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INT: Mark Steven Johnson

02.16.2007by: The Arrow

There's been a lot of discussion about GHOST RIDER over the past few years, especially with all its delays. But what's really been going on with it? Well, JoBlo.com was recently given the opportunity to have a sit down with the very cool director Mark Steven Johnson (DAREDEVIL), as well as big-time Marvel producers Avi Arad (SPIDER-MAN 3, IRON MAN) and Gary Foster (THE SCORE, DAREDEVIL), to help clear some of the air.

The movie stars Nicolas Cage as Johnny Blaze, a stunt motorcyclist who sells his soul and becomes the devil's bounty hunter. Add in Eva Mendes as the hottie love interest, Wes Bentley as the devil's son, and a flame-covered motorcycle, and you've got yourself the latest comic book movie to hit the big screen. The film opens on Friday, February 16th.

Mark Steven Johnson

The trailer says, "He made a deal to save somebody he loved." And it looks like they're talking about Eva Mendes even though it's not her. Why not just say, "He made a deal to save his father?"

Avi Arad: I think that those who are from the uber-geek universe will immediately know that he did it to save his dad. When we make movies like this the idea is to get more people initiated. If you remember when this Marvel journey started, there were only three of us watching these movies. So in order to get to where we are today, at least from a marketing and advertising standpoint, we want to open it. And of course, Roxanne is part of his love and part of his aspirations and part of his pain, so it all makes sense.

So it's intentionally vague?

Mark Steven Johnson: Yeah.

Gary Foster: Yes.

Arad : Whenever it's vague, it's intentional. [Laughter]

As far as the evolution of comic book movies, what's gotten better?

Johnson: The CGI. You know, its one of those things where there's so much negativity on the internet, and that's for any filmmaker or any musician or any artist at all... But the great thing is that, for me, is that I go onto a site like Superhero Hype or some of the comic sites and you read about what people say and sometimes they're right. It's like a free test screening in a way. So we put up the skull a year and half a year ago at the earliest stage, and everybody was like, "Skull looks fake. It looks terrible." You know, thatís our lead character. If he doesnít look good, you're sunk, from the very beginning. Because at least you gotta get that right. So that was the hardest thing, was getting that skull and that CG fire to look right, and the time really helped.

Foster: Yeah, and on the fire front of it, they started the process with a certain program to build the fire and it was 75 percent of what we wanted it to be, and they had to completely go in from scratch and rewrite it and reprogram it. That took time. We had months to go in and reanimate the entire fire. And by the way, we got it to 100 percent. Stuff looks spectacular.

Arad: This kind of movie is difficult even for the studio, believe it or not, because when we look at [the early footage], we know where there will be a visual effect. We know eventually we will have it, but fire is tricky. Like the first drop of water to be designed or what you'll see next in spider-man with a grain of sand... fire, to control fire, is an algorithm, it's high math, and there is such passion for this character. And especially for this movie, there was no patience out there. And you have to start showing things, but the truth is that movies like that, when you see them with no visual designs, it can be really scary to the uninitiated. "What happens next?" And then you see it. Then all of a sudden you say, "Oh my god, that really comes together." Thatís always a challenge for us.

Johnson: Itís a frustrating thing, because I donít know if you remember, but at our first comic con we showed a teaser, and there's a shot of Ghost Rider turning towards the camera. And it was a grip - a test with one of the grips. He turns in, and we just wanted to see how it would look. And obviously, it was just that. Thatís as far as it was supposed to go. And I said, "Please donít let this go on the internet. Because someone will freeze-frame it, and they'll study it."

And they said, "Oh, no, no. This is just for the comic con." And sure enough, the company who put the teaser together - who did a great job - put it on the site to show off what they had done. And thatís it; once it's on the internet you can never get it back. So everybody's looking at this grip turning towards the camera, and you wanna tell everybody, "No, thatís not it! That's just a test!" So it's frustrating, but in this case, its really rewarding because, a great CG character - I put Gollum and Davey Jones as two of the best - they're great because they've got eyes, wrinkles, lips, tongue... we donít have anything. We just got a blank slate. So the fire was really important to become an extension of his personality. Thatís what took so long.

Was an x-ray of Nic's skull really used for Rider?

Johnson: Yeah, thatís his skull. Isnít that cool? Itís a weird thing, but we really wanted to make sure that it didnít become one of those CG movies where you donít feel it anymore; it feels so fake. I think you feel Nic in there. It's Nic's voice treated, it's Nic's skull, and its Nic's body movements, in the big emotional scenes, and I think it helps. You're not just seeing a CG character; you're seeing Nic.

Did Nic want to do all of his own stunts, like with the motorcycle?

Johnson: Yeah, he did. He wanted to do as much as he could.

Foster: This is where Avi and I came in and said, "You can't do that."

Johnson: Actually, the only one who was riding crazy was [Peter] Fonda.

Yeah, and he did EASY RIDER. So some of us are waiting for Fonda, the devil, to ride a motorcycle against Cage.

Johnson: That wouldíve been cool, right? That wouldíve been awesome. I think we border on camp anyway; we just wanted to have fun. We had a lot of laughs and scares, but it was always that line of what's too much. If the devil would've been on a bike, I think it wouldíve been pushing it. We had a great line, during his introduction, he's walking through the carnival, and at the end there's this big funhouse with a big devil face, and it's his face. And he says, "far out." And I cut it. I was really in defense of it. We were on the fence, and I ultimately decided we were just meeting him; we probably shouldnít defang him. We should keep a little threat.

