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Holy caped caper, IV

Whoever decreed that big-budget, effects-laden, Hollywood blockbusters were the stuff of cost overruns, delays and on-set problems forgot to tell Joel Schumacher. Despite the size and logistics of “Batman and Robin,” the fourth entry in Warner Bros. hit series, and a creative shooting schedule that allowed the newest Batman, George Clooney, to don the cape while still wearing his “ER” greens, Schumacher managed to wrap principal photography at the end of January, two weeks ahead of schedule.

“I’m sort of amazed by it myself,” says Schumacher, who also helmed “Batman Forever,” the top-grossing film of 1995 ($184 million domestically). “But we were very well prepared and had a lot of the same team, and I think once you’ve climbed Mt. Everest, when you go back again, you know what equipment to take and who to tie to the rope.”

“Batman and Robin,” which is slated for a June 20th opening, features Arnold Schwarzenegger as the severely hypothermic Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, a seductress with a deadly kiss. Alicia Silverstone is also along for the ride as Batgirl, and Chris O’Donnell reprises the role of Robin, albeit in a newly designed costume, a move prompted by the controversy that arose in some quarters over the detailed body armor seen in “Batman Forever.”

“There was more newsprint on the nipples and codpieces than anything I’ve ever seen!” the director laughs. “What’s wrong with our culture?”

According to Schumacher, “Batman and Robin” will contain even more action than its predecessor. “The villains have a lot to do with the tone of the action,” he notes. “The Riddler, for instance, which Jim Carrey played so brilliantly [in “Batman Forever”], is a mind-game player, while Mr. Freeze is a very macho guy, and he and his thugs are a very aggressive action team.”

And while giving high marks to previous Batmen Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer, the director moves Clooney to the head of the class as both the Dark Knight and his alter ego, billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne. “Michael was terrific, and Val was terrific, but I think George is the best Batman of all,” he opines. “He has brought a humanity to the piece that is fresh, and we’ve stepped away from a more brooding, self-centered Batman to a more mature, accessible Batman.”

Schumacher neither confirms nor denies stories of on-set difficulties with Kilmer during the lensing of “Batman Forever,” though he is vocal about the subject in general terms. “A lot of film time these days is unfortunately spent just waiting for stars,” he laments. “I have no patience with overpaid, overprivileged people who cannot have the dignity and courtesy to be professional. I don’t tolerate that kind of behavior, and in this case, it wasn’t even an issue because everybody was a professional.

“The cast of ‘A Time to Kill’ and ‘Batman and Robin’ were dream casts, and I am going to actively seek to work with people of that caliber in the future,” Schumacher adds.

Veteran actor Pat Hingle, who has played the role of Commissioner Gordon in all four Batman films, likewise praises the director. “Joel is an expert at his craft,” he says. “I’ve worked with a lot of master craftsmen: John Ford, Elia Kazan, Martin Ritt, Joe Mankiewicz, John Huston, Clint Eastwood, and that’s where Joel is at.” In comparing Schumacher’s style to that of Tim Burton, who originated the Batman series, Hingle states, “He is so different than Burton. Joel is very much down to earth and can tell you what he wants. Tim would tell me too, but I was never sure that I understood him.”

In putting his personal stamp on the Batman series, Schumacher eschewed both the broad camp style of the TV show and the dark, dystopian atmosphere of Burton’s earlier films. Instead, he drew inspiration directly from the source: the Batman comic book he admits to loving as a kid. “When I was given the Batman franchise, I went to the comic book stores and got hundreds of comic books — past, present and future, and just immersed myself in them,” he says. “What you see is color, great graphics, exciting action sequences and humor.”

Given the combined box office take for the first three Batman films — over $1 billion worldwide — it’s certain that the series will continue on. In fact, only two weeks after Schumacher wrapped “Batman and Robin,” Variety reported that he’s considering directing the fifth installment of the franchise. Since screenwriter Akiva Goldsman turned down the next Batpic, Mark Protosevich will be penning the Caped Crusader’s next adventure. Among the new villains who might be testing Batman’s patience in the film are Egghead, Mad Hatter, King Tut and Scarecrow. WB hopes to prepare the fifth Batman pic for the summer of ’99, when it will face tough competition from “Terminator 3” and the first “Star Wars” prequel.

“I asked these actors to be in these movies, and I wouldn’t just say thanks a lot, I’m moving on,” Schumacher told Variety on the day the story was announced. “That would be unethical and not attractive.”

Michael Fleming also contributed to this story.

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