Frosty Interviews Mark Steven Johnson – The Writer/Director of ‘Ghost Rider’

     December 5, 2006

Last week I attended a Ghost Rider event at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. We got to watch some footage from the upcoming film and then sit down with the two stars and writer/director Mark Steven Johnson. In case you missed the interview that I already posted with Nicolas Cage click here. I’ve also posted an interview with Eva Mendes which you can read here.

As I have already written, the footage of Ghost Rider on the bike with the flaming head looked great. And since that’s all we really got to see, that’s all I can really write about. Yeah we saw some footage of Eva and Nic talking in his apartment, but it was a small scene that didn’t show much…

Now even though we didn’t see much of the film, that didn’t stop all of us who attended from asking a ton of questions. The interviews were done in roundtable form and you can either read the interview below or listen to the interview here.

Mark Steven Johnson came across as someone who learned a lot from his experiences making Daredevil. I especially liked how he talked about the behind the scenes experiences of trying to make a comic-book adaptation at 20th Century Fox.

They didn’t want a costume. They didn’t want horns. They didn’t want anything. So everything in that movie was a fight which is very difficult. There are things in the movie that I’m very proud of and then things that didn’t work. It was a very, very difficult shoot. This movie is even bigger. It’s a much bigger movie. A bigger star, a bigger everything, but they got it at the studio which made it much easier for me. So, as far as what I learned, it was so much. I went from directing only one small movie to suddenly directing a $75 million movie and now I’m doing a $100 million plus movie, but I knew about visual FX. I knew about action. I knew about so much more than I did back then. So, the answer is that even though it was a bigger movie it was much easier this time.

He also goes into a lot of details about how he plans on bringing the comic Preacher to life. He envisions every issue as one episode, so his goal would be a show that ran for around six years. Mark also said he wants to have a guest director on every episode, so one episode would be done by Kevin Smith, and one by another comic-book fan/director. While it is still a long ways off, it sounded very interesting.

Here is the rest of the interview. And remember Ghost Rider opens in February.

Question: You obviously had enough time to do everything that you wanted to do on this film production wise, right?

Johnson: To do everything that I wanted? Well, close. I mean, there’s never everything that you want. You always want more. That’s just the nature of the beast. It’s tough because you can’t shoot it like a normal movie and every time there is a close-up of Ghost Rider it’s going to cost $50k and if it’s a wide shot its $100k. So you can’t cover it the way you normally would and you always want more coverage than you have. So it’s not like a normal movie. Your hero is a special effect and that’s the tough part for me. You always want to have more than you can have, but it’s at what cost because it’s a very expensive character. That’s why it has been so tough to pull off.

Can you talk about the genesis of you coming onboard because I know that at one point Steve Norrington and David Goyer were involved? Did you ever take a look at what Norrington had done with it?

Of course, sure.

Did anything carry over?

Yeah, there are a couple of scenes there. There is the scene in the prison cell where everyone jumps on him and beating on him and he turns into Ghost Rider and explodes and burns his way through the bars. You saw a little bit of that in the trailer and that’s from Steve Norrington, or I should say David because David wrote that. I really liked that a lot and I loved David’s script. I thought it was great. It was a different script. That’s also the nature of the beast that when you come onto a movie you want to make your own version of the movie. Goyer’s was a very dark, very hard R which is cool, but it’s one of those things where it’s my deal with the devil, if you will – when you want to make a ‘Ghost Rider’ movie it’s expensive. It’s not like you make like ‘The Crow’ or ‘Blade’ or something. It’s like what I was just saying to you. It’s so expensive that it’s like, ‘If you’re going to give me all the money to make this movie right I have to be responsible and try to get everyone I can to come and see the film.’ You can’t make it a cult film. You have to make it a big film which it should be.

Are you trying to go PG-13?

We are PG-13, yeah, which I was actually really happy and surprised about because I was expecting to have to cut stuff out so it wouldn’t be an R. ‘Daredevil’ was an R and I had to cut things out to make it a PG-13 and this is just like, there is so much stuff in it that I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re dead.’ But we made it which is amazing. You know what’s funny is that what made ‘Daredevil’ an R is there was this scene where Bullseye kills Elektra, he gutted her – that was okay. He kissed her afterwards and then he threw her down. The kiss gave us an R. Isn’t that weird? Its okay to kill a girl, but you just can’t kiss her afterwards because somehow that’s repulsive. I don’t know.

