Mark Steven Johnson on Ghost Rider

Superhero Hype! talked to Ghost Rider writer/director Mark Steven Johnson on Thursday, November 30, 2006 at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery:

SHH!: Who is more obsessed about this character, you or Nic?

Mark Steven Johnson: Me.

SHH!: When did you first read the comic book?

MSJ: When did I? I was probably 10. Yeah, at 10, maybe 11. Yeah, I mean this is like, this and Daredevil, I mean, those are my two favorites. That’s how I learned to read, literally.

SHH!: At what point were you able to say you could get this movie made? How did that come about?

MSJ: This is the movie I always wanted to make. And the rights weren’t available. That’s why I made Daredevil. But this is the one that I went to Avi with at Marvel, and this is the one that I tried to get done. To me, Ghost Rider was interesting because he doesn’t have like the best story, necessarily, or the best villains, or whatnot, like Spider-Man, but he’s the most visual. It’s like, he would go in and out of circulation. He’d drop out. But people still got tattoos of Ghost Rider on their body, put them on their motorcycle, you know what I mean? For a reason. Something about the flaming skull and the motorcycle, it just resonates. It’s lasted 40 years because of that image. So that, to me, it tells me that it’s like the best thing for a movie.

SHH!: What did you learn from the Daredevil experience?

MSJ: How much time you got? [Laughter] You want to come over, stay at my place for a few days?

SHH!: That good, huh?

MSJ: Uh-huh. No, look. A lot of it was me. I was coming from, I directed one very small movie and then I went to Daredevil, which was a $75 million, which, God bless it, made a lot of money for the studio and whatnot. But it was a very, very difficult shoot, a very hard thing to do. It was kind of before– I mean, when I made Daredevil, Spider-Man hadn’t come out yet. It was still in post. So no one quite understood the value of these characters and staying true to the comic. So everything was a fight. You know what I mean? It’s like, everything is a fight. So when you get to Ghost Rider, by now enough things have had success that– and Sony has had such success with Spider-Man, that they get it. You don’t got to go, “No, no, no, wait. It’s Ghost Rider. It’s got to be a skull on fire.” You know what I mean, which is like what it was like with Daredevil. No, he’s got to have horns and be in red. It’s like, no. So that’s been the big thing. You have a studio who’s backing it going, “We get it. We get it. Just help us get there.”

SHH!: We won’t be seeing a director’s cut of Ghost Rider?

MSJ: There’s always a director’s cut of Ghost Rider. But no, there won’t be like, “This is my vision that I didn’t…” Yeah. Nothing. Nothing as radical as Daredevil. It was 30 minutes.

SHH!: I saw it and liked it a lot.

MSJ: Whenever I got to speak at the Comic Cons, there’s always people with the director’s cut saying, “Dude. Why didn’t you release this?” I’m like [shrugs]. It’s preaching to the choir time. But yeah, it’s one thing like when you have a director’s cut that adds five minutes, but when you add 30 minutes, that’s a quarter of a movie, you know what I mean.

SHH!: It’s like the Donner cut of Superman II that just came out.

MSJ: I haven’t seen it. Is it great?

SHH!: It is great.

MSJ: Is it really? I can’t wait to see it.

SHH!: Daredevil came to mind when I was watching it.

MSJ: I know, it’s radically different. It really is. It breaks my heart. And I wish that cable would show director’s cuts. Like maybe one day there’ll be like one of the channels like… There’s so many HBOs. Like seven HBO channels. Well, one of them should just show director’s cuts. It’d be so interesting.

SHH!: The director’s cut channel.

MSJ: Yeah. Exactly. And all the time, they’re not always better, as we all know. But in that case it really is better, I think.

SHH!: What changes did you make to the original Goyer script? I heard it was a lot darker.

MSJ: I really liked the Goyer script a lot. I thought it was cool. It was really dark, and it was hard R, and bleak in my opinion, which is cool and all, but again, look, you make your own deal with the devil when you make a movie, and if I’m going to make a Ghost Rider movie, it’s not Blade or Crow, it’s the visual effect. Every time you show the Ghost Rider, it’s 50 grand. You know what I mean? Close up. So you it’s like, okay, the studio says to you, “I’m going to let you make your movie, your vision, but you’ve got to make sure it’s a PG-13. We’ve got to make money.” Which is fair, you know what I mean? If you don’t want to do it, you go, “Nah. I’m out.” I was okay with that. My favorite movies growing up as a kid were not hard Rs. They were Jaws, which is PG. They didn’t have a PG-13 back then. It’s PG. It was Raiders. It was Star Wars. It was E.T. You know what I mean? That’s how I grew up. And other movies not done by Spielberg, actually [laughs]. You know what I mean. But it’s like, that’s the deal you make. So when I saw David’s script it was like, “Wow, this is so cool. But it’s not what I want to do. I want to make my own thing.” And my thing was that there was so many comic book movies being made I wanted to make something different. So I didn’t want to set it in New York. Ghost Rider doesn’t put on a leotard and jump out the window. He’s not that kind of guy. It’s more like a monster movie. It’s a werewolf story. You know what I mean? The moon comes out and he changes and it’s painful. It’s American Werewolf in London. That was the tone, always, for this movie.

