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Daniel Waters answers our dirty questions

Just as Tim Burton's iconic Batman Returns marks its 30-year anniversary with a very large theatrical release in the UK, Ian Schultz speaks to the filthy mind behind the film

Daniel Waters (pictured above) is the horribly beautiful mind behind a string of cult classics. In addition to the second film in the Batman franchise, the 60-year-old American wrote the screenplay for films such as Heathers (Michael Lehman, 1979), The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (Renny Harlin, 1990), Hudson Hawk (Michael Lehmann, 1991) and Demolition Man (Marco Barmbila, 1993).

Waters is also a filmmaker. He wrote and directed Happy Campers (2001) and Sex and Death 101 (200&), both deserving a cult reappraisal. Daniel and Ian had a chat about his contribution as screenwriter on Batman Returns. His work made Batman Returns a very different film to the 1989 movie (also directed by Tim Burton). He also spoke about working with Burton, how they made it a fresh take on the superhero genre before that became mainstream, how they brought definitive versions of Penguin and Catwoman to the silver screen, and also how he created a brand new villain, Max Schreck. We also discuss the cinematic legacy of Batman, and where Batman Returns fits within it.

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Ian Schultz – I know you weren’t a full-on comic book geek when you were offered the job – how well-versed were you in Batman when you took on the gig?

Daniel Waters – When it comes to be being a comic-book fan, I’m the guy who buys the nice graphic novel version that’s sold at Barnes & Noble of all the comics collected. I’m not there every Friday, Wednesday or whenever they come out to get the new issues. I do like comic books, I do like graphic novels. The Dark Knight Returns to me is one of the greatest pop culture artefacts ever made and I love that.

[So] the rules of Batman were lost on me! I wasn’t a completist, I definitely loved the TV as a kid, but I never liked Penguin, and Julie Neymar reminded me too much of my mother’s sexy suburban bridge partners. I never had that kind of relationship with Catwoman that other guys did.

I knew enough! [But] the whole thesis of me and Tim Burton working on Batman was there was so much we didn’t know, people can’t even conceive that fantasy world that we were living in. We were just two guys in a room making a Tim Burton movie that happens to be a Batman movie—but nowadays you have to write in a tribunal of 12 people and do urine tests, drug tests to make sure you are doing everything correctly, so you’re not crossing streams or breaking any rules. We didn’t even know the rules we were breaking.

IS – Did you even crack out the crate of comics that I assume you got sent when you first got the gig?

DW – No, we didn’t… we are terrible people. They definitely had, like, a tomb underground we were willing to go to. We had an All Access pass to go, but we never quite found where it was down in the basement of Warner Bros.

Sam Hamm’s original draft, if it was graded by comic book fans it would’ve gotten an A. It was so legit, so solid. So, like, a first act, second act, third act, characters, plots—and he’s a detective! I swear to God I found out only recently that my first tweet on Twitter was: “As the writer of Batman Returns all I have to say is…so wait, you’re telling me he’s a detective?” and everybody though that was pretty amusing. I didn’t even know, somebody replied with “DC Comics stands for Detective Comics,” and I didn’t even know that, I didn’t even know that’s what DC stood for. I laughed along with them and was like “is that true?”

I was a bad boy—and as you already know, the lame, shitty detective work that he does tracking down the Red Circle Circus gang and figuring out Penguin’s backstory and the first children of Gotham City was added by Wesley Strick after my commitment to the movie had ended.

IS – Do you think some of issues with “modern” comic books is that they are too often written by comic book nerds for nerds?

DW – I don’t know if it’s the nerds themselves—any writer alone in the room will want to try something fun. It’s just the policing has gotten so much better, and the policing has gotten so intense. Kevin Feige is a masterful grandmaster: he keeps the faith, he is the gatekeeper and does a great job. There is self-censorship that comes in and, you know, you can’t colour outside of the lines, you can go this far but not go this far. Tim Burton and I were just like “nee nee nee nee nee nee,” colouring way out of the lines, off the comic book and under the desk, and breaking all the rules.

I wanted to ask what you think about the whole The People’s Joker (Vera Drew, 2022) fiasco?

IS – I want to see it! Let the people go! I want to see it! I’ve heard a couple things, I definitely want to see it.

