Tim Burton Needed A Jack Nicholson Translator On The Set Of Batman

1989's "Batman" may have defined the modern superhero blockbuster, but it sounds like it was an absolute nightmare to make. Michael Keaton must have been on the verge of a panic attack in his claustrophobic rubber suit, having already been derided as completely wrong for the lead role by so many people prior to the film's release. Meanwhile, production designer Anton Furst had erected a hellish vision of urban decay on the stages of England's famous Pinewood Studios. There, the film's crew would shoot nearly all day for six days a week, meaning they wouldn't see daylight for weeks at a time.

It must have been a truly surreal experience, which likely compounded the woes of director Tim Burton, who was by his own account in the midst of his own nightmare. The then 30-year-old had been given his biggest budget yet to bring DC's premier superhero to the big screen, having only done two major movies at that point: "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" and "Beetlejuice." It was undoubtedly a terrifying experience. Actor Robert Wuhl, who played Alexander Knox in "Batman," put it succinctly: "At the time people tend to forget 'Batman' was the biggest movie of all time, the most expensive movie, and there was a lot of people's careers riding on this thing, especially at the Warner Bros. end."

Once he set to work on "Batman," Burton had to fight Warner Bros. on the inclusion of Robin, on top of accommodating considerable rewrites at the behest of producer Jon Peters. Imagine dealing with all that and then, when arguably one of the biggest stars in the world — Jack Nicholson — steps on set, you can't understand a word he's saying. Yes, the Joker himself was apparently mostly incomprehensible to Burton, whose struggles didn't let up for the rest of production.

'How many [films] have you made?'

After pushing through the already tough pre-production process, Tim Burton found he had to endure even more stress on the "Batman" set. In his director's commentary for the film, Burton recalls a tense moment when Jack Palance, the Hollywood vet who played mob boss Carl Grissom, snapped at him. The actor didn't hear Burton call "Action" in a particular scene, prompting the filmmaker to cut and talk to Palance, who apparently said, "I've made over a hundred films, how many have you made?"

The answer at the time was, "Not that many," and Burton was feeling the pressure. Despite being an in-demand director following the success of "Beetlejuice," he was still pretty much the shy loner kid from suburban Burbank. As he put it in the February 2023 issue of Empire, "Back in the day, I could barely string several sentences together. I had real trouble communicating." That didn't really help when it came to orchestrating a movie on the scale of "Batman," especially when trying to communicate with its biggest star.

Jack Nicholson's popularity was at an apex in 1988, to the point that he'd negotiated an unprecedented contract to star in "Batman." It included stipulations that stated he would shoot all his scenes in a three-week window and be allowed to leave to watch Los Angeles Lakers home games. He also agreed to cut his standard fee of $10 million to $6 million for a cut of the film's box office and merchandising — a move that paid off when "Batman" became the global phenomenon it did. As if all that wasn't enough, he further secured top-billing, ensuring his name appeared before Keaton's in the opening titles even though Keaton was playing the titular character. Suffice to say, Nicholson was a big star.

Burton couldn't understand his biggest star

While Jack Nicholson had successfully negotiated a cushy contract for "Batman," his attempts to communicate with Tim Burton were far less effortless. As the director told Empire:

"Jack has a very abstract way of speaking. So he would say things to me and I'd go, 'Yeah, I get it,' and then I'd go to someone, 'What the f*** was he just talking about?' So there was this weird communication: non-linear, non-connective ... But it was very clear to me. I felt like we had a good sort of caveman-style communication."

Nicholson's sly drawl has always been one of his trademarks, and he's used it to great, and strangely sinister, effect in almost every movie he's ever made. Unfortunately, it didn't translate to the best director/actor communication, but in a way that didn't matter. As Burton went on to say, he felt supported by having Nicholson there, and found having "one of the greatest actors of all time" present and in his corner oddly comforting. He added:

"[Nicholson] protected me and nurtured me, kept me going, by just not getting too overwhelmed with the whole thing. I felt really supported by him in a very deep way. I was young and dealing with a big studio, and he just quietly gave me the confidence to do what I needed to do. And him being a voice of support had a lot of resonance with the studio. It got me through the whole thing. It gave me strength."

Nicholson knew what he was doing

After "Batman" was complete and out in the world, Tim Burton said, "I worked six days a week and exhausted myself because I feared I wasn't doing a good job. I still have amnesia about some of it." The whole production sounds like a real slog despite Jack Nicholson being a surprising bright spot. I say "surprising" because anyone who had read his contract demands might surmise he had become somewhat of a diva at that point in his career. But the reality was that Nicholson knew his worth, and he knew what Warner Bros. had on its hands.

As Nicholson put it in a making-of featurette, "I knew how big it was going to be. I knew this." That confidence not only allowed the actor to, very presciently, organize things so he got a cut of the impressive profits once they rolled it, it obviously went a long way towards making others feel more comfortable with a movie that was undoubtedly a huge risk for everyone involved — and not just Burton.

Interestingly, if you listen to the rest of Nicholson's interview from that featurette, you might understand a little of what Burton was talking about. The actor goes on to say, at considerable speed: "For instance, they had a good feeling about it, but in the area which I'm involved in it, I don't care, but it also cost me some dough, they were totally unprepared for the level of the success of the movie." It's almost indecipherable in places, which gives you a sense of what Burton was dealing with. Nicholson is, in all honesty, one of the most capable and insightful actors to ever do it, but his mind obviously runs at a pace even the great Tim Burton couldn't match.