Joe Johnston designed both Boba Fett and The Iron Giant. So say what you will, but he's got that going for him.
He also talked with me last Saturday as part of the press day for Universal's new version of "The Wolfman," which arrives in theaters February 12, following a long and difficult and fairly public production process that included Johnston stepping in at the last possible moment for the original director, Mark Romanek, and a very irate Rick Baker talking to the press about what he considered a raw deal on the film. There was additional shooting late in the game, and even rumors (incorrect ones, according to what I've heard) about last minute teams working side-by-side on totally different cuts of the movie.
Any time a film has that sort of birthing pains, you have to wonder how the filmmaker is going to be when you finally speak with him, and my take is that Johnston seemed utterly unphased by any of it. Tell me if you agree, and be warned... we do talk about some major spoilers...
Drew: Thank you for taking the time today.
Joe Johnston: Glad to do it.
Drew: It’s funny... I’m sitting here in the office, my kids playing while we talk, and I’ve got "Iron Giant" stuff everywhere.
JJ: Oh, boy.
Drew: The very first interview I did for Ain’t It Cool, almost… god, it must have been 11 or 12 years ago... was with Brad Bird, and he talked about the process of bringing you in specifically to work on the design of the Giant.
JJ: Yeah, wow. (laughs)
Drew: It’s amazing the longevity that film has had considering how the release was handled.
JJ: You know, I think that it’s tragic how good that film is and how few people saw it, you know? It just should have been a huge hit and it deserved to be but…
Drew: I’m glad it had an afterlife, though. I think a lot of people have shared it with their kids and it has certainly aged well.
JJ: It has, indeed.
Drew: That kind of goes to my first question, which is about you’ve sort of had a seismic impact on pop culture over the years with all the various things you’ve worked on, even before you were a director. Now as a filmmaker, you’re playing with some big icons as well.
Drew: Is that something that you enjoy, playing with something familiar, whether it’s “Raiders” where you guys were playing with the pop serial thing, or “Star Wars” where you guys were playing with sort of the sci-fi stuff you had grown up on? Is that something that feeds you as director, to go back and play with things that were important to you or significant to you?
JJ: Well, speaking specifically about “The Wolfman”, it was probably my favorite film when I was growing up. It was certainly my favorite of the Universal monster series. But I watched the original right after these guys gave me the call and said come in and meet and would you consider taking over this project. And I watched the original and I was… because I hadn’t seen it in years… I was surprised at just how almost quaint it was, and how naïve it was and how I remembered it so differently. I remembered it because I saw it so many times when I was a kid and I remembered how scared I was the first time I saw it, you know, and just how it became this… I mean, I watched it every time it came on TV. It was long before the days of VCR, you know? Every time it was on Channel 13 "Creature Features," I’d watch it. But I decided to take “Wolfman” because I recognized that here was something that I loved as a kid, and wouldn’t it be fun to tell... you know, to retell it in an updated true gothic horror fashion and give it the treatment that it deserved. And I wanted to reference and homage the original, and you know, just thought it would be fun and easy in that somebody had already done the prep for me. Which was completely wrong, you know, because I was still doing prep halfway through the shoot. But having said that, I do want to say that Mark Romanek made a lot of good choices. He found some great locations and cast some great actors in it and, you know, for whatever reason he left. But to answer your question, yes... specifically, I did want to retell "The Wolfman" in the way it deserved to be told, I thought.
Drew: Well, it’s funny because I’m raising my son as... he's a monster book addict, and he reads the monster books all the time. That’s what we do before bed, and he finally just saw "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man"...
Drew: ... and I think what appeals to everybody about the Wolfman in particular is that "sad monster who doesn’t want to be a monster" thing. And that is something that I think resonates just from the first time you see a photo of Lon Chaney. I think Benicio could not be more perfect in terms of physically embodying that. There is something about both he and Emily Blunt... they both have the saddest eyes in the world.
JJ: Oh, they do.
Drew: Which is perfect for this film.
JJ: It’s tragic. It doesn’t have a happy ending, this story. And it’s exactly what you say. The cast for this thing is just perfect. I couldn’t cast it any better.
Drew: Now I had heard that Benicio was basically a monster kid as well. He, like, really loved them when he was young and he was fascinated by Jack Pierce make-up and stuff. So obviously one of your key collaborators on this film is the modern master of makeup, Rick Baker.
Drew: Can you talk a bit about how you and Rick approached the idea of the transformations in this film, and specifically how to differ them from what Rick had done before? And also how to pay tribute to what Jack Pierce had done?
