Before The Dawn

Lieutenant Gordon and Batman at the end of “Batman Begins”.

There’s a moment in Batman Begins that’s undoubtedly one of the best ending stingers I’ve ever seen in a movie. Having conquered the villainous Ra’s al Ghul and his attempt to poison all of Gotham City, Batman and newly promoted Lieutenant Gordon are talking about the threat of escalation. Gordon is essentially saying that this is just the beginning and that things are going to get substantially worse. Gordon then mentions an “armed robbery” with the suspect having a “taste for the theatrical”. He hands Batman an evidence file, and in that, we see a Joker’s card. Batman tells Gordon that he’ll look into it and with that small but pivotal revelation we know exactly where the sequel is going to go.

In my opinion, it’s one of the best endings to one of the best superhero films of all time. As a Batman fan, there’s no way you couldn’t get incontrovertibly excited when that Joker card was turned over and revealed. I’ll never forget the experience when I saw the film on June 15th, 2005. The entire audience gasped in a potent concoction of excitement and wonderment, and there was a shiver that went down my spine and most likely down the spines of everyone in the theater. As the final frames were unleashed, and Batman leaped off of the rooftop and the title card “Batman Begins” flashed on the screen, the excitement and anticipation for the next chapter in the Batman franchise had officially begun. When I left the theater, there was passionate chatter among almost every theater goer, and all of the discussion and speculation led to what would happen next. After that, the long, grueling wait for the next film had only begun.

Batman Begins was a unique experience for fans because nothing of its caliber and magnitude had come before. The film came during a time where the Internet was a place to obtain insider information about a film that was currently in production. We all felt like private investigators and Batman Begins was our assignment: learn as much about the film as you possibly can. In this day and age, our tools were the resources of the message forums, and our interrogations consisted of daily tirades with fellow posters about the surreptitious happenings of the film production.  You could follow the progress of a film from the moment the director was announced to the moment the film opened in theaters. Nowadays, it’s very commonplace, but back in 2003-2004, it was still fresh and new. In the two year span in which Batman Begins was in production, erudite and die-hard fans were following the production every step of the way. So when the film was released, and conjecture about the next film had commenced, most of us felt like veterans. We had “survived” the first film in a sense. We were soldiers, toughened with the grit of experience, with some dirt under our nails, and we had plenty of “war stories” to tell. At least those on the boards, like SuperHeroHype, whom had all followed the first film since its inception. With the sequel, we had certain expectations about what to expect, but unbeknownst to us, we really had no idea what was in store for us at all.

Christopher Nolan on the set of “The Dark Knight”.

For the longest time, there was some uncertainty whether or not Christopher Nolan, who had directed Batman Begins, would even return for the next installment. I remember watching Charlie Rose, and he was interviewing Christian Bale and Nolan for Batman Begins. Rose had asked Nolan about his intention about returning for a sequel, and Nolan dispelled any of that, saying he only focused on one film at a time. After Batman Begins, Nolan directed The Prestige co-starring Bale, and I remember hearing rumors that Nolan, Bale and Michael Caine (who had also acted in The Prestige) would have discussions about the next Batman film on set during breaks in filming. Now, whether or not those stories were ultimately true remains to be seen, but the time period between June 2005 and early-mid 2006 was an interesting time for Batman fans mostly because we were all a little uncertain about what would happen next.

One thing that seemed to be certain, though, was the appearance of The Joker. The Joker is one of the most famous and notorious enemies in Batman’s rogues gallery. Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, for example, is probably one of the best Batman graphic novels and stories of all time. One of the most renowned lines in that graphic novel summarizes The Joker almost perfectly: “If I’m going to have a history, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” The Joker represents a direct contrast to Batman, which is what partially makes him so alluring and fascinating in the first place (and why he’s such a good villain for the Caped Crusader). Batman has rules, and he’s a very meticulous man with years of training. He’s very methodical and disciplined; the kind of stoic loner that depends on no one but himself. The Joker, on the other hand, represents chaos incarnate. He has no plan, he has no rules, and he’s completely unpredictable. He’s very much the polar opposite of Batman, but at the same time, he’s Batman’s arch-nemesis. So, as you can imagine, there was much buzz when it was revealed that The Joker, probably Batman’s most popular and well-known villain, was going to headline the next chapter in the Batman franchise.

