David S. Goyer thought he had scratched his Batman itch for good, but then a unique challenge presented itself in the form of the narrative podcast.
Goyer, who’s written for Batman across four movies and numerous comic books, returns to the character by way of Batman Unburied, a narrative podcast from Spotify, DC and Warner Bros. The first two episodes were released on May 3, and they’re already ranking atop Spotify’s podcast charts in the U.S. and eight other countries.
The story begins in uncharted territory as Bruce Wayne (Winston Duke) is a forensic pathologist who’s investigating a Gotham serial killer known as the Harvester. If that premise wasn’t unique enough already, it’s also worth noting that Thomas (Lance Reddick) and Martha Wayne are still very much alive in this unconventional Batman story.
The Michigan native, who’s most known for his writing contributions to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, imposed his own mandate if he was going to commit to telling another Batman story.
“It wasn’t a mandate that DC or Spotify gave me. I just wanted to do something I hadn’t done before. So I was interested in coming up with a storyline that had a number of twists and turns in which we pull the rug out from under the audience,” Goyer tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Goyer recently had a unique moviegoing experience courtesy of Matt Reeves’ The Batman. It was the first time he’s been able to watch a live-action, Batman-centric movie that he wasn’t involved with since Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997).
“I didn’t know exactly what to expect or what I would think of it. I saw it with a number of my crew members on Foundation, and they were all expecting me to hate it. But I really enjoyed it a lot. I really like [Robert] Pattinson’s Batman, and I like what they did with the Riddler. Reeves is a really good filmmaker, so I was in for the ride,” Goyer says.
In a recent conversation with THR, Goyer also discussed the ways in which he changed his writing style for Batman Unburied’s audio format. Then he looks back at The Dark Knight Rises as its 10th anniversary is right around the corner.
You’ve been a part of a few Batman stories over the years. What made you come back to the character in this fashion?
Well, it was two-fold. Spotify actually reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in doing a narrative podcast, an original audio story. I’m a fan of them, and I always like experimenting in different mediums and different formats. When I worked on the Call of Duty franchise, for instance, I’d never worked on a video game before. So the different challenges of what each medium requires kind of excite me as a creator. When I worked on Vader Immortal, the VR project, I had a similar experience. And it’s the same here with an audio original. This story, if you were applying it to comic books, is like an Elseworlds Batman story, or it’s like something we might do with DC’s Black Label. It’s just more hard hitting. Suspense and horror, those things work really well in the audio space, and so I was interested in doing a Batman story that was more psychological and verging on horror.
Did you change your writing style at all for the podcast medium?
The way that you deal with exposition is different than if you were dealing with a purely visual medium. Certain things like car chases or action scenes don’t really work well in the narrative medium, whereas you might be able to communicate information purely visually if you were doing a television show or a feature. So we had to figure out different ways of getting that information across either through the voice acting or through the soundscape and the sound cues. So just as a creative technical challenge, that interested me.
There are some really cool casting choices such as Lance Reddick as Thomas Wayne. What was the casting philosophy in general?
We had a lot more liberty with the voice casting than we might have if we were making a feature film. So when I talked to Spotify, Warner Bros. and DC, I said that I really wanted to go for some actors who might not be traditionally thought of to play Batman, the Riddler or Barbara Gordon, and they were completely open. In fact, they were excited about it, so that’s how we got such an incredibly exciting casting. Winston Duke [as Bruce Wayne] was one of my first choices. I’m a huge fan of his and I love what he’s done.
The story begins in a unique place as Bruce is a forensic pathologist, and he’s doing an autopsy to learn more about this serial killer known as the Harvester. Was it a prerequisite for you that you couldn’t begin where most Batman stories begin?
Yes, it was for me, but it wasn’t a mandate that DC or Spotify gave me. They just said, “Hey, we want to know if you’d love to come up with a Batman story.” But I’ve written Batman comic books, and obviously, I’ve worked on at least four Batman movies. (Laughs.) So I just wanted to do something I hadn’t done before. I’ve also never worked on a Batman serialized streaming or television show. The last time I dealt with Batman in an episodic format was in the comic books, and one of the things that’s fun with comic books is that you can play around with cliffhangers. You can turn over different cards. So I was interested in coming up with a storyline that had a number of twists and turns in which we pull the rug out from under the audience.
One of the things that’s really fun about this story is that the primary villains who are pulling the strings behind what’s happening to Bruce and Batman aren’t immediately apparent in the first few episodes. Even though they exist and appear in the first few episodes, not all is what it seems.
Batman stories are often shaped by their villains. How did you arrive at Harvester as a new villain who’s first up to bat?
I was interested in seeing if I could explore some different members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery. To be frank, I think if we did the [Harvester] justice in the visual medium, it would probably get an NC-17 rating or something like that. (Laughs.) So what’s cool when you’re just doing audio is that you can let the audiences’ imagination fill in the gaps. And often, what they fill in is either more graphic or horrific or disturbing than anything we could have come up with as filmmakers. So that was interesting.
How else did the medium change your past approach to the character?
