This weekend I had a great opportunity to talk with many of the folks behind Universal’s new take on The Wolfman (read my review of the movie right here). That means Wolfman Week on CHUD rolls right into the interview segment; I was able to score one on one interviews with director Joe Johnston, actors Hugo Weaving and Benicio Del Toro and make-up guru Rick Baker, all coming your way.
First up: Joe Johnston. Johnston, whose eclectic filmography includes The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III, October Sky, Jumanji and Hidalgo, was brought on with just two weeks remaining before photography began. The original director, Mark Romanek, jumped off at the last minute due to the usual ‘creative differences,’ leaving Joe most of a crew, a cast and a direction to wrangle into a movie. The film itself was delayed a number of times, and edits and changes were made, leaving some to wonder if this troubled production could ever end up in a good film.
Now the movie is here, and Joe was refreshingly open about some of the trials and tribulations that The Wolfman endured on its way to the screen, including his many battles with the Powers That Be at Universal. It turns out he had a secret blackmail weapon to use against them. Read on to find out what it was.
Coming in on a movie two weeks before principal photography is nobody’s idea of a good scenario.
No, that was the real horror story. But I always say that I wasn’t coming in trying to take over a sinking ship. Yeah, we were a few weeks from photography but Mark Romanek had made some good choices. For one thing he hired Rick Heinrichs, the production designer. He also found some great locations, he cast some great supporting roles. Obviously I wasn’t going to come in and make Mark Romanek’s film but he supplied some ingredients.
How different did your film end up being?
You know, I don’t know what that film was that Mark was envisioning. I know the film the studio thought they were going to get, but they didn’t. I think they’re pleasantly surprised by what they got, but it’s just not what any of them thought it would be.
The film I saw last night was traditional in a lot of ways, which wasn’t what they had been doing with these characters before. Do you think they were looking for something more rock n’ roll.
A lot of that hinges on the violence and gore part of it. We’ve had our audience preview screenings and test screenings and the audience has said when there’s too much gore. I’m really glad to hear an audience will say there’s too much gore, so we know to pull back on the gore. But I knew I could take a lot of violence and gore and blood and put it in a movie that really puts you in another place and time. When you sit down and the film starts and you go, ‘Wow, look at the way this looks, I’m in a different place. I’m not in Saw V, I’m someplace else.’ You can still have the gore and the violence and the mutilation and the horrible killing but you’re putting it in an environment that transports you out of what you expect. That’s what I was trying to do, and I love the way it looks. The production design and photography are fantastic.
I love the way it looks too. I was just talking to somebody in the hallway right now about the scene where Lawrence first turns into the Wolfman and he’s hunting the hunters and he’s illuminated by those quick muzzle flashes. It’s so perfect and evocative. When you’re coming in with two weeks to get your movie together how hard is it to get those kinds of touches in there?
That was actually something we decided in post. Walter Murch came in and we looked at the movie and he said, ‘Let me try a few things.’ There was a shot where [the Wolfman] came out from behind a tree and you saw him, and it showed you too much. By getting pops and glimpses your mind fills in the rest and you become a participant. It’s so hard to convince a studio to do something like that. One of the biggest battles was that they wanted to see the Wolfman. You paid money for this guy, Rick Baker made him, goddamn it we want him to step out into the moonlight and see him in all his glory. That shot was in the film. They didn’t say that until the shot was cut out, but they started to recognize how much more powerful that sequence was without that shot. Once you’ve seen him you can’t not see him. You know what he looks like and you can’t pull him back. That was part of the genius of Walter – he knew when to do things like that. There were quite a few places in the film where, just by tweaking a bit, he put a whole new spin on things.
This is a movie where post went on for a long time and there was a lot of back and forth – there was a whole different score in there at one point. How much of this was you figuring out the movie and how much of this was you and the studio butting heads?
You always want there to be – whether it’s a studio or a producer or a corporate entity – you want somebody on the other side who says, ‘No you can’t do this.’ You need that dynamic pressure. I think a better product comes out of it. We’ve all seen pictures where the director had everything he wanted and nobody ever said no and the movie just lies there. There was a lot of pleasant exchange and headbutting and arguments about things, and there was a lot that wasn’t very pleasant. But the thing about it is that I always respected their point of view and they always respected my point of view. They recognized that any picture can only have one director. Nobody wants a committee film, especially audiences, and they recognized that too. But they all have opinions and they all have responsibilities to the shareholders and they want the most commercial version of the picture. So do I. But I just think that with this specific story this is a more commercial version than what they were expecting.
