Opening this Friday is director Joe Johnston’s (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III, Jumanji) take on the classic Universal monster The Wolfman. To help promote the film, Universal Pictures held a big press junket for journalists from around the world this past weekend. While I already posted all the things Johnston said about his next project, The First Avenger: Captain America, it’s time for The Wolfman Q&A.
During the press conference, Jonston talked about his decision to use both practical and CG for the Wolfman, what changes he made when he got attached to the project, and for fans of extras on DVD/Blu-ray, Johnston says they’ll be an extended cut of The Wolfman with 17 addtional minutes added back in when it gets released on home video. The additional footage is from the beginning of the film – before Benicio transforms. Hit the jump for the transcript or audio from the press conference:
Question: In the process of re-shoots and changing release dates, did you ever try a PG-13 version of this film?
Joe Johnston: No, it was always an R rating. At one point, the head of the studio called me and said, “Do you think we could re-cut this into a PG-13?” I said, “Yes, but nobody would want to see it.” So, it was always intended to be an R. It deserves to be an R.
Q: Were there ever extended versions?
Joe: Well, there is an extended cut that will be on the DVD. It’s about 17 minutes longer and it’s what we cut out of our third cut, in order to reduce the time between the beginning of the film and when Benicio transforms into The Wolfman because we knew that that was the moment the audience was waiting for. They knew it was going to happen and they were, perhaps, less patient than I was with getting to that point. The note we got from the preview screenings was that the beginning was slow. I wanted the characters to develop and those relationships to be a little fuller before we got to the place where he is bitten and transformed. Basically, what you’ll see in the extended cut is the restored footage from the first 40 minutes.
Q: Why did you want to make Benicio’s character more noble?
Joe: I wanted there to be as much contrast between Lawrence and The Wolfman as possible. Originally, Lawrence was a little bit of a hellraiser. He was this actor who went out and partied all night, went to bed with three women at once and he hung out in opium dens, and places like that. It was a different take on the character, but I felt that, in order to increase the contrast between who this guy was and what he was going to become, the hero and the villain, I felt like he should be slightly more noble.
Q: Anthony Hopkins plays his character so cool and detached. Was that in the script?
Joe: No, it was part of his madness. He recognized that for him to overplay that would have detracted from it, and he was really conscious of that. That’s the way he is. He doesn’t think there’s anything out of the ordinary about it.
Q: Did you feel comfortable, from the outset, that that was going to work?
Joe: I felt very comfortable. The studio didn’t necessarily. I got calls saying, “He’s not doing anything.” I said, “Well, wait ’til we cut it together.”
Q: How were you able to reference the classic Universal monster films while creating a horror film for today’s audience?
Joe: I think it’s because they’re used to vastly different horror films. I wanted to go back to something that I remembered from a long time ago. We’ve seen so many examples of CG characters running around and doing things that subconsciously we know they can’t do, and that takes you out of the picture sometimes. I wanted you to always feel that, whatever this beast was, he was not breaking any laws of physics. He had a strength and a power that you could understand. I didn’t want to basically do what we saw in Van Helsing, which is since you can do anything, you take advantage of that and you do it. Audiences know when it’s not real and when it is. It’s a subtle thing that you don’t ever think about, but you know when this guy is leaping and landing and punching people, it feels more real.
Q: What made you decide to use a CG bear and stag, and then blend CG and real make-up for the transformation?
Joe: It’s difficult to have a real bear, the size that I wanted to have. We could have used this bear from Czechoslovakia that’s almost a pet, but to get it across the borders, and get all the permits signed and everything, it turned out to be a lot easier to have the CG bear. It was a bear that already existed in the computer. It was basically the bear from The Golden Compass. It’s obviously not a polar bear, and we changed its face, but the point is that the data was already there. We didn’t have to design it from the ground up. The stag also existed from some other project, and we changed him too. To get a stag, and be able to stake him to the ground and have him pull against the rope, is more than we would want to do with a real animal. As far as the transformation goes, I know that Rick Baker originally thought that he would do the transformations with mechanisms, prosthetics and rubber, like he had done with An American Werewolf in London. Nobody does that stuff better than Rick. The problem I had was that I was coming in three weeks from principal photography and, in order to have Rick do the transformation, I would have had to decide, almost immediately, exactly what the stages of the transformation were. By letting them be CG, I could make those decisions deep into post. I just didn’t have the flexibility to be able to sit down and say, “This is exactly what I want it to be,” that early in the production.