DW – It’s not like it’s going to make a billion dollars – the fact that Warner Bros. are worried about it is kinda lame. It all helps the “brand.” That’s why you are even talking to me today, because when Batman Returns came out, it was the highest grossing film that weekend but not so secretly loathed by comic book fans, and that was because who knew if you would get another Batman movie. A comic book was still a precious thing, and we kind of “blew it” by not following the comics.

Now there have been so many comic book movies that now people are finally going back to Batman Returns. It’s all been lined up in a buffet of sushi rolls and hamburgers, you pick out if this was interesting, this was different. And it’s gotten newfound respect.

IS – Even Batman Forever (Joel Scbuhacher, 1995) is getting respect now, which I don’t understand at all.

DW – Forever has some problems, but I never hated Forever as much as most people did, it was alright.

IS – I really hate Forever—I prefer Batman & Robin (Schumacher, 1997) over Forever, but I hate both of them. At least Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy is quite good.

DW – Yeah, but she is kind of a little Selina Kyle redux in a much quicker time frame.

IS – And Forever has Tommy Lee Jones giving one of the worst performances I’ve seen in any film ever.

DW – That’s what I was gonna bring up… I really like Val Kilmer, but Tommy Lee Jones—it’s almost like physically watching him walk his check to the bank and cash it, and wiping his ass with it.

IS – What was your trip to Seaworld with Tim Burton to “research” penguins like?

DW – He went back with Danny DeVito and walked with him into the penguins, which must’ve been much fun than ours. It was a great time. My one memory is of us standing with a bunch of schoolgirls watching a whale masturbate, but that’s of course what I’m gonna take from it.

Our whole concept of Penguin, of all the “fuck it” things we did with Batman Returns and the Batman ethos, seeing those penguins and our misunderstanding the TV show, we thought Burgess Meredith was kind of a mutated person and didn’t think he was a real gangster. Throughout the process of Batman Returns, we had no idea what bad boys we were, we thought we were just having fun, not breaking all these golden rules. Go to Seaworld with Tim, just let us loose—we are not going to make the gangster version of this character, we are not going to make the Burgess Meredith character, we are gonna lean into the line that I mentioned to Tim that he finally got the character to say: “I am not a human being, I am an animal.” A,ll of these movies, The Elephant Man and Raging Bull, would have this triumphant moment where he would scream “I am not a animal, I am a human being!” Let’s have more fun and reverse that.

IS – That’s all just Tim’s ethos in all of his movies.

DW – Yes, Tim’s ethos became my ethos. I tried to shift some of the blame. I worked for the pleasure of Tim Burton, I was not working for the pleasure of comic book fans or Batman. I was fully on Tim Burton’s team. You work for who pays you.

IS – How much flak have you gotten over the years about the fact that Batman kills in the film? Although to be honest, it’s never made much sense to me.

DW – I didn’t even know that, why didn’t people tell me Batman doesn’t…? And yeah, even when you were told the rule—actually, I don’t like it.

And, that wasn’t my writing, I have a way of blaming Wesley Strict for things that maybe he shouldn’t even be blamed for. I have come to love Wesley Strick and his contribution to the movie! [But] I don’t like Batman killing that clown so casually. I’m a big fan of killing the villain. I think as a society we have gone to wrapping him in a net and dropping him off at a police station. I love Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) but, like, leaving Joker, who has done all of these horrible things, just dangling outside a building after we have established he can get out of any prison… it just seems silly to me.

IS – You’ve got to kill Joker—it’s never made sense to me either.

DW – Kill that fucker!

IS – Why do you think you are so good at writing female characters?

DW – Oh, stop, you! The thing with female characters is, I have this whole thing against that whole thing now: “your film should have strong female characters.” I’m like, “be careful with that phrase” when I hear “strong female characters”—I think of movies where the person on the motorcycle is driving through traffic and then they take off the helmet and it’s a woman, and you are supposed to go: “oh my God, it’s a woman!” And here is your doctor and the woman walks in and “Oh my God, the woman is a doctor!” Five guys surround a woman and the woman beats them up, that is ridiculous… “strong female roles.”

IS – And we have Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell, 2021) but let’s not speak about that one…

DW – Oh yes, we can’t speak about that. Boy, I’ve gotten so much trouble speaking about that. I must not speak about Promising Young Woman, must not speak about Promising Young Woman

IS – I got so much flak for hating it, it was funny.

