Matt Reeves was terrified. In September 2020, the director had just returned to filming on “The Batman,” Warner Bros.’ latest reboot of the studio’s multibillion-dollar superhero franchise, after a six-month break due to the pandemic. Reeves had spent lockdown working on the meticulous — and costly — safety protocols needed to complete the film, but just 24 hours after shooting restarted in London, he got the news that his star, Robert Pattinson, had tested positive for COVID-19.
“All we did was shoot a day, and already it wasn’t just someone got COVID — Batman got COVID,” Reeves says.
To Reeves’ relief, Pattinson’s case was relatively mild, and his health recovered quickly. But with three-quarters of “The Batman” left to film, the experience had exposed, in rather spectacular fashion, just how precarious the production really was. The movie had already lost a crew member: Dialect coach Andrew Jack died at 76 in late March 2020, due to the coronavirus, which Reeves is convinced Jack contracted during the first weeks of production.
“Because we had no vaccines or anything, I was like, if I go down, we’re not going to finish the movie,” the director says. So Reeves transformed himself on set into “a burrito,” wearing a mask, a head covering and scuba diving goggles — “because Fauci had said something about covering your eyes.” In effect, Reeves’ appearance was not unlike Paul Dano’s totally obscuring uniform as the film’s foreboding villain, the Riddler. (The cast includes Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman, Colin Farrell as the Penguin, Jeffrey Wright as James Gordon and Andy Serkis as Alfred.)
“You couldn’t see my face, and this is the way the actors saw me for the rest of the movie,” Reeves says. “I was like this ridiculous, hermetically sealed creature. It was absurd.”
Reeves’ literal anonymity behind the camera makes what he’s achieved with “The Batman,” which opens in theaters on March 4, that much more remarkable. Along with his work directing 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and 2017’s “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the 55-year-old has become the rare filmmaker who can step into extremely well-established franchises — eight actors, not including Pattinson, have played or voiced the Caped Crusader in feature films since the 1960s — and manage to mold them to his own sensibility.
With a $200 million budget, the question is whether Reeves’ saturnine crime epic will follow in the blockbuster footsteps of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” or face-plant like the “Batman” films starring George Clooney and (to a lesser extent) Ben Affleck. Those Bruce Waynes, however, didn’t headline a film two years into a pandemic, with movie theaters on life support and the world rattled further by the gathering storm of war. Reeves just may have crafted the perfect superhero for our age of anxiety.
“I think he has a really good understanding of fear,” Pattinson says. “I think a lot of people try to bullshit themselves that they’re not afraid of anything. But Matt really acknowledges things that have scared him in his life and things that scare him presently, and can project those into his movies.”
In this iteration, Batman has been reinvented through Reeves’ lens to grapple with so many of today’s horrors — a profound disillusionment with institutions of power, how great wealth is a corrosive force, the specter of incel terrorists organizing via social media, even climate change — but at its center is a young man desperate to create order (yet again) inside the scarring tumult of his traumatic childhood. That is a deeply personal story for Reeves, writ large into a nearly three-hour comic book movie about a billionaire scion who dresses like a bat to pummel criminals in the dead of night.
“His vigilantism is like filmmaking for me,” Reeves says. “The thing about being a kid is you feel so helpless. I felt so out of control, in so many ways.” Playing director with his 8mm camera as a child, he says, “was the beginning of trying to get some agency, and I think that for a kid, the image of Batman is that idea.”
While Reeves may have loathed his physical isolation from his actors — he’s the kind of director who prefers sitting as close to the camera as possible — there was one unexpected benefit. To allow Reeves and Pattinson to communicate on the set across the self-imposed COVID barriers between them, they were both outfitted with earpieces and microphones.
“We were always directly connected, and it’s weird, because we were also physically distant,” Reeves says. “I could talk to him very low. I think we were in each other’s head. That had a particular effect.”
More than Reeves realized: According to Pattinson, there were times when, while cameras were rolling, Reeves’ mic was accidentally left on.
“You could hear his little reactions,” Pattinson says. “If it was a tense scene, you’d suddenly hear his breathing accelerate. Sometimes, it would be very, very distracting, but sometimes I actually quite enjoyed hearing his real-time reaction. I’ve never been so close to a director’s perception of what I was doing before. It’s a strangely intimate experience.”
