Joe Johnston's career blasted off big time when his first feature, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, scooped up $130 million at the box office and was cemented in the pop culture as a Disneyland attraction. Since then, he's had the luxury of following his instincts, alternating giant family hits (Jumanji, Jurassic Park III) with acclaimed adventure flicks (The Rocketeer, October Sky, Hidalgo). The Wolfman finds him on new turf, helming a splashy thriller with plenty of gore and fangs. Johnston sounds off to BOXOFFICE about what stays-and what gets tweaked-when a seventy year old horror classic gets an update, and gives us the scoop on The First Avenger: Captain America plus those (apparently true) rumors about Jurassic Park IV and the start of a second dinosaur trilogy.
Tell me about the first time you saw the 1941 Wolf Man?
That was a long time ago. It was always my favorite of the Universal monster movies. I don't remember how old I was when I saw it, but I know I watched it every time I saw it listed on TV-long before the days of videotape recorders for home use. I really like the original. The fascinating thing about it, I think, is the whole notion of the beast within everyone. We all have a dark side-some darker than others, know what I mean?
Absolutely. The story is interesting because it scrambles the idea of good guys and bad guys. You're rooting for the wolfman, but also afraid he's going to do damage to the other characters you care about.
You're rooting for him when he is fighting a worse evil than himself. The wolfman is really two characters in one. He's both hero and villain. Lawrence Talbot is essentially the good guy. And he has no control over what he does when he becomes the beast. You can't control the beast. That's a quote from Sir John Talbot in the story. You can't control the beast-you have to let him run free.
How did you direct Benicio Del Toro as he was, like you said, playing two different characters?
He was very much in tune with who his character was. All actors have ideas that they like to try. Sometimes you hear an idea and think, 'That's the craziest thing I've ever heard!' It's just the nuttiest idea. And then sometimes when you think about it and talk about it-usually the next day when you've had a chance to ingest the idea-there's something interesting about it. And yeah, I could see how that would work if you translate it this way. Benicio had all kinds of ideas and often I thought that he was out of his mind. And then I would think about it and realize, 'Oh! I see what he's suggesting-it's not as crazy as it sounds. Maybe if we did this, we could make it work.' There was often that kind of thing going on. I encourage all the actors to have ideas and make suggestions and try things-when you're doing something like this, it's essential even to let them have the freedom to go wild if they want to. We had a lot of fun amidst the horror and the turmoil and the schedule and the budget. Or maybe I should say, the horror of the schedule and the budget.
Those mundane horrors that can be worse than the fantastic...
When you signed on, one of your first goals was to rewrite the script. What was it that you thought was important to have in your telling of the wolfman?
I didn't want to rewrite it completely, but I did want to make the blood and the gore and the violence integral to the story. I didn't want any of the violent scenes to be gratuitous. I didn't want to splash it with blood just because I felt the audience wanted to see a lot of blood. I wanted to justify everything that we did. All the action sequences and all the violence and all the terror, I wanted them to come out of-and evolve from-the storytelling process. In the original script, there was a lot of what I thought was a lot of scenes that turned violent and bloody for no reason. I think because the writer was conscious of the fact that he was writing "the Wolfman" and want to infuse it with a lot of blood and gore. It's not that I objected to the violence, but I wanted it to mean something. So that was one of the earliest quests that we went on once I hired David Self: to rethink the story and justify everything we were doing. And I think it's a much stronger story because of that.
This is also your first R-rated film. On one hand, you now had the freedom to make a film that was more intensely violent than you'd done before, but you're coming from a background where your action hits haven't needed blood.
I felt that because of the history of this film, and the fact that we were essentially updating a classic, it deserved an R rating. The original script, there's no question that it was an R-in fact, it was probably an NC-17. But I didn't want to pull it back so much that it was PG-13 because I wanted it to be very dark, very brooding, and I wanted it to take what was a classic film from the 1940's and re-imagine it for a modern audience. Now, the original Wolf Man is probably PG. The violence is all implied and it happens off camera for the most part, or in silhouette. You don't really see anything. There's something quaint and charming about the way Lawrence Talbot transforms. You can tell they had Lon Cheney sort of strapped in a chair. He couldn't move and they just came in and applied some hair. Shot a frame and applied some more hair. For its day, it was as terrifying for an audience as our technology with CG and prosthetics. That's why the original film has so many fans today-it has charm. Of course, it's very dated, but it exists as a time capsule of how makeup effects used to be done.
That's what I love best, when an opportunity comes around to remake a classic film. We get to see how we've changed. It's the same outline, but the stories are new again because the zeitgeist is different. Is that freeing?
It is freeing in a way. This project was freeing for me in a lot of different ways and for a lot of different reasons. When I came on, I had three weeks of prep. Standard prep is 14, 16, 18 weeks sometimes, so I really had to hit the ground running. But I also realized that this is an opportunity to go completely on instinct. We didn't rehearse anything. Not that I really like to rehearse anyway. I just realized that this is going to be very interesting because the actors in a sense are coming together for the first time as these characters. It's almost like we're there in documentary style to film these actors as they come together in a story. To be able to justify going purely on instinct and say, 'I'm going to do what feels right-I'm not going to over-analyze it,' that is very liberating. You start shooting from the hip and what you find out is that usually you've made the right decision. When you over-think something, you will sometimes go in the wrong direction. You don't have a lot of people in your ear saying, 'What if you did this? And what if you do that?' In a way, it's much more personal because you're relying on instinct. In that way, it was a really interesting experience. It was almost like a student film.
