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Legends of the Film Maker: Brett Culp and the New Batman Phenomenon

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Brett Culp with Kye Sapp

Recently, I had the privilege of reviewing one of the most impacting documentaries I've seen in years. You may be surprised to learn that it was about Batman. You also may already be dismissing the film, because of that. That would be your great mistake -- because the film is about so much more than a superhero. It's about identity, and the power that stories have on people -- and the power those people in turn gain over their environment and their lives because of a story.

We spoke with the film's director, Brett Culp, about what drove him toward this project, and some of the many benefits that are still coming out of the film.

Everyone in LEGENDS OF THE KNIGHT has a Batman story to tell, but there was one that was missing, and I'd like to get that one. What's your Batman story?

Batman has been a part of my life since... I can't remember when Batman first appeared in my life. Travis Langley in the documentary says that it's like the sky. You can't remember the first time you saw it, it's just always been there. The memories that I have from photographs -- I have a picture of me at my first birthday party, and it was a Batman birthday party. I'm wearing a Batman t-shirt with a Batman birthday cake, wearing a Batman hat with a Batman tricycle next to me. I can't tell you exactly where that came from. I would suspect from the SUPER FRIENDS cartoon. And probably some Adam West in there.

There's a picture of me at the hospital when I was three years old and my sister was born. I was wearing a Batman shirt.

The Tim Burton BATMAN movie was really a touchstone for me. It inspired me to want to make movies of my own. I'd pull out my dad's video camera. I made stop-motion Batman animated movies with action figures that were from the movie. I went to the Halloween store and bought a latex Michael Keaton cowl and made movies with my friends.

From a creative perspective, this character was with me my whole life, and this character has consistently been my favorite fictional character of all time. So when I realized that I wanted to make a film about the power of stories, and how the hero of a story could impact us, I never even considered another character. Batman was my first and only choice.

What was it that spurred you on to make this specific film?

I didn't know it at the time, but when my youngest son entered kindergarten, he started to have some challenges -- emotional, behavioral, social challenges. We did a lot of testing with him, and ultimately ended up with an expert who gave us what she thought was an accurate diagnosis about my son and about who he was and what he would become. It was very negative, pessimistic, and doom-and-gloom. And my wife and I just did not accept that as a reality. We knew that expert was wrong. Our vision for our son was as a superhero. I imagined him standing on top of the playground, cape blowing in the wind, looking out over the city as the hero he would one day be.

That was the image that stuck with me about my son. And I think that image was really what was the most powerful voice that spoke to what this film was. There were many ways we could have gone with a film that was about the impact of Batman. But for me, because of what was in my heart about my own family, I wanted to show the side of Batman as he is interpreted not by a twenty-five year old academic or a sixteen year old comic book reader or a thirty year old film critic, but by a five year old boy or girl. How do they feel when they put on the cape, run through the backyard, and pretend to be Batman? And at the end of the day, that was the prevailing vision that informed every creative choice we made, and what really the heart of this film was about.

So at some point after having decided on making this particular film, you're looking around the country for different people who can answer that question and inform the film. What surprised and struck you about the stories you uncovered about the impact of Batman on these people and, in turn, the impact they were having on others?

I think what surprised me was really how heartwarming so many of these stories were. When we got into it, it wouldn’t surprise me that there was a guy wearing a Batman shirt to run an ironman marathon. What surprised me was that there was one who was using it to raise money and giving it to charity. I knew that there were people dressing up in Batman costumes and going to comic cons. I didn’t realize when I started how many of them are out there using it to cheer up kids in hospitals or go to charity events. I didn’t realize how deeply these stories had really impacted people, and the emotional level at which they had used it as a positive force in their life. That was really, over and over again, the most wonderful, refreshing experience in making this movie.

Doing the interview with Kye, who had leukemia, and his mom… I cried through her whole interview. We cried together, listening to her talk about the journey they had been on, and how they had channeled their own superhero -- both of them, because even though Kye is the focus of that story, I feel the story is about Tina and her courage, and what she went through to support and help her son. She is Batman -- or Batgirl -- as well.

It was extremely rewarding. There’s not a person in this film who, for me, I don’t now feel privileged to have as a personal friend.They were just all wonderful and kind people. I think some people see this film and feel like it’s a little candy-coated in terms of these people, but this is them. This is who they are. Obviously I chose them for that reason, but these are just wonderful, kind, giving people.

Were there any hurdles or obstacles you had to get past in doing a documentary about a trademarked character? Did Warner Brothers have to give a blessing, or did having Michael Uslan involved grease any wheels in that regard?

