NYCC 2012: Roundtable Interviews with “The Dark Knight Returns” Producer Bruce Timm and Voice Director Andrea Romano
At the 2012 New York Comic Con, Todd “GWOtaku” DuBois and I were able to sit in on roundtable interview sessions with Bruce Timm and Andrea Romano, executive producer and voice director, respectively, on Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The first half of the two-part adaptation of the seminal graphic novel by Frank Miller and Andrea Romano was released in September (read Toonzone News’ review here), with part 2 due in January/February 2013.
Questions asked by the Toonzone News team are marked below.
With 20 years of work under his belt working with DC animated superheroes, starting with Batman the Animated Series, Bruce Timm needs no introduction to serious animation fans. He and the team behind Batman the Animated Series rewrote the book on how to do a superhero action cartoon, continuing to refine and build through Superman the Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Justice League/Justice League Unlimited before overseeing the launch of a line of direct-to-video animated movies starring DC’s most iconic superheroes that have achieved both critical and sales chart success.
Q: What would you say was the most controversial thing about Batman: The Dark Knight Returns?
BRUCE TIMM: After all these years, the most controversial aspect of the comic is literally Frank Miller’s version of Superman. It’s to the point that people are like, “Oh, Frank Miller, he hates Superman! He loves Batman and hates Superman!” I don’t know that that’s really true, I think it’s an exaggeration of reality, but at the same time, the way Superman is treated in the comic is definitely unlike where anybody’s taken Superman as a character. Early on, there was a decision where we asked, “Well, do we change what Superman’s role is in the story? Do we stay with it? Do we embrace it?” We decided we had to embrace it. For anybody who’s unfamiliar with the comic, Superman is basically the Super-Enforcer of the United States Government, and works against Batman and the other superheroes in the world. I think that’s a valid story to pursue, whether you think that Superman would actually do that or not, but it definitely creates an interesting dichotomy between the two different kinds of crime-fighters that Superman and Batman are. And, frankly, it’s the climax of the story, so we kind of had to do it, and we kind of had to do it full-strength. We didn’t want to water it down.
Q: Superman is celebrating his 75th anniversary next year. Taking him out of the context of Dark Knight for a minute, how much of a challenge is it to you to keep that character relevant? Because all I hear from people is, “Oh, he’s boring, he’s a god among people…”
BRUCE TIMM: It’s a bit of a challenge. Superman can go wrong in a lot of ways. There is something really specific and iconic about Superman as the super boy scout. The trick is, “How do we make that relevant, how do we make that interesting?” There’s a lot of ways to make that interesting, and there’s lots of bad ways. One way to do that is to make him un-Superman-like. Something happens to make him lose it and he becomes a vengeful killer or something. That’s an easy-out, and they’ve done that, too. It’s a hard thing to describe. The minute you push him too far outside his Superman zone, he’s not Superman any more. So you have to be very careful to walk that line.
On the other end of the paradigm, you’ve got some of those works that have totally super-embraced the idea that Superman is the God-like, Jesus-like, King-Arthur-like figure of pure goodness. That was Grant Morrison’s remit on All-Star Superman, and I think he pulled it off brilliantly. But that’s not easy to do. So there’s no easy answer for that.
Q: For the art direction, what were you inspired by?
BRUCE TIMM: Visually, on this one, we just referred to the comic. We had copies of the graphic novel all over the place, and whenever we were in any doubt what something should look like, whether it was a wrench or a vehicle or a building, it was just like, “Well, what does it look like in the comic?” Sometimes we’d open it up and look and say, “Well, we don’t want it to look like that, but we want it to look kind of like that.” So it was always our visual reference.
Q: Speaking of art direction, it felt a lot of it was mixing your art style with Miller’s. It was almost as much of you as Frank Miller. Or that might just be because there’s a lot of Frank in you.
BRUCE TIMM: No, I think probably what you’re responding to is that the style we created on Batman the Animated Series 20 years ago has kind of become the default superhero style for all the animation that’s currently being done out of Korea, so a Marvel show or a DC show, whether it’s Young Justice or Fantastic Four or Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, they all have a little bit of the Batman the Animated Series DNA in them now, because that’s how all the animators out in Korea do all the work…
Q: So now, even if they’re based on Frank Miller, you get infused automatically.
