Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Keeper of the Wolf, Part II

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

Continuing our extensive Q&A with the Wolfman helmer (read Part I here), he discusses the two-year delay between his signing on and the film's release, talks a possible sequel, and offers his thoughts on last year's Avatar (plus much more).

It's safe to say that Wolfman is your darkest and most atmospheric film to date. Was it freeing for you to switch up genres and be able to shoot for that "R"?

The hardest thing about making The Wolfman “R” was to remember how I first felt about the specific violence and gore moments. After seeing the shots a hundred times I get as desensitized as the most rabid gamer. Beyond that, making an “R” film is no different than any other filmmaking experience. You still must control any image that makes its way through the lens onto film or into your digital storage device. Is it helping tell the story you want to tell?

I felt that a retelling of The Wolfman deserved to be visually intense enough to leave a strong impression in the same way the original did for 1941 audiences. We screened an earlier cut for a preview audience and got lots of notes that there was too much violence. It was a constant balancing act between the violence, the pacing, showing too much or too little of the beast.

Audiences will always tell you how they feel, but the message almost always needs interpreting. Personally, I hate audience previews, and I very much dislike letting an audience influence the end result, but these movies are hugely expensive and studios need to maximize the number of tickets sold, so they do tend to listen to what audiences say, especially when there’s a consensus.

This is a film that's been scheduled and delayed several times, with almost exactly two years elapsing from the time you started filming to the time of release. With much speculation in the industry press about disagreements between you and the studio possibly accounting for these delays, can you provide your perspective on these so-called creative differences?

The delays were much less about what the studio and I disagreed about than what we agreed about. The previous draft to the shooting script had a much extended (and more expensive) action sequence following the second transformation. The sequence was cut down for budgetary reasons and replaced with a sequence inside a conservatory where a blind singer was performing at a masquerade ball.

After we returned to the states and cut the sequence it was apparent to everyone that we should have bitten the bullet and shot the bigger sequence, a chase and rampage through London. We went back almost a year later and shot two big action sequences along with a couple of smaller scenes to strengthen the Gwen/Lawrence [Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro] relationship.

The action sequences added over two hundred visual effects shots and made it necessary to push the release date back to accommodate the new work. This is not to say that there weren’t creative differences. There always are, on a film production of any size, but in this instance the differences didn’t really contribute to the delays.

I’ve been really amazed at the explosion of popularity of the various internet fansites.  I think it’s a great thing that fans can connect and share their views. At the same time I’ve been surprised at how little knowledge some of the bloggers have about the process of filmmaking. In one example, a blogger said something like, “How can they go back to Danny Elfman’s music now? It was ‘synced’ to a different, longer cut."

Music is essentially made of rubber. You can stretch it, shrink it, chop it up into pieces and rearrange it. It’s much more flexible than the picture is. Of course we could go back to Danny Elfman’s music regardless of the cut. When a music editor cuts a temp score for a film, he or she uses music that was written for another film.

A good music editor can cut temp music so that the edits, the ins-and-outs are absolutely flawless and inaudible.  If an audience doesn’t recognize the music they’d swear it was written for the film they’re watching. If you’re going to have a fansite or blog about movies, acquire a little knowledge of the subject first. 

Given that Chaney went on to play Talbot four more times, and given Universal's own history with the Classic Monsters brand, it's pretty hard not to think "Wolfman" without the word "franchise" also coming to mind. If the call came, would you be up for another go at the property?

None of those Wolf Man sequels even belonged in the same league as the original and the later ones became examples of bad camp. We could do better today, but realistically, I don't think Universal would be interested in hearing my list of demands. Never say never, but I think it's time to let someone else have the fun of the Wolfman.

Having said that, we left the possibility of a sequel open with Hugo Weaving the likely successor for the hair and fangs. I can't imagine a better candidate for wolfdom. Hugo is fun, hardworking and throws himself into his work without reserve. A sequel with Hugo as the beast would be a blast. 

With the high pressure already involved in a project of this sort, would you be hesitant to again join a film under the conditions you faced right at the outset on Wolfman?

I don’t like taking over another director’s project. I don’t think anyone wants to be known as a 9-1-1 director. In the case of The Wolfman it was hard to turn down a chance to work with this amazing cast, and after four years off, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever work again. I even considered getting back into design and some kind of art. I don’t draw anymore. I haven’t picked up a pencil in years.

Maybe that’s a product of having done thousands of drawings, designs and storyboards for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films while I was at ILM. I think I realized it doesn’t get much better than that and I should move on. I think the skill would come back to me after a few days at a drawing table, but I don’t miss it. It feels like that was a chapter that’s closed and can be looked back on with pleasant memories. 

On a more general level, given your extensive expertise in this arena, what are your thoughts on the state of special effects today? With so many directors moving towards motion capture to realize fully digital worlds -- Avatar the most recent example -- are practical effects and appliances becoming obsolete?

I think Avatar is brilliant, not only for the spectacle of its imagery, but for the technological boundaries it has pushed forward. The visual effects bar is way up there now, and moviegoers will be treated to films that make serious attempts to equal and exceed what Cameron has achieved. Visual effects are better than they've ever been thanks to digital technology.

