Daniel Waters exploded onto the film scene with his brilliant, perceptive, wickedly funny screenplay for HEATHERS (1988). His subversive, outrageous, satirical sense of fun brought extraordinary qualities to films like BATMAN RETURNS (1992), THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE (1990), DEMOLITION MAN (1993), VAMPIRE ACADEMY (2014, directed by his brother Mark Waters) and the infamous HUDSON HAWK (1991). Dan also wrote and directed the unfairly underseen comedies HAPPY CAMPERS (2001) and SEX AND DEATH 101 (2007). spoke to Dan about writing BATMAN RETURNS, the controversial sequel to the 1989 megahit BATMAN. We covered working with Tim Burton, Dan's vision for the film, being rewritten, his love of the Catwoman character and what went down with the spin-off movie that never happened.   

Why do you think Tim Burton chose you to work on the film? 
It did help that Denise Di Novi, the producer of HEATHERS, was at the time Tim Burton's producer. I had met Tim earlier when I pitched him a sequel to BEETLEJUICE (1988). It was a casual, half-assed meeting where I talked about Betelgeuse working with the First Family in the White House. Tim was mildly amused. We did get along and get each other's sense of humor. Anything I say about BATMAN RETURNS has to be covered in the fairy dust of how different it is now and how little I did to get that job and how little shit shit I had to go through, because nowadays it's crazy. This was pretty much pre-Internet. Both Tim and I were like ''Yeah, Batman, he's interesting. I like that Dark Knight Returns that Frank Miller did. '' The movie inspires anger from 'true' Batman fans to this day. I have a friend who is a big comic book fan and he says to me ''Yeah, BATMAN RETURNS. It's a great movie for people who hate Batman. '' It's a little harsh, but I can see what he means in that the film is a Tim Burton film and not a Batman film. I came in to please Tim Burton fans, not Batman fans, and especially please Tim himself. It was weird how much freedom I had, especially in the first drafts. That said, unlike HEATHERS and some other things we have talked about, when you know you're making a Tim Burton movie, the auteur theory does kick in. When you're writing, you are always wondering ''Is Tim going to like this? Is he going to respond to this?'' 

Did you get the impression that Tim wasn't very interested in doing a direct sequel to the first film? 
Oh, absolutely. He was not crazy about BATMAN (1989). And I wasn't crazy about it either. It had great production design and all that, but I didn't like the movie. One of my issues about the film made it into a line in BATMAN RETURNS – Bruce Wayne saying to Alfred ''And who let Vicki Vale into the Batcave?'' I really didn't like Robert Wuhl's character, the reporter guy, so I had a scene in my script where I had him crucified to the Batsignal, with his dead body flashing all over the city. Tim made a big thing of saying ''Can we just pretend the first one doesn't exist? Let's just not even address it. '' He was always more interested in the characters than in the action or the spectacle, or even the plot. I remember asking him what we should call the movie and he said ''Do we have to give it a title? Everybody is going to know what it is when it comes out. '' 

Why was Tim dissatisfied with the Sam Hamm script? 
His script was fine, and better than his BATMAN script. It's a meat and potatoes mystery, with clues, and statues of owls and so on. It read like a Hardy Boys story. It was a good yarn. That version would have needed an old time director from down in the commissary to direct it. It's not the kind of story that will get you the way to Tim. When I came on board I said ''Who even needs this plot stuff? Let's get Tim interested in this. '' Sam Hamm got story credit merely for the fact he had Catwoman and Penguin in his script. My script had completely different conceptions of the characters. When we were trying to come up with Penguin's story, I came up with the idea that everybody was shredding their papers in the Wall Street offices, and he's down in the sewer taping them all back together. I felt like I was The Huntsman and Tim was The Prince, and that I had to go out into the forest everyday and bring back something for The Prince. It felt less like a normal writing job and more like myjob was simply to try and get Tim intrigued in what I was writing. 

