BAT-GENIUS: Anton Furst – He Made Nightmares into Reality

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We really wanted to express the evil quality of Gotham City. The first line of the script that Tim was involved with was ‘Hell has erupted through the pavements and just carried on growing

– Anton Furst

Anton Furst accomplished many things in his life, but the one accomplishment all Batman fans remember him for best is giving birth to the coolest, sweetest, sexiest Batman ride that ever was.

His version of the Batmobile (in collaboration with Tim Burton) has influenced everything Batman related since 1989, it is the enduring image from the Batman 1989 film that still resonates with fans today.  His meticulous set designs allowed collaborator and director Tim Burton to bring Gotham City to life on the big screen, in a way never before seen or imagined.

Anton was a craftsman who would work closely with directors to help them accomplish their vision. He graduated from the Royal College of Art in London, he won an Academy Award for his production design work on Batman. His career was short, but memorable. Directors respected his work, and sadly, he killed himself in 1991 at age 47, following troubles with substance abuse and separation from his wife.

Anton Furst

Anton worked with the infamous recluse Stanley Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket and later with the ever melancholy imagineer Tim Burton on Batman. He was a meticulous production designer who cared about his craft and had high standards. What some people call “perfectionism”, I would call passion and attention to detail, the kind of qualities that embody Batman himself.

A contributor to a handful of quality films, Anton was head-hunted to work on Batman. Without him, Gotham City would have just been a stage background no different than any other. But with his contributions (along with concept artist Nigel Phelps) Anton helped Burton bring his vision of Gotham to life.

With a wealth of knowledge on architecture, art, production design and practical experience, he brought a level of total professionalism to his work no matter the job. From hospital interiors in Awakenings to recreating Vietnam in England for Kubrick in Full Metal Jacket. He worked intimately with Tim Burton to create a unique “nightmarish” Gothic vision of Gotham City that would influence everything Batman related that came after.  Anton could draw and imagine and bring to life just about anything on a set.

His intimate knowledge of lighting, cameras and shadow was critical to the success of 1989’s Batman.  His recommendations were ignored by some directors, but with Tim Burton he found not just a collaborator, but a man he resonated so closely with that no matter what film they worked on together, it would have been something special.

Anton was not precious about his work, there were no sacred cows in his view on the art of cinema. He was not a fan of cinema verite, stating that “two people talking on a train” was not really using the potential of cinema.

Anton started a laser special effects company in the 1970s with John Wolff and Nick Phillips, with lasers supplied by none other than rock group The Who, whom he also worked with. Holoco was involved with science fiction films Alien, Star Wars, Superman and Outland among others.

During this era Furst once asked The Who (over the phone) for a hand with some equipment for laser light show The Light Fantastic. Without warning they flew a helicopter over just half an hour later loaded with lasers for a light show. Roger Daltry and some technicians had turned up unannounced.

And within a half an hour he had a fuckin’ helicopter turning up on the lawn with three lasers and three technicians in tow. I was pinned to the wall by Daltry, barking, ’Who’s involved in this thing?

-Anton Furst [Bomb magazine interview by Lynn Geller]

Anton Furst, Batman 1989 Production Designer
“Flugelheim Museum” was a cheeky parody of Guggenheim Museum

Anton was a professional, a hard worker who brought out the best in any production (film or otherwise).  He was an artist in the true sense of the word and when people talk about him, they are filled with praise for his contributions to the world, including his most well known work, creating the “noirish nightmare version of Gotham City”.

Unfortunately, there are few interviews with Anton, and while the movie stars generally get the gloss and directors get the auteur respect, production designers generally are not remembered in the history books. However, for his efforts working on Batman, Anton did win the Academy Award for Art Direction. From the few interviews still available to read online today, it is clear that Furst loved his work.

His soft and eloquently spoken voice can be full of praise for a film one minute, and then highly critical the next – but in an affectionate and warm way, even his hardest criticisms of film, or specific individuals come across in a light and playful, matter of fact way.

To listen to Anton talk about cinema is somewhat hypnotic, he gets the mythic and symbolic universal nature of stories.  Every artist needs a ‘voice’, no matter the production he was on he brought a unique voice and attitude.  He could talk all day about a single shot, scene or theme with such depth and insight that you would be enthralled and never bored.

