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Auteur Wes Anderson Brings The Fantastic Mr. Fox to Life

Making quirky films seems second nature to director Wes Anderson, so when word went out that he was doing the stop-motion aniWes Andersonmation Fantastic Mr. Fox, expectations rose fantastically. A screen adaptation of the book by late macabre children's author Roald Dahl? Bring it on.

Well, the 40-year-old auteur didn't disappoint, and he's garnered several awards and accolades as a result. His sixth feature-length film is a 2010 Oscar contender for Best Animated Picture, and it's already earned him and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach an Annie Award for Writing.

Between Anderson's dry sense of humor and his odd stance towards dialogue and relationships, he has made Fantastic much more than a kid's animated film.

The former Texan not only used the voices of George Clooney (Mr. Fox), Meryl Streep (Mrs. Fox), Jason Schwartzman (son Ash) and Bill Murray (cohort Badger), but gave their marquee owners the freedom to incorporate their own ideas into their characters' personalities. Known for working with many of the same actors and crew, he has put that familiarity to great advantage on this demanding stop-motion project. 

Shortly before the film's release, Anderson did a couple of roundtable interviews, which this Q&A draws on.

Q: What was it like writing and collaborating on the screenplay with Baumbach, whom you worked with before as the writer for Life Aquatic and as a producer on his film The Squid and The Whale?

WA: We had discussed it a bit in America and then we met over at Gipsy House [where Dahl had lived with his family in Buckinghamshire, England]. I knew that we were going to add a section to the front of it because the book’s not that long. And so we got set to work there and we quickly realized that where the book ends, it was going to need to keep going after that. We needed to expand the cast a bit. In the book, Mr. Fox has four children and they don’t have names &mdash no identities &mdash so we reduced that to one and the visiting cousin. Then we started to come up with things like that.

Q: What was the biggest misconception you had about animation before you made this film?

WA: I thought I would make the script, record the actors, draw the shots, and then I would work with the production designer and make puppets – get everything sorted out – and then hand it over to a team of animators who would animate it. I thought that during the period  they were animating it, I might be able to direct another film and then, when they finished it, I would get this stuff back, work with a composer and finish it. 

It wasn’t like that. It’s much more time-consuming in every way then a live-action movie. There are so many decisions to be made and for two years [it took up] just every second of my life… But I loved it. I don’t want my next movie to be animated, but I would love to do another animated film [some time].

Q: Do you now prefer stop-motion films or live-action?

WA: It’s fun to me, making a movie like this; everything’s in miniature, so you’re not going to find a location, you’re not going to find props; you’ve got to build them. When you make them, you really do have complete freedom to decide every thing. And every single thing that has to be made is kind of an opportunity to add something to the movie.

I just don’t concern myself on whether its too much, whether its overkill. So for me it was really fun. I think in a live-action movie, you have different [kinds of things,] where the accidents come from different places and your location scout and you say, "You know what, we’re not going to this, we’re changing everything."

Q: In this animated film, you’re able to see the fur move and that’s intentional. Why did you chose to do it that way?

WA: Part of my idea to do the movie in the first place was not just to do stop-motion. I wanted textures like that. I wanted that real tactile feeling. A movie like [Tim Burton's] Corpse Bride for instance, every frame is animated. Our style, it doesn’t move on every frame. If you add the fur motions, it gives you kind of a rougher…to me a more noticeable stop-motion feeling.

Q: You didn’t do the voices in the traditional manner using sound booths; you actually went outside and shot it live.

WA: Yeah, we went to a farm in Connecticut. It was actually very fun, and in the end, we got nice sounds -- of the wind blowing through the trees and things like that. Those can be added -- we have the technology -- so really, the important thing we got out of it was [that of] everybody being together. It was a good way to launch it.

Q: Why did you decide to pepper the word cuss throughout the film; where did that idea come from?

WA: At one moment we had probably three times as many cusses in the movie. It was a case of when I felt that it was overkill in the film. But, you know. I started the movie as a children’s film. It’s based on a children’s book and has talking animals. But when we were writing it, we never paid any attention to that fact.

We just wrote what we thought seemed funny. It wasn’t something like we were ever saying, “Will this work for children?" or "At what age will they understand this, or not understand this?” However, we knew it’s a PG movie and there wThe Fantastic Mr. Fox's author Roald Dahlere certain things we started to think of. Cuss... it was just a way of keeping it PG and… I guess it's pretty obvious. It was just something that we had thought of earlier on and we were enjoying it so we thought some other people might too.

