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updated: 6/29/2012 8:04 AM

'Batman 'producer explains his road to film success

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  • Batman feature film producer Michael Uslan talks in the green room at Harper College before he entertains fans with stories such as his role in selecting Jack Nicholson to play the Joker.

       Batman feature film producer Michael Uslan talks in the green room at Harper College before he entertains fans with stories such as his role in selecting Jack Nicholson to play the Joker.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Batman feature film producer Michael Uslan signs his book, "The Boy Who Loved Batman," with his unique autographs for fan Tom Lange. Uslan spoke about his life and his role in the Batman movies at Harper College on Thursday.

       Batman feature film producer Michael Uslan signs his book, "The Boy Who Loved Batman," with his unique autographs for fan Tom Lange. Uslan spoke about his life and his role in the Batman movies at Harper College on Thursday.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Ulsan at Indiana University

 
By David Conway
dconway@dailyherald.com

Michael Uslan recalled a cold night in January 1966 to a rapt audience at Harper College. Uslan, 13 at the time, was eagerly anticipating a watershed moment in his life: the premiere of the TV show about his favorite comic book superhero, Batman.

The show didn't exactly live up to his expectations.

"I was horrified," Uslan said. "I was horrified because the whole world was laughing at Batman, and that just killed me."

At that point, he made a vow: He would, however he could, teach the world about the Batman he knew, about the crusader who lurked in the shadows, about a darker, grittier superhero. His goal was to "erase from the culture's consciousness three little words: 'pow,' 'bam' and 'zap.'"

Though the road may have been arduous, he reached that peak: Uslan has served as the executive producer of all Batman major motion pictures, from 1989's "Batman" to the upcoming "The Dark Knight Rises."

Uslan told his story Thursday night at Harper College as part of a promotion for his memoir, "The Boy Who Loved Batman." He told the crowded auditorium about how, at age 8, Batman's lack of superpowers appealed to him, made him believe that he could be the guy with enough exercise and a cool enough car.

He described himself as the "ultimate comic book geek," who kept 30,000 comic books in his parents' garage and attended the first ever comic book convention in New York City in July 1964.

This childhood geekery gave way to full-blown nerdiness in his college years, as he became the first instructor in the country teaching a course about comic books at Indiana University in the early 1970s.

"Comic books are a legitimate American art form," he remembered arguing to the reluctant dean who eventually permitted him to teach the class. "It's as indigenous to the country as jazz."

After he got the class, he made a mark on the national comic book scene. He got phone calls from Marvel's Stan Lee and DC's Sol Harrison, taking a job under the latter in New York.

The key to his success, he says, was opportunism: He wrote a script for the comic book "The Shadow" when the editor needed a story on short notice. That script got a ringing endorsement from Julius Schwartz, a revered writer and editor.

"It didn't stink," Uslan remembered Schwartz saying -- before offering him the opportunity to write for Batman.

With his childhood dream of writing his favorite superhero realized, he had to move onto a new goal: redeeming the Dark Knight in the public eye after the campy debacle that was the television series.

After mailing 372 résumés, completing law school and working for almost four years as a lawyer in the entertainment industry, Uslan knew he had to make his big move: He bought the rights to the Batman movies from Sol Harrison.

"He's as dead as a dodo," Harrison told Uslan. "Nobody's interested in Batman anymore."

That didn't deter Uslan: On Oct. 3, 1979, he and Batfilm Productions bought the rights to the series. The next 10 years of rejections, of outright mockery from Hollywood didn't deter him, either. Finally, he found a director who shared his vision -- Tim Burton, who Uslan called a genius -- and the rest was cinematic history.

After a break in production following the poorly received "Batman & Robin", Uslan teamed up with Christopher Nolan to heighten the standards of comic book movies even further. Uslan said Nolan made it so that comic book movies weren't just measured relative to other comic book movies; people were comfortable coming out of "The Dark Knight" and calling it a great film, period.

With the current iteration of Batman films nearing its conclusion, the franchise is sitting comfortably as one of the most popular in the world. That success is owed to Michael Uslan, to his single-minded dedication to bringing his Batman to the silver screen in the face of all obstacles.

"What happens when these doors slam in your face?" Uslan said of early struggles to get the movies produced. "You can cry about it and go home. Or you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and knock again, knock again and knock again until your knuckles bleed. These serious Batman movies were built on my bleeding knuckles."

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