Make up designer Rick Baker said it was especially hard to transform Benicio into a wolfman because even if he was showered and in a suit, he'd still look half wolf. To take him visibly way beyond his normal state was an effort.
Benicio has a very intense-and some people might even say animalistic-look to him. But the raw Benicio is so far from what he becomes as a wolfman that it's not like we have a head start or anything. He is completely transformed. The great thing about Rick's makeup is you can see Benicio under his makeup. His personality comes out-it's not like somebody putting on a hockey mask and you're not sure it's them in there or not. The makeup was built in such a way that it didn't restrict Benicio as much as some makeups do. He was able to express himself and give a very convincing performance even while barely recognizable as Benicio Del Toro. You can see his eyes-he's got very distinctive eyes-and they stare through at you.
Is it true that Gene Simmons does his howl?
Well, when we were designing his howl, we were going off in a lot of different directions. We tried a lot of things to see what would work and be interesting. We listened to every wolf howl ever done on every film. We listened to all of them. And you'd be surprised how unconvincing most of them are. Some were just wolves, but some were men going, 'Aoooooooo!'
Like a choo-choo train.
We didn't get a lot from our research in what's been done before. We were looking for this great pure tone-we knew we were going to process it and overlay elements to it, but we wanted that great foundation. We tried Gene Simmons and one of Gene Simmons' howls is in the movie. I don't think Gene Simmons would recognize it, but it's in there. We had David Lee Roth come in and do a few howls...
That was a blast. We had opera singers come in and howl, we had animal impersonators. Gene Simmons and David Lee Roth were pretty near the end of the process. By then we knew what we were looking for, we were homing in on it. And their stuff became the most useful stuff that we did. Like I said, I don't think they would recognize it after what we've done to it because we've digitally processed it and added cool overtones and all that stuff. We were basically just looking for a wolf howl you'd never heard before. What we realized is that everybody in the audience knows what a wolfman sounds like. Even if it's from their imagination, it's all pretty much the same thing. We just wanted our howl to be the best version of that howl. And I think we've come up with something that's definitely spine-tingling, and at the same time it's familiar enough that the audience is going to recognize it-it's what they expect, with enhancements.
My mental image of your howl auditions is amazing.
It was great. These guys, they're not only singers-they're comedians. Hilarious sessions. You can imagine Gene Simmons and David Lee Roth in there howling with the picture on the screen. And they would do it, crack a few jokes, and try it again. Even if it hadn't been useful, it would have been fun just to do it.
Did they know they were competing against each other to be the signature howl?
I'm not sure if they did, actually?! They came in on different days. I'm not sure if they knew there were other rockers coming in? I guess they'll read about it somewhere.
The internet is freaking out that there might be a Jurassic Park IV.
Wow, when did that happen?
November-you mentioned to Ain't it Cool News that there might be a good script.
Did I tell him? Was it me?
You said that there was no way to get people back on the island for a fourth time and have it make sense, but that 2001 was the last installment and we're due.
Well, there is going to be a Jurassic Park IV. And it's going to be unlike anything you've seen. It breaks away from the first three-it's essentially the beginning of the second Jurassic Park trilogy. It's going to be done in a completely different way. That's pretty much all I can tell you.
A second trilogy?
If you think of the first three as a trilogy, number four would be the beginning of a second trilogy.
That's big. So not to lock you in, but there's a possibility there might be a total of six films?
Well, you never know. If they keep working-and if audiences keep going to them-there's no reason why there wouldn't be. We just want to make them justified in their own right. We don't want to make sequel after sequel just because there's a market for it. We want to tell different, interesting stories. You don't want to just sell hamburger.
What can you tell me that people might not have already heard about Captain America?
It's not going to be a Captain America that you expect. It's something different. It is influenced by the comic book, but it goes off in a completely different direction. It's the origin story of Captain America. It's mostly period-there are modern, present-day bookends on it-but it's basically the story of how Steve Rogers becomes Captain America. The great thing about Captain America is he's a super hero without any super powers. Which is why this story, among the hundreds of superhero stories, appealed to me the most. He can't fly, he can't see through walls, he can't do any of that stuff. He's an everyman who's been given this amazing gift of transformation into the perfect specimen-the pinnacle of human perfection. How does that affect him? What does that mean for him emotionally and psychologically? He was this 98-pound weakling, he was this wimp, and he's transformed instantly into this Adonis. You'd think he got everything he wanted. Well, he didn't get everything he wanted. The rules change at that point and his life gets even more complicated and dire. For me, that's the interesting part of the story. It's got some great action sequences in it and some incredible stuff that we've never seen before. But at the heart of it, it's a story about this kid, who all he wants to do is fit in. This thing happens and he still doesn't fit in. And he has to prove himself a hero-essentially go AWOL to save a friend. Eventually at the very end, I don't want to give away too much, but he does fit in. But it's the journey of getting him there that's interesting. And it's a lot of fun.
Like the wolfman, it's a classic character where you have to find the human element underneath him.
Well, I figure humans buy tickets to go see the movies. We might as well make stories about humans. After all, robots don't buy tickets.