What kid has it better than Joe Johnston, who’s spent the majority of his adult life playing with dinosaurs, superheroes and monsters? That’s easy: there isn’t one. The director, whose credits include Jumanji, The Rocketeer, October Sky, Jurassic Park 3 and The Wolfman, and who is about to helm The First Avenger: Captain America, has lived out his dreams and, in a sense, relived his childhood.
“I consider myself to be fortunate to be doing what I’m doing,” confesses Johnston. “I don’t want to drop names, but Steven Spielberg once said to me, ‘Go live your life and put your life back into your movies.’ I’ve tried to take that to heart.”
Part of that, he emphasises, is to constantly be shaking things up; to do films that are as different from each other as can be. “I never want to do the same thing twice,” he says. “I don’t think anyone really does. I think you want to look for something that is challenging, something you haven’t done before, and as a result I’m having so much fun now with the actors. Because of that, I try to find a project where it’s more about working with the actors than visual effects.”
The strength of visual effects, he details, is that it allows him to hire talented people to handle that aspect of a film, assuming the director is aware of what is and is not possible. “The thing you can’t turn over to other people,” Johnston muses, “is making the characters come to life, and that’s where I want to focus more of my attention these days. For instance, it was a pleasure to work with the cast I had on The Wolfman, who brought a whole new style to the table. It kept me hopping, because they all work differently, and yet they all have to be in the same movie. You don’t want anyone to feel like they’re in some other kind of film. That was the challenging part and the fun part, figuring out who these people were. And I didn’t have a clear vision of who these characters were when I went into it. I don’t think you ever can if you’re going to let those actors be those characters. Half of it is evolved when this actor takes over that character, and you have to let them bring enough to the table so they feel like they’re making their major contribution.”
Which leads to the question of whether or not The First Avenger: Captain America will fulfill that need, bearing in mind that the lead character is, to put it mildly, larger than life.
“I will say one thing about Captain America,” he notes. “It’s the only ‘superhero’ film I would ever want to do, because he has absolutely no super powers. He really can’t do anything that the perfect human physical specimen can’t do. He can’t fly or see through walls or throw tanks through the air. And the interesting part of that is what happens to this guy emotionally and psychologically when he goes from being a 98-pound weakling to being this perfect human specimen. What does that do to him? And how does that change his life in ways that he had no idea it was going to? Of course there are action sequences and really cool stuff – there’s all that stuff that Marvel fans want to see – but what they are not going to expect is that there is much more to this character than they ever expected from the comic books.”
“But we’re still writing the script for Captain America,” he adds, “and you don’t know what the film is going to be until you start shooting, until you start developing the script. It’s the process that’s going to tell you who this character is going to be, and what this movie is going to be, and that gets back to the whole idea of keeping your vision flexible enough to adapt when a new, good idea comes along. Let’s say you storyboard a sequence, and you show up on the set and you say, ‘I know exactly what this sequence is going to be,’ and then there’s a problem. Maybe a windstorm comes and blows your set away, or your lead actor is sick. It’s not like you can say, ‘Let’s go back to the hotel and think about it.’ No, you have to shoot the scene and if you cling to that vision of that sequence you had storyboarded, you’re dead. You’re not going to get it. But what can you do to take those restrictions that you’ve been handed, and say, ‘How can I make the best possible version of this scene, now that I’m standing on only one leg?’ That, to me, is the fun of the whole process. It’s the white-knuckle version of it.”
He would seem perfectly suited for this film given the nostalgia of such efforts as October Sky and, in particular, The Rocketeer, based on the comics created by the late Dave Stevens. It’s the latter that demonstrates a genuine affinity for the era of Cap.
“I just love the way everything looked in the late Thirties,” he says, “the way women dressed, and I loved the way the music sounded. That’s an era we’ll never have again. And it seems, whether things were really like this or not, things were much cooler than today. I talked to my DP [director of photography] when we started shooting that and I said ‘I want this to look like a postcard’. One of those California postcards from the Thirties that are hand-tinted, and you look at the postcard and you say, ‘Wow, I would really want to live in that place.’ That’s what this whole movie should look like and I think they did a good job of capturing that. It just wasn’t such a cynical time. There was definitely a hopefulness to people. It was right before the Second World War, and it was like the sun was coming up and, then, ‘Oh, no, now it’s going down again.’ We were getting out of the Depression and getting into a World War.”
In a sense, Captain America picks up where The Rocketeer left off: with the world darkening by war, Captain America stands as a bastion of hope.
“We wanted to tell the origin story of the character,” Johnston explains, “but you only get one chance to tell the story. We debated back and forth whether or not it should be period or present day. We realised that if we do it in present day, it’s going to be impossible to go back and tell his origin story. So we said, ‘Let’s bite the bullet and tell how Captain America came to be.’ I mean, studios and money people just think, ‘Oh, period, this is going to cost us more and this is going to be harder to sell,’ but I think, ‘Well, look at Raiders Of The Lost Ark.’ It was 1936, about as period as you can get, and everything worked. I mean, it was just virtually flawless from beginning to end. Not that we’re using that as our blueprint, but we’re certainly inspired by the hopefulness of what they did on that picture.”
And even though the film may feature Captain America’s origin, it will also bring the character into the present, which should be intriguing. “There’s a moment in Captain America,” reveals the director, “where he’s been frozen since 1945, and obviously I’m not giving anything away here. He comes out after being resuscitated in present day, and there’s a moment where – although he doesn’t verbalise it – he’s thinking, ‘Gee, this is what I was fighting for?’ It’s a completely different world to him, like landing on another planet. At the same time, I think he can absolutely stand for something in this modern world. I think he can stand for it because he has the perspective of the way things were. There are plenty of things to fight for these days, there are plenty of things on the side of good to defend, no matter what era we’re talking about. That’s who he is. He’s Captain America.
“There is, of course a challenge to a picture like this,” Johnston closes. “I mean, you want to sell a movie like that to the world, and even though our title is Captain America, we don’t want to wave the flag; we want it to be more about the spirit of America rather than about a guy in a flag suit. It can’t be jingoistic or the rest of the world is going to say, ‘Why do I want to see that?’ Without beating people over the head with the red white and blue, it’s about the spirit within this guy.”
This article originally appeared in the print edition of SciFiNow, issue 39 by Ed Gross. To buy a copy of the magazine or subscribe, go to www.imagineshop.com, or call our subscriptions hotline on +44 (0) 844 844 0245.