Q: Would you do another Jurassic Park film, entirely in CGI?
Joe: I don’t think I’d want to do it entirely in CGI, but there’s no other way to really do a walking dinosaur. What we did in the Jurassic Park movies was build full-size dinosaurs that we could have interact with the people. We often blended the animatronic dinosaurs with the CG and, hopefully, you don’t know where one begins and the other one ends. Like any other kind of visual effect, what you really want to do is use it as a tool to tell the story. I don’t want anybody to come out of the theater saying, “Wow, what great visual effects we just saw.” I’d rather have them say, “We really enjoyed the movie. It was really entertaining.” You don’t want to separate the effects. I like visual effects that are basically invisible, where you don’t know when you’ve seen one, or you forget that it was an effect.
Q: Was it a conscious decision to not show much of the first transformation?
Joe: I wanted to take what I remembered from the Lon Chaney version and update it, even though we’re setting it in 1891, and the original was set in 1941. I just wanted to re-tell that story, in the way that I remembered the original looking, which was very dark and shadowy. I didn’t want you to see the first transformation. I wanted you to get glimpses of what he was becoming and to put that together in your imagination, so that by the time he takes the head off in the swamp, you’ve never really had a full, clear shot of him. You’ve had glimpses, but you know exactly who he is and what he’s capable of. There was a shot that we did where he comes out from behind a tree and you see him in a big close-up, with every hair perfectly illuminated by moonlight, and we cut that shot out because, once you’ve seen that, you quit trying to see him. It took away from your experience. I like it when audiences can participate and use their imagination to fill in the blanks. We were conscious of that, in that first transformation. We knew we were going to show you the second transformation in all its glory, completely illuminated by the asylum theater gas lights. After that point, there’s nothing else to hide, but we wanted to just keep a little bit of mystery about it, up until that point.
Q: Why did you take the space out of the Wolf Man’s name?
Joe: We wanted it to exist as a word, and we also wanted to set it apart from the original. Now, it’s a thing until itself.
Q: How is pre-production going on Captain America? Are you going to cast an American actor in that role?
Joe: Absolutely. Oh, yeah. I don’t think we could make the film without an American playing the part. But, we may not be casting in America because we’re going to London. I think we’ll probably shoot in the U.K. for most of it because it takes place in Europe.
Q: Has there been any talk of shooting it in 3-D?
Joe: No. We’re shooting in HD, but you can take any film now and make it 3-D. We’re not going to be shooting it specifically in 3-D, but this is the first film I will have shot in hi-def. It gives you a lot of flexibility in post. When you shoot a movie in hi-def, if you want to zoom in 200%, you can. In film, you can go about 15-20%, at most, before you start seeing grain and degradation. But, in hi-def, you can basically re-shoot the film in post, if you want to. I’m looking forward to trying that.
Q: Do you see opportunities to bring your own style to it, like Sam Raimi did with Spider-Man, and Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan did with Batman?
Joe: We’re definitely going to shoot it in a different way than any of the other Marvel pictures have been shot. What I’m trying to do is look at the comics, mostly the new ones in the Brubaker series, and interpret that visual style into a film, in a way that I think has been tried before, but always looks like it’s a little too on the nose. It looks like, “Oh, they’re shooting a comic book movie.” I want to try something a little bit different.
Q: Have you nailed down what the big set pieces will be?
Joe: Yes, we have. Right now, we have to pick our battles because it’s a little more than we can afford. But, there will be some great action sequences, and stuff we haven’t seen before.
Q: With the casting, is it about finding the right person, or does it have to be a big name star?
Joe: No, we’re looking for a complete unknown.
Q: So, it won’t be a movie star in the part?
Joe: I hope not. I hope it’ll be somebody that we discover. He’s probably been in something, but you won’t know who he is. You won’t recognize him. And, we’ll surround him with more prominent names. That’s who we’re looking for. Will we find him? I don’t know. It’s tough.
Q: When do you have to have casting done?
Joe: March 1st.