Everything seemed to get a lot clearer around July 2006 when Nolan was confirmed to return as director, Christian Bale was confirmed to reprise his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and Heath Ledger was announced as The Joker. The film would be titled The Dark Knight, and for the first time ever for a Batman film the word “Batman” would not be in the title. It was then that fans suspected that The Dark Knight was going to be something different altogether, but we had no idea what that meant at the time. The casting of Heath Ledger as The Joker caused a huge onslaught of controversy. He was an incredibly unexpected casting choice, especially given the names that were being bandied around by fans for months and months before that. Paul Bettany, Jude Law, Christopher Eccelston, Lachy Hulme, and countless others were all heavily speculated to don the white make-up and wear the purple outfit. Name any decently known actor and you can bet he was rumored for The Joker. Lachy Hulme became notorious at the time since Bill Ramey from Batman-On-Film had all but officially stated that Hulme was going to play The Joker. So imagine the surprise of everyone when Ledger was announced as The Joker. At the time, Ledger was known for doing mainstream Hollywood fare, and he had just completed Brokeback Mountain which established that Ledger had some serious acting talent. Fans were extremely skeptical, but it followed Nolan’s reputation for looking outside of the proverbial box for characters. For those that weren’t fanatical aficionados of the comics, the casting of Christian Bale (an unknown commodity at the time) was very unconventional, as was Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman, and the list continues. For several months, there was considerable backlash at Ledger’s casting, and fans seemed very dubious that he could pull off the role.

Heath Ledger as The Joker.

As 2006 came to a close, details on the film were exceedingly sparse. It was around this time that Nolan’s enigmatic nature solidified for us fans. One of Nolan’s defining attributes has been his reluctance to reveal any and all aspects of the films he works on. He likes to keep things fairly close to the chest, and he prefers to disclose as little as possible, allowing the audience to watch the film not having the entire story spoiled for them. It’s extremely admirable, and something I wished more filmmakers did (I’m looking at you, Robert Zemeckis). Of course, this only made following the filmmaking process even more frustrating for us fans, who were starving for any and all information on the film. However, as the New Year approached, Warner Bros. had something in store for us that would satisfy our insatiable hunger for anything related to the film. One thing that The Dark Knight introduced was “viral marketing” to the Hollywood system. Viral marketing is an immersive and interactive form of advertising that allows you to be a participatory member of the film’s production. While I’m sure it had been around before, it wasn’t until Dark Knight that a film had such an imaginatively elaborate marketing campaign. I’ll never forget the reveal of Heath Ledger as The Joker, where you had to submit your email (if memory serves me correctly) to a website, and with every contributor, another pixel was uncovered revealing more and more of Ledger as The Joker. If I remember correctly, this whole process took days, but it was just the tip of the iceberg when it came down to the film’s brilliant marketing campaign.

The viral marketing lasted for most of 2007, and it was simultaneously exhilarating and nerve-wracking for fans. For example, I’ll never forget the digital pumpkin during the month of October, and every day, it would rot more and more. Fans affectionately dubbed this pumpkin “Rory”, after the film’s codename title (“Rory’s First Kiss”). I can’t tell you the maddening experience of having to watch that pumpkin rot every single day for about a month, with each day bringing the slightest glimmer of hope that something might happen and we might see a new image or a new trailer or something. I have fond memories looking back on it now, but during that time, it was a hugely frustrating experience, but one that united us fans in always discussing and talking about the film. I think that was the most brilliant facet of the film’s marketing was that for more than a year fans were relentlessly talking about the film or participating in some viral marketing scheme. That’s why I think the marketing campaign for The Dark Knight was singularly brilliant because it kept the fans frequently thinking and talking about the film. I’ll also never forget the scavenger hunt in downtown Chicago. I was with my friend Francis, and according to the website “Citizens for Gotham”, we were supposed to meet around the Loop area. When we got there, people were handing out t-shirts, stickers and other memorabilia. We had to reach certain destinations or “check-points”, and eventually we found the Bat-signal being shined on the exterior of the Sears Tower. It was experiences like that in which I’ll never forget, and it made anticipating for The Dark Knight a really unique and amazing experience.

The Bat-Symbol on the Sears Tower.

What was also made The Dark Knight a unique experience, at least for me, was the fact that the film shot in Chicago for thirteen weeks. The previous film, Batman Begins, had shot in Chicago for only about three weeks and I was never quite able to “follow” that production as much as I would have liked. However, with The Dark Knight, I was older and “wiser”, and so for the thirteen weeks that the film shot in Chicago, I stalked that film like you wouldn’t believe. Thanks to SuperHeroHype and the advantageous people on the forums, I was able to make a site map of all the filming locations: where they were shooting and when. For three months, I was like a leech or a parasite and my host was The Dark Knight. Wherever the film went, I went. Since it was the summer, I had a lot of free time, and I dedicated that time to Christopher Nolan and the Dark Knight production.

