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Nowadays you've got your sparkly vampires and your fast-running zombies and, who knows, maybe the next Frankenstein's monster will be all-digital. But director Joe Johnston's The Wolfman, a remake of the 1941 Universal Pictures classic The Wolf Man, goes old-school: Fog-enshrouded moors and ancient castles in 19th-century England. Johnston may be known for his special-effects hits Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and Jumanji (1995), as well as the cult-classic actioner The Rocketeer (1991), but he also directed the critically acclaimed October Sky (1999). So The Wolfman, starring Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving, has what you might call a good pedigree.Long delayed — it was originally announced for release on Nov. 12, 2008, under original director Mark Romanek, and bounced around various dates until settling on Feb. 12, 2010 — it comes at a time when audiences may well be as starved for werewolves as they've proven to be for vampires and zombies. If nothing else, it's the culmination of star and producer Del Toro's longtime dream of starring as the tragically cursed Lawrence Talbot. The new film, like the original, finds Talbot returning home to England to reunite with his estranged father (Hopkins here, Claude Rains originally), encounter Gwen Conliffe (Blunt here, Evelyn Ankers originally) and — though he's presumably a man who's pure at heart and says his prayers by night — becoming a werewolf.We spoke one-on-one with Johnston and Hopkins, interpolating their transcripts into a single interview. For Maitland McDonagh's "Miss FlickChick" review of the movie, click here.
Q: What do you think makes this movie, The Wolfman, distinct from other werewolf movies?AH: It's an action-packed movie, and the wolves are ferocious and have great speed. I did see the Claude Rains one many, many, many years ago, but I always prefer to do something — especially if it's a remake — blind. I'm not going back just to clear my mind and ensure my performance is not like Claude Rains. Q. What do you think makes the time right for a werewolf movie?AH: Well, I don't know. If I was a psychologist or a marketing expert I'd know. Everything seems so action-packed, everything is CGI — not that this is very old-fashioned; there's CGI in it. But I guess this generation wants that speed. You've got all those other films like Spider-Man and Iron Man, and I suppose it's that the fashions change. I'm in [the upcoming Marvel Comics] film called Thor, directed by Ken Branagh. I play [Thor's father] Odin. I play a god. And it's nice to play a god! I'm kind of amazed because Marvel Comics are so widely read that people know more about my part than I do about it.Q [to Joe Johnson]: And you're working on the Captain America movie, which is scheduled to come out first,JJ: We're in soft-prep on that; we don't start shooting until the end of June so I'm putting most of my time in The Wolfman still. [As of late December 2009,] we're still doing ADR ["automated dialogue replacement" or "additional dialogue recording," the standard practice of dubbing soundtrack dialogue that was recorded inaudibly or changed after shooting wrapped]. Emily Blunt is on a picture in New York and she was unable to do her ADR this week [as scheduled]. So we're sort of scrambling because she can't do it until January. She only has four hours worth of ADR, but it's going to be a race to finish now.Q: I heard Gene Simmons of the band KISS is doing the werewolf screams?JJ: Well, he did some howls and we are using some of the material he did, processing it and adding to it and morphing it into howls, but I've sort of turned that over to the sound guys; I'm not exactly sure how much of it they're still using. It was entertaining; the best part was just to watch Gene Simmons howl — that was a blast. That you don't get to see every day.FL: Was it your idea? Are you an old KISS fan?JJ: We'd had an opera singer in, because we wanted a pure tone for the howl that we could then manipulate. And it was just too pure, too clean. We wanted sort of raspy, worn-out pipes, and Gene Simmons supplied them. It was our sound designer's idea. Q: Now, you inherited The Wolfman from director Mark Romanek [who directed 2002's One Hour Photo], and also you had another writer, David Self, come in to rewrite [Se7en screenwriter] Andrew Kevin Walker's draftJJ: Yes. David actually came in before I started. Andrew's draft was probably too violent for an NC-17 rating; it went a little over the top in my opinion.FL: Too violent for NC-17?JJ: Yeah (laughs). it was just way out there and I think everyone recognized, including the studio, that as much of a taste that the fanboy audience has for that kind of thing it was probably [appealing to] a very limited audience. It was too violent, too gory. David came in and he put the relationships back into the script; he really made them interesting and strong and tragic and romantic. I think Andrew Kevin Walker should be very happy with what David did to his first draft. He made it a script for a much broader audience, I think.Q: When Romanek left, there were some heavy hitters that were interested in directing it – Martin Campell, Frank Darabont, Brett Ratner. What was it about your work that tipped the balance in your favor?JJ: Well, I don't think it was anything about my work, necessarily. I came in and I told them what was wrong with the script. And I said, "Here's what you need to do if you're going to make this picture for around $100 million in 84 days — you've got to do this, this, and this," and I think [the studio] recognized that I had made three or four movies of this size and that I knew what I was talking