Harry claws to learn from Joe Johnston on WOLFMAN set!!!
Published at: Nov. 6, 2009, 5:10 p.m. CST by headgeek
Hey folks, Harry here with my chat with Joe Johnston that took place in the Talbot family home. There was a ton of last act spoiler activity going on around us, but the Talbot Manor was exquisite. Very much the home of a hunter, taxidermy abounded. Just loved it. Now - you have to know that this was about two months prior to Joe committing to CAPTAIN AMERICA - so that wasn't even a topic that anyone knew to discuss. Instead we discuss mainly his work on the WOLFMAN film, but also a bit about Rocketeer, Honey I Shrunk The Kids and the world of Jurassic Park. Joe, the creator of Boba Fett, is incredibly cool in person. It was very nice to finally meet him. Also in this piece we talk about Danny Elfman quite a bit, but he will not be the man scoring the film. His duties on ALICE IN WONDERLAND made him unavailable, so instead - Paul Haslinger has apparently filled that role. Without further catching up - join me for a fire lit chat with Joe Johnston in progress as my recorder kicked in...
Joe Johnston: I’m impossible to stop. I just go on and on and on.
Harry: Yeah, we have only shared a few emails in the past between us, the old “General Joe” account.
Joe Johnston: Yeah, that was a long time ago.
Harry: Yeah, so how are you doing? How’s WOLFMAN coming along?
Joe Johnston: It’s crazy. It’s work. It’s nuts and we are right…
Harry: I had no idea how gory you were making this thing.
Joe Johnston You know, it probably looks gorier than it is, it really does.
Harry: The girl in the park that I saw them making up was pretty heavy duty!
Joe Johnston: It’s all about taste.
Harry: You have never done something like this, really.
Joe Johnston: Not that I had my name on.
Joe Johnston: I’m just yanking your chain. [Laughs] You are right, I haven’t. I haven’t done an R rated picture before.
Harry: What’s that like? Are you enjoying it?
Joe Johnston: It’s not so much about the rating, it’s about making it exactly what you want it to be. It’s about controlling what goes on to film, whether its G or PG or R. It’s just a matter of basically controlling what goes through the lens and making it what you want it to be, so in that way all films are the same.
Harry: What made you want to take on this project when it came across your table there?
Joe Johnston: What is it about blood in the water that attracts a shark?
Joe Johnston: I had been off of work, a self imposed hiatus for like four years and I had actually read the script like two and a half years ago and I didn’t care for it in that version, but after several rewrites and notably one by David Self who did a really nice rewrite on it and he’s addressed all of the things about the original script that I had had problems with. He made it much more layered and healthy. I decided it would be something that would be fun to do, plus I was ready to go back to work.
Harry: In making a Universal horror film that’s not a… I take it this film is not a very “winky” film, right? Do you feel there’s “winky” going on?
Joe Johnston: No, it’s not very winky at all and there are references to the original film, but I just think of it more as a classic noir film or at least that’s what I’m trying to make.
Harry: That’s a noble ambition these days.
Joe Johnston: It does have it’s challenges.
Harry: What has been the toughest thing for you on this, besides the studio?
Joe Johnston The balance between… I want it to be a classic horror film, but I also want it to push the envelope a little bit.
Harry: And which envelope are you pushing there?
Joe Johnston: I want it to be intense and I want to find out where that line is, where the violence and the blood has sort of gone too far and I want to kind of pull it back. It’s sort of tough to know until you screen it for an audience. You get so wrapped up in it at the end of the day and I don’t really look at what we are shooting two weeks or a month from now, I look at what we are shooting today, like this morning and then I start to think about what we are shooting in the afternoon. Although I have a vision of how it’s all coming together, but it always changes. This one, more so than most, it sort of evolves and becomes something beyond what I envisioned. It’s interesting.
Harry: How so? What sort of changes do you feel it has taken?
Joe Johnston: It’s gotten… The subplots that were in the script that I read were sort of buried and they have been coming to the surface and I feel like now there are four very distinct character arches that are all intertwined and I guess the draft that I read before… David had done a pass on it, but he continued to work on it for months. It was about Lawrence Talbot and it’s still about Lawrence Talbot, but it’s about how all of these other characters interact with him and how their relationships get interwoven. That wasn’t that apparent in the original draft. I’m just trying to make it classic in a way. I’m just trying to make it a movie I would want to see.
