Writer/producer Alan Burnett on the legacy of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm ahead of this weekend's Fountain City Con
If you are a child of the ’80s and ’90s, writer and producer Alan Burnett is the man behind some of your fondest entertainment memories. He wrote for Disney, scripting episodes of Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, and Gummi Bears, along with the screenplay for Ducktales: Treasue of the Lost Lamp, before moving over to Warner Bros. and becoming a script supervisor for the classic Batman: The Animated Series. This is only a small fraction of how Burnett helped shape the landscape of children’s programming at the time, and his finest work might be the story and screenplay for the 1993 animated feature film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
While the film didn’t break box office records at the time, over the decades, it’s become regarded as a classic, and for many years, it’s been widely regarded as one of Batman’s finest cinematic outings. As Mask of the Phantasm celebrates its 30th anniversary this summer, the folks at Fountain City Con bring Alan Burnett to town this weekend for a Friday, August 4, screening of the film, along with Burnett appearing at the con itself with Mask of the Phantasm‘s director, Kevin Altieri.
Details on all of that here.
We spoke by phone with Alan Burnett about the legacy of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm 30 years on and his lengthy and amazing career.
By Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67765361
The Pitch: For many, many years, Mask of the Phantasm was widely regarded as the definitive Batman cinematic achievement. Is it somewhat heartening to see all of the love it’s gotten over the years?
Alan Burnett: Yeah, it is. I’ll tell you the truth because I wrote the story and I liked the story and it was a group effort with all the writers on staff. It was originally, it was supposed to be a video for home.
Then one day an executive came to our office from the lot and was looking at some of what we were doing. In particular, he was looking at the opening credits, which were all computerized, which was a very new look back in 1992. And he said, you know, “Why don’t we release this as a movie?”
That’s how it became a movie. The rest of the show has no computer graphics in it at all, but he didn’t know that and it became a movie. It didn’t do great. Here in Los Angeles, it only played in the afternoon. It didn’t play in the evening, and it had its week and a half in the theaters and then it went away.
We didn’t get the greatest reviews, either. It wasn’t until a year later that Siskel and Ebert reviewed the film as a DVD. They liked it a lot and suddenly, I think that’s when critical opinion changed–or people who liked it finally said they liked it ,anyway. That was a bit of a turning point and and made me feel good.
What was it like for you as a writer to have gone from a lot of Disney and or legacy properties like Johnny Quest and The Smurfs and The Jetsons and then going to work for DC Animation? What was that transition like? I have to imagine that writing for Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers or Gummi Bears is quite different than Batman or Superman.
Yeah, well, basically on all of that stuff, we’re writing for a younger audience. My first six or seven years was at Hanna-Barbera. I was at a brand-spanking new and perfect place to learn the business. By the seventh year, I told my agent I really want better animation in the stuff I write. That was the reason why I moved to Disney for a while, as they were doing outstanding animation for Saturday morning.
I mean, Gummi Bears was probably the most beautiful show ever done for Saturday morning at the time. The three years I spent at Disney, I was also seeing that I’m gonna be stuck in with feathers and fur and I wanted to do I wanted to do something a little–I wanted to actually to do live-action movies, but along came Batman from Warner Brothers and my former boss, Jean MacCurdy, who I worked with when I did Super Friends and other stuff for, for Hanna-Barbera. She knew of my great love for Batman and at that time, she was the president of Warner Brothers Animation.
She got me to come over to do this Batman series and what sold it for me–because I really wanted to get out of Saturday morning and animation generally–was the trailer that Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski–the other producer–had made. I saw that and I said, “Well, I’ve gotta come over here.”
Also, she told me I could have fistfights and I could have guns: “Okay, then I’ll do it.” Point of fact, the show was a 3:30 show in most places in the afternoon, so it was out of the kid vid world. We can deal with more adult subjects with that time slot. So that’s how that came about.
It’s so fascinating because one of your other theatrical releases was Ducktales: Treasue of the Lost Lamp, which is, again, another very highly regarded film even though it, unfortunately, didn’t do that well at the box office.
Okay, you’re right, but they got their money back, I was told by a business affairs manager. It was on the Disney Sunday night television slot several times, so they did well by it. But, that was another one which might’ve in the heads of people begun as a home video and then went into the theaters. I’m not sure. All I remember is that that was very quickly done. The script, everything was done in like six weeks.
You’re doing a lot more producing work these days and you have helped like shepherd quite a few comic book storylines to home video, like Hush, Gotham by Gaslight, and things of that nature. What is the process to adapt these very canonical titles into something on screen?
Well, it’s not easy. You wanna respect the original property, but some of these stories that we put into a 90-minute video, maybe 70-minute video–some of them are 12 comic book issues long. I generally found that the best stories for the videos that we were producing covered six comic books. It was a matter of making cuts that still gave you the core story that the fans wanted to see.
Sometimes it was difficult. There was only one story where we did, The Killing Joke, which was a 50-minute story. It would not get any bigger than that on screen and we adhere to it pretty closely. We had to fill it out to full DVD time. We added a prelude story to it, but you figure it out as, as you go along.
You’re appearing at Fountain City Con with Kevin Altieri. Have the two of you kept in contact over the years since your work on Batman?
Yeah, a little bit. I mean, Kevin was one of our very best directors on the series. The touches he would add were tremendous. Since the series I’ve retired, but I’ve kept my foot in it by writing Batman: The Adventure Continues comic book. Last year, he did one of the issues with Harley Quinn and it was great and it was such a pleasure to be to be part of a team with him again.
Alan Burnett appears at Fountain City Con this weekend, Saturday, August 5 and Sunday, August 6, with a special screening of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm on Friday, August 4. Details on all of that here.