BRUCE TIMM: Yeah. I wish I could take that out (laughs). I wish I could just take the B.T. DNA out of that. But it’s just kind of there. Like I said, if that’s what you’re seeing, it was definitely not a conscious thought. I try to keep my style completely out of the direct-to-videos, completely. I don’t want this stuff to look like my stuff when we’re doing them.
Q: This film deals with the last days of Batman, we just had the film come out over the summer by Chris Nolan, you did Batman Beyond. Why do you think the Batman audiences has such fascination to find out the last battle of Batman?
BRUCE TIMM: You know, I don’t know. It’s not just Batman, I think that it applies to a lot of different characters, like Captain Kirk. What’s Captain Kirk’s last battle? If he died, what would it be like? Sometimes it’s satisfying, sometimes it isn’t. I won’t say (laughs). I think it’s just one of those perennial questions, like, “If this guy and this guy fought, who would win?” There’s nothing deep about it, I don’t think.
TOONZONE NEWS: Has Frank Miller reacted?
BRUCE TIMM: Not that I’ve heard from. I have not heard from Frank, so I don’t know. Hopefully he liked it.
Q: Did you have any concerns about the story’s timeframe, the Reagan era, being used nowadays?
BRUCE TIMM: There was some discussion about that. We thought, “Should we update all the references? Should we make Reagan someone else?” We decided to stay truthful to the time period of the book, and not only that but Reagan specifically was such a big iconic part of the comic. Whether people know or not who Reagan is any more…which is kind of a scary thought…or if they appreciate the time period, it just kind of has to be.
Q: The comics on the spinner racks in the store, most of them are from that period, I think. I saw Swamp Thing and Watchmen.
BRUCE TIMM: Well, you know, we were at least cagey about it. We didn’t say exactly what year Dark Knight took place in.
Q: How do the themes reverberate in this contemporary time? Would they still be relevant?
BRUCE TIMM: Oh, I think the themes are universal. The idea of right vs. left, and civil rights vs. police states, that stuff is always relevant.
BRUCE TIMM: Well, that’s the thing that always happens is in a comic, the big fight between Batman and the Mutant Leader takes place on, like, two pages of art. It seems like it’s this big epic fight, and when you really look at it, it’s something like 15 panels. And yet, that’s just the difference between comic book language and film language. That’s appropriate for the comic. That scene felt like a big, epic fight. That scene was satisfying and conclusive in the comic. In the movie, if we literally stuck to only those panels that were in the comic, the fight would be over in about 20 seconds, so we needed to expand it and fill-in-the-blanks, basically. Fortunately, Jay Oliva is one of the best action directors and action board artists in the business, and that was his baby.
Q: You’ve been in a supervising position a lot lately. If you went back to directing, is there anyone that you haven’t gotten a chance to that you haven’t yet…
BRUCE TIMM: There’s tons. Too many.
Q: But is there anyone specifically?
BRUCE TIMM: No, I couldn’t give you a sound bite. I can’t tell you, “I’m going to do…the Inferior Five. That’s my dream job.”
Q: That’s the sound bite right there!
Q: How was it working with the different voice talent this time around?
BRUCE TIMM: It was great. Just…this is when I get my geek on. On one hand, I wanted to be really, really professional when I meet Peter Weller: “Hi, I’m Bruce Timm, I’m the producer OH MY GOD, I LOVE ROBOCOP AND BUCKAROO BANZAI!” (laughs) But it was a super-thrill. Seriously, RoboCop and Buckaroo Banzai were two of my favorite sci-fi movies back in the day. And he was both of them, so that was awesome. Beyond just the geekiness of it, he’s perfect for it. He’s the perfect casting for the part. He’s still a young man, but he sounds older than when he was RoboCop and when he was Buckaroo Banzai. When his name first came up in the casting sessions, my only hesitation was, “Does he sound deep enough to be Batman?” Andrea had been watching him on Dexter and so she sent me a clip and I thought, “Wow, he’d be awesome! He’d be perfect as Batman.” And he was.