What did Tim respond to the most in your drafts? 
Tim really liked my take on Catwoman. My take had nothing to do with the comics. To this day when people tell me I went away from the comics I tell them ''Fuck the comics. My version is better. '' A lot of men make the mistake that when they try to write a strong female role they just have her kicking ass and being a bad ass saying wicked things the way a man would. I definitely wanted a Catwoman who is a woman with her own psychology. She's hurting people and doing crazy stuff that is emanating from the things that are going through her mind psychologically, instead of just for the sake of having some action in the film. 

What kind of things would you and Tim talk about in your discussions? 
Well, for example, I would talk to Tim about Fellini, and tell him my favourite of his films. One of the keys to Tim's character is that if he likes a director, he doesn't have a favourite of their films. He just loves the worlds they create, and the feel of their movies. Which film has the best characterisation or plot or most meaning is something he isn't interested in. I personally like a little more plot, and it was just after the LA riots, so I liked the element of a politician starting a riot to help him get the incumbent out of office. So I had this political satire of Penguin running for Mayor, which I think Tim could have cared less about. 

Were you conscious of not downplaying the Batman character in your script? 
I definitely was, but at the same time I was absolutely in love with Catwoman. She was what was exciting to me when I was writing. My first draft opened with the Batman logo and then we pull out and you realise you are in a merchandising store for Batman. After that, a grenade gets thrown in and the place blows up. I originally had more elements of Batman being commodified and hating being treated like a celebrity. Tim found stuff like that a little bit too much. 

How challenging was it to write dialogue for Batman? 
Michael Keaton was great to work with. He was such a smart guy. I would give him all these great speeches and what I thought were great lines, and he would say ''Batman should only say this. Bruce Wayne should only say this. '' He was very specific that when Batman is wearing the suit, he shouldn't say three senetences put together at any one time. At the time I was thinking ''I'm giving you gold here! I am going to get into trouble now because Penguin and Catwoman have more lines. '' But he was right. Then when I saw THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), which I loved - Christopher Nolan's work is prose, Tim's is poetry, but they can co-exist in the same stratosphere - there's a scene towards the end where Batman is giving a big speech to The Joker and you could go grab a bottle of water and come back and he would still be talking. Michael was right. Batman shouldn't be giving speeches in the costume with the Batman voice. 

How did your first draft differ from the final draft? 
What I like about the Catwoman character and what I like about the movie in general is definitely there in the movie and intact. It makes me feel like I am up there in many ways. When I was contractually done with the movie, another writer, Wesley Strick, was brought on by Warners, to, in Denise Di Novi's words, 'normalise the movie a little bit.'' After I went on and did other movies I came to realise that for another writer coming in, Wesley Strick protected so much of my stuff. He did however bring in a lot of pop culture references that I had tried to keep out of the movie. There's a Love Connection joke that I can't stand. There's a Geraldo reference, and a Norman Bates reference that I don't like. He also added all the stuff about the 'firstborns' of Gotham City and the list of names. I guess it was to make more of a through line to the movie about what Penguin's plan is. Penguin just being a disgruntled bad guy who wanted to get back at the city was good enough for me. Tim didn't really have any feeling one way or the other about such things. There were a lot of things in Wesley's first draft that I hated, and I sent an angry 14-page fax to Tim Burton's office. I got a confirmation that only 13 pages had gone through, so I had to send the whole 14 pages again. It ended up causing way too much drama. That was not good. 

Did you manage to mend fences with Tim and Denise Di Novi? 
Yes, and as the movie was being edited, I got to see various cuts. The one good deed I did on HUDSON HAWK was that I helped get the editor on the movie, Chris Lebenzon, the editing job on BATMAN RETURNS, and now he edits all of Tim's movies. Tim's not an editing room guy. He'll watch a cut and say ''That's good.'' On the two movies I've directed, I'm painfully overwhelmed about making the days, but you can spend all day and all night in the editing room. It's so much fun. 

