Joe Johnston is a director perhaps second only to Steven Spielberg whose films seem to capture the spirit of America in a sincere and inspirational way; from The Rocketeer to October Sky to Hidalgo, his films frequently feature characters and storylines that embody patriotism and ingenuity inherent to the American dream without cynicism or equivocation. All of which is why he was an ideal candidate for Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel’s latest superhero story, about a plucky but puny kid from Brooklyn who becomes a one-man army on the front lines of WWII. Movies.com sat down with Johnston at the recent Los Angeles press day for Captain America, where the director talks about bringing the iconic hero to life, and discussed his ongoing interest in filmmaking that finds a balance between American idealism and just plain good entertainment.
Movies.com: Having come off of The Wolfman, a film that you inherited and had to shepherd through a difficult production, what sort of lessons did you learn that you were able to apply as you came into Captain America?
Joe Johnston: The main thing was, never agree to do a project when you’ve got three weeks of prep. I mean, it was virtually impossible to make the movie I wanted to make, because so much had already been done and set in stone. But on this week, I got 30 weeks of prep, and 14 weeks of it was in the UK, right there where the sets were being built and the costumes were being designed, so it was just like black and white. Plus, I had a very supportive team here with the Marvel guys – I mean, they were really supportive – and they pretty much let me make the film I wanted to make. So that was a big difference.
Movies.com: When you’re creating a tale that is so interconnected with a sense of patriotism and Americana, how careful do you have to be to make sure that the depiction of that is not corny? Or is there more license because it’s set in the 1940s?
JJ: I didn’t want this to be a propaganda tool, and I didn’t want to wave a flag too much. Because while a small audience might be really responsive to that, an international audience wouldn’t be, and I was always conscious of making this more about the guy himself – more about his determination and his spirit to do the right thing than to say he’s an American. The title is probably the most American thing about the movie, I hope. You could take the story and transplant this character in any country and hopefully it would resonate with anyone. So the most American scene is probably the USO show, and that was fun to do, just because we had a great song, 20 beautiful dancing girls, and three days to shoot it. It was a blast (laughs).
Movies.com: Captain America is kind of like the Superman of the Marvel world – a very upright and blandly wholesome character as opposed to someone brooding or introspective. How tough was it to build in the character details that made him interesting and multidimensional?
JJ: The thing that appealed to me about him is that he’s the guy next door. He’s anybody. In a way, he’s less than the guy next door because he’s a guy who couldn’t get arrested, and it’s his determination that makes him interesting. But I recognized and all of us on the filmmaking team recognized that we had to like this guy as skinny Steve; it was so important that everything that we have to learn about him and who he is, we had to do in the first act before he goes through that transformation. And the challenge afterwards is that he had to then retain everything that he was in the first act; he’d gotten the body he always wanted and now he can do anything and he’s a perfect fighting machine, but they still won’t let him go. So he had to be who he was as skinny Steve.
But we had a version of the script, and we even shot a scene where because we always thought, okay, here’s a guy who hates bullies, and he’s been picked on all of his life, and we wrote a scene where he gets picked on again after he becomes Captain America; they’re making fun of him because of his USO suit that he’s wearing. He goes berserk and he starts punching them out and he takes out eight guys in a bar. And it just didn’t seem to fit who he was; it seemed so out of context. What we recognized was that we wanted to see that scene – we wanted to be that guy who had been picked on – but the audience, it didn’t feel right somehow. And there were a couple of other things that in the editing process we toned him down, because we got a comment during one of the test screenings [saying,] gee, he says he hated bullies, then he just becomes this killing machine! So we pulled back on a lot of that stuff, and we made sure that it never looked like he was just enjoying taking out a HYDRA guy; he did it because he had to. But it’s really interesting and you really have to walk a fine line. The audience’s perception of things, when you’ve got the script, you’ve got your rough cut, you think this is who the thing is, and an audience sees it and they go, well, wait a minute, that’s not Steve Rogers! It’s weird. Not that you necessarily always fine-tune it for the audience, but you have to sort of walk a line sometimes.
Movies.com: How much of Captain America’s comics mythology did you have to make sure you included, and how much were you unbeholden to it and able to make decisions just for the sake of the movie?
JJ: I didn’t really worry about the Marvel Universe too much, because this story being set in the ‘40s does have an opportunity to standalone by itself without really linking it to the other films. I mean, there are references to it, for sure, the cube and Howard Stark, and a fan will see things that relate to the other films. But I didn’t really want to get into that too much, because it not only stands alone from the other films in the Marvel Universe, it stands lone from the other films of the summer – I really wanted it to be recognized as something different. And it’s a very busy summer; there’s a lot of movies that are trying to get the same audience in to buy tickets, and I just wanted this to feel different and sort of stand alone.
Movies.com: The ending of this movie, however, does have to lead into The Avengers. But there are some aspects of the personal story that go unresolved because of that. How did you figure out how to connect the two and still create a fully satisfying, standalone story?
JJ: [SPOILER ALERT] Well, the key to that I think was having the thing that he is most concerned about – that after 70 years, there’s a million questions that you could ask – why am I still alive? Did we win the war? All of that stuff. But to have his only statement be, “I had a date,” it in a way totally sums up the romance of it. It’s like that was the most important thing to him, even though she’s now in her 80s and they’re never going to be together. It’s sort of his resolution of the romance, I think. [END SPOILERS]
Movies.com: Having done a series of films that encapsulate a certain kind of American spirit, is that something you get offered as a result of having done it successfully, or do you have a personal, creative interest in that idea or aesthetic?
JJ: With this picture in mind, it’s a period that I really love. I love the ‘30s and ‘40s, because anything was possible; postwar in the ‘50s, we were recovering from it and things were different and we went into sort of a different place, but I do love the period. And I do love that American spirit, without bludgeoning the audience with it. I’d love an audience to come out of the theater saying, “what a great guy, what a great character – I had fun watching the movie.” That’s really the important thing for me. But yeah, I do tend to skew slightly toward the I won’t say necessarily the lighter side, but I appreciate stories like this. October Sky is another one, sort of the underdog story about a guy who triumphs because he doesn’t give up, and it’s the same sort of thing. I think it’s just a character trait that I appreciate – I guess that’s the best way to put it.