Taking a big-budget Hollywood movie to shoot on location is more than just popping over to a pretty spot someone remembers visiting once. In fact, one aspect of finding the right locations for “The Batman,” starring Robert Pattinson, involved the ubiquitous search engine Google.
“Matt [Reeves, the director] and I started a global search looking at various cities, mostly on Google Earth,” says production designer James Chinlund. “We found this amazing location called Wellington Square in Liverpool and that really opened a whole door for me to the north of England.” Eventually, that led the team to Manchester as well Glasgow, Scotland.
The historic cities provided the right blend of Gothic architecture and patina for the look Reeves and Chinlund had in mind. With so many prior iterations of Gotham City already preserved in television, film and comic books, Chinlund explains the challenge was creating a new space within the world.
“It was really quite an intimidating thing, trying to figure out how we could deliver something new for the fans, and yet something that felt familiar, too,” says Chinlund.
The opening crowd scene in Gotham Square became their initial focus in sourcing locations. “We knew [that scene] was going to really define the essence of the city,” he adds.
The work didn’t stop once the locations were selected — among other design considerations was the level of gunk inherent in most large cities, but in a movie-sanitized way. Enter the trash makers.
“We created this recipe that we called the Bat Mix,” explains Chinlund. “It was basically like grit, just layers and buckets of grime and wet paper, gravel and [trash] like cigarette butts.”
Each location was coated in the special mix. Making it was a constant, months-long process, since the spaces were massive.
It’s easy to imagine the crew going home to their families at the end of the day, talking about their work product: What did you do today? I made trash!
Chinlund laughs: “Beautiful trash, some of the best trash I’ve ever seen.”
Chinlund used technology to keep everything as cost-effective as possible. “We basically built the whole world of Gotham in the computer before we shot it so we could take locations and sets and stitch them all together.”
This allowed Reeves and director of photography Greig Fraser to fully plan the shots, action and what needed to be built as a result of each. “We [were] really using new technologies as a filmmaking tool, and that was super exciting,” he reflects.
Since there were multiple huge crowd scenes planned, finding the right locations was tricky and pulled them in various directions, leading to a lot of pivoting early in the process. Suddenly, along came COVID and as challenging as the period was, “it was actually a blessing,” Chinlund says. “It really opened up a lot of these public spaces to us that were unavailable [earlier] so that was an interesting twist in our journey.”
The most exciting sets to design were Wayne Tower and the Batcave, elements that he calls the “backbone of the film.” Noting that previous iterations of the Batman story had Wayne Industries providing the hero with his gadgets, “we were excited about the idea of Bruce doing it himself,” Chinlund explains. “We really wanted to make sure [the spaces] felt holistic and represented that story. [The city-based location of] Wayne Tower [made Batman] a real urban hero who was part of the fabric of the city.”