Q: Back when you did that episode of Batman the Animated Series, you had Michael Ironside.
BRUCE TIMM: Michael Ironside was great, too. It’s always fun and difficult to cast Batman.
Q: The older Batman?
BRUCE TIMM: Batman period. As much as I love Kevin Conroy, and I think he is awesome as Batman and he can play Batman at any age, he could have played this one. We just wanted to try something different. The neat thing about Batman is that there are so many different ways to interpret the character. There isn’t just one perfect way, I think. I always say it’s like James Bond. To me, Sean Connery is the best James Bond. He’s perfect, hands down. But, I love Daniel Craig, too, and I love George Lazenby. And all the different Bonds bring something different to it.
Q: When you achieve the success of something like The Dark Knight Returns, and you’ve been on kind of a roll lately, does the creativity of that achievement keep it fresh for you and exciting for you after all these years?
BRUCE TIMM: Well, I don’t think of it in those terms, like that. Honestly, we have to do so many of these things in such quick succession, I wish we had time to sit after we’ve finished one and say, “Oh, that was wonderful! That was a wonderful movie we made! Aren’t we proud of this movie?” But honestly, that never happens because we’re in the middle of working on 3 other movies at the same time and a TV series. We never get a chance to just sit down and enjoy what we did. The nice thing is when we finish mixing the movie and onlining it and doing the color correction, and then we put it away because we’re doing about other things, and then we have a screening a week or two later, and it’s kind of nice to go, “Oh, yeah, I forgotten about this movie, and after not working on it and not worrying about the details, I can look at it in fresh eyes.” That’s always a neat thing.
Q: Jerry Ordway wanted me to ask you if you were a flower, which one would you be?
BRUCE TIMM: If I was a flower, which one would I be? (laughs)
Q: I don’t know what that means, but Jerry said, “Ask Bruce that.”
BRUCE TIMM: Uh….orchid. I don’t know why.
Andrea Romano is another name which needs no introduction to longtime fans of DC animation, as well as cartoons as disparate as Cartoon Network’s Batman: The Brave and the Bold; Adult Swim’s The Boondocks, Disney’s Motorcity; and Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants, Avatar the Last Airbender and its sequel series The Legend of Korra. Her newest credit is on the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series on Nickelodeon, but her involvement in the DC animated universe has also been running for over 20 years, starting with Batman the Animated Series and continuing on all the follow-up shows and DTV movies. Other than Bruce Timm himself, she is the only other crew member who has been consistently connected with the DC animated universe for so long.
ANDREA ROMANO: (unfolding a sheet of paper) I’ve got my cheat sheet, guys. There’s 33 actors in this piece. It’s awesome. I had to have notes, because I can’t remember 33 actors.
ANDREA ROMANO: Well, you know, there’s no studio that can hold 33 actors at one time. There just aren’t enough mikes or enough room, but I did record the the secondary characters like Rob and Don. Those characters that clearly speak to each other. I think I did one session where it was kind of like tag team recording. We had maybe 15 actors there. I’d record 5, let them go; record 5, let them go; record 5, let them go. As often as I could, I’d put the two actors who had scenes or however many actors together. Batman never worked with Gordon. Robin recorded all by herself. That was always the challenge, making them sound like they’re having a conversation, especially in part 1 where you have that first scene with Gordon and Bruce Wayne in the restaurant having cocktails. I think they it was like 3 weeks between those two actors recording. So the challenge for me is always making sure that the voices sound like they’re in the same room and having a conversation.
Q: How did you guys decide who you were going to cast?
ANDREA ROMANO: We always meet together and start a wish list: who would we like, who’s a good voice for it, who’s appropriate, who’s hot and happening right now, who’s iconic themselves. And Peter Weller, RoboCop…
Q: Was he #1?
ANDREA ROMANO: I believe he was. And, gosh, he does a good job! He’s so good. He’s got that wonderful texture and he’s such a good actor, and it’s a bit intimidating because he’s a director, too. He’s been directing a lot of Sons of Anarchy, and I saw a couple of House episodes he did, so directing a director is always kind of scary because you don’t want to lose any credibility. You want to make sure you say something that they can actually respond to.
