The director talks about making the comic book movie nobody believed could be made
In bringing the comic book Daredevil to life, director Mark Steven Johnson proved to a lot of people that what they thought couldn't be done, could. With his newest offering, Ghost Rider, Johnson again proves why he is the go to person to get for comics that "can't be made."
In order to save his dying father, young stunt cyclist Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) sells his soul to Mephistopheles and sadly parts from the pure-hearted Roxanne Simpson (Eva Mendes), the love of his life. Years later, Johnny's path crosses again with Roxanne, now a gogetting reporter, and also with Mephistopheles, who offers to release Johnny's soul if Johnny becomes the fabled, fiery Ghost Rider, a supernatural agent of vengeance and justice. Mephistopheles charges Johnny with defeating the despicable Blackheart, Mephistopheles' nemesis and son, who plans to displace his father and create a new hell even more terrible than the old one.
We recently caught up with Johnson at a sneak preview of some Ghost Rider footage held at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
So you've obviously had all the time you need to do everything you want on the film, right?
Mark Steven Johnson: To do everything I want? Close. There's never everything you want, you always want more. It's tough because you can't shoot it like a normal movie. Every time there's a close-up of Ghost Rider it's gonna cost you $50,000. If it's a wide shot it's $100,000. You always want more coverage than you have. It's not like a normal movie because your hero is a special effect. It's a very expensive character and that's why it's been so tough to pull off.
Did any of the scenes from the other people who were involved in this film carry over into production?
Mark Steven Johnson: Yeah, there's a scene in the prison cell where everybody jumps on him and starts beating him. He turns into the Ghost Rider and explodes and burns his way through the bars. That's from David Goyer, he wrote that. I loved David's script, I thought it was great. It was a different script. When you come on you want to make your own version of the movie. Goyer's was very dark, very hard R, which is cool but when you want to make a Ghost Rider movie it's expensive.
Are you trying to go PG-13?
Mark Steven Johnson: We are PG-13. I am actually happy and surprised about it. I was expecting to have to cut stuff out.
So with this current cut of the film are you getting everything you want from the studio?
Mark Steven Johnson: The studio's been great. Sony gets it. Sony's had so much success with Spider-Man. They understand Marvel, they appreciate it. Ghost Rider is a very unknown character for most people. For them to give me the money to do it right... says a lot for Sony.
Because it is an unknown character does that give you more leeway?
Mark Steven Johnson: It does. I'm the biggest fan of this comic in the world. It's not a perfect comic. Fans of the comic know this too. Ghost Rider has great stories, an amazing look, which is what attracted me to it, but it's also very flawed in some ways. The origin of it has been very mixed up. They changed it and updated it until nobody knew what to make of it. My goal was to pay tribute to the character but I've also got to streamline things. The bottom line is Mephistopheles comes from Faust. You need something from him, you make a deal, he owns your soul. My idea was he goes to the best rider in the world... he says, "You will be my bounty hunter. If something gets out of Hell that doesn't belong here I'm gonna send you after it." He makes a deal with Johnny as a kid, screws him over as the devil always does, so Johnny grows up and becomes the Ghost Rider. That, to me, made sense.
Do you want people who see this movie coming in with the comic book knowledge...?
Mark Steven Johnson: You can't because it's too small. As much as I love them and I'm one of them, we're a very small percentage. You want to come back to the basic tenets of what the movie is about: What would you for love?
Was it a surprise to get a big movie star in the title role of this film?
Mark Steven Johnson: Yeah, but it's really common. A lot of these actors, like me, grew up with it. In America you grow up with comic books. You learn to read with comic books. It's pictures and words... it's the perfect thing, you know? Nic was involved before I was involved. It was like, Nic is Ghost Rider and I hope he likes my take.
Did you tailor the movie for Nicolas Cage once you got involved?
