San Diego Comic Con 2016 premiered latest DC Animated Film Batman: The Killing Joke. Toonzone News and other members of the press was able to sit down for round table interviews with Kevin Conroy (Batman), Tara Strong (Batgirl), Ray Wise (Commissioner Gordon), director Sam Liu, screenwriter Brian Azzarello, and executive producer Bruce Timm.
TARA STRONG: Well, it’s so exciting to have had the opportunity to play Batgirl in her earlier years, and then now as a woman in The Killing Joke, which is such an incredible story and it’s a story that the fans have wanted to hear and see for so long, so it was pressure to do it right and do it well and really exciting because it certainly goes places Batgirl has never gone before and does things she’s never done before because she’s a woman. There’s all these crazy things that happen to her, and I saw it for the first time earlier this week, and I literally cried because it’s so good. I tweeted it, because it’s true, it’s my favorite Batman anything I’ve ever seen. It’s just so good. So good.
QUESTION: What is it about The Killing Joke that makes it such an enduring story?
TARA STRONG: I think any diehard Batman fan is drawn to the dark stories, myself included. When I was little I actually collected Batgirl stuff. And any incarnation I’ve seen, I’m always attracted to the darker one. There has been some silly Batman stuff, but we’re always so intrigued by the darker story, and this is the ultimate dark story. I think people have been waiting to really push the envelope, and just, like I said before, go places they’ve never gone. Watch these characters go through emotional rides that you don’t normally see in other incarnations.
QUESTION: You’ve played the bubbly version, how difficult is it for you to get into the headspace of this version of Barbara Gordon?
TARA STRONG: It’s funny because Barbara Gordon is pretty much the only thing I’ve done in my career that is my own voice. So in terms of preparing vocally, it’s not challenging. Some shows, you can just go in and not have read the script and do a brilliant job. In terms of preparing for this story, it’s challenging in a way because you really want to be authentic to the story, so there was a bit more prep in terms of reading it, learning about the story, and learning about all the things that she goes through. That all the characters go through. Once you’re in the studio, I know everybody has their own way of performing, but I imagine all the moments in my head. If there’s ever a behind the scenes, sometimes I’ll be tearing up or I’ll be really going through the emotional moments with the characters.
QUESTION: What was the mood like when you’re recording with other actors? Was it more serious?
TARA STRONG: I’d say there was definitely something different and special and unique about this story in the Batman Universe. And then being alongside Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy was really like suiting up. It seemed like no time had passed since the original series we all worked together, which was ‘96 or something like that. So it’s been a while, but it really felt organic, like it was the next step we’re supposed to take together.
QUESTION: Did you get to flex some new acting muscles?
TARA STRONG: For sure as Batgirl, there was some new. A lot of what I do can be comedic and even the serious stuff isn’t quite this dark, so I’d say it’s probably the darkest I’ve ever gone in animation.
TARA STRONG: Hmm, without giving spoilers…yes. And some of those moments were tricky to make sure it reads authentic because there’s things that you’re visualizing as the actor that these characters are doing, and you want to make sure the audience believes they’re really doing it. And you really have to own each moment. So often, people say it’s just reading, and of course that’s not true. You’re really acting all these scenes internally.
QUESTION: Without the spoiler, would you say it’s an extended scene since they had to add to the story to get it feature length or was it a particular scene from the comic?
TARA STRONG: I’d say both, probably, yeah, because it’s done so seamlessly. When you watch the bits that they’ve added, I think people are going to think it was part of the original, unless they know the comic really well which a lot of people do. It really flows together seamlessly.
QUESTION: How do you de-stress at the end of the day? Did you play with puppies?
TARA STRONG: I do love puppies. Yeah, play with my kids and animals. Watch My Little Pony. I don’t know. I think when you’re a voice actor, you have all of these people living up in your brain that you bring down to perform and then they go back upstairs and you’re kind of back in your own world.
BRIAN AZZARELLO: No.
QUESTION: Did you love doing it?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: I loved doing it. The source material is so good, how was it not daunting? What was a bit daunting is creating scenes that aren’t in the source material that feel like they were in the source material.
QUESTION: How did you go about creating new scenes?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: I did it. I tried to stay true to the source material. A lot of it takes place in a carnival, which makes it…keep it sort of detective work for Batman. It’s funny because Bruce has said a few times, because he’s worked on this thing in the trenches for the past year. I look at stuff and I’m watching it again and it’s like I don’t remember any more what was in the book.
