Collider Interviews Greg Johnson

     February 21, 2006

By Ken Egan

As a huge fan of comics and animated shows, I was really happy that Frosty gave me the opportunity to review Ultimate Avengers: The Movie and interview the writer of the film, Greg Johnson. If you missed my review, click here.

Greg Johnson has many years of experience working with Marvel and has done some of their previous animated series such as The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man, but most recently X-Men Evolution. Greg is also the writer of four upcoming straight to DVD movies being distributed by MJG (the company that was formed by Marvel &amp Lion’s Gate to produce these direct to DVD animated features). As you can read below, Greg talks about getting the gig, the creative freedom that comes with doing a feature length animated film, and the one character he would love to see get his own animated feature.

KE: How did you first get involved in animation and what was your first job?

GJ: I was the Director of Development for a small film company called Apollo Pictures (Can’t Buy Me Love), and during that time I had developed strong relationships with various writers. One of those was a guy named Bob Forward, a very successful animation story editor. My experience as an executive taught me one thing – I wanted to be on the other side of the desk. I wanted to be writing. So when I left Apollo, I shook Bob down for an assignment on Biker Mice From Mars, which at the time was associated with Marvel. And that began my relationship with Marvel.

KE: How did you get the Ultimate Avengers Job?

GJ: I’ve written for various Marvel shows since the mid-90’s, and my latest job prior to the Ultimate Avengers was as head writer on X-Men: Evolution. So when these direct to video projects came up, Craig Kyle gave me a call. I was right in the middle of doing development work on a series for Cartoon Network called Ben 10 at the time, but I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity. So I jumped ship.

KE: How was working on this film different than say doing X-Men: Evolution?

GJ: I won’t lie to you, as cool as it is to run a series, there’s nothing like the experience of telling your story in a feature-length format. There’s room for the smaller moments, and even more room for the bigger ones, and there’s just more time to get work on it. Though these movies were on a tight schedule, for me it was like riding in First Class and stretching out your legs after years of riding in the less roomy coach.

KE: Do you miss writing for X-Men: Evolution?

GJ: There were definitely some plot elements I was hoping to explore in the fifth season if we had gotten it, because we were headed into some pretty interesting directions. And I miss the characters, because I’d really grown to care about them. Even though I’m currently involved with another X-Men endeavor, the Evolution characters were very unique. I was really saddened when it ended.

KE: Would you like to do an X-Men: Evolution film in the same vein as Ultimate Avengers?

GJ: That would be so exciting. Because, though the BS&ampP (Broadcast Standards &amp Practices) parameters are a necessary component to broadcast television, it would be totally liberating to stretch the wings of X-Men: Evolution without those kinds of restrictions.

KE: Who decided what characters would be used and not used (Case in point Hawkeye) Why couldn’t they fit him in?

GJ: The ability to use certain Marvel characters is limited by rights issues. Not all of them were available to use for Ultimate Avengers. Hawkeye was, though. In fact, he was in the early drafts of the movie, but we had to drop him for length. Adding one more character in this seventy minute ensemble movie would have been a disservice to him and the rest of the cast. I mentioned this in a Wizard Magazine article, but we’d worked up a very cool relationship between him and Cap. In the opening sequence during WWII in which Captain America is fighting the Nazis, we established a sharpshooter on his team that had amazing accuracy. Cap ended up saving the man’s life. And then 60 years later, when the Avengers are being formed, we find out that the sharpshooter was Hawkeye’s grandfather. If Cap hadn’t saved him, there wouldn’t even be a Hawkeye. So they had a very unique friendship as a result. It was a shame to lose him.

KE: How hard was it trying to keep the film as close to the comic as far as story &amp character designs go?

GJ: Adapting a comic story is really no different then adapting any other form of literature for the screen, in my opinion. The first thing you have to do is take it apart and determine what will translate and what won’t. The characters, for example. They were so fully realized in the books that they made the jump from page to screen fairly easily.