They’ve tried to bring back these monsters with Van Helsing and failed as miserably as they possibly could. Did that make them touchier or did it make them more open to saying ‘We fucked it up once…’
The one thing they all recognized is that Van Helsing was not the way to go. When I said ‘I want to put Benicio Del Toro and a stunt guy in a great suit and make-up and have them running through London and the woods,’ I didn’t get any argument about it. Never heard ‘Shouldn’t we have a CG wolf?’ and if I did hear that all I had to say was, ‘Oh you mean like Van Helsing?’
That was your secret weapon!
There were things that the stunt guys couldn’t do, or that were unsafe. There are a couple of shots in the movie where CG is doing more than it could have, but most of the time you believe it’s a guy in a suit.
And I think that’s the place for CG in the 21st century – complementing the other methods of moviemaking.
One of the things I loved was the nod and wink to An American Werewolf in London. Whose idea was that?
You know, we didn’t realize it was a nod and wink until after we decided that we wanted a steam omnibus in the picture. The steam omnibus was only used in London for about nine months. It was a disaster, commercially. Just to keep them going – it was like a locomotive on the street, and you had to keep putting coal or oil in it and you had to have a stop every nine blocks and it became a nightmare and they phased them out. But there is no cooler mode of transportation than a steam omnibus. So I was talking to the physical effects guys and I said, ‘What [the Wolfman] needs to do is he needs to run down the street and he needs to see this thing and he swerves and the whole thing needs to tip over and slide down the street.’ They said, ‘We can make that happen.’ I said, ‘Well, how fast does it need to go?’ They said, ‘About 30, 35 miles per hour.’ ‘And you can build something that will go that fast?’ ‘Sure, no problem!’
So they built it and it goes about 12 miles per hour. Tops. I said this thing is not going to fall over and slide, it’s going to fall over and go whomp and lie there. Which it did. It was supposed to slide down the street and he was going to leap over it to get away, but instead he sees it lying there and he leaps. It’s one of those things.
I like it because he leaps on it and it’s more vicious. He’s not reacting to the bus, he acting on the bus. He gets into the bus and starts murdering everybody in there. Which is one of the things I liked because you don’t pull back. One of the biggest fears I had walking in was that because he’s the hero and so he’ll only kill people we don’t like. But he gets into that bus and he slaughters innocents, and to me that feels like an important part of that character.
That’s because even though he’s the hero he’s the villain. He’s two characters in one. It’s very clear – and if it’s not clear Sir John [Anthony Hopkins] tells us – you have no control over the beast. Once he’s the Wolfman he has no control over what he does, and in fact when he wakes up the next morning and sees the blood he’s horrified at what he’s done. It’s an interesting character for Benicio to play because he’s the good guy and the bad guy in one body.
At the press conference you talked about how you had changed the script, how in Romanek’s version Talbot was a guy who screwed around with women and went to opium dens – it’s so obviously wrong because there’s no beast to come out. And that’s why it being in the Victorian era works. How important was it for you to set up that metaphorical aspect? Not only is it this repressed era, but also an era with the rise of science?
We wanted to make it period but we didn’t want to go back to the period of the original, 1941. I wanted it to be very much a vision of Edward Gorey’s London, which is Victorian London. There’s nothing more gothic and shadowy and horrifying than that. They had already decided on that when I came on so it wasn’t my choice, but I thought it was the perfect period to go to. It’s all about the darkness.
Is there a comparison between coming on to a movie that’s already underway and coming on to a movie that’s part of a shared universe? You’re playing in somebody else’s sandbox in some ways, and you’re given the parameters with something like Captain America.
The guys at Marvel are very conscious of this. In some ways it’s a restriction but it doesn’t hold back the films. Each of the films has to exist as its own entity, and if there are ways to say ‘Hey we can connect this scene in Captain America to this scene in Thor in a way that only the fans will recognize,’ then they’ll do it. But they don’t torture the logic of the films to fit one another.
But does the tonality of the film get set? Later on Captain America has to stand next to Iron Man and Thor, so does tonally your film need to fit a mold?
No, it doesn’t. In fact, they’re basically telling me at this point – and I doubt it will change – that I can do pretty much what I want as long as it’s a PG-13 product. And the PG-13 is more restrictive than anything Marvel could lay on me. And it’s not like these guys have an agenda beyond making the fans happy and making good movies. They’re not trying to change the world.