There’s a reason why Nathan Crowley is widely regarded as one of the most talented production designers in the moviemaking business. His work on a number of films brings worlds both alien and familiar to life in vivid, tactile fashion, with a knack for tackling massive-budgeted projects in a way that still feels grounded and tangible.
That’s certainly true of Crowley’s eight collaborations thus far with director Christopher Nolan, and of course one of their most impressive feats was reinventing the Batman character (and what a “comic book movie” could be) with The Dark Knight Trilogy.
Recently, Crowley was gracious enough to sit down with me for an extended exclusive interview as part of our remote interview series Collider Connected, and over the course of our discussion about various films from his career, Crowley shed some light on the making of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. While we’ll be sharing that full Collider Connected interview soon, first we wanted to highlight Crowley’s groundbreaking work on these three highly influential Batman movies.
Crowley first worked with Nolan on the 2002 thriller Insomnia, and the two struck an instant friendship. When Nolan told Crowley that for his next project he wanted to tackle Batman, the production designer was at first daunted and then excited by the idea. Crowley revealed in our interview that their very first step in designing this new grounded twist on Gotham City was figuring out what the Batmobile would look like:
“I went around to his house for lunch and Chris started talking about how he wanted to remake Batman, and at the time it was like, ‘Wow, hasn’t everything been done?’ And then he started explaining to me what he wanted to do. I remember after that lunch he got me very excited, and he was saying one of the biggest things he wanted to try and do was redesign the Batmobile.”
In fact, the very first design for the now-iconic Batmobile (aka “the Tumbler”) from Batman Begins was created using toy cars from Toys R Us:
“It was a Friday, I went away and I went down to Toys R Us and bought a bunch of vehicles (laughs). I went over to my workshop and cut everything up and smashed them up. We talked about mashing up a Lamborghini with a Humvee, and so I thought, ‘Well let’s just start somewhere.’ So I smashed this thing together and I left it on his doorstep on a Monday morning. He called me and he said, ‘Get in here, let’s convert my two-car garage into a workshop art department and figure out how we’re gonna do this film.”
Nolan’s “garage” is now famously where he works to art design and work out his films in their earliest stages, and Crowley fondly recalls how he, Nolan, and Nolan’s brother Jonathan Nolan worked together to answer some basic Batman questions during the early days of development on Batman Begins:
“His thing was I’ve gotta explain everything. I’ve gotta explain why Batman is Batman. These things don’t magically work, he doesn’t have any superpowers. He’s physical and he has technology and he has his money; money is his superpower. We really just started from that moment and Jonah, Chris’ brother, was there helping as well. We just decided to take the Batmobile just as something to start with that might inform the rest of the film.”
Crowley says they had an unusually long time to design Batman Begins – three months – compared to the rest of their movies, and when audiences and critics responded positively to the film a new twist on the superhero genre was born.
The success of Batman Begins allowed Nolan and his collaborators to go even bigger for The Dark Knight, and Crowley said the more modernist design of that phenomenal sequel was right up his alley:
“For me – I don’t think this is true for Chris – The Dark Knight is actually the Batman I always wanted to make, but we had to step over Batman Begins to get to it. I am a desperate modernist. I like simplicity. On Batman Begins, I struggled with trying to make sure we didn’t destroy the comic book-ness of what Batman was and we tried to explain everything – there was the cave and Wayne Manor and how that worked and how you got down to it. There was lots of explanation in the design, and I’m grateful for Chris because he burned everything down [at the end of] Batman Begins.”
A bit of Batman Begins was shot in Chicago, but for The Dark Knight they got to spend 13 weeks filming in the Windy City as a stand-in for Gotham City – and it makes a difference. In comparison to Batman Begins, there’s a much larger scope for The Dark Knight, and Crowley says that because the sequel’s story involved Harvey Dent and politics and government, they got to use a lot of federal buildings and 1960s architecture.
And The Dark Knight, of course, also has one of the most memorable vehicle reveals of all time when the Batpod explodes out of the Batmobile. As Crowley remembers it, that was actually a suggestion from a Warner Bros. executive:
“That was actually a Warner Bros. executive in early garage times saying, ‘Hey, the bike could come out of the car’. It might have even been on Batman Begins… It was like, ‘I think they’re right, we have to pull the bike out of the car’. Then it became this secrecy of we couldn’t say there’s a bike in it, and he has to sacrifice the Batmobile and the phoenix has to arrive in the form of the bike.”
But the bike had to be kept secret, so when Crowley and Nolan decided they wanted to build a life-size model to try and work out the design, they had to steal the Batmobile wheels from the WB lot:
“We were very much in secret building that thing. There was no point in modeling it – we like to use models to play with things. But it was like, ‘We might as well go to Home Depot and buy some parts and build a full-size model.’ So we sort of snuck up to Warner Bros. and nicked the tires off the Batmobile and brought them back to the garage, but we couldn’t tell anyone why we were doing it. These were in the days when I could go into Home Depot with Chris and no one would recognize him… those days have gone, I can’t take him anywhere.”
Crowley noted how the films that they made in between Batman films ended up informing how they approached the next one:
“We’ve done these films in between the Batman films, like The Prestige got slotted in there and the was very low budget. We sort of slowly discovered the beauty and the advantage of getting around locations and getting as many as possible. So by the time we get to The Dark Knight Rises, we’re going to like three different countries. And that really expands the scope of the film practically. Obviously we make films practically – we avoid set extensions and as much digital work as possible. Obviously it’s in there because it has to be in there, but we only do it when we have to, and the question of when you have to is different for all people (laughs). For us, it really really has to be an impossibility.”
For the trilogy capper, Crowley remembered how he and Nolan had always talked of potentially shooting in New York City for their Batman movies. And while The Dark Knight Rises production was mainly set up in Pittsburgh, Crowley says he and Nolan both decided it was finally time to bring their franchise to the Big Apple:
“On Batman Begins, myself and Chris – I live in Brooklyn, so he’d often come over here and write in New York. We’d go walking, we’d walk the city and talk about, ‘What if the film was here?’ We always talked about New York but never shot in New York. It’s hard to shoot here because to close down the kind of areas we’d need to close down is very difficult. So we always talked about [how] we’d play the film here and we’d go [shoot] in Chicago. I think by the time we got to Dark Knight Rises it was kind of like, we kind of have to film in New York (laughs). If we’re gonna do it, we have to actually finally play Gotham as New York. Because on Batman Begins we’d walk around downtown and say, ‘Okay imagine if Gotham was here. Let’s talk about how it could be here.’”
And it pays off. The Dark Knight Rises is an absolutely massive movie, and you feel the scope on the screen. That doesn’t just magically appear out of thin air. That’s production design, folks.
Check out the video interview in the player above. Look for much more from our full interview with Crowley on Collider soon! For more Collider Connected interviews, check out my chats with The Lonely Island, Damon Lindelof, and Roger Deakins.