‘The Batman’ Director Matt Reeves on Why a Billionaire Superhero Still Works Today
Matt Reeves is one of our finest genre directors. He opens up about his new Amazon sci-fi series “Tales From the Loop” and his new “Batman” film starring Robert Pattinson.
The COVID-19 pandemic has effectively shut down Hollywood, and no paused production is bigger, or more eagerly anticipated, than The Batman, Warner Bros.’ upcoming tentpole starring Robert Pattinson as the Dark Knight, Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman, Colin Farrell as the Penguin, Paul Dano as the Riddler and Jeffrey Wright as James Gordon. A bold departure from Zack Snyder’s DC Universe films featuring Ben Affleck as the Caped Crusader, writer/director Matt Reeves’ original effort is as high-profile as they come, and recent teases of a cowled Pattinson and his muscle car-ish Batmobile have only further stoked excitement for the summer 2021 release.
Whether it makes that scheduled debut is anyone’s guess at this point. But from the safety of his home, where he’s quarantined with his family, Reeves admits that, until the coronavirus struck, the film had been proceeding smoothly: “It was going great. We shot about a quarter of the movie so far; we have three quarters to go. And when the time is right and it’s safe to do so, we’ll return to it.”
Reeves’ hiatus has allowed him to take creative stock of The Batman, and it’s also afforded him the chance to discuss Tales from the Loop, an Amazon series (out now) which he executive produced, and which was created and written by Nathaniel Halpern. Based on the paintings of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, it’s a collection of interconnected narratives about an American town where strange and miraculous events occur, thanks to a subterranean technological marvel known as The Loop. As it turns out, the exact purpose and operation of that device is less important than the effect is has on the locale’s inhabitants, whose intertwined dilemmas—concerning time travel, body-swapping, and other extraordinary developments—are handled with a gentleness, and empathy, that’s far removed from the slam-bang pageantry of most modern sci-fi fare. Starring Jonathan Pryce and Rebecca Hall, and directed by Mark Romanek, Andrew Stanton and Jodie Foster (among others), it’s an anthology that’s small-scale in the best way possible.
For Reeves, whose previous behind-the-camera credits include Cloverfield, Let Me In, and both Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes, the Amazon series—like The Batman—provided a unique opportunity to explore personal human stories through the prism of fantastical fiction. And it’s additional confirmation that few artists today are making more daring, or deeply felt, genre work than Reeves. As a result, it was an ideal time to chat with the acclaimed filmmaker about the genesis of Tales from the Loop, the status (and political relevance) of The Batman, and how he’s coping with our new global pandemic reality.
How are you faring during the pandemic? Obviously, The Batman has now been halted for the foreseeable future…
Thankfully, my family and I are doing well. We’re holed up here, and the silver lining is I have a lot of time with them that I probably would not otherwise be able to spend with them right now because I would be working on that movie. But it has been a really hard time, because one of our crew members out here actually got the virus and died. It’s been a very heartbreaking time. It’s one of those moments when you take stock of things, I think the way everyone is, because suddenly their lives are on hold, and they know people that are getting ill, and some people are getting very ill and dying. It’s very scary. It makes you really think about what matters.
Of course, there’s a part of me that’s frustrated that we were in the midst of this movie. But at the same time, I really think priorities are such that you’re like, hey, the one thing we don’t want to do is put anyone at risk. We want to make sure everyone is going to be as safe as they possibly can be. That’s why we shut down, and obviously, it was the right thing to do. That’s why everyone’s shut down.
Has this interruption granted you a unique opportunity to assess where you’re at with The Batman?
There is that thing too, when you get to push pause. I’ve worked on some other movies where, for various reasons, you have a shutdown—whether it’s an actor gets sick and needs time to recover, or actually one time I got sick and needed time to recover. I do find that any time you’re in the midst of something enormous where you can suddenly stop and take a little stock of where you’re at, that can be a creative gift as well. But I think the hardest thing is just that we lost a beloved crew member. That, to me, is something we’re all still dealing with.
How are you differentiating The Batman from its predecessors?
The way I loved Apes is the way that I loved Batman, actually. The only two franchises that might have been something I would have connected with, amazingly, are the ones I was approached by. That’s been a very special thing. I can’t say that about almost any other franchise, that they would have been the right fit for me. My thing about it, on both of them, is that I had a particular take that, for me, was personal. I feel like if I can’t approach something through a perspective that resonates with me on some personal level, I don’t know where to put the camera, and I don’t know how to talk to the actors. I also felt like there have been some great Batman movies, and I didn’t want to just do a Batman movie. I wanted to do a Batman movie that could be different.
I pitched them what I would do, and I said, look, I appreciate that you want me to do a Batman movie, but I don’t want to just do a Batman movie; I want to do a Batman movie that has a chance to be something different, and humanist, and can use the metaphors of the genre. It’s the same reason I did the Apes movies. Those movies were incredibly personal to me, despite the fact that they were what they were. So I made my pitch for what it would be, and to my great pleasure, it turned out that they were totally open to that. I took a tremendously long time working with my partners on writing that script, and they waited. And when I turned it in, they wanted to make it. I’ve been incredibly fortunate that they’ve been so open to it being different. And one of the exciting things about it is that it drew an incredibly interesting and talented number of actors to want to be involved in it. To me, that’s been the dream.
How were things going on The Batman before you had to pause production?
The short answer is that it’s been going great. We have an incredible cast and crew that I love working with. I’m working with the director of photography who I shot Let Me In with [Greig Fraser], who I just think is immensely talented. Bringing that partnership back to life has been incredibly exciting for me, and a lot of people whom I’ve worked with on other movies are back too. We’re all like a family making this movie, and it was going great. We shot about a quarter of the movie so far; we have three quarters to go. And when the time is right and it’s safe to do so, we’ll return to it. It was a really exciting period to be exploring. Robert is a fantastic actor, and we have so many great actors in it! It’s been really, really exciting to go on this journey with them, and to feel like we are trying to do something different.