SHH!: It seems like Nicolas had a very strong vision of how he wanted to play this.

MSJ: Absolutely.

SHH!: You had a strong vision too. And they just matched?

MSJ: Oh, totally. There were slight differences. And what I love about Nic is that I love– I keep, again, thinking about like Johnny Depp in Pirates. When he did his character people were like, “What are you doing?” And the studio shut everything down, they were so worried. It’s like, you’re playing like a gay Keith Richards? What are you doing? But sometimes like the eccentricity it’s not just for being eccentric. It’s because it’s real. You know what I mean? We’re all weird. People are weird. And when I first wrote Johnny Blaze, I wrote him as a guy who’s drinking Jack Daniels out of the bottle, smoking, death wish. And it was a cliche. And Nic said to me, “I don’t know anyone who drinks Jack Daniels out of a bottle. Have you ever?” I’m like, “No.” Do you ever drink any hard liquor out of a bottle? I’m thinking, I’ve never done that. Who does that? Who does that? Nobody but the movies. You know what I mean? [Laughter] And so Nic said, “For me, if I’m Johnny Blaze, it’s like being in a dentist’s chair.” And that came with the Carpenter’s idea. It’s just like, it’s that music playing. It’s just like, Superstar playing in the background, or whatever it is. And any minute they’re going to hit a nerve and you’re going to explode. And it’s like, God, that’s so smart. You know what I mean? It’s so honest and so unique and so different. And jelly beans, the idea of that, again, it’s childlike things, trying to comfort yourself. Keep the monster down. It hurts to explode. Keep it down. Do things that make you comfortable, because any moment it’s just going to go bad. I thought, how unique. How different. And how against what I initially wrote, but the same spirit of what I wrote. So the good thing is that we got together and we started talking and we were talking about the comic. He knows all the issues. He know the character. He knows Danny Ketch. He knows Johnny Blaze. He knows Noble Kale. He knows all the things that went wrong or right about it. And so it’s short hand. We just started talking, it’s like we get it.

SHH!: A movie like this is at the mercy of the state of visual effects. You can only do a movie like this if the technology is there. How long did you have to wait? If you made the film later would it even be different?

MSJ: Maybe. Who knows. But I know this, I know that like in my office in the editing room, I have this great poster of the movie that says, “Coming Summer 2006” [laughs]. And here we are in the graveyard. And I’m still not done. So it’s been a learning process. It’s been developing CGI as we go, things that don’t exist, that have never been done. And you always want to say– It sounds so sick to go, “Oh, this has never been done before.” But that’s not what I mean. It’s just like, it’s literally like what we wanted to be done hasn’t been done, has to be written, has to be programmed, and it’s been really, really tough.

SHH!: So you had the delay, and it’s been…

MSJ: No. Look, the good news was, to be honest, it was going to be August. I think it was August 6 or 8. And they saw the movie, the studio, and they loved it. And they’re like, “We’re going to move you up to July-something.” It was like July 15 or 14. We’re like, “Great.” Middle of the summer sweepstakes. They believe in the movie, they’re going to support it, whatever. But that was like the second week of Pirates of the Caribbean 2. It’s just like, if you’re in the second week of Pirates, they’re sill making $50 million, $70 million, you know what I mean? So we’re like, “Well, that’s not a very good idea.” Even Daredevil, with all the hits we took on it critically, it opened at $40 million plus that weekend that we’re going to be in now, President’s Day weekend. And that was with the snowstorm that shut down the east coast. So it’s been a good weekend for me.

SHH!: With the delay, have you been able to add things?

MSJ: Totally. Oh my God. So much. Yeah, yeah. So July was never a realistic thing. July would have been like, we would have been working 24/7 to make July. It would have been impossible. August would have been impossible. And as it is, February’s going to be really tight. So for me, I started writing this movie in May of ’03. Daredevil came out in February and I went and there were many different movies and so on and so. This came up and I’ve always wanted to do that. And then I started writing May of ’03 and here we are, February ’07. This is all I’ve done is this movie. It’s not like I’m making Lawrence of Arabia. I’m making a movie about a f**king dude with a skull on fire. I just hope people will go, you know what I mean. But you never know.