One of my fondest memories stalking The Dark Knight production was near the beginning of filming, so around April 2007. I heard they were filming off of Randolph and Wells at a parking garage for a week. The location was notable because the crew had shot there for Batman Begins as well. In The Dark Knight, it’s the scene early on in the movie where Batman stops a meet-up between The Chechen, a Gotham City gangster, and The Scarecrow. During one of the nights they were filming, I went to the location with my friends Marla and Zelda. Security had blocked off most of the entrances, and a group of spectators had gathered outside of the parking garage trying to sneak a peek or a glimpse of what was happening. We watched for a little bit, talking to some of the people who had gathered outside of the building, and we noticed crew members leaving from a staircase within the building and walking over to the adjacent parking lot where filming trucks were parked. I was content just watching from afar, but my friends were a little more aggressive. We had managed to somehow circumvent security by entering from the side of the garage, and we bypassed one of the guards and entered the staircase leading up to the level where they were filming. We stayed there for a while, huddled in the upper section of some staircase level with a bunch of filmmaking equipment, and when we saw crew members approaching the door through the tiny window, we would scurry back to our little hideout. I remember looking out the window of the door and fleetingly thinking, “I wonder if Chris Nolan is going to come this way…”, and sure enough, only a few minutes later, a familiar looking gentlemen wearing a very impressively looking suit was approaching the door. I hurried back to my hiding spot with my friends, and as the door opened, my thoughts had materialized, as if I could suddenly make thoughts into reality: Christopher Nolan had entered the staircase. For a split second, that familiar shiver went down my spine, the hairs on my arms stood up, and my heart stopped if only for a quick moment. I was in the same vicinity as my idol, Christopher Nolan. He was literally inches away from us as he walked down the staircase. My friends pressured me into ambushing him, but I remember indignantly shouting, “I’m not ambushing Christopher Nolan in a parking garage staircase!”

The parking garage staircase where I nearly ambushed Christopher Nolan.

The moment passed, and Nolan was gone. After a while, we left the staircase, and went back to the spectator station across the street. I was shell-shocked for a few minutes after that. I was in the same vicinity as Christopher Nolan. It’s weird, because you see these people on TV or on the computer, and even though they are living, breathing people… you can’t help but think maybe they don’t exist at all. Maybe they are a part of The Matrix or maybe they are just figments of your imagination, created by the wonder of Hollywood, but in truth they aren’t real people at all. To be standing merely inches away from someone you idolize is a truly breath-taking experience and it took me a while to process what had happened. I had a similar moment sometime later that week. It was another night that I was stalking filming during the week they were shooting at the parking garage, and I had befriended two girls who were following the production as well. We had waited outside from about 10pm until 5am, when they wrapped. We were waiting for Nolan to come out so we could perhaps get his autograph or get a picture taken with him. After an exceptionally lengthy wait, Nolan came out of the parking garage with Wally Pfister and other crew members. They were just across the street from us. My heart once again temporarily stopped, and I’m sure by now it was probably getting tired of this. I could almost hear my heart telling me, “Man up and meet the man, you son of a bitch, because I’m about two seconds away from just pulling the plug on your skinny, bony ass.” I remember debating with these two girls about heading across the street and greeting Nolan, but after a while, we had determined it was probably not a good idea. Nolan had just spent the entire night working, and the last thing he probably wanted was to get accosted by some fans at five in the morning. So, rather grudgingly, we decided to leave Nolan be and just be satisfied with watching him from afar. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, this guy suddenly appears out of thin air, walks across the street, and gets his Ledger Joker poster signed by someone (a truck was obscuring our view, so we couldn’t determine if Nolan or Pfister or someone else altogether signed the poster). They didn’t even release a Ledger Joker poster at that point, so surely it must have been photoshopped. It wasn’t even a legitimate poster! In retrospect, it sounds comical, almost like out of a bad comedy or something. We had waited the entire night, but out of respect for Nolan and his crew, we decided not to walk over to him, and someone who probably had just gotten there pretty much did what we had wanted to do the entire night. I remember parting ways with the girls, who I never saw or heard from again, and it was an immensely sad departure and end to the evening. I’m pretty sure they probably blamed me for the sordid outcome of the evening, and I always wanted to apologize, but I never saw them again. I remember watching Nolan getting into his truck, speeding off, and miserably watching while the truck got smaller and smaller. It was like watching John Wayne ride off into the sunset, except in this case the sunset was actually the sunrise and John Wayne was a tall, dapper British man who likes tea.

