Monday, February 15, 2010

Keeper of the Wolf, Part I

Zaki Interviews The Wolfman's Joe Johnston
(for Illume)

To look at Joe Johnston's thirty-plus year film career is to see a snapshot of Hollywood history. From his early work helping to design and create the worlds of Star Wars and Indiana Jones to his diverse directorial catalog, Johnston's filmography paints the picture of an artist seeking constantly to expand not only his own creative boundaries, but also the palette of what is visually possible.

After making his directing debut 21 years ago with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Johnston has worked steadily behind the camera since, alternating between smaller, more personal projects like 1999's October Sky, and summer blockbusters like Jurassic Park III in '01. After 2004's Hidalgo, starring Viggo Mortensen as real life horseman Frank Hopkins, Johnston took a sabbatical from the screen that stretched longer than even he'd intended.

With the release last Friday of Universal's The Wolfman, that exile is finally over. Marking the studio's latest go at reviving their famed "Classic Monsters" brand, the film, like its titular lycanthrope played by Benicio Del Toro (in the role originated by Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941's The Wolf Man -- note the space -- and reprised in several sequels), has undergone a tortured metamorphosis of its own during the long journey to your local multiplex.

Initially shepherded by director Mark Romanek before the old chestnut of "creative differences" led to a parting of ways, The Wolfman was taken over by Joe Johnston in February of '08, mere weeks before cameras rolled. The shortened prep window coupled with the usual pressures of mounting a big budget studio production conspired to make Wolfman one of the most challenging shoots in the director's long career -- made only moreso through several reshoots and release date changes.

Currently prepping the big screen adaptation of Marvel's Captain America, Johnston was gracious enough to discuss his Wolfman experience with me at length, in the process providing a rare insight into Hollywood's inner-workings, and the nuts-and-bolts process of nursing a project from concept to completion. In the first of two parts, he looks back at his time in the Middle East while making Hidalgo, the future of the Jurassic Park franchise, and what motivated him to pick up the reins on The Wolfman.

Six years removed from Hidalgo, can you share some of your reflections on that film, both in terms of its popular and critical reception, and your experience making it. Did it achieve all that you hoped it would achieve?

Hidalgo was a labor of love for me, and those are seldom blockbusters. It was a story that had some basis in fact, but the truth has been lost somewhere along the way. Frank Hopkins was an endurance rider and long distance racer, but did he conquer the Ocean of Fire? No one really knows. It doesn’t really matter one way or the other to me.

I wanted to make the film because it was a good story, regardless of degrees of its truthfulness, and because it sounded like a hell of an adventure, and that’s something I’m always up for.

Would you be up for mounting a production of that scale in that part of the world again?

Morocco is a beautiful country, bleak and desolate, unforgiving. Making a big movie like Hidalgo in a place like Morocco challenges you to stay focused on what you set out to do. When the gods conspire against you on a film of any size there’s always the temptations of taking the easy way out. We fought the land and sky for that film from sunrise to sunset. We lost some and we won some, but I always got the impression that the desert had the upper hand.

On Sundays I would have my driver leave the Land Cruiser out front of the hotel with a full tank of diesel. I’d drive out into the desert alone until the tank was close to half empty, then turn around and hope I didn’t take a wrong road back. I met people in the middle of nowhere, miles from anything, usually on foot or riding a bicycle, leading a camel, almost never in cars. I never felt threatened or in any danger other than that brought on by nature. I wouldn’t hesitate to return to Morocco, maybe with a smaller production.

I’m not a horse lover per se, although I have a fondness for all animals. A true horse fanatic would have made a completely different picture. I didn’t glamorize the horse, I just treated him like any other character.

I love the way Hidalgo looks, the terrible beauty of the desert and the richness of the palette. I meet people, usually from places like Montana and Oregon, who tell me how special that film is to them. It’s surreal to have some old guy in the badlands of Montana tell you that you made his favorite film.

Following Hidalgo you'd been weighing several different projects, including an adaptation of Thomas Kelly's Empire Rising, and a fourth Jurassic Park. Are any of those other projects you were considering still possibilities down the line?

My tastes change just like anyone else’s. Some films that I wanted to make five or ten years ago don’t interest me today. Ever since digital effects became a viable reality I’ve wanted to do a remake of Them!, the movie about giant ants invading Los Angeles. What more perfect fate for Hollywood than being ravaged by 40 foot long insects? That I’d pay to see!

The original from 1954 with James Whitmore and James Arness had about three or four ants that were puppeteered with strings and rods and looked like they were made out of carpet, and the thing still worked like gangbusters. Gordon Douglas directed it.