So the cut that you have right now is everything that you want from the studio?

Sony gets it. Sony has had so much success with ‘Spider-Man’ that they understand Marvel and they appreciate it and get it. So, again, it’s not ‘Spider-Man’ or it’s not ‘X-Men’ or it’s not ‘Fantastic Four.’ It’s a very unknown character to most people, Ghost Rider, and so for them to give you the money to do it right says a lot for Sony. So it was great that they believe in it and they were willing to take that gamble and have supported it. They’ve been great.

Because it’s an unknown character does that give you more leeway and freedom?

It does because, and again, I’m the biggest fan of this comic book in the world, but it’s not a perfect comic either. I can’t lie to anyone and the fans of the comic know this too. It’s not like ‘Spider-Man’ where you look at it and you go, ‘God, this is perfect.’ There are so many great stories and it has so many great villains. ‘Ghost Rider’ has some great stories and an amazing look which is what attracted me to it, but it’s also very flawed in some ways. The origin of it has been very mixed up and they keep trying to change it and update it and it got more and more confusing until no one knew what to make of it. So my goal coming into it was like, ‘Okay, I have to pay tribute to the character and the origin, but I also have to streamline things. I have to make things simple so that people can understand what the hell is going on.’

So you said that you merged the Johnny Blaze thing and did you bring in the whole back story?

No way. See, that’s what I’m talking about. That stuff is too much and you can’t do that. That’s what turned so many people off to the comic. You start reading it and then go sign onto Wikipedia or whatever and start reading the back story and you go, ‘I can’t follow this.’ It’s too much. The bottom line is that all you need to is that Mephistopheles comes from Faust, right? He’s a specific kind of devil. He’s not the devil. He’s a devil who makes you sign a contract in blood and if you want something you go to him and he makes the deal and then he owns your soul. So my idea was like, ‘Wait a minute. Okay.’ Why did the Mephisto give the Ghost Rider all this power and then the Ghost Rider uses it against him and makes the devil look like a fool? He makes the devil look like a dupe. So my idea was always just like let’s make it real clear. He goes to the best rider in the world. In the old days it was on horseback and today it’s on motorcycles or a car or whatever, and he goes to them and looks for the best rider and says, ‘You will be my bounty hunter. If something gets out of hell and doesn’t belong here I’m going to send you after it to bring it back.’ Very simple. There is heaven. There is hell. There is our world. If something gets out of hell the devils job is, ‘He doesn’t belong here. Come back. We have to keep the balance.’ That’s the deal to the end of time and that’s biblical, right? So, the deal is that he goes to Johnny and makes this deal as a kid to save his dad from cancer and screws him over like the devil always does, and so Johnny grows up to become the Ghost Rider and becomes the devil’s bounty hunter, and that to me made sense. So for the first time for me it was really clear. It’s funny because when Steve Norrington was attached to the older version, it was very sweet since I’d never met him, but he sent me an email one day and said, ‘I really dug “Daredevil.” I really liked it.’ And he said, ‘I’m really happy doing “Ghost Rider.” I just want you to know that I tried to make it for years and I couldn’t. Good luck.’ So I called him up and said, ‘Do you want to go have a beer and talk and just trade war stories, “Daredevil” vs. “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?”‘ which turned into several beers and many hours later. He was wonderful. He was like, ‘What is it?’ I told him and he goes, ‘Fuck, you solved it. That’s it.’ Ghost Rider is the devil’s bounty hunter. It makes so much sense because it’s so clear. ‘I’m going to give you all this power to work for me, to do this job.’ Johnny’s heroic thing is that the devil says to him in our movie – every once in a while something gets out of hell, but in our movie it’s the son of the devil which has never happened – ‘Find my son. Bring him back to me. Destroy him and I’ll give you your soul back.’

