Interview: The Batman director Matt Reeves on navigating a darker take on the superhero; “I wanted a story that would break him to his core”

Arriving in cinemas this week (you can read our review here), The Batman is arguably one of the year’s most anticipated films.  Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and fronted by Robert Pattinson, the film is gearing up to deliver a version of the Dark Knight we have yet to see on the big screen.

Ahead of its national release, Peter Gray spoke with director Reeves about the seemingly unconventional casting of Pattinson, how his dark vision was embraced by the studio, and which era of films served as his biggest inspiration.

The Batman films have always had that sense of unpredictable nature in their casting.  We look at Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Heath Ledger…names that I don’t think many would have expected to be playing their respective characters (within the franchise).  Robert Pattinson is, again, someone who doesn’t strike as the most obvious choice, especially to those who only know him from Twilight.  How did he come about for you?

You know, it’s interesting because Rob was always an obvious choice for me.  When I was writing and once we had decided to focus in on the Year Two Batman, presenting him as someone in his 30’s, I started looking at actors in that age range.  I had been following his performances since Twilight.  He had been making so many interesting choices.  He was in a friend of mine’s movie called The Lost City of Z, a wonderful filmmaker by the name of James Gray.  He told me he had cast him and I read the script and was being shown a cut of the movie, and when Rob came on with his insane beard (laughs) I was just like “Who’s that?”

He had so much charisma and I didn’t know it was Rob.  Then I started looking at all his movies, and when I was writing someone suggested I check out Good Time by the Safdie Brothers.  Something clicked in me with that.  There was something about his performance in that movie that had such a type of propulsive, obsessive desperation.  He’s very kinetic and intense.  But also in his eyes you sense this vulnerability.  It was that mix of someone with this dangerous drive and being able to see that vulnerability.  From that moment forward I wanted it to be Rob, and I had no idea (if he had) interest in wanting to do this big blockbuster.  It almost felt like this “who knows” moment, and it turned out to be almost fated as he was a huge Batman fan.  When he found out about the movie he started tracking it on his own, so we were weirdly thinking about each other from the other side.

The version of this character, I wanted (him) to be still forming.  So many versions of this character is mastering himself to become Batman.  Here, I wanted a version where he’s two years in and 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 through this detective story that was going to unexpectedly become very personal and shake him to his core, and I think Rob is the perfect one for that.  I’m so excited.  I can’t wait for people to see Rob.

Elaborating on that, once you had Rob locked down, how important was the remaining casting? Especially with The Riddler, which was such a unique take on the character.

Casting is everything.  You’re taking these iconic, beloved characters (and) you’re trying to reinvent them with a new specificity, bringing new life to them.  What’s interesting is that having written the movie with Rob in mind, I also wrote it with Paul Dano (The Riddler) in mind.  It’s so strange.  It’s one of the blessings of doing a Batman movie also.  Those are two actors who, in the writing, I wanted them, and I pursued them and they both ended up in the movie.

Paul is such a brilliant actor.  He loves to do what I love to do, and that’s when making something I like to go on a search.  Paul does a tremendous amount of preparation, but then on the day you try to be open to something unexpected.  And that’s when you catch lightning in a bottle, and that’s so much fun.  I love to do a lot of takes, but Paul loves to do more.  I could do 40 takes.  He’d like just a few more.  The cast is amazing.

It was like that across the board too.  When I was looking at people for Selina, I really liked what I had seen of Zoë’s work.  It was one of those things (though) where I met with a bunch of different actors, and she and I just connected.  I felt that she and I just had an understanding of this character and her spirit.  Rob came in and had to do a screen test in a bat suit, and when I was casting Selina Kyle (Zoë) came in and had to read, so that was an amazing day.  You just never know what the chemistry is going to be like between the actors.  They knew each other so there was that familiarity, but they had such great energy.  She came in and just grabbed the role, so I knew she was Selina Kyle.

This is quite a different version of Batman that we are used to seeing in that it’s considerably darker.  Did you get any pushback from the studio regarding your decisions?

You know, I have to say that the experience has kind of been the dream experience.  When I first came in they had a different version.  Obviously Ben (Affleck) was going to be Batman because it was part of the DCEU.  The script they presented me was one that I didn’t necessarily see myself directing.  I came in saying “Look, I’m really flattered”, and it was a cool version, but it wasn’t one that I was the right director for.  What’s so interesting is that they asked what I’d be interested in doing, and I wanted something that wasn’t connected to the extended universe and was more part of the Batverse.