KE: This is the first animated film from Marvel to get hit with a PG-13 rating. Did the rating of the film allow you more freedom creatively?

GJ: Picking up the PG-13 rating was a surprise to me, but I assume it’s because the action sequences are fairly intense, a result of the freedom I enjoyed in writing them, and the fantastic job the directors did in boarding them. For the first time in my career, I was able to have animated characters die. Not that I did so gratuitously, but by showing death, the stakes get so much higher for the characters, and the tension of the scenes go up dramatically.


KE: Would you consider writing an “R” rated animated movie such as Punisher or Wolverine?

GJ: It would really depend on why it was rated R. If it’s because of the action, then I would have less of a problem with it. If it’s because of explicit sex or language, then I’d have to say no.

KE: How many of these direct to DVD films are you attached to?

GJ: I’ve already written the first four of a planned eight DTV movies for Marvel and Lions Gate. Ultimate Avengers, Ultimate Avengers II, Iron Man, and Dr. Strange. Each one takes twelve to eighteen months to animate and prepare for release.

KE: How hard was it to adapt this story from the Ultimate Avengers comics?

GJ: One of the benefits of telling this kind of story on the graphic page is that you have the liberty to explore a kind of “day in the life” of the characters without necessarily needing the urgency of a larger plot escalating in the background.

But the structure used in comic book storytelling doesn’t always translate easily to the moving picture. With that in mind, we had to lace in a little more momentum in order to keep the energy driving us forward. Whereas the book brought together the team to deal with numerous, unexplored threats plaguing SHIELD, we chose to focus on mainly one. It’s an inciting incident that forces General Fury to form the Avengers, and it’s that same threat that tests the mettle of the team to the very end.

KE: I noticed that the animation style looks very similar to X-Men: Evolution (with the exception that the Ultimate Avenger characters look more detailed… was it the same animation house as X-Men Evolution?

GJ: No, but it was the same character designer, Steve Gordon. He took Bryan Hitche’s initial designs and adapted them for the animation format.

KE: You’ve written for the Hulk animated series. How different is the Ultimate Avengers version from the previous incarnation?

GJ: The Hulk character in Ultimate Avengers is actually not the Ultimates Hulk. It’s the classic. The raging beast with a soft heart for Betty. And since the series was also based on the classic, the experience of writing the Hulk/Banner dynamic was very similar. In U.A., however, I got to really open up the floodgates on his action scenes. That level of fighting would never make it through traditional broadcast standards.

KE: Are there any more plans for other Marvel Films other than what is already known? I’ve heard Black Panther &amp Captain America.

GJ: Black Panther is part of the cast in Ultimate Avengers II, and since no plans have been made for the fifth movie, it’s impossible to say whether or not he’ll have a solo film, or whether Captain America will, either.

KE: Why the choice to use different animation houses for all the different projects as opposed to keeping just one animated house?

GJ: For a television series, the main reason for alternating animation studios is usually to stay on schedule. As for these DTV movies, we wanted each film to have its own identity. Iron Man is being handled by a different studio, as is Dr. Strange.

KE: How far along are you on Ultimate Avengers 2?

GJ: I finished the script a year ago, and we’re just now getting footage back from the overseas studio. It may seem like a long process, but it’s actually relatively short compared to most animated films.

KE: What project would you most like to see get green-lit for a film (animated or live action?)

GJ: I would have to say it would be Gambit. I had the opportunity to explore his character a little on X-Men: Evolution, and loved it. He’s fully loaded, complete with a dark, somewhat felonious past that makes him complicated. Plus, with that seasoned confidence, he’s a very magnetic personality, like Sawyer on Lost but with cool powers.

KE: Can you talk about your next project?

GJ: I’m developing a series called Wolverine and the X-Men, and so far it’s shaping up to be something very exciting. I’m just not allowed to talk about it, yet.

KE: Thank you for your time

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