SHH!: Do you want to do a small movie after this?

MSJ: I want to do like My Breakfast with Andre [laughter]. Two people talking, that’s all I want to do. “What did you do today?” Over the shoulder, close-up, close-up. In and out in seven days.

SHH!: Andre’s skull would erupt in flames.

MSJ: It would have caught on fire. He would have jumped out a window.

SHH!: How important was it to have Nicolas do the stunts.

MSJ: You need the body. You need the body language. Because again, I don’t got the lips and eyes. And as you said, the body tells you so much. So, so much of that was him. If it was a very violent scene, it would be Eddie, his stunt man. But most of the time it was Nic. And we talked a lot about that. What can the Ghost Rider tell from body language? And what can he do and what not and how much can Nic do safely. Because actors always say, “I did all my stunts.” That’s Bullsh*t. It’s not true. I’m here to tell you that is not true.

SHH!: Nic said he did most of his stunts.

MSJ: Did he say that?

SHH!: I think he tried to do most of his stunts.

MSJ: Well in this case it’s absolutely true [laughter]. Let me finish. It’s absolutely true in this case.

SHH!: What was the hardest scene?

MSJ: The hardest scene for us to shoot, I guess it’d probably be in San Verganza, the final battle, which is in an old Mexican ghost town where he’s fighting Blackheart. Because it’s one of those things where it’s like you’ve got the son of the devil, who’s evolved–no one’s seen what he looks like when he’s done–versus the Ghost Rider. It’s one of those weird things where it’s like you always want your hero to be the underdog. Like, if he’s not the underdog, why do you root for him? But he’s the Ghost Rider. He’s a flaming skull on the Hell Cycle. How do you get cooler than that. You know what I mean? So it was always like trying to make him the underdog. The solution was always like, well, okay the ticking clock. In the comics he was the Ghost Rider day or night. So I made him nocturnal. The sun comes up, you saw how painful that was. He’s Johnny Blaze.

SHH!: That was incredible.

MSJ: Good. I’m glad you like it. It’s really violent. And so in our movie, the final battle is happening as the sun’s coming up. So that was a great thing to work with. But it was always like, the standard fighting and stuff didn’t quite work when you’re dealing with these effects. So pretty soon you get the effects of Blackheart, the effects of the Ghost Rider, the usual wire work and fighting and whatnot, and it gets to be like, what’s real anymore. You know what I mean? Everything is just like unbelievably complicated.

SHH!: Did cost play a role in shooting in Melbourne?

MSJ: Absolutely. That’s why we went there. I actually scouted Dallas in Texas. The movie’s set in Texas and we never name the city. We always just call it the city. But we went to Australia to scout, and I went to Sydney like everybody does, and I was like, “This is not– It doesn’t work.” Sydney is The Matrix. It’s modern. It’s beautiful. But it’s just not right. And then I went to Melbourne and I fell in love. Melbourne is fantastic. Melbourne could double for anything. And not in a generic way, but in a way that it’s got so much personality and every neighborhood’s different. Cobblestone streets and you’re like in the Village in New York. And then suddenly there’s cable cars and you’re in San Francisco. You’re in Chicago and there’s the river and the bridge, and it was just absolutely fantastic. So in a lot of ways it’s like a valentine, this move, to Melbourne, Australia. I just love it.

SHH!: How were the crews down there?

MSJ: Fantastic. I mean, my director of photography is Russell Boyd, and he won the Academy Award for Master and Commander. This is his first movie after that. So it’s a big deal for me to get him. And to have a really serious–he’s a goofball like all of us–but a serious cinematographer to go, “I want to do this as my next film after Master and Commander. I want to make a palette and I want to create magic and do something different.” And Russell’s amazing. And the crews there are amazing. And most important, the people are amazing. It’s like, if you want to go down the street and blow out all the windows and flip cars and stuff, people are like, “Cool. What do you need?” [Laughter] They just want to hang out. They just want to be part of it. It’s not like here or in New York where it’s like everyone’s trying to get as much money as they can and gouge you and refuse to turn their lights off. You know what I mean? Because they want more money. Because they all know the deal. Australians are just like, “We’re just happy to be included.” They just want to be a part of it.

SHH!: There was a shot in the clips we saw of Ghost Rider next to someone who seems to be the original Ghost Rider. Is that Sam Elliot? Or his father?

MSJ: Sam Elliot plays the Caretaker, which is a character in the ’90s version of Ghost Rider. There are different versions.

SHH!: The Danny Ketch version?