about. And I didn't pitch myself at all; I said, "If you guys want to hire me, here's my number," and I left and I got a call a couple days later saying, "When can you be in London?" I think I'd convinced them that I could make the picture relatively under budget and relatively on time. Of course, after I signed on we added 17 pages of script, so all bets were off at that point. It's one of those things, when you come in on a project like this and you've got three weeks of prep, in many ways it is liberating because you have to trust your instincts, you have to shoot from the hip, you have to sort of hit the ground running. Sometimes when you have all the prep time in the world and you're given all the money and everything you want, you can have this vision that basically is cast in concrete. And what happens is, when you get on the set and things start to go wrong, you have this death-grip on your vision. At some point you have to recognize, "OK, I have to be flexible about my vision because what I thought I had, I don't have. I've got something different, so how do I adapt to those changes?" Especially in a case when you've only got three weeks of prep you have to be able to do that.Q: Why on earth would a big studio give you only three weeks of prep?JJ: I think because they had already spent so much money and they had gone down this road with Mark Romanek and said, "We have to start shooting the movie at this point." I think a lot of it involved possibly actors' contracts and a release date. Fortunately for me, Mark Romanek made a lot of good choices. He cast some great actors [note: Del Toro, Hopkins and Blunt were aboard by this point], I was able to cast a few more good ones, and I was able to change a few of the locations that I didn't think were great. We shot up at the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, up in a place called Chatsworth, three-and-a-half hours north of London; [the village of] Castle Combe; and the village of Blackmore. We did a lot of stuff down in [the protected national park of] Dartmoor, on the moors" [in Devon, England]. It was just amazing, amazing country down there. The moors, you could go out there and get lost and you'd probably still be out there.AH: Actually I've been in some of those houses. The house we were filming in was this vast, baroque, very, very ancient [place]. All those houses have their ghost stories.Q: The original Wolf Man was set in what was then the present day, 1941. What do you think makes the 19th century seem right for a story like this?AH: It seems to be a darker period. There's something baroque about Victorian England. There was a dark, subterranean world in British society in that time. Beneath the polite, genteel, frigid, upright Victorian manners was a seething cauldron of sexuality and violence. I mean, read Charles Dickens — [his work is] packed with it. And it was a dark, dark, time. People look back nostalgically to the old empire, but it was a dark period in social history — tremendous poverty everywhereFL: The title of the original movie at Universal was The Wolf Man, two words. What does it signal that it's "Wolfman," one word, now?JJ: Well, I don't know that it consciously signals anything; I don't think that anybody said, "Hey, let's make it one word." But it did became integral to the character. It identifies him as an entity that's not a wolf and not a man. I think that sets it apart from the original, and it gives him his own species. He's a wolfman."Q: Did Benicio Del Toro talk about growing up with the old Universal movies and seeing them on TV?JJ: Benicio had said to me that The Wolf Man was his favorite movie when he was growing up. In fact, he said that one of the reasons he wanted to get into acting was so that he could eventually, someday, play the wolf man. I said, "Oh, come on," and he said, "Yeah, no, it's true; I've always wanted to play the wolf man."Q: Does that put any kind of pressure on you or does it make it easier to direct?JJ: No, nothing makes it easier to direct! Not speaking of Benicio specifically; he is very easy to direct, he's got great ideas. He came to the project with his own vision of what the character is and who Lawrence Talbot is. For me, on this picture, the fun was working with the actors and creating these relationships and coming up with who these characters were. I only had three weeks of prep but I could have filled those three weeks with just talk between me and the actors. Emily Blunt, and Benicio, and Tony Hopkins — it just seemed like we talked endlessly into the night by telephone about who these characters were and can I try this, and what if we did that. It was just a blast. They were probably a little bit worried that when Romanek left that, "Hhere's this new guy coming in, what's he going to be like, we thought we knew the picture we were making." I think they just wanted to be reassured that while I wasn't making exactly the same picture Mark Romanek was going to make, I was making one that they could be happy that they were in and be glad that they worked on.Q: When they were talking to you, did you get a sense of them thinking, "Gee, I don't know. It's the guy who did Jumanji and other big effects movies. Am I going to get to act?"JJ: If they had those fears they kept them to themselves. After the first week of shooting I think they saw that this was not going to be what you'd call an effects movie and it wasn't going to be a slasher movie, that there was much more to these characters and there was a lot more to the story and it was much deeper than what they might have feared and even suspected. We are all at this point very happy with the work and how it's turned out.
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