Johnson, ASC and Johnston resurrect one of Hollywood’s most fabled fanged creatures for Universal Pictures’ The Wolfman

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” -Werewolf legend, Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941) and The Wolfman (2009)

Thus has been the plight of Lawrence Talbot ever since Lon Chaney, Jr. portrayed the suffering man-beast in Universal’s 1941 classic, The Wolf Man.  For Universal’s newest incarnation, starring Benicio Del Toro and Sir Anthony Hopkins, Talbot is forced to deal with the mal-effects of the monthly full moon and seeks only to end his misery (at the hand of a loved one and a silver bullet), though not before resolving a few family issues.

Bringing the lycanthrope back to the screen in a faithful update has been the creative challenge set by the studio for years, now respectfully rendered by director Joe Johnston and director of photography Shelly Johnson, ASC.

“Of the Universal classics, The Wolf Man was always my favorite,” states the director, who previously collaborated with Johnson on Jurassic Park III, Hidalgo and the upcoming Marvel feature, The First Avenger:  Captain America. “It reminds us that there’s a beast in all of us. Underneath the surface, there’s a monster.”

The Wolfman was originally to have been directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) and shot by Alvwin Kuchler, though in February 2008, after a seven month prep period and just three weeks prior to start of production, the studio shifted direction, bringing in Johnston to direct and, with him, Johnson.
“I was on my way to the airport,” recalls the cinematographer of his trip to London, where the film was shot, “and I got a call from Universal’s Donna Langley.  She said, ‘Now, Shelly, I just want you to know this movie needs to be dark – I mean, really dark.  Can you do this?’  I told her, ‘Donna, do you have any idea how many cinematographers dream of getting this phone call?’” he laughs.

“I told Shelly ‘I want this to feel cold,’” Johnston says, “so that when there is a happy scene – and there’s really only one – I want it to contrast. It’s a love story that you know is going to end badly, no matter what happens.”

Moonlight Becomes Him

Johnston says that original director Romanek had already made a number of good decisions, including casting and some locations, as well as the visual look of the film (largely the efforts of production designer Rick Heinrichs). And while the 1941 The Wolf Man was shot almost entirely on stages at Universal – even the film’s iconic forest scenes – Heinrichs opted for a more modern approach.

“I love the kind of theatrical reality old Hollywood films have,” he says.  ”But what we wanted to make the idea of a man turning into a wolf into something compellingly real.” Johnston agrees. “The original film, while it’s atmospheric and moody and iconic, feels stage-bound and artificial.  We wanted this to feel as out there in nature as we could make it.”

To bring that natural darkness to life, the director entrusted his cinematographer almost completely, a manner in which the duo had already comfortably partnered.

“I tend to give him a minimal amount of input, and say, ‘This is the way I think the film should look,’ and let him decide how he’s going to achieve that,” reports the director. “I really like to give (Shelly) as much flexibility and creative freedom as I possibly can, from capture to post.”
Adds the cinematographer about his working mate: “Joe doesn’t go for eye candy.  He’s not trying to shoot a video game. The audience is living in a world with the characters, so we really wanted the story to live in its own unique world, one that didn’t share any rules with anyplace else.”

That meant lighting spaces that reflected the torturous dichotomy in which Talbot lives.  “He’s constantly being pulled between animal savagery and love; between confusion and fear and immense power, all at once,” remarks Johnson.  “There are so many opposites contained in the same scene, and that’s something I wanted to represent visually. Warm and cool, black and white, light and dark, all in the same frame.”

Like the historic Victorian-era mansion, Chatsworth, which played the role of Talbot Hall, where Heinrichs says, “the many clerestories and skylights allowed Shelly to create an interplay between what falls into the light and what falls out of the light.” In fact, Johnson was able to light interiors almost equally as dark for both daytime and nighttime scenes.  “And anywhere we were able to remind the audience of the external lighting at night, we did,” he adds. “The moon is obviously a recurring theme.”

“We had foreground, where we had rich blacks and grayer blacks in the background,” Johnson continues. “And then we would integrate the (color palette) by introducing warm tones in the foreground and cooler tones in the background.” Key to such scenes is the use of candlelight as a source.

“The period of this film – 1891 – straddles the pre-electrical age,” explains Heinrichs.  “So, in the city, you actually would have electricity. But candlelight was still very much something that existed in the country. So the journey from London into the country is a journey into the past – going from the light to the dark, from civilization to nature and superstition.”  Although the light created by the double-wick candles was not without its challenges for the DP, Heinrichs says. “You’re really playing along the margins of where things fall off and where they’re illuminated.”

Johnson says the solution lay in careful pushing of his film stock, in this case, Kodak Vision3 5219 (500T), which was used for most of the film except day exteriors, for which Vision2 5217 (200T) was implemented.

“This was the first time I’d been out with 19,” Johnson recalls. “We did a makeup test, and I liked very much the bite that it had, how it rolled into the blacks. It reminded me of the very first 93 stock, which had been discontinued shortly after its release, that everyone loved.”

While pondering how to shoot such candlelit scenes, Johnson found himself filming a scene on location at Chatsworth at “magic hour.”  After getting what he thought was the master, Johnston requested a reverse that wasn’t planned. “The light was gone. My meter read ‘E,’” says Johnson. “So we put a new roll up (of 5219) and pushed it to ASA 800.  We were losing our location and had no choice.”