Q: Despite the film being based on Englishman Dahl's book, the film has a very American feel.

WA: It’s a British film by an author who lived there and we made the film there, so for us it was meant to be a British film. But our dialogue was very American. We felt like we could be funnier and more interesting writing American dialogue, and it’d be hard to argue that it’s the wrong accent for British animals. So we just decided that we would make the humans British, but the animals [not]. Also, we had people in mind that I wanted to cast and at that point, it meant that I could use a lot of people that I wanted to use.

Q: What was your visit to the late Roald Dahl's house like?

WA: Yes, it was a long time ago, maybe 10 years ago. I had met Lizzie Dahl, Dahl’s wife, in New York and she invited me to come to Gipsy House and I knew about the place from… Dahl has this unusual thing of being someone who has written all these children’s books, and is famous among children, but has also written about himself. He has written a couple of memoirs, so it was very emotional for me, very inspiring. Also, he not only wrote the book there; it’s set there. At that point I was caught up in the book, so it was a great place to start and that’s why we ending up writing there, because it was so inspiring. You really feel his personality in the place.

Going "Up" with Director Pete Docter of Pixar

When Pete Docter, director of the Oscar-nominated animated film Up, was coming to New York City to accept an award, I got an e-mail letting me know about it: "Would you like to interview him?" Hell, yeah!

Though this year has been great for animated films, with Fantastic Mr. Fox and Coraline providing innovations in stop-motion, and Disney doing a bouncy return to traditional animation, Up provided the ideal blend of a child's sense of wonder and a snarly, craggy version of adult power struggles. As a result it got nominated, but not for Best Animated Feature — it's among the nominees for Best Picture!

The feature-length film tells of the young Carl Fredrickson, who idolizes the international renowned adventurer Charles Muntz and through this worship meets a similarly spirited young girl Ellie and they become friends. When Muntz falls from grace, accused of faking his great find -- the skeleton of the Paradise Falls monster -- he travels to South America in a blimp supposed to prove the beast was alive but is never seen again.

Eventually the two grow up and marry. Though they promise to travel together to that lost land and build a house there, distractions set in and 70 years later, Ellie dies. The lonely, grieving, childless Carl (now voiced by Ed Asner) refuses to move from the house they shared despite generous offers from a construction company that wants to tear it down. When Carl accidentally hits a worker who damaged his mailbox, he is forced to move to a retirement home. He decides to fulfill his promise to Ellie, and uses a plethora of balloons to float the house away in order to travel to Paradise Falls.

However he has a stowaway. Eight-year-old Russell, who is trying to get his badge assisting the elderly is hidden aboard; the two escape and travel to strange lands where they meet talking dogs, the now crazed Muntz and a rare bird named Kevin.

The 41-year-old Bloomington, Minn., native has been at Pixar Animation Studios for 20 years, working on the story and as head of animation for the groundbreaking CGI feature Toy Story (1995). He went on to help craft the story for the 1999 sequel; to direct Monsters, Inc. (2001); and to co-write the story for WALL-E (2008). Docter's been nominated for three Academy Awards, and has twice won the animation field's top honor, the Annie Award.

Meeting Docter and his producer Jonas Rivera offered one of those rare moments — shall we say an Up moment — to discuss in some detail his long career in a unique medium at a unique time in its history, a time that bodes well for both narrative and technological innovations.

Q: Where did this story begin?

PD: This story was a little odd. With Monsters, Inc. I remember being in the shower and thinking, "Say, we could do something with monsters that live in the closet and scare kids and why did they do that. It’s either entertainment for them or it’s their job for some."

It all extrapolated out from that concept. This one came from basically the idea of getting away from everything. The way I would explain it was everybody has a point at which they just feel like the world's too much, I just want to escape from everywhere and everybody, and that’s what kind of started the movie. And of course it evolved and developed beyond that, and it doesn’t really have that much to do with getting away from the world. It’s more of a connection to his wife, which develops maybe six months into the story workings.

Q: It's a curious storytelling process here. You have one idea and you take it along one path with the Ed Asner character and his wife. Then you add in the little kid and all he’s dealing with, then you bring these two elements together. And then the house launches. You played out this one path, then you throw in something else, and somehow they integrate. it’s amazing how that works.

PD: That’s the tricky part for sure. We started with the house flying and then we worked backwards to figure out; who is this guy, where is he going, why is he flying a house as opposed to just taking an airplane like a normal guy, and why specifically this place.

