Wolfman in London: Joe Johnston resurrects a Universal horror legend

Werewolf? No, whenwolf…as in, when is director Joe Johnston's remake of the 1941 Universal classic The Wolf Man being released?

That was the question among the lycanthropic legions of horror buffs, who watched The Wolfman—one word—starring Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving, wander like a werewolf through the moors, unmoored. Universal in 2007 had announced the release date as Nov. 12, 2008, under original director Mark Romanek. But after Romanek left over creative differences in January 2008 and Johnston came on, the release got pushed three months to Feb, 12, 2009, then to April 3, then to Nov. 6, and finally to Friday, Feb. 12, 2010.

And now in late December 2009, just before Christmas, a genial Johnston, 59, is still doing final touches. "We're still doing ADR," he explains, using the common term for "automated dialogue replacement" or "additional dialogue recording," a.k.a. the standard practice of dubbing soundtrack dialogue that was recorded inaudibly or changed after shooting wrapped. "Emily Blunt is on a picture in New York and she was unable to do her ADR this week [as scheduled]. So we're sort of scrambling because she can't do it until January. She only has four hours worth of ADR, but it's going to be a race to finish now." As well, in November, esteemed editors Mark Goldblatt and Walter Murch both came aboard to re-cut Dennis Virkler's original edit.

Johnston, who directed the hits Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and Jumanji (1995), the critically acclaimed October Sky (1999) and the cult classic The Rocketeer (1991), sounds weary but unworried. "It was a slightly odd situation," he concedes. "Dennis Virkler had done a fantastic job getting it from the raw footage to the [draft] cut, but it wasn't doing quite what the studio wanted it to do and I had my issues as well, so they decided to make a change. And when I heard that Walter Murch was available—and I've known Walter for 25 years up at Lucasfilm—I said, 'If you can get him, do not hesitate to make that happen.'"

All this last-minute agony will be forgotten, of course, should the movie click with horror fans, and it stands in ironic contrast to how long the film has been gestating. A remake of the Lon Chaney, Jr. classic, which was written by Curt Siodmak and directed by George Waggner, the new version was a longtime dream of Del Toro, who in addition to starring as the cursed Lawrence Talbot also shepherded the film for years, and has a producer credit.

"Benicio had said to me that The Wolf Man was his favorite movie when he was growing up," Johnston confides. "In fact, he said that one of the reasons he wanted to get into acting was so that he could eventually, someday, play the Wolf Man. He came to the project with his own vision of what the character is and who Lawrence Talbot is."

Johnston, for his part, had his own vision for the film, and believes he inherited the job after Romanek left because "I came in and I told them what was wrong with the script [by Andrew Kevin Walker of Se7en fame]. And I said, 'Here's what you need to do if you're going to make this picture for around $100 million in 84 days—you've got to do this, this, and this,' and I think [the studio] recognized that I had made three or four movies of this size and that I knew what I was talking about."

One issue, for instance, was the original script's gore quotient, which, he says jokingly, "was probably too violent for an NC-17 rating. It was just way out there, and I think everyone recognized, including the studio, that as much of a taste that the fanboy audience has for that kind of thing, it was probably [appealing to] a very limited audience."

Even before Johnston was hired, the director says, screenwriter David Self (the 1999 remake of The Haunting, the 2002 graphic-novel adaptation Road to Perdition) had done a rewrite that "put the relationships back into the script; he really made them interesting and strong and tragic and romantic. I think Andrew Kevin Walker should be very happy with what David did to his first draft. He made it a script for a much broader audience, I think." He also added 17 pages after Johnston came on.

As before, the story has an Americanized Lawrence Talbot returning home to the U.K. (Wales, specifically, in the original) to reunite with his estranged father (Hopkins here, Claude Rains originally). He becomes interested in Gwen Conliffe—an antique-shop owner (Evelyn Ankers) in the original, his murdered brother's fiancée (Blunt) here—and on encountering a werewolf contracts the curse. Unlike the 1941 film, which was set in the present day, the remake takes place in 19th-century Victorian England, and adds Scotland Yard inspector Francis Aberline (Weaving), a fictionalized version of the real-life London Metropolitan Police Chief Inspector Frederick "Francis" Abberline, one of the main constabulary on the Jack the Ripper case.

Johnston had only three weeks of pre-production, he says, because the studio "had already spent so much money and had gone down this road with Mark Romanek, and said, 'We have to start shooting the movie at this point.' I think a lot of it involved possibly actors' contracts and a release date. Fortunately for me, Mark Romanek made a lot of good choices. He cast some great actors"—the three leads were all aboard by this point—“I was able to cast a few more good ones, and I was able to change a few of the locations that I didn't think were great."

The movie's final locales include, he says, "the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, up in a place called Chatsworth, three-and-a-half hours north of London; [the village of] Castle Combe; and the village of Blackmore. We did a lot of stuff down in [the protected national park of] Dartmoor, on the moors" in Devon, England. Studio work was done at Pinewood Studios, in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire.

The quick pace tested him but was liberating, Johnston declares. "Sometimes when you have all the prep time in the world and you're given all the money and everything you want, you can have this vision that basically is cast in concrete. And what happens is, when you get on the set and things start to go wrong, you have this death-grip on your vision. At some point you have to recognize, 'OK, I have to be flexible about my vision because what I thought I had, I don't have. I've got something different, so how do I adapt to those changes?’”

Some of that adaptation was taking place in the editing room even as Johnston spoke. Editor Goldblatt "was doing stuff that I didn't want Walter [Murch] to do, because the studio said, 'Can we try this, can we try that?' and I said, 'Yeah, we can try it, but Walter's doing the official cut, Walter's doing my cut.' I said, 'Look, why don't you hire Mark and put him down in this editing suite where he has access to the footage, and he can try what he wants. He might come up with some great stuff and we'll put it in the cut. Let Mark do his thing and I will sit here with Walter and we'll be cutting the official version of the movie.' Mark came up with some interesting things that ended up in the [final] cut, and there was a lot of stuff he did that was not in the cut."

Neither testing nor gypsy fortune-tellers can predict how well a movie will play with audiences, but Johnston—who says he took a four-year work hiatus in 2004 "because I was so burnt out after Hidalgo" (his unsuccessful Viggo Mortensen horse movie)—isn't stressing.

"I've got my next job and I'm not going to worry about the success or the failure of the picture," he reflects. "I can only use my instincts and say, 'I think this is the best version of that scene. This is the best take. This is the best piece of music for this scene.' And I can't start second-guessing myself and thinking, 'What does the audience want to see? What does the studio think is the best solution for this?' You can't start doing that, because after a while it all becomes a blur and you forget what your original instinct was."

That "next job" is the much-anticipated The First Avenger: Captain America, featuring the Marvel Comics superhero created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1940 for Marvel's forerunner, Timely Comics.

"We're in prep," Johnston says. "Rick Heinrichs is production-designing and we're set up down in Manhattan Beach [California]. It's the part of the process that I love the most," he enthuses. "We have eight or ten really talented artists, and we all just sit around all day and draw pictures and say, 'Hey, wouldn't it be cool if we could do this?' It's that phase of the production where money doesn't matter: ‘Let's put all the greatest stuff up on the wall and [then later] see what we can afford.'" The film, he says at this early stage, will begin "in 1942, 1943" during World War II. "The stuff in the ’60s and ’70s [comic books] we're sort of avoiding. We're going back to the ’40s, and then forward to what they're doing with Captain America now."

In the meantime, he's got his current film to finish—since even a director who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become outcast if The Wolfman falls behind when the winter moon is bright.