DW – “It’s a great feminist film”—but is it though? Do they have bachelor parties during the day? I don’t think so, but anyway… obviously with Heathers, Catwoman, I’ve created these great and what I think are interesting female characters. I think it’s more subversive to give them a sense of humour and give them complexity. Sometimes they’re likeable and sometimes they’re not likeable. I’m not talking “Daniel Waters: famous feminist” here, I just want to make my movies original. It’s a sad and bizarre fact that if you have a woman who is complex with a sense of humour, and is sometimes weird and sometimes does the wrong thing, that makes the movie original. You are starting on second base of originality if you have a female character that is halfway interesting.

It’s almost less of a feminist bent, but let’s face it, with Shakespeare and David Mamet… men have been done. I have nothing to learn from men, men are checkers and women are chess. The mere attempt to tackle women is gonna be beneficial to you. Note to screenwriters: get some female friends, and don’t try to have sex with them! It makes your writing that much better if you don’t put woman in a compartmentalisation of “sexual beings.” More female friends will help your female characters. That’s my lesson of the day.

And also, write roles that can make great Halloween costumes. That’s my other new screenwriting rule.

IS – How much of the Sam Hamm’s script were you able to use as a template, or was it strictly written from scratch?

DW – It was pretty much from scratch, Sam Hamm got story credit just merely for the fact that he choose Penguin and Catwoman as the villains, so that gives him a plank of story credit.

I kind of regret this, because it makes Wesley Strick feel bad because he cost him a lot of money—and you’ve referred to this before—but the best writing I’ve ever done on a Batman movie was my arbitration letter. I kind of overinflated Sam Hamm’s contribution to thereby dismiss Wesley Stick’s contribution… so I was a bad boy. Bottom line, it was just the characters Catwoman and Penguin, and they were completely different characters, even Batman just personality-wise. They all had their same name on their driver’s license, but they are totally different characters. I read the script knowing that Tim didn’t vibe with it, and then when you meet Tim, oh my God, it must’ve been like reading a tax return for him. It was against everything that Tim is.

IS – It’s pretty obvious that he didn’t want to do a “sequel.” In his commentary track he is, like, “this is the next chapter with Batman, there are some other characters and that’s as much DNA as there is with the original.”

DW – That is true. Even when I tried—no offence to Robert Wuhl, but I couldn’t stand his character in the first one. I wanted to bring his character of Knox, the reporter, back for the second one so I could kill him, I had him crucified on the bat-signal with the outline of his body shooting up against the sky.

Tim was like “No, let’s close…” he let me have the VickI Vale joke, but let’s pretend the first one doesn’t exist.

IS – How was it to create a new Batman villain, Max Schreck, since I think you are the only writer so far who has gotten to do that in the films? I can’t imagine that today you would be allowed to, they would be, like, “go find some obscure character.”

DW – It’s funny… he is helpful from a plot standpoint, he is a conduit. Even with the gatekeeper Marvel films, they will create a conduit, like the mercenary who helps the bad guy. There are slightly original characters, but the thing with Max Schreck is that I almost wanted him to be a controlled experiment. He is just a normal politician, a normal city leader, and he is the true villain of them all.

One of your followers on Twitter mentioned today that he was supposed to be a boring character, and a lot of that is true. I can’t help myself writing overly snappy dialogue, [but] I wanted him to be like a normal businessman. I wanted Christopher Walken to play him, Christopher Walken was number 1 on my casting list, David Bowie was number 2 on my casting list. Number 3—if you even know who this guy is, he gives you a clue of how I really saw the role, but there is no way you are gonna know this guy. There is an actor named Ron Vawter, he worked with Jonathan Demme a lot, he was the psychologist in Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Steven Soderberg, 1989) just the calmest strange guy. He is like a rational Peter Lorre. I wanted somebody who was the most chilling voice in the room.

