Holy wrecking ball, Bat-fans! Where’s the Gotham that Michael Keaton motored through in 1989’s Batman? You’ll hardly recognize the metropolis in Batman Returns, thanks to the revisionist efforts of director Tim Burton and production designer Bo Welch. ”I tried not to think of it as a sequel,” Burton says. ”I treated it like another movie.” And Welch, Burton’s collaborator on Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, says he viewed the follow-up as ”an excuse for an entirely new take.”
Judging by the results, the studio gave the pair enormous latitude to exercise their trademark anarchic visual whimsy. (Anton Furst, the designer of Batman who committed suicide last November, was tied up with other projects when Batman Returns began production last summer.) In the movie’s retooled burg, you won’t see those City Hall steps where Jack Nicholson’s Joker stabbed a crime boss. This time the seat of Gotham City’s political corruption is a generic ”Government Building,” the focal point of oppressively overbuilt Gotham Plaza. And while the Joker didn’t have much of a lair to rant in — just a couple of dim-looking rooms, really — the Penguin (Danny DeVito) waddles around two enormous fanciful settings: an abandoned, subterranean zoo-pavilion hideout and the grounds above it.
For Penguin’s watery underground digs, Welch at first tried to get by with a standard 35-foot-high soundstage on the Warner lot. ”The space just lacked majesty,” he says. ”It didn’t contrast enough with this evil, filthy little bug of a man.” Instead, Welch assembled an aquatic spectacular on a 50-foot-high Universal soundstage, cramming in a vaulted ceiling. ”The ceiling really sells it,” he enthuses. ”It gives you a sense of enclosure that says, ‘Not a set.”’
Except for a few blocks of cityscape built for the Batmobile to rip through, Welch’s wintertime Gotham was also an indoor creation. Striving for a dehumanizingly vast scale, he reserved Warner’s biggest soundstage for Gotham Plaza. ”There were hundreds of carpenters scurrying all over,” Welch says. ”At quitting time, they’d pour out like guys from some ’40s aircraft plant.” Some of Burton’s most sweeping visual ideas — like a crane shot that travels from the base of the department store owned by evil Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) to its cat-head-crowned penthouse office — also required coordination with elaborate miniatures.
Around the ambitious production, the studio spun a web of super-tight security. Art directors were required to keep their office blinds pulled down. And in what Welch calls a ”ridiculous gestapo measure,” cast and crew had to have photo ID badges with the movie’s bogus working title, Dictel, to get anywhere near the sets.
”Dictel is a name Tim and I made up on Edward Scissorhands,” Welch says. ”It’s Dictel as in dictatorial. It was our word to represent a kind of faithless, huge corporation that makes some useless little product and bullies people.” He says the crew dubbed one of Gotham Plaza’s ugliest, most monolithic skyscrapers the Dictel Building, because it was ”particularly fascist-looking.”
Echoes of fascist sculpture and architecture reverberate all through the new Gotham Plaza, which Welch designed as a ”demented caricature” of New York’s Rockefeller Center. One element of the set Burton was anxious to keep — a bizarrely ornamented cathedral dwarfed by commercial buildings around it — aroused the scrutiny of Warner’s budgeting staff. ”The studio always looks for things to eliminate, and right away they said, ‘Whoa, what’s this church?”’ Welch recalls. ”It was expensive because of all the sculpture, and it doesn’t figure in the action. But Tim agreed with me that the plaza would be boring if we didn’t have that small, insanely detailed area to contrast with those big blank walls.” It’s that kind of scenic obsession that helps make Batman Returns such a dense, absorbing experience for viewers — and that made the production an uphill battle for studio accountants.