Director Joe Johnston, coming off of his pinch-hit directing duties on Universal’s The Wolfman, returned to England last year to shoot Captain America – The First Avenger for Paramount, though the project was also produced through Marvel Studios. Johnston, whose career in Hollywood is now over 35 years old, famously tenured at Industrial Light and Magic in the 1970s and 1980s before going back to USC Film School to study directing. With his first feature, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, over 20 years old, Johnston can now claim eight feature films to his credits as director. In this exclusive interview, he discusses his work on the new comic book adventure, which follows many other such adaptations in this summer season.
Below the Line: On The Wolfman, you noted that if you ever shot a feature digitally, you would use the Panavision Genesis, and you did so on Captain America – The First Avenger. What finally informed your decision to go digital?
Joe Johnston: The Genesis is a great package since you have the Panavision lenses – the 17 and 21mm were on the camera most of the time, and the 14 was there when the 17 wasn’t. It tells the audience that there’s something different about this film. You can’t hide with the 14 – you practically see behind the camera. We shot the very last scene – the epilogue in NYC – with the Arri Alexa, and I prefer it. It was easier to use, and the image quality was better. If we shoot digital again, we’ll use it.
BTL: Why did you choose to not shoot in 3D but instead convert to 3D in post?
Johnston: We did a test day with 3D, and it was a cumbersome package. We only did nine setups that day – a third of what we normally get done. I decided we could shoot a better movie in 2D and convert it. You can get the camera in better places than you could with the 3D rig. We always knew that we were going to release in 3D, [so] we also shot a left-eye pass at the end of every setup. That gave the 3D guys the information they needed without the actors in place. It records the information behind the actors that the other lens would be getting. We put the camera exactly in the same spot [for the left eye pass]. We decided to do it because we wanted to enhance the converted 3D. I don’t know that anyone else does that. It was worth it. It made the process easier for the 3D guys.
BTL: Having been at the recent 20th anniversary of your film The Rocketeer, it was hard to ignore the similarities to Captain America. Did you acknowledge any of them?
Johnston: I was really amazed when I saw the 20th anniversary screening because I recognized similarities too. The hidden bookcase! It was never intentional. It’s weird. I can’t explain it. I’m drawn to that type of story, but that doesn’t explain the similarities. I’d love to sit down and watch them and analyze them to figure out why that happened. It was unconscious.
BTL: Exactly how much green-screen work did you shoot on Captain America?
Johnston: We didn’t build any models. They are all in the computer. In scenes like the World’s Fair, the only thing real is the painted floor. It’s really amazing what the guys can do. The challenge is to not overuse the technology and let all of the visual effects serve the story. You can do so much more with digital technology than you ever could with a model. If you don’t like the shot, with a few keystrokes, you can change the angle and the lens. It’s so much more flexible. You can’t do that with film. It is freeing on one level. But, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Effects for the sake of effects are really useless. If it’s not moving the story forward, it’s eye candy. Audiences need so little. You just have to hint at something and show it one time, and audiences will fill in the blanks. Audiences need to participate in the telling of the story. Additionally, it’s more inexpensive to do it that way – let them fill in the blanks.
BTL: How did you achieve the Red Skull character as it appeared to be a combination of both prosthetic makeups and digital effects?
Johnston: Whenever you see the red makeup, it’s David White, the sculptor in England, who created it prosthetically, and Double Negative removed the nose and thinned his cheeks out a little bit. Sometimes, they smoothed out creases. Mostly, it was a prosthetic, and I did prefer that. It ended up being much more cost effective to have the mask and remove the nose. When it applies, prosthetic masks are better – the interplay of the light, and relying on Hugo Weaving’s performance instead of a CG animator is preferable. It is better to communicate what you are trying to accomplish to an actor than an animator at a keyboard.
BTL: Since you started with traditional effects techniques in the Star Wars films, do you ever have a personal longing for them now that you are working with digital methods?
Johnston: I’d love to see a resurgence of stop-motion and a combination of stop-motion and CG. My agent called me last week and asked if I had any interest in Sinbad, but I’m looking for something smaller with a quicker schedule. This picture took two years. That’s a long time to invest in something.
BTL: Something smaller, such as October Sky, my favorite of your films?
Johnston: October Sky was such a great story. The screenwriter did an amazing translation of the book. He found the key to making the story work – he made the mine the villain. It wasn’t like that in the book. He was absolutely right. It brought the whole story to life. But I have to go looking for the October Skys. I have to encourage my agents to find that stuff because that’s not what they get sent. I’m looking for a high concept $2,000,000 film – an interesting horror film or thriller.
BTL: Was there any pressure to cast big name stars in the lead parts? As it stands, all of your top names are cast in more peripheral supporting roles.
Johnston: With Chris Evans, he’s not like you are casting Tom Cruise. It’s a huge advantage that he comes without a lot of baggage. He doesn’t bring any of that with him. Even with Marvel’s support, we cast the movie right with Chris, Sebastian Stan and Haley Atwell. For a few days here and there, we get actors who everyone knows and support the cast. That was always the decision, and Marvel fully agreed. We cast the movie very cost effectively in the leads and we spent the money where we had to, such as with Tommy Lee Jones. It was a great cast to work with.
BTL: How did the studio process work with both Marvel and Paramount producing?
Johnston: My attitude is that a good idea is welcome no matter where it’s from. So many studio notes are generated by middle guys who watch the film and type up notes. It’s frustrating and meaningless. Things like “this scene is funny but we think it can be funnier.” You ignore those and find the creative ideas. Marvel makes all the creative choices in-house – with no other studio notes. Marvel is autonomous. Usually, by the time it gets to the studio, you’ve recognized what the film needs. Showing it to an audience tells you a lot. You can learn a lot from a couple of comments. You never want to pander to an audience, but you can make adjustments to deflect studio notes. There are only two producers I deal with at Marvel. That’s so unique and rare in this business.
BTL: As with The Rocketeer, I thought that you made a period film as exciting as a more contemporary film with Captain America. How did you achieve that?
Johnston: I wanted to make a picture that took place in the ’40s but was as interesting action-wise as a contemporary film. It is just a matter of investing the audience in the world that you are creating. A lot of times, studios use the excuse in that it’s more of a risk and more expensive to make a period film. Given the fan base that Marvel has, we can overcome that problem right away. We already have people interested in the movie. It can be just as exciting as, say, a Bourne film. The thing I love about a movie such as Raiders of the Lost Ark is that it’s absolutely fun beginning to end. I wanted this to be fun in a similar way. There’s always something new: a new character, new plot twist – it all has to be fun. I told Chris Evans that he was going to have fun with this film. And Raiders was our template for the tone and pacing of Captain America.