Superhero Shorts: Batman Puppetmaster
Welcome to this week’s edition of Superhero Shorts where I take a look at a different superhero themed short film and get the creator of the film to answer a few interview questions. This week I’m talking with the writer Chris Wiltz about the recent short film Batman: Puppetmaster that tries to expand the ultra realistic style that Christopher Nolan created with his movie trilogy. In Puppetmaster, they examine how The Riddler could fit into Nolan’s Gotham, as well as bringing in their version of Zsasz, briefly, and Scarface. You can watch it below, or at their website BatmanPuppetmaster.com.
This is a prime example of how fan films keep increasing in both quality and quantity. As much as I try to keep an eye out for these fan film projects, more often than not, I end up hearing about them through word of mouth. While this is a Batman short, like many of the best Batman stories, the real interesting character is the villain. I was always a fan of the Riddler, the animated series version not Jim Carrey, so I was happy to see him done right. In this version he’s actually a detective and I quite liked that twist to the story and I could easily see someone like the Riddler starting out in the police force. I also really liked the brief touch where he immediately starts analyzing Batman through his choice of words. Often the two weakest points in a fan film are the acting and the special effects, but I must say that both are quite impressive here. Both Nigma and Wesker give stellar performances, and the post effects on some of Batman’s more unique gadgets are well done and also match the look of the Nolan films quite well. It was created before the Dark Knight Rises was released, so there is a bit of fudging the continuity, but since I thought the 8 year retirement was a bad decision anyway, I’ll pleasantly overlook it. But enough from me, let’s hear from the writer himself, Chris Wiltz.
Bubbawheat: I was a fan of the Riddler myself, at least from the animated series rather than Batman Forever. What drew you to Edward Nigma to use as the focus of your film? What about Scarface?
Chris Wiltz: It really came out of just being a fan. Riddler has always been my favorite Batman villain – especially the take they did on him in “Batman: The Animated Series.” What I think initially drew me to him, even as a kid, is really that he’s a sort of interactive villain. He challenges Batman, but he’s also challenging you as a reader/audience member to come up with conclusions to his puzzles as well.
This was all before they announced Bane would be the villain in Dark Knight Rises (which was a brilliant choice by the way); a friend and I were just being nerds and just talking about who we’d like to see Nolan take on next as a villain. For me it just had to be Riddler, but my friend said he’d love to see a Nolan take on Scarface. At first I kinda laughed it off, but then the writer side of me kicked in and wheels started turning. I was wondering if you could take a villain like Scarface/The Ventriloquist, who can be really over-the-top, and do a realistic/gritty take on him that works. So the ideas just started turning in my head about how to bring these two villains together. When I brought the idea to Bryan Nest, the director, he mentioned Scarface is his favorite Batman villain. So I started writing out the script and we just kept workshopping it from there.
BW: Honestly, I had completely forgotten about Scarface until the box opened up and it all came back to me, it’s a great surprise for those unfamiliar with the character. Can you tell me a little bit about how you found the actors? Often in low budget fan films like these, the acting can be the weak point, but I thought both Nigma and Wesker were played brilliantly.
CW: All the credit for that really goes to Nest – he’s really remarkable in how he works with actors and he has this amazing eye for casting. Once he has a character clear in his head he knows exactly what he’s looking for in an actor and what he’s going to try to get from every performance. One big advantage of being in LA is having this enormous talent pool to draw from, so we really just did a casting session like any other film. I was actually pleasantly shocked how many really professional and high caliber actors came in for the roles. People just really responded to the material and got what we were trying to do. Wil Daniels (who plays Nigma) has worked with Bryan before so there was a bit of a connection there, but Frank Birney (Wesker) just came in from the casting and he just totally blew us all away with his performance.
BW: Aside from the brief appearance in Batman Begins, I was only familiar with Zsasz from Kevin Smith’s Batman: Cacophony, in that version he’s naked. Was there ever a thought to try and block a version where he appears to be naked?
