Designer has Batman return to a neighborhood of darkness with suggestions of decay

June 14, 1992|By Betsy Sharkey | Betsy Sharkey,New York Times News Service

Los Angeles Bo Welch began carving out a design for the film "Batman Returns" with a piece of cardboard and images of Fascist sculpture and Depression-era machine-age art churning through his mind.

His first rough model was of Gotham Plaza, a bleakly futuristic and oppressively urban sendup of Rockefeller Center. The model was to provide the graphic thread for the film, the sequel to the 1989 blockbuster "Batman."

"It was just a cardboard model that I hacked together, very crude and sculptural, but I knew I was on my way," says Mr. Welch, 40.

"Batman Returns," Tim Burton's latest installment in the dark hero's efforts to save the legendary Gotham, opening Friday, represents the third collaboration between director and production designer, which began with the 1988 film "Beetlejuice." As with all the films Mr. Welch has designed, an eclectic group that includes "The Lost Boys" (1987), "The Accidental Tourist" (1988), "Ghostbusters II" (1989), "Edward Scissorhands" (1990) and "Grand Canyon" (1991), he spent an agonizing time alone in a small office as he began work on "Batman Returns."

He became immersed in the script by Daniel Waters, saturating himself with images, to find that one clue that would ultimately help him define a visual framework for the film.

For Mr. Welch, creating an internal world for "Batman Returns" that was novel yet consistent with its predecessor was particularly daunting. "Batman," with its tortured, Gothic-looking Gotham, won an Academy Award for production design. (The movie's designer, Anton Furst, who was involved in other projects when "Batman Returns" went into production, committed suicide last November.) At times, it seemed as if the striking look of "Batman" drew more notice than the plot.

Denise Di Novi, who co-produced "Beetlejuice" and "Edward Scissorhands" as well as both "Batman" films, says she looks at Mr. Welch in two ways. "I look at Bo as a production designer who is so technically adept and so artistic at the same time that there is no movie I can't see him doing, from contemporary to period," she says. "Bo and Tim are a whole other category. When you combine them, something really magical happens. It's one of those fortuitous relationships that occur between artists when they are able to click in, and what emerges is remarkable.

"What we asked was the impossible," Ms. Di Novi says of the design for the $50 million "Batman Returns." "The tone of the first movie was dark and strange. What Bo did was to push it further. You feel like you're in another part of Gotham. If the first was on the East Side of Manhattan, this is on the West Side."

Mr. Welch says: "You could look at the movie and easily say, 'Somewhere off in another part of Gotham is where that last movie took place. This is just a different neighborhood.' "

Mr. Welch filled eight sound stages on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, including one the size of a football field and 70 feet high, before his sets spilled over into the biggest sound stage on

the Universal Pictures lot as well.

Massive spaces

"One of the design concepts of the movie was to create the illusion of massive spaces," Mr. Welch says. With Wayne Manor, for instance, instead of building the entire mansion, Mr. Welch simply built pieces and left the rest to imagination. "All you need is the effect of a mansion," he says. "We basically built one room with a staircase and a fireplace, but with those objects there's such tremendous scale. In your mind, you figure the rest of it must be huge."

The sheer scale of the city and the darkness is intensified in "Batman Returns." Gotham's perilously steep rooftops, on which much of the action takes place, slice into the sky. The closely packed city landscape extends endlessly into the horizon. Buildings, doorways, windows -- all are vertical to the extreme. There is a sense of decay everywhere.

Set in winter, the film shows a city dusted by a snow that does little to relieve the dreariness. Gotham's underworld is both literal, with huge dank caverns running under the city, and criminal, dominated by sinister gun-toting characters in clown-


This netherworld is governed by the Penguin, a half-human, half-aquatic aberration (played by Danny DeVito) and the nemesis that Batman (Michael Keaton) must battle this time. Caught in the middle is the Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), who seems to favor whips and cartons of milk equally. Except for the Batmobile, which has a host of new gizmos, everything in the design is new, down to Wayne Manor and the Bat Cave.

Like the design, the story for "Batman Returns" was not conceived as a sequel, according to Mr. Burton. The only plot concession to the first movie is a single reference to Vicki Vale, Batman's love interest, who was played by Kim Basinger.

Conflicted personalities

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