The call came just as I was settling into a bit of work back at the hotel. Devin was a little bit frantic. ‘Russ,
To discuss the upcoming film, Sony brought in director Mark Steven Johnson, late of Daredevil, and Eva Mendes, who should be looking for that project that really sticks. (Though Out of Time and Hitch probably didn’t much hurt the bank account.) Mendes plays Roxanne, the girl Friday (of sorts) to Nic Cage’s Johnny Blaze, a daredevil cyclist who gets a Human Torch hairdo to go with his new gig as the Devil’s bounty hunter.
Eva, tell us about your character Roxanne.
Eva: I play Johnny Blaze’s love of his life, a reporter. When I come into the movie, it’s been years since I’ve seen him, and I haven’t gotten over him. I mean, how can you get over Johnny Blaze? Or Nic Cage, I should say? Then… (turns to Mark) help me out here, what happens? [Laughter.] I’m sorry guys; I’ve got to get warmed up.
Mark: Actually, all that stuff got cut out. [More laughter.]
Mark: We set it up that the deal with the devil is made with Johnny as a young boy, and the two of them [Johnny and Roxie] split up. He has to leave her behind because he can’t risk getting her in danger. They meet up again later in life.
There are two very distinct phases of Ghost Rider: the 70’s were sort of horror, and the 90’s were sort of like a teen action thing. What was your favorite phase? Will there be any of the 90’s in there?
Mark: You bet. The cool thing is that you get the best of both worlds, you know what I mean? I really love the original, but I also love the Danny Ketch ‘90’s version, especially The Caretaker. They had better villains. Some of the stories, I think, were actually really excellent, too, especially the stories with Marvel’s Scarecrow. It was nice to get to cherry pick. It kind of actually gives you less pressure that [there’s no run of Ghost Rider] out now. I know they’re going to bring it back, but there’s no Frank Miller run that you’re beholden to. It freed me up a little bit.
What about yourself? What new material did you generate?
Mark: The biggest thing was cracking… and I think the reason it took a while to get the movie to get made… well, there were two reasons: 1) it was the f/x. You literally couldn’t have made the movie even a couple of years ago. We’re doing new stuff now with fluid sim for the fire that’s going to look amazing. That’s a new thing. The second thing was always the actual story – the deal with the devil – that I think was problematic with people. They kept trying to change it. I think that’s why, eventually, the 70’s Ghost Rider run went away, and then tried to bring it back and simplify it too much. Because it went from that really convoluted deal with the devil story in the first one to the magic motorcycle in the graveyard, you know what I mean? It went the other way.
So, it was kind of a challenge keeping what we loved about the comic, but also finding a way to strengthen it. The hard part of the comic was always that the devil gave Johnny all these amazing powers, and he goes out and fights bad guys. It’s like, “What’d he do that for?” It never quite added up. They tried to explain it, but it never really worked, and it got more and more convoluted. So, we just made it real simple: there’s heaven, there’s hell, and there’s our world. And every once in a while, something gets out of hell, and that’s when you call upon the Ghost Rider. He works for the devil as a bounty hunter. So, there’s always been a ghost rider; he used to be on horseback back in the day, and now, he’s a motorcycle rider. The concept was that you’d find the best rider, and you make him go and track down these demons for you.
Will it be the Marvel devil, or will it just be a generic devil?
Mark: Yeah, it’s pretty tough to pull off Mephisto [like he was in] the comic, because he has a big cape and big horns, and all that. That’s actually what [Peter] Fonda looks like.
Eva: [Laughing] He doesn’t even need makeup; that’s just what Fonda looks like naturally.
Mark: So, we’re doing our demons and also our devil… they have a certain look that they wear when they’re here, but there’s something underneath, and that’s what we reveal later in the movie. You get ripples of it when they get angry. Remember that “Black Hole Sun” video by Soundgarden, how creepy that was? The slight distortion of a smile that goes too far, things like that? You get hints of it, and, then, later in the movie we’re going to reveal what that looks like. It probably won’t be that close to specifically Mephisto, because, like I said, that’s a tough one to pull off on film, but it will be really, really horrific.
Eva, what was it like working with Fonda?
Eva: Oh, god, I have the best Fonda story for you guys. One day, we’re hanging out on set, and, believe it or not, don’t hold this against me, but I’ve never seen Easy Rider; I just knew he was an amazing actor. We’re hanging out talking, and I’m like, “I’m so sorry, I never saw Easy Rider.” I thought he was going to hit me or something. But he’s like, “You’ve never seen it?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Well, why don’t we have an Easy Rider party at Mark’s place, and I’ll narrate the film for you guys?” So, we sat there, and he narrated.
Mark: It was great. It was like a DVD commentary. It was bizarre. A roomful of people, and we just had an Easy Rider party.