QUESTION: When they approached you to write this, did you say yes immediately or did you have to think about it?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: No, I said yes immediately. It’s funny because if they were to ask me, the way I feel about it, if they said we want you to adapt something, it’s The Killing Joke. They came to me and said, “You want to do The Killing Joke?” Yeah.
TOONZONE NEWS: Do you feel you’re in Alan Moore’s head doing this and having done the Watchmen prequels?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: No, but that comparison can’t not be made, I guess.
QUESTION: Was Alan Moore available to bounce ideas off of?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: What are you talking about? No.
QUESTION: Is there another storyarc you’re interested in adapting?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: Something for animation?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: Yeah, I wrote a graphic novel called Joker that I’d like to adapt for animation.
QUESTION: Are you at all concerned about fan reaction because this is such a beloved story arc?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: No.
QUESTION: You think they’re going to love it?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: I think they’re going to love it and they’re going to hate it.
QUESTION: What was it about The Killing Joke originally that spoke to you?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: The Joker’s right. What separates us from insanity is one bad day.
BRIAN AZZARELLO: No. If my impression of Joker changed, maybe, The Dark Knight Returns changed it. The original one. That was when I realized that he was really crazy and dangerous. And that might’ve just been because Frank drew him to look more human and took that goofy edge off and made him like a monster.
QUESTION: Do you like writing for the villain character more?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: It’s a lot more fun to write the villain.
QUESTION: You talked about having to add scenes, did you have to go the other way and cut things from the source material?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: No. It’s pretty much all there.
QUESTION: Is that why it took so long to get approved and getting the R-rating?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: They submitted it and it got the R-rating like that. And it came back with, “If you want it, theoretically, to go PG-13 you gotta take this, this, and this.” As Bruce said, they were all deal breakers. Wait until you see it, it looks great. It’s fantastic. And the acting is just killer.
QUESTION: What was it like as a writer to have the best Batman cast ever?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: I’ve done some animation. A little not a lot, but watching this, those are my words, hearing it not reading it, it was incredible. Wow, some of this stuff actually has some depth to it.
QUESTION: Do you feel The Killing Joke is only suited for animation or could it be live-action?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: That would probably be NC-17.
QUESTION: Does being animated give it more freedom?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: I think it takes the edge off because it’s not real. I think about Heath Ledger. That’s real.
QUESTION: Speaking of Heath Ledger, lots of actors have had to put themselves in weird and dark places to play the Joker, do you feel you have to do that in order to write the character?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: No. It comes naturally. (laughter)
BRIAN AZZARELLO: Comic books I juggle constantly. So I’m working on three, four scripts at once. When I did the animation, I just sat down and did it all. Just concentrated, sit down, and write it.
QUESTION: At the end of the day, what’s your favorite drink?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: Beer.
QUESTION: Are you going to a special beer for Killing Joke?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: I don’t think that Warner Bros. would let that happen. Right now I’m doing Alpha King, which is a beer based comic book for 3 Floyds. So I’ve been busy. That’s fun. It’s fun going down to the brewery and working with Nick Floyd, who is the owner of the brewery. Sitting in the tap room and write and drink, it’s a good time.
TOONZONE NEWS: Do you have a preferred origin for the Joker or do you like that it can be anything?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: I think it should be anything.
TOONZONE NEWS: So you don’t write him with one definitive origin?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: No. He says it himself in The Killing Joke. That’s the way I remember it, I think, today.
QUESTION: How do you feel about some of the stuff that’s been going on with Joker’s origin lately, he’s immortal?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: That’s not for me. When you do that to a character like that, to me, it takes away the power of the character. He’s immortal? Oh Jesus. Another one?
QUESTION: I think the mystery is what makes him so terrifying.
BRIAN AZZARELLO: I think it’s really important. When I did the graphic novel, that came on the heels of doing Lex Luthor, and that was all from Luthor’s perspective. It was first person, he narrated that story. When we were setting up Joker, structurally, it was like, “You can’t do that because if you get in Joker’s head, you weaken the character.” You can’t know how he thinks. He’s got to be insane.
QUESTION: For a story like Killing Joke where he narrates some of it, how do you do that without getting in his head?
BRIAN AZZARELLO: He’s not a reliable narrator, and he says so at the end.
RAY WISE: I play Commissioner Gordon. A man of great morality, a man with extreme integrity who believes in doing things the right way, doing them by the book, don’t go off on tangents which Batman has a way of doing. Gotta rein him in from time to time and remind him to do things by the book.
QUESTION: You’re known for playing the opposite kind of character, was it an interesting switch to play a different kind of character?