We followed best practices for documentary filmmaking, and really worked hard to do this in a way that followed legally what was acceptable. This is not an official Warner Brothers film, and there was not an approval process with them. We were just very careful in how we did everything to make sure we were following the law. And we wanted to honor Warner Brothers, DC Comics, and the work that their pains and creators put into [Batman], because this is obviously a film that has great affection for these characters.

We didn’t want anyone to feel that we were taking advantage of their copyrighted materials. So there’s very little copyrighted material in the film. Most of what you see is people in costume, because many of them are hand-made costumes. And then much of the art that you see is fan-made art that I found on some wonderful sites, with great artists whose work is rarely seen. So I hope that this is not only a unique viewing, but also gives Batman fans the opportunity to see some Batman work they wouldn’t normally see.

That was one of the cool things about it. When I specifically chose the work, I wanted the work to be as diverse as I could get it. When you look at most comic books, there is a little bit of variation but in many ways there is a style and a look that is somewhat homogenous and run by the DC culture. And I understand that -- they need style guides to keep a very uniform, corporate brand for Batman. But the beauty of a film like this is that we could look at all kinds of different styles and interpretations. Just like every story in the film, where these people are interpreting Batman in a way that fits their own life and their own identity, so are these artists doing it. So for me there’s a symbolic power in choosing and allowing all these different artistic voices to be seen.

You mention in the afterword to the film that theatrical screenings are being done for charity. How many charity screenings have their been, and do any stand out for you that you’ve attended or been otherwise involved in them?

We’ve done screenings now in ninety cities, and I would expect sixty different charities have been involved and benefited from these screenings. And it's been wonderful not only for these charities to receive the proceeds, but often for these local charities to get the opportunity to have some recognition and to connect with these people who are at the screenings, and share the story of what their organization is doing.

Personally, I think I've been to about twenty or twenty-five of those screenings. I went to as many of them as I could. They happened over a six month period -- they weren't all at once, it was sort of organic. The premiere we had in my home town of Tampa, Florida was just wonderful because it was such a great hometown crowd. We had a great turnout in Charlotte, North Carolina, because one of our executive producers was there and put together a great screening. It's even silly for me to dive into, because every one that I went to was just amazing, different in its own way. We did a screening in Hawaii last month that I was honored to be able to attend. But every single one of them that I went to was just huge hearts, wonderful people.

Usually, when you're a filmmaker and you make a film, you kind of have a little bit of a distance from your audience, but going to all those screenings and distributing the film that way theatrically gave me the opportunity to experience the film with people and sit in the audience. We all cried together, and gave each other hugs afterwards. It was really just a wonderful opportunity to share the message of this film in a way that was also in line with the spirit of it, the message being that we all can be heroes and we all have the power to be superheroes. And then to watch people watch the film and be able to experience that message, in real life, in real time, at a screening that benefits a local charity -- you just can't ask for a more rewarding payoff for spending two years making a movie like this.

Now that the film is entering the DVD market, are you being approached by any cable networks for rebroadcasting?

Our distributor is managing all that, and we haven't had any discussions about that yet, but it doesn't mean that that's not in the cards. I will say that even though we haven't made any announcements yet, this is not the last... sometimes this is the finale, but there is another finale step in terms of distribution for us. That will be coming in a few weeks.

People can learn more about the film at your website, WeAreBatman.com, but you also mention in the closing remarks of your film something called The Rising Heroes Project. Can you expound a little bit about what that is?

All proceeds that would come to our studio from the digital and DVD sales are going to The Rising Heroes Project. It's a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization that my wife and I have started and it's now officially logged by the IRS. Because of the way that we've done everything with LEGENDS OF THE KNIGHT, we believe that our heart was not to get into the Hollywood movie business, but really to work as a not-for-profit. So our next film, which we're in pre-production on right now, which is also going to be super hero related, is going to be produced and managed through The Rising Heroes Project -- which is exciting because it's going to [allow money contributed to it] to be tax deductible, and then allow us to do the exact same thing, which is to share the film through screenings that help charities. We're also working to get the film into educational settings where teachers can have a curriculum and show segments of the film and talk to the students about things like positive community engagement and self-identity issues about who you are and identifying yourself as a hero rather than a victim. We're still exploring all those avenues, because with a film like this, with a character like Batman, there are so many things you can do and say. We're still working all that out, but all of that is going to be hubbed through The Rising Heroes Project. If you go to our website, WeAreBatman.com, and you go to the store there... no matter where you buy the film, the proceeds that would come to our studio are going to The Rising Heroes Project, but on our website, when you purchase it there, whether it's a tshirt or a DVD or a Blu-ray or whatever it is, those proceeds benefit even more because there's no transactional cost. And there's even a little space there where if you want to contribute to The Rising Heroes Project, you can click and do that.

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