Eva: Fonda’s amazing as an actor. I don’t know what you have to say as a director about Fonda.
Mark: It cost, like, $5,000 of my rental deposit to have that party. (Laughs.) Fonda’s great. He’s awesome. The devil is tough. I went through all the movies where someone’s played the devil, and it’s a tough one. No one’s done it great, and most people go really big with it. They go campy, like The Devil’s Advocate – really well done, but it just always seems like the devil is a showman. Like Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick, they’re always very comedic, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to play it very subtle. You have to differentiate your devil, and ours is Mephistopheles, which means he’s the deal maker, right? That’s where he comes from in literature. So, rather than just be like a fire and brimstone devil, his thing is he’s a salesman. He’s got to be; he’s trying to get you to sell your soul, so he’s got to be the ultimate salesman. And a great salesman just fits in. He just comes and blends in; he’s not the guy calling attention to himself. Before you know it, you’re thinking, “He’s not that bad.” And then you realize what you’re in for.
Did Mike Ploog, who designed the original character, have any input?
Mark: No, I never got to meet him, but I’m a big fan of his. I named one of my cops after him. (Laughs.)
How closely will you be dressing Eva and Cage to the characters from the comic book? Will it be lots of black leather?
Mark: Oh, yeah. It’s great. This time I actually have a hero who’s supposed to be in leather, so I’ve got that going for me. He changes throughout the movie, so I know some fans have seen some shots and wondered why the spikes are so small, and it’s because he changes his look throughout the movie. Obviously, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen the first time; he has no gloves on, so he’s got skeleton hands. He’s got black jeans, a black leather coat and motorcycle boots. The second time, when he breaks out of the jail… his coat gets ripped, and he upgrades basically. The idea is that hellfire affects metal in a certain way. So when hellfire hits a motorcycle, it turns into a hellcycle; when it hits a shotgun, it turns into a hellfire shotgun; and when it hits the studs in your coat, they pop into these spikes. It’s really cool, and actually worked really well within the outfit. So, he does have the three-inch spikes, the big chain, and all that shit.
What about the “Penance Stare”?
Mark: The “Penance Stare” we’re still working on. That’s the toughest one in the whole movie, because I don’t want to do the little vignettes. We’ve seen that before; we’ve seen quick little cut pieces of people’s sins. The “Penance Stare”, for anybody who doesn’t know, is when you look into someone’s eyes, you can look at all the sins they’ve done to other people, and make them relive those sins tenfold. Ghost Rider doesn’t kill anybody, but it is kind of a fate worse then death, because you’re trapped looking at all the shit you’ve done to everyone else. So how to do that without it becoming a mini-movie is the challenge.
Are you keeping the hellfire out of the hands?
Mark: You mean shooting it? No, but I have him throwing hellfire in one scene, which is pretty cool. If there’s any fire on him, he can manipulate it. What I didn’t want to do is get into the Human Torch [thing]. That’s what’s really hard about the Marvel characters; there’s so many. Human Torch or Pyro. You’ve got to be careful about what makes you different from them.
Eva, did you have any scenes with Nic as Ghost Rider, and did you have any problems doing that with a green hood over his head, or something like that?
Eva: Well, I did have once scene where I see him changing into Ghost Rider, and that freaks my character out, as it would freak anybody out. So, that’s a pretty intense scene. And, also, at the end, there’s a really sweet thing. Are we still going to do that?
Mark: (Grimacing) I don’t know. We can’t give that away.
Eva: Oh, right! (Laughs.)
Eva, Are they going to make you into a toy?
Eva: You know what? I don’t think so, because, and I say this happily: I’m the chick in this movie. I like that. I don’t kick ass…
Eva: But not really. I’m the girl, I’m his woman, and there’s just something really romantic about that.
Are you still going with the western feel for this?
Mark: Oh, it’s a straight-up western. Again, there are so many comic book movies, and you’ve got to find a way to make yours different; that’s why I want to take it out of
Eva: Yeah. Russell Boyd, our DP — “Russ Bomb” we called him — was amazing.
Mark: He did Master and Commander. He’s a genius. It’s shot… it really does look like a painting, a lot of the movie.
Mark: But it’s got a huge western vibe to it. Big time.
Does the film have a sense of humor?
Mark: Yeah. I didn’t want it to be too jokey, but Nic’s real funny, so automatically there’s a lot of humor in the movie.
Eva: That’s what’s really nice about it: it’s like nothing I’ve ever been a part of.
Mark: Well, you need it, because it’s really horrific. Because when he changes, you’re used to seeing it in a comic book panel. But when you see someone really with the flesh blown off his face and coming off his skull, it’s really intense. And even with the Ghost Rider just walking around… it’s not done, we just wrapped a few weeks ago, so I’ve only seen test footage, but even the test footage, you just look at it and it’s an intense image. So, you have to balance that with some humor.