We really tried to think through logically and emotionally, and sometimes those are at odds and sometimes they’re going the same way, what is it about all these elements that work towards the central theme of the film? Really what happens in the first couple of months when you look back, a lot of the key elements are established very quickly, but you don’t really know because there’s a bunch of other things that get thrown out and other things that get added in. And from there it’s just a matter of working those pieces and massaging them so they all work together.

Q: How did it get written, evolve and how did you decide the twists and turns?

PD: It started from a drawing. Bob Peterson and I — Bob being the co-writer and co-director — we just sat in a room and thought of ideas we’d love to play around with. An old man, especially a grouchy old man with a lot of attitude and passion, you know where he’s coming from. He’s going to state his opinion whether it’s popular or not, just like my grandfather.

That just seemed like a great place to start for a character. A lot of times we end up -- and a lot of people do -- with this sort of bland protagonist disease where the lead character is just this milquetoast guy; you don’t want to do anything too nasty because it will turn the audience off or something. With Carl you could sort of get away with a certain amount of attitude because you give him leeway; he’s an old man, he’s allowed to be grouchy. So we played with that.

The other thing that contributed heavily was the house floating away. That really went back to some feeling that I think everybody has, but I certainly did directing Monsters, Inc.; directing is such an interactive, people-centric thing, and by the end of the day I’m an introvert.

I’d want to go crawl under my desk and just hide and rock by myself for a little while, so floating away from everything just seemed appealing. So we combined those and worked backwards and forward as to why is this guy going, where is he going, and answering those questions.

Q: Where the hell did you come up with the talking dog?

PD: Actually the question really is, how do you buy into the story? Because anybody can come up with these weird ideas, and the beginning versions of this story were a little bit of a grab bag of cool things that we just thought would be fun. And they were, but the difficulty in making these stories is connecting them all; weaving those threads together so that this is a story that makes sense to have talking dogs.

Hopefully we did that and you’re sort of brought in by Muntz, who’s kind of the opposite of Carl. So this is the logic: Carl never actually got to go on this real adventure, to travel to exotic places and see amazing things. His adventure was relationship.

Muntz was the opposite: He went to the ends of the earth but he never actually had any relationship except for this weird, twisted one of himself and his dogs, which also kind of explains how he’s able to do all the things he's done, et cetera. So that was our buy-in [to] getting the dogs worked in.

Q: I also think what makes it convincing all the way around is also your casting of the voices. This is really a movie about these people living through these characters.

PD: Of course, when we cast the film we'd already designed the characters.

Q: And you never had actors in mind as you were designing them?

PD: Well, we had a bunch of actors in mind, and with this one, of course, Ed Asner rose to the top of the list pretty quickly. But then what happens is when we cast we start to be informed by the actor. So the writing of the character changes, the way in which they speak, the words they use, that all changes, and we try to basically write to the strength of the actor.

That certainly was the case of the kid; his name was Jordan Nagai, he’s not an actor, never done stuff before. What most animation does is they get an older woman who is an actor, who can kind of sound like a kid, like with [Nancy Cartwright's voicing of] Bart Simpson. But we really wanted to have that authenticity here and so we found this kid who just sounded very sweet and real and truthful. And we rewrote the part; it was originally a little more hyper and bouncing-off-the-walls, and Jordan is a much more reserved kid, so we adjusted that character and slid it more to play to his strengths.

BB: Talk about the wife and the little girl, or the little girl becoming the wife.

PD: The young girl was my daughter.

Q: I didn't realize that you actually used kids on some voices. To use kids is really a challenge in an animated film.

PD: I credit the editors, [led by] Kevin [Nolting]. I think they're as much to credit for these performances as some of these actors, because a lot of times what happens, and not in the case of Christopher Plummer or Asner, of course, this is more when you’re working with kids, but a lot of times you get just these little snippets where right there for three words they sounded believable and then they went off the rails, but then this other track here, if we cut that together….  So it ends up this Frankenstein mess which sounds seamless and natural, but that's the strength of the editors.

Q:  Plummer is the perfect guy to play Muntz. Was that because you saw The Sound of Music?

PD: No. Of course I remembered him from that, but there was another movie where he’s like this rugged adventurer kind of guy. When we designed the character we were thinking of him a little bit more like Ernest Hemingway; more gregarious and loud. When we cast Plummer he gained a little more refinement and education, and just colored that character a little bit.

Q: Had he done animation before this?

PD: Quite a bit. In fact, he’s done just about everything. We were recording and he did something, and the engineer said, "Mr. Plummer, can you stay closer to the mic? You went off mic a little," and he said, "Oh, no, that was on purpose; it was a trick I learned from Orson Welles in radio. He would move back away to give a proximity," and he was right. This guy has done everything; he knows his craft.

