This is the time I won the Batman contest. In late September of 1988 I was at the local comic book store, Titan Games & Comics, and was looking at some things that were tacked to the bulletin board near the front register. Some of the guys from the store had gone to WorldCon in New Orleans that year and one of the little things they’d brought back with them was a contest form that issued the challenge: “Tell Us Why You Want To Meet Batman in 50 Words Or Less And Win An All-Expense Paid Trip to Be In The Movie!”.
Naturally I disregarded that brochure, gathered up my comic books, paid for them and drove home. When I went into the house I saw that my Dad was watching a sales video. Totally disinterested, I grabbed something to eat and started to head upstairs to work on a model… but something the guy on the TV was saying caught my attention.
You Can Win!
He said that a recent poll had shown that 95% of all Americans didn’t think that they could win at anything. He went on to explain the ramifications of that poll for salesmen, but all I could think about was that contest form back at Titans. I went upstairs and called the store and talked to the Manager, Chuck Sheffey, who patiently read me the contest rules over the telephone.
After I understood the rules I immediately started writing, and in about an hour I’d written something that felt right. It didn’t seem right to send in my entry on a sheet of paper, so I got out some markers and some glue and proceeded to make an aged sheet of paper with my entry written on it. I then slipped into a paper Batarang (Batman’s bat-shaped boomerang). I think it took me about three hours from start to finish.
Here’s what I wrote:
I would like to believe
that there exists
A man consumed
By an obsession
To exact a price from that which took his humanity
A lost soul amongst shadows.
A demon among men.
A bane to all that is evil.
“Hello again. Beware… forever.”
That last line, the one in quotes, is from Batman Comics Anniversary Issue #400.
As the official drawing date drew near (sometime in October) I eagerly awaited notification that I’d won something, anything. Every time the phone rang I wondered if that was somebody calling me to tell me I’d won. But the final drawing date came and went with no word from the sponsors. Disappointed, but busy with college, I chalked it up to experience and let it slip from my mind…my classes were my main focus at this point.
In late November I received a telephone call around 9pm. On the other end of the line was a man named Jeff Walker who claimed to be a publicity agent for Warner Brothers, based out of Burbank. As I listened to him explain why he was calling me, I began to feel a little lightheaded and I clearly remember seeing my hand get a little shaky as I wrote down what he was telling me over the phone. I didn’t win a T-shirt, I didn’t win a poster, I didn’t win a comic book….I won the Grand Prize. That meant that I was going to go to London to be IN the movie…..it was completely unbelievable.
A quick side trip: shown below are the articles that the contest’s co-sponsor Starlog Magazine ran in 1989 in a variety of publications.
Within two weeks Warner Brothers had managed to expedite the processing of passports for me and my Dad, and we flew out of Atlanta in the first week of December on British Air…Business Class! Those flight attendants kept the wine trollies rolling like clockwork around the cabin and.by the time we got to Gatwick Airport to meet our ride we were jet lagged and unprepared for the Monday morning traffic. Fortunately our driver was all too familiar with the routine and he made the drive into London all the more pleasant. I won’t bore you with details, suffice to say that Atlanta traffic has rarely irritated me since viewing what Londoners must face every workday morning.
The Athenaeum Hotel
Our driver dropped us off at the Athenaeum Hotel and we checked in. When they led us to our room I was dumbstruck to see a door handle in the middle of the door. The room itself was very old-fashioned, but very British.
Of course as soon as we began to unpack our things I just fell asleep, the wine and champagne had done their work.
A few hours later, after a good nap, we headed out to buy a pass for the underground. We walked around Green Park for few minutes, watched the cars drive on the wrong side of the road and then we talked to a woman who walked up and declared “You’re Americans!”, which surprised me at the time but we probably stood out like sore thumbs. Why we were such a discovery to that lady makes me chuckle now, but she was genuinely friendly and that was so appreciated to have somebody say “Hey, welcome to our town!”.
Finally, we remembered to call our contact at Pinewood Studio… who had been worried since she hadn’t heard from us yet.
London at Christmastime is so amazingly “Christmas-y”. It gets dark in the 4pm hour, the streets are decorated, there are men roasting chestnuts on street corners and you feel like you’re sure to run into Ebenezer Scrooge on his way home from the office.
