This is the full transcript of the interview used in part for my ‘Rebuilding Batman‘ feature in Empire. Chris Corbould is a special effects supervisor whose history with the James Bond films goes all the way back to The Spy Who Loved Me, making him the obvious choice for Christopher Nolan when he was contemplating a more ‘Bondian’ Batman. Chris is such a good storyteller that I won’t even present this as a Q&A. I’ll keep myself out of it and just let him tell it…
NB: This was conducted before anyone had seen The Dark Knight Rises, so Chris wasn’t allowed to talk about the Batplane yet.
THE BATMOBILE (THE TUMBLER)
I got a call from Chris Nolan’s office that he would like to meet me. In those days the film was being called The Intimidation Game, so I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for; I didn’t really know Chris Nolan all that well in those days. He called me into his office and we had a long chat. Chris is a great Bond fan and I’d half guess that’s why I got the call to go and see him. We had a long chat and got on really well, and then he said he wanted me to have a look at something, and he took me into his next room and pulled off this cover, and there was this twelve-inch model of the Batmobile. He asked me what I thought and caught me a bit by surprise really. I said ‘well, it’s unusual’…
We started talking about it and discussing it a bit, and discussing what was feasible and what wasn’t feasible, and from there he hired me, for want of a better word, and I got my creative team around me and it became very much a mission to pull off what Chris wanted. The first thing was, once we started on the film, Chris wanted a full sized Batmobile, so he could scale it up, everything from the front wheels to the look of it, so he could do real-sized tweaks to the car with [production designer] Nathan Crowley. Once he was happy with it we went into design mode, designing the chassis and what engine we could put in there, and the steering. The steering system was built from scratch. It’s not based on anything and initially we thought we might have some problems because there’s no central axle – the steering rods come down from a rack and pinion from the outside. It was pretty unusual. I wasn’t too sure what could be achieved. I was willing to make a few compromises that he could possibly tweak with CGI, but in the end we didn’t have to do any of that. He got everything he wanted. He got a vehicle that could do up to 100mph, 0-60 in five or six seconds… We pulled off everything he wanted to do with it.
It became a real mission for my team of engineers around me. We spent a lot of time jumping it and jumping it to see where it broke, strengthen that part, jump it again… You keep finding the weak links along the chain until you can more or less do anything with it. In the end I think our longest jump was about 70ft, at 60mph. And it landed and drove off, as opposed to what normally happens in big action films where the chassis and the suspension folds up and they swap it for another car and put a cut in there and carry on. The car really performed. It could drive round corners flat out. We had a great stunt driver, George Cottle, who really got hold of it. The thing about the car was that visibility wasn’t great, because you had these tiny little windows, and they were tinted as well. I was with him a couple of times when he had his nose literally pressed against the windscreen so he could get maximum visibility.
Chris and Nathan had designed it in Chris’ garage. That’s the format! They build these models out of little bits of plastic Airfix kits, from cars and planes, and come up with these concepts. The end product was more or less identical to what they’d come up with at the start. Chris was so intimate with that car. He knew every single bit of it. We tried a couple of cheats to make life easier for us… one of the things was, it didn’t have any mudguards, so ultimately all the stuff got chucked up onto the windscreen, which its fine if it’s dry, you can get away with it then, but the first time we shot with it was down a muddy lane. We thought we were being sneaky – we didn’t put mudguards on it, but just below the line of the wheel we put some brushes behind it that would stop the mud coming up. He came up to me and said ‘Don’t think I haven’t seen those brushes…’ But because it was going to be dark, he let us off! He knew every inch of it. I never knew there were so many different shades of black until I worked with Chris!
The thing with Chris, as you’ve probably gathered from his films, is that his whole world has to be based in reality in his films. Part of his mantra was that the only time he wanted to use CGI was if we couldn’t do something for real, whether for safety or financial reasons or whatever. He wanted us to pull things off, even though it would have been very easy to cheat. That’s what he bases his films on. He wants everything to be believable.
Even Batman flying… You might think that’s a bit over the top, but we based his flying on him using his wings like a hang glider. He was just coming down and going down to ground as if he was on a hang glider. That rig was sort of an overlap with the costume department. Certainly on Batman Begins we got involved in a lot of the flying around on wires, and he had this cape which was limp one minute and… high pressure air bladders and at the flick of a switch it would all go stiff and form the flying mode. It was a combination. Obviously the costume department were heavily involved in the design of the Bat-suit and the cape, and then we sort of overlapped the mechanics of how the cape worked. There were soft capes and hard capes and capes that inflated quickly… all sorts of different versions.
THE TRUCK FLIP
My relationship has grown with Chris immensely. Batman Begins was really all about us finding out about each other. Chris before then hadn’t really done much action, and that was his introduction into the action world. I thought he was incredibly brave going into it, because he didn’t use a second unit – never has done to this day. For someone that’s never done any action… at first I thought he was mad, having come from Bond films which have a massive second unit shooting all the action. But after working with Chris, we used to go away, test everything, come back show him a video, he’d comment on it… By the time it came to studio action he had a pretty good idea what he was going to get, and then he just tweaked it to how he wanted it to look. Because he knew exactly what he wanted to see on screen, everything he shot was in the film. There wasn’t much that ended up on the cutting room floor. Batman Begins was literally me finding out what made him tick and what he liked, and him finding out what was achievable in the real world doing real special effects, rather than CGI.
