Captain America: The First Avenger hits theaters next weekend and MoviesOnline sat down with director Joe Johnston and producer Kevin Feige to talk about what it was like bringing Captain America to life on the big screen. Without giving anything away, I think audiences will be excited to see what an amazing job the filmmakers have done.
At a press conference held this weekend in Los Angeles, Joe and Kevin revealed their secret to putting out a great movie that fits successfully into the Marvel cinematic universe. They talked about the challenges they faced coming up with the look of Captain America, why Raiders of the Lost Ark was a model for their approach to an origin story set in the ‘40s, how the use of 3D worked in the film, and what might be in the works for future Captain America films outside The Avengers. They also hinted at an Avengers Easter Egg that’s rumored to appear after the end credits following in the tradition of previous Marvel movies.
Here’s what they had to tell us:
Q: I’ll start by saying I absolutely loved this movie. Congratulations.
JJ: Thank you.
Q: Everything you guys have done at Marvel Studios I’ve enjoyed. It seems to be a borderline Pixar. What is your secret to putting out good stuff and how does it feel to know that the critics seem to like it?
KF: Well the movie hasn’t come out yet so we won’t count our chickens yet. But the secret’s right here. You hire great writers, you hire a great director and you work with them to try to make a great movie. It’s that simple.
Q: Was there concern about depicting Nazis and the Third Reich in the movie and have Hydra sort of replace them?
JJ: A concern? Nazis are the universal villain. You can kill Nazis with impunity. These are uber Nazis so you can kill with even more impunity.
KF: And Hydra, of course, is right out of Marvel Comics and we always said that this is a Marvel movie. This is the history of the Marvel version of World War II and Hydra and Skull really were the primary ones. So it wasn’t anything we hid from and there are Nazis in the film, but we wanted Hydra and the origin of Red Skull to be the primary antagonists for this story.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about casting Chris Evans as Captain America? Was it a little tricky finding your Captain America?
JJ: We screen tested about 12 or 15 potential Captain Americas and we kept saying “Gee, I wish we could combine these two guys.” Because we liked one guy’s face and we liked the other guy’s acting, but Chris was always at the top of our list. He had said no because he was concerned about doing another super hero movie, but we just kept after him and one day we said just get him in to look at the artwork that was on the walls in the art department. I think it was that and the fact that he liked us that he eventually said yes and he was just very comfortable with us and convinced we were going to make the right moves with the right Captain America.
Q: Can you talk about bringing a well known Marvel character like Captain America to the big screen? Was there any hesitation over whether or not there was going to be a Captain America movie or if you were just going to bunch him into The Avengers when that finally happened?
KF: Not really. We had talked early on about wanting to bring the Avengers to the screen the way they were brought to the comics, which was those characters had existed in their own comic books before being put together into a single comic. Captain America is clearly one of the most famous and most important characters we have and he’s got one of the best origin stories, the best rogue’s gallery, so we knew that he could hold his own movie easily and we always planned on introducing him in his own movie first.
Q: Joe, this film has the energy of the classic serials. There’s a real throwback quality to it and an innocence that I think will appeal especially to younger kids. There’s also a musical number in it and I’d like to thank you for that. How did you approach this film in terms of tone and were there certain films or serials that you were looking to as inspiration?
JJ: We had always talked about contemporary films of this period that we liked and Raiders was the model that we used. We used it as a template for a lot of reasons but it still feels contemporary today and even though it was made 30 years ago, it still feels absolutely fresh. I wanted Captain America to feel like that, to feel like it wasn’t a film made in the 40s. It was a film about the 40s made today. As far as the tone, I think the character of Steve Rogers has an innocence about him and this determination that is probably the most American thing about him. It’s not a propaganda tool. We’re not waving the flag or anything. It’s about this guy who wants to do the right thing. I think that runs throughout the tone of the picture.
Q: Joe, can you talk about working with Tommy Lee Jones and your approach to directing him and his approach to the character?
JJ: Tommy Lee Jones has played this part before and he was very well aware of that. He did play it differently. He played a Colonel Phillips that I’ve never seen before. I found the most effective way to direct Tommy Lee Jones was just to laugh at him. He’s actually very funny and has a great sense of humor but nobody ever laughs at him. I think people are sort of afraid of him but he’s the sweetest guy in the world.
KF: I was afraid.
Q: How do you feel about Captain America opening surrounded by these lesser films like Green Lantern and how does it fit into the summer?
KF: There’s always going to be at least one big movie every weekend of every summer, certainly that I can remember, and I’m sure for years to come. So that’s just the reality of it. I do like that we’ve sorted of bookended the summer, that Thor, our first film of this year, was the first film essentially of the summer and Captain America is sort of rounding out the back end and there’s all sorts of things good and bad in between that. But I do feel comfortable in the way that we’ve separated the Marvel movies and we’re not in charge of or in control of what happens in between those bookends. We just try to make the bookends as good as we can.
Q: Joe, one of my favorite movies of yours is The Rocketeer and this really reminded me of that because of the innocent guy who turns hero, the romance and the Nazis. Was that in the back of your head at any time?
