Long before Christopher Nolan left his mark on the Batman franchise with the hugely successful Dark Knight trilogy, there was the 1989 film series first directed by Tim Burton and later taken over by Joel Schumacher.
These four films -- Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin -- featured a largely gothic and camp version of the caped crusader, which was a reflection of the comic book movies at the time. Each film topped the last, with Forever -- released 20 years ago on June 16, 1995 -- collecting $350 million at the box office, earning three Academy Award nominations, and making international stars out of Val Kilmer and Chris O’Donnell, Batman and Robin respectively. The film also featured Nicole Kidman, Drew Barrymore, and Jim Carrey at crossroads in their careers and the already popular Tommy Lee Jones.
But the franchise came to a screeching halt after the fourth film starring George Clooney was met with dismal reviews in large part to its extremely campy approach. Batman, and subsequent Robin films, was no more.
Ahead of Forever’s 20th anniversary in theaters, O’Donnell talked to ETonline about what it meant to play Robin at the time, working with both Kilmer and Clooney, and what went wrong with the franchise.
ETonline: What did the film mean to you at the time? You were only 25 when you first got involved in the franchise.
Chris O’Donnell: It was interesting. I remember sitting in the back of a limousine being driven somewhere and my agent asking, “Are you going to do this or not?” I remember thinking, “My god, it seemed like a no-brainer. I grew up watching Batman and how could you not? But at the same time, I knew what a huge thing it was. Do I want to be a part of this? Do I want to be known as Robin?” I remember sitting in the car and going, “What am I going to do?" And I was like, “I’m in. I’m going to do it!”
I had a great time working with Joel [Schumacher]. The cast was amazing. The spectacle of the whole thing -- these sets, the money they spent to build it -- I had never seen anything like it in my life.
To be the kid who had all the toys growing up and played Batman and Robin as a kid to now get to drive the Batmobile and run around in these costumes, it was a joke. I couldn’t believe they were paying me.
Speaking of driving the Batmobile, that scene featured a cameo by En Vogue. Did you know who the group was at the time?
No, I had no idea. I mean, I knew the name but I had no idea really.
You mentioned the great cast. The film featured a lot of great actors at different points in their careers, but all largely on the way up.
It was great. I had just worked with Drew [Barrymore] on Mad Love so I was real friendly with her. Nicole was terrific. I didn’t know her really well because she was married to Tom [Cruise] at the time and they were just kind of in their own world. Jim Carrey had most of his scenes with Tommy Lee, who I had worked with before so I knew him. I had most of my stuff with Val [Kilmer] and Val is an incredible actor. He can be a strange guy and not always a friendly guy, but a terrific actor -- and I thought he was great as Batman.
If I’m going to hang with the Batman, I’m probably going to hang with George [Clooney, who took over the role in Batman & Robin].
Of course, Forever and the sequel got a lot of attention at the time for the costumes.
Especially the second one! My god, I look at some of the photos now. Joel was really having his way, knowing how he wanted these costumes done.
What was it like to wear the suit?
For me, I had to wear that little mask that was glued. First thing in the morning they painted my eyes black and then would glue the mask on [to my face]. It was so hot, you would touch the mask and water would just run down your face.
During the first one, we didn’t get in and out of costumes a lot because it was too complicated. But the second, we had a whole system set up. I had two people full time that just got me in and out of my suit. And if it was going to be more than a little while between takes I got out of my suit and got a fresh under suit. That was the biggest challenge to be honest with you.
You mentioned to Conan O’Brien that you still have it in a crate somewhere.
I do! It’s down in the basement.
Is that like a museum piece now?
No. It’s in a wood crate. Honestly, my kids have never seen it. They’re like, “When are you going to open that thing?” And I go, “When I find a screwdriver.” It may have decomposed in there for all I know.
Forever and the sequel get a bad rap. Joel even apologized at one point. Even though it’s campy, Forever is a fun film.
I thought Forever was terrific. I really thought it was well made. With Batman & Robin, I think Warner Bros. got piggy. It was too soon. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t too far after The Fugitive came out. And if I remember correctly, The Fugitive was kind of a mess when they were making it but they figured it out and it was a huge hit. And I think for a while, Warner Bros. was like, “It doesn’t matter. We can throw enough money at it and it’ll be a huge hit.” There needs to be a certain amount of time before people had the appetite, “I need another Batman.” We had just finished and all of a sudden it was, like, boom here’s another one. There was a lot of waste. I felt it wasn’t tight and it wasn’t thought out. People just got greedy. That being said, I had a great time doing it.
You previously revealed that there was going to be a spin-off for Robin, but that didn’t end up happening.
Yeah there was at one point: Nightwing. When the reviews came out on Batman & Robin, that was shut down immediately. This has been a great opportunity for me and I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. It was an amazing opportunity and gave me incredible international exposure. And everyone dealt with it differently. Some people became very reclusive about it and freaked out by it. I thought George handled it great. He was like, “Well, we killed the franchise,” and funny about it. For me, I will always look back with fond memories. But of course, I’m not as proud of the second one as I was of the first one.
Do you have a favorite memory from making the movie?
I was making Mad Love and I flew down from Seattle to Burbank. They had an entire warehouse for the costumes and these artisans from England had come in. They put me in body molds. The artistry of making these suits -- just watching the whole process was just amazing.
Have your children seen Batman Forever or your other films?
They’ve seen the Batman films and The Three Musketeers. The majority of films I’ve been in they’ve never seen. It’s actually kind of fun -- I’m lying on the couch with them, flipping channels and I’ll see a movie I’ve been in they’ve never seen and I’ll just leave it on. They’re like, “Dad seriously what is this? Why are we watching this?!” And then they’ll see me and go, “Is that you?!” They start to watch it and I explain it to them. My oldest daughter has seen a couple of films, but they’ve never seen Scent of a Woman or any of that stuff.