One of the hand written headlines on a newspaper box announced the death of famous singer Roy Orbinson. Dad and I may have enjoyed exploring London more than Pinewood, honestly. We went to Harrod’s, a Marks & Spencer’s, saw a Dixon’s shop with every window filled with a television, and dined like kings at a Burger King, a weird Italian restaurant that had about 4 levels underground, and ate a pizza where they thought corn was a legitimate topping. We also stopped by the Hard Rock London and bought some souvenirs.
PINEWOOD STUDIOS : NIGHT ONE
The independent studio driver picked us up in the late afternoon to drive us out to Pinewood for that night’s shoot. As we rode through that old city we quickly lost our bearings and I remember sitting back and marveling at the sheer size of the place.
Pinewood came as a bit of a shock to me. I expected it to be located in an industrial area, much like BBC studios had looked when I’d seen it featured on television in the past. As it turns out, Pinewood REALLY IS in a wooded area. Its fences weren’t teeming with security guards and growling dogs, there was no high-security look to the place. It was a sleepy little place just outside a little town in southwest London.
That first night we were introduced to the publicists. One of the guys was wearing a T-shirt that said “Blue Harvest” on it and seemed flattered that I knew that it meant that he’d worked on “Return of the Jedi”. There was a lot of publicity material in their office, including a large autographed sketch of Batman by his creator Bob Kane, addressed to Michael Keaton. Soon enough we were escorted out to get a tour of the studio complex, really just a series of warehouses and old offices.
The Batman Costume
I think we first went to see Bob Ringwood, the costume designer. Bob and his crew showed us around the workshop where they made the costume, the coolest thing was the rig that they used to create the batcape (I got to try one on). We saw a closet full of bat cowls, all created with different expressions and ear lengths for different scenes in the movie. The best part was when they let me try on Batman’s cape…with all that latex it weighed a ton.
Next up was the Production Designer Anton Furst. Their office space was as small as some I’ve seen on television movies, I suppose it lent itself to rapid communication between the staff. Anton showed us some cool original drawings of Gotham City and really neat maquettes of Gotham and a Batmobile model.
Arrival in Gotham
From there we headed out into Gotham itself, built on the backlot. It was HUGE. It must’ve been two or three football fields in length… maybe more. They had to have enough room to shoot car chase sequences. It was odd the way that the buildings just seemed to stop about fifty or sixty feet in the air. But the way they shot the movie, they would go back in during post-production and marry the live shots with matte paintings and model shots to make it look like the buildings were skyscrapers.
The sun was going down and some of the crew were beginning to show up in the street. Our guide took us down to a workshop garage and sitting in that dark garage was the Batmobile. It looked cooler than cool. And they let me sit in it. I almost didn’t do it because I was being so polite. I’m glad that I did.
The effects team who built the Batmobile had to stretch the frame of a real car to get it to fit the design. As a result, they said the car “steered like a pig”, meaning that it didn’t steer well at all.
Next, we went to the wardrobe department to be outfitted as extras in the parade scene.
We would be running from the Joker’s poison Smylex gas all night long. The costumers ran us through the works, outfitting me and my Dad in 1940’s period-looking suits and coats. The shoes had been found stored in a warehouse SINCE the 40’s, so the shoes were almost as old as my Dad. They didn’t lie. We spent the night running and running. We were grabbing money that the propguys were shaking out from the tops of the buildings, then the SPFX guys would pop open green smoke pots and hold them out on sticks in front of Ritter fans (big airplane propeller fans). The Joker’s henchmen (stunt men) stood on top of a parade float shooting machine guns. The first few times they ran the scene hot shell casings rained down onto us. We moved a bit and they obliged by changing their shooting positions.
The first time they sent all of us fleeing down the streets I’d say that we ran from one end to the other, as a crowd in about 15 to 20 seconds. That’s about 200 of us, running full tilt. As soon as they yelled “CUT!” they all clustered together talking about our first take. Then the Assistant Directors came back over to us to explain that we’d done a “terrific” job of running, but could we “look like you’re running without running”….basically do it a little slower, look like we were running without running quite as fast.
Why don’t YOU try looking like you’re running for your life from poison gas, looking like you’re running quickly, but not really going all that fast. Over the next couple of hours we developed that skill, and they learned how to spread us out so that we didn’t finish running through the scene before the actors finished their lines in the foreground. I can still pick out where both of us are in that scene.