However, I would not let that be the end. The very next day, I went back to the filming location, determined to get closer to Nolan or to end this week on a happier note. After all, it was the last day they would be filming at that location, so I figured it was “all or nothing”. With the knowledge that the security guards have a certain blind spot (or weakness in their peripheral vision), I ventured into the parking garage staircase once more with a new friend I had made earlier that evening while at the spectator station. We bypassed security, walked up the staircase, and stopped at the level in which they were filming. When I was there last with my friends, they were encouraging me to walk onto the set, but I was far too nervous. At this point, I was far more courageous, so I decided to go for it. My new friend and I had walked onto the level, and we literally saw them filming across the way. From what I could gather, I saw Nolan, Pfister, and stuntmen as both Batman and The Scarecrow. It was kind of surreal to be only feet away from Batman and The Scarecrow (who were both in full costume, I might add). We watched them for a few minutes, and then a production assistant walked on over and kindly asked us to leave. We did, and while it might have been a short-lived victory, it was an unbelievable experience. Furthermore, the evening ended on a fantastic note. That evening they filmed Batman jumping and landing atop of Scarecrow’s van. It was visible even from across the street, and it was truly something to see Batman land on top of a moving van merely yards away from you. I remember watching Batman, being played by a stunt man, land on top of the van, and then after the stunt, walk right back up the parking garage and do it all over again (and again). After that, since it was the last night they were filming, they were packing everything up. While I was waiting across the street, I swore I thought I saw The Tumbler parked on one of the levels. After waiting for a while, I was getting restless, but my patience was rewarded when I heard the grumbling sound that was remarkably similar to that of an engine (or the growl of a monster). My suspicions were correct, and The Tumbler came out of the parking garage. They were loading it on a flat-bed, and I was astoundingly close to the vehicle. At first, I was amazed at how small it was, but also how enormously loud it was. The security guards were telling us not to take any photos, but of course, being the duplicitous nerd that I am, managed to snap a few low-quality pictures on my cell phone. I mean, I was this close to The Tumbler. Did they really think I was going to let this opportunity pass without taking one or two (or three… or four…) pictures? I don’t think so.

Probably one of the most memorable experiences I had stalking The Dark Knight set was somewhere during the middle of the shoot. It was July 2007, and the production had set up shop in the Lower Wacker area for an intense vehicle chase. My friend Charles had come to visit from Florida, and we would routinely follow the production during the night shoots. One night in particular was an experience I doubt neither of us will ever forget. We were perched atop Upper Wacker with other spectators. We had a pretty good view of Lower Wacker where they were setting up the sequence. I took quite a few pictures of the Joker semi-truck which was parked right near the entrance to Lower Wacker. Anyway, later on in the evening, we noticed a Mercedes Benz pull up to the entrance. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting anyone of significance, since all of the people that had come and gone from that entrance-way up until that point didn’t seem to be all that recognizable. However, on this very night, someone of significance would happen to be getting out of that Mercedes Benz. Of all people, it was Heath Ledger. Charles and I positively freaked out, and while we couldn’t muster up anything to say out of sheer exhilaration, we did make quite a noise while we were excitedly jumping up and down. Ledger must have heard us as he looked up, gave us a wink and a smile, and then followed his assistant into the entrance and onto the set. The moment probably lasted for all of sixty seconds or less, but it was such an awesomely spectacular experience. Later that evening, Charles and I also noticed Ledger at the crafts table during the lunch break. He was casually lining up with the rest of the crew… but in full Joker make-up and regalia. It was quite amusing to see a bunch of regular people waiting in line to get food along with The Joker.

Heath Ledger on the set of “The Dark Knight”.