How many of your drafts did Robin and Two-Face appear in? 
I had one scene of Billy Dee Williams getting injured and then getting a coin, but we didn't do anything with it. We actually cast Marlon Wayans as Robin. We had Batman pull into a garage to get the Batmobile fixed, and there's a kid with an R on his uniform. We never went beyond that. Tim even thought the R on the uniform was too much. ''Can't we just have this kid, and then bring him back later? '' I wasn't that interested in Robin. Even with the Penguin, I was just like ''Can't it just be Catwoman?'' Because we had Catwoman and Penguin, I had to create Chris Walken's character, Max Schreck, just to triangulate everything. The script wasn't working with just Penguin and Catwoman. It needed someone to bring everyone together. 

Whose decision was it to have both Penguin and Catwoman in the film? 
That was so set in stone by Warners that there was never even a conversation about it. They were already in Sam Hamm's drafts. Some Illuminati decision was made way before I was brought on. We were one of the first films to top-load with villains. Nowadays it's par for the course. 

What was the most enjoyable aspect of writing the script for you? 
It was all about Catwoman really. There was a comic book called Elektra Assassin by Frank Miller that I found more compelling than most of the reading I was doing on Batman. Even the people that don't like the movie think that Catwoman is a successful creature. They could tell that was where my passion was. I would meet people and they would say ''Wow, you're getting to do a Batman movie. That must be exciting. '' And I'd be like ''Yeah, I guess so. '' I love Batman in the movie whenever he was with Catwoman. I loved writing the scenes between Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle, like the scene at the costume party where they are the only ones who wear costumes at night but here they are the only ones who don't have a costume. It was a fun scene to write. 

Did Tim encourage the suggestive or subversive humour? Did he get a kick out of it? 
Tim was always about not seeing the character from an action hardware standpoint. He saw Catwoman and Batman as basically dominatrix people who get dressed up and wear costumes and get into some kinky shit. That's the movie he thought he was making, so what you might think are clever bits of subtext were text to Tim. That was the gravy. I think in his mind the ponderous action scenes of people fighting was the tax you had to pay to get to the kooky, quirky stuff. 

Was there ever a moment where you anticipated some of the negative reactions the film eventually received? 
The first film was criticised for being too dark, so often I would think ''Wow, you thought that movie was dark? Wait till you get a load of this!'' The studio was worried, and then when it came out, we took a lot of pain from parents and the media in general. Danny De Vito eating a raw fish? Our film was dark in the sense that it wasn't a kids movie. I would read quotes from parents where they would say things like ''Was it Warner Brothers' intention to make my kids cry?'' The answer is that we actually just never thought about it. Now the PG-13 rating is the sweatiest thing in the world. The needle has been moved so far that it's hilarious to think that we had problems. I mean, look at BATMAN V SUPERMAN (2016), which is the ultimate in going too far. Our movie was considered so dark that they brought in Joel Schumacher. His movies were so giddy that we then got Christopher Nolan. It's all about timing.

I remember that when I was 12 years old I was so appreciative of the stuff that traumatised me. ''I'm still thinking about this. It's great. '' I loved being disturbed. Nowadays when I sit down and watch a horror movie I feel like I'm an old heroin addict who can't find a vein anymore. I want to invent this thing where you can take the DNA of young kids and teenagers and shoot it into your system so you'll be scared again. 

How did the one-two punch of HUDSON HAWK and BATMAN RETURNS impact your career? 
I had not yet learned my lessons fom HUDSON HAWK. I was still thinking ''I'm going to do something that's not traditional.'' Not only were we not thinking of pleasing the Batman fans, but we also weren't thinking of pleasing kids or comic-book audiences or whatever they were at that point. We were taking these elements and making our own new thing. If you look at the big history of Batman, there should be some detours and the movies should be different from each other.

