Interview: Director Joe Johnston Brings Sincerity and Universality to ‘Captain America: The First…

By  · Published on July 18th, 2011

Interview: Director Joe Johnston Brings Sincerity and Universality to ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’

Director Joe Johnston loves good old fashioned fun. The Rocketeer, Hidalgo, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and Captain America: The First Avenger don’t contain a dark or cynical bone in their bodies. While some superhero films try to go to darker places nowadays ‐ usually by just having their hero mope around ‐ Johnston has no interest in a sulky hero.

Captain America is all about adventure, charms, and simply being a kid from Brooklyn.

While many people question if Cap can reach an audience outside of the States, Johnston thinks differently. The Boba Fett and Iron Giant creator didn’t want to make a commercial about America’s awesomeness; he wanted to explore themes that nearly everyone can relate to. Like his previous films, the idea of finding one’s identity and coming of age is present in Captain America: The First Avenger. Despite being a super solider who looks the way that he does, Captain America is like any other kid trying to become the man he’s meant to be.

Here’s what Joe Johnston had to say about Raiders of the Lost Ark, fully embracing the color palette of comics, the ego of Red Skull, staying sincere without being cheesy, and why he’s a true film school reject:

To start off, how big of a template was Raiders of the Lost Ark for the film?

It was [a template]. I love the film; it’s timeless. It takes place in 1936 and it was made in the 80s, and it still feels as fresh today. That was my goal: I wanted this to have that same timeless feel.

Like Raiders, you also went with having a charming lead instead of a mopey one, which most onscreen heroes are today.

Well, a part of it is that it’s hard to be mopey when you’re so determined that you’ll go and try to enlist [in the military] five times. He’s just one of these guys that doesn’t give up. Even though he’s continually rejected, the fact that he just will not give up is what makes him appealing to a lot of people, and that was really the reason why I wanted to make this film. I didn’t want to make a superhero movie about a guy who can throw tanks around and break through walls, because that doesn’t seem interesting to me. What appealed to me about this guy is that he’s the guy next door; the guy who’s been given this amazing gift. But what’s he going to do with it now?

I just want to say, also, that I love the name of your website.

Oh, thank you. We hear that a lot.

I’m a film school reject myself, so I get it.

Didn’t you go to film school?

I went to USC for a year, then I was asked not to return.

[Laughs] Why’s that?

I broke too many rules.

You’re definitely one of us then [Laughs]. Tonally, you’ve gone with something that really embraces the more comic-booky aspects. What was the intention of going that route versus a more realistic feel?

The other film that I’ve been told this relates to is The Rocketeer. That wasn’t intentional on my part, but The Rocketeer was a translation of a graphic novel to the screen. I tried to do the same thing here, though. I wasn’t a fan of the “Captain America” comics growing up, but I did a lot of research into them when I took this project on. There’s so many comic book movies that seem to have almost nothing to do with the comic book, and they don’t reference it in any way. For fans of the comic, I wanted them to recognize, in the way that the film’s made, that there was a comic book origin.

I mostly studied the Ed Brubaker series, but even some of the older ones. I wanted to find a compositional style that related to the comics. If you’re a real comic book fan, then you’ll recognize it in a lot of the shots, like, “Hey, that looks almost like the panel in the such and such issue.” [Laughs] Not that I wanted to copy anything in the comics, but I wanted to have a visual style that would relate to and echo some of the same things they’d do in the comics.

I’m not sure if I’ve answered your question…

You did. You mentioned that you wanted Steve to be that guy next door that everyone can relate to, and I think that idea makes the film not just a big pat on the back to America.

I’m glad you brought that up, because it would be really easy to stray into a version of Captain America that’s almost propaganda, and that was something the Marvel guys and I were very conscious of. We didn’t want to do that not just because it has less international appeal, but because that’s just not the movie we wanted to make. We didn’t want to wave the flag around; we wanted to make the film about this guy’s spirit of determination. He just wants to do the right thing, and I think that’s a character trait you can take and place into any nationality or any country in the world, and still have it be relatable and make sense.

Doing the right thing and finding one’s identity is a big theme in a lot of your work, actually. Thematically, can you talk about why that interests you?

It’s something that’s almost universally relatable. There’s a female version of it, too, which probably involves mothers, but I’m not sure [Laughs]. It’s sort of a coming-of-age thing that doesn’t necessarily relate to age; it’s more about discovering who you are more than anything, which is a big taboo in western culture about knowing who you are [Laughs].

[Laughs] That’s definitely true. You brought up similarities to The Rocketeer, and just like that film, I’d imagine there was a difficulty of being sincere without being schmaltzy. Was that a challenge?

Well, it is. Schmaltz is really relative, because you have to constantly be monitoring yourself. You know, a lot of it comes from audience previews. An audience will definitely react and tell you when something is schmaltzy. Sometimes it’s just a matter of, literally, just taking five frames out or changing the music; it’s always very, very subtle. Audiences always recognize it. For me, I wanted to walk right up to that point where it becomes schmaltzy, then pull back a little bit. I think the movie has a lot of heart and that there’s a great message there, but you don’t want anyone to ever recognize it, and that’s the hard part [Laughs].

[Laughs] As for another tonal challenge, how tricky was it figuring out how to adapt Red Skull?

Red Skull is just such a great villain, and Hugo [Weaving] just did a fantastic job with him. He’s so over the top. The thing I love about Red Skull is that when he pulls the mask off he’s basically saying, “Hey, I don’t need this. I’m proud of who I am.” He’s even having his portrait painted as Red Skull, which is cool. Here’s a guy whose ego is so huge that there’s something sort of refreshing about it [Laughs]. In a way, he’s a counterpart to Steve, who’s so humble and has the ego of the plumber. They’re on opposite ends of the ego spectrum.

He’s also charismatic, which I think is a great thing for any villain. They have to have charisma or be appealing, you know? The great villains are the ones you love to hate [Laughs]. You like to watch them, but you don’t want to get too close to them.

At what point did you realize Hugo was doing a Werner Herzog impersonation?

[Laughs] You know, I never did. I never recognized it. Hugo did great, though. He loved being in makeup. It was tough because he sweated, and we had to digitally remove the sweat jobs which were coming out of the mask. He never complained.

My last question: As a fan of October Sky, do you ever see yourself doing another small-scale film that’s as intimate?

Thank you. I’m always looking for something more like that. I wouldn’t take it just because it’s small, but if I could find something that had a story that good, then I would definitely do it.

Captain America: The First Avenger opens in theaters on July 22nd.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.