Similar to my esteemed colleague Gid Freeman (aka “Infinite Speech” here at ComicAttack), I was also honored to be invited to attend the premiere of Justice League: War at the Paley Center for Media. However, unlike Gid, I didn’t have to brave a snowstorm on the East Coast; rather, I had to drive through a light sprinkling of rain in Beverly Hills with a temperature in the neighborhood of 68 degrees.
For the West Coast Premiere, we were treated to the opportunity to chat with a few more guests in the form of the voice actors than the East Coast Premiere. Unfortunately, one of the guests, Jason O’Mara, had to back out at the last second with a bad case of the flu. However, several other actors were there, along with the director, producer, voice director, and character designer. I spoke with each one of these people before getting a chance to watch the movie.
In terms of the voice actors, there was a pretty wide array between their familiarity with the characters from the comics before being cast in their roles. Christopher Gorham, as the voice of the Flash, mentioned how he was a comics fan (as evidenced by the Flash logo t-shirt he wore to the event), and that he was probably more excited to be a part of the Justice League than he daughters were for him. I asked him how he felt about approaching an iconic character like the Flash, and how that was different from approaching a newly-created character, such as his character Auggie Anderson on “Covert Affairs.” Chris mentioned that, as an actor, you can’t really approach them differently, and that the key is to find the honesty behind the character. For the Flash, he mentioned that the fun hook he found was that, “like all of us who are fans of these movies, [the Flash] is a fan of these heroes, so all of us can relate to him really honestly.”
Shemar Moore, on the other hand, had only the barest knowledge of Cyborg from a small video clip he was sent from Warner Brothers before he went in to read for the character. Shemar, sporting a cool all-black old-school Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap, noted that he connected with Cyborg through the “humanness” of the character, and the similarities that he has with Victor (aka “Cyborg”), as they are both half-back / half-white, and both are really into sports (Shemar mentioned to me that at one point he almost became a professional baseball player before going into acting as a career). He also mentioned that he was honored to be part of the Justice League history and family, especially to bring a black superhero character to life, and said that the last live action black superhero brought to life on the silver screen was Spawn. He also noted with a wink that, when the live action Batman vs. Superman movie comes out, he was available to play a live action version of Cyborg.
Both actors portraying the villains, Bruce Thomas as Desaad and Steve Blum as Darkseid, had limited awareness of their characters before the movie. Bruce was a big fan of Batman growing up, especially the old Adam West TV show, and noted that he had played Batman in the On*Star TV commercials about 12 years ago, but said he was not aware of the character of Desaad before. I asked him how he went about getting into character for a villainous role like this, and he explained how Desaad’s name comes from the Marquis de Sade, so that gave him an “in,” and then he slowly began to peel back the layers that made Desaad tick, picturing him as a very lonely man who has given his whole life over to serving Darkseid, to the point where that’s all he wants to do with his life. As he explained this to me, he slowly crept into character, bit-by-bit, so at the end of the explanation, he was hunched over, clawing at the air, and speaking in his Desaad voice, which was really cool.
Steve Blum, who has provided the voice for dozens of animated projects, told me that he had heard of Darkseid and knew that he’d been around for around 40 years or so, and that he was a god-like being. I asked him the approach he took to get into character to play an immortal and all-powerful god-like character, and he said that the key was to find something that he could relate to. In this case, he mentioned, with a hearty laugh, how, when he really looked at the character, he realized that Darkseid was actually directly responsible for bringing the Justice League together in this movie, so that was something he held onto. Steve explained to me that when playing any role, an actor has to find something in the character that’s a part of him. “Mine isn’t necessarily world domination,” he said, laughing again, “but for me, it’s just that he [Darkseid] thinks that what he’s doing was right, so no matter how despicable his actions were, he truly believed he was right.”
For the “behind-the-scenes” crew, such as the producer, director, screenwriter, and character designer, I concentrated on how they felt this first animated incarnation of the New 52 differed from their previous efforts, and also about the changes they made from the comics in terms of the story and artistic style. I also tried, as much as I could, to get any clues to any future DC Animated Universe titles beyond the ones that have already been announced for 2014.
Producer James Tucker very kindly spent a lot of time with me, and told me that that as far back as he’d been involved with the DC Animated Universe (dating to 1995 and “Superman: The Animated Series”), that Bruce Timm had developed standards that were very high, and that they just tried to keep those high standards with everything they’ve done. Although the technical side of the films has changed in terms of animation and the use of computers, he said that the fundamentals of telling a story, showing action, and those types of things have stayed the same.
From the standpoint of the later DC offerings appearing to be “more mature” in tone, he noted that these days, their direct-to-video films are competing for eyeballs with the Internet and with video games, which is a
much different landscape than it was nearly 20 years ago when he was working on TV programming, and that he feels it’s his job to “pump up the volume” to show things that haven’t been done before to “bring a level of reality to unreal situations.”
