Posted on Wednesday, July 20th, 2011 by Peter Sciretta
Over the weekend I got the chance to sit down and talk with Captain America: The First Avenger director Joe Johnston. Johnston started at LucasFilm and created the final designs for iconic characters Boba Fett and Yoda. Johnston made his directorial debut with the fx heavy Honey I Shrunk The Kids. His filmography includes: The Rocketeer, Jumanji, October Sky, Jurassic Park III, Hidalgo, and The Wolfman (and yes, Johnston does talk about his experience on that movie). In addition to Captain America, I also asked Joe when we might expect a Rocketeer blu-ray.
Also, yesterday I posted my interview with screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus (which if you havent, you can read it here). Hit the jump to read my interview with Joe.
Question: How did you become involved with CAPTAIN AMERICA?
Joe Johnston: I had just signed on to do THE WOLFMAN, I mean literally weeks before, and… I basically did THE WOLFMAN, because I needed to go back to work. I had taken four years off just because I had other things I wanted to do and I needed to go back to work and THE WOLFMAN offer came along. The director had left the show, they had three weeks left before they started shooting, so I took the job and it was… I literally had three weeks to do it. Before we had even started shooting…
Question: Yeah, you inherited…
Joe Johnston: I inherited it, so you know and I made a lot of great friends and everything on the show, but it was a nightmare. Right before we started shooting, my agent got a call from Marvel and said, “Hey, do you want to do CAPTAIN AMERICA?” I think, “Well I’m just doing WOLFMAN…” He says, “Yeah, they’ll wait. It’s not for a year and a half.” You know I wish they had called me two weeks earlier you know?
Joe Johnston: I came in and met with them when I got back from the UK and had a great meeting with them. They seemed like really supportive guys. I didn’t have a huge committee; I only had like two guys I had to deal with.
Question: And did you know anything about Captain America going in?
Joe Johnston: I was mildly familiar with the comic book, but I wasn’t a fan of the comic, which I sort of see as an advantage in a way, because it lets me be a little more objective about what works and what doesn’t. I mean I wasn’t familiar with it, but once I decided to do it, I read every Captain America comic that I could get and I sort of researched where he came from and where he started and the various iterations of him over the decades. I wanted the origin of the film to be based on a comic book, but I didn’t want to have it be in your face the way some of them are, you know?
Question: Yeah. Before you started your directing career you designed some iconic characters like Yoda and outfits like Boba Fett. I’m wondering how involved were you in adapting the look of Captain America, like his suit, the ships, and all of that.
Joe Johnston: I had my office moved to the art department just because I knew that’s were I was going to be spending most of my time. It was up a floor and down the hall. I had two offices; I kept one in the executive wing and the other one in the art department where I spent all of my time. That’s sort of where I come from, so I wanted to just monitor it you know? Daniel Simon, who was our primary vehicle designer, has got a book called COSMIC MOTORS that showcases his work, but he is this amazing designer. He did virtually all of our vehicles and aircrafts along with the submarine and all of that stuff. He’s sort of the guy I wanted to be when I was designing stuff for STAR WARS. I worked as closely with those guys as I could just sort of monitoring the stuff, but with somebody like Daniel you just sort of send him off in a direction and let him generate stuff. It was amazing.
Question: Definitely. Five of your films have been set in the past. I’m wondering, what attracts you to period pieces?
Joe Johnston: Well this period particularly is appealing to me, because visually the 30’s and the 40’s feels to me like it was a time when people cared more about what stuff looked like, everything was designed… It was sort of post deco age. It was more about form than about function. Everything just seemed to be styled. Clothes, automobiles, and everything just seemed to have a look that was consistent. It seemed like it all existed within a world whereas today our culture doesn’t have a design motif, it’s all so mixed. I’m sure I’m getting this from movies and from photographs that are carefully composed and everything, but it just feels like that was a time when things were designed and people cared about them. That’s primarily the reason why I love it. It was also the period of the great comic book serials with COMMANDER CODY and all of that stuff where all of the Republic serials were sort of the genesis of a lot of things like even RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Steven will tell you that it was based on that B movie serial thing. It was just a great time.
Question: I love how the film doesn’t feel like it’s not necessarily set in that period, but a heightened stylized version of that period.