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What made you decide to shoot in Victoria and how did the shoot go?

We started scouting Texas where the movie is set and everywhere else, and to be honest with you it first was for monetary reasons. It was cheaper to go to Australia and I thought, ‘No, it has to be here.’ Then I went to Australia and everyone goes to Sydney which is beautiful, but I went to Melbourne and I just fell in love. It’s this gorgeous place, one of the greatest cities in the world and it looks like so many different cities. It was so beautiful and the people were so cool, and the whole movie became a love affair with Melbourne. It’s the best.

Did you like shooting there?

What’s not to like? Everyone was like, ‘Whatever you need. Were just happy you’re here bringing money to the economy and helping everyone out.’ It was just fantastic. We’re all homesick for Melbourne. We talk about that all the time. It really became – when you watch the scenes like you did today on the bridge, everything is a valentine to Melbourne, Australia. It really is.

How do you want audiences to see this movie? Do you want them coming in with the comic book knowledge?

You can’t because it’s too small. As much as I love them and I’m one of them we’re a very small percentage. You have to go beyond that otherwise you’re making it for too small of an audience. So, again, you want to come back to the basic tenants of what the movie is about – what would you do for love? That’s what the movie is about. Would you sell your soul for love? Would you ride through hell for love? What would you do? That’s what the movie is truly about and once you do that with it everyone can relate to it. You see it in the poster. It’s not the Ghost Rider on the Hell Cycle. It’s Nick [Cage] and Eva [Mendes] faces and the Ghost Rider is this big. There is a reason for that. The Ghost Rider is important obviously since the movie is called ‘Ghost Rider,’ but you want to know that it’s about these two people. It’s about love. It’s about Johnny making a deal for the love of his father and then he continues to fight because of the love he has for his girl. That’s what the movie is about.

Nick is something of a nerd for the comic, isn’t he?

A nerd? Yeah, he loves it.

Was it a big surprise to have a big star who loved the comic book as well?

Yeah, but that’s really common. A lot of the actors like me grew up with it. So it’s a big thing in America. You grow up with comic books. You learn to read with comic books. It’s pictures and words which is the perfect thing. You go from storybooks to comic books and Nick was involved before I was involved. So it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, who’s going to be Ghost Rider.’ It was, ‘Nick is Ghost Rider and I hope that he likes my take on it.’ So I came into it that way.

Knowing that Nick was involved did you write the script catering to him, and did you write the script before or after Nick was on?

Well, Nick was always involved. He was involved with the Norrington version.

So you had Nick in mind the whole time?

Absolutely. I mean, you write the best Johnny Blaze that you can and to be honest, it’s funny because you have all your weaknesses as a writer and your strengths as a writer and I remember writing Johnny Blaze for the first time and he was drinking Jack Daniels out of the bottle and chain smoking. I remember giving Nick the first draft and he was really honest about it. He was like, ‘I don’t know anyone who drinks Jack Daniels out of a bottle.’ I thought, ‘I don’t either, but they’re always in the movies. Who does that?’ No one does that. He was like, ‘I don’t chain smoke.’ So then you start talking to Nick and he brings something different to it. Then Nick starts saying really far out things, and they’re so far out there that they’re honest. I mean, it’s like when Johnny Depp in ‘Pirates’ does this sort of gay, drunk Keith Richards and the studio freaked out and the studio was like, ‘What are you doing?!’ He was just doing something different, but there was something in that character that made it honest. Nick did the same thing. He was just like, ‘I feel like if you didn’t know that any minute you were going to turn into the Ghost Rider, what would that be like?’ Nick said, ‘I think that it would be like I’m in a dentist chair and that musak is playing and at any minute you’re going to go and it’s going to be painful and horrible. So you’re going to try and calm yourself and keep yourself safe because at any minute you’re going to change.’ I thought that was really smart and interesting and different. Nick always brings that.

What did you learn from ‘Daredevil’ that you applied to ‘Ghost Rider?’ Did you ever go back and look at what the fans didn’t like about ‘Daredevil’ to make sure that you got it right here?

