Even after working on The Avengers, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and The Lion King, Chinlund was daunted by the task of finding a new and original way to bring Gotham City and the Caped Crusader to life yet again.
It was Reeves’ unique vision for The Batman that calmed Chinlund’s nerves. He says the filmmaker brought the same energy from his Planet of the Apes movies to The Batman.
“He was trying to create a grounded world that felt new, different, and at the same time like a place the audience could go visit,” Chinlund tells Inverse.
Critics and audiences have been impressed with the results, as The Batman touts positive reviews and soaring box office numbers. Inverse spoke with Chinlund to learn about his work on The Batman, the new Batmobile, and how his approach to the film’s technology was integral to achieving Reeves’ ambitious vision.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
INVERSE: What was your reaction when Matt Reeves approached you?
JAMES CHINLUND: It was incredibly intimidating. Immediately, your mind starts churning on all the amazing iterations of Gotham, the vehicles, and things that have come before. You start searching for a new space in this world that's been so beautifully rendered by so many people.
It really started with Matt's take on Bruce and the idea that Bruce was early in his journey as the Batman — that he’s sort of feeling his way through the dark of it. The key take for us was the idea that he had turned his back on Wayne Industries. We felt like there have been amazing versions before where Wayne Industries [makes Bruce Wayne] like James Bond. He walks into the boardroom and is presented with all these gadgets.
“Every Batman film, in my opinion, starts with the car.”
We loved the idea that Bruce was doing it on his own. He was a self-made man in that regard and had dirt under his fingernails. He was building the car himself and building all his tools himself. And as he started to develop himself as this vigilante character, he would be asking, “What do I need?” What's driving these choices? Why did he need a car? Why did he need the cowl? It felt like a version of the Batman we hadn't seen before.
What were your influences and references?
Every Batman film, in my opinion, starts with the car. After Matt's take on Bruce, our first conversations were about, “What does that mean for the car?” It was the first piece of design we attacked. All the other designs go back to the car. We loved the idea that Bruce was a gearhead, that he spent a lot of time in the garage. It was a natural idea that he might have some other cars lying around the shop. So, as he was contemplating his mission, he says to himself, “I need a vehicle to get me around. What do I need that vehicle to do?”
Matt was talking about Christine and some other cars and films that really had a presence. We knew we wanted it to be a car and not a tank. We wanted the audience to recognize that it was something they could build themselves. We started with the frame, the big steel bumper. We used the roof from a ‘69 Charger because we felt like he’d built this frame and was like, “Well, I need a roof.” So he cut the roof off this car and slapped it on there.
“The car reflects this individual who's going up against the world.”
The idea was that he is being led by his needs, not by design choices. With the cowl, you're seeing the stitching in the leather. You look at it and say, “Oh, I see how they made that. I could build that.” It’s not like a piece of machined plastic. It’s a real thing that someone actually made with their own hands. I think that gives Batman a tremendous vulnerability.
How does the Batmobile symbolize Robert Pattinson’s take on the character?
The car reflects his single-minded focus on the mission. He’s all about getting it done, he's not about a big design statement. It's sort of a lean and mean version of the Batman. There's no wasted space, there's no decoration. There are no flourishes. He’s one man against the evils of the city. The car reflects this individual who's going up against the world.
I love how the Batmobile is introduced as its very own character.
There have been so many amazing versions of the Batmobile. It was a three-year journey, getting that car onto the screen. So, for me, sitting in the audience and feeling the thunder of the engine, I was right there with the crowd, thinking, “This is the moment we've all been waiting for.” To feel the car breathing and coming to life, it was just an incredibly visceral experience.
Can you talk about incorporating the internet and social media into the film?
Matt did an amazing job of weaving in ideas like the live streaming The Riddler was doing, giving it a contemporary context. One of the challenges of making a movie that's very focused on computers is that things can get a little glossy and hidden. We really wanted to strip things back so you could really see that Bruce was actually coding and the Riddler was coding — to show their tactile qualities. With the computer screens, you can see that Bruce has actually popped open the box and opened the circuit boards. There are a lot of screens in our film. But I hope in the end, you really feel Bruce's integration with those screens.
“The rear engine alone has over 3,000 individual parts.”
Is there anything in the film that audiences might have missed?
We are so proud of the build of the Batmobile. I think it's by far one of the most detailed builds that have ever been accomplished. The rear engine alone has over 3,000 individual parts. When you actually look at that interior, it's incredible what we were able to achieve with our designs. I hope that everyone gets to see some of these things in person because it's the first Batmobile that was actually able to execute all the stunts that were demanded of it.
What was the most challenging aspect of the production design?
The main thing was just the responsibility I felt towards the fans. This is such a well-loved property. It was certainly part of my growing up. Ever since I was a little kid, Batman's been a huge part of my life. I was just trying to make sure that we delivered, and we gave fans a world they felt was simultaneously familiar and delivered new experiences. We wanted to push this further and deliver a Gotham that no one's seen before. Hopefully, we did.
The Batman is now playing in theaters.