MSJ: Yeah, yeah. He’s a mysterious old man who lives in a graveyard and takes care of the Ghost Rider. He gives him lessons. He’s kind of his master in a lot of ways.

SHH!: How did you think of Peter Fonda?

MSJ: It’s funny, right? I know. I wanted like the ultimate motorcycle icon, because this is a motorcycle movie. And it’s like that Easy Rider. And I thought, I want to get Peter Fonda. And so he came on, and I thought, it’s so cool, because it’s like the ultimate first crossover–Captain America versus Ghost Rider [laughs]. Nobody gets that joke. I always think it’s funny. I laugh myself. And the chopper that Johnny rides is an exact replica of the Captain America bike. So when the devil shows up to Johnny, he looks at it and he goes, “Nice bike, Johnny.” And he walks by and I’m always the person going [laughs loudly] laughing and they’re like, “What?”

SHH!: Nic said he tried to persuade you to have Peter dress in the Easy Rider jacket?

MSJ: Did he say that? [Shakes head and laughs.]

SHH!: He said he wanted Tom Waits for the part.

MSJ: Oh, Tom Waits is awesome. But I always wanted Peter. And I’m lucky I got him. And I always wanted like a devil that was like dignified. Not like a goofy devil, not like a tap-dancing, laughing– like the devil was in Constantine or Devil’s Advocate, you know, like Pacino. It was great, but it was always like laughing and tap dancing and f**king Nicholson in Witches of Eastwick. I don’t want that. Why is the devil always a goofball. I wanted him to just be cool and have his sh*t together. So in our movie, it’s like, the devil’s Mephistopheles. He’s from Faust. There’s so many different versions of the devil, but I like the devil who like makes a deal with you in a contract. It’s very clear. Sign your name here in blood, and if you do that I’ll give you whatever you want. All I want is your soul. You know what I mean? It’s very clear. And I like that.

SHH!: Why is his father dead then?

MSJ: The deal is that his dad had cancer. And so Johnny made a deal with Mephistopheles to save his dad. And so he signed the contract. Actually, he tricked him and he had a paper cut and it dropped and the devil says, “Oh, that’ll do just fine.” And he rolls it up. And what happens is that the devil screws you over. He’s not a fair player. So his dad and he jumped bikes in the carnival when he was a kid. And what you see is that dad wakes up and he’s like, “I feel great. I feel healthy as a horse.” Just like the devil said. “Come on son, let’s go.” And they go do this show and guess what, Johnny’s dad crashes and dies. And there’s the devil smiling, laughing at him in the doorway. And so the devil gave him what he wanted, but he screwed him over.

SHH!: Because he didn’t die of cancer.

MSJ: That’s what he says. Young Johnny looks at him in the beginning and says, “You killed him.” He says, “I cured his cancer. That was the deal. But I couldn’t let him come between us.”

SHH!: You seem to be attracted to the second tier of comic book heroes. Can you talk about those and about Preacher?

MSJ: I like those guys. I like the dark. For some reason, I don’t think I’m that personally, but I like the darker characters. I like the underdogs. I like the guys who aren’t Superman, who bullets bounce off his eyes, or who can spin back the world and reverse time. Who can root for that guy? I know he’s got Kryptonite, but so what? Even like, I think The Matrix is one of the greatest science-fiction movies of all time. Because it’s newer, people will be like, “Oh, not that.” It’s up there with 2001. You know what I mean? The problem is The Matrix 2 and 3 happened and you’re like, well, Neo could fly. You know what I mean? It’s like, all the bad guys come and, “Dude, just fly away. You don’t got to deal with this. Go away. You can fly.” The end of that movie, it’s like, “I’m going to talk to everybody,” and he shoots out and like, “Yeah!” How do you improve on that? That’s how Superman was to me, and a lot of these characters, like they’re so powerful. They’ve got so much power, so much going for them. I like the guys who don’t got that much going for them, the guys who are– the clock ticks and the sun comes up and you’re screwed. And it’s all you. You’re all alone and you’re against someone who’s got superpowers. You’re done. I like that. Or the guy who’s blind who dresses up like a devil and jumps out the window. I think that’s really interesting. Or Preacher, it’s like a guy who’s forced into being a preacher, who comes up with the voice of God. And everyone’s just trying to kill him because he’s as powerful as God. And he can do whatever he wants with that power. And instead he says, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to find God. And I’m going to make him pay. I want God to answer for everything he’s done to people.” I think that’s really honorable. … God gets scared and he leaves Heaven because Jesse’s so powerful. Jesse says, “You know what? I’m going to find God. And I don’t care how long it takes. And I want to make God give an answer to everybody and say why you’ve deserted your people.” It’s honorable.

