Former Industrial Light and Magic art director Joe Johnston became a feature film director over 20 years ago when he came aboard Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and has not looked back. Among his other films are The Rocketeer, Jumanji, October Sky, Jurassic Park III and Hidalgo. Now, with The Wolfman, he takes a crack at the classic monster genre. However, Johnston’s entry into the project was unorthodox at best; he replaced original director Mark Romanek deep into pre-production. In this exclusive interview, Johnston discusses the project and his directorial approaches to science-fiction and fantasy cinema throughout his career.
Below the Line: How soon before the shoot was going to start did you come onto The Wolfman as director?
Joe Johnston: I came into the film three weeks before shooting. I still had some input into locations and sets. There were sets that had been finished and there were sets that had been started, but there were an awful lot that were still on the drawing board. There was a lot of casting to be done still. Hugo Weaving wasn’t cast until a week before shooting. Mark Romanek made a lot of good decisions. He had a pretty good handle on it. I didn’t feel the need to change his ideas. But I had enough input to say that it was my film. Most of the director’s choices happen when a camera starts rolling. Hitting the ground running allows you to trust your instincts a lot more. You don’t have the luxury of analyzing everything. It allowed me to ignore the voices around me. I didn’t have the luxury of time to listen to everyone. It worked out well. It has a certain liberating quality, being dropped in, shooting from the hip and being able to do what feels right. In my first film, I had a lot of time in prep. It allows you to do the process.
BTL: Did you have any input at that point in the look of the main character?
Johnston: Rick Baker had a full makeup on Benicio, but I was able to change with Rick’s input some things. There were a lot of small appliances. It wasn’t like you slip it on and add eye makeup. That wouldn’t have allowed him to express himself and move. The way that Rick had designed it, you could go in and change the brow a bit. It allowed you to make changes without starting over and doing the whole makeup again. Rick is the best in the business. He got to that place by being flexible and trying things and being willing to go all the way. We made the makeup more intense and frightening with the changes we made. I am really happy with how it turned out and Rick is too.
BTL: How do you decide when to use CGI and when to use practical techniques in your films?
Johnston: You use whatever technique best serves the shots that you are trying to get. In Jumanji, we would have made the spiders CG if we had the budget and time to do it. We didn’t have the money to do it. They looked plastic to me. But you can’t afford to do them in CG, which was a lot more expensive then. I like to use whatever technique works the best. We used CG for the transformations in Wolfman. We started with Benicio and ended up with Rick Baker’s makeup. Other than the transformation, there’s not a lot of CG. I wanted to do it as much like the original as possible – your star in a makeup. CG breaks the laws of physics and doesn’t have the weight. Real life is something that’s pretty tough to replace. I didn’t want to do all CG because you have an interaction when you have an actor on the set in makeup. Something happens that’s an entirely different process having the actors react to that character that you can’t get in an empty room with a green screen. Something happens when you have the character there in front of you.
BTL: How did you integrate the character wearing a makeup into a 2010 film – which is a rarity – and have it work?
Johnston: The one note that we continually got is that people were glad that it was not a CG werewolf. They liked it as an homage to the original. It was all Lon Chaney or his stunt double as a makeup. We do have a few CG shots, but we also built feet for these guys that gives them that dog-leg look. It was difficult to run in them. It’s like running on stilts. There are shots where you see that he’s got CG wolf feet on but it’s practical. He has these strange wolf feet on that blend together and makes him much more believable as the creature. From the knees down, we covered them with black. There are some limbs that come off where we use green to make the disconnect easier.
BTL: The trailers present a very gothic film – what was your overall plan for the tone of The Wolfman?
Johnston: The trailers are really supposed to get you into the theater. When you get in the theater, you are going to see something different and better than the trailers. The mood of the film is what comes through as so striking. It’s greater than the sum of its parts. This is a very dark movie. But there’s no shot where you are searching for something that you can’t see in the shadows. The way that it’s lit and shot, it’s very grim, intense and gritty.
There’s some impressionistic stuff where your imagination fills in what you don’t see. Your brain will fill in what’s there. I don’t like to show the audience everything. If you show it all, they get bored and turn off. We didn’t use greenscreen very much because it can be harder to get rid of than anything. Green is great when you’re going to be putting a whole new background in the shot.
BTL: Are you a fan of this type of film?