Well, it’s night and day to be quite honest with you. With ‘Daredevil,’ I really owe Fox because I know that I’ve slammed them in the past which isn’t fair because it was a very tough shoot and I had to fight for everything, as I’ve said in the past, on that movie. They didn’t want a costume. They didn’t want horns. They didn’t want anything. So everything in that movie was a fight which is very difficult. There are things in the movie that I’m very proud of and then things that didn’t work. It was a very, very difficult shoot. This movie is even bigger. It’s a much bigger movie. A bigger star, a bigger everything, but they got it at the studio which made it much easier for me. So, as far as what I learned, it was so much. I went from directing only one small movie to suddenly directing a $75 million movie and now I’m doing a $100 million plus movie, but I knew about visual FX. I knew about action. I knew about so much more than I did back then. So, the answer is that even though it was a bigger movie it was much easier this time.

So there was never a sort of Judge Dredd moment where they said, ‘We love the film, but we can’t have it like this?’

No, no, and I wouldn’t have done that again, to be honest with you, because I’ve already been through that. Last time it was like, ‘We love “Daredevil,” but we don’t want to do horns and a costume. It’s silly.’ It was like, ‘But that’s it. That’s the character.’ That’s the hard part. Fans get angry and are like, ‘He’s in a leather costume. That’s not what the comic is.’ You want to say, ‘Look, I love you guys, but you don’t understand. There was no costume! I fought just to get a costume and just to have the horns and the double d. That was months of fighting.’ Again though, no one is the bad guy here. They gave me a big shot and they were very supportive in the end, but these movies are difficult. They’re very hard. Sony is very supportive. They really get it and Marvel… of course Marvel is your biggest heroes. Again, they had so much success with ‘Spider-Man’ they trusted that there’s a reason that these characters stick around. I mean, it’s not like – again, the other characters have amazing storylines, amazing villains and they’ve been around for years. ‘Spider-Man’ is like the rogue’s gallery. Take your pick. There are so many great people to pick from. ‘Ghost Rider’ doesn’t have that. You say, ‘Who’s the greatest “Ghost Rider” villain?’ People go, ‘What?’ ‘Ghost Rider’ has existed solely because of the image of the flaming skull and the Harley. There is just something about it that’s a very visual image that sticks in your head. People get it for tattoos. They put it on their motorcycles and has been around forever because of that image. So that tells me that it’s going to translate to film better than most.

Did this sort of prep you for doing ‘The Preacher’ because that’s the whole heaven and hell thing, right?

Well, ‘The Preacher’ is something that I’ve always wanted to do. ‘The Preacher’ is the greatest, but it is so difficult, and I love it more than anyone does. I remember reading a script a while ago that was going to go to film and I was like, ‘How do you make a two hour movie of “The Preacher?” You can’t do it.’ So when I went into HBO I said very simply, ‘Here is the comic. There’s seventy something issues here. Seventy five issues plus the four issues of killers.’ I said, ‘Every issue is an hour.’ It’s a six year show and HBO, God bless them, went, ‘Cool.’

So are you staying really loyal to the whole storyline?

Not loyal. Exact. So it’s like we had our first meeting the other day. I keep waiting for them to go, ‘We’re not doing this!’ I want to be having sex with a meat person. If I can do that I’ve made my mark on the world. So it’s like everything is so out there and this is it. They were like, ‘God bless.’ I was like, ‘Fucking HBO has balls.’ They were like, ‘Bring it. Do it.’ It’s just like ‘Daredevil,’ it’s just like ‘Ghost Rider,’ no one comes to your door and rings the doorbell and goes, ‘Hey, you wanna do these movies?’ I’m the last guy, but I’m the guy who gets it done because I care and I do it. So people have tried to make ‘Daredevil’ and they’ve tried to make ‘Ghost Rider’ and it hasn’t happened, but I got them made. ‘Daredevil’ was with mixed results and ‘Ghost Rider’ I hope much better and ‘Preacher’ I hope to be exact. In fact, today I emailed Kevin Smith and I said, ‘Dude, I just got “Preacher.” You know you love it. If it goes would you please direct an episode?’ I want to go to Kevin. I want to go to Robert Rodriguez and do guest directors. I think that would be really cool. I want it to be a prestige thing. ‘You love “Preacher?” Come do a show.’ Usually it’s a guest actor. I want it to be a guest director. I want to keep the spirit of it, keep the vibe of it, but also know that there’ll be a different imprint every time when it comes to directing the show. My job is to help write the shows. I’m working with Garth [Ennis] everyday. He’s a big part of it to make sure that it’s exactly what we want and then let the director put his imprint on it, but it’s got to be a book.