RAY WISE: Yeah, it was. It was great. It was refreshing, it felt great, it opened up a whole new door in my mind that I can enjoy playing these kinds of characters. In this piece you see him being a good father to his daughter, and you see a little bit of the police commissioner come out. And you hear a lot of grunts and groans. He goes through a pretty torturous process with the Joker. So it was an emotionally kind of draining experience because when you’re doing voice acting, you’re trying to do everything you can to make your voice sound just right at any particular moment. So that kind of necessitates doing a lot of the physical actions. Standing in front of the microphone, I’m beating the hell out of myself. I’m doing this (grabs neck) and I’m doing this (punches himself in the side) because I want it to be as real as possible, and I guess that’s the old method actor in me. I’m not about to get into that whole BS that all actors give you all the time, but it was kind of emotionally a rough go and physically too, but it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and I’d do it again in a second, and I hope that maybe in the future.
QUESTION: Barbara is in danger in the story, how would Commissioner Gordon feel Batman should handle it, by the book or would he go off on his own?
RAY WISE: I’d tell him to handle it by the book, but if I felt that the Joker was going to harm one hair on my daughter’s head, I would want to kill him myself. I think you’re going to see Commissioner Gordon the father more than you’ve ever seen him before, and I think it humanizes him more. You see a different side of him. I just like this guy. I would want him on my side.
QUESTION: What process did you go through getting into that character and finding his voice?
RAY WISE: I used the same vague process that I use on every character. No, no. I read the material, I was a fan of the graphic story. I’ve been a fan of Batman since I was eight or ten years old and the comics, the DC Comics, and my buddy Kevin will always be my Batman. He’s everything I ever imagined, and all he’s ever got to do is open up his mouth and say a couple of words, and wow, that’s Batman for me. So I was a fan of that, and then I read this script and it’s just a great script, it’s a great story. It’s dark. It’s the R-rated Batman. It’s like a 40’s film noir, a great detective murder story, that kind of thing with some modern twists and a little bit of R flavor. I saw it a couple of days ago, I loved it. I’m really not an animation aficionado, so this blew me away. I really enjoyed it. You’re in for a treat. It’s really something. It was great, and all the incidental characters in it too are wonderful. Just good actors. And you can feel the acting, you just don’t hear the voice. You can feel the acting, and it’s really excellent. It’s excellent acting.
TOONZONE NEWS: When you watched it, did anything surprise you about it?
RAY WISE: Yeah, I was surprised at how much I liked myself. I knew that there were great voices in this, Tara and Kevin and of course Mark Hamill as the supreme Joker. My goodness. My goodness. I was a little bit of a Star Wars fan, but I never knew he had that in him. To see Luke Skywalker do the Joker the way he does the Joker is pretty amazing. Just great all around. The whole project was wonderful. I can’t wait for the DVD residuals, I’ll tell you that.
QUESTION: Are you excited for Twin Peaks?
RAY WISE: All 18 episodes are finished, and they’re being edited as we speak, and I think they’ll be aired somewhere around the summer of 2017, and a lot of the oldies but goodies are in it, and about 200 new people.
KEVIN CONROY: I think my approach to the character was from the inside out, and I think the audience senses that. I think that the passion of Batman comes from the tragedy of his childhood. It’s not just a dark, moody voice that an actor puts on. That voice has got to come from your gut. Come from pain. And I just approached it as a stage actor would approach it. I wasn’t as familiar with Batman as a lot of the audience is, so I approached it with a fresh eye. I approached it as someone who came from the theatre and trained at Julliard and did a lot of Shakespeare and said wait a minute, this is like a classical Greek tragic hero. This is Hamlet, this is Orestes, this is Achilles. This is the great, great heroes, this is a classic story. This is just a modern telling, and I approached the character that way. And I think the audience respected that and responded to it.
QUESTION: Do you have a technique of switching between Batman and Bruce Wayne?
KEVIN CONROY: Well Bruce Wayne originally, I always envisioned him as David Niven, so I was thinking of him as very urbane and sophisticated. Because to me, Bruce Wayne is the armor that Batman puts on to face of the world. Bruce Wayne is the costume, Batman is who he is when he’s alone, it’s his id. And I always thought of that armor as being very David Nivenesque. Urbane, sophisticated, and wry. Originally, there was a lot of sarcasm in the show. They let me put a little humor in it. Bruce Wayne was funny. He was like a funny playboy, but then they gradually as they darkened the color, they darkened the show more and they had me go against that, and then eventually toned down the voice so much of that was very similar to the Batman voice. It was a very subtle difference. But originally it was, yeah.
QUESTION: Do you do something to create that voice?
