Interview: 'Captain America' Director Joe Johnston

Director Joe Johnston's contribution to the Marvel movie Universe, Captain America: The First Avenger, opens in theaters this weekend. Fans of the character have been anxious to see how the filmmakers would handle the challenge of creating a period origin story for a character who would also need to appear in Joss Whedon's upcoming epic super-hero ensemble, The Avengers. We had the chance to sit down and speak with Johnston about said challenge earlier this week.

Screen Rant: When this character first appeared it was at a time when a call to arms for the United States to rise up against the Nazis would have widely accepted, celebrated and embraced. The image of Captain America punching out Hitler prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor acted as rallying cry for us to get engaged in the war effort. He was a symbol of and for the times. Times are quite different now. How did you handle bringing this figure into the modern age, while still staying faithful to his origin?

"Well, the template that I used, sort of consciously and subconsciously, was 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' because there are similarities in both the period and the characters (you know, our hero against the Nazis) but it's also completely timeless. You know it looks as fresh today as it did in the '80s when it was made. And that's something I wanted this picture to be perceived as twenty or thirty years from now, is that it still looks fresh even though it takes place in the '40s. But I think that as far as good vs. evil, it's something that is such a universal theme and there are translations of that good vs. evil theme in all times, and in all cultures, and all situations. I mean we're sort of experiencing it now with the whole Osama bin Laden thing. Although at the time when we were shooting the film we weren't consciously doing that. We were basically just making a great adventure film. I think that I've received several comments you know, 'how fortuitous that they just killed Osama bin Laden right before your movie came out!' You know obviously we didn't plan that! (Laughing) If we had planned they would have shot him on opening weekend! You know but I think that it's really more about the spirit of this guy, of our main character more than anything. And that spirit of determination and wanting to do the right thing is translatable into any nationality and any period really - it's just sort of a universal theme."

SR: What did it mean to you to be responsible for bringing Marvel's first super-hero, super-powered man, to the big screen?

"Well is he really super-powered? I mean he's just the guy next door in my opinion. What made him interesting to me is that he's the scrawny kid from next door who's given this amazing gift, and then what does he go and do with it? But he's still the same guy, he's still Steve Rogers. He still has the determination that he's never going to give up until he reaches his goal, that's what made him interesting to me. It depends on how you define super power. You know he can't fly, and he can't breathe under water or do any of those things. He's basically the world's greatest Olympic athlete plus twenty-five percent. And wouldn't it be great to be that guy?"

SR: How did you handle the challenge of creating a world that is inherently anachronistic? You know it's a period piece with futuristic elements.

"Well I wanted it to be futurism of the '40s. I wanted it to be something that we may have designed, we may have dreamed about in the '40s. Its stuff that didn't actually exist... although some of the German stuff was actually designed. The triebflugel that Schmidt flys away in was actually engineered and was on the drawing boards. But I wanted it to be... I wanted it to look like what the future may have appeared like to people living in the '40s. So it's not where the future went, and its certainly not contemporary '40s, it's different, it's a heightened reality. It's something where we are allowed to take our liberties because for one thing its a comic book origin. But you know we wanted all of these vehicles, and airplanes, and cars and things to have elements to them that were not of that world, and they were not of our world, they were maybe what people were dreaming about in the '40s. That was sort of the model that we were going for."

Captain America in Helmet Wreathed in Shadow

SR: This film has references to the rest of the Marvel Universe, certainly to Thor, and Tony Stark's Father Howard plays a role in the film. How much conversation was there about those connections and when, where, and how to place them?

"Well you know the guys at Marvel never insist on anything. They never said, 'We have to put this in here because it related to "Thor."' But when there was an opportunity to do it that didn't seem out of context I was all for it. I mean there's lots of things we could have done that only the fans would have recognized but an audience member who is not a fan would have said, 'Why are they showing that? That doesn't make sense, that doesn't mean anything to the story.' So there's a lot of little things that will relate to fans but won't stick out as being weird or out of place. I talked to a guy in a comic book store once when we were in pre-production and I said, 'What's the most important thing about "Captain America" to you?' And  I didn't tell him who I was, and I didn't tell him I was working on the film and he said, 'Well the only thing that I worry about is that they're going to screw up the shield. They're going to make his shield have built in machine guns, and electric wires, and his shield is just a piece of metal - it doesn't do anything.' So I was thinking about that and I thought it would be really cool to design three or four shields that have all those things that this guys doesn't want to see and then have Steve Rogers say, 'Hey, what about this one down on the bottom shelf here?' So I wanted the fans to go, 'Oh no!' And then have them be really relieved when he picks up the shield. So, that was my sort of nod to the fans."

SR: I hope he gets a kick out of seeing that.

(Laughing) "I hope he does too. I hope he groans the loudest in the theater too."

SR: How did you work with the shield in the action sequences?

"Well the thing about the shield is that I didn't want him to over throw it. That's sort of his signature move, but it seemed to me like that could get old really fast and you could overuse it. So I think he only throws the shield four times in the movie - but they're all in situations where it's sort of a last resort. I never wanted it to be that he sort of throws it away, I wanted it to be important, so I sort of based those action sequences around that one moment instead of letting him overuse the shield. There were many more shots that we photographed where he throws it, and I decided to cut those out because it made the times that he did throw it more important."

Captain America movie clips

SR: When Kenneth Branagh was talking about Thor he said he had one job: Cast Thor. Did you feel that way about casting Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America?

"Well it certainly is the single most important casting choice of the movie. I mean, we screen tested a bunch of guys and some of them were great, but we kept wishing that we could combine different traits. We said gosh, 'I wish this guy was as tall as this guy cause' his acting is great...' You know we had gone after Chris and he had said no because he didn't want to do another "Fantastic Four" or he was hesitant because he didn't want to get typecast as an action, super-hero guy. But we had him come in and look at the art work on the walls which was amazing, we had these artists and designers doing this incredible stuff. So we said, 'Just come in and look at the art and then we'll sit down and chat. No pressure.' And he did, and at some point I promised Chris, I said, 'Look, I don't know what else is going to happen here but I can tell you one thing -- you will have fun making this movie. And to me that is the most important thing, you're going to have a blast if you say yes.' And it took some more negotiation but eventually he said yes and I know he had a lot of fun, we all did."

Captain America: The First Avenger opens this weekend - on Friday, July 22nd.

Make sure to take a look at Screen Rant's additional coverage from our conversation with Joe Johnston on the possibilities of Captain America 2 and a film adaptation of The Winter Soldier - as well as his desire to bring Star Wars back to the big screen with a Boba Fett movie.

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