Earlier this week the latest DC Universe animated feature – Batman: Assault on Arkham – released digitally and on DVD/Blu-ray. This one, however, isn’t tied to The New 52 continuity DC Entertainment and Warner Bros.’ Animation are building with films like Justice League: War and the upcoming Throne of Atlantis, but is instead linked with the Batman: Arkham video game universe. While at San Diego Comic-Con I participated in roundtable interviews with many of Assault on Arkham‘s creators and cast: director Jay Oliva, producer James Tucker, writer Heath Corson, voice director Andrea Romano, and voice talent Kevin Conroy, Matthew Gray Gubler, and John DiMaggio. Hit the jump for their input on making Batman: Assault on Arkham!
An animated feature set within the world of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games is exciting for many reasons. Not only does it bring a whole new chapter to the Arkham-verse, but it’s an entirely original story. And one that – though his name is emblazoned in the title – is less of a Batman story, but rather starring the morally dubious Suicide Squad! Check out the trailer:
Jay Oliva was a storyboard artist for many of the DC Animated films before directing Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, The Dark Knight Returns, and Justice League: War. I first asked him where exactly Assault on Arkham falls within the timeline of the Arkham series?
Oliva: So this takes place, I would say, two or three years before the first video game. So all of the events that happen in this will actually, kind of a little bit in some ways, coincide with the later games but also with the prequel. When we were doing this I think they were doing Origins at the same time, so Warner Bros. Games and us talked very at length of who we could use, who we can’t use. I submitted a list of like, “Hey can I use these characters as, y’know, inmates?” and they’re like, “We can’t use this because we’ve got plans for him,” or whatever, but they did say we can use these particular ones.
Being the first animated film based off the Arkham games was surely an endeavor, but Oliva was up for the challenge:
Oliva: I think out of all the creative team I’m probably the only one who actually played the video games. [laughs] So I’ve been a big fan of the video games and so when they said they were going to be setting it in that universe I had already known it like the back of my hand. And the one thing, for me, was just trying to integrate some of the aspects of the video game into the movie. So we have Detective Mode – just very briefly – I didn’t want to make it so it seemed like a commercial, I wanted to keep it so it’s organic to the storyline. But then we also a few – if you watch the fight sequences it’s in there – it’s very subtle, I didn’t want to over do it, but a lot of the moves Batman can do in the video game we do in the fight choreography.
Here’s a clip of some of that fight choreography used in Assault on Arkham. Can you pick out any familiar moves from the Arkham games?
Producer James Tucker has worked on countless DC and WB animated projects, including Justice League and Batman: Brave and the Bold, before serving as executive producer for Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, Justice League: War, and Son of Batman. He, unlike Oliva, was less familiar with the Arkham-verse, so I first asked him how it felt coming to work on film based off a video game property?
Tucker: At first I’ll have to say… nervous, because originally when we were told we were going to do an Arkham movie we didn’t know it was going to be tied to the video game, because usually they don’t like to cross-pollinate like that. So we thought we’re just going to do an Arkham movie, a regular… and then it came down to, “Oh no, this is tied with the video game.” Then the pressure of honoring the game, making sure it worked for the fans of the game, and also worked for people who didn’t play the game. It became more challenging that way. But I loved how it turned out, it honors the game but is its own thing. I think people who watch the game… err, play the game. I watch the game, other people play it. [laughs] I think it’s entertaining and it works for both audiences.
As a fan of the games, Assault on Arkham will definitely please those who enjoyed the story built in that universe. It’s a fun world all-around, mixing in elements fans have enjoyed from the comics as well as multiple animated Batman tales. Writer Heath Corson, who previously wrote the screenplay for Justice League: War, was absolutely pumped for the chance to play in the Arkham universe:
Corson: I got super excited because they said, “We want to do it in the Arkham universe,” and I said, “I’ve played all the games.” They said, “We want to do something… we want to do a Batman adventure with the Suicide Squad,” and I said, “I’m a huge Suicide Squad fan!” I read the Ostrander books, I’ve read the Adam Glass New 52, I was like, I love the Suicide Squad, so I sort of went, “Why don’t we do a Suicide Squad move and sort of shoehorn Batman into it?” And they go, “Okay, what’s the idea?” I said, “Well, we’ll do a heist movie where they break into Arkham,” because to break into Arkham you have to be suicidal and they went, “That sound great, go write that.”
And then I realized… heist movies are hard! Heist movies are super hard to write. Like, there’s got be a lot… you got to do a lot of twists and turns and pivots and people double-crossing each other, and I was like, “Aw man, what am I doing? I could have written a Batman adventure!” But this came out great and I’m incredibly proud of it. It’s super dark, they kept pushing me to make sure we earned the PG-13 rating and I can say we absolutely do.