Motion capture helps to infuse as much humanity into the animation as possible, and maintains a level of motion realism that is hard to achieve with keyboard animation, but the story is still the key ingredient. Groundbreaking visual effects are wasted if they don't support an entertaining story. I don't believe practical effects and appliances will ever be obsolete.

One thing our test audiences on Wolfman told us repeatedly was how glad they were that the wolfman was a real actor in makeup and a real stunt guy in a Wolfman suit, and that it was not a CG character. Just as stop motion animation enjoys a periodic revival, I think practical effects will always find willing practitioners. They're less expensive, at least for now, and allow lower budget films to be made, films that require the filmmaker to be more creative with less financial backing.

One more pet peeve: Filmmakers spend days in the labs color timing the digital internegatives, making sure that the prints made from them will be properly balanced, that there will be detail in the shadow areas, that the contrast levels are correct, etc. We do this because we genuinely care that audiences see the film as it was intended to be seen. The Wolfman is a film that requires a delicate balance of light and dark.

Shelly Johnson took great pains in shooting the film so that he could retain the blackest blacks, the dark textures, the subtle desaturation of color where necessary. He was always walking a very careful aesthetic line in order to provide audiences with the richest visual experience possible. When this carefully delineated artistry gets to your local multiplex, it often gets completely destroyed by corporate policy intent only on saving a few dollars.

Standard projection brightness is intended to be 16 foot lamberts. This is a measurement of the amount of light reflected off the screen, back into a light meter. Projection bulbs are expensive, and if the urban myth is correct, there is a near monopoly on them so the manufacturer can name their price, which I've heard is around $400 each. These bulbs last longer if the current surging through them is dialed down, resulting in reduced foot lamberts which of course means a darker screen and a less vibrant image.

The exhibitors save money by needing to replace projection bulbs less often and the filmgoing public gets a less satisfactory experience. You would be shocked to see the difference in image quality between 16 and 12 foot lamberts, 12 being a common meter reading at a lot of chain theaters. Only a few of the big premier theaters even bother to "read the screen" and keep the brightness where it's supposed to be.

People who love movies and want their money's worth should demand that theater chains keep the brightness levels where they should be. Exhibitors should have a choice of who they buy the bulbs from, there should be market competition to bring the price down, and someone should invent a projection bulb that will only work at 16 foot lamberts. 

With Captain America scheduled to shoot this summer, has it been easy doing pre-production on one huge project while continuing to post another?

The worst part has been the mileage. Marvel is way down in Manhattan Beach and Universal is in the San Fernando Valley. I had a lot of time in the car to think. 

What's your experience working with the folks at Marvel been like so far as compared with Universal?

A studio picture can have as many producers as there is room for in the credits. Sometimes producers are working on several shows at once and playing tag team, coming and going during production so you never know who you’re going to get on any given day. There can also be situations where actors or even actors’ agents are getting a producer credit and feel they deserve to be listened to.

At Marvel, there are two producers and they’re the guys on staff, and they’re always there and their job is to support the filmmaker and help him make the film we’ve all agreed on. There’s a lot of communication, but it never comes in a roundabout way. It’s a very direct line. It has been refreshing so far…a different model, not what I’ve been used to. 

Any tidbits on your tonal and stylistic approach to Cap?

I’m sworn to secrecy on Captain America. All I can say is that the script is great and we’re designing things that no one has ever seen on a movie screen. 

As we wrap things up, are there any other aspects of your Wolfman experience you can share with our readers?

The Wolfman was pretty much hell from beginning to end, easily the most difficult thing I’ve ever tried to do. At the same time, it was glorious, and enlightening, and a helluva lot of fun. I made lots of mistakes, which is always when you learn the most, I had lots of personal creative triumphs, made some wonderful friends, and fell in love with London again, permanently this time. It energized me with the excitement of the craft and made me anxious to do it again. For that I am very grateful to all those who made it happen. 

Many thanks to Joe Johnston for taking the time to share his thoughtful comments with us.  The Wolfman is currently playing at a theater near you.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Really great interview.
The best interview I've read with him so far.
I am sad to hear that he would not want to return to direct the sequel, should they make one.
The experience was clearly more disappointing and frustrating for him than rewarding.
Well, Mr. Johnston, I loved your take on the Wolfman, it was a blast and I cannot wait to get the extended dvd cut.
Good luck on Captain America.

Martín said...

Terrific interview, Zaki!!
I particularly loved his complaint against the cost saving for less brightness in the screen.

Mr. Boy said...

Solid interview. I wish he was able to talk a bit more about Cap, but I understand the tight-lippednessisity. (It's a word.)

Johnston comes off as a real class act. Humble and accepting of his mistakes, but also candid and truthful about obstacles that comprimised his creativity.

Can't wait for the red, white and blue!

Brian said...

Great interview! I appreciated Johnston's honesty about the process of making his film. It's refreshing to read what a director really goes through/thinks about/etc.

I'd rather read what a director thinks about theater projection than what he thinks about Bradley Cooper any day.

Keep up the good work - both of you guys.

Anonymous said...

Funny thing about directors is that they always talk a great game, then deliver mediocrity. They went back to strengthen the love story? How many scenes did they have before, zero?