Empire Rising is a wonderful story, but very expensive to make with the visual effects necessary to build the Empire State Building from the ground up. It gets tougher every year to make movies like that in the studio system, one that is essentially an intimate love story told against this gigantic canvas of New York in the '30s. Studios are taking fewer chances than ever, making “youth appeal” and tentpoles and little else, and a film like Empire Rising is a risk thematically.

I would always be up for another Jurassic Park movie. I had a great time on the one I made. It was hell in production, of course, but how often do you get to stage a fight between two 40-foot dinosaurs? There was a period of a couple of weeks when we were literally two days ahead of the writer. It was a white knuckle ride at times, emotionally, but I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out. Steven [Spielberg] was very supportive throughout and even went to the studio to get us some additional visual effects money when we needed it.

There is a wonderful story outline for the fourth installment that is very different from the first trilogy. It would take the franchise off in a completely new and very exciting direction. If the fans want a fourth Jurassic Park, or any film for that matter, they should be more vocal about it. Studios do actually listen when millions of fans say what they want. The Internet has made it easy to listen to what people have to say and there’s power in numbers.

When you say “trilogy,” you’re implying another three Jurassic Park films…

I think Steven and Universal would want to keep making these films if they continue to be entertaining and successful. I love dinosaurs, like most 8-year-olds, so I’d be up for going back on safari. There hasn’t been any talk of another three films, but this idea for number four would definitely slingshot the franchise into rich and unexplored story territory.

I also understand you’ve taken your interest in dinosaurs to another level after Jurassic Park III.

I went to Montana to meet Jack Horner, the technical advisor on all the films, in ’99 while we were in pre-production on JP3. Once I had my rented Subaru he said, “Follow me”, as if we were going six blocks down the road. 800 miles later we pulled up at a dig site near the town of Malta, north of Fort Peck Lake. The next day we went on a “death march”, as Jack is fond of calling the hikes where you look for exposed bones.

I stepped in a ravine and almost broke my ankle, but I landed right on top of a piece of big leg bone, about as long and big around as a loaf of bread. When Jack came back around to look at it, he identified it as belonging to a mososaur, a big seagoing reptile with flippers and a long snakelike tail for locomotion. Jack took his topo map out studied it for a few minutes before calmly stating that we were about 30 feet outside BLM land, and that the bones belonged to a rancher who he had dealt unsuccessfully with in the past.

So we buried the mososaur and hiked on, but I was hooked. I’ve been back every summer, usually more than once a season. I almost always find something worth collecting and taking to the museum. Two years ago I found a Triceratops skull, complete with all three horns. It was two feet off a well-trodden trail that led to another dig site that had been discovered earlier.

What was it about The Wolfman that convinced you to pull the trigger?

When The Wolfman came along, I was in my fourth year of a self-inflicted hiatus from filmmaking. I’d had no luck finding a project I wanted to invest two years of my life in. I was going through one of those dark periods when you start to question everything and doubt that you have any business doing what you do. To distract myself from reality I’d built an elaborate treehouse for the kids, become fairly proficient in Scruggs-style banjo picking, and restored an old motorcycle.

My wife Lisa, who is normally very patient with me, was starting to wonder when I was going to get the hell back to work. When my agents called and told me the drama that was going on with Wolfman, and after I’d read David Self’s draft, I resolved to get the job. I knew there were other candidates, but I’ve been in this place before and had a theory that the last thing the studio and producers wanted to hear was what they wanted to hear.

I didn’t try to snow them with assurances. I was realistic about the schedule and budget and tried to sound like I had a solid knowledge of the situation. The important thing for the studio was to get troops on the ground as quickly as possible to restart the stalled juggernaut that was sitting there drooling money out of every orifice. From the moment the studio said go until we rolled film was about three weeks, an absurdly short prep period, but the previous director, Mark Romanek had made some good choices in locations and casting, and had hired some excellent crew including Milena Canonero as costume designer.

I wasn’t being sent in to save a sinking ship, I needed to get it under sail and make sure it sailed where I wanted to go. I inherited Rick Heinricks as production designer and I brought in Shelly Johnson as DP, who I’ve worked with twice before. Richard Whelan was already in place as first assistant director, and we were surrounded by the best and brightest of UK film crews.

Were you a fan of the Lon Chaney film going in?