They sure do earn that PG-13 rating. Which is exactly what you’d expect from a film that puts Amanda Waller’s (who, by the way, is large and in charge this time around) Suicide Squad front and center.
Corson: We went through a couple different versions of the roster. The ones I knew I had to have was Deadshot, Harley Quinn, and Captain Boomerang. Captain Boomerang only because the Ostrander series. It’s Boomerang, you want to make sure Boomerang and Deadshot are like this. I’ve been telling people it’s like Ocean’s Eleven – if Brad Pitt kept trying to stab George Clooney in the back every time he turned around. So you are going to see that, he’s sort of like, “Sorry, mate I just accidentally blew you backwards, didn’t mean to.”
Oliva: People love the bad guys, y’know? I think for me it was freeing in the sense that, y’know, when I’m doing Batman or Superman I have to do the thing where ‘No killing,’ ‘What would a hero do?’ – but with these guys it’s more like, “Okay morals are out the door.” These guys are villains, and let’s play up the fact that they’re bad guys. I kind of take a cue from Unforgiven for example, when you watch that film you think that Clint Eastwood is the main character and he’s the good guy, but when you really look at it after the film, he’s really the bad guy and Gene Hackman’s character is really the good guy. And so for this film I wanted to play with it, where you’re cheering for these protagonists but their agenda is actually really against what Batman’s agenda is, and that’s where it gets, like, fun hijinks ensue.
Tucker: We did a Suicide Squad episode in Justice League, the Task Force X (of course we couldn’t call them Suicide Squad). But everyone loves a heist movie, everyone loves the villains, and it’s always fun when you can do a story from the villain’s viewpoint. And you actually make the hero the villain, in a way, because you’re rooting for them to get away. I love doing that twist where you make the audience fall in love with these horrible people and they’re actually rooting for them to get away from Batman or the Justice League or whatever. I love doing movies or stories focusing on just the villain’s side of things, because we always see the hero’s side of things. It’s more interesting because you don’t know, there are more surprises when the person is morally ambiguous, y’know?
And it’s the Suicide Squad who are the real stars of Assault on Arkham, with Batman as their supporting adversary.
Oliva: I would say our main character, the main story would be Deadshot. It’s really about Deadshot’s story. But what’s great is that – just like what I did with Flashpoint – I love Harley so I had to inject her as much as I can. And Hynden [Walch] did a great job at the record and after we did the record, in my mind, I kept thinking, “Y’know, Deadshot’s the main storyline but it’s really about her story, too,” because when she runs into The Joker later the whole plan goes askew and it kind of takes a life of its own based upon Harley’s past with Joker. And so you get that dynamic between Joker, Harley, and Deadshot, and I think that’s kind of what works really well.
Tucker: That was one thing I really want to try to achieve when I took over was to somehow, within our limitations of being able to only use certain brand names above the title, within the confines of the movie I wanted to use secondary characters, characters who might never get their own movie. Y’know, basically sneak them in [laughs] because m, as a fan, I would want to see that and I didn’t like being hamstrung by the perception that certain characters don’t sell, to have that limit me from including them in the story. Just ‘cause we’re not going to do a DVD of a certain character doesn’t mean they can’t be part of the story. So with each one of these I try to include someone who I know wouldn’t get their own movie, but will get some focus in the movie we’re doing.
We were given King Shark, who we picked because we couldn’t use Killer Croc. I said, “What about King Shark?” and everybody went, “Oh god, he looks like Jabberjaw.” And I was like, “No, this is the Arkham version, Arkham version is really different, we can re-imagine him.” So we kind of re-imagined him to be something that we thought would work in the video game. Now if the video game is doing a Jabberjaw version we’re screwed.
Voicing King Shark for Assault on Arkham is none other than celebrated voice artist, John DiMaggio. Asked how he found the voice for King Shark he said:
DiMaggio: Just seeing the drawings, seeing the character design. I know for me as far as the stuff I get to do, that’s something that really sticks out. What they look like, how their face looks like. [In a deep, gurgling voice] King Shark’s got this huge mouth, so y’know you get to bring something that broad to it. And I did a thing and then they tweaked it with a little effect on it. It was really low, and they went, “Y’know, we want to make it lower.” So that’s usually the way I approach it, or go completely the opposite way. It’s always fun to go against type.
