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 draft
JJ: 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 everywhere
FL: 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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Q: In November, Mark Goldblatt and Walter Murch were brought in to do some additional editing. These are just top-of-the-line guys, but two of them? And so late in the process?
JJ: It was a slightly odd situation, I have to say. Dennis Virkler had done a fantastic job getting it from the raw footage to the [draft] cut but it wasn't doing quite what the studio wanted it to do, and I had my issues as well, so they decided to make a change. And when I heard that Walter Murch was available — and I've known Walter for 25 years up at Lucasfilm — I said, "If you can get Walter Murch, do not hesitate to make that happen." He is the best living editor in the world today, probably. And it just so happened that Walter was looking for a job, so I said, "Great, let's get him."
Q: It's funny to think of legends looking for work, but they do.
JJ: Walter just loves film, he loves editing so much. I think he was looking for something interesting to do.
Q: And Mark Goldblatt?
JJ: Mark was actually doing stuff that I didn't want Walter to do, because the studio said, "Can we try this, can we try that?" and I said, "Yeah, we can try it, but Walter's doing the official cut, Walter's doing my cut. I don't have any problems trying stuff; just know that it's not the movie unless the director says it is." And they said, "No, that's okay, that's fine," and since we were sort of short on time I said, "Look, why don't you hire Mark and put him down in this editing suite where he has access to the footage, and he can try what he wants. He might come up with some great stuff and we'll put it in the cut. Let Mark do his thing and I will sit here with Walter and we'll be cutting the official version of the movie.' And everybody was happy with that, and Mark came up with some interesting things that ended up in the [final] cut, and there was a lot of stuff he did that was not in the cut.
Q: You've done so many movies, including some hits, and I'm wondering, especially with editing being done so late in the game, do you still get nervous or have you reached a point where you're so well ensconced in your career that you just take everything in stride?
JJ: I've got my next job and I'm not going to worry about the success or the failure of the picture. I can only use my instincts and say, "I think this is the best version of that scene. This is the best take. This is the best piece of music for this scene." And I can't start second-guessing myself and thinking, "What does the audience want to see? What does the studio think is the best solution for this?" You can't start doing that, because after a while it all becomes a blur and you forget what your original instinct was. You have to say, "This is right, I'm going to stick to it," and if you do that, if you trust your instincts, then they will usually continue to be your instinct. If you don't trust them and you start wavering, you start saying, "I wonder if more people would like this than this," then I think at that point you're sunk. You just have to stick to your guns.
Q. This is your first movie in a long time. What have you been doing between Hidalgo (2004) and this?
JJ: I took four years off because I was so burnt out after Hidalgo and I just said, "To hell with it; I'm going to either do something else or I'm going to wait until I find the greatest script in the world." I took four years and I built the kids a tree house, I read a hundred books, I just stayed at home and basically played. And my kids were young at that point and we just had fun. The last year I'm thinking, "I'D better go back to work. I've got bills to pay, too, and I better start looking for something." And I could not find anything I wanted to spend a year-and-a-half of my life on. I just struggled and read script after script after script and I just tossed them in the recycle bin. When this thing came along I thought, "Well, it's not what I was looking for but there's a great story here; it's a classic retelling of this gothic horror film that I loved as a kid, so why not?" And once you make that commitment you have to just go all the way and it becomes your life. It's almost two years now.
Q: I just want to ask some biographical things real quick. Your name is Joseph Eggleston Johnston II?
JJ: The third.
Q: Ah, that explains it. The "Texas Births" listing at FamilyTreeLegends.com, where I got this, had an asterisk by your name, but no footnotes. The asterisk key is right next to the "I" key, so "II*" must be a typo.
JJ: I guess. I am the third.
Q: And you were born in Fort Worth?
JJ: I was actually born in Boston. I've never bothered to correct that on IMDb because I figure there aren't any film festivals in Fort Worth so no one's going to call me and say, "Hey can you come down and make a speech?"
Q: And you went to California State University, Long Beach?
JJ: I went to Cal State Long Beach, I went to Pasadena City College, I went to [Pasadena's] Art Center [College of Design], I went to USC. I got kicked out of a lot of good schools!
Q: What happened?
JJ: I went to USC when I was in my mid-30s and I had already had a career at Lucasfilm for about 10 years. I spent a year at USC and took the classes I wanted to take and had a great time. I realized I that I already knew a lot of the stuff I was learning but I didn't have a context to put it into. What film school does better than anything is it forces you to get out there and make the movie. As hard as that is by yourself, you've got to wrangle your camera and your friends to be in it and the costumes and all that stuff, and that is the true value of film school. You've got to show your dailies at 9 o'clock Monday morning and if you don't have them you're going to look like a total putz.
