Batman: Year One - From Comic to the Screen
Writer Frank Miller and illustrator David Mazzucchelli's Year One storyline is one of the seminal in comics' history. Now it has been adapted in animated form from DC Direct and Warner Premiere. Shepherded by Bruce Timm, the faithful rendition was directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery. I had a chance to speak with Liu about his experience working on the project. He's not new to the Batman world having worked on the series The Batman, as well as the animated features Superman / Batman: Public Enemies and Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.
Rick DeMott: How was this project different than some of the previous versions of the character you have worked with?
Sam Liu: It's different because it's year one. Bruce is still trying to figure it out. And also the way Frank Miller wrote it it's not slick, ultra designed Gotham. Bruce [Timm] called it — old-school Chicago. It's not these super huge skyscrapers. [Bruce] is not a ninja, yet. So we didn't do these crazy types of fights. It's a lot grittier. Real world. Not Hong Kong fighting.
RD: The story is very close to the comic. What was changed and why?
SL: The changes were very few. The ones that happened on the script level I'm not super aware of. Bruce's mandate from the very beginning was to make it as spot on as humanly possible. So we tried not to embellish too much, even though the running time was short. Lauren and I had talked about trying to get more things in or expanding certain areas but Bruce didn't want to do that. He wanted to stay as faithful as possible to the source material. Which is great in a way, but there were some things I wish we could have expounded upon a little more. That was the edict from the very top to make it as close as possible. Even when we came out short, we requested that a writer go in a write new scenes, but Bruce didn't want to do that.
RD: The comic was even used as part of the storyboard process; did you find that helpful or constraining?
SL: David Mazzucchelli's stuff is so cinematic that in this case it was very helpful. We do pick and choose as far as what we can use. If it flat out doesn't work we'll deviate. But in this case it made the job much easier. There are a lot of panels in there that could be the in-between panel. I didn't think it was limiting.
RD: Though it's called Batman: Year One, it's just as much James Gordon and Gotham's story. How did you like exploring areas of the Batman world that might not have explored so deeply before?
SL: Just me personal the kind of stories that I get really invested in are the psychological ones. Human condition type stories. I loved it. It could be argued that it's more Gordon's story than Bruce, but in a way I thought that was smart, because you sort of leave Batman as a mythical figure because you don't see him too much. He kind of becomes the boogieman. It's a "less is more" type of thing, which I thought was great.
Working on The Batman series in the early 2000s, I think the edict on that was to humanize Batman more. The shows that were like flashbacks from other people's point of view were a lot more true to the character. It made him a lot scarier because he came in and you wouldn't set him up too much. If you were with him too much, it almost makes him too human.
I felt the Gordon story was this extra element. The backdrop is this bad city. It's corrupt top to bottom. The gangsters are working with the police. The people who are supposed to enforce the law are corrupt. The politicians are corrupt. Gordon is the only one that is trying to make things right. Batman, from the other angle, believes that he is the only one who is trying to make this right. So in a weird way it's two people with ultimately the same goal finding each other. That's why the combination works.
RD: Did you find it hard to balance the two stories over what is just an hour-long film?
SL: This falls into whether it's a benefit in having such a strong source material to work from or a hindrance? We just trusted the script. Bruce wanted it so close to the source material so I was a little gun shy to expound on moments. In a way it was a little bit of a limitation, but I didn't have to think about it because this is what we were doing. Bruce really worked out the story he wanted in the script phase. So for Lauren and I we just followed the blueprint. We just identified the moment and tried to nail those as visually interesting as we could.