Similar to my colleague Cameron Crump, I, too, was invited to the premiere and red-carpet interviews for Warner Brothers’ newest animated feature, Batman: Bad Blood, at the Paley Center for Media. However, I lucked out a little bit in that my premiere took place in the warm environment of Beverly Hills in Southern California, versus Cameron who had to brave the winter weather of New York.
Before the movie, all of us in the press were given an opportunity to interview several members of the cast and crew. A real treat for me was getting the chance to speak with several crew members whom I had interviewed before when Justice League: War came out back in 2014. For this film, I was able to chat with Stuart Allan, Travis Willingham, Sean Maher, and Jason O’Mara.
Stuart Allan, the voice of Damian, wore a fashionable hat and was full of energy. His younger sister was also in attendance, and Stuart did a great job of keeping her entertained while making sure to give his attention to the press and answer their questions. I focused mainly on Stuart’s familiarity with the character of Damian.
“I always loved the DC Universe, but I really didn’t know that much about Damian. When I first started, I thought of Damian as kind of a brat, on the surface. But when I first heard about the character, I started doing a lot of research. I read a lot of comics, and I read a lot of stuff online, and I actually went to the guys over at Game Stop because they know a lot about the DC characters. And as I started researching more and more, I realized that he’s not a brat at all. He’s got issues, he’s very smart, he’s a lone wolf, and he’s got manner issues.”
We also chatted about, when given a role like this that has a rich history in other media (comics), how much as an actor is he motivated to go beyond the script to do his own research into the role, and how much pressure he felt under to bring the Robin character to the animated screen.
“It was a lot of pressure, in the beginning, because it was Damian coming to the screen and I wanted to make sure that I put on a really good show for him and make sure that he comes out the way that he should be, so that was a bit of pressure. But then later on, as I started to adapt to it, I just felt like, I got into the flow, and I really just identified with him from the beginning as well. I’m a black belt candidate myself in Tae Kwon Do, and I know that Damian doesn’t do dance, but he was dancing around those machine gun bullets. I’m pretty sure that was some hip hop going on there!” [Stuart made this same joke after the film during the full cast and crew interviews with the audience.]
Lastly, I asked Stuart who his favorite version of Robin is, from the comics.
“Well, I”m going to be biased and say that Damian is one of my favorite Robins, but I really like the first Robin, you know, Dick Grayson. And, I do like Tim Drake as well.”
Poor Jason Todd.
For my interview with Travis Willingham, who voices the Heretic, I focused mainly on how fun it is to play villains, and also the difficulty in bringing a character like the Heretic to life given that there’s really not a lot there from the comics to work with. At this point, I hadn’t pre-screened the film so I wasn’t aware of how much they had changed the Heretic for this animated feature. Regarding how much fun it is to play villains, Travis noted,
“…they don’t follow all the rules. There’s really almost nothing wrong you can do as a villain. There are things you expect from your heroes – maybe less so in modern day, but villains are just, there’s no wrong choice, which is great as an actor. But, with this character, the director Jay Oliva said that he wanted to keep some questions about him.Very mysterious, very dispassionate, very cold. Especially being such an intimidating villain, this guy against Nightwing, against Robin, he handles himself very well, so we don’t have a lot of answers about where that skill and that background come from, so it was a challenge playing such a powerful character, but also playing it very closed-off, very one-level, without revealing anything.”
One of my favorite questions to ask the voice talent from the DC animated films is how much they feel like they want to go “beyond the page” to research into their characters. The answers always vary quite a bit. Travis had some very interesting and fun things to say about the Heretic and why he wanted to try to learn more about the character after being given the role.
“…when I heard about it, when I heard it was the Heretic, I thought, ‘I’ve heard that name before…’ so I had to look it up and see who it was and I saw the giant suit of armor and the little baby head [laughs] but what we’re doing is not that, so that line that he delivers, especially at the very beginning, where Batman says, ‘Do I know you?’ and he says, ‘Intimately, and not at all’ which I thought was just incredibly intriguing. You have to know that he’s been given a very small bit of information about who he is, who he’s after, where he came from, and more than anything, he’s just desperate for acceptance of who he is. He’s a character that’s very powerful, very imposing, but he’s at a loss, so that makes it very interesting.