Julian Wall, one of the ADs, came and asked me if I wanted to do a stunt: run down the street then trip and fall beside the front tire of a parked car. Two other guys would scoop me up and we would continue to run away from the Joker. I think I did it as many as four times, and with gloves on it wasn’t too bad. All the extras were telling me that I should get paid for doing a stunt. I decided that a plane trip, a hotel stay and this amazing experience of winning the Batman contest was enough payment. Plus I can always spot me and my dad in the movie – cinematic immortality!
The extras we met were friendly and curious to meet imported American extras. We told them about the Batman contest and they told us stories about working on Cleopatra. One old gentleman named “Tom” had been David Niven’s stand-in for the movie “Candleshoe”. He was also a veteran of the Queen’s Royal Mounted Guard.
He rather took me and my Dad in under his wing and played unofficial host to us during our time with the extras. While I don’t have a photo of Tom, I do have one of a friendly guy my Dad talked with for awhile.
This guy was younger and originally from Ireland. The first time I stopped by the table to say “hi” Dad told me the guy’s name was “Mick”. Naturally, the next time I stopped by the table I addressed the guy as Mick. Dad interrupted me to explain that the guy’s name was “Mike” or “John” or something, not “Mick”. He was playing around the first time by using the derogatory term for an Irishman. Needless to say I was embarrassed, both at my youthful ignorance and at having used a slur.
PINEWOOD STUDIOS : NIGHT TWO
The second night we traded in our period costumes for the warmth of our own clothes and were content to stand behind camera watching events unfold. We were not prepared for the long hours that movie crews work. We were less prepared for the chill of December in London. But the people made up for the cold weather, they were truly warm, friendly, and charming.
We learned that Jack Nicholson was a clothes hound, and that he liked shopping from the clothes that the extras wore. He was apparently hot after the WW2 bomber jacket that David Whiteside the on-set costumer always wore, although I don’t think there was a chance that Dave would ever give it up. That night we watched from behind the monitor, saw the interaction between Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson. Tim was plenty nice, taller than I expected and very laid back.
At one point Jack Nicholson walked over to examine my Dad’s clothes (this time they were what dad had brought from Atlanta). Jack seemed to show particular interest in dad’s tie. I wondered if he was disappointed when he found out it didn’t belong to the wardrobe department.
That night we saw the Batwing as they started dressing it crashed onto the steps of the Gotham Cathedral. We saw a 2nd unit stunt team filming the scene where Batman first fights some guys in an alley. We went up to the belltower set where Batman fights the Joker near the movie’s end.
On Set Improvisation
At one point during the night they rolled the Joker’s parade float into the middle of the street. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were about to watch a blocking rehearsal. Dad and I followed Tim Burton over to the parade float to watch him talking to Jack Nicholson about the scene.
At this point in the movie the Joker was supposed to climb down off the parade float and confront Batman, who was flying toward him in his Batwing. They quickly identified a problem that had not been identified until they were standing in the middle of downtown Gotham City.
The deck of the parade float was about 5 or 6 feet above the ground, and there wasn’t a ladder. Jack didn’t feel like the Joker would hop down that far, and I don’t think anybody wanted to risk their actor taking a tumble.
As a kid who grew up consuming all film production technology behind movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, I was under the impression that everything in a big budget film is storyboarded down to the smallest detail.
This was a real problem!
I still remember Tim cradling his chin with his hand as one of the stunt actors suggested that the Joker’s henchmen could bend down and form a set of human stairs for the Joker to walk down.
Tim kept hold of his chin as he started nodding enthusiastically and saying “Yeah, yeah, that would work!”
And that’s how they shot it.
Later, we watched Jack Nicholson shoot his henchman “Bob” and we saw him pull that ridiculously long gun out to shoot at Batman as they rigged the FX hits that ran down the street toward him. We saw the inside of the famous James Bond soundstage, unfortunately for us the Bond crew were in Mexico filming the latest movie.
The Batman contest provided a most amazing first introduction to big-budget film-making, and I’ll always associate London with Gotham City. All in all it was a pretty nifty trip and led to me joining the film industry just 3 years later.
I have some cool artifacts from our trip in a case somewhere – I will get them out some day and snap some photos.