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Jonah Hex – On-set Director Jimmy Hayward shares his thoughts during a meal break

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Jonah Hex - Josh Brolin and director Jimmy Hayward
Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) and director Jimmy Hayward watch a playback on the set © Warner Bros

It’s day 27 of the Jonah Hex shoot, and director Jimmy Hayward is filming a major action set piece for the new Warner Bros action-adventure western.

Stage 1 of the New Orleans studio has been transformed into a makeshift arena where the lead character is about to be forced into a bare-knuckle fist fight with a monstrous creature nicknamed ‘Freak Boy’. It’s been a long day, but the director remains lively and enthusiastic, making changes in the scene just minutes before the cameras roll.

Jonah Hex marks the live-action feature debut for Hayward, who worked at Pixar and Blue Sky Studios before directing the successful animated film Horton Hears a Who. After hearing that Jonah Hex was being adapted for the big screen, Hayward campaigned heavily for the assignment, persuading the studio and star Josh Brolin that he was the right choice.

During a quick dinner-time break in filming, the director shared a few of his thoughts on the project…

You actively lobbied for this project, didn’t you?

Jonah Hex - Poster
Poster © Warner Bros

When I heard about it, I got the script and read it and Mark [Neveldine] and Brian [Taylor] wrote a great script and I went in there to talk to [producer] Andrew Lazar and I was really into it. I had Hex comic books from back in the day so I was really into it, and I had an angle about what I would do with the picture if I had it.

What was that approach?

To me, the best way to go about Jonah Hex was to start off with the scarred bounty hunter, who’s like a murderous maniac that everyone is terrified of. He’s a hero to some, a villain to most and they speak his name in whispers.

The idea is that wherever he goes, everyone knows who he is and they’re scared like hell of him, but once you tear off the layers, you start to realize that he’s a good guy who redeemed himself for what he did in the Civil War. He had a family and a kid and all that stuff, but it was taken away from him, so that was the most interesting drive through the middle of the movie for me.

When I got that idea across to Andrew, he said, ‘You’ve got to talk to Josh!’ so I wrote a letter to Josh Brolin, but I didn’t say, ‘Dude, you’ll be so good as Jonah Hex!’ It was none of that sort of stuff. It was, ‘This is who I think he is…’

So Josh was already involved at that point?

Jonah Hex - Director Jimmy Hayward
Director Jimmy Hayward on the set © Warner Bros

Josh was like, ‘Maybe; if I get the right director and the right story and the right villain.’ He had his own ideas about who those people should be, so we put those things together and he liked my idea about what we could do with the character so off we went.

Then we had to convince the studio that I wasn’t out of my mind, so we went in with paintings and like, 25 minutes of the movie storyboarded.

Does a relatively modest budget pull more out of you creatively?

Absolutely. Being a good director requires you to be able to adapt quickly and make intelligent decisions based on the problems. It’s all about how you creatively react to whatever that thing is. If you try to box with the problem, you’re going to get your nose broken. If you use judo and roll with it and use that energy to your advantage, it works.

I just cut three or four ideas out of the movie today. I pull stuff together, I limit my set-ups and come up with new ways to express the story points. We do that every single day on this movie.

To me, it will be $45 million on screen and the last movie I made was double that. $45 million is a lot of money, but we’ve squeezed so much out of this movie that it looks like a $80-90 million movie.

One of the things I learned at Pixar was to let talented people be talented. Hire people with great ideas and let them get on the screen. We spent a bunch of money on an idea today that a costumer pitched to me yesterday. I will take a great idea from anybody and make sure it gets on the screen and that’s something I took with me from Pixar: everybody has good ideas.

Did the fact that Jonah Hex was a lesser known comic book property give you more freedom?

Jonah Hex - Keyart
The Keyart © Warner Bros

No, because I think that fan base matters no matter what. I just came from doing a Dr. Seuss movie and I wasn’t extremely happy with the ones that had come before. They were very good in their own way, but for me, making that Dr. Seuss movie, I understood what it was like to be a serious fan of that work and have it represented in a way that didn’t make sense to me.

So to make that feel right required looking at the entire body of work, and it’s no different with Jonah Hex. Maybe not when he went to the future and battled cyborgs and stuff like that, but I liked taking the best parts from different eras and folding them all together. In that respect, I do owe something to the people that love the property.

Now that you’re actually working on this movie, is it still as clear as your original concept, or has it evolved into something different from what you expected?

Robbie Meadow one of our producers came up to me the other day while we were watching the playback of a scene and said, ‘Dude, that’s exactly like the painting that you did!’  It’s been amazing seeing that stuff come to life.

Coming from a slower medium in feature CG animation, one of the cool things about this is… the battleship we shot last week, I wrote that whole finale sequence just four or five weeks before I walked onto this giant 300-foot battleship with 16 cannons and all this crazy stuff.

I just thought of it four or five weeks earlier, and here I am walking around on it and the next thing you know, I’m blowing it up!