CW: We never really thought about him being naked. The versions of Zsasz I was most familiar with always depicted him topless (to show off all the scars) so I think, visually, that was the most important aspect of him for me. Zsasz was actually a fairly late addition to the story. We had this b-plot, of Batman facing a challenge that Nigma has set up for him, that really wasn’t working and I was trying to figure out a villain we could use to give the thing some life of its own. So I just started going over old issues of Batman and Detective Comics looking for someone to spark something. Then I remembered Victor Zsasz (coincidentally my intro to the character was in the Knightfall storyline, which is the definitive Bane story). Then I happened to remember he appears (very) briefly in Batman Begins so Bryan and I thought he’d be perfect. The Zsasz stuff is some of my favorite stuff in the film – the actor (Justin Mortelliti) played him really creepy and dark and I love his performance.
BW: If budget were no issue, what Batman villain would you love to be able to translate into a Nolan style short, like you did with the Riddler and Scarface?
CW: Personally, I’d love to try a Nolan-style take on Mr. Freeze. I love his character and his tragic backstory. Also I think Black Mask would work really well in Nolan’s Batman universe.
BW: Where did the decision come from to have Edward Nigma be a member of the police force? I thought that was a great decision.
CW: It really just came from thinking about the character and how to do something different with him. To make him an out-and-out villain, I felt like you really set yourself up to have to spend all your time competing and differentiating him from The Joker – plus as fans we’ve already seen that sort of criminal mastermind Riddler. So right away I wanted to try something where you wouldn’t necessarily have to make that comparison.
Then it was just thinking about his already established character – Edward Nigma is a narcissist at his core; he’s a guy who gets all his pleasure from being the smartest guy in the room and figuring out and knowing things no one else does. And to some extent these aren’t bad qualities to have, but there’s a fine line there as well. So I was asking just what sort of job would a guy like this excel at and I immediately fell on law enforcement. A guy like Nigma would make an amazing detective – but he’d be solving crimes to satisfy his own ego and not really necessarily for the common good. And it also fit in really well with what Nolan had already set up – Batman being blamed for killing Harvey Dent and becoming a fugitive. I mean think about it realistically, if there was some masked guy in body armor with a private hi-tech arsenal running around killing political figures they’d probably not leave the job of catching him to local law enforcement. They’d label Batman a domestic terrorist and call in the best people they could get.
So with Nigma the story for me was really about having this guy come in under good intentions (bringing a terrorist to justice) but being driven over the edge because of his inherent flaw and narcissism. It’s a story of how far off the intended path obsession can lead you. Nigma wants to catch Batman…the problem is that because of his ego he really has no moral compass and will do whatever he feels is necessary to get the job done.
BW: Since I’ve been writing about these fan films lately, I occasionally check Kickstarter for up and coming ones and I notice that they fail almost as often as they succeed. Puppet Master was one of those projects that failed, but ultimately got made despite that fact. Do you have any words of encouragement to other failed fundraisers?
CW: I think Kickstarter, IndieGogo, and sites like that are a great tool but I also think the idea is so fresh and exciting right now that it’s easy to forget about all the independent films that got made before these resources even existed. Even our project wouldn’t have happened if Bryan hadn’t put in so much of his own money and people hadn’t been willing to donate their time and effort to creating the project. All of us involved with the film were actually very reluctant to use Kickstarter because we just didn’t like the idea of asking our friends and family for money for a project where they wouldn’t see any real return on their investment.
I think for other failed fundraisers I’d just say, if you really want your project to happen, don’t be discouraged and keep trying – most of these sites will let you re-start a campaign. Examine what didn’t work the first time and try to address it. Maybe you just needed more time to raise funding. Maybe try a different strategy or pitch to get people excited about what you’re doing. Beyond that I’d say just be encouraged by your idea. I’m of the school of thought that a great idea can always eventually find traction and if you’re a filmmaker with a project you believe in you can find ways to make it happen. Just because one avenue doesn’t work doesn’t mean a project can’t or shouldn’t happen if you really love and believe in it.
BW: Is there anything you’re working on next that you’d like to talk about?
CW: Unfortunately I’ve been sworn to secrecy. But we’ll have lots of other cool stuff coming down the pipeline in the near future!
BW: And finally, what is your favorite superhero movie?
CW: Hmm..that’s a really tough call for me. As a fan there’s so many I love for so many different reasons. I think “The Dark Knight” and “Superman 2” would be my top favorites. But I also really love “X2” – I’m a huge X-men fan and I think that film perfectly captures the group dynamics that make the comics so exciting for me.
Thanks so much for your time, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for any new projects. Puppetmaster is definitely one of my favorite fan films to date. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.