Mark Steven Johnson: You write the best Johnny Blaze you can. I remember writing Johnny Blaze for the first time and he was drinking Jack Daniels out of a bottle and chain smoking. I remember giving the script to Nic and he was really honest, he said, "I don't know anybody who drinks Jack Daniels out of a bottle." I thought, "I don't either but they're always in the movies." Then you start talking to Nic and he brings something different to it. He says things that are so out there they're honest.
Like I asked him, "If you didn't know you were going to turn into Ghost Rider any minute what would that be like?" He said, "I think it would be like being in a dentist's chair." That music's playing... and any minute you're gonna go and it's gonna be painful. You're gonna try and calm yourself because any moment you're gonna change. I thought that was really smart, interesting, and different.
What did you learn from doing Daredevil, from the the online feedback, that you brought to this movie?
Mark Steven Johnson: It's like night and day. Even though it was a bigger movie it was much easier this time. These movies are very difficult, they're very hard. Sony is very supportive.
Did the research you did for Ghost Rider prep you for Preacher?
Mark Steven Johnson: Well, Preacher I've always wanted to do. It's the greatest but it's so difficult. I love it more than anybody. I remember reading a script that was going to go to film and wondering, "How do you make a two hour movie out of Preacher?" You can't do it, you know? So when I went into HBO, I said, very simply, "Here's the comic, there's 75 issues... every issue is an hour. It's a 6 year show." And HBO, God bless them, went "Cool."
Are you staying loyal to the storyline?
Mark Steven Johnson: Not loyal, exact. We had our first meeting the other day and it was like I kept waiting for them to go, "We're not doing this!" (Laughs) It's just so out there. I'm like, "HBO's got balls!" Today, I emailed Kevin Smith and I said, "Dude, I just got Preacher, I know you you love it, if it goes... would you please direct an episode?" I want to go to Kevin, I want to go to Robert Rodriguez, I want to go to all these people and do guest directors. That would be really cool. I want it to be a prestige thing. You love Preacher? Come do a show? We'll keep the spirit of it, keep the vibe of it but also know that there will be a different imprint every time.
My job is to help write the shows. I'm working with Garth everyday; he's a big part of it. Make sure it's exactly what we want then let the director put his imprint on it, but it's got to be the book.
Do you know where you're shooting...
Mark Steven Johnson: I haven't even written it yet. Literally, my meeting was yesterday. They've been trying to make Preacher for years and years.
As the series kicks in is Garth going to be there everyday?
Mark Steven Johnson: If he wants to be. My first meeting was yesterday so Garth, he was in New York, he was on the speakerphone. He was like, "Don't be beholden to the source material, I just did that because A, B or C..." He's like, do whatever you want, I'm like, "No, no, no, it's gotta be exactly that." I also said to Garth, "Also, tell me are there any stories you wanted to tell but weren't able to? Was there something you wanted to do but didn't have the time?" I want to hear that, too! Because we want to fill it out. We want to make it a 6 year show. With a definite ending, ending the way it does, which is obviously incredibly controversial.
Did you go into Ghost Rider saying CGI is ready for this?
Mark Steven Johnson: We all did, yeah. We open in February and there will be effects delivered up until January 30th, because we had to write new programs. Fire's f&*ckin tricky, man! You look at fire and you move it, it looks cool. You put it on film... it changes everything. Then how do you bring a skull to life? It's got no tongue. It's got no wrinkles. You've gotta deal with that. My idea was, "Lets use fire to get expression." Then it becomes a whole new thing. The fire has got to change color. It's got to be smaller when he's sad.
How much of it is Nicolas Cage?
Mark Steven Johnson: Every time you see Ghost Rider it's CGI; 100%. A lot of times, Nic's doing all the expression. So it's his body language, his movement, and his talking and everything else. It's based on Nic's skull.
How much of a role does the western Ghost Rider play in this film?
Mark Steven Johnson: He plays a significant role. A lot of people think that shot you saw at the end is the end of the movie. It's not. It's actually the kick off of the second act. It's the handing off of the baton. The old Ghost Rider is saying, "Now it's your turn."
Ghost Rider opens February 16, 2007 from Columbia Pictures.