Joe Johnston, the director of “October Sky,” “The Rocketeer” and this summer’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” has a soft spot in his heart for the Steve Rogers musical montage. The 60-year-old director lights up at the mention of the movie’s extended USO scene, a musical number he described with a grin as his favorite scene in the movie.
“I love the whole song and dance number; it’s just so much fun,” said Johnston as he sat down with CBR News to discuss the upcoming movie. With a song by Alan Menken and a line of chorus girls, not only was the number fun to direct, according to Johnston, it also gave him the theater bug.
“If [Menken] comes up with nine good songs, I’m ready to go! I’d love it!” said Johnston, joking about the possibility of his next film being a musical.
Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures’ “Captain America: The First Avenger” releases nationwide July 22; Marvel’s second superhero movie out this summer, Johnston confirmed that the Studio was planning a Comic Con premiere for the film. Citing “Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark,” one of the first films he worked on as an art director, as “Captain America’s” template, Johnston elaborated that he specifically choose “Raiders” as a model due to its quick pace and overall enjoyment factor.
“The thing I love about ‘Raiders’ is that it’s fun from beginning to end. Even the quiet parts when they are sitting on the ship talking to each other, you are so invested in the characters that its just structured perfectly,” said Johnston. Pointing to “Star Wars,” another for which film Johnston worked on the visual effects, he continued, “Even ‘Star Wars’ I can watch and when they go into the Death Star to creep around, it’s like, ‘Get through this! Get them to the next thing!’ There is no moment in ‘Raiders’ like that.”
For Johnston, “Captain America” has the distinction of being the second comic book World War II-era movie he has had the pleasure of directing, the first being the 1991 film “The Rocketeer.” Johnston, who asserted he did not have “Rocketeer” in mind at all when he signed on to direct Marvel’s star-spangled hero, said even he was surprised by how similar the two films were — not just in tone and subject matter, but down to the individual details.
“Its not that the movies are similar, but I recognize things in ‘The Rocketeer’ that I had totally forgotten about — like, the secret bookcase is in ‘Captain America,'” said Johnston. Laughing, he added, “If you watch the two films back to back, you would recognize them. There’s like four or five things that were like, ‘Wow! That’s not intentional, I didn’t mean to do that!'”
The 1930s and ’40s are a period of intense fascination for Johnston, who attributed his interest in the time to his visual and artistic background.
“I wasn’t alive then, and I’m probably getting this from the movies and the photographs that were probably very carefully staged — it wasn’t all glorious, but it just felt like people cared about the way things looked. The clothes were fantastic. They had great fashion in the ’40s. I mean, men wore hats, women wore dresses! It was great!” Johnston enthused.
The fashion of the Captain America costume is something Johnston had a large hand in as Visual Development Supervisor Ryan Mienerding told Comic Book Resources in an earlier interview, and Johnston agreed that he used costuming to underscore Steve Roger’s superhero transformation.
“We had three outfits: we had the show suit from the first issue, then we had his combat suit at the end. The intermediate suit is the one where he basically steals a jacket, grabs a girl’s helmet and goes off to rescue Bucky,” explained Johnston. As Rogers engages with Hydra, the jacket tatters “just enough for the American flag, essentially, to show through. We wanted that to reference who he is. He’s been called Captain America, sort of in a joke form, as a propaganda tool, but now they’re going to call him Captain America and be serious about it,” said Johnston.
In order to pull off the transition from 98-pound weakling to foolish propaganda tool to hero convincingly, Johnston needed a versatile actor. This led the director to court actor Chris Evans to take the role.
“He looked perfect for it, for one thing!” Johnston said when asked why he spent so much time convincing Evans to wear the red, white and blue suit. Eventually it came down to the fact that Johnston felt Evans embodied what is to be Captain America. “Chris had a humble quality to him, and he downplays that sometimes. He tries to be a little hipper than he really is, but that’s not really who he really is; underneath it all, I think Chris Evans is a lot more like Steve Rogers than he sometimes wants to admit.”
