This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes director Matt Reeves, whose latest project is “The Batman” starring Robert Pattinson. Reeves also helmed two of the “Planet of the Apes” films as well as “The Pallbearer.” Reeves tells The Treatment the only way he can make large genre films is to make them personal. He says he didn’t want to make another origin story for his iteration of Batman, but wanted to cover the early years of the superhero, where he was still trying to put himself together. And he discusses the similarities between Bruce Wayne and Tom, his protagonist from “The Pallbearer,” his earliest film.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to the Treatment. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest, director Matt Reeves, has made a movie called "The Batman" which feels like the kind of film he's been doing for the last decade or so, films about people finding their humanity in the apocalypse, be it the simian flu, or Cloverfield or in Gotham City. Your films really are about people kind of finding themselves in the midst of the worst possible circumstance.
Matt Reeves: I have a high level of anxiety. To me, almost the therapeutic or the engaging part of the creative process is to find some way to express what's going on internally. And while in certain ways, they seem extreme, although, interestingly, there are so many people talking to us about the Simian flu, and with the pandemic, how weird even just that idea to look back at those movies now. But, there's some truth in how I feel about, I guess, the state of the world. At least it's the internal state for me.
KCRW: These films are so often about partnerships and about how people have to find who they are in the midst of looking at somebody else who reflects some part of them.
Reeves: I guess the thing that always draws me into a story is to be drawn into a kind of internal struggle. The thing that I'm always saying to my son and to anyone who listens because I guess it's just how I feel is that it's really hard to be a person. As a kid, I was very shy, and it was much easier for me to make a friend by going up to somebody I didn't know and saying, “Hey, you want to make a movie,” than it would be going like, “Hey, you want to hang out?” And so I guess this idea of the way in which people try to sit and navigate this world through connections and forging them and struggling with them is interesting to me.
KCRW: Even with "The Pallbearer," which is kind of a romantic comedy, it sort of starts at the end of the world. It's about what goes on around a funeral.
Reeves: True. Also, the incident of that story, in a certain way, did actually happen to me, which is that I was asked to be a pallbearer not for somebody that I didn't know, but for somebody who was an acquaintance, someone that I liked, but he wasn't one of my best friends, even though I liked him. And I hadn't been in touch with him for quite some time. When I was called by the family member and asked to do it, I was first thinking Wow, so I guess she must be calling everyone that just knew him even slightly. And then partway through the conversation, she said, and of course he really cared about you a lot, and it would mean a lot to me if you'd be a pallbearer. And I was just terrified. I realized that when someone's asking you to be a pallbearer, there's no way to say no. And so yeah, there's something about that that sent me into a kind of existential crisis. And I guess that was the birth of that movie.
I really came up on new Hollywood cinema, and I loved Scorsese and Coppola, but I also really loved Hal Ashby and Mike Nichols. I thought that I would make these small comedies that were really about, for me, my own awkwardness at being in the world. And that's really what that movie is, for me.
The landscape of what movies are on the big screen has changed so dramatically. Even though I love genre movies–obviously I've been making them for the last number of years– interestingly, as much as I've always loved those movies, I never thought that would be the path for me. After I made "The Pallbearer," it didn't exactly set the world on fire. And it was one of these things where I had imagined something quite different in terms of what my career would be. But the industry has changed so much where really genre movies are the narrow band of what a studio will make if you want to make something for the big screen. And for me, discovering that there's a way to do something personal, even under the surface of something genre has been to me sort of a life preserver.
It was certainly that way with the "Apes" films: the idea of our draw to violence, and I was a new father, and my son was just learning how to speak. This idea of him coming into articulation was reminding me of like, wow, we really are animals. And in "War for the Planet of the Apes," which was the second film, when Caesar dies in that film, my father was dying, and he did die while we were making the film. And so there's so many personal things in all of these stories.
Weirdly, I would say that in "The Batman," I certainly relate to this idea of a guy who is doing something completely irrational in a certain way to make meaning. Really, when you look at it, Batman in this story, for me, and I think it's true of many iterations of comics versions of the character too, people look at this character and say, This is a super heroic character. But really, what's interesting to me was the notion of somebody who just was trying to find meaning, to find a construct. And for me, that's what movie making is like. I feel like my Batman activity-- because I'm not brave in any other way--would be just this idea of trying to make order and sense of things through storytelling. And so in that way, I totally related to him even though I certainly am nothing like Batman.
KCRW: We can connect certainly "Pallbearer" and "The Batman" to the repercussions of death on a family, this idea of having to soldier on and figure out who you are, be it writ small as in "The Pallbearer" or large as in the case of "The Batman." How these really dystopic circumstances can make you ask questions about yourself that you wouldn't normally ask.
