Hours before its Friday world premiere at this year's Comic-Con International in San Diego, reporters gathered for an opportunity to talk about Warner Bros. Animation's upcoming "Batman: Assault on Arkham" direct-to-video animated feature. The new movie, which is on sale now, takes place in the same continuity as the massively popular "Batman: Arkham" video game franchise. On hand were director Jay Oliva, dialogue director Andrea Romano, screenwriter Heath Corson, producer James Tucker, and actors Kevin Conroy (Batman), Matthew Gray Gubler (The Riddler) and John DiMaggio (King Shark).
Corson shared the overall pitch for the project. "[Warner Bros.] wanted to do a Batman story set in the 'Arkham' video game universe, with the Suicide Squad. I said, 'What if I make a Suicide Squad story and shoehorn Batman into it? We'll do a heist movie where they break into Arkham, because to break into Arkham, you have to be suicidal.'" Corson said centering the story around the Suicide Squad had a major impact on the movie's tone. "It's super-dark," he continued. "They kept pushing me to make sure that we earned our PG-13 rating, and I can say we absolutely do."
"I'll tell you what made it hard," Corson admitted, regarding not making Batman the film's central character. "[It was when] they told me Kevin Conroy was going to play Batman." But though he lamented that he didn't get to write more dialogue for Conroy, who many consider to be the definitive Batman, Corson saw an opportunity in terms of the story. "In the video game, [the player] gets to be Batman. What if, when Batman swings off, we're staying with these other guys behind the scenes? To have the villains take center stage is very cool."
Director Jay Oliva spoke primarily about the characters appearing in the film, pointing out that despite his name in the title, Batman is not the main character and the film's focus is instead on the Suicide Squad. "It's still a Batman story," Oliva ensured, "but at the same time it allows us to explore other characters within the framework of a Batman story. From a marketing standpoint, people want to see Batman, but we can introduce [other characters]." Oliva later added that while Batman plays an integral role in the story, there's no major revelation regarding his character, yet the story still contains a conflict he has to resolve.
Asked about the appeal of the Suicide Squad in particular, Oliva didn't mince words. "People love the bad guys. For me, it was freeing in the sense that when I'm doing Batman or Superman, there has to be no killing, and [asking] what a hero would do," Oliva said. "But with these guys, morals are out the door; so let's play off the fact that they're villains. You're cheering for these protagonists, but then you realize that their agenda is really up against what Batman's agenda is."
"Everyone likes the villains," Tucker agreed. "It's always fun when you can do a story from the villains' viewpoint, and you make the villain the hero, in a way, when you're rooting for them to get away. I love the twist where you make the audience kind of fall in love with these horrible people. I love doing stories that are just focusing on the villains and their side of things, because we always see the heroes' side of things. And there are more surprises when the person is morally ambiguous."
Oliva was then asked if any specific members of the Suicide Squad stood out for him. "Our main character is Deadshot," the director responded. "But I love Harley Quinn, so I had to interject her into the story as much as I could. The story later takes on a life of its own based upon her past with The Joker, so you get that dynamic between Harley, The Joker and Deadshot."
Oliva acknowledged that he felt added pressure with this project considering its ties to the successful video game franchise. "Out of all the creative team, I'm probably the only one that actually played the video games. For me, [the pressure] was trying to integrate some of the aspects of the video game into the movie. If you watch the fight sequences, a lot of the moves that Batman can do in the video game we do in the fight choreography."
Andrea Romano was asked about working with cast on the latest Batman movie, and she mentioned the kind of interaction she has with actors in general across all the projects she works on. "There are times when you get through an entire script with an actor, and during the course of recording, the voice evolves, so by the time you get to the end, it's not the same voice you started with. So you have to go back and start again, but you've already gone through the script, so it goes very fast to redo it. I like the fact that we have the ability to go back and fix things." The process typically takes about four to six weeks, according to Romano.
Regarding the return of Conroy to the iconic Role of Batman, Romano explained it was simply an issue of familiarity. "When I'm asked to direct, I always ask to use the voice actors I've used before. I don't have to explain anything to him. He knows the character practically better than anybody I know." She later mentioned an ancillary benefit of working with Conroy: "Every time I work on a project with Kevin, the second I hear his voice, I'm calm."
As for working with Riddler actor Matthew Gray Gubler, Romano thought of the actor early on in the process but worked alongside him throughout the process to actually land on the proper depiction for the movie. "When The Riddler came up for casting, I thought Matthew would be a really fun Riddler," said Romano. "But to help us find who The Riddler was, we had to spend a little bit of time, which is fun to do with an actor, because I like what actors do."
Asked about his experience playinng The Riddler, Gubler emphatically responded, "It was a damn pleasure; it's been a dream to be a maniacal supervillain. I want nothing more than to do it again. I wanted to make him be unique, to be kind of a showman, with a carnival, lunatic quality to him. The Riddler often asks questions as though he wants to prove himself smarter; I wanted to make it seem more like an obsession, like he needed these things answered. Like more of a sickness than a prideful thing."