I joke about 'failing upwards', but I was smart back then. I escaped the fire of FORD FAIRLANE to get into HUDSON HAWK, and when that caught on fire I escaped to BATMAN RETURNS. The film got mostly good reviews, and it was a Batman movie so whatever sting I was feeling from HUDSON HAWK briefly went away. After HEATHERS, I had a movie coming out every year and every script I wrote was made into a movie, but I finally had to get off that merry-go round. It was not a question of people no longer wanting to hire me. It was just a case of ''This is not what I signed up for. '' I wanted to do more movies like HEATHERS. I convinced myself that I was going to do one for me and one for them but I realised that that wasn't the way it works. I realised that I had really won the lottery when I made HEATHERS. That said, there's nothing that can compare with working on a Batman movie. 

Why did your Catwoman project with Tim not eventually happen? 
It was unfortunately doomed from the start, because even from the beginning, Tim and I had different visions for the project that we comically never resolved or even discussed. I always said the problem with the Burton/ Waters collaboration is that we are Rainman with two Dustin Hoffmans. Two kooks on separate sides of the spectrum – we both want to be the crazy genius in the equation.

Tim made me watch the original CAT PEOPLE (1942) and Ann-Margret in KITTEN WITH A WHIP (1964). I really believe he wanted to make a creepy, low-budget, black-and-white film involving Catwoman ... while I was obsessed with building a better Batman movie, that was crazy, big and ambitious ... and without the Batman character!

I concocted a scenario where Selena Kyle escapes to the opposite of Gotham City - a sun scorched L.A./ Las Vegas/ Phoenix amalgam that is watched over by three macho superheroes of my own creation. Think Trump/ Bruce Wayne cross-pollinations. Selena breaks out of her 'hiding-out-from-society casino worker' shell and goes full Catwoman, becoming a Trickster foil for the secretly villainous and fascistic superheroes.   

I knew there would be a negotiation of our visions – but Tim never gave any feedback to my outline. When I finally finished my draft, everybody said ''It's too much like the outline.'' It was one of my all time enraging notes. I think Tim realised he didn't want to go back into the bombastic superhero realm and further realised that Warner Brothers wouldn't go for his low-budget, atmospheric take. The entire project was dead in less than a week.

Poor Michelle Pfeiffer was a tragic victim of our inertia. She is the one who wanted and needed a Catwoman movie most of all. I ended up next to her at a buffet line at a Hollywood event once and all she could day to me was 'Why? ... Why?''

Years later a truck backed up to my house and dumped a thousand scripts on my driveway for the Halle Berry CATWOMAN (2004) script arbitration. I was the first name on a list of 32 people. Meow-h! I declined to arbitrate. 

What other projects did you work on in the wake of BATMAN RETURNS? 
After DEMOLITION MAN, which was a quick, two week rewrite that I enjoyed, I started looking for different things to do. I had a meeting on SPIDER-MAN (2002) with Amy Pascal at Columbia, and I was thinking ''What am I doing?'' In retrospect, I wouldn't have minded some of that money, but on the other hand, I had moved to Los Angeles and I had never taken a job in the film industry because I didn't want it to affect my writing. I took a menial job in a video store. I realised that by becoming a screenwriter who wrote Batman movies and Joel Silver movies I had been taking jobs that had prevented me from writing - which was everything I had tried not to do. I went through a difficult period. My movies stopped being made. Instead of taking a job doing a superhero movie I would take a job adapting Stranger in a Strange Land with Tom Hanks attached. These were interesting projects but they were more difficult to get made. 

How do you feel about the legacy of BATMAN RETURNS? 
At a screening of THE DARK KNIGHT, Christopher Nolan said ''You know, I liked elements of Tim Burton's first BATMAN. '' He was asked about BATMAN RETURNS, and he repeated ''You know, I liked elements of Tim Burton's first BATMAN. '' I was in the audience thinking ''Thanks a lot Chris!'' I loved his Batman movies and I think he still owns the character really. But it is interesting because now a lot of people have come out of the woodwork to say how much BATMAN RETURNS meant to them in their childhood. It is a great misfit movie. The popular kids and the jocks love Christopher Nolan's Batman movies but the really downtrodden, quirky and imaginative kids growing up love BATMAN RETURNS. 

I spoke to Dan by telephone and would like to thank him for his time. 


Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.

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