I feel like, if you’re a fan of comics, which I have been my entire life, the opportunity to go in and play something that’s been, is incredible. The first thing I did was run into the closest comic book store and say, ‘Give me everything you have on the Heretic!’ and the guy was like ‘The Heretic? Oh, man, that’s gonna be hard to find. Yeah, the Internet is gonna be a much faster way to do this.’ So that was kind of, the diving into the knowledge well to figure out who the character is.”
Sean Maher, who voices Nightwing in this series of animated movies, was fun to interview. He very politely complimented me on my jacket before we jumped into the interviews. Our interview mainly involved the idea of family and the brother-like relationship between Dick and Damian. Again, I began with the question about how familiar Sean was with Nightwing and what kind of research he felt compelled to do, if any.
“Oh wow, when I first got the role, three movies ago, I knew who Dick Grayson was, but I didn’t know too much about Nightwing, so I had to do a little bit of research there. They don’t really give you much. I mean, they give you the script, but… I had a little picture of him on the stand as I was recording, and I asked to take it with me at the end of the day and they said, ‘No!’.”
[In terms of how much extra research he does for voice-talent characters.] “I knew there were other actors who had done the voice, and I knew that there were other takes on the character, so I stayed very clear of that, especially doing it again and again, there’s a desire to work with the evolution of the character, yet bring something fresh and spontaneous to it, so for me, for my approach, I kind of do all my homework and then throw it away, and when I’m in the booth I just try to tell the story the best way that I can. And I’m in really great hands with Jay and the whole team behind the glass. This movie was fun, because I finally felt comfortable, whereas the first to movies I was terrified… I was so afraid I was going to be fired within the first five minutes. But, Andrea Romano reached out to me and said it’s a really great role, but yeah, I was sure I was going to be fired. But this was the first one I really felt comfortable. The script just gave me a lot fo play with across the board: comedy, drama, everything. This was the most fun I’ve had.”
I’d done a little research online about Sean before the interviews, and knew that he was the father of two kids, so I brought this knowledge into my questions and related it the idea of the “Batman family” as portrayed in Batman: Bad Blood. I asked Sean if he thought his experiences as a dad helped him to have Nightwing be a kind of “big brother” to Damian.
“Absolutely. Like I say, when I approach work, it’s sort of, what I’m doing in the recording, and what I see, as a finished product. I love it when I’m surprised or when I see something I wasn’t trying to do. I’m just trying in the present moment to tell the story. And what I love so much over the evolution of the three films, and I love that you just said it, is that he’s like a big brother. There is a big brother relationship between the two of them. So, it resonates so strongly with me. I don’t try to do that. Maybe it is from being a dad. It comes organically, and there’s a dysfunction there, there’s a love-hate thing, there’s a little bit of everything with Damian and Dick.”
Regarding this particular film itself, Sean mentioned,
“I love this film. I love this one so much. I love Dick because I just felt that there was so much going on with so many different characters, it was just really touching at times, but also hysterical at times, and the action, just all of it. I felt like it really all came together so seamlessly at the end, and I thoroughly as an audience member, I step back as being, ‘Was I good or was I bad?’ I was truly like ‘Oh, my God, I truly am enjoying this story’ and I escaped for a while and I’m truly in this amazing world, and that was a wild ride. I loved it.”
This was my first opportunity to interview Jason O’Mara (the voice of Batman), as he was sick when I did the interviews for Justice League: War. Jason was very down-to-earth and even at one point had to check his phone, noting that he was on “dad duty” and needed to make sure his kids were okay. We bonded over that moment, as I was in the same predicament, and that little bit of spontaneous chatter came up later during our interview, which ended up focusing a lot on Jason being a dad and how that coincided with him portraying Bruce who is learning to become a father to Damian in these animated films. Although everybody knows who Batman is as a character, I’m always interested to get a sense of how familiar actors are with the actual comics version of the characters versus just the “pop culture” references they would have seen. Jason’s answer surprised me a bit.