KEVIN CONROY: The Batman voice is a very (Batman voice) deep sound and the Bruce Wayne voice, which is closer to my normal speaking voice.
KEVIN CONROY: No, I think the trick with a character as iconic as this is remaining true to the character. The trick is keeping it fresh, not changing it. The audience will tell in a second if he’s changed or if it’s not authentic. For me, the trick through the years is to keep it fresh, keep it real, and keep it seem like it’s the first time each time, like I do on stage. In this story, there were certain areas of the character I had never had to explore before, and to vocalize those was interesting. I mean, how does Batman laugh? Where does that come from? It certainly doesn’t come from that pain of childhood. And how does that come out? So that was interesting. Mark Hamill said he loved watching me do it. Wow, that’s wild.
QUESTION: How does it feel to be an iconic Batman and to be doing an iconic Batman story such as this? Is there a story you want to see because Mark had been pushing for this?
KEVIN CONROY: Well, Mark is a real maven for this stuff. He knows this stuff inside and out, all the animation and comics history. He’s much more aware of it than I am. I came to this as an actor and approached the character as an actor will approach a character. I don’t really have the knowledge of the library of work that Mark has or Bruce Timm has or Paul Dini, but I do want to do Batman the Musical.
TOONZONE NEWS: On that note, when you sang “Am I Blue?” on Justice League Unlimited, did you record the full song?
KEVIN CONROY: I did record the full song. It’s on my website, RealKevinConroy.com has the full version of “Am I Blue,” along with some other pretty good tracks.
QUESTION: As you approached the character of Batman, can you speak to how you keep the character fresh and new throughout the years?
KEVIN CONROY: Just keeping him fresh through the years has been a real challenge, and in every different iteration, you just have to.
QUESTION: How hard is it to keep such an iconic character like Batman fresh and new yet still engaging for fans?
BRUCE TIMM: The great thing about Batman as a character is that you can take that character in so many directions, and he’ll still be Batman. You can do something as dark as The Killing Joke, you can do something as light and fun as Batman: The Brave and the Bold. They’re both equally as valid, so we just try to change things up. I generally prefer going kind of darker, more serious with the character, that’s just the way I’ve always leaned. But at the same time, when we did, for instance, the Justice League show, that creates a completely different aspect of his personality because of the fact that he’s forced to hang out with these brightly colored superheroes, so we gave him a little bit more of a sense of humor and a little bit snarkier attitude because he’s forced to not be the loner lurking in the shadows. The character is resilient and has enough variety in the character that you can go different directions with him. You can go sci-fi with him, you can do noir, you can do mystery, you can do some combination of all of them.
QUESTION: When you were told you could do The Killing Joke, were you elated, frightened, both, many things?
BRUCE TIMM: Not elated. More nervous than elated. I always knew that it would be a weird film because it’s not a traditional Batman story. It’s not an action/adventure film at all, it’s more of a psychological drama. It doesn’t have a big slam-bang action set piece finale. It’s got, instead, one of the most famously messed up endings in a comic ever. So all those things made me more nervous, more just in terms of, “Can I take this really, really bleak, downbeat subject matter and make it a film that’s actually on some level enjoyable to watch?” So you’re not just walking out of it going, “I want to slit my wrists.” I really worried about that. Once we decided early on to not make specific changes to the storyline to make it more of a summer blockbuster movie, it made things a little easier to go, “If we’re going to make it a straight adaptation of the comic, we’ve just got to embrace it.” If you’re going to ring that bell, march right up and ring the crap out of it.
QUESTION: The source material is fairly short.
BRUCE TIMM: Interestingly, that was both good and bad. The source material is not enough to fill up a feature film, unlike most comics. Like for instance, New Frontier was the exact opposite. There was way too much story material for one film. This was not enough. So when we decided to expand it to feature length, one of the things I wanted to do was to use all that extra screentime, since it’s almost half the movie, to spend more time with Barbara Gordon as a character. Batgirl. I always loved that character anyways, and also it kind of helps take the curse off of the fact that in The Killing Joke part of it, she’s more of a plot device than a flesh and blood character, so that’s what we did.
BRUCE TIMM: No, it’s clearly a more serious Joker than we’ve ever did, even on Batman the Animated Series. Because BTAS was a kid’s show, we could never go quite as dark as we were sometimes tempted to go with the Joker, so I think that’s part of the reason why Mark really really really wanted to play The Killing Joke was because it did give him a chance to…and it’s weird to say this about the Joker…but it did give him the chance to get more serious with him. While still staying true to the crazy Clown of Crime, he got to play a lot more subtle shades of the character, so yeah.
