The Wolfman isn’t the first thriller to take on the “beast within.” For that matter, it’s not even the first werewolf thriller to be called The Wolfman (see: 1941). Yet in some strange way, that’s precisely what I found so refreshing – even fulfilling – about the movie. This is familiar territory. It’s Old School – so much so, in fact, that the color has been all but drained from many of the film’s key sequences, rendering it effectively black and white.
There’s even a sequence in which the music builds, the editing quickens, and we witness the dramatic, accelerated rising of a full moon. Forget intricate CG; Even celestial events are worthy of a little awe here.
In an era where most filmmakers seem to think that the more special effects the better, where one CG army goes up against another CG army, there is something so surprisingly hefty and tangible about Wolfman that it led me to look up the bio of its director, Joe Johnston. The man behind such movies as The Rocketeer, Jumanji and October Sky (as well as, oddly enough, the CG tailspin that was Jurassic Park III), Johnston is clearly a guy with a big love for genre films and special effects events. Look further down the resume, and you realize he worked high up on the special effects teams for the first three Star Wars films, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark and the original Battlestar Galactica. This is a man who knows special effects from the inside out. (More at Techland: The Nerdy Valentine’s Day Guide)
The movie studio was kind enough to grab Johnston away from a Wolfman press junket for 10 minutes so we could talk Indy, Skywalker and werewolves:
When I look at your special effects background, having worked on some of the most visually exciting films of all time, do you think that your experience during that model-oriented chapter of cinematic history has helped you at all today, in avoiding the pitfalls that so many films make today in letting the CG run wild?
Today, I feel as if I understand visual effects enough to hand them off to other visual effects guys. I’ve really became an actor geek, and that’s where I put most of may attention…I don’t know if it’s a conscious thing, but maybe I do try to make sure there is plenty of other stuff built around the effects. That was true in Star Wars and Indiana Jones. In this picture specifically I didn’t want to see a CG Wolfman running around and doing things that you might see in Val Helsing. I wanted people to think this is grounded in reality and I think that’s something that gets overlooked when you can produce visual effects that can do everything, there’s this tendency to take advantage of that and you lost sight of the story you’re trying to tell. Just because you can do everything doesn’t mean you should.
But the key is that you want people coming out saying, ‘That’s a great story,’ or ‘a great movie.’ If they are walking out saying, ‘What great visual effects,’ that probably means you’ve failed somewhere.
You certainly play with the big reveal in this film, rather than putting it all out there right away…
Oh yeah, during that first transformation in the crypt, where Sir John says “They won’t kill you but they’ll blame you,” I knew that I didn’t want audiences to see what’s happening. I wanted to keep him in the shadows, I didn’t ever want that shot where he steps out from behind a tree and you can see him clearly in the moonlight. I wanted it to play out through glimpses, as he’s destroying the villagers and pulling arms off people. I wanted glimpses that then offered a real clear picture of what he was capable of, so you could assemble a visual rather than just being given a full frontal shot.
Obviously with werewolves, there’s a Jekyll and Hyde thing going on, but The Wolfman seems very conscious of the issues of guilt and culpability. Where does the man end, where does the wolf begin, is that distinction ever a constant, and how do you hold an animal accountable for what it does? What rights does the man deserve the next morning?
What is it about werewolves that continue to captivate us?
I think the key is that it’s all the same beast. In this movie, Lawrence Talbot is both the hero and the villain. The black and white, all at the same time. And I think that’s true of all of us. We have a beast inside, and we all lead double lives. It’s the difference between what you say and what you mean, what you have and what you want. We all have a dark side and we all have secrets, and in that way I think Lawrence Talbot is an everyman.
What are your favorite werewovles?
The original Wolfman with Lon Chaney, that’s probably my favorite of all the Universal monster movies. In that one, it was more of a dark subconscious thrill: What if I could become this powerful animal and race through the streets at night and seek out revenge on everyone. It’s a pure fantasy of becoming this all-powerful beast, of tapping into that inner power.
You say you’re an actor geek now, what was it like to just sit back and watch two actors of the caliber of Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro bite into this material?
Oh, it was great. I really wanted them both to have as much freedom as they wanted, to take the material and run with it. And we pretty much stuck to the script, we only had three weeks of prep, but I didn’t want to overanalyze everything we were going to do. I wanted to trust my own instincts. And I think we all felt here as if we were on this experimental student film, so let’s really take some risks and see what we come up with. And I let them bring that forward.
What jumps out most, as a scene or a moment that was derived from some of their improvising?
There’s a scene where Sir John is leaving an asylum after a scene with Lawrence and as he walks out he’s playing a harmonica as he walks down the hall. And [Anthony Hopkins] just happened to have that harmonica with him, and he started playing it. And I asked him, ‘What made you think of doing this?’ And he seemed to think, ‘I’m at a mad house, surrounded by all this insanity, and my character thinks that by playing this religious hymn he could wart off evil spirits.’ And I think it’s this great moment where you realize this guy is just mad, you can just see it, even as he’s trying to wart off evil spirits.
We just went through a big vampire kick, and here we are with a werewolf film – what’s the next monster that’s going to come back into vogue?
I’ve always wanted to find a great, great ghost story. Something genuine, where the fear just fills the theater. Everyone believes in zombies and vampires and werewolves, but not everyone believes in ghosts. And it’s so hard to make a movie like that, that really draws you in. It’s no easy task. My all-time favorite is The Uninvited.
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