Friday, August 01, 2008

Mikey on Dark Knight's Secondary Casting

[I wanted to grab Mikey's comment on the Dark Knight and give it its own post. On the one hand, of course, Dark Knight has such massive production values that it can afford paychecks on a secondary cast that is almost whole recognizable. But this idea that there is something intentional about it, that it relates to the pulps, is really neat, and has my attention. Casting is an aspect of filmmaking that I find particularly fascinating. We play a game in my house where we try to be the first to identify where an actor we vaguely recognize is from; we place our bets and then go to and the google. Sara and I had a field day with this one:

That is Mrs Landingham from the West Wing, the guy from the incest episode of Stranger's With Candy (AND he was Chip on Kate and Allie), the ambassador from the unnamed middle eastern country on the sixth season of 24, and a woman who was in another commercial where she was delivering mail and a washer-dryer someone hated came shooting out of a house.

I should probably be ashamed to know all of that, but, as I mentioned in my essay on House, casting is a lot like word choice in a poem -- it is often really helpful to know the history of the actor/word to get the meaning intended. As Mikey notes, there is a good reason Eric Roberts is cast in Dark Knight.

Anyway, here is Mikey:

Good good good x a billion and forgive me if I go on a bit here was Eric Roberts and lots of the C-list casting. It's the influence of the pulps and the Batman animated series and it really worked for me.

So named on the poster you have all this talent: Bale, Caine, Oldman (who is amazing and even fricking looks like a drawing in this), Ledger, Freeman. These are the 'flagship' high profile characters that populate Batman's universe. But in the comics and movies you've always had lesser figures: gangsters, wiseguys, grizzled types, sometimes overtly freakish, sometimes human but always faintly grotesque or characterful/memorable. There's always a hook to them, often an incongruity. This is important because it makes the Batman mythos distinct and is a unique retention of the pulp origins not just of Batman but all superheroes (it's also one of the few things Burton's 2 Batman movies got right - the world of carnival freak shows, spectacular stunts, circus strongmen). It's also there in the difference I've always loved between characters referring to him as The Bat-Man (urban legend) and Batman (superhero, brand). The whole world has to be made up of 'types' that carry with them the pulp carnival.

This is where Eric Roberts'll either work for you as a viewer or undermine the whole attempt at seriousness - How to suggest this in your big movie? Cast a bunch of instantly recognisable "That Guys" who look like cartoon characters brought to life (Michael Jai White, William Fichtner, the great Ron Dean). These are the guys who'll never be on the poster, the inverse of all your good-looking, ridiculously well paid lead actors. The incongruous and the underside of the movie business. They also all play underworld- or underbelly-type characters. It's like a hypertelic version of Tom Wilkinson's gangster in Batman Begins who looks like he's appeared from out of a different movie entirely - a 1930s gangster flick. This is perfectly in keeping with the Batman aesthetic, which the writers of the Batman animated series knew instinctively. Batman Begins, lest we forget, also featured Rutger Hauer and Colin Macfarlane, who English viewers know from the goddam Fast Show!! And now, TV's Eric Roberts as the boss of a crime syndicate. Garish.

Hence: of course Dark Knight's Gotham City has a Mayor who looks like he's wearing eyeliner the whole time.


scott91777 said...

Yes! The Eyeliner thing! Thank you! That was driving me nuts!

I don't have a problem with smaller parts being played by semi-known actors... at least they are playing named characters.

Something that I found very distracting in this movie though was the tendency to have no name bit characters suddenly become the 'star' for a scene. For example, the wise-cracking guy in the armored truck? Did we need that guy? Why was he there? Or the guy on the civilian boat? I mean, I love the scene where the convict throws the switch off the side... but why did that other guy become so important? Surely this sort of thing must happen in other movies... but it was just much more noticeable... to the point of being distracting... in this movie.

I noticed this in Batman Begins... remember the guy who was the 'chief engineer' or whatever of the Gotham Water works? We never saw this guy before in the movie... and, suddenly, we're being told to pay attention to him.

Is it just me? Maybe it's that Nolan has slightly hammy actors in all of these roles so I just notice them more than usual.

James said...

