It hasn’t been an easy journey for The Flash. The movie has been hampered by a floundering, then rebooted DC expanded cinematic universe that lags far behind Marvel’s, a heavy schedule of reshoots and a lead actor in and out of legal trouble.
But at CinemaCon film festival this week, that all faded into the background as audiences got their first preview six weeks ahead of the rest of the public. The reactions were, for the most part, glowing: some called it superb, one of DC’s best and funniest, and also one of the great all-time super hero movies.
While that’s a triumph for director Andy Muschietti, there’s another talent behind the screen — even if few are aware.
“My job is very detail oriented,” Paul Austerberry explained to CBC News. “Half the things we do, some people will see, some people won’t.”
Past meets present
Those details were enough to win the Canadian production designer an Oscar for his work on The Shape of Water — the fantastical Guillermo del Toro epic about a woman who falls in love with a fishlike creature.
But the challenge posed by The Flash was perhaps even greater than del Toro’s otherworldly fable.
In rebooting the franchise and slamming together multiple Batmen from their own distinct universes, The Flash takes visual inspiration from a number of older DC films — including having Michael Keaton reprise his role as the caped crusader in a callback to Tim Burton’s Batman.
Constructing those visions required Austerberry to procure and build versions of what fans had already fallen in love with years ago.
That means the original “Batmobile” was flown in by Warner Bros., and the iconic cliff’s edge “Batcave” from Batman Returns — originally crafted using camera trickery and matte paintings — was actually practically built for real this time. And the “Batwing” that Keaton’s Batman famously used to steal the Joker’s “Smylex” balloons was reconstructed and updated, because while the vehicle from the 1989 film was a single-seater, The Flash‘s story required them to build one that could fit three.
“The trick was to make sure that it looked more modern than the original one, but it still had to hearken back to certain design cues from the original,” Austerberry said.
WATCH | The Flash trailer:
From cardboard to blockbuster
Being the production designer for The Flash is a job Austerberry felt destined for ever since he built a Batcopter, Batconsole and full-sized Batmobile out of cardboard while he was a student at Carleton University.
“It’s kind of funny that I was able to actually do the real deal,” he said, laughing.
But doing the “real deal” for the roughly $220 million-budgeted The Flash posed its own pressures — and greater risks.
“This movie is a big deal for Warner Bros.,” Austerberry confessed.
While the film represents a possible future for their super hero filmic hopes — folding in various heroes from various timelines and properties and allowing them to interact in the future — it’s also an attempt to further cement the return of the theatrical release to the film industry.
Though the primary filming schedule ran from February 2020 to October 2021, Austerberry says the production company has held onto The Flash because even contemplating debuting this sort of film outside of a theatrical release during COVID-19 lockdowns would be a non-starter.
Blockbusters like this, infused with so much cash and star-power, just can’t exist without in-person theatrical screening. Partly because the gradual industry move toward streaming just can’t support these movies financially, but also because the sets that Austerberry is creating are purpose built for theatres.
“We’re designing these things and designing the film for the big screen; this is a big screen, movie-going experience,” he said. “I hope most people see it on the big screen … This kind of movie is made for the multiplex. It’s made for the big spectacle.”
Star’s legal troubles
At the same time, these movies live or die by the reputations of the actors that lead them. In The Flash‘s case, that’s Ezra Miller — the beleaguered star of the film who’s been arrested numerous times in the past few years.
That represents a huge risk for the film and those who’ve dedicated the past few years to it, but Austerberry says he’s not too concerned about how the stories surrounding Miller will affect the film.
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“People will forget that,” he said, noting that Miller did a superb job playing the titular hero as two distinct characters, which required production to shoot the film in “two different chunks,” with Ezra switching roles every few days.
To Austerberry’s recollection, Miller only had three days off for the total shoot — working six days a week and spending Saturdays in stunt rehearsals. “So, a lot of pressure,” he said.
Ultimately, Austerberry says he’s just thankful he has the career he does.
“From my profession and what I do, it’s fantastic that these films are being made because … we can create whatever we want in the world.”