Why is it that a man can live his life, and be remembered more for his death than anything else? I think a man is defined more by how he lives, than how he died.  Let’s put an end to that, because Anton was a craftsman, a hard worker. I can call him an artistic genius, but any artist knows that no matter what medium you work in, Genius is 10% Inspiration and 90% Perspiration. Those who work hard get results. If you have talent, as Anton Furst did, then you work damn hard and maybe something will come of it.

All of us have our demons, and our flaws, but they don’t stop us from living a life worth remembering. I believe that the nature of man is innately good, and so I can be critical of a man’s behaviour, while still seeing the person behind the behaviour as worthy of love and respect.

The world has enough critics, I think it needs a few more lovers, those who are grateful to be alive and let their passions drive them to live authentic lives. I think we need more artists, artisans and dreamers, for they shape the world we live in, more than we realise and most of them are damn hard workers. Was Anton Furst this sort of man? Buggered if I know, but I hope he was, I imagine he was. The Batmobile looked so effortlessly cool in Batman 1989, how could he NOT a be a dreamer, artist and craftsman?

Anton worked closely with Tim Burton on Batman, so much so that even though he did not get the Batman Returns job (due to contractual obligations), the foundations of his designs are the basis that former Burton ‘collaborateur’ Bo Welch  (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands) built on in Batman Returns. It was not the first time that Burton could not get Anton. Tim had wanted Anton to work with him on Beetlejuice, but it just didn’t happen.

Batman Returns was a ‘lighter’ film in the set design department, at the request of the studio. It was less oppressive than the Gotham seen in 1989‘s Batman. However despite these production design changes, Batman Returns ended up being a darker film thematically. It starts with a baby being dumped in the sewers by negligent parents who should have gone to prison.

Not exactly a fun summer action movie in my view.  But then Tim Burton even at his worst is rather subversive, taking a page out of the books of Roald Dahl and Dr Suess, who layer in sly (sometimes cynical) and highly critical social commentary of the establishment in most of their works.  The beauty of storytellers like Dahl, Suess or Burton is that you often don’t notice the social commentary or criticisms of mainstream society.

The definitive cinematic version of Gotham City was brought to life by that close collaboration on Batman ’89 between Burton and Anton.  Furst’s meticulous work and craftsmanship would go on to influence every cinematic version of Batman to follow, and of course Batman the Animated Series which kept the anachronistic timeless look of dark forbidding architecture forcing its way through the grimy corrupted pavement from Burton and Anton’s BATMAN.

batwing-concept

Batman 1989 was a well crafted film, but not without flaws. Whether you look at Batman or its sequel Batman Returns, both films suffer a remarkable lack of actual citizens living in Gotham City. Next time you watch it, notice how every scene that involves extras as Gotham Citizens seems to have no more than the same ten extras in any given scene.

It is as if the entire city is either on vacation or hiding indoors. Whether it was a budgetary consideration or simply the lack of extras available while filming at the famous Pinewood Studios – known for the Dick Donner Superman series and James Bond series – from filming rather than the usual avalanche of extras available at the mere mention of a free sandwich and coffee in Hollyweird, I don’t know.

I like Batman ’89, but I don’t love it. I remember being excited about when I was a kid, and  I had a really sweet poster on my wall of Batman standing next to the Batmobile.

I think Micheal Keaton did an admirable job as Batman, but I much prefer him in other films like Clean and Sober, Mr Mom or Beetlejuice where his talents are fully utilised.  Keaton has a pleasing face, like that Uncle you had when you were a kid who would always give you candy, comic books, listened to The Doors rather than The Beatles and seemed to be somehow ‘cooler’ than other stuffy relatives.

When Keaton’s face is covered up, you lose that endearing, affectionate quality he has.  Like Bill Murray or John Cusack, he’s a guy you just can’t help but love on screen.  He can do comedy, he can do drama, and he’s authentic and believable in pretty much any role.

The thing I still love as much, if not more than then from Batman ’89 however – is the Batmobile. I’m not a “car guy”, but I do love the movie version of the Batmobile, every other version I have never cared about whatsoever, or paid any real attention to. But the Furstmobile is bad-ass, it is a total beast of a car, like a bat out of hell, a “war machine” in Anton’s words.

Combining the sleek thin look and functionality (or lack of) of a Salt Flats Racer, the modern day Drag Racers jet engine and the big fins and curvaceous sleek sexy body of a 50s luxury car. There is something so primal about that car, the way it roars to life and captures your attention, it’s a force of nature. A stealth bomber combined with a jet fighter plane, thrown into a blender with a muscle car, a drag racer and a 50s luxury car, it travels forward in time and steals DNA from some sports concept car yet-to-be that defies logic by actually looking good instead or rubbish.

