Bo Welch’s Gotham remains, in my opinion, the greatest on-screen Gotham we’ve ever had. Melding fascist architecture with typical yet exaggerated elements of a quintessential American city — and, of course, Tim Burton’s expressionist style — the Gotham of “Batman Returns” was a beguiling, dingy wonderland of oppressive neo-classic design. No wonder Burton is still proud of his movie more than 30 years later.
But it took a lot to bring it to fruition. The massive sound stages needed cooling with inordinate amounts of air conditioning equipment to make the actors’ breath visible and create the illusion of a Gotham City in the midst of the Christmas season. That, and the dozens of real-life penguins used in the movie couldn’t be left to swelter in the Burbank heat (the movie shot during the summer of ’91). Unfortunately, on numerous occasions, crew left stage doors open which would let all the chilled air escape. Add to that the necessity to constantly have Gotham blanketed in snow during the height of a Los Angeles summer, and you get a sense of just how many considerations the crew was juggling.
On top of the temperature issues, the “Batman Returns” team was tasked with conducting some fairly significant explosions on the sound stages themselves. At 65 ft high, stage 16 was the tallest on the Warner Bros. lot and played host to Gotham city exteriors, including the Shreck department store, owned by Christopher Walken’s nefarious businessman Max Schreck. Impressive though it was, this storefront would be blown up during production in service of depicting Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer)’s destructive antics.