“I’d read some of the New 52 graphic novels – Batman and Son, and Court of Owls. I thought it was really interesting looking at the source material and watching how they adapted it. I wasn’t sure how it would be received at first, because we’re going in a different direction versus some of the other mainstream Batman things that were happening, like the Nolan movies and now the Snyder movies and the Arkham Asylum video games, and I felt like there was already a lot of Batman in the world. So, I was really surprised, pleasantly surprised, when we got over the hump of the first one, going where we were going to go, and getting a lot of people on board. And now I feel like we’re really getting going with the series, and showing how the family can work in the Batman world.”
I asked Jason how he has to approach Batman differently in these more solo-focused films versus when he voices the Dark Knight in the Justice League movies.
“The Justice League movies are fun but it’s about the story and the concept and more about the dynamic of the characters than about them as individuals… in these movies, we have time to explore the relationships on a much deeper level and see how the action and the villains actually affect those dynamics. At least one this one, Batman is trying to be a parent to Damian, but he’s not around much. You know yourself, if you don’t show up, you can’t exert any influence. So, I’m sure that lack of control drives him crazy. It’s an interesting way to go in telling the story. I think we’re getting closer and closer to seeing where Damian is going to go.”
We chatted a bit about whether Jason being a father helped him “get into character” more for the films that show more of the Bruce-Damian dynamic.
“Yeah, it is a bit strange that this Batman story has coincided with my own story as a father, and trying to negotiate with my son, who is obviously not Damian, a killer ninja…” [Me: That you know of!]… “Right, that I know of. Who knows what he’s doing during the school day. But, it’s trying to create an environment for a child so that they can make the right decisions, the right choices. It’s very different from controlling everything they do and protecting them and putting them in a bubble.”
Jason and I also talked a lot more about the craft of voice acting and how a lot of different actors have voiced the character of Batman over the past 15+ years, and how he has to prepare and what specifically was he trying to bring to the role to make it his own. Jason mentioned being a bit apprehensive at first, but slowly just getting accustomed to the character and being natural with it versus trying to force something that wasn’t there. He also very modestly mentioned that putting him in the same sentence as Kevin Conroy was “tricky” because “…Kevin is the man. He’s the voice of Batman as far as I’m concerned…”
For the crew interviews, I had the chance to chat with Jay Oliva (Director) and James Tucker (Producer). Jay was much more casually dressed this time versus the first time I interviewed him, when he was wearing a sharp-looking suit. For these interviews, I focused a lot on the process of making the films and how and why they decide to deviate from the source material in the comics. I asked Jay Oliva how much of it is him wanting to do a particular scene and putting that into the movie, and how much of it is already in the script by the time he sees it.
“It’s a combination. For example, Batwoman… we show her origin story in this film. So I went back to the comics and found the exact panels of her coming out of the bar. In the script originally it was her just walking down the street. So, it’s things like that. There are also things that we’re changing because in this continuity, we’re having to constantly make adjustments to it. And usually that’s James’ call, and the writer, because they are involved with pitching it. By the time I get it, that’s when I sit down with James and talk about what I like and what I don’t like. For example, in this movie, the ending is a lot different than the way it was written. And that’s because when I read the original script, I wanted the focus to be on the Bat-Family and I wanted their role to be more integral to the climax of the film, so I had to craft that around that. The movie is still the basic plot-points, but then I can come in and make things either closer to the comics, or maybe do an homage to it or delineate the do something completely different. Usually I like to do something completely different, but I like to mix it up. But if it’s an iconic scene, it’s an iconic scene.”
Jay has directed a lot of Warner Brother animated films over the years, and I asked him how, or if, his style has changed during that time.