Y’know what, listen, getting to play a bad guy is always the most fun, you just get to play, y’know? You get to do things that normally you wouldn’t be able to do. So I think, from across the board, the most fun thing to do, y’know, as far as animation is concerned is playing the bad guy because there’s always… the bad guy has that sort of comic foil thing happening for him, y’know, there’s always a bit, there’s always a joke in there that you can play with, and y’know, that’s always a lot of fun to do.
And King Shark gets to make a few quips here and there, but he also has some flirtation with Killer Frost in Assault on Arkham. Which was surprising, but added a welcomed facet to a character who’s so often only one-note.
Famed voice director, Andrea Romano – whose credits are far too long to list, but is best known for her work on Batman: The Animated Series along with dozens of DC/WB animated projects since – had quite the task bringing together all the actors necessary for Assault on Arkham. A key piece of which is trying to schedule actors who have scenes together, to record together, as it only adds to how authentic the performances will sound:
Romano: It’s a big puzzle to record these. You can see the list of actors, there are so many actors and they all have very busy schedules. So the first thing I do is go “What days am I available? What days are the recording studio available?” Okay, that’s done. I go out to all the agents and say, “I need your actor, here’s the dates that I can record them. Tell me which dates don’t work for the actor.” And then I put together the puzzle of, “Okay, I can get those five actors in the room at the same time. I can get those three together. It doesn’t really make sense to get those three even though I can because they don’t have any scenes together.” So I try to at least get actors who have a majority of scenes together in the room so they can act and react off of each other, because I certainly can read an actor into a line and get a good line reading back, but if you and I are having a conversation we can tell if it sounds like we’re in the room together, if we’re reacting to each other.
However, some actors found that being all alone in the booth was actually helpful in finding the right voice and attitude for their characters. Matthew Gray Gubler who plays The Riddler (Yup, he’s in this, too!) was one of those actors Romano simply couldn’t get in the booth with other actors due to his busy schedule.
Gubler: It was a damn pleasure. It’s been a dream to be a maniacal super villain all my life and I feel like I finally can scratch that off and I want nothing more than to do it again. It was so much fun. The Riddler is a unique character, especially in this movie in the sense that he’s not like a villain and he’s not with the Bat, and he’s playing them both off of each other and he’s just having his own deranged funhouse time.
When I did this particular movie – I’ve worked with [Romano] many times, she’s one of my favorite directors of all time – for this one, for scheduling purposes I was alone but it was very helpful for The Riddler because The Riddler is on his own, he’s sort of a lone wolf in this. So yeah, I was totally alone, but for this particular thing it was very helpful because he’s just on his own planet. He’s alone for most of the movie, actually.
And since Gubler only had Romano play off of, she helped him in creating his own, distinct version of The Riddler:
Romano: I’ve worked with Matthew Gray Gubler on several projects, including Scooby-Doo, which I love to bring him in on Scooby-Doo. But when The Riddler came up for casting I thought, “Who would be a fun, silly… Matthew Gray Gubler would be a really fun Riddler.” But to help him find who The Riddler was, we had to spend a little bit of time, which is fun to do with an actor because I like what actors do, I like their creative process and I like working with them through it.
They have to do a lot of homework before they get to me, but I like working with an actor and there are times when you’ll get through an entire script with an actor and go, “It’s good, you did great, but what if…” or during the entire recording the voice evolves and by the time you get to the end it’s not the same voice you started with. So you have to go back and start again, but you’ve already gone through the script so it goes very fast. To redo it again you can get through it in about 15 minutes, where it took you an hour to do before. So I like that, I like the fact we have the ability to go back in and fix things because the character evolved through the work, through us working together.
Gubler: I’m a giant Batman fan, back to the Adam West TV show so I’m familiar with Frank Gorshin. So, that’s deep-seated in my mind but I didn’t really revisit anything in creating the character. I wanted to make him hopefully unique, I wanted him to be more of a showman, kind of like a P.T. Barnum, sort of carnival, showman, lunatic quality to him. And the one thing that I attempted to do is… I feel like The Riddler often asks questions as though he wants to prove he’s smarter, I wanted to make it seem more like an obsessive compulsive… obsession, like he needed these things answered, it’s a sickness moreso than a prideful thing. It’s more like, “Please fucking answer this question!” It’s more of a pain for him to do it.
Gubler’s Riddler is a highlight of Assault on Arkham, and it’s a character that though pivotal to the plot, doesn’t get in on much of the action. That is, until the very end, and while I won’t spoil it, seeing Riddler match wits with Waller is just so much fun.