When you take a character that’s so established, like the way Ben’s was, the other rogue gallery of characters come in and the story is told in these very large parts.  I wanted Batman to be at the centre of (this story).  A story that would break him to his core and force him to evolve.  It’s not about becoming Batman, he’s already Batman, so he would have that arc.  This was all whilst I was doing Planet of the Apes, so if they wanted me to do that I told them I wouldn’t be available for 6-8 months.  To my shock, they wanted to wait.  They loved the idea.

During that period Ben was re-evaluating and he decided he didn’t want to move forward with that character anymore, so suddenly opportunities to re-invent even further open up.  I knew I didn’t want to go with an origin story because it had been done so many times.  But I thought maybe there’s something about a Year Two Batman, and trying to figure out how to be Batman.  This story came to me very quickly.  Not in terms of speed, because I am very slow (laughs) and it took me an incredibly long time to write the script, but in terms of (the story’s) thrust, it started to come together quickly after Apes.  The whole time the studio were nothing but supportive of it.  And I know people often ask about what “cut” it is.  This is the cut.  This is how I want the world to see it.  There is no other version.

Your films have always embraced the viral campaign strategy.  With The Batman now doing the same with the riddler puzzles, and even you personally tweeting ciphers, how much personal in-put do you have to this extra layer of storytelling?

There’s something about this idea of trying to create a world.  Not everyone is into the idea of viral marketing, but those that are it means a lot to.  I love the idea of creating an idea that the world you’re watching in a movie extends beyond the movie (itself).  You feel like you can engage in all these different ways.  When I came up with the idea for the website used in the film, the first thing I did was go out and grabbed the website (domain).  I didn’t know if it was going to be used, but I wanted it.

There was a team that were working very, very hard to bring it all to life.  They shared their ideas with me and it’s something I care a lot about.  It’s a fun thing to try and do, to take the world and extend it beyond the movies.  The Batman movies have a history of that.  The Dark Knight had an amazing viral campaign.  I just love all that stuff and I’m glad you do too.

And you worked with one of our own on this film, Melbourne-born cinematographer Greig Fraser.  It’s been 11 years since you last worked together.  What brought him back into the fold?

Greig and I have been trying to work together since Let Me In.  He was the first person I went to when I got Dawn (of the Planet of the Apes).  We were excited but the schedule just didn’t work out for us.  We tried for the next movie, and schedules just kept moving, and then he was doing one of the Star Wars movies and It just wasn’t working out.  This is my third movie since working together.  Each time we try to get our schedules to align.

It was a joy to work with Michael Seresin on the Apes movies, but the connection Greig and I had on Let Me In…I just love working with him.  I think he’s an incredible artist.  I think aesthetically we really connect.  Light is one of those things I have a very emotional response to, and Greig’s lighting is just amazing.  We have a lot of the same loves.

I’m convinced he doesn’t sleep!  The amount of movies he does is insane.

He’s incredibly fast.  I’m a total tunnel vision person.  (I’ll focus on) one particular detail and do shot by shot by shot.  Greig has the ability to multi-task.  He loves to have lots of things going on at once, so in that way we complement each other well too.  He’s able to move in and out of so many different films.  He’ll do these really beautiful independent films, but then bring that same sensibility and aesthetic to blockbusters.  He’s just a wonderful DP.  He’s great.

The film has that grimy look akin to something from the 1970’s.  Were there any films you turned to for visual inspiration? And what were the challenges in achieving that look?

The era you’re talking about are literally the visual references.  Films like The French Connection and Taxi Driver.  A really big (inspiration) was a movie called Klute starring Jane Fonda.  That was an important movie in the way it related to Batman and Selina’s relationship.  Klute judges who Jane Fonda’s character is, and Batman doesn’t really understand who Selina is.  He’s lived this sheltered life, whereas she is a survivor.  He doesn’t understand the challenge for her to exist in this city.  Klute had a lot of that texture in it.

Everything now has moved to digital and gotten so clean, and the grit you’re referring to was easy to achieve with those films because the anamorphic lenses were imperfect.  They were beautiful as a result of that.  The peculiarities of those lenses is what gave those 70’s movies a really unique look.  We used lenses that were not technically great.  During heavy raining scenes we’d let water on the lens so we can see that grit and that practicality.

The Batman is screening in Australian theatres from March 3rd, 2022.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.