Johnston, Joe (The Wolfman)

In a further continuation of our coverage of the The Wolfman (see our interviews with stars Benicio Del Toro here and Anthony Hopkins here), Dread Central sat down with Joe Johnston, the film’s director, this past Saturday in Beverly Hills, CA, for the film’s press junket and chatted with him regarding the flick (which opens this Friday, February 12, via Universal Pictures/Relativity Media).

Johnston, whose previous directorial efforts include the Universal films October Sky, Jurassic Park III, and Hidalgo and who as an art director for Raiders of the Lost Ark won an Academy Award, proved to be affable and quite direct when it came to the production’s challenges as well as the changes which manifested upon his inclusion in the project.

Director Joe Johnston Talks talks the Transformative Aspects of The Wolfman

Originally he (the character of Lawrence Talbot, portrayed by Benicio Del Toro) was a little bit of a hellraiser,” said Johnston in regard to the angle originally intended by director Mark Romanek, who left the production just before principal photography commenced. “Lawrence was this actor who went out and partied all night and went to bed with three women at once and 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 both sides – the hero and the villain – we should do something a little more noble.

Fair enough, and a change that is more in keeping with the original portrayal of the tragic lycanthrope by actor Lon Chaney, Jr., in the original 1941 film.

As for the meat of any werewolf flick (and most likely why you’re reading this), Dread questioned the production’s decisions as they pertained to the use of computer generated imagery over practical effects, not only in the transformations and realization of the titular creature (which at times lean completely towards the former), but also in the delivery of the film’s less-than-fantastical creatures, most notably scenes involving a bear and a stag.

Said Johnston of their approach; “It was difficult to have a real bear and one the size that I wanted to have. We could have used this bear that’s almost a pet from Czechoslovakia, but to get it across the borders and to get all of the permits signed and everything, it turned out to be a lot easier to have a CG bear, and it was a bear that actually already existed in the computer. It was basically the bear from The Golden Compass. We changed its face, but the data was already there. The stag was also already there from some other project, and again we changed it, too. But to get a stag and be able to stake it to the ground and actually have it pull against the ropes and everything was more than we wanted to do with a real animal.

As far as the transformation goes,” stated the director of the CG metamorphosis of the wolfman, “I know that Rick (Baker) originally thought that he would do them with mechanisms and prosthetics and rubber like he had done them in An American Werewolf in London, and nobody does that kind of stuff better than Rick, obviously. But the problem I had was that I was coming in starting three weeks before principal photography and in order to have Rick do the transformation, I would have to decide almost immediately exactly what the stages of the transformation were (to be), and by letting them be CG I could make those decisions during post-production.

So, time constraints?” we asked.

Exactly,” said Johnston.

This being a remake of what is considered a monster classic, we were curious as to Johnston’s approach to the look of the film as well – something as deep-seated within our pop culture collective as the original’s transformative sequences.

This movie should be more about the shadows than the light,” Johnston recalled telling director of photography Shelley Johnson. “I want you to create something we haven’t seen in a long time. I want it to look like a classic Gothic horror film, not necessarily old-fashioned, but I want it to reference what movies like this used to look like. Shelley showed me some tests that were beyond what I was hoping for, and it’s the kind of thing where I felt that I was really able to delegate the look of the photography and the production design (as shepherded by Rick Heinrichs), and that’s my favorite thing about the film — how it looks.

Stay tuned to Dread Central in the coming days for our conversation with The Wolfman‘s FX man Rick Baker, and check out our coverage from last night’s rainy red carpet premiere of The Wolfman in Hollywood.

Sean Decker

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