it took a further 11-page fax from Skaaren to Burton in January 1989 to finally resolve the ending, and just about make it work. It was only decided on a week or two before filming wrapped up.

It’s telling that when it came time for Batman Returns, the key lure that Warner Bros had for Burton was far less studio interference, and far more wiggle room. That didn’t necessarily make it any easier, but it did mean there wasn’t a producer spending six figures on a prop for the ending without telling him…


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