QUESTION: With Gods and Monsters, you got to nerd out and change everything, did you get to do the same with this by adding to the story?
BRUCE TIMM: No, what’s interesting about this is because when we talked about expanding it, one of the possibilities was we could’ve padded out just The Killing Joke part of it. We could’ve put in more sections and action sequences and stuff, just to fill that up to feature length, but by making it a completely separate story, it’s not really changing The Killing Joke at all. If somebody is really offended by the idea that we have messed with the sacred Killing Joke, they can hit play on Chapter 5, skip the whole first half, and just watch the Killing Joke as pristine.
SAM LIU: It’s weird because I feel like when you work on superhero things, I guess a good example would be movies. I feel like there are these iconic stories like The Killing Joke, like The Dark Knight Returns, like Batman: Year One, that people mine from, because they’re just really good ideas. I think whatever iteration it is, you’re kind of like, “Okay, that’s a nod to this.” As far as doing The Killing Joke, I feel like there’s so much borrowing that happens, and when you’re actually doing The Killing Joke, it’s, “Would anybody care because there are so many other things that have borrowed from it already that people kind of know what it’s about.” Year One was a lot harder to build because that was more set up, but a lot had already mined so much from it. You can see him calling the bats, the bats coming through the window, all these things that are pretty much straight from Year One.
I feel like the Killing Joke as a stand alone movie didn’t work because I kind of felt like you had to be a Batman fan to appreciate it or even like it because you immediately jump in and they’re having this psychological philosophical debate in prison and then this stuff happens and you go, “Why is this happening?” Unless you understand Gordon, you understand who Barbara is, you understand who Batman is, his relationship with the Joker, and who Joker is, why is this conversation necessary? There are so many things you need to fill in if you have someone who isn’t familiar with the Batman Universe in order for this story to make any kind of sense or resonate at all, so I think that was sort of the difficult thing. But I think there’s some stuff too we didn’t touch upon, and we tried with the prologue to at least flesh out the Barbara character so you can understand who she was and understand her dynamic with Batman and know she was a daughter, she was a superhero. I think it makes it smoother. I think that kind of stuff was necessary to sort of tell the story.
QUESTION: Which was more pressure, adapting something like Killing Joke or doing something original like Gods and Monsters?
SAM LIU: Being a director under a producer, it wasn’t my idea on Gods and Monsters, it was Bruce’s idea. The pressure comes from,”Am I doing what Bruce wants? Am I making these characters how he feels like they’re supposed to be?” The pressure from Killing Joke is obviously the expectations of the millions, billions of fans that read it and see something about it. This is what I got from it. So that expectation is obviously difficult. I feel like that’s an exercise in looking at the detail in the source material but also trying to get the intent of the source material and trying to figure out, “Why did this have such an impact on people?” And some of it is difficult because it’s like your favorite band that you like from when you’re like in high school or something like that. Everybody says, “U2, I wish they would keep making the music that they made during War” or something like that, but they don’t really want that. Because that’s your introduction to the band, you always remember. That happens with even superheroes, I feel like. Whenever you got into whoever your favorite superhero is, the story that made you a fan, that will always be…say like the X-Men. If I talk to a group of friends, which X-Men group is the X-Men group? It’s always the one that you grew up with, right? And it’s different. Because if you grew up in the 80’s, it’ll be John Byrne or Paul Smith or something. If you grew up in the 90’s, it’s Jim Lee or is it later, is it John Romita Jr? Again, everybody will argue that no, this is the X-Men. I don’t know, it’s hard to please everybody.
SAM LIU: Yeah, yeah. Right.
QUESTION: When working on something like The Killing Joke and wanting it to be faithful, do you feel creatively a little more shackled or is it a little more freeing?
SAM LIU: It kind of depends on the depth of it. For me, if I see another facet in it, and I’m really trying to pull that out, then it becomes interesting to me. But if there’s not really a lot going on and I’m basically trying to match the comic book, it’s very shackling. Bruce is involved also. We were working on Year One and I think Bruce was faithful to the comic, that’s it. If it’s not in the comic, it’s not in the movie. Whereas back in Public Enemies, Bruce didn’t care as much, so it was just sort of whatever. When you can create, obviously, it’s fun, or when you have the license to say, “I don’t have to agree” when we make this. But yeah, it’s hard.
Toonzone News would like to thank Tara Strong, Brian Azzarello, Ray Wise, Kevin Conroy, Bruce Timm, and Sam Liu for taking the time to talk with us. Batman: The Killing Joke is available now on digital download, Blu-ray, and DVD.The thread view count is