INT: Joe Johnston
Sneaking into theatres this week is HIDALGO, based loosely on the life of Frank T. Hopkins, a Pony Express courier who became the first American to win the worlds longest endurance horse race, the Ocean of Fire in the Arabian Desert. Helming the film is veteran director Joe Johnston, whose past efforts include HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS, THE ROCKETEER and JUMANJI. Johnston got his start doing visual effects for George Lucas on first STAR WARS trilogy (you know, the one that doesnt suck), and is credited with inventing Yoda. Unfortunately, he is not, as it was once widely rumored, the inventor of Greedo. Nevertheless, inventing Yoda is still a fine accomplishment. I got a chance to talk with Joe recently at the St. Regis Hotel in Los Angeles about his latest effort, HIDALGO, opening this Friday.
What made you want to direct this movie?
Well, I could give you the silly answer and say I really needed the money, but...films like this are pretty rare, especially these days. To get a commitment from the studio to do it right and to really invest the time and money to make what feels like a sort of old-school, classic action/adventure film, was something that was pretty hard to pass up.
I really enjoyed the cinematography. How were you able to achieve that look, given how difficult the conditions can me in Morocco?
Morocco is a beautiful country to start with, but when you go to a place like that, not knowing what to expect, and you get out there with a 2.35 format, a widescreen format, the country just sort of presents itself to you. You see chances to do things that you hadnt even planned to do, and it really changes what you planned. What I learned on this one is that you, if you have a vision which is ok you need to keep it flexible because, when you get there, things are gonna change. The hardest thing was, you could shoot in the morning, and then you knew if you got a sandstorm in the afternoon, youd have to shoot something else and put aside what you shot in the morning, hoping you could finish if the next day.
So, was that the most challenging part of making this film?
The elements in Morocco were probably the most challenging. We had a solid script we tweaked it but we had a story with a beginning, middle and end. And Ive been on movies where we didnt know what we were shooting next weeks because the writer hadnt written the pages yet. Fortunately, on this one, we knew at least what we would like to shoot the next week. If we hadnt had a script, if we had a bunch of primadonna actors, and the conditions in Morocco, wed probably still be there.
This movie has the feel of The Rocketeer a little bit. Like an old-time adventure.
Well, it is an old-time adventure film. And thats one of the things that appealed to me about it. Especially if you factor in that were going to take Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif to some of these locations where they shot Lawrence of Arabia, and 100 horses and all this great wardrobe and this great story. You know, it becomes something thats almost impossible to pass up. I wasnt anxious to go back to work after Jurassic Park 3. It had been about six months. I was still in recuperation. [laughs] Casey Silver sent me a copy of this, and he said, Ive got this great script I want you to read, and I said, I dont want to go back to work. He said, Im not going to pitch it to you, Im not even going to tell you what its about. Just read it. So it sat on my desk for about 3 weeks and I didnt want to look at it, because I was afraid Id like it. And I started reading it and I, you know, I couldnt put it down. I called and I said, Damn you! [laughs] I didnt want to go back to work but I couldnt pass it up.
It seems like the movies that take your time are never made anymore.
Personally, I like to watch movies where I have to pay attention. And I know that some people dont like to have to pay attention. But I find that when I know Im going to be told something three or four times, Im not going to miss it. I get a little bit bored, and I feel like OK, I know I dont have to pay attention. Theyre going to tell me again, and again, and again. I think if an audience knows, Id better watch this. Id better keep in mind who this guy is, how he relates to the movie. Then people tend to stay a little bit more interested.
What was it about Viggo that appealed to you when casting this film? Was he your first choice?
He was either my first choice or he was on a very short list. I dont remember considering anybody else. I hadnt seen the first Lord Of The Rings when we cast Hidalgo, but the character Viggo played in Walk On The Moon, he seemed to be hiding something there seemed to be a darker, more mysterious side to him. And thats Frank Hopkins.
What about working with Omar Shariff?
I was pretty amazing, really. It was a little bit intimidating just to think about it, before I ever met him. We were going to Morocco with Omar Shariff, back to where they shot Lawrence of Arabia. But I met Omar and we talked about the character a little bit. Hes just the nicest guy, the warmest individual you ever met. And on the first day of shooting, he said, Tell me what you want me to do. Hes the most directable actor Ive ever met. In Morocco, almost every night for 13 weeks, he would reserve a table for ten at the local restaurant. And he would never invite anybody to dinner, but he would order about six bottles of wine and put them on the table. People would walk by, cast and crew would walk by, and he would say, Come over and join me. And within a few minutes he would have a table full of people and he would start telling a story about Lawrence of Arabia. And then other people would see the story in progress and they would pull up a chair. Pretty soon there would be 20 people at the table. And this would go on for hours. I had dinner with him 10 or 12 times, and I never heard the same story twice.
A big part of the story is about people coming to terms with their own identity and background.
Thats the heart of the story. I mean, the story of Frank is that hes denying who he is, and has been for most of his life. And coming to terms and discovering who he is because of this thing he goes through. I mean, thats something thats basic to human nature and its something we can all relate to, hopefully. That story should work if you take it completely out of context and put it in any genre, any kind of film. It doesnt have to be this big, epic action-adventure film for that kind of story to work.
Viggo has gone from actor to star in the course of the making of this film
Just dont call him a star.
Not to his face.
Youll insult him. [laughs]
Viggo said that one of the scariest scenes with the horses was when all the Arabians were getting ready for the race.
It was the most complicated, because we had just a couple of chances to get it right with 100 horses all starting at once. It was the most dangerous thing to do. And I didnt realize and maybe some of the riders didnt, either but the line of horses in front could see where they were going, but anyone after that was blind. They couldnt keep their eyes open. Even if they could see through the dust, they were pelted with so much. After the first take, we rode down there on our quads; you know, Im not a horse guy. Youd see a trail of, you know, head scarves and all the stuff that had been knocked off the horses; you can ever see some of it in the film if you look closely, but it was amazing. And if you think about it, horses dont ever really do that. They dont ride at full speed in that tight of formation. Its brutal. Guys were cut and bruised and, and we only did a couple of takes.
Viggo has a reputation, especially on Lord of the Rings, for getting really lost in his role. How much did he do that on Hidalgo?
He did it, I think, to the same degree. He went home in his wardrobe, you know, he camped in the desert with the horses and the wranglers, and I was amazed when I did see the Lord of the Rings films that not only did it seem like I mean, it was obviously a different character, but it seemed like a different person playing the different characters. He made a complete transformation. Now I know I him as Viggo Mortensen playing Frank T. Hopkins. When he takes on his next role, whatever that is, hell probably become unrecognizable to me. Hell make another transformation. But yeah, he really got into it. Hes also completely devoted to the project. He was always there. We worked him a lot more than we should have. He never complained, and he was there dawn to dusk and beyond. Hes largely responsible for making that whole aspect of this really work. Hes really amazing.
Are you going to be directing Jurassic Park Part 4?
Nobodys made me an offer yet. I know that theres a story now thats being written that is, that takes the franchise in a completely different direction away from the island and away from the T-Rex and all this. Its a great story, and I sort of hope Spielberg will direct it.
You havent been involved in the development?
No, no I havent. Ive been told the story, but no.
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