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Captain America: The First Avenger – Director Joe Johnston and the contemporary feel

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Captain America: The First Avenger - Director Joe Johnston
Director/Executive Producer Joe Johnston on the set © 2011 Paramount Pictures/MVL

After seeing Jaws in 1975, Joe Johnston’s career path, which was industrial design, turned toward film, and he began his profession as a designer and visual effects director on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. In 1981 he won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effect for his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark.

He got his directorial debut with Disney’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and went on to helm such features as The Rocketeer, Jumanji, October Sky, Jurassic Park III, Hidalgo and Wolfman.

His new movie, based on Marvel’s popular comic book franchise, Captain America: The First Avenger, stars Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, a scrappy 98 pound kid who is determined to enlist and fight in World War II. After being turned down many times, he is approached to participate in an experiment program that turns him into a six foot, 180 pound Super-Solider known as Captain America.

Can you talk about casting Chris as Captain America?

Captain America: The First Avenger - Chris Evans
Captain America (Chris Evans) © 2011 Paramount Pictures/MVL

We screen-tested about 12 or 15 potential Captain Americas, and we kept saying, ‘I wish we could combine these two guys,’ because we liked one guy’s face and the other guy’s acting.

Chris was always at the top of our list. He had said no because he was concerned about doing another superhero movie, but we just kept after him and one day we said, ‘Just get him in to look at the artwork that’s on the walls of the art department.’ I think it was that and the fact that he liked us, that he eventually said yes, and he was convinced we were going to make the right movie.

The film has the energy of classic serials. How did you approach this film in terms of tone?

We had always talked about films of this period that we like, contemporary films, and Raider of the Lost Ark was the model that we used. We used it as a template for a lot of reasons, it feels contemporary today, it was made 30 years ago now but it still feels absolutely fresh.

Captain America: The First Avenger - Director Joe Johnston with Chris Evans
Director/Executive Producer Joe Johnston discusses a scene with Chris Evans (as Steve Rogers) on the set © 2011 Paramount Pictures/MVL

I wanted Captain America to feel like that, to feel like it wasn’t a film made in the 40’s, it was film about the 40s made today.

As far as the tone, I think the character of Steve Rogers just has an innocence about him and a 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 just wants to do the right thing, and I think that runs throughout the tone of the picture.

This movie reminded me of another one you directed, The Rocketeer – was that a conscious decision?

I will say that it was not in my mind at all in making this film, but I went to see the 20th anniversary screening of The Rocketeer and I was really surprised by how many very specific similarities were in the picture that I had totally forgotten about. It must have been in my genes or something.

Can you talk about shooting the scenes with a skinny Steve Rogers?

Captain America: The First Avenger - Chris Evans
Behind the scenes, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in the center of the action © 2011 Paramount Pictures/MVL

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 Chris looks now, six feet and a 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 basically to photograph Chris himself and to shrink him down using digital effects.

That way we got the performance of Chris, we didn’t have to worry about trying to have another body-double actor recreate Chris’ performance. There are a couple of 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.

Did your work at ILM help you with your approach to the visual effects in this?

Captain America: The First Avenger - Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) checks out his muscles © 2011 Paramount Pictures/MVL

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.

There was no digital technology at all. Since then I have learned that CG has gotten so advanced and so great that anything you can think of you, as long as you can communicate that to the guy who’s sitting at the keyboard, which is the hard part, you can put it on the screen.

Were you worried about putting in the USO dance number, that critics might be compared it to Spider-Man 3?

As far as the dance number goes it’s my favorite scene in the movie. As you may have notice Alan Menken wrote that USO song and he probably has more Academy Awards than anybody else in history.

Can you talk about the decision to make this 3D?

We always intended for it to be a 2D and 3D release. 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 Heinrich’s production design, the 2D looked 3D to me. It was just an amazing look before we ever started converting any of the film to 3D and now it looks even better. I think that the story is so strong it works in 2D or 3D.