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Do you know where you’re shooting?

Johnson: I haven’t even written it yet. Literally my meeting was yesterday on it. So, again, who knows what will happen. My fingers are crossed that it’s going to go. They’ve been trying to make ‘Preacher’ like ‘Daredevil’ and ‘Ghost Rider’ for years and years and years.

How involved would Garth be if the series takes off?

If he wants to be, absolutely. My first meeting was yesterday, and Garth was New York, but he was on the speaker phone. Like all meetings, there were twenty people there and one person on the speaker phone and everyone was going like this to the speaker phone. I’ve never met Garth and so it was so great to talk to him and ask him questions which is what always happens with the creators. They’re like, ‘Dude, don’t be beholden to the source material. I just did that because of A, B, or C.’ He was like, ‘Do whatever you want.’ I was like, ‘No, no, no. It has to be exactly that.’ So he’s the one who is going, ‘Use your own thing.’ But I said to him also, ‘Are there any stories that you wanted to tell, but you weren’t able to? Was there something that you wanted to do, but you didn’t have time? I want to hear that too.’ We want to fill it out and we want to make it, like I said, a six year show or above with a definite ending, ending the way it does which is incredibly controversial. Again, no one would have the balls to do this, but HBO.

Do you think it’d be harder or easier to do it exactly as it is whereas with ‘Ghost Rider’ you could play with it and open it up a little bit and pick and choose?

Right. ‘Ghost Rider’ for years came in and out of circulation for years for a reason. It had flaws. Again, the image was great. The idea was great and so my goal was to find out what made the strengths were and then what could I bring to it. Like I said, the bounty hunter thing was my idea and I think it’s a good idea. It helps the whole thing to be stronger, and the creators and the comic people said, ‘Yeah, great. We want to do that.’ ‘The Preacher’ doesn’t need that. ‘The Preacher’ is perfect in my opinion. All the things that made people go, ‘Nah, it’s not for me.‘ made me go, ‘Yeah.’ That’s what I’m so excited about.

You’ve dabbled with Marvel and you’re dabbling with Vertigo. Are you going to dabble with anything like a Dark Horse product like ‘Grendel’ or ‘The Goon?’ Any other comic book character that you want to tackle?

There are so many good ones out there. For a long time I really believed, and even though I’m not attached to it I’ll say it if it helps set it up, that ‘Midnight Nation’ was a really cool story. Joe is such a great author and he and I tried to set that up for a minute. Nothing happened with it, but people should read ‘Midnight Nation.’ I think that would be a great series. Again, it’s a journey. It’s like Stephen King’s ‘The Stand.’ It’s just like, ‘I’m in. I want to see what happens to these people.’ It’s like ‘Lost’ or anything else. But there are many things. Right now my focus is on getting this out and doing ‘Preacher’ right.

Did ‘Ghost Rider’ wind up being a higher stress level than you expected, making a movie with a flaming skull? The fire is tough to do with CG.

