Talk about a double-edged Batarang: When production designer James Chinlund got the call from his friend, filmmaker Matt Reeves—the two had previously collaborated on Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes and War For The Planet Of The Apes—with an offer to join him on designing the world of the Robert Pattinson-starring The Batman, everything from the cityscape of Gotham to a brand-new Batmobile, the pros and cons were immediately and abundantly apparent.
On the one hand, Chinlund—whose two-decade-plus résumé includes everything from avant-garde art house fare like Requiem For A Dream to superheroic spectacle like The Avengers—would have the unenviable task of envisioning a world distinct from the many previous film and TV iterations of the Dark Knight’s environs and arsenal, yet still familiar to generations of die-hard and casual fans of the 83-year-old comic book icon. On the other hand, as just such a fan—The Batman! Gotham City! The Batmobile!—Chinlund couldn’t resist taking the leap.
With The Batman available on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray beginning May 24, Chinlund’s imaginative, intensely thought-through take on the Caped Crusader’s world is now freeze-frameable for delirious inspection. Chinlund joined The A.V. Club for a peak inside his creative inspiration.
The A.V. Club: There’s so much possibility with a Batman movie, so many different places to look for inspiration and directions to move in. How did you wrap your head around what you wanted to zero in on?
James Chinlund: Yes. It’s a funny thing, really: I think there are two ways of looking at it. You can take all the Gothams and you can take all the Batmobiles and lay them out on the wall. And I think for me, the key in was really the car… Because I think it’s very overwhelming, obviously, going in and saying, “Could we do that? Or could we do that?” But when you actually see the designs of the cars that came before us and what they said about their films and their Batman, I think Matt and I realized early on that our car was going to explain Bruce’s ethos.
And so as we started to unpack the design of the car, I think the design of the film and the world around it fell into place in the same way, just step by step. What are the choices that would lead us into the world? Where does Bruce live? What does that say about Bruce? Where is the Batcave? What kind of cave would this be? What does that say about Bruce? And then I think as you start making those designs, it’s like shining a light into the darkness, things start to reveal themselves. And that’s the path that we took.
AVC: What turned out to be unexpectedly challenging on this film, and what turned out to be a real unexpected joy?
JC: Well, I think making a film in COVID was absolutely the worst, you know? We had big crowd sequences and things that really were impacted, and it was a scary, scary time. So I think there was a moment coming back from COVID when the teaser dropped and we felt the fans’ reactions. And that was just such an exciting and exhilarating moment for us, it carried us through this long dark second half of the making of the film. Just knowing that the fans were out there and so excited about what we were doing, it really carried us through.
And I think in terms of what was rewarding and fun, I think for me, just working with the amazing teams in the U.K., in terms of the construction and design of the film. We built a huge backlot for the Iceberg Lounge, and the puzzle of that whole world, bringing that together, seeing those sets come together was just… It was a dream come true! The level of the craft and craftsmanship over there is just unbelievable.
AVC: As a Batman fan yourself, what was one of your giddiest moments, seeing a fully realized version of what you’d dreamed up for the film?
JC: Well, seeing the car come out for the first time and go through its paces. [Dominic] Tuohy and his special effects team…one day, he brought me his iPhone and showed me a jump test where they had actually jumped the car quite a bit. And to see it take this jump and land and survive—I mean, for me, the design of the car is one thing, but to build a car that can actually do what we asked of it, that was the fulfillment of a three-year journey for me. So it was so exciting to see it do its thing, and that really was one of the highlights.
AVC: You’ve worked on pretty major, huge-scale films. Where does this one fit in terms of the personal challenge that you faced, and the personal satisfaction that you had when it was all said and done?
JC: The hard part about The Batman going in was that it had been done so many times before. So I think it really was not like “I’m coming in and crafting a world.” It was like there were sort of pitfalls and walls around me. And it was like, “How do we find new space and create something that felt fresh?” And so for me, in terms of a level of achievement, I think I’m just super proud of what we did as a team, just in terms of the fact that, in spite of all that, I feel like the fans are looking at this world and saying, “I’ve found something new,” and we’re in this new iteration. And it feels like home a lot: It’s Gotham, and I know it. And it’s not challenging my idea of Gotham, but it’s just expanding my take and making a richer and more vivid iteration of it. And so in that sense, I’m really just so proud of our achievement there.
AVC: With eight decades of comic book source material to sift through, what caught your eye that you hadn’t seen in film or on TV before, that you thought, “I can run with that concept”?
JC: I think the Batcave for me, and Wayne Tower, were really the core thread. It felt to me like, how do we create a cave that the fans will dig, but also that felt connected and part of our overall ethos that things needed to be grounded and have some basis in logic? And so I felt like that was an exciting solve.
AVC: There’s obviously more film adventures for The Batman ahead. Are you interested in building out this world that you’ve laid this environmental template down for? Is it something that you think you’re going to continue to expand upon?
JC: I’m so lucky to be a part of this team and to be playing in this world, so I would be thrilled to continue to evolve the map of Gotham. I love imagining this map in the imagination of the fans and thinking of all the beautiful sets and locations from the films before and seeing how they all puzzled together in this one big soup.
And so for example, the Tricorner Bridge and the area where the Riddler and the Iceberg Lounge are, I feel like we’ve really fleshed out this little piece of the map. And I look forward to expanding on that and building more and more pieces. It’d be a dream come true.
AVC: Is there an iconic item in Batman’s mythic arsenal that you’re dying to design?
JC: Gosh, I haven’t really…I don’t know! I mean, I think it’s interesting to see where that’s going to go. I think vehicle-wise, there’s lots to play with and evolve. And so we’ll see. We’ll see where it goes.