Harry: In terms of the effects on this film, you got two sort of camps that want to pull more towards the physical effects and the digital, where are you on that?
Joe Johnston: It’s not like… There’s never an easy answer for this. There are effects that should be practical and there are effects that should be digital and to me it’s after you have analyzed what the effect is, you usually know… Those kinds of camps want to do it all, like “We can do that” and digital guys are saying “We can do everything. It can all be digital.” It’s the same with the practical guys, “It’s the way they did it in the old days,” but it’s usually obvious to me, having come more or less from that world, long before there was digital. It’s very obvious to me which way we should go and I tend to go toward the digital, because I know it’s the future and in ten or fifteen years it’s probably all going to be digital. It has come so far since JURASSIC PARK. That was the…
Harry: It’s come a long way.
Joe Johnston: That was the moment where everything sort of changed.
Harry: With JURASSIC PARK, the reason that the first one still holds up so well is because of the exact right mixture of the physical as well as the digital and there are some times when the audience isn’t quite sure when they are looking at a Stan [Winston] thing and when they are looking at a Dennis [Muren] thing, which is fun.
Joe Johnston: It is and that happened right at that horizon. I’m sure you know, Phil Tippet was preparing all of the puppets to the…
Harry: Yeah, the go-motion stuff.
Joe Johnston: I’m sure that would have been amazing in itself.
Harry: It would have been the last great stop motion/live action film. Instead, we had the first great CG Live Action film.
Joe Johnston: That’s very true.
Harry: Speaking of JURASSIC PARK, are you thinking of heading into that fourth one after this?
Joe Johnston: Well, there is a great story for the fourth one that I would be interested in getting involved with and it’s nothing like the first three. It sort of takes the franchise off in a completely different direction, which is the only way I would want to get involved.
Harry: Another movie about a group of people struggling to survive a dinosaur attack is…
Joe Johnston: We’ve done that and it’s been done three times and I figure it’s…
Harry: Stay away from that island. Don’t go there!
Joe Johnston: Why would anybody go back to that island? It was hard enough to figure out the second and third reason for them to go, but it would take it off in a whole other trilogy basically, but when it gets to that level it’s sort of about studios and Steven’s thing and who knows. I think we are at that point where we are due for another one if we are going to do it. They had what four years between them? 1992… 1996 or 1997, and then 2001, so we are past due. I don’t know, but we will see.
Harry: I loved what you did with HILDAGO in terms of creating… frankly doing something different with a western and sort of playing with that in taking it to a different world. What are you doing with Victorian England here that you feel we haven’t seen before?
Joe Johnston: I don’t think we have seen a classic horror film done in Victorian England, at least not that I have seen. The previous director who I replaced, Mark Romanek, I haven’t met him and haven’t spoken to him, but just looking at what he’s prepped, I feel like we are sort of on the same page in that visually I want it to look very accurate and very much of the period. I don’t want to throw anything in that one of the artists are going to say “Hey, that’s out of time with the film!” I feel like once you believe that you are in Victorian England, then if you take this amazing element of the wolfman and put him into that world that’s very solid and you believe in, then it’s going to make the suspension of disbelief for THE WOLFMAN that much more powerful. That’s my theory.
Harry: What were the challenges that you had to wrangle in stepping in for Mark on this with so little time to shoot? That’s a hard thing for anybody to do.
Joe Johnston: It is and I have never done that really. I did replace a director on my first film, HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS, but it was…
Harry: Who was directing that originally?
Joe Johnston: That was Stuart Gordon originally.
Harry: That’s right. Wow.
Joe Johnston: When he left the show, they added another eight weeks to preproduction, so I had plenty of time to do what I wanted to do, but with this I came in and had to look at what had been prepped and decide what I could keep and what I could get rid of and how I could say “After reading the script, here’s what I think the movie is… How can I adapt what has been prepared?”
Harry: Quickly and under a strike…
Joe Johnston: Exactly. In a way, it was very liberating to take that on, because it’s like I’m being dropped in the middle of something that’s already making progress and rolling along, “How can I stear this thing and how can I control it?” “How can I turn it into something that’s not Mark Romanek’s film and it’s not Universal’s film and it’s not the producer’s movie and it’s entirely my film?” That has been the challenge. It was much more of a challenge in the first three or four weeks and now that I’m looking back at however many weeks it has been, 14 weeks or whatever, I feel like I’ve been able to do that. I feel pretty good about it.