There's some unintentional fun with Michael Jai White, who someone pointed out played Spawn on the big-screen. Obviously there's Spawn's status as a post-Batman anti-hero, but there's also the fact that the Spawn/Batman crossover is explicitly stated to be part of one of the most important Bat-canons, Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns universe. And then you have Spawn's arch-nemesis: a scary clown.

OFF-TOPIC: Geoff, is your blog now straining under the weight of Dark Knight guest-posts? I only ask because I've got a half-written bit (unfinished because I haven't been home for days) about my unequivocal love for the movie, which I thought might provide a bit of counter-balance to the consensus here. I was originally gonna stick it in the freeform comments, but it became grotesque and swollen... anyway, any interest?

Geoff Klock said...

no man -- send it to me. I like the Dark Knight conversation around here.

pla said...

I would just like to comment that referring to Eric Roberts as "TV's Eric Roberts" makes me feel really old. He had a lengthy career playing creeps in movies (Star 80 is particularly recommended) before settling down to TV work.

I'm interested in the idea of deliberately choosing hammy actors for a particular Gotham tone, but I'm not entirely sure I buy it, given the relentlessly self-important performances by everyone else. Even the other character actors weren't hamming it up as much as Roberts.

That said, I think the totally unexpected appearance of William Fichtner in the opening scene was the best part of the movie for me. It was all downhill from there.

hcduvall said...

It's interesting how Batman as a character has had so many variations that depictions of him now can call back to so many different things without being bogged down.

I think civilian focus on the boats is to show the people of Gotham who everyone else is talking about. But yeah, the contrast between the way the convict boat was played vs. the civilian boat is starker considering the acting styles. Where that seems to work is with Gary Oldman, I think. He's playing Gordon compared to most of the other name leads.

The old guy in Batman Begins was a bit off, but I think the reason is that I believe it's a cameo from the comic side? I'm afraid I forget who he is though.

Jason said...

On the intentionality of casting ... given that, as Geoff points out in his book, there is -- at least according to Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns -- a sexual dimension to the Batman/Joker relationship, and considering that certain moments in the screenplay did play that up (the Joker tells Batman, "You complete me" at one point) ... is it possible that the casting of Heath Ledger was deliberate, given that his most celebrated turn to date before The Dark Knight was as a homosexual cowboy? (Recall that Frank Miller also casts Batman as a cowboy in The Dark Knight Returns.)

Funny too then that Batman's female interest is re-cast for this film, now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, the sister of Ledger's partner in Brokeback Mountain.

Or it's just a coincidence. I dunno. Something that occurred to me when I finally saw the movie, and hadn't seen referenced anywhere that I saw.

Kyle said...

Jason, my main mental connection between this and Brokeback was how Ledger switched extremes from being bottled up and repressed to playing the Joker. Thanks for the extra bits of stuff that didn't occur to me yet.

Mikey said...

Man, I am on holiday now so not really around a computer much. I'll be back in a week if something comes up that needs addressing. In the mean time, just saying it's not a case of me being negligent.

Scott - I think the kind of distracting nature of it is definitely what first got me (I remember thinking that about the Wayne Tower engineer quite explicitly, and, again, thinking WHY are they doing that?)

But whether it's intentional or not doesn't interest me so much as the kind of resonance it generates, the kind of current that emerges within the film/between it and other movies/between the movie and the audience etc. Looking through Dark Knight Returns and other Miller books it strikes me just how crazy and distracting ALL of his bit-part characters are and it has a carnival-like effect (for me anyway). The hamminess and the garishness are the two critical bits of this. The nourishing sense of Batman as part of an entire repertoire.

Pla - I LOVED how you (the viewer) clocks William Fichtner and responds: woah! It's that guy! Then, from a totally inconsequential role he produces a shotgun and starts firing. It's really jarring. I had no idea what was going on but I love the reveal that it's because it's a Mob Bank and that's what Mob Bank Managers do! It's exactly the kind of strangely-pitched nuts I'd expect from a Miller comic (maybe his Robocop 2 stories....)

Jason, Kyle - Those Brokeback connections kind of registered with me but I wasn't sure how much to make of it. The "You Complete Me..." line was so unoriginal that it almost seemed like both the Nolans and the Joker character himself were only mentioning it out of a sense of obligation (again with this Joker - there may or may not be any truth in it but hell, let's just throw it out there).