Interview with “Batman Begins”‘ Batmobile Designer Nathan Crowley

Big. Powerful. Imposing. And yes, it comes in black.

For generations, the Batmobile has been every kid’s fantasy car: a dangerous, supercharged vehicle driven straight into the heart of adventure. And for Batman Begins, the re-launch of the blockbuster superhero franchise, production designer (and car enthusiast) Nathan Crowley got to re-imagine the Batmobile for 2005, creating a muscular cross between a Hummer, a Maserati and a Stealth fighter.

In the film, a durable but mothballed military vehicle called “The Tumbler” developed by Wayne Enterprises that Bruce Wayne co-opts for his crusade against crime. In the fictional world of Gotham City, the car has armor plating, radar-evading abilities, monster truck tires, front-firing machine guns, a vector engine and flaps for jumping and a 500-horsepower, 350-cubic-inch Chevy engine. In the slightly less fictional world of Hollywood, the eight full-sized vehicles used in the film cost $250,000 apiece to construct.

In an exclusive interview with Hollywood.com, Crowley unveils the secrets of building the baddest Batmobile yet, along with some observations from the film’s stars Christian Bale, Katie Holmes, Morgan Freeman and director Christopher Nolan.

You were responsible for the physical look of the film as a whole, but the Batmobile was a particularly important element.

Nathan Crowley: “I worked on the entire film, starting with the Batmobile, because we needed lots of time to build the thing. Unlike the other movies, we decided we were going to build the car to go high speeds and maneuver. We decided we were going to build a racecar and we were going to redesign the entire car. We thought we needed to update it. I think it had been beaten up too much. In the previous films, except Tim Burton’s first one, they relied too much on digital effects, for all this trickery, so we decided we weren’t going to have any digital elements to the car whatsoever. Everything you see on the screen is a real car, or a miniature car.”

Director Christopher Nolan commentary: “There were four Batmobiles in Chicago and, I think, seven overall. It proved to be very robust. They jumped one of them 58 feet onto to the freeway, and it drove around to do take two.”

I love to hear that you went for actual physical effects. It actually shows in the movie, and feels much more real.

Crowley: “We wanted to tell a real story. Batman doesn’t have any superpowers, except his money, so it was very important to add realism. Plus it was a Chris Nolan film, and he still wanted to retain what he does, which is hyper-realism. The biggest challenge was the car, really. Firstly, to find a new shape, which took about three months, and then once we found that shape, to find someone who could build it without destroying the design through practicality. So it was a mammoth task. I spend three months in Chris’ garage. We converted his garage into a little model shop, so we designed the car by modeling it ourselves, essentially, to find that shape. And it took a lot of finding. We’d find the back, and then the front wouldn’t work, so we’d go through lots of different versions to find that shape. It was quite a process.”

How hard was it balancing a cool design with a vehicle that would actually be drivable?

Crowley: “We had to make it work: Chris Colbert and Andy Smith actually built it in London. The rudiments of it was we also had to explain the origins of the Batmobile. One of our problems in doing Batman Begins was we wanted to explain where everything came from, so Batman can’t build a super-car in secret by himself. We figured that was implausible. We couldn’t convince anyone that one hiding his identity could create a car. So Chris came up with the concept of a military vehicle that was mothballed by his father’s company. Which was fantastic for me, because it informed the design of it. Suddenly, this was a military vehicle, sort of an urban assault vehicle. I call it a sport tank. Also, the great thing about the Batmobile is, if you go down the road of making it an armored vehicle, a sort of high-speed sport tank, then that informs Gotham because why do you need that car unless the city’s in decay? One helped the other. The root of it, through scripts and design, was to come up with a modern version of the car, with a modern look that people would identify with. And it was tricky. We showed it to Paul Levitz, who runs DC Comics, and he liked the shape; and we got it around to the fan base, and there was a big discussion for the last six months. It was such a departure from the old Batmobile. I think it works. When you first see it in camouflage, I’m still in awe of it.”

Katie Holmes commentary: “The first time I saw the Batmobile, I finally understood why men love cars. I was always like, ‘Eh, cars.’ And then I saw that, I saw the big wheels, I heard it turn on, and I was like [whipsers] ‘Do it again, do it again.'”