I was a big fan of the original, which I tried to watch every time it came on the late night Creature Features on Channel 13. It feels almost quaint today, and very stagebound with fake trees and dry ice fog and the twisty streets of the Universal backlot (Conliffe’s antique store can still be seen from the Universal Studios Tour bus, having been reused a hundred times). The transformation effects are rudimentary, involving immobilizing Lon Chaney Jr. and applying hair between exposures, then keeping his shirt tightly buttoned around his throat to eliminate the need for a full body suit, but there’s a rare magic in the film, once you suspend the right amount of disbelief.

I had read a draft of Wolfman four years ago and had passed on it because the violence and gore felt overlaid on the character story, not integral to it. It was a very different kind of film. I have no aversion to violence and mayhem if they’re organic to the story. When David Self came on board to rewrite, Romanek had him address virtually every issue I had with the earlier draft.

What was it like jumping onto a production that had already been moving along under the guidance of another helmer -- both in terms of story and aesthetic choices -- before you signed on?

It was important for me to make my version of The Wolfman. This was made a little more difficult by the fact that Mark Romanek had done fifteen weeks or so of prep, leaving me three, but I didn’t want to feel hindered by what had been done. I wanted to see it as a challenge to steer the production in a new direction while making use of the restrictions I inherited.

Given the limitations of the writer's strike at the time you were filming, how much of yourself were you able to invest into the film under fairly restrictive circumstances?

In many ways, I found the situation I was in very liberating. I was able to trust my instincts and first impressions without having the luxury of time to over-think things as we sometimes do. I was helped a great deal by a cast that was willing to help me interpret what was on the page. We didn’t throw the script out, but we certainly didn’t adhere to it either.

As I recall, you joined Honey, I Shrunk the Kids under similar conditions. Would you say it was a comparable experience?

It wasn’t comparable in the same way. I was given an extra eight weeks of prep after I replaced Stuart Gordon on Honey. That made a huge difference. I didn’t feel the same loyalty to the material that I felt on Wolfman. I was willing, and the Disney people backed me up, to make much more radical changes to all aspects of the film. It was my very first film, but I insisted on exercising all my rights as director. The studio was furious with me at times, but they were happy enough with the dailies to stay out of Mexico City, where we shot the whole thing.

Eventually I got the note that Jeffrey Katzenberg said “He’s too big for his britches”. I sent back the message, “Please send bigger britches for the flight home”, but I doubt that it ever made it to Jeffrey’s desk. I’ve always felt that making a studio picture is like buying a new car. Once they believe that you’ll actually walk out of the showroom, you finally have some power. Only once in my career did I have to threaten to wrap the crew if a producer didn’t get off the set. I’ve probably lost a lot of work with my reputation but you can’t let bean counters influence any kind of creative process.

By the same token, a director needs to be responsible to the people who entrust him or her with the vast fortune required to make a big studio film. I want a studio to push back for what they want. A process of negotiation is healthy. I want to make the day’s schedule and come in under budget when it’s realistic. A filmmaker can be endlessly creative and come in under budget if he or she is prepared and keeps a loose grip on his goals.

Honey, I Shrunk The Kids cost 18 million in 1988 and grossed 136 million domestic. It was the first time a debut film broke the 100 million dollar mark. Three years later it was still “in the red” thanks to wildly creative bookkeeping by the studio. The ten profit participants had to audit the studio to get them to admit that they indeed owed us a lot of money. The studio attorney offered us 50 cents on the dollar, saying that if we chose to sue for the full amount we’d spend more than we’d make in the end. Of course all those evil attorneys are gone now, replaced by honest and fair-minded professionals.

In Part II tomorrow, more on The Wolfman, including possible sequels, and some discussion of the highly-anticipated Captain America. Stay tuned!

5 comments:

Brian said...

Great interview! I feel like I'm actually getting to hear a director speak off the cuff rather than recite rehearsed answers for "interview #12."

Looking forward to part 2.

Mr. Boy said...

First, you should know, that I read this interview in an allergy-induced fit of red-eyed puffiness.

There's no point to the above statement other than to remind you of my loyalty as a friend.

Great, great read.

It is indeed a refreshing change of pace to hear the inner rumblings of a director's brain without the PC filter of studio representatives.

Looking forward to more juciness in part deux.

IrfanR said...

Great interview! A rare chance to hear an honest look at behind the scenes of a major Hollywood production! Look forward to reading more!

Anonymous said...

When is part 2 to the interview going to be up? I look forward to reading what he has to say about potential sequels.
I would love to see this new WOLFMAN battle a new Frankenstein monster designed by Rick Baker.
I think that would be amazing on the big screen.

John said...

Great Interview! That man is quite generous. He loves to share his film experiences with others; especially with the up-and-coming generation!