Eva: And anytime you sell your soul to the devil, there’s some darkness there. (Laughs.) So, you’re dealing with this dark stuff, but Nic, just acting opposite him, he made so many funny choices that are real. Because, when the stakes are high in life, oftentimes we make jokes to just survive and get through it.
We mentioned Daredevil earlier, a movie for which you recently went back and did a Director’s Cut. Have you been happier working with Sony on Ghost Rider?
Mark: Totally. Sony really gets it. They’re really supportive. They love Marvel movies; obviously, they’ve done very well for them. They’ve been terrific. They’ve really given us everything we’ve wanted. It’s been a fantastic experience.
Is there anything you learned from Daredevil that you’ve applied to this film?
Mark: Sure. Lots of things. Again, Daredevil… I really like the movie; it’s flawed, obviously. I think there are problems with it. You lose battles and you win battles, and, luckily, you can do a Director’s Cut and add in twenty-five minutes of story, which is always good for the story.
Were you brought in after Nicolas Cage was cast?
Mark: Yeah. Nic’s been attached for a long time. He’s been attached for years.
Were you worried about the curse of Nicolas Cage?
Mark: What is that curse? (Laughs.)
He’s been attached to so many comic book films over the years. Did you ever think, “Oh, god, this is going to be another one of those films on the long list that doesn’t get made?”
Mark: No. He and I talked about it, too, and he couldn’t believe it either. A lot of people thought it was him pulling out of movies, but it wasn’t – things just kept going wrong. He was on
He was supposed to be Iron Man at one point.
Mark: I think he was interested. I don’t know how close he was. There have been a lot of them, but when I met with him, he said Ghost Rider was always the one.
Eva: Well, yeah. He’s got the Ghost Rider tattoo on his arm. He really does. And he had it done years ago.
Eva, what did you think of the original Roxanne character from the comic book?
Eva: You know what? I actually thought she was this hot, voluptuous blonde that was a little victim-y for my taste. She cried a lot. But Mark is taking a chance, just thinking outside the box, because, obviously, I’m not blonde and I don’t look like the original comic book Roxanne.
How did you change her for the movie? How is she more assertive?
Eva: Well, now she’s darker. (Laughs.) A little more exotic. And stronger – really crazy in love with this man, and willing to stand beside him through thick and thin, but still being able to have a life of her own, be an independent woman… a career woman. And just inner strength… not being a victim.
[Roxanne] is always the character keeping him out of hell in the comic book. Is that still the case?
Mark: No, that didn’t work for me. I thought that was always bizarre, the fact that Johnny made this deal with the devil, and suddenly Roxie breaks the spell. She’s this sweet little girl, but she’s got the candles and the pentagram and the blood, and you’re like, “Jesus, where did that come from?”
With Daredevil, the theatrical cut was PG-13, but then you were able to add some stuff to the Director’s Cut. Is there anything that might be considered R-rated in Ghost Rider that might be held for the DVD?
Mark: I don’t know. It hasn’t been rated yet.
How do you get flesh burning into a PG-13?
Mark: That’s a good point. I’m not sure, but I think it’ll all be in the movie this time. I think PG-13 is getting further and further… you can get more in a PG-13. War of the Worlds was PG-13, and there was some pretty intense stuff in there – I mean, really intense, graphic stuff. But, yeah, obviously we have to have our transformation. We’re dealing with hell, which puts you in a darker place, and that’s why, again, we had to balance it with humor. But it’s not like I shot a bunch of stuff and thought, “Oh, this will only be in an R-rated Director’s Cut.”
Are you contractually obligated to deliver a PG-13?
Mark: I am.
Eva, would you ever entertain doing another comic movie?
Eva: Yeah. Absolutely. I just have to kick ass next time. And wear some kind of suit, like wear a cape. Oh, I’d love to have a cape.
What is Ghost Rider’s voice going to sound like?
Mark: We’re working on that right now. Nic did all the dialogue for the Ghost Rider, and then what we do is, obviously, lower it and add a lot of stuff to it. We’re trying it now. It’s fun. You can add like a lion’s roar. We keep saying it’s like a mechanical lion’s roar – something heavy metal and really deep that will shake the theater when he talks.
It was rumored you were interested in Captain America.
Mark: No, no. I love Captain America, though.
Are there any other comic book characters you’d like to take a crack at?
Mark: Oh, god, yeah. There are so many great ones. I love Preacher. I don’t know how you do Preacher, though. I think it would be a great HBO series; I think that would be the best way to tell that story. I love that, and I love the [Silver] Surfer… The Hulk. And I think a lot of them are going to come back and get re-imagined.