Q: Since Peter was working solely on his voice and not his physical appearance, did you have to go over with him some of the tricks that you’ve learned, like, “When you’re Bruce Wayne, you’re a little smoother, but when you’re Batman, you’re a little rougher”?
ANDREA ROMANO: It’s not even that so much because that seems to come very naturally to a lot of actors. They kind of get that sense of it. What I have to work with is, “You’re actually running through this scene, Peter,” so just taking like “this” isn’t going to work. You’re going to (huffing and puffing) have that energy, and those kind of specifics aren’t maybe not indicated really clearly in the dialogue, but have to be directed to make sure it’s appropriate. The challenge, especially for someone like Peter Weller or Mark Valley, who played Superman for me, is there’s so much fighting in these pieces. These guys are terrific actors, so I never have to worry about that, but teaching them to do, “Hurrh! Uhh!” — throwing a punch and receiving a punch — sound different. That’s the challenge. Working them through hundreds of those cues to make sure it matches the picture. They were all game for it, but after three hours of doing it, they get tired. They really do, and I understand it. I don’t like to use a library of those sounds because it gets all kind of boring. It’s the same “oof” every time. So you do every single cue to picture, and there’s thousands of them.
Q: So many of the animated films these days use named actors for voice-overs and it’s just to get the audience in there. Do you not like to do that sometimes because you’re afraid people will see “Peter Weller” and not “Batman”? Is that a danger?
ANDREA ROMANO: I want it to be the right voice for the character. It doesn’t matter to me if they’re not a known actor or if they’re a well-known actor. If it’s the right actor, I’m all for it. There’s actually a few little Easter Eggs where RoboCop is referenced in part 2, and so it’s kind of fun for fans to see these things, but I don’t concern myself with that. I know the director, Jay Oliva, made sure to put a couple of those little Easter Eggs in there.
ANDREA ROMANO: Thanks! Thank you! Gary Anthony Williams, I’ve worked with on The Boondocks, and he’s a remarkably versatile actor. What’s wonderful about how versatile he is, is that when you watch part 1, maybe the second or third speaking role is a black news anchor. Very thin, with glasses. That’s also Gary Anthony Williams, and he’s the Mutant Leader as well, and they’re as far away voice-wise as you can imagine. You would never know it was the same actor. Such a tribute to his versatility. You needed this kind of authority and this kind of strength, and again I needed someone who could do hours and hours of fight walla, because that last scene in part 1 is so intense. It’s very interesting when you start to work to picture on that. There’s things that I don’t even see that I need the director or Bruce Timm to point out, like, “OK, that’s a point where the Mutant Leader’s nails scrape across Batman’s chest,” and I didn’t actually see that, specifically, so it had to be a really good, “UUhhh!!” really pained sound, as opposed to just an “uhh!” if he had just been hit, or a glancing blow. Gary is just stunning at that stuff.
Q: You’ve had actors playing the Joker over and over and over, you’ve had lots of people playing Batman. Was there any character who brought something different, or something you were surprised that they did it?
ANDREA ROMANO: The reason why I cast Michael Emerson as the Joker is because I knew he would do that. We all have in our heads what we think the Joker sounds like, whether you were brought up with Mark Hamill’s Joker, or whatever. You kind of have an idea in your mind, and I knew Michael would bring something different and it wouldn’t be the typical voice one would assume the Joker would sound like. What a stunning actor, I absolutely adore his performance! I saw him three or four months after he finished the voice work, and I asked him, “Did you enjoy the whole process?” and he said it was the hardest work he ever did, which I found fascinating because this man has quite a body of work, but it was such a new, novel thing. When we recorded him, he was here in New York, I was in L.A., and it was the first time that I recorded someone by Skype, because I wanted to watch him and for him to see me, because when you give a direction, if you can do that to an actor, it helps them. And watching him was just fascinating.
Toonzone News would like to thank Bruce Timm and Andrea Romano for taking the time to speak with us, and to Gary Miereanu at Warner Bros. for setting up the sessions. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is available now, and part 2 is currently scheduled for late January/early February 2013.