Harry: Cool. I’m rooting for you on this thing.
Joe Johnston: Thanks. I’m rooting for me too! [Laughs]
Harry: It’s weird, because I have been friendly with Mark for years and knew this thing, but at the same time when they were looking at directors to step in, almost all of them I knew and had communicated with at one point in my life, if not more, and when you got announced as the director, I was like “My God, I don’t know what this movie is.”
Joe Johnston: I think that’s a good thing in a way.
Harry: I do too and I became excited, because that inherently the movie that I had heard about, read scripts from, knew inside and out, was not necessarily a Joe Johnston film, but at the same time it absolutely… not only what you would do to this film, but what this film would end up doing to you, because of the difference in material and type of story that it was. I am very excited to see what that combination does.
Joe Johnston: That’s an interesting way to put it. I’ve always wanted to make, whatever the rating… I don’t think you can say “I always wanted to make an R film,” but I’ve always wanted to make a very intense horror film, but I would only do it if I got to put it within these kinds of parameters, where it’s much more than that. If you don’t care about these characters and you don’t get to know them and how they relate to each other, then it just becomes a gorefest and who cares?
Harry: That’s one of the things when I was talking to Benicio, he was desperate to get as much variation into the wolfman performance as possible, because he feels that the more we make him animal versus monster, the more the audience can kind of root for him in a way, which of course pays off to what’s happening here at the end. I think in terms of is this is a film that begins a franchise of horror, as opposed to a one off, which I know certain powers that be would probably want it to be a franchise versus a one off.
Joe Johnston: I could imagine.
Harry: Adding that variation to the performance would only serve to extend people’s desire to see more of that character.
Joe Johnston: Sure. It’s interesting you know, in something like this you never know really. I have my vision of who the wolfman is and I’m sure Benicio has his and the studio has theirs.
Harry: It’s about wrangling that.
Joe Johnston: And there is some crossover in there somewhere, but the one thing Benicio and I agree on very much is that he does not start slashing and killing at random, he only attacks and kills someone who has attacked him. That’s something from the very beginning that... He said it’s crucial for the character, because in a way it’s two characters. On one side we have the wolfman who is this animal, this uncontrollable beast, and it’s Lawrence Talbot on the other and in a way they are at war with each other. Lawrence is his own victim, which is what makes it interesting to me. He’s a very conflicted character. He hate’s what he had done when he wakes up and realizes what he had done, he’s devastated and I think that’s why you have sympathy for Lawrence and in the end, because of what he is doing, you can have sympathy for the wolfman, too. It really is a fine line and like I say, you don’t really know until you put it in front of an audience and start analyzing the feedback and not that you ever want the audience to dictate what the movie is, but you can certainly let them clarify the film.
Harry: Yeah and see if what you think is working is in fact working.
Joe Johnston: Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes what you think is a very intense and scary sequence is not at all and something else you thought “This sort of works…” It’s because you get so attached to it. You really can’t step back. It helps when it’s all over and done to take a couple of weeks and get away from it and not think about it for a while, but you have been living with it for so long.
Harry: One of the things my readers are desperate to know is when we are going to get an astonishing BluRay version of THE ROCKETEER and I thought about the question before I came and it’s so sad that Dave Stevens is now gone, because that’s a film that I just dearly love.
Joe Johnston: I do too. Something happened on that film where like all of those big movies, it sort of took on a life of it’s own and got a little bit out of control and there were two sequences in there that were sort of, in a way, the heart of the story and we got to a point where the studio said “You cant…” Disney always does draw a pretty firm line at this stuff, they said “We are not going to pay for this.”
Harry: It feels that way, because the best action sequence of the film is essentially that first major flight sequence and then after that it seems like everything got a little cut back a bit.
Joe Johnston: It did and there was a whole sequence over Hollywood Boulevard where he lands at Grauman’s Chinese Theater and had more stuff to do with the gangsters chasing him and stuff like that. I know why they did it. They want to get their investment back, but sometimes they don’t realize that “Okay guys, spend another six million and you are going to get back a lot more than that.” That’s a hard sell.