“…I’ve changed. For example, when I worked for Bruce Timm, there’s a particular style that he likes, and I adjust to that. James, he likes to try different things, so I change. Sometimes I’m left to my own devices and I can try things that I like. The nice thing is, I always try to establish… for Justice League: War, since we were establishing the New 52, I wanted the action scenes to be more like live-action film. The other ones prior to that were all really well-done and we tried to make them cinematic, but since were doing the New 52, we wanted it to be huge. And when they come to us and they said that they wanted it all to be a continuity for the animated universe, I thought, ‘This is great.’ So instead of doing scenes the way they’d always been done, in the house style, I thought now I can do the things that I want to do, with action that’s over-the-top, like in ‘Man of Steel.’ So, this film, this is my fourth one in this continuity, so I wanted to use what I’d like with Batman vs. Superman and Man of Steel,so all of my films, I’m always trying to top what I’ve done in the past.”
I also asked Jay to tell me, of all the animated films he’d done with Warner Brothers, to tell me which one was his favorite, but I told him not to cheat and say “This one!”
“It’s more like two of them. Flashpoint Paradox is one of my favorites. We took a story line that not many people really liked, it wasn’t as beloved as something like Dark Knight Returns, so we were given a lot more flexibility, so I just wanted to go balls-to-the-wall with it. And I liked the fact that Flash was the main character. I was able to make the Flash the main protagonist, so we could make him a strong character that’s interesting, that’s fallible, and he’s our ‘through-story’ that the audience can identify with and understand through his plight. Also, technically, I think that was some of the best animation that we’ve done. And it’s very dark. The other one was of course Dark Knight Returns… I’ve loved that story line and to be able to bring that to the big screen was a dream come true. But, at the same time, I was able to deviate a bit from the comic… because it’s a Frank Miller story, there’s a lot of room for interpretation… It allowed me some flexibility to do things a bit different from the books… Dark Knight Returns has a special place. I took a comic that I read when I was 11 years old, and loved, and I was ale to do the translation to what you see now.”
Lastly, I asked Jay if he could direct any DC Comics story that he’s already been done, what would it be?
“For me, I would love to do Gotham by Gaslight. The other ones, Kingdom Come comes to mind. But I don’t think we have the technology to do it, because in my mind, it has to look like Alex Ross’ art, and what we do here, wouldn’t really do it justice. I’d love to do Long Halloween, Blackest Night… but I think Gotham by Gaslight would be my top choice.”
I mentioned to producer James Tucker how I have been going back and watching Justice League and Justice League Unlimited with my six year-old daughter and how I keep seeing his name pop up on those episodes, and how much, if at all, his approach has changed over the past 15+ years.
“I look at Justice League and Justice League Unlimited as my apprenticeship. I worked for Bruce Timm. I was co-producer and helped him make the show. A show of that scale and bigness – he needed help. Anything he didn’t want to do, I did. I learned all the rules. I learned how to do everything. But, then I’m able to put my view on it now. The second season had more of my sensibilities. Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I feel like more of these more recent movies have more of my personality… [such as] even having Batwoman and Batwing in this recent movie, instead of Batgirl. We’ve done to that well so may times with Batgirl, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to update the Bat-family.”
As with, Jay, I asked James also to pick his favorite animated feature he’d worked on.
“One of the ones I would say is one that’s coming up that I can’t talk about yet. But of the past ones I’ve done, so far I really liked Batman vs. Robin. But, again, I do like this one. The next one I think would be Flashpoint and Assault on Arkham. I think we really made those really entertaining, they worked on their own, and they were totally different. I feel like I don’t want to keep making the same kind of thing over and over. Flashpoint was just dark… Assault on Arkham was a riot.”
And lastly, I ended by asking James which stories or story arc from the comics he would like to produce as animated features.
“I would definitely want to do a Legion of Superheroes one. I don’t know that it’ll ever happen.”
That wraps up my cast and crew interviews from the Batman: Bad Blood premiere at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. Drop your comments below to let me know what kinds of questions you’d like to see us ask at future interview opportunities, as well as what you think about Jay’s and James’ “wish list” for future DC animated movies.