Reeves: I think I'm interested in stories that force the characters to confront themselves in some way, which is drama. You could do a story where a character isn't confronted by himself, and, in that sense, isn't forced into an awakening. But that was actually the conception of this particular story for me. I wanted to take what was an enduring myth that you could certainly do in a much more reductive way, and just give him a kind of idealized nature, or go another way, which to me was the only way that I would know how. I wouldn't be the right filmmaker for it if I wasn't interested in trying to look at how this guy was dealing, basically, with trauma, and trying to make sense of his life in the wake of trauma, and really revisit the events of that trauma night after night in a way that is never going to solve the problem. He's never going to be able to reverse what happened to him as a kid, and that will forever haunt him. And so I guess in that way, I am very interested in the scarring events of people's lives.
KCRW: So many of the movie iterations of Batman going back to Tim Burton’s are about how Bruce Wayne is basically a part that he plays. And the Bruce Wayne that we see in "The Batman" is somebody who doesn't have that kind of equipment, who isn't shaped in that way, who doesn't find this kind of release in pretending to be something that he isn't. Both of his lives bleed into his alter ego and his more public iteration.
Reeves: One of the things that was interesting to me was to focus on not an origin tale because we'd seen Burton had done that so well, and Nolan did it so well. I wanted to do an early years “Batman” and Bruce Wayne. And it was important to me that while it wasn't an origin story, he was, in the early years of what he was doing, and was still trying to make sense of himself, was still a young man trying to put himself together and find a way to function. This idea of not yet understanding even the asset that being Bruce Wayne could be, the way that other iterations of the character have where they realize, oh, I can be Bruce Wayne, and that can be another kind of mask. He's just not together enough yet to even understand how valuable that's gonna be.
I was interested in the idea of him being at a stage where he couldn't bear the weight of the history of being part of the Waynes. I thought he could be kind of like a member of the Kennedy family like American royalty, or what a British royal would be in the wake of a tragedy and how there was a lens being put on you because of a family tragedy that you could never escape. And so his response would be to want to withdraw from all of that and not understand that in the mission of what he was trying to do to try and make sense of his life, he might be able to use that as a kind of mask or or guise, that might be useful. He can't figure any of that out yet.
This whole movie is about him coming into being. It's not about him mastering himself. Of course, it's a fantastical notion that you could master yourself. I mean, nobody masters themselves. What was really interesting was seeing somebody who was trying to master himself, but had a tremendous amount of what he was doing that he didn't yet even have awareness of. He wasn't aware of his motivations. And I was thinking about the idea of masks and sort of Jungian psychology and him being driven by his shadow side. That whole idea that in Jungian psychology, you're supposed to make yourself aware of those shadow impulses so that you're able to incorporate them into your life. I like the idea of him being at this stage in his life, where he really wasn't seeing that, and he didn't understand everything that was driving him because he was in a kind of emotional freefall.
KCRW: As you're talking about this, I was thinking about his reaction early in the film where he saved somebody from being attacked in the subway. He doesn't quite know what to do with the fearful reaction he gets from the person who he saved.
Reeves: What was so interesting is the idea of being lost in the mystery of your own struggle to such a degree that, if you would ask him, in a conscious way, well, what are you doing? [He would say] this guy's in trouble. I'm trying to help him. But that wasn't really what it's about at all.
This notion that somehow people do things in an altruistic way. I mean, there's nothing psychological about that. We do things because that creates meaning. So altruism creates some kind of meaning for him. It's a coping mechanism for him. And so the idea that he's engaged in the saving of this guy, without really any awareness of the guy at all, and the guy is terrified of him when it's over and says, Don't hurt me. And he sort of looks at him like, Wait, who are you? What's happening exactly? The whole thing is just entirely personal. And to me, that was compelling.
KCRW: To me, that's the great moment in the movie because it defines what everything is, and it feels so incredibly well worked out right down to the way sound is used.
Reeves: I am always very interested in point of view and putting you in the kind of subjective state of the character and doing that with sound and doing that visually and finding a way to put you emotionally into the experience of this character. And so, yeah, that whole idea of shifting points of views so that you can feel him coming out almost as a horror figure, and then get lost in his rage, and then just see him in this moment afterwards, and kind of see that he's not fully aware of even completely what's happening in that moment.
To me, the arc from the beginning, when I was thinking of the story, moves from a place of him declaring himself, which does come from some of the comics, and from the animated series, this notion that he says, not "I'm Batman," which is obviously the key Keaton line in the Burton movie, but "I'm vengeance," and that this was coming from his personal rage and this primal feeling that he had, that's really just flailing and trying to make sense of his life, and so that he's not really self aware. That's one of the things, too, in the music and the sound of that scene. It kind of builds in a way that you can feel the rage and his heart pounding, pounding, pounding, and then you can feel the sound intent and the music intent at the end of that scene, and even visually is the sense of the adrenaline starting finally to ebb.
KCRW: There were so many things about this movie even before seeing it, that excited me: using the honorific before Batman, which goes back to what Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams did and some of those early stories in the ‘70s that I found myself thinking they're echoes in like, that great Two-Face story that the two of them did. And “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge,” which is about Batman as this tool who doesn't quite recognize what he is. And when people call him "The Batman" it’s because they're basically calling him a creature.