For most actors, though, it’s preferable to have your others actors recording with you, and especially so if they have scenes together. Kevin Conroy – who surely needs no introduction, having voiced Batman for over 20 years – found the recording of Assault on Arkham a much more enjoyable experience than recording for the Arkham video games, a process he calls “brutal” and “grueling.”
Conroy: Video games are so much harder to do than the shows. They’re just… it’s… my god, I can’t tell you. It’s brutal, it’s so much harder to keep it alive and fresh. It’s much easier [when] you’ve got other actors you’re dealing with and you’re bouncing things off of them. I think it’s like playing ball, when you toss the ball they toss it back to you, you toss the ball they toss it back… you give as much as you take from the actors. In games, you’re alone in the booth for hours at a time, day after day after day, month after month, for almost a year! It takes forever to build a game and keeping it real, and keeping it fresh with every line, it’s… I just did a week of it, up until last night I was in a booth, and it’s… it’s mind-bending. Really, it’s hard to describe to people how difficult is to create those games, because you’re alone.
After a report like that you have to wonder why Conroy keeps coming back to voice Batman in those Arkham games? Well, for him it’s all in the final product. “That’s the rewarding part,” he said, “to see the game and realize, “I was a part of that, I contributed to that.” And it’s just incredible, it’s just this great creation. The process is grueling, but the result is so wonderful.”
Conroy is all too aware he’s been Batman for an entire generation, even mentioning it himself:
Conroy: It’s such a trip, ‘cause y’know for me it started 23 years ago and I’m a little older than you. [laughs] So 23 years is, y’know, a chapter in my life, but I meet people know who are 23, and they’re like, “You’re the only voice I know as this character,” and I think, “God, that’s their whole experience with this character, is my brainwashing,” y’know? [laughs] It’s such power! [laughs maniacally]
So, I had to ask him how he approaches this character he’s been playing for over two decades?
Conroy: The trick for me is being able to keep it real, to keep it authentic, and to keep it fresh. It’s not about approaching it differently, it’s about being sure I don’t get into some kind of comfort zone where it’s not Batman anymore, y’know what I mean? And the great thing about Andrea Romano is she’s so good at working with actors, she can keep you honest and keep you authentic without hitting you over the head with a hammer. She love actors, she started out as an actress when she was very young, and she understands the way actors approach roles. She tries not to give you line readings, because if you give an actor a line reading it can be the death of the line, because then they’re just going to imitate what you’ve said. And once they’ve heard the way you’ve said it, it’s hard to get it out of their head no matter how hard you try.
So rather than give line readings, you always try to steer the actors, “Well think about this, well think about that.” Try and get them to get there on their own so that it’s an organic sound. And she know that. If you deal with a less experienced director, they’ll just give you the line, “Say it like this,” and then it’s dead as soon as they do that. So she knows how to work with you and that’s been great. And the challenge for me has been to keep it fresh and real.
Conroy’s praise for Romano is by no means one-sided. The two have worked for years and years, and in fact it was Romano who first brought Conroy in for Batman all those years ago on Batman: The Animated Series. (Bless her.) When asked why she chose Conroy for Assault on Arkham (something that Corson only found out about after the fact, lamenting “I should have written him more lines!“) she said:
Romano: Well… I hear he’s pretty good at voice over and that he kind of understands the Batman character. [laughs] Y’know, I’ve told you this before in interviews, whenever I’m given a job – because I’m a freelance director – they come to me and say, “We have this job, it’s got Batman in it, it’s got Joker in it.” I always say, my first question is, “May I use the actors I’ve used before? May I use Kevin Conroy? May I use…” And so, they said yes on this one. “Yes, you can use Kevin Conroy.” Thank goodness! ‘Cause there’s a bit of, like, I don’t have to explain anything to Kevin. I may have to say, “You’re actually running during that line,” that may be the extent of my direction to Kevin Conroy. You’re actually panting because you’ve been through a lot of action by the time we’re at this scene. But other than that, he knows the character better than practically anybody I know. Maybe Bruce Timm knows it a little better, but that’s about it.
Yet, I cannot stress this enough because I’ve seen some reviews dissing the movie over the fact Batman is in it so little, but though the title will make you think otherwise, Assault on Arkham isn’t a Batman movie! It’s a Suicide Squad film, with just a dash of Joker and Harley, and taken on that note it’s really an enjoyable, fun movie.
Thanks again to Jay Oliva, James Tucker, Heath Corson, Andrea Romano, John DiMaggio, Matthew Gray Gubler, Kevin Conroy and DC Entertainment and Warner Bros.’ Animation for the opportunity chat about Batman: Assault on Arkham – now available as a digital download and on DVD/Blu-ray!