SHH!: Why TV and not a feature?

MSJ: Well Preacher is 70-something issues. There was going to be a movie made of Preacher a while ago and I read the script and it broke my heart. Because I’m like, oh, it’s not a two hour movie. Preacher’s six years. Six dedicated years of the most incredible stuff you’ve ever seen in your whole life. So I always thought HBO was the only way to do that. Even if you did two, three movies back to back to back, if anyone ever took that gamble, it’s not enough. Preacher deserves to be there, week after week after week. And I went into HBO and they said, “We want to be in business with you.” “What do you want to do?” I said, “I want to do this.” And I gave them the comics and I said, “Every issue is an hour.” Simple. Every issue’s an hour. And it’s exactly the book.

SHH!: So they’re taking it straight from the book.

MSJ: Absolutely. I had my meeting yesterday and Garth Ennis is on the phone and we’re all in the room and Garth is like, “You don’t have to be so beholden to the comic. We just did this because …” And I’m like, “No, no, no. It’s got to be like the comic.” So that’s what’s so brilliant about it. It’s just like, HBO, who else would do it but them? Nobody. Nobody. No feature would even do it. HBO is just like, “Bring it on.” You’ve got to read Preacher. Read it. You’ll love it. You’ll love it. I went and I bought Preacher, and this girl at Hi Dee Ho in Santa Monica. … I go to buy it and she goes, “Did you lose your copy or something?” I go, “No, I’ve never read it before.” And she stops. “You’ve never read Preacher?” And I go, “No.” And she goes, “I’m so jealous. You’re about to experience this for the first time.” And I thought, “That’s so sweet.” And I told Garth my story, because it meant so much to me that she was like so touched. It’s just like, “Dude. It’s going to blow your mind.” And since then I give them out as gifts. “Read this, read this, read that.” It’s truly like that.

SHH!: What about casting?

MSJ: I haven’t even written it yet. I had my meeting yesterday, so I’ve got to get writing.

SHH!: When are you starting?

MSJ: Right now. Literally, when I get home.

SHH!: Is it strange to go to straight into that?

MSJ: Yeah, I’m exhausted. But look at that bike. Look at that. Come on. How cool is that? You know what I mean? How can you be tired? It’s like being tired after going to an amusement park. “Oh, I’m so tired. I’ve been on all these roller coasters.” Like, shut up.

SHH!: If you had carte blanche on a Daredevil sequel, would you be interested?

MSJ: I’d love to do it, and I’ve love it if I could reboot it, and go back to Man Without Fear.

SHH!: I’ve heard it talked about.

MSJ: I know. I hear it talked about too.

SHH!: Affleck said he wouldn’t do another one.

MSJ: He said he wouldn’t do another one, which is great. God bless him. I love Ben. But the point is…

SHH!: Did you swear that you wouldn’t do another one?

MSJ: I haven’t said that. No, but you know what? It’s like, the truth is, is that the movie did make them a lot of money. And they thought that a lot of that was because of Elektra. So they made the Elektra movie.

SHH!: Which was a great movie.

MSJ: Which I had nothing to do with. I have a credit on because I did Daredevil. I didn’t write it or anything else. But it was a really bad movie and it tanked. And so they’re like, “Well that’s done.” I was like, “No, you don’t get it. Daredevil’s a great character. He’s a handicapped superhero. You’ve never seen that before. People went because of that.” And they really believed it was because of the sex. It was because of her. So they thought that Elektra was the sequel to Daredevil. Which it’s not.

SHH!: That’s what’s great about the director’s cut. You pull back on that.

MSJ: That’s what’s correct. It’s not about her. She’s a huge part of the movie, but it’s not about her. It’s about them.

SHH!: The cast aren’t signed for another one. Do you have a deal for another Ghost Rider?

MSJ: Who needs them? I don’t need them.

SHH!: You could do the Danny Ketch one.

MSJ: Yeah. I’ll start all over again. No. everybody would like to do another one, if it’s better than the original. You just don’t want to jinx it, you know what I mean? Because who knows. The truth of the matter is, is that I love it. We all love it. But it’s really weird. And like really weird things come up and people either go, “It’s stupid. I’m not buying it.” And they shy away. Or they go, “Yeah, it’s really weird and I get it. I’m there for it. I go with it.” You just don’t know. It’s a high wire act. There’s no safety net. You do it, and like I said, I’ve spent three and a half years on it. And I’m hoping people go, but they may not. They may just say, “Too f**king weird.” You never know.

Ghost Rider hits theaters on February 16.

Source: Heather Newgen