It’s really the thing we were doing when Nathaniel came to us about how he would do Tales from the Loop. It’s about trying to find the way to take the genre surface of something, whether it’s sci-fi or a comic-book character, and use it as a metaphor to get at something that’s human. That, to me, is the secret in trying to do a genre thing. The whole point of great genre stuff is that under it is a metaphor for some human struggle or experience, or the mystery of existence. That’s been the big thing with Tales—this idea of everything resonating around not the narrative twist of what the experiments were at the Loop, but instead what those unexplained phenomenon evoke that is human. How they become metaphors for coming-of-age, or loss, or all the things that Nathaniel has been exploring. That’s exactly the kind of genre work I’ve been dying to do at my company, and I feel so fortunate that we got to do this with Nathaniel and Simon [Stålenhag] and Mark Romanek and all the other filmmakers, like Jodie Foster and Philip Glass…
It’s another impressive creative roster.
And it’s sort of the same thing [as The Batman], which is—cinematic experiences, and now streaming experiences that have the potential for being cinematic, provide the opportunity to do things in certain ways so you can cut through. As movies become more and more expensive, suddenly you need to have the IP or the concept. When I first started, I thought I was going to make small Hal Ashby-type comedies. Awkward, sad, painful, embarrassing humanist comedies—that’s what I thought I was going to do. Along the way, as the world changed so dramatically, those kinds of movies became virtually impossible to get made. I had always been a fan of genre, and in the process of having the opportunity to make it, and trying to figure out how to do it, I realized there’s a way to use it as a mirror and a way to get into something that’s very personal. That’s when I realized, okay, this is what makes things like this worthwhile.
While the gentle, human-scaled nature of Tales made it appealing to its creative team, did the lack of spectacle make it a harder sell to Amazon?
You certainly have [that spectacle] when you have Batman: the loud noise in the room is, it’s Batman! He’s a character who’s been around for 80 years, so it’s Batman, okay? But then the question is: what can you do with Batman? That becomes the challenge and that’s what’s exciting. In this particular case, we developed Tales with Fox 21, and what happened was, one of the guys at my company—Adam Sorin, who’s my writing assistant on The Batman, and was my assistant on the Apes movies—saw the images online, and brought them to the attention of [my partners] Rafi Crohn and Adam Kassan, and said hey, these are really amazing, aren’t they? Adam and Rafi thought, what if we try to pursue the rights to that book? I thought that would be amazing. I didn’t know what we were going to do with a book of incredible paintings, but they were incredible!
Nathaniel was the first writer that we met with, and he was captivated by them, and came in literally a week later with a pitch that is this series. We then worked on that teleplay for the pilot with him for a couple of years, and we developed the whole thing internally. What I wanted 6th & Idaho [Reeves’ production company] to be was a haven for people to do those kinds of personal explorations in genre. And we felt like we were gestating this very special thing that Nathaniel had come up with.
We had no idea whether or not, as you’re asking, it was going to be loud enough. When you have something as timeless as The Twilight Zone, you never forget that while those stories were great parables, they all came down to the twist at the end where it’s like, hey, it’s a cookbook! [Laughs] And this had no, “Hey, it’s a cookbook!” moments. It didn’t have any answers about what the things were. It was mysteries that provoked a human experience, and that was the goal of it. I didn’t know whether or not they’d be into it. But when Mark and Nathaniel and the guys and I went in and talked to Amazon, and Nathaniel pitched the whole thing and Mark talked about how he wanted to do it, they jumped at it. They loved it, and bought it in the room.
Even with all these Loop-created wonders, the show’s characters are still beset by relatable feelings of loneliness, powerlessness, confusion and disconnection. Do you think the show has a mixed opinion about the magic offered by technology?
I think the world of the show is very much a humanist world. It’s not like these mysteries will answer the questions you want answered. It’s about the unknowability of things; it’s about the human condition. The mysteries are meant to provoke the things that are unanswerable, like what happens to us when we die. By not answering them, it makes the story very human, as opposed to it coming up with this particular answer about how you transcend time or whatever. None of that is the point of it. They are all jumping-off points to explore the human condition.
Within that, there’s a lot of melancholy, but there are also great moments of beauty. There are moments of transcendence, and there are moments that reveal something miraculous and almost magical for a brief instant, and there’s something beautiful in that. And often, it settles down into something that can break your heart as well. To have that tone in a science-fiction series is very unusual, and I was really excited that that’s what Nathaniel wanted to do.
The Batman movies—in particular, Christopher Nolan’s trilogy—have often been rooted in sociopolitical concerns. In today’s climate, is it difficult to still make a billionaire superhero work? Or, as with Tales, have you found that the comic-book genre is also a great vehicle for investigating those sorts of larger ideas?
To me, that’s the joy of working with it. You use those surface elements of it, and you explore them in a way that, I feel, they haven’t been explored yet. Nolan had a brilliant take on them, and so did Burton. Everybody has a particular take. For me, I knew that I would be coming into a history of some pretty great movies. And I didn’t want to just do a Batman film; I wanted to do a Batman film where I was allowed to explore the things that matter to me. I was really lucky that they were very excited about that take.
All those aspects you’re talking about, they all fit within a context. The movie that we’re making, which is now on pause, is absolutely made in the context of today. It doesn’t ignore any of that. I think that becomes incredibly exciting. It’s like any great tale that you can keep revisiting though the context of the times, and also through the context of human experience, and find new ways to come at the character that illuminates something that’s meaningful to you, and hopefully meaningful to an audience.