In Future Travel, Flattery Will Get You Everywhere

Tim Flattery has designed a Batmobile, various vehicles for Back to the Future movies (including modifications to the classic DeLorean), and an all-electric car for Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

Flattery has about 50 film credits, often billed as conceptual artist, including this year’s Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame, and last year’s Bumblebee.

He’s one of Hollywood’s go-to car designers, but his career is about more than that, by design (so to speak).

“I grew up in Detroit,” Flattery says, “and went to school for transportation design; I didn’t want to be a car designer, I wanted to work in movies, being a concept designer. But I love doing cars.

“One of my first films was Back to the Future Part II. They needed a bunch of futuristic designs for cars and I had the portfolio for that.”

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On that 1989 film, Flattery was hired as “consultant: future” by production designer Rick Carter. “Rick is a great collaborator; he would give me parameters on what he was looking for, to serve the emotions of the story. Then he would say ‘Show me ideas and let’s go through them together.’ Then we went through them with the director, Robert Zemeckis. Once they picked a direction, I developed it further.”

For Back to Future Part III, he had different demands, as Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels back to 1885, where he and Doc (Christopher Lloyd) try to repair the time-travel DeLorean using available tools.

“I did the off-road DeLorean, which was the same design but with a unique chassis that could handle off-road driving.” Flattery shrugs, “You might notice that the suspension on that car is jacked up more than on other DeLoreans. I’m always afraid people will ask ‘Why does that look so high off the ground?’ I also needed to come up with a different flux capacitor, one that could have been created in the 1800s.

“When it came to the DeLorean itself, the geek in me came out. I was giddy to see one in real life, and realize this guy had the guts to make it out of brushed steel — and those doors! They did things that other companies would only do in show cars — but to see that in a production vehicle, it was crazy.”

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Speaking of crazy, the demands on Flattery for Batman Returns were incredibly rewarding, but “It was hellacious, for a lot of reasons. For one, I only had a few months to conceptualize a vehicle, get the director’s approval, production center’s approval — and then build it. I had a few months to do it, while car companies get years to develop these things. And I had to make sure it performed all the things that the script called for.

“I also did two versions, one built for stunts, and the other was a ‘hero car,’ for quieter scenes. The one for stunts had reinforcement front and rear brakes that stuntmen had requested during construction.”

He and his team had to build the car from the ground up, in terms of frame and chassis. “It’s a little overwhelming because of course there are safety issues. Plus, it’s a piece of machinery, so inevitably, something will go wrong on the set.

“Oh, and, by the way, it’s gotta look good!”

It was difficult, but he concludes, “I’m incredibly proud to have done one of the Batmobiles.”

Aside from vehicles like the Fantasticar in Silver Surfer, Flattery has done robot designs for Real Steel, the Rocket-Pack Penguins in Batman Returns, development on Doc Ock’s tentacles in Spider-Man 2, and gadgets for Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland, among others.

“For most of my career, I tried NOT to be typecast as a vehicle designer, because I was capable of many other things,” he says. “When I would get calls, I was careful which jobs to take and why. I didn’t want to be typecast.”

As a designer of everything from futuristic props and settings to vehicles, Flattery said the demands and responsibilities on each film are completely different.

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On A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), it was an all-electric vehicle. Flattery recalls “It was the first electric vehicle built for film, and we decided to go for battery packs on a three-wheel chassis that Steven had chosen. I did various designs, he chose that and we built it from the ground up.”

Spielberg has directed and/or produced many films set in the future, and he has a reputation for speed and efficiency in working with his behind-the-camera team.

“He’s definitely a visionary,” says Flattery, “and he knows what he doesn’t want when he sees it. “With the amphibicopter, Steven got specific about the interior: ‘I’m going to shoot this way, so I need this section to be art-directed-out with technology’ or ‘I’m not gonna shoot that area of the interior much.’ That’s as a director. But then then he puts on his producer’s hat, and expresses all his budget concerns,” Flattery laughs.

A career highlight for the conceptual designer was working with Steven Soderbergh on the 2002 George Clooney starer Solaris. He adds, “Personally it was the most satisfying for me, because I’m a sci-fi geek and because it had a strong point of view about where we are going with space travel and the space stations.”

In working on so many futurist projects, Flattery is asked where he thinks we’re headed.

“I feel like we’re abusing the planet and a lot of it involves transportation, with fossil-fuel-burning vehicles. That concerns me. On the other hand, I see a lot of automakers focusing on what mobility in the future will be and how that can be in harmony with our eco-system and planet. That’s very encouraging.

“Transportation for the average person will not be the same as it is today. People won’t own cars. It’ll be more about apps, grabbing a car like the Bird or Lime (electric scooters) business model, and other mobility systems like mass transport being developed. If we continue down this road where everybody owns a car and it’s internal combustion, then I would feel bleak about things.”

By Tim Gray, Variety Senior VP