I also asked James how the upcoming DC Animated Universe movies were going to be connected, and mentioned to him how I saw that Jason O’Mara, who provides the voice for Batman in “Justice League: War,” is also the voice of Batman in the next direct-to-video film, “Son of Batman.” I asked James if it was the same Batman, and he said yes, it’s the same character, but he wouldn’t confirm the time frame, and then told me with a chuckle how, “as Batman fans know, Batman’s time chronology in the New 52 is a little fluid…”
Lastly, I asked James if he envisioned perhaps adapting older material that was written before the New 52 and twisting it to fit within the New 52 animated universe. He confirmed, saying that the plan was to tell older stories in a new way, so that when they do adapt it, they can adapt it for a new version of the character. He then went on to say, “For instance, and this is just a for instance, if were to tell Hush, this gives us carte blanche to adjust the things we need to adjust, and tell a true adapted story that’s based on Hush but is going to be changed to suit where Batman is and where we’ve taken him…” I’m not sure about you, but I’m going to take that as James Tucker announcing that “Batman: Hush” will be coming out in 2015. Yes, he said “for instance” but it immediately leapt to his mind.
Director Jay Oliva was dressed to the nines in a very nice suit and tie for the premiere, and I also asked him a bit about the tone of the film, and some of the recent DC Animated Universe titles, being a bit darker than before, and if that was a conscious decision. He told me that it was mainly based on the material they were adapting, and that during his process, he will read the comic story (again), and try to pick out what the iconic scenes are that he knows fans want to see, and then he’ll re-read the script to see if it’s written in a lighter or darker tone and match that up with the scenes he has in mind. He noted that he always tries to include the key scenes that he knows readers and viewers will want to see, but that he tries to change or twist them to keep them fresh so he doesn’t just end up making a motion comic.
In terms of the large cast that’s involved with “Justice League: War,” I asked Jay how difficult a challenge that is, versus a work that focused on a single character, such as “Dark Knight Returns.” He said that he tries to take his cues from Joss Whedon’s “Avengers,” to give every character a moment to shine and balance it so all the actors and characters get screen time. But, he noted to me that this particular film is really more focused on Green Lantern and Cyborg, and that the audience sees the story through their eyes. “Speaking of The Avengers…” I began, and I went on to ask Jay again about the darker tone of “Justice League: War,” which he said was kind of his “Independence Day” of DC movies in terms of the amount of explosions and fight scenes. He said that he really thinks it’s just the material that they’re adapting. “I mean, if we’re doing Gotham by Gaslight, that’s going to be a very dark, kind of different tone versus the Killing Joke. But in this film, War, there’s actually a lot of banter between the characters and more jokes than I’m used to.” So, again, there you have it – I’m going to take that as Jay saying that he’s working on an animated adaptation of either Gotham by Gaslight or Killing Joke. Interesting how all of the “for example” works that James and Jay mentioned are all Batman stories.
While talking with character designer Phil Bourassa, I focused on how the designs for this film are of course inspired by the New 52 designs, but also that he took them in a different direction, partly as a need to adapt them to a different medium. However, Phil also mentioned how for this film, unlike for some of the previous DC Animated Universe movies, they weren’t held to trying to adapt the artist’s designs from the source material (in this case Jim Lee) since this movie is launching an entire new animated universe that has to be able to encompass stories from other artists as well. Phil is a huge comic book fan, dating back to when he was eight or nine years old, and told me that he had a ton of fun adapting and changing the costumes for Wonder Woman and Cyborg in particular.
Screenwriter Heath Corson was a riot – a very funny and charismatic guy who was cracking everybody up with his impression of Lex Luthor. He is also a major comic book fan, and told me about the first time he remembered saving up to buy a giant-size DC comic book off a spinner rack when he was seven years old, and how he’s been into them ever since. He’d actually already read Justice League: Origins (the comic story on which “Justice League: War” is based) before he got the job as the screenwriter, so he told Warner Brothers that they didn’t have to send him a copy of the trade paperback for research purposes. We talked about how changes get made, such as the decision to replace Aquaman in this script with Shazam, and he he goes about handling that as the screen writer, and the challenges in adapting a story that was developed for one medium (comic books) and translating it to another (film) which keeping it fresh and entertaining for the audience.
Lastly, I had the pleasure to speak to veteran voice director Andrea Romano. As most fans know, Ms. Romano has been involved with the DC Animated Universe going all the way back to the Bruce Timm version of “Batman: The Animated Series” in the early 1990s. She was a true delight and I was honored to be able to speak with her about her decades-long involvement with these series and films. I asked her about how they go about casting for the same character time after time, but in different versions; e.g., how and why they go about casting Jason O’Mara as Batman in this film but not in another version? She mentioned how her first question when working on a film is “Can we use anyone we’ve used before?” and then immediately mentioned how she’ll ask if she can use Kevin Conroy as Batman. She said sometimes they say “yes” and other times they’ll mention that they want to go a different direction and she will then go back to her master list she keeps of people that she wants to work with and also actors that have wanted to play a role but weren’t able to due to scheduling conflicts. We also discussed how sometimes certain roles are cast based on the availability of the actor and how long they are needed for. This often leads to situations where a well-known celebrity actor might be given a smaller role in the film, whereas a main character that requires eight or more hours in the studio might go to a different actor who has the time available. I could’ve spoken with Ms. Romano for a lot longer, but didn’t want to monopolize her time any more than I already had.
That wraps up my report from the premiere of “Justice League: War” at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills. For a review of the actual film, head over to fellow journalist Aaron’s thoughts here.