What kind of CGI was used for Nic's shirtless scene?

Foster: Zero.

Johnson: I know, right? And people keep asking, is that really his body? And Nic goes, "Why did I bother? Two hours everyday, I'm working out, and thatís what they say. You got Adaptation where my gut's hanging out, and nobody asks if thatís really my body." [Laughter]

Any plans for a sequel?

Johnson: We just started talking about it, to be honest. When we were in Europe last week, we started talking about ideas, but you donít want to jinx it. You never know what's gonna happen, or how it's gonna go, or if people are gonna like it. It's not a slam-dunk character, its not as well known as the other ones. But I know if people want it, we'd love to do another one.

You have a Director's Cut of Daredevil out on DVD. Is there any similar situation for Ghost Rider?

Johnson: No. I think there'll be an extended version. Just longer. I'm not calling it better. They're just really good scenes I cut for pacing. But no, certainly, there's no Daredevil, where there's a quarter of the movie missing.

Is that because you knew what would actually make it in and what wouldnít?

Johnson: Well, I think for me, it was that having partners in the studio - who had so much success with Spider-Man - that trust the character. And having Nic, who's a huge fan. I set out to make a gothic western. Something really different. Something I'd fall in love with like when I was 12, watching monster movies and reading comic books. And thatís what we did, so you donít have those conversations up front with the studio saying, "Does it have to be a flaming skull?"

Well, now they're talking about not screening the film in advance for critics--

Johnson: --which they are, by the way.

--are you at all nervous about it?

Johnson: No, I'm not at all. I love this movie. And Nic does too. They retracted that, by the way. That was one guy in the New York Post blog, said that. And everybody picked it up as fact, and it's not. So now theyíve all retracted it. Which really pisses me off, because you work so hard on something, and if someone doesnít like it, thatís cool. You know, say whatever you want about it, but at least see it. Donít rip into something that anyone does before you at least give it a chance.

When did the character get its start for a film adaptation?

Arad: Mike Deluca, one of the producers, got involved, and we actually wrote the spec script out of film school. And it went through different reincarnations, and once Mark [Johnson] got involved, we felt that in order to spread the word - because the character's amazing - we looked around and we said, can we make it a pg-13 movie? Is there a reason to take it to a place where not enough people can see it? And that was the big advantage when you have a writer/director who's a giant fan and wouldnít write it just to take it out of the art. Because the story itself, there's no reason not to be accessible to all. And thatís when it got the energy, and then Nic got involved, and we were - as a team -we already made a movie together. It just got going, and once we came to Sony, I think everybody understood the visual opportunity and challenge.

Wasn't that why you couldnít do it before, because of the advanced CGI?

Arad: Absolutely, but at the time, we didnít even understand how big a challenge it would be. We thought, "Well, we'll take a skull and put it around fire." And actually, we did. And then you realize, fire isnít really exciting unless u manipulate it. It's been - I donít know - ten years, since it started. But these kind of projects take time, when the technology cannot support the story.

And in reference to the story, what kind of tone were you going for?

Johnson: You know, there's two ways to go with a movie like this, and they're both valid. You can go super dark and gritty, like a horror movie, and it'd be great. Or you can just embrace the absurdity of the idea, and I mean absurdity in a good way. Lets just go out there, let's make it everything; pull out all stops.

Like with the goth chick, poking fun at the flaming skull...

Johnson: I love that chick.

Arad: She's amazing.

Johnson: There's like fansites. "We hate the goth chick!" But I love that. I love that people are actually having a discussion about her. I mean, she's in every trailer, so it looks like she's costarring in the movie when she's just got one scene.

What did you and Nic work on with the writing?

Johnson: What he would do is challenge when the writing got lazy. Sometimes it did. It's easy to fall into clichťs when doing a movie like this. And I had written [Johnny Blaze] as more of a Jack Daniels drinking, chain smoking, cursed kind of character. And Nic has a way of looking at things that sometimes people think is just quirky, but it's actually really honest. Because I think people are weird. We're all very weird. And I think when we see someone do something thatís weird but honest we like them. We kinda get it.

And Nic said to me, and he's right, "I donít know anybody who drinks Jack Daniels out of a bottle. Do you?" And I'm thinking, "No, I donít. But they're always in the movies." I mean, who does that? Really? And he goes, "Well, I like jelly beans. And I think that if you're under a curse - if you really believe that the devil might be in your life - why would you invite him in by getting drunk?" You wouldnít. You know, you wouldn't listen to Black Sabbath; you wouldnít do those things. You'd make things as peaceful as you could.

So that became the Karen Carpenter music and the jellybeans; things that would make you feel good. And then when things go crazy, it's more exciting. The other big one I think is the transformation, which I think is great. I just wrote pain, just screaming and pain, making it a horror show. And he said, and he's right, "It's painful for Johnny, but it feels good for the Ghost Rider." I think that scene is disturbing because you see him go from screaming in pain to laughing - just maniacal laughter - and that's what makes it so weird. Thatís a Nic Cage thing.

Source: JoBlo.com

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