Harry: That’s a hard sell, but at the same time, if you build a movie that doesn’t escalate and you cut back those escalations, it becomes something that is as much… “Yeah, you had an amazing score there…”
Joe Johnston: That’s the best thing that Horner has done in years.
Harry: I think that might very well be the best thing that Horner has done. I could listen to that endlessly.
Joe Johnston: Me too, but it’s hard for me to listen to, because of the ordeal that we went through to get it, but it’s beautiful.
Harry: Speaking of, who is doing the music for this?
Joe Johnston: We haven’t locked anyone in, but I know that Danny Elfman wants to do it. I think he’d be great. If Danny Elfman does do it, I’m going to basically just let him run loose. I’m going to run the movie for him without music and without the temp track and say, “Do what you have never done before and see what comes out of it.” I think he’s fantastic. I can still listen to his score for BEETLE JUICE.
Harry: The BEETLE JUICE score is amazing. His original BATMAN score… like a god wrote that thing. EDWARD SCISSORHAND’s music adds a lot of soul to the thing.
Joe Johnston: We have actually used some of his scores in our temp track, because every time we get a scene cut, we put music with it and it’s amazing to see what happens. It gets transformed, but knowing that it’s likely that we might be using him, I’m trying to move towards that. It’s interesting, because his stuff is so specific to each film, it’s not like there’s a… It’s almost like there’s not a Danny Elfman style. There used to be with the Danny Elfman and Tim Burton style and I think he’s moved away from that. He’s gotten much more versatile and he’s really pushing the envelope in many ways.
Harry: For a while he was sort of in a rut of [imitation of a beat] that sort of staccato buzz thing that he was doing, but I hear the score that he’s doing on HELLBOY 2 is amazing.
Joe Johnston: I went and visited them at Abbey Road. I was only there for half an hour when they were scoring that, but it was just amazing. When I left, I was like “Just do the same thing for WOLFMAN.”
Harry: I have to say, I was totally not expecting the gore stuff when I came.
Joe Johnston: Just remember you are seeing it on a table.
Harry: I know and I love gore stuff. I’m a kid, so I love that stuff.
Joe Johnston: There’s a way to photograph that stuff and keep it frightening, but still keep it as part of this world.
Harry: I’ll tell you what’s weird to me, the original WOLFMAN, which is it’s own film and this is not that movie, is essentially a fairytale. It’s told like a fairytale. It’s very brief with no subplots or character arches really. It’s a very small movie, but the heart of that story is definitely still here, which is the curse and the man on the train, the foreboding sense of stuff, but to add a fairly go for the throat visceral feel to that is something I haven’t really seen before and I’m very curious to see how, once you get into the editing room, how much is too much and how much is right…
Joe Johnston: That’s always the battle and there are all kinds of variations on an R rating. There’s this huge across the board… I think much more so than with any of the other ratings. PG 13 is pretty well defined and south of PG 13 is pretty well defined. PG and G are virtually the same in a way.
Harry: In the R rated realm, you have the R rated films that are about torment and torture and that’s where they are pushing the NC 17 ratio, then you have the R rated films that you just feel would give kids nightmare. What sort of R rated film are you thinking here?
Joe Johnston: It’s got a little bit of… It does have blood and gore and I haven’t determined where that line is yet, but it’s also got…
Harry: Is there a sexual nature to this film at all?
Joe Johnston: There is, but it’s more unspoken between the characters. It’s there and you know it’s there and there’s some skin, but its not really about that.
Harry: But there’s not Francis Ford Coppola werewolf doing the girl in the mausoleums.
Joe Johnston: No, not yet.
Harry: Not yet, but you will get there!?
Joe Johnston: That’s in the rewrites I guess.
Harry: But that’s the scene that Benicio and Emily desperately want to shoot. [Laughs]
Joe Johnston: It’s more about… It gets back to what you define as frightening. I think that images and ideas that are out of context are frightening, you know? It gets into that whole psychological thing of basically its this guy’s history that sort of drives him.
[A production person walks up and informs him that he’s needed for a rehearsal.]
Joe Johnston: Harry, are you around tomorrow?
Harry: I’m here tonight, then I’m off tomorrow.
Joe Johnston: Okay, well I’ll see you before you go.
Harry: Okay, cool.