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On-Set Interview: Mark Steven Johnson for "Ghost Rider"

By Garth Franklin Sunday June 19th 2005 04:41AM
Mark Steven Johnson for "Ghost Rider"

Question: Obviously you had two different versions of Daredevil that were available the theatrical release and the Directors Cut DVD, what sort of lessons did you learn working on that and putting this together knowing you will be able to potentially include later on and what you definitely what to include for a theatrically?

Mark Steven Johnson: Yeah, It was an interesting experience because with DAREDEVIL we really as you know cut like half hour out of the movie and the directors cut, which I do like a lot more than the theatrical version still has its flaws of course but I think it is a more complete version of the movie and when I was working in this one (Ghost Rider) I wanted to make sure the same thing would happen. Luckily Sony has had so much success with SPIDER-MAN and with Marvel characters that I haven't had that problem, you know what I mean? There was never like 'This is the part of the movie that's going to go' there no fighting over certain parts of the film that you sometimes get into. So I don't have that problem on this one thank God. So I felt much more relieved about the fact that everything that I've written is going to be on screen and if anything was really debatable or if we didn't see eye-to-eye on things we'll deal with it before hand. Because ultimately a directors cut I do think is a much better film but there's still battles you're not going to win, there's still things you'll never get, there's still short cuts you have to take because...its still not what you envisioned and that's the hardest thing of all especially when you spend much of your life on something.

Question: Can you talk about what you added to the DAVID GOYER script since you got on to the project?

Mark Steven Johnson: It's really a different script. The original script that David did is a totally different story and then Shane Salerno would come on and he did his own different story, and then I did my own. Its one of those things that there is no right or wrong to it, just like anybody will do your version its going to be your version. David's (version) was again...he just chose a different story and I really liked it. It just isn't the story that I was going to tell, so there really completely different screenplays. I really like David's writing a lot though, big fan of him.

Question: Since your first day of shooting till now, how much of the script has changed?

Mark Steven Johnson: Script is always in flux, I'm always making changes, it's changed the least of anything I've ever worked on, which is great. It was a tough one to crack up front, but once I felt like I did then it all flowed really nicely. What was really hard was just the concept up front, which is very rare. Usually the concept is the strongest part of the comic and in this one the idea is great the character is amazing and there's some great story lines but the actual idea...The fact that the devil made a deal with Johnny and gave him all these powers and Johnny took those powers to go fight the devil never quite added up. And so everybody over the years kept trying to solve that and change that, so it's kind of actually a faulty concept in a wired way and so that was odd, that's something that took me many many months to finally crack it. And once I came with the idea of the devils bounty hunter, that there's rules in heaven and hell on earth. The ideas that Mephistopheles has to find the best rider in the world to become his Ghost Rider. That made sense to me, he has to give him this power because he works for him. Then I got it, then everything from there flowed but at first it was tough.

Question: What's the toughest part to translate comics to the big screen?

Mark Steven Johnson: For this one the visuals because this is one of those you couldn't have made even a couple of years ago. Fire is a really tough thing on CG, and the skull and everything...its just one of those that if it would've been done on prosthetics it would've been I think horrible. I'm a big fan of doing things real but this is one of those where you can't. When it came time to the movie that was the first thing, can we make the GHOST RIDER? Will he look cool? Once Sony Image Works did some tests we realized we can really do it. So for this one that was the toughest thing.

Question: Do you feel any pressure doing a SONY movie after SPIDER-MAN? Another comic book movie.

Mark Steven Johnson: There's ton of pressure but not because of that. (Laughs) They're so different. I hate it when people lump it all together as comic book movies because they're so different, their apples and oranges. This is not a guy putting on a costume or some of the issues...I was much more concerned with DAREDEVIL cause SPIDER-MAN had just come out and it was a huge hit and Daredevil was not known and Spider-man is known all over the world. They both were red, they both jump out of buildings there was a lot of ...how are we going to distinguish ourselves. This (Ghost Rider) one is so not like that, this one is more of a monster movie in a way. It more of a classic kind of monster movie more than it is a superhero, it just happens to come from a comic book.

Question: Are there any worries of you being pigeon hold as a comic book director?

Mark Steven Johnson: I don't care. (Laughs) I'll be happy just doing comic book movies.

Question: Did you read any material for Ghost Rider before?

Mark Steven Johnson: Oh yeah absolutely, I've been reading Ghost Rider, Daredevil all these comics since I was a little kid. I literally learned to read by reading comics. Ghost Rider I wanted to do first, and I met with Avi Arad and even someone before Avi Arad, it's been so long. This has been seven or eight years in the making.

Question: Its been said that these comic book movies are just a fad coming to an end? What do you think? Do you think it's on its way out?