It looks like you followed some of the comic book and TV tradition by incorporating a bit of a bat face into the front of the Batmobile.

Crowley: “Yeah. What happened was, we were trying to find shapes that felt good, in the way I designed it with model making-I’d cut up bits of other vehicles and planes and stick them all together to try to find shapes. I’m fed up with curvy cars. I love angular cars anyway. I’m a big fan of the Maserati and all of that. Once we found those shapes it kind of took on an organic look. The fascinating thing about Stealth fighters is if you put enough angles on them, it becomes organic. It’s very strange. So suddenly we found some bats in it. If you look at the back and see how the flaps are, you’ll actually see the Bat symbol. If you look flat on the back of the car, with the flaps you’ll see the bat-wings. I think subconsciously those shapes appeared. We wanted to maintain the jet–we figured we could not do the Batmobile without the jet. It’s important. We could lose anything else, but we couldn’t lose the jet. It’s like the big old Land Speeder cars that always had jet engines. I liked that. The first Batmobile is reminiscent of the Land Speeders.”

Christian Bale commentary: “The best stories came with the Batmobile being driven down the street [in Chicago], with people seeing that and just kind of saying “What the hell was that thing going by?'”

Were you a fan of the old George Barris Batmobile design from the 1960s series?

Crowley: “I was a fan of [production designer] Anton Furst’s [1989] Batmobile. I felt the Batmobile from the TV series was too similar to a car that I knew, whereas Tim Burton and Anton Furst’s car was like ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’ I can’t say that I was a huge comic book fan. I just love design. To get a chance to design the Batmobile was brilliant, and I love cars.”

Did DC Comics provide you with a bunch of images of the Batmobile over the years from the comic books?

Crowley: “It’s very important what the fans want. So we asked everyone who works at DC Comics to send their favorite Batman image throughout the entire history of Batman, just one still. And we got hundreds of stills, and that was really informative. The biggest thing that came through was the cape. The cape was really, important, the way it moved. It should be the organic, flowing thing, and no one had dealt with that in the previous films. That was the first thing. And then we got every single logo that had been designed for Batman, and every single car image, so it was good to see it all up together on the wall. It informed the big task ahead of us.”

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How many versions did you go through before settling on the final Batmobile design?

Crowley: “We built out five models to get to the final. I’d be designing and building the models, and Chris would be literally standing for 10 hours a day over my shoulder. Definitely we did it together, even though I physically did it. He’s a fan of cars as well, so it was a good, fun task to start with. We built the first one where we literally got a model of a Hummer and a model of a Lamborghini and smashed them together, and it just looked awful. We still have all five models. From there, we began developing the shape, until we got to what I call the Mark V, which is the final design. Once we had that model, we took it in a suitcase to London and saw Chris Colbert and Andy Smith, who built the thing, and we full-sized it, built it from the ground up.”

And some of them were genuinely built for speed?

Crowley: “Those cars run fast–over 100 miles per hour. They can maneuver. They can do north of 60 in 5.5 seconds. That chase sequence you saw in the film is not over-cranked footage. It’s real time photography, and the harder stuff was done with a miniature, which was about six feet long. But still has to be mechanized and motorized to run properly. So everything you see is real photography, and that was very important to us, to get it right to real, because we didn’t want to lose the audience. It’s not that digital effects aren’t useful, but people rely on them too heavily to do unbelievable things. If you do them for real, you limit yourself and push yourself into the realm of possibility.”

What was your feeling when you had a full-sized, fully realized Batmobile? Did you get to sit behind the wheel and feel the engine rev?

Crowley: “Yeah, what happened is once we carved the shape of my model in full size, we cut that up and worked out how to build a frame and get the engine in, and all the engineers started working on it. And they built a working frame version with all the mechanics but no shell on it. So myself and Chris got to test drive that version of the car. It was great. We put some goggles on and drove the frame around and it would really maneuver. There was a huge testing program…When you see it racing around Chicago in the movie, it’s going and it’s maneuvering, and it sounds incredible.”