When people ask: “Hey, was Max Schreck based on Trump?” Well, maybe deep down tangentially, in part by the way he is treated by New York. But Christopher Walken was my number 1 casting choice: I wanted to play him, like, ice-cold, like The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1979) first act / Heaven’s Gate (Cimino, 1980). I wanted Christopher Walken to be chilling, clinical. And obviously Walken gets on the set and he sees Catwoman and Penguin, and is like “Get me a fucking wig, I’m gonna fucking knock this out of the fucking park.” And he does it terrific, I can’t complain. I should’ve known Tim Burton wasn’t going to have a Mitt Romney character in his movie, to compete in the Burtonverse you’ve got to be flamboyant. I had him as a secret conduit character, but he ends up being on Mount Rushmore with the rest of the Batman Returns villains and is definitely of the piece.

IS – I know there was a conflict with Tim Burton at some point. What was the final straw that brought Wesley Strick in as a screenwriter?

DW – I was contractually obligated to do three drafts, and I did three drafts. We were going into production, and I was expecting to be brought back into production. It wasn’t really rancorous between me and Tim, I just think the studio thought I wasn’t the guy to do their production notes, and Tim knew that we both had the same weaknesses. My line has always been “Tim Burton and me has been like Rain Man (Barry Levinson, 1980) but with two Dustin Hoffmans, and he needed a Tom Cruise to come in and make it a little more palatable.” The word Denise Di Novi used was “normalise.” I almost made a Tim Burton Altman film where we created these really distinct personalities and had their neurons bounce off each other and interact. The glory of the movie isn’t that plot…

IS – Oh yeah, the plot doesn’t matter at all, I could give a fuck about the “plot.”

DW – Yeah, but they thought they needed something to answer all the “save the cat” questions, hit all the “save the cat” marks and save the Catwoman. It goes to my general problem with movies, or me and movies… I find screenwriting has become Madlibs: they have these set structures, we will do this here, we will do this there, just fill in the blank at certain parts…

IS – As I posted the other day, there is a fill-in-the-blanks version of the script for Batman Returns for kids!

DW – Oh, fuck you! The Mad Magazine parody of Batman Returns, the last frame is the Joker behind the typewriter: “It was I, the Joker, who wrote the terrible screenplay for this miserable movie!” It’s like I intentionally made it fucked up, so my Batman would be more remembered.

IS – If Max Schreck comes back, do you get a percentage or something?

DW – Yeah, I don’t see Max Schreck in any of these reboots! I probably don’t think so… I don’t even get money when they openly remake Heathers!

IS – Why do you think the film has lasted so well when the ’89 one hasn’t? I can’t imagine watching the ‘89 film again.

DW – I’ve been wanting to see it again because I was really hard on it. Part of my disappointment was what fuelled me to read and write the second one.

IS – It’s very well shot—it’s Terry Gilliam’s cinematographer!

DW – Oh yeah, and Anton Furst can’t be denied.

I know Tim didn’t really edit it, he was talking about the editing from the first cut to the last cut was really minimal, when it should’ve been a little more nuanced. I went to an anniversary screening of Batman Returns, and everybody was dressed up and it was a packed audience and were reacting to everything. And first thing I said when I was brought up on stage afterwards was: “Where were you when the movie came out?” When the movie came out, people were confused: “why isn’t Batman showing up right away?” “Why are Catwomen and Penguin stars of the movie?” Asking all of these housekeeping questions instead of just enjoying the movie.

As I said before as there is a grand expanse of superhero movies, but this one sticks out for not being faithful, for being its own unique film. If you think of all people who worship superhero movies, think of how many more don’t worship superhero movies. My friend Josh Olson and I’ve quoted this line before… he said—and he is a huge comic book fan, he is the one who does show up every week when the new comics come out—“Batman Returns is great Batman film for people who hate Batman.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s the movie for people who don’t feel the need to slavishly follow the rules of superhero movies, it is its own thing.

It’s what I try to do, even with Heathers, too: I try to make movies that are different. I like Marvel movies, I like them a lot,  there are few really horrible ones. Not at all a horrible one…

IS – I would say Thor: Love and Thunder (Taika Waititi, 2022) was pretty close…

DW – Even then I had a good time, I’m not even gonna comment on that one… Well, that one aside. When you consider most Marvel films, everyone has the same experience, normally. It’s like Space Mountain at Disney: you go in, you come out, and you’ve had a reasonably good time. Batman Returns—and this is the glory of it, I think—is everybody has a different experience watching it, everybody reacts to something differently. It doesn’t hit anyone the same way. I remember the critic from the Village Voice criticised it, calling it “a eurythmic rumba.” And I thought, “sure, it’s a eurythmic rumba. I like it, it has its own rhythm. I did a eurythmic rumba—fuck you!” It has its own pacing, it has its own style, and on repeat viewing, it’s a different movie every time.