Then on to Dark Knight, he went into that and I almost saw him grow to another person, where he started pushing it further with things like the truck flip. That was an interesting one. He came up with this truck flip idea, and I’m a bit hesitant sometimes to go full out until we get a bit nearer the time. Sometimes you work on scripts that have loads of action in and then for whatever reason it gets toned down, so I tend not to spend too much time on something unless I definitely know it’s in. Probably about two months out from filming the truck I though well, I’d better start thinking about this now. I realised it wasn’t going to go away. I asked Chris what sort of truck he was thinking of and he came up with this monster. I tried to swerve him towards a couple of different ways of approaching it to make it easier for us, because I wasn’t totally convinced that we’d get it over. I thought we might be able to just leave the tractor unit on the ground and flip the trailer over the top of the tractor unit. He gave me that look which I’ve come to recognise, where he’s like, ‘Nah, I’m not buying that.’ Then I tried to swerve him towards a shorter truck, and I got that same look again, and in the end I had to say ‘Look, I don’t know whether I can do this, I’m willing to give it a go, but I’ll do you a deal: I’ll get a truck, I’ll rig it, I’ll test it, if it looks like we’re anywhere near getting it over then fine, we’ll go for it, but if this fails dismally, then you’re going to have to do it miniature, or CGI’. He was like, ‘Okay, deal.’ So I went away and my guys all got round it and we rigged it with this massive great nitrogen cannon, and we took it down to a test site, and pressed the button, and it sailed over!
That was just the start of the story though. I went to Chris and told him he’d won, and that it looked phenomenal, and asked where we were going to shoot it. Then I saw this horrible little grin come in his face, and he told me he wanted to shoot it down LaSalle Avenue in Chicago. That’s the banking district of Chicago, and the width of the road isn’t much more than the length of the trailer! I thought, ‘Oh my god…’ We went down and recce’d the road, and I kept spotting all these manhole covers. I asked the utilities company guy what they all were, and he said some were local utilities, some were bank vaults… I had a survey done of what was underneath the road there, and there was only two spots in like a mile stretch of this road, where we could actually do the shot, because we had a piston coming down into the ground that was going to be generating a hundred tonnes – obviously if that lands on top of a manhole cover or a bank vault, the piston would have gone straight through the vault and the truck would have not gone anywhere! Eventually we found a spot, but I was like, this is a big deal – if I hit the button and the truck doesn’t go absolutely straight down the middle of the road, then we’re straight through the front of a bank [laughs].
We came to the night and set it all up, and we charged all the nitrogen cannon up and strapped the guy in – the stunt guy had so much steel around him it was unbelievable. Sent him on his way, and I watched him go away, away, away… and in the end I just turned round. I couldn’t watch. I was expecting two things – there was either going to be a big whoosh and then the sound of a lot of breaking glass and a deathly silence, or there was going to be a loud round of applause. Thankfully it was the second one of the two. It was a total success. But I do sometimes wonder why I put myself and my team through these things. It’s one of those things where you lose so much sleep. I dreamt that truck flipping probably ten nights in a row.
THE HOSPITAL EXPLOSION
The hospital explosion was the same. That was a bizarre little story. Early on in the film Chris was tweaking the script, and I said to him, ‘You know, I’d really like to blow a building up on this’. He was like, ‘Hmm, okay, interesting…’ Next thing I knew, there in the script was the hospital blowing up. So we went through the whole process and got a demolition company on to work with us – they would do the demolition and we would put all the cosmetic pyrotechnics in. Come to the day before we did the shot, Chris Nolan came up to me and asked me something about the last time we did this. And I said, ‘I’ve never done this before!’ He said, ‘I thought you said…’ And I said, ‘Yes, I said I wanted to do it – I didn’t say I’d done it before!’ We had a good chuckle about that, and it turned out to be a fabulous shot. He had something like a dozen cameras on it, but I think he only used one, with a little bit of aerial. In the end it was such an all-in-one shot – he was very pleased with it.
The bike – the Batpod. He refused to call it a bike. He said it’s not a bike, and I tend to agree with him. After seeing the Batmobile I shuddered to think what the bike was going to look like. Again, it was a creation of Nathan Crowley and Chris in his garage. The thing about Chris and Nathan… Why these machines look so unorthodox is I don’t think either of them have ever ridden a bike in their life, so they’re not swayed by any mechanical realities. They just come up with these things, and that’s why they’re so radical. But again, I looked at this thing and thought, ‘Uuuuurgh, how are we going to pull this off?’ It took us a long time to sort out the wheels for example. When you look at a traditional motorbike, you’re probably running on two inches of rubber. All of a sudden we’ve got this 20-inch wide tyre. In the end, we ended up chamfering off the edges of the tyre, to bring it back down to something that could be steered. It was a beast of a machine.
We were lucky to get Jean-Pierre Goy, a very famous and sweet guy, stunt rider, who turned up, saw it, fell in love with it, and just wanted to make it work. He spent lots of time on it, and before we knew it he was standing up on it and skidding the back wheel round… When we shot the whole sequence, he deliberately didn’t ride a motorbike, because he said it confused him. It was such a totally different style to riding a traditional motorbike that it confused things for him, so the whole time we shot that sequence, he never rode a traditional motorbike.
One of my main concerns with the Batpod was that obviously Batman’s got this cape on, and again there’s no mudguards on it. I expressed concerns early on – I told Chris it was asking for trouble, with this cape getting caught up in the wheels. I thought maybe as soon as he gets on the bike his cape gets sucked into a backpack. We came up with all these ideas. And then one day we’d finished the Batpod and we thought we’d test it with a stunt rider in a cape, expecting to come back and say we’d have to go for the backpack. So we went down and Jean-Pierre got on it, and put the cape on, and we had ties on it that would break away if it did get caught up in the wheels. And he pulled away, and as soon as he pulled away, the wind got under the cape and it never even looked like it was going to get caught up. I think during the entire shoot with the Batpod, it only got caught up once, and that was because he stopped and then walked backwards with it. The whole rest of the time, the cape was a big part of how great it looks. The wind got underneath it and it just flowed in the wind and looked awesome.
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