It should be a Frankenstein car, but it is not. It is sleek, beautiful and glides effortlessly , like a speed boat (or bat!) through the night shadows and streets of Gotham.

The Batmobile was more like a knight in armor, an extension, an expression of Batman’s costume—an intimidating, furious war machine. We didn’t spend much time looking at concept cars of the future. We went back in time

We wanted it to look very forbidding, and the most forbidding things that we had ever seen were some of those surveillance aircraft, so it had that stealth look to it. It’s like a knight in armor, with that shrouded, helmeted feel to it, and then with a rocket engine right down it – so you end up with this piece of pure expressionism

– Anton Furst [Bomb magazine interview by Lynn Geller]

batman batmobile 1989 movie

The same basic Batmobile design was used again for Batman Returns. Batman Forever and Batman and Robin had total redesigns that managed to look terrible, while still stealing the basic shape from Burton and Anton’s classic unforgettable design.  In that sense they were totally derivative, I don’t care if you are yeling “H. R. Giger designed that Batmobile you idiot”.

Sorry, but that car is crap. It looks like it was designed to sell child’s toys in chain stores, not a vehicle for a dark avenger.  I LOVE H. R. Giger’s art, I had an art obsessed mate in high school who had books of the guys  best stuff, and while I like it, not everything needs to look like a bloody phallic alien from the classic movie Alien (one of my favourite films).  I don’t think Giger brought a hell of a lot to the Batmobile design that Anton and Burton had not already done better.  It was like those ancient cultures who would find monolithic structures (Mayan Pyramids for example) and built their crappier buildings on top of the ancient structures, and then claim that they had built it all.

Every artist or designer or writer or whatever builds on what came before, but I feel that nothing was added to the Batmobile in the post-Burton films, whether that was Giger’s uninspiring designs, or studio limitation, I don’t know.  They should have kept the vehicle from Batman for all four films.  Instead it was just distorted into a ridiculous lumbering dinosaur of a car.

It spoke to nothing of the essential minimalism of Batman, not the film, but the character.  Batman like Bruce Lee, is all about “whatever works”, about stripping away the non-essential and refining back to a pure essence anything he applies himself to.  To martial arts, to solving crimes, functional vehicles etc.

The Batmobile from Batman and Robin and Batman Forever is just a stupid car that Batman would never be caught dead in, a lumbering whale of a thing, and really speaks to how far off they got with those “interpretations” of Batman.  At least Batman ’66 had a cool ride, I’m not fan of that show, but Adam West is brilliant in it, and the Batmobile is a beautiful classic design that holds up today.

The Anton Furst-mobile design was so sleek and popular that it was a direct influence on Batman the Animated Series, along with the nearly identical Batwing. A few changes were made, but it was very intentional that the Animated Series kept the same basic look of the Batmobile and Batwing. Architecture borrowed from various eras thus becoming timeless and the iconic theme tune which mimics the Danny Elfman Batman movie score.

The juxtaposition of cops in suits and fedora’s, antique computers with more modern conveniences and technology and architecture means that the Batman animated series lives in a timeless reality that is impossible to pin down, pulling together the seams of its fabric from many different eras.  I’ll never get tired of the magnificent beauty of Anton and Tim’s Batmobile, and the Animated offspring it birthed.

“We wanted it to look very forbidding, and the most forbidding things that we had ever seen were some of those surveillance aircraft, so it had that stealth look to it. It’s like a knight in armor, with that shrouded, helmeted feel to it, and then with a rocket engine right down it – so you end up with this piece of pure expressionism.”

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Here’s to BAT-GENIUS Anton Furst – gone, but never forgotten, he built a Gotham big enough for the whole world to live in.  He imagined (with Superfriend Tim Burton) the most amazing bad-ass nightmarish cool and sexy Batmobile that ever existed.  He gave us the Gothic nightmare Caligari-esque collective psyche-as-city Gotham that we all remember.  Rather than be obsessed by how he died, let’s celebrate how he lived, and his unique artistic contributions to the world.

If you want to know more about Anton’s unique artistic visions and film production design, watch this rare enthralling 95 minute lecture at the Sci Arc Media archive site from 1990, where Anton talks in depth about his career in film production design. http://sma.sciarc.edu/video/anton-furst/

 

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