‘The Wolfman’ claws its way to theaters despite a cursed production

Feb. 10, 2010 | 6:09 p.m.

This is a longer version of my story from the front page of today’s Calendar section in the Los Angeles Times.

Joe Johnston

Forget silver bullets, blooming wolf’s bane and full-moon fever — the real curse of “The Wolfman” was all the hard luck that the Universal Pictures release had to claw through to reach the screen Friday.

The old-school monster revival, which stars Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, arrives after enduring a late change in director, three release-date postponements and a major reworking in the edit bay. The strange thing, though, at least according to director Joe Johnston, is that somehow the film underwent a startling metamorphosis in the final cut.

“I think it’s turned into a film that is much, much better than the studio or probably anyone else expected,” the filmmaker said while sitting down for lunch at a Beverly Hills hotel. A few minutes later, though, he sounded less certain: “Sometimes you’re too close to something and after a period of time you just can’t really see it.”

Johnston, whose past credits include “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “Jurassic Park 3,” was brought onto the project in February 2008 — just three weeks before principal photography was set to start in England and only three days after the previous director, Mark Romanek (“One Hour Photo“), left the production amid a nasty budget conflict with Universal executives who were adamant that the movie stay at $100 million.

Johnston, a Texan by birth and an industry veteran with a reputation for candor, explained, with a shrug, that he was brought aboard the reeling production “because I could shoot the movie on budget in a certain number of days.”

He chuckled when asked if that feat was like jumping on a moving train. “The train, at that point, wasn’t moving at all. It was stopped on the tracks. I needed to get it moving and then change directions.”

Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro in The Wolfman

A conductor with a steady hand can only do so much, though, and the film was yanked off this past November’s release schedule when studio chiefs decided they wanted more (and better) visual effects. Some 200 visual-effects scenes were added and the extra shooting time and necessary computer labor pushed the budget closer to $120 million.

On top of that, Oscar-winning film editor Walter Murch was brought in late in the game to replace editor Dennis Virkler and to re-cut the entire movie. From the outside, the move looked like a salvage effort but Johnston spoke about it in the breezy terms of a student picking up new lessons.

“I sort of rediscovered what the movie was all about with Walter,” Johnston said. “He wrote the book, literally, on film editing [“In the Blink of an Eye“]. Walter believes in trying things that are a little unorthodox. If there’s a scene that you, as a director, know is central to the film and that you can’t live without, he’ll say, ‘Let’s cut that out.’ A film at that point is a liquid medium and it’s amazing how the loss of one shot or a piece of one shot will change an entire film. . . . With Walter, it was a good experience for me.”

Johnston didn’t laugh, wink, wince or cry as he said that, which will surprise many Hollywood observers who have followed “The Wolfman” and its travails. This is a film where even the composer changed as Paul Haslinger replaced ubiquitous spook-maestro Danny Elfman a few months ago — and then Elfman’s music was resurrected, combined with the music of Conrad Pope and Haslinger’s contribution was reduced to two minutes on screen.

Johnston also points out that, within days of taking on the director’s job, he flew to England and met with Hopkins for a pleasant drink — at which time the actor casually announced that he would be leaving the cast. Johnston coaxed him back by promising to re-insert several scenes that Romanek had trimmed. Those scenes didn’t make the final cut, but Hopkins isn’t complaining now.

“I don’t to want to go into the politics of it because I kept well out of it,” Hopkins said. “But there was a lot of pressure on Johnston by the studio and one day he even said to me, ‘They’ve asked me to direct it and now they need to let me direct it.’ He was very even-tempered. He just rolled with the punches. I don’t know how he kept his patience. I told him, ‘Joe, you’re a saint. I don’t know how you don’t just decapitate people.’ “

Interesting choice of words. There are more than a few heads that get lopped off in the film (“It’s sort of his signature move,” Johnston proudly said of his feral title character), and it will be a bit jolting to family and friends of Johnston whose previous movies included “Hidalgo” and “Jumanji.” Asked about the disconnect, he said that, oddly, this horror film reminded him of the theme-informed escapism of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

“In the same way that my first film appeals to kids with this notion of being shrunk, thrown away by their parents and lost in their own backyard, there’s something appealing in this one for adults,” Johnston said. “This is the first R-rated movie I’ve made. And I was committed to making the blood and violence be organic. I didn’t want it overlaid on the movie, which I feel happens with a lot of movies. The main character, Lawrence Talbot, is an extreme case but I think we all have that potential, we all have a dark side within us, a beast waiting for release.”

The film is a remake of the 1941 classic “The Wolf Man,” which made a star out of Lon Chaney Jr. in his signature role as Lawrence Talbot, an ill-fated Everyman who is bitten by a cursed beast in the English countryside and becomes a supernatural killer.

This time, Del Toro is in the Talbot role while Hopkins plays his father, Sir John, who is a more central character in the story by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self. Emily Blunt is on board, as is Hugo Weaving, who plays a policeman. Also, of note to horror fans, Oscar-winning makeup guru Rick Baker (“An American Werewolf in London,” “Hellboy“) was part of the team melding practical effects and digital wizardry to create the fanged sequences. 

The Wolfman

 

Johnston was so struck by Weaving’s performance that he tore out the script page with his death scene; the movie now keeps Weaving in play for a sequel. Johnston looked conflicted when asked if he would consider coming back for another “Wolfman.” “That depends on the story,” he said. “And a lot of things.”

A sequel may be mad optimism for a film that originally was supposed to be here in November 2008. Still, Hopkins said that when the theater lights finally darken for “The Wolfman” this week, good things may happen.

“I saw the final result and it was terrific,” Hopkins said. “There was a bit of a scrum to get it going, but it’s turned out really well.”

All will become clear in short order. Moviegoers will ultimately decide whether this latest Universal creature-feature is more like the studio’s forgettable “Van Helsing” or a throwback success like the “Mummy” trilogy, which racked up $1.25 billion worldwide. Unlike “The Mummy” films, though, this film is deadly serious — it’s closer in ethos, perhaps, to 1994′s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Johnston isn’t making predictions.

“The struggle of making a film for any studio is the fact that the producers and the studio have an idea of what the movie should be, but that is especially the case when the director is being replaced three weeks before principal photography,” Johnston said. “The challenge for me was to make sure that was my version of ‘The Wolfman.’ And I’ve done that. I think.”

– Geoff Boucher

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PHOTO GALLERY: Sexy beast! A history of werewolves in film

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Photo: Top, Joe Johnston with his film. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times.Second photo, Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro in “The Wolfman” Credit: Universal. Third, the clawing appeal of werewolves. Credit: Universal. Fourth, “The Wolf Man” in all his glory. Credit: Universal.

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