“Captain America,” while a standalone period movie, has the dual task of paving the way for the “Avengers” movie, directed and written by Joss Whedon and due in theaters in 2012. Despite this, Johnston said he did not feel any added pressure to create the template for who Captain America is for future movies.
“All I had to do was bring [Captain America] back to life, bring him back in contemporary 2011 and have him look around and go, ‘Oh, no,'” said Johnston, who points to the filming of the recently leaked epilogue scene as the most work he had to do to set up “Avengers.” That modern day scene also gave the director his second favorite moment of the movie, when Rogers realizes that his love interest, Peggy Carter, is gone.
“After being told he’s been asleep for 70 years, there’s a thousand questions he could ask — but to have him say ‘I had a date,’ in a way sums up the romance,” said Johnston. “He sacrificed his romance for saving the world.”
Suddenly Johnston laughs. “Was it worth it? I don’t know!” the director joked while emphatically shaking his head no. Of course, we had to ask if the director would make the same decisions and sacrifices as Rogers in order to save the world, garnering another head shake and laugh in response.
“Send Phillips! Phillips, jump on this!” Johnston joked, motioning for an imginary soldier to save the world instead.
All jokes aside, Johnston agreed that the idea of sacrifice cuts to the core of both the soldier and superhero aspects of Captain America. But the director was very clear on the fact that he did not want to get involved in the politics of the war or the military in the movie — quite a feat as Captain America himself was created as a propaganda tool and his very first issue depicts Rogers punching out Hitler.
“We never wanted it to be jingoistic. We always say, the most American thing about [the movie] is the title. The idea of who this guy is, you could translate that into any nationality, any culture. He’s the guy who just wants to do the right thing,” said Johnston, dismissing the “controversy” around foreign countries dropping Captain America’s name from the film’s title.
The director also admitted that, despite his love of the script and admiration for screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, when it came time to direct, he gave Evans free rein to cut and rearrange lines in order to get to the heart of Captain America.
“I said to Chris, ‘For one thing, there’s way to many words in this!’ Any time there’s a way to cut a line of dialogue and do it with a glance or a word, I’m totally for it. And he was very excited about that!” Johnston recalled. “I recognize, as we all did, he is the one who had to bring the character to life. All I could do was steer him.”
Like Markus and McFeely, Johnston pointed to Ed Brubaker’s comic book run on “Captain America” as a big influence for the movie, as well as the art of Steve Epting.
“I studied the Brubaker series more than anything, mostly because, visually, I wanted the movie to have a comic book feel without it being in your face. I studied a few compositions from the Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting comics, and I picked six or seven places in the film where I said, ‘This could be a frame out of the comic book,'” said Johnston. Without spoiling what those scenes were, Johnston stated that he hope hardcore comics fans would be able to recognize them. “I just wanted to reference the origin material without bludgeoning the audience with it — I wanted to frame the shots very carefully, like how the comic book artists draw it, really beautifully composed and designed.”
In the end, the biggest challenge for the veteran director was not special effects or translating the comic book to screen, but directing Marvel Comics Godfather, Stan Lee, in his cameo appearance. As we wrapped came to the end of our discussion, the director’s eyes lit up again when asked about his experience, and he began quietly laughing as he recalled Lee’s first and only visit to set.
“[Stan Lee] comes in, and he’s memorized his line. In this one scene, he plays a general. It was very funny because Stan said, ‘Can I make my line longer?'”
The line was originally Lee turning to another general after seeing Steve Rogers and remarking “That’s him? I thought he’d be taller.”
“[Lee] said, how about I make it longer by saying, “That’s Captain America? I thought he’d be taller,'” said Johnston. The director agreed — but after they shot the line Lee asked to do another take. And another. And another.
“And every time he did it, he added a word! He’d say, ‘That’s Captain America? I really thought he would be taller!’ ‘So, that’s Captain America? I thought he’d be taller!'” Johnston laughed. “Eventually, we ended up cutting it down to just ‘I thought he’d be taller!'”
“Captain America: The First Avenger” releases nationwide July 22