Mark Steven Johnson: I don't. Again because I think if you really want to look at it AMERICAN SPLENDOR is a comic book movie, ROAD TO PREDITION is a comic book movie they couldn't be more different from this (Ghost Rider) or from Spider-Man or any of those. I just think again some stories are better told graphically, but I think that you do...it is true anytime someone is going to put a costume or have an alter ego then you're in a certain territory a very specific territory where things certainly blend in together.

Question: Do you think that genre is going to leave in the near future?

Mark Steven Johnson: As far as putting on costumes specifically?

Question: Yeah

Mark Steven Johnson: No I don't. I think that's like saying science fiction is going to go out of style or Western or Monster films or Romantic comedies, I think it's a verified genre and its not going to go anywhere. I don't think people get tired of it. I think its just wishful fulfillment that's all, I don't see it going anywhere.

Question: You mentioned just now the genre of westerns and I know that's a big influence on this film, can you talk about how its influenced in this film?

Mark Steven Johnson: Yeah totally...just what we're talking about making sure that things feel really different and there's been really two versions of the Danny Ketch and the Johnny Blaze story lines in the comics. Danny I know was (set) New York and I had to make a choice of setting it in New York City or setting it somewhere else and again trying to diverse yourself from all the other comic book movies, Hells Kitchen (Daredevil) or Spider-Man and all these other movies that are in New York City. That was a great opportunity to say, "Well take it out and make something really different." I always wanted to make western and because of the rider I just thought it was a great opportunity. So the idea was to come up with a supernatural western, which I've never seen. I thought it was a cool idea. So it took me away from New York City, it took me away from the superhero vibe and just take it out into the desserts and take it to Texas. And we don't even name the city we never say Dallas or Houston or anything like that we just say it's a big city in Texas and we make it a cowboy movie in a way, we make it a real western, its like Sergio Leone movie with a hammer film is what I keep thinking. (Laughs) if you slam them together you say, "That's pretty cool I'd see that." That's really different, and Nic (Cage) and I will always laugh about it cause we always do things at the end of the day and say, "What do we do different." What's really different about it even if it's not good. (Laughs) And we don't use it but at least we tried something, but that is the vibe of the movie. It does feel that way it has this kind of darkness but also this kind of really...it feels like a painting a lot of times. It looks like a comic book panel in the best sense of the word I think, its got that feel to it.

Question: What's the level of intensity of violence is in Ghost Rider?

Mark Steven Johnson: Well there is a lot of intensity and there is violence. It's not a splatter movie and I'm not demeaning that cause I like them a lot. But its not a movie where we're going to see how much gore we can put into the film, that's not what its about. The themes are inherently dark, selling your soul to the devil, fight demons all this kind of stuff is inherently dark but that's also balanced. There is some humor to the movie, there is a love story in the movie and hopefully we'll have both.

Question: How brutal is it then?

Mark Steven Johnson: How brutal is it? Pretty brutal, if you see a guys face burn off into a skull it's pretty brutal, that's pretty intense stuff. The fights are pretty intense. I mean it's hard core fighting stuff but it's also somewhere in the realm of fantasy so you're not going to see blood and guts of people but you are going to see a lot of intense action in the film.

Question: What made Nicolas Cage the right actor for this role? And what do you feel he has brought to the character that wasn't maybe in the script before?

Mark Steven Johnson: That's what so cool about Nic, probably knowing how much he loves his character. You know he's been wanting to make this movie for a long time. It was one of those were again trying to diverse yourself from other movies or other movies you would say in this genre. I like the fact that he's a man, I like that he's not a teenager or he's not a kid who is learning about adulthood and all that of stuff. I like that fact that he's a man and I like the fact that he's kind of our man with no name in a way in a western, you have him very weathered, very tan, very lean, very hungry looking. I think it's actually more poignant that this is a guy who...he makes a deal in the movie as a kid and knowing when will the devil may show up, come knocking and say ok its time I need you. And what's happened to him in those years now has become this kind of a hunted guy I think it's really interesting. I think it's a really interesting way to go.,br>

What he brought to it is...he's Nic! So there's like a lot of...my faults in some of the writing I had certain cliché things like hard drinking, smoking kind of death wish Evel Knievel type of guy. What's good about Nic is that he'll always say, "I can't relate to a guy like that what if he did this, what if he did that." Its always more interesting, Nic would always do things like, there's this scene in the locker room and he's about to go out and Nic's like "You know I've always wanted to drink a whole hot pot of coffee when I'm really nervous in a scene" and I'm like "Cool lets try it." And he'll grab a pot of coffee and drink it and its just things like that, that only Nic can get away with no one else can get away with it. It's actually funny and its kind of cool or the way he would play a transformation scene and what that would feel like, he's so intense. One thing you have to say about Nic he does everything 100% he never goes half way, he goes for it. So these scenes where he's changing and screaming, it's difficult to watch cause he commits himself so holy to the role. That's I think the biggest thing, the level of commitment doesn't give a shit what he looks like, doesn't care, doesn't worry about vanity none of that. He just goes for it and commits himself to it.