JJ: Well, you know nobody does this kind of thing better than Rick. We all know that. And I know that Rick wanted to do the transformations with foam rubber and prosthetics in much the same way he had done “American Werewolf in London”. The problem I had, while at the same time admitting that nobody could ever do it better, is that meant that I would have to sit down with Rick early on before we ever shot a frame of film and say, “Okay, here’s what I want the transformation to be. Let’s say we’ve got these 12 shots. In this shot. I want his hand to start to grow. In this shot. I want his fangs to appear. In this shot. I want his ears to get pointy.” You know? It meant that I had to decide all those things upfront without even, you know... I’ve only spent, at this point, two days with Benicio. I don’t know anything about him as a actor. And it would mean that I have to define, almost before I’ve done anything else on the picture, I have to say here’s what this transformation is, because Rick needs time to go off and build it and engineer the mechanisms and cast the rubber and do all this stuff and sculpt the pieces. By accepting that the transformations themselves are going to be CG and that I’m going to start with Benicio and end with Benicio in Rick Baker’s makeup, it gave me the flexibility to make these decisions way deep into post-production exactly what this transformation was going to be, after I’d done a rough cut of the movie. So it wasn’t at all about having any doubts about Rick Baker’s ability. It was that I just didn’t have time to make those decisions upfront, because here I am trying to prep this huge production with only three weeks to do it. So I would love to work with Rick, and if there was some other film where he got to do this great transformation, I’d love to see it. It’s just that I didn’t have time.
Drew: Well, I think these days, so much of what we see is a combination of… and I feel this is what ultimately sells the reality in things like this... how much is practical, how much is digital? And it’s combining the two.
JJ: Well, it really is.
Drew: Because it doesn’t seem to work if it's just one or the other.
JJ: Yeah, all the visual effects should just be a tool to help you tell the best version of the story. But the one thing I didn’t want to see, and I think that audiences didn’t want to see is, you know, basically what "Van Helsing" was. I mean, you don’t want to see a CG character running around through the streets of London. You… I think that an audience will subconsciously check out at that point and say, "Well, I know that that thing’s not real. I can tell it’s a CG creature."
JJ: "I’m not afraid of that." And I just wanted to keep just this character within the laws of psychics. And I wanted him to never to be able to do something that a really strong stuntman couldn’t actually do. And I think that in the same way you know that an audience believes that something’s not real, they will believe that this thing is real. And I think it makes it a little spookier.
Drew: Now, how much of the performance once he’s gone full-wolf is Benicio?
JJ: It’s Benicio when he doesn’t have to do basically a stunt...
JJ: ... you know, or run… something like that. I mean, it was really difficult to move fast in that suit and we had a guy by the name of Spencer Wilding who just did some fantastic stunts in the full Wolfman makeup... the full suit including these dog-like feet. They were almost impossible to move in, but he was able to actually run in these things. And you know, whenever we go in for a close-up when you really want to see it’s Benicio, it’s him in the make-up. But for the wide shots. you can’t really tell and we needed somebody who could be a lot more physical without worrying if he’s going to get hurt or not.
Drew: Once you got him full-wolf, how was Benicio to work with? Because that seems to me like one of the appealing parts as an actor of taking that role. "Okay, I’m going to finally get to put on a full-on werewolf make-up." Did he really take to it?
JJ: Well... he did. He did take to it. I mean, it’s strenuous in that it takes you about five hours to get into...
JJ: ... and then you’ve got a full shooting day and it takes about two hours to get out of it, so it’s not easy to be in the Wolfman makeup every day for weeks. So what we tried to do is, you know, schedule him for a day and then have a day or two where we shot other stuff, and then he’d be back in it. We tried to limit it to about twice a week when he really had to be in the make-up. But I think he enjoyed being in it a lot. I think he was very frightening once he got in the make-up. It’s almost like you didn’t want to be standing too close to him, you know? And it’s just something about this big hairy beast that makes you very uncomfortable, you know? It’s really interesting, the transformation he went through, because Benicio himself is a sweetheart. I mean, he’s a very nice guy and very kind and everything, but he gets into this make-up and you suddenly... "Wait a minute! That’s not him! That’s not the Benicio I know." And yet you can see... it was also important for me that you see him underneath the make-up. It’s not a mask. It’s made up of several separate pieces...
JJ: ... so that he had the freedom to express himself. He can move his face and he’s not restricted like he would be in a mask. It was important that you see Benicio Del Toro underneath all that.
Drew: And likewise with Hopkins. Is that him once he’s gone full-wolf?
JJ: It is. Again, the same way. It’s him in close-ups and, you know, probably waist up, and it’s his stunt-double when it’s wider than that.
Drew: That’s got to be crazy to have guys like Hopkins and Del Toro standing around as full wolves on a certain day.
JJ: Well, you know, I think that Tony actually enjoyed being in the make-up even more than Benicio did. He really had a good time. I mean, he has a lot of fun doing what he does. He’s not pretentious about his career. He says, "I’d do this for fun," and he’s just a great guy to have on-set.
Drew: Well, he certainly seems to relish his big moments. There are a lot of moments in that film where it looks like he can barely restrain his glee.
JJ: (laughs) Yeah, exactly. Well, he had a lot of fun in the fight. You know, we did the fight, the end fight, with him and Benicio, and then we shot it and we went back when we needed a couple more shots, so we set up just a greenscreen and just shot him and put him into some plates that we had of the house interior.
At that point, I made the segue into the questions about "Captain America" and "Jurassic Park IV" that I already wrote about, then wrapped up by telling Johnston how much I enjoyed finally speaking to him after all the years he's contributed things I love to movies I love.
I'll have interviews with Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving for you later today and into tomorrow, and then a review of "The Wolfman" on Friday, the day the film opens, so keep looking here at HitFix for more on the film all week.
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