Johnston: I am a fan of monster movies. I like them when they are done well and when they exceed my expectations and scare me.
You have to do what you feel is right. I don’t want to pander to any demographic. I want to make the movie that I want to make, and hopefully, everyone will like it. That’s sometimes at odds with what big entertainment companies want to do. I have respect for filmmakers who make the movie that they want to make. They make the film that they feel is the right film with less importance on how that film is going to perform. If you are true to the material, audiences will appreciate that.
BTL: Why were there three postponements for the release of the film?
Johnston: We had a budget problem. When I came on the show in February of 2008, they were in process of trying to get the budget down. In doing that, they had shortened two of the action sequences. There is a big climactic fight at the end and a rampage through London. In an attempt to get the budget where they could afford it, they cut out parts of the action, one of which was the Wolfman at loose in London. It involved lots of visual effects backgrounds, shooting the Wolfman on a greenscreen and adding computer-generated backgrounds. Before I came on, the studio wanted it to be shootable and cheaper. We came back and put it together, and it was apparent to everyone that we needed the boost that these two sequences gave the script.
We redesigned them to fit with the new cut of the film. We shot those two big action sequences and four new scenes with Benicio and Emily Blunt to strengthen the relationship. We decided to push it to 2010. It’s a good thing we did. Those two sequences are two of the highlights of the film. It was a good thing and the studio recognized that they needed to do it.
BTL: Interesting that you ended up shooting what was first planned and cut out before principal photography.
Johnston: I’ve been in this situation on almost every film. The way to make the movie cheaper is to cut out all the stuff that works. The movie needed it and we went back and redid it again. There were visual effects problems, but the problem was really that the movie needed those sequences. Moving Picture Company and Double Negative did our visual effects, and we put Rhythm and Hues on to finish the Wolfman rampaging through London. That was the majority of the reason for the delay.
In a picture like this, when a new director takes over, a lot of things change. You’re making this movie one day, a new director comes in, and suddenly you’re making another movie. It might have been some resetting of things. The movie that Universal got is better than what they expected. They were somewhat pleasantly surprised that it was as classic looking as it looks – beautiful, realistic and in the period.
BTL: Can you describe working in postproduction with your editors?
Johnston: It coalesced in post. Walter Murch worked for about six or seven months, since August. Dennis Virkler left in August and Mark Golblatt and Michael Tronick came on. A couple of weeks after that, we found out Walter was available. Walter was working with me. They were trying some things in another part of the building. They did their thing. I had very little input. I let them try what they wanted to try. I took Walter and took several of their ideas and adapted them to the cut I was working with. Dennis had laid the foundation for the cut and set the order of when things happen. That cut was long and there were some confusing parts. Walter did what became the final cut of the film. He shortened it by about 20 minutes and rearranged a lot of it. I don’t think he left any scene intact. He added some juice. He said, “if the movie can live without a scene, take it out.” He would try absolutely everything. He would chop it up, throw it up in the air, and say, “let’s try it this way.” We took the film apart and put it back together. You have a slightly different film when it’s done.
BTL: Why didn’t you shoot the movie in a digital format?
Johnston: We didn’t shoot the movie digitally because we were going to be in England in the wintertime. It’s cold, moist and rainy, plus DP Shelly Johnson wanted to shoot film. If I had insisted, he would have agreed. I’m happy that he got what he wanted because it looks fantastic. I’m sure that we could have gotten an equally good image on digital. But for some things film looks better. If we go ahead with Captain America, we are going to shoot that on digital. It is in the dealmaking negotiating stages.
BTL: If you have shot the film digitally, what equipment would you have used?
Johnston: If we had shot digitally, we would have used the Panavision Genesis so that you have the lenses and the support. We did shoot all of the wolf vision shot on the genesis. It turns out that we didn’t use it as wolf vision. Every time you cut to it, it took you out of the story. It was so different than the shots around it, that you reacted to it. The sequences where you are cutting back and forth from his POV to a regular shot got distracting. We timed those shots like the rest of the film.
BTL: What do you think about digitally projecting the final film?