Question: Which upcoming comic book films are you looking forward to the most and are there any characters that aren't being developed you think are prime for a big movie?

Mark Steven Johnson: Looking forward to seeing Fantastic Four I hope it's great, I'm looking forward to all the Spider-Man flicks coming out, X-Men 3, Superman of course. The new Batman movie I'm anxious to see. But the ones I would love to see, I would love to see Captain America get made one day that would be really interesting. The Thor movie would be pretty cool. (Laughs) You know the ones that you can't really do for logistical reasons are like Avengers and things like that would be awesome to see. Silver Surfer would be a great movie to see, to get made, I don't know if it's feasible because it would so expensive but I think that would be an amazing movie. And those are the ones off the top of my head.

Question: You seem to know a lot about superheroes, did you read them when you were a kid?

Mark Steven Johnson: Oh yeah I was always the kid waiting outside the drugstore, we didn't have a comic book shop in my town, it was really small, but we had a drugstore and they'd come deliver in big bundles and I would always waited outside on the days they would show up.

Question: Was it many Marvel comics that you read?

Mark Steven Johnson: Yeah all of them, it's were all my allowance money went, all my money. Not a lot of D.C. (comics) and I'm not just saying that, swear to God. (Laughs) For some reason I couldn't get into them. Only over the last couple of years I started reading more independent comics, I came to that kind of late to be honest, it just was Marvel forever but now I'm reading more stuff, Vertigo stuff and things like that.

Question: What made you decide to bring Eva Mendes aboard and how faithful is the movie to the comic?

Mark Steven Johnson: Movie is extremely faithful to the comic but the one thing I did do is I took the best...I hope the best of Johnny Blaze and Danny Ketch...They are the two story lines cause even though I like the Johnny Blaze stuff for me but I like the art work and I like some of the villains and stuff that came out of the Danny Ketch era of the comic. So I was able to take Johnny Blaze, stunt driver all the stuff that I use to love as a kid but the villain is Black Heart, which is the Danny Ketch villain, Caretaker is a Danny Ketch character. So I got to take my favorites from both, Mephistopheles and what not.

Eva is a...I just think that she's really full of a lot of life and a lot of light because the movie can be dark and you need to balance it and there's something about her that makes you like her and root for her throughout all of this. Because I set it in Texas I thought I would be nice to have a Latina to just again open it up and make it more real be more specific to that part of the country. I liked her and Nic together, I thought they were interesting, they were extremely different looking and I thought that was a more interesting combination than blonde hair and blue eyes like Roxanne like in the comic.

Question: The producers said that it's a real story and they want to maintain the real concept, how do you do that with the flaming skull? It looks like it can get ridiculous, how do you walk that line?

Mark Steven Johnson: It's hard. That's always the kind o f balancing act that we have to face all the time. There's actually some real heart-felt moments in the piece. There's some really moments where you go from the surreal and then extremely intense frightening violent moments to really Beauty and the Beast kind of a moment or just a guy...the haunted man who's made a mistake and just has to pay for it everyday of his life. It's a real juggling act, its really Nic. I'm not kidding who really sells it, Nic could really sell it and he does and not many people could get away with that quiet frankly. It's great for me, it makes my job so much easier.

Question: In Daredevil you had some shout-outs to John Romita, and certain people who had things to do with the comic, are you going to have anything like that in this one?

Mark Steven Johnson: Yup (Laughs) but I'm not going to tell you who they are.

Question: How difficult or easy was it for you to find that line between being true to the comic book and taking liberties to tell just an individual story?

Mark Steven Johnson: To be honest it's a little easier on this one. Like for Daredevil you've got Frank Miller era and you've got just the legendary story lines, its more like how am I going to combine them all, how am I going to cherry pick all my favorite stuff or if you get stuck you can always go to the comic and say "Of course I'm going to use this." It was a luxury. This one you don't have that as much, I mean you cant buy Ghost Rider right now in the comic shop, it doesn't exist and I know their bring it back thank God. But that makes it more difficult because you don't have...there's some great stories but there's not like the perfect epic story line, the classic golden era of Ghost Rider. It was more just a fantastic character and a fantastic concept. So in a way that also frees me though because it gives you more leeway. You realize that this is something fantastic but it's also something that's maybe not been handled as well as it could've been. It should still be out their and its not, so that gives me freedom to kind of go "Ok." Usually you just try to make it as good as it comes, maybe you could actually improve it, and maybe you could actually make it better hopefully. That's what you hope for anyway.

Other Chapters Available:

Section One - Set Report Section Two - Interview: Nicolas Cage Section Four - Interview: Eva Mendes Section Five - Interview: Peter Fonda

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