After receiving dailies back from London’s Ariom Labs, Johnson was more than pleased.  “It was beautiful, and you could not tell the stuff was pushed. I turned to our gaffer, John Higgins, and said, ‘Okay, we just figured out how to shoot our candlelight.’  We frequently did our candlelit interiors lit with just one candle – sometimes that was the sole illumination. I just shot wide open on a Primo, which is a 1.9, and rated the 19 at 800,” drawing as much out of the shadows as possible.

Black Magic

Gaslight also proved an interesting ally, most notably in a scene in a medical theater in which doctors attempt to prove to Talbot that this werewolf nonsense is “all in his mind” (hint: this is where the film’s major transformation sequence occurs).

“We modeled it after oil paintings of the period, focusing on two by Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic,” explains Joe Johnston. “Shelly’s lighting perfectly captures the soft and eerie look of gaslight.”

“What’s great about the gaslight is that the light really does fall off in places in a way that it would have in that era,” notes Heinrichs.  “The set kind of creeps out of the darkness to where the focus is.”

Johnson typically shot with a pair of Panavision Millennium XLs. Irish operator Des Whelan, with whom Johnson had worked previously, and Pete Cavaciuti ran A and B cameras, respectively.
“Operators in England are traditionally more a part of the creation of the shot than they are in the States,” Johnson explains.  “In most cases, the DP is the lighting cameraman. We’re used to working in a completely different way, but I wanted to respect their system and included them in our discussions after rehearsals as much as I could.”

A-camera most often found itself mounted on a Technocrane, a favorite of Joe Johnston’s, in combination with Panavision Primo 4:1 zoom lenses. “The camera lives on a Technocrane when it’s me and Shelly,” Johnston says simply.

The pairing of the Technocrane and zoom lenses accommodates the director’s preferred working style. “Joe’s constantly making adjustments between takes to accentuate moments within the scene,” shares Johnston. “He’ll want the shot to move tighter or wider, and doesn’t like to be locked into anything. If he wants to pan over where I’ve got equipment, I tell him, ‘Don’t worry about the equipment. Let’s figure out where we want the shot to be, and I’ll figure out a way to work it out.’ He likes the idea that he can go anywhere.”

Johnston calls the Technocrane “the most flexible piece of equipment” on the market. “It’s got more axes than a dolly – up, down, side to side, in and out,” the director states. “The cameras are basically floating in the air, and that allows me total freedom. I know there’s this feeling that the Technocrane is a giant piece of equipment, and that it will slow you down. But I think the opposite is true. Once you’ve got a crew that uses it well, it really speeds things up.”
The versatile rig was also favored for exteriors, including the many forest sequences, shot at Bourne Wood, where gypsy camp scenes were filmed, as well as Black Park, located just outside the film’s home base at Pinewood Studios.

In keeping with his visceral approach, Johnson lit the forests in an unorthodox manner.  “The first thought was to have moonlight coming in from the top, but it just restricted us too much, when we wanted to say so much more with the imagery.”

So, instead Johnson lit from below, filling in depressions in the ground with 30 or 40 20Ks and shooting into backlit fog.  “In most cases when you’re doing night exterior, the first thing you’re thinking about is, ‘Okay, where am I going to put these cranes?  How high can I tilt up before I start seeing equipment?’ Here, the sky’s the limit.  We wanted to be able to see the treetops and beyond, and silhouette foreground characters against this world.”

Completing the eerie imagery is something Johnson refers to as “black layer luminance technique.”
“When you’re creating a complex visual language that’s outside the norm, there needs to be one element that integrates everything,” he explains. The technique, which Johnson created in PhotoShop on his laptop, “creates a sort of pearlescent look to the highlights, where they have a luster to them. They’re not necessarily bright, but there’s a glow and depth. The story exists in the shadows, and I wanted those shadows to have a certain life and an unexpected nature to them.”

To produce the look, Johnson turned to Technicolor Digital Intermediates colorist Jill Bogdanowicz. “He wanted the blacks to feel velvety and rich,” she explains. “Not over-powerful, where you feel that everything is fuzzy, but just really dark, while still maintaining the detail.”

To achieve such a look, Bogdanowicz used a luminance key to isolate the darkest parts of the image and then rendered a defocus, often applying more highlights to punch any detail present through the defocus effect. “The whole movie has this really dark, spooky look that’s kind of silvery,” the colorist says. “We have a lot of desaturation,” adding a slight amount of cyan to complete the look. “Which tends to isolate the darkest blacks and bring them a little bit lower, without losing detail or any of the fog.”

Crafting the unusual look of The Wolfman required Shelly Johnson to create a language that was both canine and human, terrestial and otherworldly.

“The look is not real at all, but it does follow an emotional logic, so the audience won’t question it,” he says.  “It can’t be random. You have to create rules that mean something to the storytelling. While lighting in an unorthodox way, I might ask myself, ‘My God – is this going to work?’ And it does because we say it does. All that matters it that is make sense in the wolfman’s world.

By Matt Hurwitz / photos by Frank Connor