Well, I’ve seen CG fire before and yes, I thought that it would be easier. We all did which is why we come out February 16th, but we were supposed to come out in August. Literally, there will be FX delivered up until the end of January 30th because we had to write new programs. Fire is fucking tricky, man. Look at that fire which looks cool and then you move it and you put it on film at twenty four frames per second it changes everything. It all of a sudden looks really flickery and light and not strong, and so you add liquid to it to make it feel stronger and smoother and whatnot, but then it’s like Ghost Rider goes that way and the fire stays here which it really would as a sort of ghost image. We didn’t want that because it looked weird. Fire has to be a Ghost Rider. He commands the fire. The fire doesn’t command him. All of these little things become like your life, and so it’s really about – like I’ve always said – looking at the greatest CG creations which is Gollum, I think. It’s probably like Gollum or the last ‘Pirates’ Davy Jones was genius. It’s amazing, right? Those things are great because you have expression. You have eyes. Gollum’s eyes are huge and you’ve got lines in the eyes and the lips and the teeth are like this. We didn’t have any of that. We had no expression. So you’ve got a skull that’s got no eyes, no lips, no tongue, it’s got no wrinkles. All you’ve got is this fucking skull. So you have to deal with that, and then my idea was to use the fire to give it expression. Once you do that that’s a whole new thing now and the fire has to change colors. It’s got to get smaller when he’s sad and go blue. Then angry goes white hot and it gets super high and that became a whole other thing.

How much of that is Nick, all of the Ghost Rider? How much is a hundred percent CGI?

Every time you see the Ghost Rider it’s all CGI, but a lot of the times Nick is doing all the expressions and all of that. So it’s his body language. It’s his movement. It’s his talking and everything else. What it would be basically is that Nick, or Eddie his stunt double, depending on the scene and how violent it was, they’d wear a green neoprene skin diver head with an interactive lighting collar to give the interactive light for the flames. So they do that and we remove the head and put the skull on, put the flame on and then it’s like, ‘How much flame do you put in the eyes so that it’s not cartoony?’ But you do want to put light in the eyes so that it doesn’t go entirely black. Black just disappears.

So the body is most of the time really him?

It’s always Nick or Eddie, his stuntman. One of the two all the time.

And the transformation, is that all CG as well?

It’s just Nick with putting the CG flame and skull there. Yeah. That’s one of the things that I thought would give us the R.

Is the skull based on Nick’s own head?

Yeah, it’s Nick’s skull. It’s weird, isn’t it?

You make it a painful transformation like in ‘American Werewolf.’

That’s exactly what we were going for even with the tone of the movie. It’s that. That’s right. I always like those scenes that aren’t movie scenes like when a girl is walking out and all the cops are like, ‘Fire! There’s a girl right there.’ But I love that. It’s movie logic.

Who was the lead detective, that actor?

Oh, gosh. He’s an Australian actor who was in ‘Matrix’ two and three. That’s how you remember him. I’m sorry I can’t remember his name off hand, but he is terrific.

I love the nod to the western Ghost Rider. How much of a role does he play in the film?

He plays a significant role. A lot of people think that shot that you saw is the end of the movie, but it’s not. It’s actually the kick off of the second act. It’s the handing off of the baton. The old Ghost Rider is saying, ‘Now it’s your turn. Go fight him. The end of the world, everything is on your shoulders.’ The difference between Nick as the Ghost Rider and other Ghost Riders is that he didn’t sell his soul for greed, for riches or for fame or anything else. He sold it for love and that makes him different.

Did the success of ‘Heroes’ help out at all with ‘The Preacher’ deal at HBO?

I haven’t seen it. We’ve never talked about it. I hear it’s great, but I haven’t seen it yet. I’m going to Tivo it. We’ve never talked about it, but I think that comic books have done so well that ‘Heroes’ didn’t matter, to be honest with you as far as HBO picking it up. We’ve been into this for a long time.

Can you talk about casting Sam Elliott and Peter Fonda in this?

Yeah. Well, Sam Elliott is the man. You talk about big stars or whatever, we’d be in Australia and if you walk around with Sam Elliott people just smile. They’ll come over to us, and if it’s a guy Sam goes, ‘Watch. “Road House.”‘ ‘Dude, “Road House!” I love you in it!’ If it’s a girl it’ll be one of his other things. He’s like people always remember ‘Roadhouse.’ What I wanted to do is create a movie that has a distinct feel like a western. I want to do a superhero western that’s gothic like a Hammer film meets a fucking ‘Once Upon A Time In The West.’ Sam is that. You see Sam and you’re like, ‘Okay, I’m in.’ It’s real and it’s good. With Fonda I wanted to get the ultimate motorcycle icon which Easy Rider, Captain America. That makes this the first crossover film. Captain America vs. Ghost Rider! You heard it here.

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