I think when you watch Marvel movies over and over, you can have a great time but it’s the same drug every time. You can watch Batman Returns 20 times and there is something, even I notice something different.

IS – Why do you think the film feels more artistically satisfying and even sexy in terms of the whole Batman-Catwoman thing, as compared to the Marvel films or even the sexless world the Nolan films inhabit? I do think the new Batman brought some of that back. I know Matt Reeves has said he is a big Batman Returns fan.

DW – Yeah, and Robert Pattinson is a big Batman Returns fan, too. I’m a big fan of The Batman. I even didn’t mind Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, even the film as a whole I like more than most. It’s still prose and not poetry, and Batman Returns is… even if you think it’s bad poetry, it’s poetry. It’s trying to be artistic. I can’t say it’s a sex romp or anything, but even giving any big-budget commercial movie some sexiness is audacious and secretly welcomed by people. You will have people who are like: “I don’t like sex in my movies, it takes me out of the movie”. It puts me into the movie

I love that with Batman Returns, when you see it when you are too young, it’s gonna fuck you up a little bit, but in the best way. When you see it again as an adult, it’ll be “I can’t believe watched that as a kid.” It goes back to: every dip into Batman Returns is a little different.

IS – What is your favourite Batman movie, other than Batman Returns?

DW – Oh boy, I can’t believe this obvious question… uh let’s see here… I’m gonna be controversial and go back to The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, 2012). It had a lot of crazy shit I wanted to do, crazy political shit I wanted to do in my movie but it was just too much. I love the too-muchness of Dark Knight Rises and I think Marion Cotillard is very not talked about and underrated, and a very chilling villain. The movie freaked me out, the movie was unexpected. The Dark Knight, great as it is, I kind of expected it. The Dark Knight Rises is the only one that fools me. But I need to see The Batman again. I really liked it the first time I saw that, and that may take the cake for me.

IS – What do you hope people who haven’t seen Batman Returns before or who are seeing it theatrically for the first time will get from this big release?

DW – Who knew having it taking place during the Christmas season will give us a little way to come back at you every December? This is the first time it’s been a full-fledged re-release, but it always shows up in December—although it was summer movie—because of the Christmas elements.

I will be overjoyed if Batman Returns virgins see the movie, it’s the ideal thing. When I wrote Heathers, everybody knew what a “teen movie” was, and when everybody knows what a teen movie is, you can lure them into a tent and beat the shit out of them. I think everybody knows what a concept of a superhero is supposed to be and what it is, what is the formula, and they will be in for a surprise that we had such a good time in the early ‘90s. We broke all the rules before they became rules!

Hey, that’s pretty good—we broke all the rules before they became rules! Hey, that’s a pretty good one, man! Come on, you got that one, Schultz?

IS – I’m gonna see if I can get my friend to bring his five-year-old so he can get traumatised.

DW – Get those early traumas going! I think it’s hilarious that we have a whole generation that as kids will see Terminator 2 (James Cameron, 1991), they see all these violent movies that was out at the time. Even now, they see these violent movies where they will see all these people get their heads cut off with chainsaws, people having their eyes ripped out, but there is something about a man and a fish and biting a nose that causes more trauma than outward violence. It feels more real—and there is something about Catwoman bending over a prostrate Batman that ends up in your blood stream and freaks you out more than watching PornHub.

That’s the most pride I have with the movie: there is certain ickiness and perversion that fucks with you even more than the more explicit violence and sex you experience in culture in other places. That we still have the ability to create trauma more than the obvious ones.

Batman Returns is in theatres from the 2nd of December and playing throughout the Christmas Season.

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The image at the bottom of this articles is from director Tim Burton on set of Batman Returns with two protagonists. The two images above it are stills from the film. Daniel Waters is pictured at the top of this interview.


By Ian Schultz - 01-12-2022

By Ian Schultz - 01-12-2022

Ian Schultz is a film writer based in Leeds, where he runs Psychotronic Cinema. He has been writing about films for about eight years, with articles and reviews appearing in Little White Lies and Live...

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