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Interview: Executive Producer Michael Uslan is “The Boy Who Loved Batman”

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For every pop culture phenomenon, there is a humble beginning. Michael Uslan, executive producer of the Batman series, had his beginning as a young child who simply had an undying fascination with comic books. He would later go on to spend 10 years working towards becoming a producer for the first Batman film. Little did he know how much of an impact he would have on the entertainment industry.

A native of Cedar Grove, New Jersey, Uslan is one of the highest-grossing movie producers of all time, has several awards under his belt, including a Daytime Emmy for Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, a People’s Choice award for Batman, and, most recently, a Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition to films, his work spans numerous comics (most notably The Shadow for DC comics) and books which chronicle the history of comics.

In a recent interview, Uslan opens up about the forthcoming film, The Dark Knight Rises, his comic book course, and where he plans to go moving forward aftering receiving the Lifetime award.

How has social media changed your way you think about marketing the films?

I’m not as involved with the marketing of the films as I am with making films more marketable. I am not a believer in the idea that really good marketing can sell a really bad film, so I focus on doing what I can to help filmmakers simply make better movies. And I hear the criticisms in the media about how Hollywood has lost its originality. Something in the range of 23 movies slated for 2011 were sequels or remakes of past films, and that seems to have some people’s noses out of joint.

My view is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a sequel, and now that we are on our eighth Batman film, I realize how people might think that opinion on the subject is a bit tainted. They’d have a point, but it doesn’t mean that I’m wrong. A good movie is a good movie, period. Some of the highest grossing and best regarded films in the genre have been sequels. Ask Star Trek fans which film in the franchise was the best, and they’ll resoundingly tell you Star Trek 2. Ask Star Wars fans, and they’ll say The Empire Strikes Back. James Cameron made two sequels that are better regarded than the originals – Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

That’s not to say that the industry couldn’t use a little injection of fresh ideas, but in that same breath I cannot understand how anyone could see JJ Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek and say it wasn’t original. To a guy who didn’t have a computer until he was in his 30s and who still can’t seem to get his Droid phone to work right, my feeling is that a good film finds its audience and most audiences will find a good film. Social media is another way of getting people aware of a movie, but it can’t save a bad one.

How has the Batman series changed the industry?

I believe that Batman changed how Hollywood regarded comic books as source material for movies and television shows. Back when I was initially pitching Batman to studios, no one wanted to do a dark and serious Batman movie. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t like Batman. The problem was that they didn’t like comics. I even had one studio executive tell me that Batman would never work as a film because Annie, the movie musical based on Little Orphan Annie, wouldn’t work. When I asked him what Batman had to do with the little red-headed girl who sang “Tomorrow,” I was told, “Come on, Michael, they’re both from the funnies.”

Back then, studios believed that the only comic book character who was viable on film was Superman, because he was the biggest name, and even then, they had to handle him with a touch of campiness to make it work. Batman was the first film that treated a character out of the comics more seriously. It convinced studios that maybe Superman wasn’t the only fodder for film. Since then, literally dozens of movies have been made from comics, and it’s not just the obvious ones like X-Men and Spider-Man. Movies like Road to Perdition, 30 Days of Night, The 300, A History of Violence, Sin City and From Hell all came from comics. The thing is, most people didn’t know the source material was comics, so they simply looked at them as good movies.

The Dark Knight, however, was the first movie that was clearly from comic book source material that critics and audiences alike regarded not as a good “comic book” film, but as a good film, period. I have had other filmmakers come up to me and thank me for standing my ground to make a serious Batman film because they say it paved the way for their films to be made. Today, comics and related genres account for roughly half of the top box office moneymakers for the last five years. Yes, the industry has changed its view on comics, and I think the Batman film we made in 1989 was the first strong nudge in that direction.

Was there an inciting incident that inspired the new film? If so, what was it?

The genius that is Chris Nolan. He had an understanding of the source material, which he took very seriously. He didn’t try to run away from what was done in the comics so much as he wanted to build on it and make it relevant and real to all audiences. The studio respected that and backed him and the team in creating Batman Begins, which did extremely well, freeing him up to take even more risks in The Dark Knight – risks that clearly paid off creatively and financially.

How has your early age comic book fascination fed into making the series?

Well, that’s a very broad question, but I’ll try to answer it concisely. I titled my memoir The Boy Who Loved Batman because I’m still very much that eight-year-old boy inside. When people ask me to describe my job to them, I tell them I get to wake up every morning and go to my sandbox to play with my favorite toys. But if anything really shaped not only my wanting to make the movies, but also my ability to make the movies, it was my parents. They knew I loved comics, and at a time when most parents were being told that comic books promoted juvenile delinquency, my mom and dad made a deal with me. They said they’d let me continue to read comics as long as I read other things, as well – books, newspapers, magazines and such. They didn’t want to squelch my love of comics, but they wanted me to grow up as a well-rounded and well-educated person. If they hadn’t done that, I never would have had the ability to make the movies as an adult. I’d still have had the desire, but I wouldn’t have had the slightest clue how to pull it off.

Is it difficult to balance the artistic vision of the directors with commercial success?

Nope. I believe that a good artistic vision is what drives commercial success. There are rare examples in the film business of people getting rich off of universally bad movies. But there must be a balance, and most good artists understand that.

If you drive a movie solely on commercial concerns, you’ll deliver something that strikes every consumer note, but lacks a soul. Invariably, those movies fail to engage audiences. If you drive it solely on artistic vision, you run the risk of alienating those who don’t have a frame of reference for that vision. Those all sound like very erudite concepts, but keep in mind, I work in a business in which it is not uncommon for young agents or film executives to tell a screenwriter that they love acts 1 and 2, but could they change the ending and make the protagonist a talking shaggy dog, because they want to sell plush toys.

The thing the best of us in the business realize is that the marriage of art and commerce is a shotgun wedding, at best, but even the Mona Lisa was a commissioned piece. My point? Without commerce, there is little to no art. Without art, there is little to no commerce. It’s called “Show BUSINESS” for a reason.

Can you tell me a little about the Comic Book Hero academic course?

I can tell you it was my foot in the door to the industry. I pitched the class to the dean at Indiana University as a course about comics as modern day mythology. The Greeks, Romans and Norse all had their gods and heroes. Comic book heroes were our modern-day equivalent. After I started teaching it, I will admit to a little mischief. I called the education reporter for United Press International and acted like a parent outraged that IU would allow someone to teach a course about “funny books.” Within two days, I had reporters calling me from all over the country. By the middle of my first semester teaching the course, I had been on all three network newscasts. In fact, I cannot remember teaching a single class without there being some representative from the media there. As that class put comics on the pop culture radar screen, the press I received put me on Marvel and DC’s radar screen. I received calls from Stan Lee at Marvel and Sol Harrison at DC inviting me to visit their offices. That’s when DC asked me to be an intern there, and it started my long association with them.

How does it feel to receive the Lifetime Achievement award? Where do you go going forward?

I don’t know, honestly. I’ve always felt a lifetime achievement award is something you give people in the twilight of their careers. My “lifetime” ain’t over, and I still have a lot of “achievement” left in me. So, it was never a question of moving forward. That’s the only direction I know to move.

Later on in the interview, Uslan remained tight-lipped about the new movie and Christopher Nolan’s role, saying, “All I’ll say about The Dark Knight Rises is ‘stay tuned…July 20, 2012.'” When asked about what diehard fans can expect out of the summer thriller, all he would divulge is, “If you think you’ve seen it all…you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

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