Transforming 'The Wolfman'

February 11, 2010|By Geoff Boucher | Tribune Newspapers

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 re-editing. 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 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 to start in England and three days after the previous director, Mark Romanek ("One Hour Photo"), left the production amid a nasty conflict with Universal executives who were adamant that the movie's budget stay at $100 million.

Johnston, a Texan by birth and an industry veteran with a reputation for candor, said 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."

A conductor with a steady hand can do only so much, though, and the film was yanked off the November 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 recut 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 in which even the composer changed, as Paul Haslinger replaced ubiquitous spook-maestro Danny Elfman a few months ago.

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

"I don't 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.' "

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 to the story by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self. Emily Blunt is on board, as is Hugo Weaving, who plays a police officer.

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