JJ: I will say that it was not in my mind at all when I was making this film, but I went to see the 20th anniversary screening of The Rocketeer and I was really surprised at how many very specific similarities there were in the picture that I had totally forgotten about. So, yeah, it must have been in the genes or something. I don’t know.
Q: At first you wanted to use a different actor for the scrawny Steve Rogers but Chris insisted and he looked really good. How did you accomplish that?
JJ: When we started the process of creating skinny Steve, we didn’t really know how we were going to do it. We knew we had to take him from the way he looks now, 6’ and 180 pounds, to 5’7” and 98 pounds. We shot a lot of different tests and we experimented with a lot of different things but we found that the most effective way was to photograph Chris himself and to shrink him down using digital effects just because that way we got the performance of Chris. We didn’t have to worry about trying to have another body double actor recreate Chris’s performance. There are a couple shots where it is a head replacement where he’s lying on a table or sitting in a chair where it doesn’t require any physical acting but it’s mostly Chris.
Q: What was the decision making behind Chris’s character punching Hitler and do you think about what the fans might want?
KF: On the cover of Captain America, it’s him punching out Hitler and we wanted to sort of tip our hat to that. But frankly, to put him in a scenario where that could actually occur was more difficult, particularly as I’ve already said, because we wanted to set up Johann Schmidt and Red Skull as the primary foe in the comics over the years of Steve Rogers. But we did early on have this idea to incorporate that punching into the movie and be able to tip our hat to that cover, and in the movie, it’s that part of the USO Show that inspires the comic and it’s sort of a great Marvel tradition that the Marvel comics exist within the Marvel universe. They’re not quite accurate but they’re inspired by their heroes. But you can always punch Hitler in another movie, I guess.
JJ: But he does punch him out over 200 times.
KF: That’s true.
JJ: And that was actually Chris’s stand-in that he punched who played Hitler in that film.
KF: He looked remarkably like him.
JJ: He did.
Q: Is there another epilogue besides the one we saw before the final credits?
KF: I don’t think there’s talk of another epilogue. On this movie, that sort of epilogue is before the credits when you go to black, you come back up and you’re not sure where you are.
Q: So there isn’t anything after the credits?
KF: Not in the screening you saw. (laughs)
Q: Joe, I was really impressed with the effects in this movie. Is your approach to visual effects informed by your time at ILM? Also, what was the genesis of the musical number and were you a little worried about it, especially after Spiderman 3?
JJ: My time at ILM was a long time ago and the technology was completely different. We had to build models and photograph them in front of a blue screen and there was no digital technology at all. Since then, I have learned that the CG has gotten so advanced and so great that you can do anything you can think of as long as you can communicate that to the guy who’s sitting at the keyboard, which is the hard part, and you can put it on the screen. I think for someone like me that’s all you need to know. If you can translate your thoughts to the artists and technicians, you can achieve it. As far as the dance number goes, it’s my favorite scene in the movie.
KF: We knew we wanted to introduce the idea of the costume in the USO-type setting and Joe embraced that idea and liked the idea of a musical number. Spiderman 3 hadn’t occurred to me, but we always knew from the start that Cap wasn’t going to sing and dance. He was sort of overwhelmed and felt out of place in the stage show and had very little choreography and had to read off of cue cards and that was part of the fun for us. And Chris, when he first found out we were doing something like this, was like “Am I singing and dancing? What is this?” We said “No, no, no. That’s not what it is.” So had we gone that way, I think we would have been more concerned, but we were pretty confident the way that we were talking about.
JJ: As you may have noticed, Alan Menken wrote that USO song. Alan Menken probably has more Academy Awards than anybody.
KF: He does. That song has been in all of our heads for the better part of a year.
JJ: It’s hard to get rid of.
Q: Joe, can you talk about the use of 3D in the movie? How did that work?
JJ: We always intended for it to be a 3D release – 2D and 3D, but we didn’t shoot in 3D. We shot it in 2D but we shot a separate pass. We call it the left eye pass which made it a lot easier to convert to 3D. But I shot it to look like 3D in 2D basically. With Shelly Johnson’s photography and Rick Heinrichs’s production design, the 2D looked 3D to me. It was this amazing look before we ever started converting any of the film to 3D and now it looks even better. But I think that the story is so strong that it works in 2D or 3D and it will work on DVD and Super 8 and slides if it ever gets there.
KF: To get to that decision, we actually in preparation tested the 3D rigs. I took one of the eyes as Joe said and sent it to a conversion company and compared it to, and for us, that was the best choice – conversion.
Q: We’ve been talking a lot about how much the 40s era added to the spirit and the charm of this film. Was there much debate about should we set the movie in the 40s for a contemporary audience beyond just trying to tell a nugget size version of his origin story? How much do you think the 40s may factor into future Captain America films outside The Avengers?