Speaking of Heath Ledger, I would soon be very grateful for that experience in ways that I never anticipated. It was January 2008 and I was back home in Florida for a slight reprieve. I’ll never forget this. I remember watching TV and my mom called for me. I walked on over to the home office and she told me that Heath Ledger had passed. For a few moments, I didn’t believe her. I thought it was some kind of practical joke. I remember standing still. As if paralyzed. The hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up and a chill traveled from the back of my neck all the way down to the very bottom of my body. Even when she showed me the article, I was momentarily in disbelief. It was incredibly difficult to imagine. That evening, as I discussed the news with my friends and watched the coverage on TV, the realization gradually dawned on me: Heath Ledger was gone. To be honest, I was never a huge fan of Ledger before The Dark Knight. I thought he did a very good performance in Brokeback Mountain and I remembered him from films like Monster’s Ball and 10 Things I Hate About You. However, the unexpected loss of someone so young and irrefutably talented was a huge shock to the system. It was particularly devastating after I saw Ledger’s performance in the film. It became hugely apparent that we lost someone so extraordinarily talented. There are times in my life where I’ll watch a film or observe a performance or see a musician perform and I’ll go, “I’ll never be able to even emulate the brilliance of that artist.” When I saw Ledger as The Joker, I knew I was watching something special. Something I had never seen before. I watched him, and I noticed every mannerism, every tick, and every flick of his tongue. I observed him like a professor might observe his class, and each and every time I watched The Dark Knight, I uncovered a new layer to his performance like pulling back the layers of an onion. The mark of a good artist, in my opinion, is when someone can completely lose themselves in what they do to the point where you can’t even recognize them. Heath Ledger wasn’t acting when he played The Joker. He transformed himself. He let the role consume him. He was unrecognizable. Where Heath Ledger once was, The Joker remained. It was an incredibly remarkable performance. When you watch Heath Ledger as The Joker, I dare you to see any of Ledger in that performance. You can’t, simply because Ledger absolutely lost himself in the role. That’s the sign of a brilliant artist, and Ledger was beyond brilliant. He was extraordinary… and he’ll never be replaced. He was individualistic, unique, and revolutionary. He was a true artist in every sense of the word. He created something untouchable with The Joker, and while there will be others who will undoubtedly play the role in the future, Ledger’s take will be iconic. It will be classic. Ledger put a stamp on The Joker that no one will be able to duplicate. It was wholly original, and that’s what any artist strives for, and Ledger achieved that and then some. For that, he will be truly missed. There’ll never be another Heath Ledger

I’ll never forget the summer of 2008. It was noteworthy for a few different reasons. I was back in Chicago and I was apprenticing under someone who taught me so much about film. Beyond anticipating The Dark Knight, I made my first film that summer as a writer/producer/director. Those things alone would have made my year, but getting The Dark Knight in the same summer was beyond anything I could have asked for. Similar to Batman Begins, I’ll never forget the first time I saw The Dark Knight at midnight on July 17th, 2008. I had been waiting three years for this film and I couldn’t believe I was actually sitting in the theater and waiting for the film to start. There is a surrealistic sensation about sitting in the theater waiting for a film like this to start, especially one that you have followed with much enthusiasm for so long. I remember being in a sort of catatonic state, where everyone and everything around me moved at a much slower pace. When I typically watch films in the theater, I look forward to the previews, but with The Dark Knight, I was bearing through them, waiting for the movie to start with such intense anticipation. The seconds felt like minutes and the minutes felt like hours. I remember watching films before The Dark Knight that summer, like Hellboy 2, and I remember thinking, “Well, this isn’t The Dark Knight, but soon enough it will be.” Sitting down in that theater in downtown Chicago where they shot a majority of the film, and where a year previously I was with them every step of the way was something truly special. Chicago is my home. It’s where I grew up. Now, however, with the Nolan Batman movies, Chicago has a totally new meaning for me. It’s not just my home, but it’s Batman’s home now, too. When I walk around downtown Chicago, and I see those familiar locations, a huge grin etches across my face almost as big as The Joker’s. I’ll never forget the very last frames of the film with the Bat-Pod racing toward the beam of light, the smash cut to black, and then the title. The audience clapped and cheered, but I was immobile in my seat. Sitting next to a couple friends of mine, I couldn’t muster up any sort of reaction. They immediately thought that implied something negative, like I had disliked the film or something, but I was too overwhelmed by what I had just seen to immediately have any sort of decipherable reaction. I just sat there, feeling numb, but not in the bad way. It was a good sensation. I just remember sitting there in awe. I was dumbstruck, and I couldn’t believe I just witnessed what had unspooled right before my eyes. Of course, I had just seen the film I was waiting three years for, and my first discernible reaction was: “What’s going to happen next?” It was like Batman Begins all over again. I had undergone so much while waiting for the film, and now that I had the film in my grasp, with the experience behind me, I was left wanting more. I was salivating, my adrenaline was racing, my heart was pumping, and I couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen next. Suffice to say; little did I know what was in store for me and the legacy of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight.  The beginning of the end had just begun.

— Dan Marcus


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