Q: You went to work with Lucasfilm right out of high school?
JJ: No, I went to work for Lucasfilm right after Cal State Long Beach. I was 25 when I started at [filmmaker George Lucas' company] ILM; I think I was the 12th employee hired. It was a six-week job doing storyboards. I bluffed my way into the job saying I knew what storyboards were; I had no idea what storyboards were! The six weeks turned into two years and that turned into the next two "Star Wars" films and the next three "Indiana Jones" films and a bunch of stuff in between. After 10 years I decided I'd had enough and I wanted to go do some traveling and spend some money that I had been saving, and George said, "You know, you should go to film school." I said, "That doesn't sound very much like a vacation." And he said, "No, but I think it would be good for you." He kept me on half-salary and he paid my tuition and he allowed me to take any classes I wanted to take. He is just the most generous person I've ever known. He's not only generous with his time and money but with his knowledge; I learned more from sitting in the editing room with George than you could ever learn in film school.
Q: Were you one of the people who famously got points he gave to the early Star Wars people?
JJ: What he did was, he took one point and split it eight ways on [The] Empire [Strikes Back], and he took a point and split it 10 ways on Return of the Jedi. After Star Wars we got bonuses but it wasn't splitting a point. The real payday came after Empire Strikes Back, when eight of us split one point. That was great; it was really wonderful.
Q: You wrote a "Star Wars" book, The Adventures of Teebo?
JJ: I did write a book, a children's book. I read it about a year ago and I thought, "What the hell was I thinking?" It's not really much of a children's book; it's sort of a teen book. I really wrote it because I wanted to illustrate it, and I illustrated everything but the cover. I was not happy with the cover, but they had to get it to press and I ran out of time. It was one of those things I sort of did for fun.
Q: Is your wife in the business?
JJ: She is not. She is a landscape painter. I'm hoping that she'll get famous enough so that I can retire and live off of her for a while!
Q: Are either of your two kids planning on following dad into the business?
JJ: Henry is 15 and I bought him a digital Handicam last Christmas and the student version of Final Cut Pro, and he has been making these little movies. I saw one the other day and I thought, "This kid's got something." When I was 15 I wasn't doing anything like this. I didn't even really pick up a camera until I was in film school, so hopefully he's got a jumpstart on me. But it's just fun to see what their instincts are at that age because it's all about what they've seen. He's learning from the films that he sees and we sort of force him to watch classic films, even when he doesn't want to. So he's getting a film education. Lottie is 13 and in the seventh grade, and I think she's going to be a writer or an artist or something. She does her own comic strips and illustrates them.
Q: Finally, let's talk a little bit about the next movie, "The First Avenger: Captain America" [based on the Marvel Comics superhero created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1940 for Marvel's forerunner, Timely Comics].
JJ: We are working on it; we're in prep. Rick Heinrichs is production designing and we're set up down in Manhattan Beach [California]. It's the part of the process that I love the most; we have eight or ten really talented artists, and we all just sit around all day and draw pictures and say, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if we could do this?" It's that phase of the production where money doesn't matter: "Let's put all the greatest stuff up on the wall and [then later] see what we can afford'"
FL: Were you a Marvel or a DC Comics guy growing up?
JJ: I read a little bit of everything but I was a Jack Vance fan when I was growing up. I read everything [science-fiction novelist] Jack Vance wrote and I still love his work. I told [one of the producers], "I'm not really what you'd call a comic book fan," and he said, "Yeah, I know, that's why we want you."
Q: Have you been looking at any of the old Jack Kirby pictures? Sam Raimi in Spider-Man had a couple of shots that were taken right from the old comic books.
JJ: Yeah, I've been looking at a lot of the Captain America stuff. We're setting this in the period, in 1942, 1943 [during World War II]. The stuff in the '60s and '70s [comic books] we're sort of avoiding. We're going back to the '40s, and then forward to what they're doing with Captain America now. But, yeah, there's plenty to draw on there — there's so much stuff that's been done over the years with Captain America. Any idea you can come up with, somebody's already drawn a comic book based on it.
AH: Actually, he's doing Captain America next door to where I'm going to be filming Thor.
Q: Well, y'know, comic books always had crossovers.
AH: Maybe I'll get a small part. Captain America's grandfather!
Q: Love to see that. What do you have after Thor?
AH: Well, I don't know. There's a film that's been around for a little time called Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, for which I'm being asked to play Alfred Hitchcock. But you know, I just say, "Oh, yeah, yeah" to my agent and wait around until they make it or don't make it.
Interview transcriptions by Allie Finkel.