Joe Johnston: Yeah, I definitely… Obviously it takes place in the 40’s and there are lots of scenes that reflect that, but there is also a whole other world that is sort of 40’s futurism. Like all of Schmidt’s stuff is sort of beyond anything they had then, but that’s okay, because he’s a super villain genius scientist; he can design anything he wants. (Laughs)
Question: You balance the tones so well that it feels possible. You have such a weird tone in the film, but you pull it off of like the jokiness. I was wondering if you could talk about that.
Joe Johnston: Right, well the thing about the tone like that is if you create this world, it’s the Steve Rogers world of 1942, as long as you play by those rules… You can create your own rules in a world like that where Schmidt can have this V18 car and he can fly this giant thing. As long as you can ground that particular world in reality, as long as you play by the rules that you create for that universe and don’t do anything that destroys the laws of physics or anything like that… I think an audience will invest itself and say to themselves “This is reality. This is a form of reality. It’s a heightened, altered 1942, but it’s the reality of this film.”
Question: Working with Marvel seems like it’s more of a collaboration then when you are making OCTOBER SKY or whatever. I was wondering if you cold speak towards that and what it’s like.
Joe Johnston: Well the Marvel guys have a system that works really well and it’s the way that I wish the studios worked. They hire a filmmaker and they understand the film that the filmmaker wants to make and then they help them make it. If there is anything that does not fit into the Marvel Universe, they will say, “You are going slightly outside of the lines here.” In CAPTAIN AMERICA there wasn’t anything that they were uncomfortable with. It’s all based on the character of Steve Rogers and who this guy is. He’s this kid who is constantly rejected, he wants to fight for his country, nobody wants him… That’s the heart of the story. As long as you don’t mess with that template, you can pretty much do anything. They let me add stuff that was hugely expensive, but it related to the story and it helped tell the story. The whole thing with zip lining down to the train was not in the original script at all and that whole sequence just needed something to sort of give it an action beat to start it. There were all kinds of stuff like that. They let me do all kinds of things that were not in the script, were not probably in the budget, but they could also recognize that “Hey they is making the story cooler. Let’s do it.” It was really great. It was like a dream job in a way. They were very supportive.
Question: Very cool. You mentioned the action, I was wondering… When you see the action in this movie it’s not action that we are used to coming out of TRANSFORMERS and I’m not saying anything bad about them, but it seems like more of a callback to RAIDERS where you can actually see the geography of the scene. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.
Joe Johnston: Well I think what you are recognizing and relating to here is that we shot this entire film on super wide lenses. We didn’t use any long lenses. Te longest lens we had was probably a 27mm and what that does, it forces you to see the whole world. If you want to do a close up of somebody, the camera practically has to be inches away. You can’t go back and put a long lens on, which is easy because you are excluding that world when you do that. It was a choice for a lot of reasons. Most of the classic films that were made during this time didn’t even have long lenses. They didn’t have zoom lenses you know? I don’t know if they had anything over a 40mm, but audiences do recognize it, you recognized it where there’s something about this film where you are seeing everything. You can’t hide anything, because with a 17mm lens you are literally right here, but you are seeing almost the whole room and it aloud us to give it that more classic look that you don’t see a lot anymore. Falling back and using a long lens is easy; you can choose exactly what you see and not have to worry about anything else.
Question: It definitely brings you back. I wish more films were shot that way.
Joe Johnston: Yeah, me too.
[publicist signals to wrap it up]
Question: People would kill me if I didn’t ask about this, but when can we expect THE ROCKETEER on BluRay?
Joe Johnston: They keep saying it’s coming, but I don’t know. I haven’t talked to Disney about it, but you know I went to the 20th anniversary screening the other night at the El Capitan and they said, “Hey we are going to a BluRay. We are definitely doing a BluRay.” “Well when?” That’d be great. The print that they had was the cleanest I have ever seen it, a new digital print. It looked great, it really looked great.
Question: Hopefully it’s close.
Joe Johnston: Yeah, let’s hope so.
Question: Well thank you very much. They told me to wrap it up. I really appreciate it.
Joe Johnston: Thanks. Thanks, Peter. I’m glad you liked the film.
Question: I did.
Joe Johnston: That helps.