Joe Johnston Talks About Making The Wolfman: Indecision Is A Killer

Today's lesson is: indecision will cost you. As the long saga of Universal's new version of The Wolfman unfolded, it often seemed to outside observers like the studio and producers didn't know what movie they wanted to make. Original director Mark Romanek walked at the last minute, Joe Johnston was hired to replace him, then the standard shoot was followed up with more reshoots than is usually the case. There were reports of multiple edits going at once and replacement scores, all of which contributed to the suspicion that the film was a mess.

Now Joe Johnston is talking about the making of the film with unusual candor for a director with his picture still in theaters. He confirms some of the speculation about the making of the film, underscoring what you'd think would be a basic rule for movies based on setpieces and effects: know what you're making before you make it.

Johnston talked to Time Out about the film, and is fairly revealing. The short form is that, more than once, changes were made to the script that resulted in significant extra expenditure of time and money.

"One of the issues with the previous director [Mark Romanek] was that he had said he needed another 20 days," Johnston says. "And that became one of the areas of disagreement that led to [the studio] looking for a new director." Johnston got the gig because he said he could shoot the script in 80 days as Universal wanted. But then seventeen pages were added, eventually stretching the production to the length Romanek wanted originally.

But after Johnston came on four weeks before shooting and Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self performed a quick, seemingly minor rewrite, further changes were wrought. "In the original script," Johnston says, "there was a much longer sequence at the end and one in London where the Wolfman is loose." Both of those sequences were cut to save money. And the film didn't work without them. "We shot the film, put it together and it was immediately apparent why those sequences were in the story, and so we went back to shoot a bunch of new stuff for the end."

Then two versions of the ending were shot, each one involving the death of a different character. "When we went back to shoot the new stuff, we enhanced one [of the endings], because our suspicion was it was going to be the more dynamic ending. So we shot new stuff for that, the B version, which is now the version in the film."

The changes often show in the final cut, which is edited for speed and efficiency rather than character and logic. There are places where the movie almost works, but many more where it isn't even close. And after it's all said and done, none of the characters stand out at all — you realize the only reason to be interested in Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is that you know he's going to turn into a wolf.

How many of the problems were endemic to the script as originally written, and how many were created by the herky-jerky production? It's amazing that some of these problems come into play over and over, even on a production staffed by total veterans. I don't know if I should be horrified that these mistakes can be made, or find them all reassuringly humanizing. I think I'm going with horrified.

And while the push and pull between money and time always comes into play on a film, Johnston makes one admission that is worrisome: "That has happened to me several times: you try and save money, and you say the movie will work without this, then you find something is lacking after you shoot, [and] you need to go back and do it."