Reeves smiles when he learns this: “He never told me. This is amazing.”
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At once voluble and disarmingly candid, Reeves readily displays a looseness and affability during his February interview with Variety that belies an upbringing in Los Angeles that he calls “frightening” and “utter chaos.” Even his memories of watching the movie that sparked his interest in directing — “Raging Bull,” Martin Scorsese’s searing biopic of the brutish and domineering boxer Jake LaMotta — are fraught.
“I think part of what really drew me in is that the conflict in that movie …” He pauses. “My dad was nothing like Jake LaMotta. But he was everything like Jake LaMotta.”
It was one of the only times he can remember seeing a movie with both of his parents; at dinner afterward, they stewed in silence. “My mother was not one who liked the idea of seeing an R-rated film,” he says. Perhaps to break the tension, Reeves remembers his father turning to him and asking what he thought of the movie. “Which he didn’t always do,” Reeves says. “I said, very genuinely, ‘I thought that was the best-directed movie I’ve ever seen.’ I didn’t know what that meant. I was like 14 years old. But what’s so weird is I still feel that way today.”
The experience stayed with him as he graduated from tinkering with that 8mm camera into an early filmmaking career, imagining a future as a director of personal movies rooted in everyday life. “I thought that I was going to make something in the vein of a Hal Ashby comedy,” he says. “The idea of humor through awkwardness.”
He attempted to find that balance early in his career, directing the 1996 indie romantic comedy “The Pallbearer” with David Schwimmer and Gwyneth Paltrow, and creating the beloved WB series “Felicity” in 1998 with his childhood friend J.J. Abrams. But after Reeves’ follow-up film, “The Invisible Woman,” fell apart when star Naomi Watts dropped out, Abrams persuaded him to direct “Cloverfield,” the found-footage monster movie that became a surprise hit in 2008. Reeves started fielding inquiries about directing tentpoles — including superhero movies — that thrive on larger-than-life spectacle instead of the nuances of the human condition.
Initially, Reeves resisted, unable to see how his creative interests could succeed inside comic book franchises like the interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe. “I have such respect for Kevin Feige and also for the [Marvel] filmmakers,” he says. “But to be honest with you, I just don’t know how I would make my way through that. There has to be some level of discovery for me, where I have some freedom to find my way. If I have to come into something that’s already set too firmly, then I think I would get lost. And I don’t think they would be happy with me either.”
At the same time, Reeves knew which way the winds were blowing. “The industry has changed so dramatically that if you’re going to make a movie that’s going to be in movie theaters, you’re not making anything that isn’t recognizable IP,” he says. “That’s just where the audience has gone. I’m not saying that I’m happy about that. I’m just saying it is what it is.”
The mindset that he wasn’t suited for franchise filmmaking, ironically, became the secret to how Reeves got himself hired to direct “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” in 2012 — and later, “The Batman” in 2017. In both cases, when Reeves was invited to meet with studio executives to discuss the possibility of directing these films, he told them point-blank: “Look, I’m probably not the director you want, and that’s OK.”
“He did say that,” says Warner Bros. Pictures Group chair Toby Emmerich with a chuckle. Emmerich calls Batman “arguably the most valuable and important character within all of the Warner Bros. intellectual property,” and he understood that to make another movie with the character, “we needed an auteur, someone who was really going to create the DNA of this world.” Reeves’ initial ideas — starting with Batman’s second year as a crime fighter and focusing on his abilities as a detective — immediately won Emmerich over. “He had a specific vision,” says Emmerich.
“I always enter into it with the idea that it’s not going to be me,” Reeves says. “Because then if you want it to be me, you have to tell me you’re willing to do what I want to do. I don’t mean that in some kind of arrogant [way]. You’re not going to get a good movie from me if you don’t let me do what I do, because I don’t know how to do it another way. And so: ‘Please, if you don’t like what I’m saying, do not hire me.’ And that so far has worked for me.”
• • •
So how did Reeves make a giant superhero movie work for him?
“He’s very methodical,” Pattinson says. “Does a lot of takes. As first, you obviously think you’re doing something wrong. But once you realize his rhythm, he’s editing the entire movie, every single take. He doesn’t really do an enormous amount of coverage. Very specific angles, but a lot of takes.”