Johnston: The digital print looks better than any print that we’ve seen so far. I don’t think I could look at it on film again. We shot on 35mm. About 15 percent of the release will be digital. I wish it was 100 percent digital. It’s a better image. It’s beautiful, perfect and will stay perfect. You can’t scratch it like you can film. You are not relying on the projectionist. All kinds of stuff happens when it goes out on film. Digital doesn’t involve the photochemical process to make a screening print. You lock everything in during DI. With film prints, they vary. Someone has to sit and watch it to make sure they all look great. It’s less reliant on technology and more reliant on human error. And film gets chewed up. It gets scratched and damaged and never know if it’s in perfect focus or not. Sometimes you want to bomb the projection booth and get it over with. That’s where technology has advanced the least – in exhibition. It’s done exactly the way it was done 100 years ago. Pack the film up in a can and ship it out and someone puts it on the projector. All the problems that go with it haven’t changed. It’s improved, but a lot of times, if it’s up to the theater owner or manager. Sometimes they crank the projection bulb down to 12 lamberts from 16. When everything is digital, a lot of those problems are going to go away unless the disc gets scratched. Someday they will be broadcasting the exhibition to the theater or will be in a cable. Film exhibition is still the dinosaur of the whole process. It needs to be updated.
BTL: What is the personal favorite of your work?
Johnston: October Sky is my favorite of my films. For one, it was very personal. It was $23 million at the time. We were under the radar. Universal left us alone. More than any other experience that I’ve ever had, I got to make the film that I wanted to make. I loved the process, because it was a group of people I knew. They were all friends that I had worked with before. I went to Tennessee and hired local actors, and almost in a bubble, we made this film and everybody had a great time. There was no pressure except for a couple of days of rain. Homer Hickam was there. There’s not one reason why it was my favorite film. It’s all the things that make these giant movies hard to make. We had every type of weather you could possibly imagine, sometimes all in the same day. We would go start another scene if it rained. After about two weeks, we had started all of these scenes. In that way, it was very efficient. Jake Gyllenhaal had his first starring role, and he did a fantastic job. The cast was great – there were no ego problems. It was almost like a family going out and doing what they love doing the most. I wanted to do that film that didn’t rely on visual effects to help tell the story. They were well-drawn characters. The script was very spare. Everything just sort of came together. We were working towards the same goal.
BTL: As in The Wolfman, didn’t you come onto your first film as a replacement director?
Johnston: Stuart Gordon started Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. They parted ways for mutual reasons. That was two weeks from the start of production. They had a lot more problems in pre-production, and they gave me another eight weeks. It cost $18 million and made $136 domestic. The effects were achieved with stop-motion. I’ve known Phil Tippett since 1975 when he came in to do the chess game in Star Wars with Jon Berg. It was a different working relationship, but we had a lot fun doing it. At the time, there was no CG.
BTL: What aspect of being the Industrial Light and Magic art director informed your career as a film director?
Johnston: I was the storyboard guy on all three Star Wars films with help from my guys in the art department. It was being able to go into the cutting room with George Lucas to do storyboards to alter these sequences. We’d need a new board for this moment. I’d ask why, and he’d explain it. He was not only generous with his knowledge. It was like being in an intense one-on-one film school. That was more responsible for me getting into directing. He started letting me direct second unit in the mid ’80s. Then I went to USC for a year. It was the input with George in the cutting room that inspired me to want to be a director.
BTL: What were your proudest moments from your time at ILM?
Johnston: Even though I was art director, what we were mostly doing was designing spaceships, with some environments, costumes and creatures. George would come to us and say, we need a vehicle that transports the Imperial troopers from their landing site to the rebel base. We would do drawings. George had three rubber stamps – wonderful, Ok and not OK. We came up with the snow walker. That is my favorite of all the designs that I did. On Star Wars it was me and Ralph McQuarrie at home doing illustrations. The X-Wing, Y-Wing and Millennium Falcon were my design. Empire was my most rewarding. The snow walkers were from a brochure by Syd Mead for US Steel of these walking trucks going through the snow – we turned them into walking tanks.
BTL: What most would you like audiences to take away from The Wolfman?
Johnston: I want them to recognize that it’s a modern retelling of the classic Universal horror film – an updating. The story is nothing like the original. We just kept the names of the original characters. I want them to be pleasantly surprised. It’s a love story and a story about relationships set in the midst of these horrible things that happen. It’s a story between a father and son and a man and a woman. It’s very scary and will hopefully launch a lot of popcorn through the air. Ultimately, I want people to be entertained. You can be anything in this business that you want, except boring.
For more see: Rick Baker’s New Wolf