Of working with Romano, Gubler pointed out that most of his scenes were done as solo sessions without the ability to bounce lines off other actors. "For scheduling purposes, I was alone," Gubler said. "But it was very helpful for The Riddler; he's kind of a lone wolf in all of this." Romano said she prefers to record actors together when possible, but recognizes scheduling issues didn't always allow for this.
While this was Gubler's first time with the Ridller and the DCU, Conroy is at the opposite end of the spectrum, returning to a role he has been playing for more than twenty years. Asked how he keeps his role as Batman fresh amidst such longevity, Conroy replied, "The trick for me has been to keep it real. It's not about approaching it differently, it's just about making sure I don't get myself into some kind of comfort zone."
Conroy praised Romano's efforts to keep this from happening. "The great thing about Andrea Romano is that she's so good at working with actors; she can keep you honest and authentic, without hitting you over the head with a hammer," said Conroy. "She understands the way actors fill their roles. She tries not to give line readings; once you give an actor a line reading, it's the death of the line. Once you've heard a line reading, it's hard to get it out of your head, no matter how hard you try. Instead of a line reading, she tries to steer the actors, to get them there on their own, so it's an organic sound."
As for being the voice of Batman for an entire generation, Conroy couldn't help but make a joke. "Their whole experience with this character is my brainwashing!" which the actor followed with a loud, villain-like cackle.
Conroy also discussed the talents of Troy Baker, who plays the role of The Joker in the film, comparing him to Mark Hamill, the actor who began playing Joker at the same time Conroy began playing the Dark Knight. "It's such a great example of how different actors can interpret a role, because I didn't think anyone would ever be as good as Mark Hamill. And then I saw Heath Ledger, and I thought, 'Oh my god; this is a whole different take, and it's brilliant,'" Conroy said. "And then they told me Troy Baker was going to do it, and he came in with another whole wonderful approach to it."
Next, John DiMaggio shared his thoughts on portraying King Shark, and he, too, had nothing but praise for Romano. "Anytime I get to come out and play in the Batman universe, I'm totally game, especially when Andrea Romano's in the room," said DiMaggio. "When you get to play a bad guy, it's the most fun; you get to do things that normally you wouldn't be able to do." Despite his willingness to play the role, DiMaggio admitted the character wasn't one he was familiar with. "I had no idea who King Shark was, nor did I ever see anyone's portrayal of King Shark."
The actor was then asked to compare his part in "Batman: Assault on Arkham" to his live work in "Thrilling Adventure Hour," a stage play in the style of old time radio. "'Thrilling Adventure Hour' is a lot of fun to do, because there's an audience there, but you really get to do it right on the money when you're recording." When asked whether he was seeing additional opportunities doing animation voiceovers, DiMaggio didn't necessarily believe so, but he cited strong positive reactions to other features he's done that he hopes will lead to more such projects.
King Shark's appearance in the story was due in large part to a push made by producer James Tucker. "We talked about using Bronze Tiger, but were told we couldn't use him," Tucker said. "We couldn't use Killer Croc, so I said, 'What about King Shark?' and everyone was like, 'He looks like Jabberjaw!' So we kind of reimagined him."
"We went through a couple of versions of who [the King Shark character] was going to be," said Corson. "At one point it was going to be Solomon Grundy, and at one point it was going to be Blockbuster; we needed someone grounded in the Arkham universe. We went through a couple of versions of the roster. The characters I knew I had to have were Deadshot, Harley Quinn and Captain Boomerang."
Corson said there were very few restrictions on which characters the filmmakers could use in the movie. "In fact, I went the other way," he said, describing his process with Warner Bros. "I've got the Suicide Squad; I've got Batman; can I have The Riddler? How about The Penguin? How about The Joker? And they said, 'If you can figure out a way to fit everybody in there, you can have all the toys.' I was going to play with everything that I possibly could. In fact, there's a scene in the Arkham property room where we get to see our villains use other villains' weapons. And we hid a lot of Easter eggs for the fans."
Tucker was then asked about whether he prefers working on animated series or one-off films. "As a producer, I have the best of both worlds," Tucker replied. "There are certain benefits to working on a series, and certain things for a one-off. This movie is fun because it stands up as its own movie. But [doing the other movies], we're building continuity. It's like having a television series, but there's something about building continuity and having characters evolve that I love."
Tucker expressed a desire to use lesser-known characters in the film despite Batman's name in the title. "Within the confines of the movie, I wanted to use secondary characters that might never get their own movie, because as a fan I'd want to see that. I didn't like being hamstrung by the perception that certain characters didn't sell. It's called 'Batman: Assault on Arkham,' and it ties into the video game, but it's really a Suicide Squad story. Would [Warner Bros.] ever do a Suicide Squad story? At the time they green-lit this, no. In the future, who knows; maybe they will do one, now."
"Batman: Assault on Arkham" is is available now on DVD & Blu-Ray.