Christopher Nolan commentary: “I had a play before they put the body on it, when they were developing the steering mechanism on it, because the front axle is a very unique engineering feat that they put together. And then right at the end I had a quick few laps right around where we were shooting.”

And I heard the Batmobile got rear-ended on the streets of Chicago.

Crowley: “Yeah, we built four racing Batmobiles and took them to Chicago. We figured we were going up to 90 miles per hour on the surface streets, and we figured we’d crash. We figured somewhere down the line, in four weeks of filming, we’d crash it and lose two of them. [laughs] We took some hits, but we didn’t actually destroy any of them. But one night at five in the morning, we’d filmed at night and the police convoy was taking them back to the parking lot, and someone rear-ended one. Someone ran a red and rear-ended the Batmobile. That caused the most damage.”

Christian Bale commentary: “One drunken guy–the poor guy. There was a huge police escort on each side of the Batmobile, but this guy managed to ram sidelong into the Batmobile and actually got hauled off to jail for it, and I just wanted to hear what his story was to his fellow inmates that night. ‘Oh, I hit Batman’s car.’ ‘Yeah, and I just duked it out with Superman.'”

Crowley: “George the stunt driver. He had been around for the whole development of the car, let’s say the test pilot for the car who knew it inside and out. He didn’t end up crashing any of them. We’d take some knocks. We’d sideswipe concrete posts and panels would fly off, but I liked that. I like the fact that it’s not indestructible. [laughs] In all the other films, the car is indestructible and too precious, whereas I like the fact that Batman gets hurt, and the car takes hits, and things don’t always go well [laughs].”

Christopher Nolan commentary: “They were able to fix it, because they built the thing with this great modular system like Formula One cars with these fiberglass panels that could come off so they just fixed it overnight.”

Did any of the actors ever get to drive it?

Crowley: “It was always a stunt driver. Even the one that Batman gets out of. We had an opener and an exit for the actors, but it was driven by a guy in the back with a small electric motor so we could pull up to stop. We cut out of a fast-moving one, and then that one coming to a stop and then opening. The actors were never in control of it. Whether they got to do it privately with the special effects boys, I can’t tell you. I drove the car several times when I went to the special effects shop, so Christian might have driven it. I never asked him. I suspect he probably had a go at it. I can’t imagine he wouldn’t.”

Morgan Freeman commentary: “There’s so much make-believe in what we do, you don’t get to really jump off the cliff. You’re in sort of a mock-up and guys are out there shaking it. It’s movies, guys!”

Is there a favorite car from film or television that you’ve always loved?

Crowley: “No. My favorite car of all time is the 1971 Citron Maserati, design-wise…in gold [laughs]. But that had nothing to do with the Batmobile!”

If there’s a sequel, are you pretty happy with this Batmobile, or would you like to design yet another one and push the boundaries even further?

Crowley: “If we’re going to do another film, I don’t see why we shouldn’t improve the Batmobile even further. But Warner Bros. has got four of them, and the other four which are the jumpers and the car openers and the interiors, and it cost so much money to develop that car, I can’t imagine them allowing anyone to redesign it until the third film. But if you got the opportunity to do a second film, why wouldn’t you try a slightly different shape. There’re adjustments I’d like to make on that car, without a doubt, little tweaks that I’d love to do.”

Do you want a crack at other vehicles in Batman’s fleet, like the Batcopter, the Batplane, or Batcycle?

Crowley: “To me it doesn’t really fit into Batman not having any superpowers. A Batplane or a chopper, why? If you’re dealing with Gotham, why isn’t the car enough? The only thing he might want is maybe a boat, because Gotham is an island. But then there’s bridges, so why would you need a boat? For a man who lives in secrets, unless Wayne Industries has a mothballed boat project…You’ve got to hold fast to those ideals.”

When the film ended, did you get to hang on to any of the Batmobiles you created?

Crowley: “I still have the original Mark V model in my suitcase at home, but I have to give that back to Warners [laughs]. Mattel send me their Batmobile toy, and they were really genuinely quite true to the car. I have one other big models which is one we made with the camouflage colors on. I’ll see if Warners will let me keep that. Usually they go to the Warners museum. I think all five models will end up there–which is fine, which is where they should be. But it’s always nice to hold on to the original model.”

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