Reeves: Yeah. And in a certain way, it really goes back to how Bob Kane and Bill Finger first coined him as well. If you look at that Detective Comics first issue, it says "The Batman" and so in that way, it's more this idea of this thing he's constructed that creates an image in the city. It's not him declaring "I'm Batman." It's that people regard him as this almost horror idea that he is the Batman. And when you think about it, it's actually quite a terrifying idea. When you look at it, and people are like, Oh, he's Batman; he's a superhero. It's like, well, if you look at the the implications of it, the idea that there is a guy who has decided to take the law into his own hands, a vigilante who goes out night after night and dresses himself as a bat, in some kind of strange, horrific, bizarre way, that's a very frightening idea. And it's why in the scene that we were talking about with the guy who's being saved, his first reaction is not like, hey, thanks a lot, man. It's sort of like, Wait, what are you? What's happening? Where's the line? Am I safe? Where does this end? That was what was interesting to me was that, because he was becoming the Batman, it was almost like losing himself, and where does it end?
That's really in the dialogue that he has with the Riddler as well. You realize that they are kind of echoes of each other, and that the lines between them are very blurred, and that the Riddler doesn't really have any boundaries, and you start to wonder at certain moments. Bruce would like to say that he has boundaries, but we certainly see that he comes desperately close to crossing them. In almost every encounter, we see he doesn't seem in control.
KCRW: As we were talking about, Tom is, in effect in "The Pallbearer" this guy who's also kind of lost and thinks he's found definition but then he has to deal with the responsibility of this thing that he's wrapped himself around again.
Reeves: Again, I'm nothing like Bruce Wayne, but I totally relate to him struggling to make meaning of something and feeling the burden of something. And Tom was so personal. When Jason and I wrote that script, I was literally living at home the way that Tom did, in my late 20s, and was completely embarrassed about everything about who I was in the way that that character is, and was having a kind of existential crisis. The big thing about what was freaking him out in the story was this notion that somebody who he was being asked to be a pallbearer for was someone whom he could essentially not remember. So that could be him; maybe that will be him. And then he meets somebody who he had such an affection for, someone who he had such a crush on in Gwyneth Paltrow, Julie, who, when they meet each other, he realizes that she doesn't even remember him. And he's like, What is my life going to be? And so I guess, I do relate to these characters who are struggling in a freefall to try and find some way to grasp at something.
Tom is terribly not brave; he's so worried about hurting people's feelings that he can't tell this woman who's calling him that he actually probably should not give the eulogy for her son at the funeral, since he cannot remember who he is, but he couldn't possibly tell her that. And that's something I totally relate to. But on Bruce's side, he's acting in all of these spastic ways. It doesn't really make sense to go out and become a vigilante to try and make meaning of your life because you can't find any other way after what happened to you as a child. And I guess in this way, I do think they're very connected.
Tom was very much a kid, even approaching 30, and it was his nightmare that he was going to be 30 and still living at home and sleeping in a bunk bed. There are ways in which Bruce is still 10 years old. He idolizes his parents who were snatched from him at 10 years old, and they're not real people. They're gods in his mind. He looks at them the way a 10 year-old looks up to his parents. His relationship with Selina, when she goes, god, what are you under there, just hideously scarred? And I love the way Rob just very vulnerably says, “yeah.” I guess they're both kind of stunted. They have very different reactions, and they have different levels of bravery, but really, there's something about the brokenness of who they are that draws me to them.
KCRW: We're talking about Robert Pattinson for those who missed the news. So often, he plays guys who don't know what to do with their bodies. I don't know what he's like in real life. but it's an interesting thing when you see him, not quite knowing how to stand in movies or where to stand next to people. And that way he has of acting really effective physical awkwardness and an inability to connect with people, that must have been a gift to have that to use.
Reeves: Not only is it a facet, obviously, of who he is, because obviously that's partly him, but it's something he's in control of as well. One of the things I found so fascinating about working with him is he works in a way that feels almost like a method actor. And yet, you can see that he has great access to his emotions, and he puts himself into a state. But he's also in incredible control of his instrument, the way he moves. It's all very technical, and it's very intentional. So I could say to him, I need this to be hotter, and he could access that very easily. [And I could say] but I also, because of this cowl and the way the light is hitting your eye, I need you to lean a little bit more to your left, because otherwise I won't see your eye. And he could do both those things at once.
He had a tremendous ability to access his emotions, but also be in control of his movement, so all of that stuff is coming from a very internal place. But he has a tremendous facility with himself physically. He's just very able to access all of that stuff, but also weirdly at the same time, while he can be out of control, he can also be incredibly in control in terms of how to calibrate his voice, the way he's leaning, where he's standing. And so all of those choices I think he's making are on some level, very conscious, too, even though I know some of it has to be unconscious because it is coming from a very instinctual place.