'Avenger' auteur: Joe Johnston shapes a muscular 'Captain America'


Captain America: The First Avenger marks Joe Johnston’s initial foray into the Marvel movie universe. But it isn’t the veteran director’s first comic-book-derived film. In 1991, Johnston brought the jet-pack-wearing daredevil The Rocketeer—created by celebrated comics artist Dave Stevens—to the big screen in a lively adventure that failed to ignite at the box office at the time, but today enjoys a strong fanboy following. Given the popularity of the Marvel brand right now, it’s safe to assume that Captain America will do robust business right out of the gate. Johnston took some time out of his busy post-production schedule to answer a few questions about his eighth feature.

Film Journal International: Did you have any particular affinity for
Captain America before signing on to direct this movie?

Joe Johnston: I was certainly aware of the character but had not been a regular reader. I didn't see this as a disadvantage of any kind. I was able to approach the character with a more objective viewpoint than someone who would call himself a fan. Once I signed on to the project, I did a lot of research, focusing on the various iterations of the character since the first issue in 1940.

FJI: Both of the comic-book movies you’ve directed to date have been period pieces. What are the challenges associated with that approach versus a contemporary setting?
JJ: Period comic-book adaptations can be more challenging for action sequences and pop-culture references, especially in trying to reach a younger audience. I always try to be true to the period while making a film that feels contemporary in its style. Both Captain America and The Rocketeer take place in roughly the same period—the late ’30s and early ’40s. I've always loved the visual elements of the period: the cars, architecture, clothing, and the overall sense of style that we seem to have lost. As a society we used to seem to care what things looked like. We took care to build beauty and passion into the world around us, and decisions didn't seem to be based on the bottom line.

The Rocketeer was a largely unknown character when that movie was released, whereas Captain America enjoys a considerably higher profile. Does that familiarity make him an easier character to base a movie around?

JJ: A bigger fanbase for a certain character actually makes it more difficult. There are not only preconceived notions, there are elements of the character that are practically held sacred by fans. The challenge is in reinterpreting the character from the comic book to the movie screen. You can get away with a lot on a comic-book page, and the reader will fill in the blanks. Filmmakers don't have that luxury.

FJI: Marvel Studios has worked hard to build a shared cinematic universe that all of their characters inhabit. Did you have to concern yourself with maintaining that larger continuity while making Captain America?
JJ: There are threads that run through all the films in the Marvel universe. I had more flexibility because Captain America takes place in a different period. There are references to other films that the fans will spot but they won't bump for someone unfamiliar with the Marvel universe. Basically I think all the films have to stand on their own merit.

FJI: The glimpses of the skinny, pre-super-serum Steve Rogers we see in the movie’s trailer are quite striking, particularly given how buff Chris Evans is as Captain America. How did you achieve that particular effect?

JJ: We used two major techniques. Most of the shots were done by an L.A. company called LOLA that specializes in digital "plastic surgery." The technique involved shrinking Chris in all dimensions. We shot each skinny Steve scene at least four times; once like a normal scene with Chris and his fellow actors in the scene, once with Chris alone in front of a green screen so his element could be reduced digitally, again with everyone in the scene but with Chris absent so that the shrunken Steve could be re-inserted into the scene, and finally with a body double mimicking Chris's actions in case the second technique were required. When Chris had to interact with other characters in the scene, we had to either lower Chris or raise the other actors on apple boxes or elevated walkways to make skinny Steve shorter in comparison. For close-ups, Chris' fellow actors had to look at marks on his chin that represented where his eyes would be after the shrinking process, and Chris had to look at marks on the tops of the actor's head to represent their eyes. These marks then had to be digitally removed in post-production.

The second technique involved grafting Chris's head onto the body double. This technique was used mostly when Chris was sitting or lying down, or when a minimum of physical acting was required, although the body double was an actor in his own right. Unfortunately, the body double also proved to be too large and we usually had to shrink his element before we could graft Chris's shrunken head onto the body. Both techniques were time-consuming and immensely complicated for the visual-effects team, but the end result is quite amazing.

FJI: You’ve appeared at a few conventions promoting the movie. Have you enjoyed the interactions you’ve had with comic-book fans?
JJ: I like interacting with people who love movies. If they're also comic-book fans, that's great. I like to challenge the fans' preconceived notions about the character. Just because a character is developed in the comics in a certain way, it doesn't mean it's right for the big screen. I've found that the fans are usually smart and passionate about a lot more than comics.

FJI: Captain America has proven to be a difficult character to translate to film. Did you screen any of the past attempts?
JJ: I watched a little of each of the previous attempts. They were made-for-TV movies and didn't have the scope of a Marvel feature, so I'll blame the shortcomings on a minimal budget. There was full agreement from everyone at Marvel that if we were going to make this version, the origin story of Captain America, we were pulling out all the stops and doing it right. The end result is a film that is incredibly rich in imagery. I got to build or travel to just about any environment I wanted to tell the story.

FJI: Are there any other comic-book heroes you’d be interested in bringing to the big screen?
JJ: I'd love to make a sequel to The Rocketeer. The film didn't do as well at the box office as we all hoped, but it has endured and generated a following. It was great fun and I'd love to re-explore Cliff Secord's world. If there are other comic-book heroes who have as human a story as Steve Rogers, I'd be interested. Too many comic-book movies rely on spectacle when the story is weak. With Captain America, we got the story firing on all cylinders first so the spectacle was fully justified. More than anything, I want everyone in the audience to sink into the alternate reality of the 1940s, enjoy the ride and come out of the theatre humming the Captain America theme. The movie is a helluva lot of fun.

To read
FJI's feature on Captain America producer and Marvel president of production Kevin Feige, click here.