Q: The dog must have been fun to cast.

PD: Dug was Bob Peterson, who, of course, wrote the part, but he said he was channeling a dog that he used to have.

Q: And you didn't say, "Well, we've got to get a real actor?"

PD: Well, with my daughter, we cast her not because she's a great actor, but because she was available, and it was the same with Bob. He's just is so funny that by the time it came to casting we were like, "You know what? We don’t even really need to look anywhere else because this is just working great."

Q: This is a pretty trim voice cast for an animated film.

PD: That was by design, too. You're making a point of the strength of the performance by the actor. The other thing that kind of is invisible to the audience is the strength of the animation. When you really look at it this film doesn't have a ton of dialog compared to a lot of films. These animators are so talented and they've built up their skills on over 10 films now.

Q: I think the dog had more dialog than a lot of the other characters.

PD: Carl is a man of few words.

Q: Do you have your own favorite moments in Up?

PD: Yeah, I do. My favorite is probably the sequence in the beginning we called "Married Life." It’s four-and-a-half minutes of their life together. That was a lot of fun to do but kind of nerve-wracking, too, because you have to be careful when you're presenting something like that that you don't top the schmaltz-o-meter. But it seems to have succeeded, so I'm very proud of that.

There's another scene at the end where Carl gets finally inside the house, and he sits down and he goes to look through the adventure book and finds that those blank pages are full of pictures of the two of them.

I'm proud of that one, too, for much the same reason, where it's the juxtaposition of the images and Carl's face. Between that and the acting, that scene I feel like works quite well, and it's all done without dialog.

For more by Brad Balfour:

[Photos copyright Disney/Pixar unless otherwise noted]

We Grrrrill Anthony Hopkins & Director Joe Johnston on "The Wolfman"

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.

[continued next page]


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, 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.

Hilary Swank Talks About New-to-DVD "Amelia"

Not so long ago, women weren't allowed to serve in the military or on the police force. Hell, they're still not allowed to drive in some countries or even go out unaccompanied. With those thoughts in mind, director Mira Nair's telling of Amelia Earhart's relatively short life and long accomplishments resonated even more profoundly when the film played in theaters.

The biopic, starring Hilary Swank as the intrepid aviatrix — as the rare female women pilot was then called — now takes flight again on DVD and Blu-ray. Within the confines of home theaters, it may find the audience it missed on its first takeoff.

The pioneering Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic; she accomplished many other trailblazing feats, promoting aviation and air travel and becoming an early champion of women's rights. She became an international celebrity and a hugely successful pitchwoman, and had a version of an open marriage. And this all happened during the 1930s, shortly before she flew into history in her famed, ill-fated attempt to circumnavigate the Earth via the Equator.

Not unlike Amelia's subject, both two-time Oscar-winning star Swank and filmmaker Nair have been pioneers in their own right: Swank for winning an Oscar playing a character who was a drag king (a woman dressing and living as a man) and Nair for being an award-winning South Asian woman director competing for and getting directorial jobs that previously hadn't gone to a person of either association.

Between the big smile, mouth full of teeth and unique vocal cadence, Swank fashioned an uncanny and unforgettable facsimile of Earhart. A cadre of journalists and women aviators (members of the Ninety Nines, a female pilots' group founded 80 years ago by Earhart) got to speak and hear both Swank and Nair talk about putting together this story and performance.

Whether or not you find Earhart's story inspirational (after all, we sort of know the ending), her relationship with the two men she loved — her publisher and backer, George Putnam (Richard Gere) and Federal aviation leader Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) — makes for a compelling emotional tale if nothing else.

Q: When you're making a film where the ending is known, you have to create a dramatic tension. How did you develop that tension and maintain the rhythm of it?

HS: When you think you know how it ended you have to see if it really ends the way you think it ended — because there are a lot of theories, aren't there? Obviously, making a movie is collaboration and it takes a lot of people's ideas, but in the end I just try to do what I was told and what was on the page and try to bring the honesty to it.

It's a big responsibility to play someone who really lived and who is as iconic as Amelia. We all have such a great idea of who she was and what she looked like, so there wasn't a lot of room for fictional license. We had to just do the best we could to do honor to that person. Under Mira's guidance and keen eye — she's an incredible visionary — we tried to navigate the best we could, and hopefully, that is on screen.

Q: What surprised you about her that affected your performance?

