July 18, 2008

Meet Batman’s Best Buds

By Scott Bowles

LOS ANGELES -- Whatever you do, don't call them the Dynamic Duo.

Call them the new face of comic-book films. Or hitmakers. Or, if they were to decide, two guys who have worked on three movies together.

But Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale, the director and star of The Dark Knight, are trying their darndest to shake the hokey emblems of the Batman franchise.

And so far, they're doing a pretty good job.

The pair helped get the Caped Crusader back on his feet in 2005 with Batman Begins, which grossed $205 million in the USA. They then tackled another tough film genre, magic, with the $40 million The Prestige, which became a surprise success with $53 million.

But nowhere do they take the preposterous more seriously than Knight. Nolan, who has a reputation of making big-budget films with an art-house filmmaker's perspective, says he wanted to shake the franchise of the camp of the 1960s television show and the camera-wink cleverness of the films of the 1990s.

"When we set out to do this, we wanted to make a story that took everything at face value," Nolan says. "How would a city respond if you really did have a man, dressed like a bat, fighting crimes? How would people react if there really were a man, dressed as a clown, committing psychopathic murders?"

It remains for audiences to judge if they've pulled off the feat. But accolades are already rolling in.

"They've given everything a realistic sense," says Spider-Man director Sam Raimi. "Chris doesn't use many special effects; he uses models and makeup. And Christian is simply a great actor -- something you have to have if you're going to take these movies seriously."

Seriousness, says Knight co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal, was never a problem. "They have a shorthand between each other that makes them ready to go the moment you come on set," she says. "Sometimes you have to catch up, because they're all business."

But put them together in a room, and their differences -- and playfulness -- become clear.

Nolan is rarely seen without a suit. Good luck putting Bale in one. Bale tends to answer questions with an earnestness, regardless of whether he's praising or criticizing. Nolan is more diplomatic, if more wry.

Bale, for instance, on why he continues to team up with Nolan: "I became a huge fan of his on Memento. There are so few directors willing to take a genre and really put a twist on it."

Nolan: "I really didn't want to work with him. He's a pain."

Then he quickly adds: "Actually, I knew I wanted to work with him when I saw him in American Psycho. The first time I saw it, I was kind of in shock by the violence. But the second time, I found it quite funny. You have to be extremely talented to take that kind of absurd violence and make it funny. That's what I wanted for Batman, too."

The one thing the pair do share: an utter reverence for the Batman legacy.

"It's iconic, it's classic literature," Nolan says. "It makes it daunting to tackle something that's so beloved, but Christian never took that lightly."

Except, perhaps, how well the film sells.

"To tell you the truth, I really don't care," Bale says. "Because, truthfully, the pressure isn't on me. Film is a director's medium. If a movie does well, it's to the director's credit. If it does poorly, it's his fault."

Nolan puts a hand to his mouth, feigning a cough to mask a disparaging remark.

The two say they are ready to begin a third installment. "When you find a director you trust, you hold on to him for as long as you can," Bale says.

He catches Nolan blushing and breaks the tension.

"But if you do call us the dynamic duo," Bale says, "he has to be Robin."

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