This Friday, I got the opportunity to sit down with Michael Uslan, producer, writer, and professor. Uslan has produced every Batman film since Tim Burton’s 1989 film, and has produced a number of other projects as well. Uslan’s passion for his profession is electrifying- and it spread through the room as he took the time to speak and have a Q& A with SU Students after the screening of the new Lego Batman movie. Uslan taught the first world credited comic book course based on folklore at Indiana University and teaches two other courses on the business of film production. It was a pleasure to sit down with him, as we discussed his impressive career, Batman’s impact around the world, and any advice he has for future students going into the film industry.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I think it’s really amazing that you followed your dreams and passion into your professional career. What advice do you have for the people who want to turn their passion into their job?
It’s one of the most important things in life. Once you get beyond family, you really need to try and explore what your passion is. I work typically, 15-16 hours a day. My Saturday’s and Sunday’s are not different than my Tuesday’s and Wednesdays. I’m on planes an ridiculous amount of time and sometimes I think, if I didn’t love what I do…you’d find me in a stray jacket in a dark corner in the room somewhere. So I think it’s very essential if you’re lucky enough and if you make that one of your goals in life to pursue, it’s just the greatest thing.
What has been your favorite part about producing the Batman films? What is most rewarding to you at the end of the day?
That’s an interesting question that nobody has ever asked me before, ever. I think it starts with when you have a vision for something, and you envision something grand and long-term and then you are… I can’t say the word luck because I don’t believe in luck. Luck occurs when you knock on every door you can, and when it slams in your face you knock again, and again. And at some point, your timing will work out, and that really is luck. It’s the idea of having a creative vision or something and then being able to beginning to ensemble the pieces that can execute that vision and ultimately watch it to get fruition. And it’s funny, a lot of people ask me well you never envisioned that Batman would be this big…but I did. I absolutely did. For 10 years I was the only one who did. So I’ve always believed in this vision, where it hits me the most is moments in time when I realize that this is not about success at a box office. This is about something that has had a cultural impact worldwide. It transcends not only borders, but cultures. The summer our first batman opened when the Berlin wall was coming down. I was watching CNN, and I see this ten year old coming through the wall wearing a bat man hat. When you see things like that, it is so gratifying to know that you’ve had an impact.
As a producer, what is the importance of a great script versus star power?
There are ten critically important things to make a successful movie. Number one is story, number 2 is story, number 3 is story, and number 4, 5, and 6 are story. Number 7, 8, and 9 are character…and number 10 is story. The biggest failing of movies today, and I’m catching a wide net here. When younger film makers come aboard with a fascination with the latest special effects, like showing off the new toy…and in a lot of movies like that, lots of stuff gets blown up…but so do the stories. The stories dissolve, either they’re not there or they are so convoluted. It impacts character development, and it is too great a sacrifice too long to endure. Everything is about the story, and if you’re working in China, or South Korea, or in Europe or Australia, it keeps coming down to the same thing; it all comes down to the story.
I love to hear that, that’s very important to me when I go see a film. Each Batman film I saw, stayed true to the story line which I think is amazing.
The greatest example of that is the genius Christopher Nolan and his Dark Night Trilogy. And the Dark Night Trilogy which I do not break into three movies, i one movie told in three acts. It was real, Bruce Wayne was real, Gotham City was real, the technology was real, and for god’s sake the Joker felt real. That was an amazing accomplishment. Chris was not going for tons of CGI, if the truck was going to flip in Chicago, that truck really flipped… it wasn’t computerized. When batman is standing on top of a spire overlooking a city, there is a guy in a suit up there. It’s not CGI. It really worked, it made it feel real and that was truly amazing.
I see that you were the first professor to teach the first worlds credited comic book class at Indiana University. You also teach two courses at Indiana about the Business of Production Motion Pictures and Live from LA: Pros Make Movies…. are there any skills from teaching that have helped you in other areas of your career?
It works both ways. A lot of what I do as a producer and a writer, I bring to the classroom. When you are teaching students whether it’s 100 students, or 10 students…they will sniff out BS in two seconds. You’ve got to be honest, you’ve got to be passionate about what you’re doing and communicate that passion because that’s the only way you can impact people and try to inspire them. I’ve had incidents where I went in to pitch a TV show.. and the lady asked me if I would mind if the interns could be in the room when you come into pitch. When I went in the next day there were 10 interns in the room. I tried to be passionate and communicate my enthusiasm to them, because it’s like a virus; it spreads. I’ve got to be a great story teller in order to sell a movie. I apply that to the seminars that I teach. I used to be a consulter at a day camp and had very young boys from ages 4-5. After lunch I had to keep them seated and behaved. I started to tell Batman stories. I learned the difference between telling a story, and making an interactive story. If I saw a child drafting away, I would bring them back by engaging them in the story. And that’s what I do when I go into pitch.
I’m so excited to see the new Lego Batman film tonight. What thoughts do you have on the global impact of the Lego franchise?
The Lego franchise is amazing. When you see little kids working with it, and hopefully parents and grandparents and working with their little kids to help them create by using their imagination is a great process. So, the field of animation continues to evolve. You go from 2d animation, and then you got 3d animation, and then 3d Imax animation, and now Lego animation. New techniques and new technologies impact animation. The key is to have the most brilliant writers who can be inspired by this new animation, and not use it to sell products, but use it to tell an effective story. If you can do that- you can achieve great success. The whole concept of Lego is terrific. One of the keys is to make it equally or if not more so enjoyable for adults. Of course x number of years from now the next animation will come along – and we will continue to play in this giant sandbox.
What is the most pivotal moment of your career?
Interesting choice of words… pivotal. The most pivotal moment occurred in 1989 when Tim Burton had completed the first Batman movie. My partner, Ben Melner, and I were about to go into this theater. It was about be shown to us and executives for the first time. To give you some perspective, Ben is my dad’s age. He’s always been like a second father to me. He put together movies like Ben Hur, 2001 Space Odessey and many others- legend in the film industry. Just as we were about to go into the movie, and to get into the theater and I remember there were these very heavy black curtains to go throug. Ben said, “Michael, you are going to walk through these curtains, and two hours from now you’re going to walk out through these curtains, and your life is going to change”. He was right, everything changed. That was the moment. There are many other important moments like when they hired Jack Nicolson to play the Joker. One day after the movie opened, my wife and I were on this Alaskan cruise to get away from it all. And on this cruise, I had an epiphany, I thought, it’s not about being on the top of the mountain, it’s about the climb. It’s all about the journey, because once you’re at the peak; that elation & nirvana lasts two weeks-three weeks, so it’s all about the journey.
What advice do you have for young students who want to be in the film industry?
Run. Flee. Don’t do it for god’s sake, don’t do it. I told both of my kids this, and they are both in Hollywood working. Here’s the deal; this is sexy and alluring, and people have stars in their eyes. In fact, it is one of the most competitive areas of work you can be in. One of the things that unnerve me is that back in the 80s and 90s, people would say I want to be an actor. In the last ten years, I hear I want to be a star. Big difference. You have the best singers and dancers from every high school and college from around the world that go to Hollywood or New York. So you’re entering the most competitive pool. It is not quick, a lot of young people want it quickly these days. It is never going to happen if they stick by their unwarranted sense of entitlement that the world owes them something. It’s the 10% who get up off the couch and make it happen. Those are the ones who will have the best success. That is an important part of the whole industry. If you’re not passionate about it, if your heart and soul are not in it, if it doesn’t course through the blood in your veins, you’re going to have a hard time. Trying to make a successful career in this is not like a war where you fight a big battle and that’s it. It’s a siege and a lot of people don’t understand that.
By Josie Strick