A lot of Batman stories are told from an objective standpoint. You’re showing different characters as they relate to Batman, and we’re on the outside looking in. But what was interesting with something like this is that you almost have to figure out ways for Bruce or Batman to narrate it. So that allows us a more internal or more subjective perspective on the character that we don’t frequently see depicted. Ironically, though, one of the things that I liked about Matt Reeves’ The Batman is that we were hearing his voice-over diary, which is frankly not something that had occurred to me before in that regard. But we were able to tackle that when he’s leaving his lab notes to himself or recording things. We’re getting his internal observations or we’re hearing him in phone conversations or over the radio or things like that. So instead of being on the outside looking in, this story takes place more from the inside looking outward, and that was a fun opportunity for me.
You’ve been involved with four Batman movies since 2005 including The Dark Knight trilogy and Batman v Superman, so Matt Reeves’ film was the first time in a while where you were able to watch a Batman-centric movie like any other fan. Was that a rewarding experience for you?
It was rewarding for me. It’s interesting because when you read Batman comics, there are miniseries, graphic novels, Earth One versions, Elseworlds stories and Black Label stories, and all of these different writers and artists doing their particular take on a Batman story. So, many of them are quite different and many of them are quite unusual, and that’s one of the fun parts of consuming comic books. So I just saw [The Batman] fairly recently in Prague, and I didn’t know exactly what to expect or what I would think of it. I saw it with a number of my crew members on Foundation, and they were all expecting me to hate it. But I really enjoyed it a lot. (Laughs.) It was a fun experience. I really like [Robert] Pattinson’s Batman, and I like what they did with the Riddler. Reeves is a really good filmmaker, so I was in for the ride.
The selling point of The Batman was that it showed Batman as “the World’s Greatest Detective” for the first time, which would often prompt me to remind people that Chris Nolan’s movies certainly had detective elements and sequences in them. So what do you remember about your conversations with Chris regarding how much detective material to include?
It was something that we were aware of and something that we played around a bit more in The Dark Knight, in particular. And it was also something that I was interested in exploring with Batman Unburied. He’s not a detective per se, at least when the story begins, but he is a forensic pathologist. So the character lies in this intersection between solving crimes and still being a medical expert. The inciting incident that usually turns Bruce into Batman is the murder of his parents, so I was interested in exploring what would happen if his parents had never been murdered. Would he have gone into crime fighting? Would he have gone into the medical field? He probably wouldn’t have become Batman, so at least in this version, that’s how we arrived at him still being a detective. He’s just more of a forensics detective. But yeah, I was interested in exploring his detective side both in The Dark Knight films with Chris and in this new story.
Batman movies have probably gone as dark as they can possibly go without becoming R-rated theatrical releases. Do you think there will eventually be a paradigm shift that leads the character back to a lighter, maybe even campier tone?
I do. I think that these stories wax and wane; they’re cyclical. While there might be die-hard comic book readers that want to see an R-rated Batman, I don’t know that there’s a mainstream audience that necessarily wants to see an R-rated Batman. I’m curious how much longer the audience’s hunger for a completely bleak and nihilistic version of Batman exists out there. So I do think we’ll eventually swing back the other way. I mean, there will be campy versions, there will be animated versions, but could there be a more fun and kind of breezy adventurous Batman? I think we’ll eventually see that in the next five or six years. I think these things tend to happen in 20-year cycles.
I know there are more DC character podcasts in the works, but are you involved in any of them?
I am involved in at least two others right now. I don’t want to say what they are, but one exists in the Batman: Unburied universe and one doesn’t.
The 10-year anniversary of Dark Knight Rises is right around the corner, and its themes are as relevant as ever today. So how does that movie resonate with you now?
When we were working on those films, it was really important to Chris and myself to hopefully make films that were timeless. So as much as we were looking at current events when we were writing the films and coming up with the storylines, we were also looking backward and taking inspiration from films that we loved 40 or 50 years ago.
So we asked ourselves why these films haven’t lost any of their luster 40 or 50 years after they’d been made, and what makes something a classic. And more often than not, it’s because you’re dealing with timeless themes. You’re dealing with the Joseph Campbell myth, but you’re also not trying to come up with a plotline that is specifically ripped from today’s headlines, because those stories tend not to date well. So it’s all about what’s classic, what’s timeless and what are the concerns that every generation deals with. Those were certainly the kinds of questions we asked ourselves when we were crafting those stories.
I’ve enjoyed some of the smaller films you’ve produced recently such as The Night House and Antlers. Since you’ve mostly worked on huge tentpoles, how do these experiences compare?
They’re immensely rewarding. That’s why I started doing it with my producing partner, Keith Levine. It’s two-fold. It’s liberating to do a movie that doesn’t have a $150 million or $200 million price tag because, in some ways, you can take more chances. There’s less at stake economically with a $6 million film than there is with a $150 million film. Not every story requires a $150 million price tag and not every TV show requires $14 million an episode or something crazy like that. The other thing is that I really like collaborating with filmmakers, writers and directors, such as [The Night House director] David Buckner. So hopefully I can lend some of my experience to their film or my name, if it can help get something made. I get just as much joy from being a godfather to a project as I do from creating something original. It’s just a different kind of joy. It scratches a different kind of itch, I would say.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Batman Unburied is now airing on Spotify.