HS: I learned about Amelia from a very young age, and what I learned was what you learn in textbooks. So obviously, getting under the skin of a person that I'm playing is really important.

We're all specific human beings. We know what our favorite color is, what we love; we know what we don't like. Trying to figure that out and understand a person you're portraying is very important. Ironically, Amelia was a very private person, so what she was expressing out in the world might not have been her true thoughts.

One of the things that I took away from Amelia that was very inspiring and moving was Amelia's way of going about her life — the way she carried and expressed herself. She made no apologies for saying, "This is my life and this is how I see it, and this is how I want it to be done."

In 2009, that's still really rare, especially for women. It's a more male-centric world, and I think that a lot of males are able to have the life they envision for themselves. So when we're talking about somebody who lived in the 1920s — when women just got the right to vote — and in the '30s, it's incredible. It's obviously a period piece, yet it even transcends what we know now. It was certainly a reminder for me to live life, and that you have to constantly look within and continue to live the life that you want to live for yourself and not for other people.

I [wish] we could all be so upfront and forthright about our feelings, our emotions, our desires, and needs, and somehow manage our expectations of relationships. I look at my life and say, "I might be doing this because it was my mother's idea of my life or my friend's, or partner's idea, or whatever it is." Amelia's [life] was such a great reminder that you can live your life the way you want it, find love and experience your dreams. You can have it all. That's what I really learned.

Q: What were the similarities between you and Amelia?

HS: One of them is that she loved to travel, and I love to travel. I've been so fortunate in my career to travel all around the world, and part of that is to talk about the films that I am a part of. Sometimes it can be very grueling and difficult. In the last 16 days, I was in Italy and then back to Los Angeles, then Dubai, then London. then back to Los Angeles, and now in New York. [Flight attendants] actually laugh because I know them so well, and they say, "Hilary, it's illegal for us to fly as much as you fly."

I'm constantly in the air and I'm constantly out promoting my films. Amelia understood that without understanding the business side of things, you can't have your career. If I'm not willing to go out and talk about the things that I'm a part of — which I in fact love, so it's not like it's difficult to [do] — then you can't have the other side of it. That makes complete sense to me.

I understand the business side of it, although I really love the art side of it, and they intertwine. You try to do the best you can, and I wonder what Amelia would say. I remember her saying that it was hard, and there's a line in the movie: "I feel like I'm this white horse jumping through hoops." Sometimes you feel like you're in a circus. When things become more personal, and you feel like "I'm just an actor trying to talk about my love for movies," you have to remember why you're doing it and be in touch with that.

Q: As a woman, how did you relate to her open marriage?

HS: It's really challenging to be that honest, even with the people that you really love and feel are suppose to love you unconditionally. It's really hard. But I think that Amelia's way of living her life was very honest and open. So when she lived her life the way she wanted, she had already expressed that's how she was going to do it. It wasn't like she was hurting anybody along the way. I respect anyone who is able to be so forthright about themselves. I think that that's a lot of what our life is about, figuring out how can we be as honest and live as honestly with ourselves and in our relationships.

Q: How beneficial was it for you to see that archival footage about Amelia?

HS: A lot of it is from newsreels, so it's more her public face. But there are little moments within the newsreel where she doesn't know the camera is on and you actually see her tone down her way of speaking and her physicality.

She had a unique speaking pattern, which was the most challenging accent that I have done to date. I spent over eight weeks trying to learn how she spoke. There is that period way of speaking, [like] you hear [with] Katherine Hepburn, and you see all those old movies with that way of speaking, which can sound posh or upper class. Amelia wasn't that.

She was a girl from Kansas, and sounded period yet different. Trying to figure that cadence out, and also not make it the elevated public persona that she put on except when needed, was quite a challenge. Thankfully, I had Mira saying, "Push it a little here, bring it back here, that's a little too much here." It was challenging to walk that line to find the human quality in it, and also to relate to it now because we don't speak like that.

Q: Did you walk away from this role satisfied with your knowledge of Amelia?

HS: In order to play a role, you have to dive into so many different aspects and ways. I felt [that] by the end of it, I had a pretty good idea of who Amelia was — or at least [who] we feel Amelia was from the books we were reading and the information we had — and tried to go deeper in telling the stories through the scenes that were written on the page.

These roles [I have played are] all in my heart, and my life's richer walking around with Amelia right in my heart. It's wonderful. Throughout some things that I'm experiencing, I often think about what the characters I've played would do in these situations. You can't help but have that in you. So it makes for a really rich life.

For more by Brad Balfour:


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