Informed of Pattinson’s observations, Reeves claps his hands in excitement. “I just love how fucking observant he is,” he says. “No other actor’s ever said that to me, and, by the way, he’s exactly right.”
Reeves developed this filmmaking style while directing “Felicity” and contending with the relentless schedule pressures of TV production. “You only have so much time,” he says. “The performance is the thing that draws you through the experience. I want to be able to go on that search with the actors, so I would much rather get one angle and spend an hour on it than get five angles and spend whatever short time you could.”
On “The Batman,” that approach also translated to hand-to-hand combat, which Reeves deliberately wanted to differentiate from the kinetic, quick-cutting fight scenes shot by his predecessors, including Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan. “This idea of approaching action so that you can actually see what’s happening, and that you’re following it in a way that is utterly convincing,” he says.
The long takes allowed Reeves to lay bare Bruce Wayne’s all-consuming desire for vengeance — think of that harrowing shot of Pattinson wailing on a kid from the first teaser for “The Batman” — and explicate why he felt so compelled to make yet another movie in the murk of Gotham City.
“I related to his desperate attempt, I think, to try to find a way to reorder his life in the wake of something that was impossible to change,” Reeves says. “That’s the way in which I relate to Bruce’s mission. I think in the creative process, you can try to revisit your traumas. You’ll never change what happened, but you’ll change the meaning of them, and you’ll change your relationship to them.”
Absent the opportunity to do that kind of storytelling through original, human-scale films like his 1970s filmmaking idols, Reeves was eager to take advantage of the massive canvass — and studio-backed resources — superhero movies can provide. “What’s exciting about doing a ‘Batman’ movie is the opportunity to do something on a scale that you really can’t do unless you’re doing that kind of movie, and still make it feel personal and distinctive,” he says. “I have to say, in another era, I don’t know, would all these same actors be drawn to do this movie? I mean, when you go, hey, it’s the only game in town, what’s really neat is we’re all pushing to be really ambitious. I think that is the way forward in a world where you have to take a bet on a known horse.”
To be fair, the “Batman” movies have often drawn top-drawer talent — from Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer to Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Marion Cotillard — not to mention that Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix have both won Oscars for playing the Joker. But that also means there was that much more of an imperative for Reeves to make his “Batman” justify its existence.
“There’s so many great ‘Batman’ movies, it would have been suicide, not just for me but also for the studio, if they thought they could just make another ‘Batman’ movie,” he says. “So I think it’s going to be harder to make these movies. I think in a certain way, the fact that movies have narrowed into a certain band makes each one a riskier bet.”
At the same time, superhero franchises have led many top filmmakers, like James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy,” “The Suicide Squad”) and Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”), to go all-in on comic book adaptations, developing TV projects that further expand the worlds of their movies. Reeves is no exception: He’s working on two spinoff TV series for HBO Max, one about the Gotham City Police Department and the other about the rise to power of midlevel gangster Oswald “Oz” Cobblepot, aka the Penguin. The latter series, which Lauren LeFranc (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) is writing, is much closer to shooting, but it arose after Reeves mentioned offhand to some studio executives that he thought a second “Batman” movie could focus on how Oz became a crime kingpin.
“And they were like, ‘Oh, we want to do that as a show,’” Reeves says with a chuckle.
He’s quick to add that he still has no idea whether he’ll next direct the Penguin series, or a second “Batman” movie, or both, let alone what that movie would be about, or who would appear in it. All that will be decided after he takes a much-needed break with his wife and 10-year-old son. (He certainly needs it: In a terribly irony, Reeves contracted COVID at some point after his interview with Variety, which he announced via video at the March 1 premiere of “The Batman” in New York City.)
“He spent five years from conception to completion of this,” says Pattinson. “He’s very, very, very one-track-minded — well, one-project-minded, I guess. Until this comes out, I doubt he’s thought about the next steps yet. Or maybe he has, and he hasn’t told me.”
Reeves could even follow in the footsteps of Nolan and shoot his own original movie in between superhero projects. He still holds a torch for “The Invisible Woman,” the family drama he was going to make before “Cloverfield.”
“I’ve been wanting to find my way back to that,” he says, almost wistfully. “There are other projects I’d like to do. I really hope that one day, I’m able to do them.”