KF: In the early days of developing it, we assumed and in fact developed a script that took place half in the 40s, half in the present day. But it just felt like both sides were getting the short shrift. When we were initially in our conversations with Joe, two or three or even longer years ago, we brought him into that conversation. Do we go full 40s? Do we do half and half? What do you think? And he was very much in support of the full period. Because it is an origin story and it is his initial adventure, it just made sense. And frankly, because there are so many other comic book movies out there, we knew that this could help it stand apart if we just again stayed true to his origin and to that source material, it would be the best story, the best version of the movie, and give us a way of separating ourselves from the pack and all the other films out there. So there was a little bit of discussion in terms of period. For some reason, there’s logic that says modern audiences aren’t interested in period films, but if you look at the top 20 movies of all time, if you have a slightly looser [definition of period film], they’re almost all period. Harry Potter is almost period, at least in its vibe. Right? So we were pretty confident in it.
Q: What were you thinking as far as future possible Captain America movies?
KF: As Chris said, the span of the movie is about two or three years and there’s a few times in the film where you jump from fours months ahead, you jump six months ahead. So we did that with the intention of saying “Okay, there are certainly unseen adventures that Captain America went on in that period that if we want to we could go back and explore later.
Q: Kevin, what is the importance of Marvel having a home in Manhattan Beach? And, in general, can you talk about the work done at the studios?
KF: We made Iron Man 2 and Thor there. Cap was done mostly in the U.K. because that’s where much of the movie took place. Wherever the story calls for is where we’ll go film the movies. So we may not do all of the movies down there at Manhattan Beach and we might not film them there, but there’s a great advantage to being under one roof. We do our prep there and the art departments are there. A few of the films we shot there and we posted editorial all there.
Q: The look of a superhero in the movies is one of the biggest things for fans. How long did it take for you guys to come up with the look that you wanted for Captain America that would be functional for the movie and also please the fans?
JJ: As Kevin said, we wanted to reference the original suit and the only way we could figure out how to do that was the USO Show because it’s like wearing flag pajamas. But we spent months and months developing his combat suit. We built several versions of it that we then took apart and basically threw away and started over. It was a long process and we knew what we wanted. Basically, working from the Brubaker series of comics, we wanted it to have that flavor. But it also needed to be something that he could run in and move in. We built a great suit that he could barely turn his head in and it didn’t work. Anna Sheppard came in and designed and built by hand this amazing suit that we then continued to modify until it was something that Chris was happy with. I think it looks great.
Q: In terms of that 70-year period, what was the explanation for what happened to him between when he got into the original crash in the beginning and the hospital scene at the end? How did they preserve him? I was kind of disappointed that he never made the date.
JJ: So was he. It was Dr. Erskine’s serum that allowed him to be frozen for 70 years and not die basically. It was better than Walt Disney. (loud laughter)
KF: That’s right, Disney bought you guys.
JJ: No, it was the extreme cold and Dr. Erskine’s serum that allowed him to survive.
Q: Did the lady ever find out what happened to him?
JJ: When he’s brought back to life, the lady is 88 years old. I mean, I would love to see them have that date.
KF: It’s a May-December romance. Stay tuned.
JJ: That’s right.
Q: Does that mean Peggy’s still alive?
JJ: Yes, oh yeah, absolutely. She’s still alive.
Q: How do you think your super hero fits in with the other super heroes that have been around this summer regardless of how good or bad the movies are? How do they compare with the type of super hero that you portrayed and how do you think audiences will relate to yours as opposed to the others?
KF: The truth is, Joe has always said that what attracted him to this project is that Steve essentially is a man and is a normal person. Even after the procedure, he’s got a great body and he’s certainly at the peak of human endurance. But it’s still human endurance. So, if he gets shot as he does briefly in the movie or gets grazed, he could get killed. He’s faster. He can run faster and he’s slightly stronger than your average Joe, but he’s not a Norse god. He doesn’t have a green ring. He doesn’t have an iron suit. I think that’s what attracted Joe to this project and that’s why the action scenes in the movie are as exciting as they are, because at any moment he could get run over or shot or who knows what horrible thing could happen to him. In terms of relatability, we hope that that’s part of it. We hope that we can make all of our heroes – whether they’re from Asgaard or a rich weapons billionaire industrialist – relatable to an audience, but with Steve Rogers it’s pretty easy. With Steve Rogers, he is like Peter Parker in the 1940s. He is relatable to most of us I think and that wish fulfillment of seeing him struggle and endure and emerge victorious is I think what going to the movies is all about.
Q: It was expected of a period piece to have a damsel in distress that needs rescuing, but the first time we see the girl in this movie, she’s punching a soldier in the face. She’s pretty tough. The first time they kiss is actually the last time he sees her. Did you make a specific decision to downplay the romance in this movie?
JJ: It’s not so much that we wanted to downplay the romance but we wanted to always hold it off so that you wanted them to get together, so that it made the ending more bittersweet when they get one kiss and that is the extent of their romance. As far as the Peggy Carter of it all, what’s hotter than a beautiful girl who knows how to use a machine gun?
Captain America: The First Avenger opens in theaters on July 22nd.