Are you going for PG:13 or R?
I know people have been like, “It’s gotta be a hard R”. To me storytelling has nothing to do with the MPAA. If it’s the choice between showing a character’s eyes while something’s happening and emotionally driving something, or showing brain matter flying out of a person’s head and landing on a wall, I’m more interested in looking at somebody’s eyes. To me, an intense movie can be Taken, it can be The Dark Night or it can be some of my favorite movies. Even if I look at Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is one of my favorite movies, the level of violence you actually see on screen… It’s more about the family that makes it terrifying for me. So we’ll see where we’ll wind up, but I’m certainly not writing or directing anything for the MPAA. I know that that’s a debate out there for fans, but to me it’s more important nailing down Jonah Hex and getting his character right and his feud with Turnbull, and that all that stuff’s right. I think we’re doing the comic book justice.
There’s so many genres and subgenres that pop up in the comic. How much horror is in this? How much supernatural?
There’s lots of action, lots of sort of seventies-feeling western stuff, and sixties-feeling stuff. There’s a lot of really traditional stuff. And the supernatural pops up; it comes in there. The undead show Jonah Hex his destiny. I’ll leave it and that… Or the dead rather, not the undead – or the seemingly undead to him. He doesn’t know when it comes or when it goes, so that’s the cool part for us.
You were an unexpected choice when you got the gig. How did you sell yourself to Warner Brothers?
Well, first of all the head of the studio just handed me a Diet Coke, so if that’s any indication… [Laughs.] So that’s an indication of how much power I wield. I think it is an unexpected choice, just like Will Arnett is an unexpected choice to play to Lt. Grass. It’s like a lot of things we’ve done in this movie. My relationship with Andrew started it, and he was smart enough to know that Josh and I would get along. Josh and I became instant pals, instant friends, shared a vision for the movie. My love of the property and what I wanted to do with the property was what made Andrew and Josh and the studio all believe that I was ready to do the job.
Was there a deliberate sense that you wanted to take something on that was as successful as Horton was? Was it deliberately different, or was it just incidental that it was so different?
No, a lot of properties, a lot of things came my way after doing a movie like that, obviously people who know me know that I probably wasn’t going to do another movie like Horton again. Even though Horton was a great success and a movie I really wanted to make – it was my favorite book when I was a kid and I wanted to do a Seuss movie right. But getting stuff right is something I’m really into and when I feel like stuff got done wrong it bums me out. So taking on Hex with the amount of people who really love it, it seems like an interesting challenge, to take that huge body of source material and try and get it right, and go to the people that created it and go to the people that it means a lot to and make sure they agree, which is what I did on that. It’s great to have the people involved in a book, in the history of a book, come out and see it, and get the DC guys involved and all that stuff. But there were a bunch of movies I was looking at. I have another one over at Columbia with Chuck Roven, who did The Dark Night, and I have a bunch of other stuff going on. But this project came up, and this is what was in that letter that I wrote to Brolin – which was when I heard about that movie I thought, “God damn it, I wish I was doing that”; and when I saw what was going on with it I was like, “Hey man, there’s an opportunity there. I really want to get in on this movie.” And actually it was the least lucrative job [laughs], but it’s the coolest one and the most distant from what I had just done. Like I said to Josh, “If you know me, it seems more likely that I’d do Hex, not Horton.” You know what I mean? If you know me as a person, it’s more my sensibility.
So how were you able to convince those people who didn’t know you?
You just go meet people and talk to them. I mean it’s a business of relationships. It’s all storytelling and it’s all based on vision and sense of tone, sense of humor, all that stuff. So I think it was a matter of Brolin and Andrew really believing in me, and the studio. I had other stuff going on. It’s not like I was an unknown quantity to Warner Brothers. Everybody knew who I was, just from countless other meetings. It was a matter of coming in and meeting on this movie.
How tough was it to get John Malkovich?
We just called him “Dude, what’s up?” [Impersonating Malkovich.] “Oh fine, yeah, fine. That’s fine, James.” [Laughs.] John’s into it. He adds a sense of intelligence to the character that I love so much. He’s a good friend of Josh’s. I think the caliber that Josh brings to the movie lends itself to other great people, and I think that John was interested because of that initially. Once he read the material and looked at the character and discussed how to make it his, he jumped at it. He’s great.
As somebody who comes from animation originally, and is an artist, were you a comic book guy as a kid, reading a lot of different comic books?
Yeah, totally. I would go through phases. I fell out of superheroes and got really into stapled-together stuff, and became a big Dan Clowes fan, and got into that whole scene for a long time before I came back. I actually lived over Al’s Comics in San Francisco for ten years, right above it. Sacred Rose Tattoo and Al’s Comics are right across the street from the 500 Club. So I could get drunk, get tattooed, and get geeky books all within forty feet of my house and go pass out. So I really stayed with comics for a long time. I sorta dipped in and out of it, but this is a book that I always loved. When I came into the meeting with Warner Brothers, I had a digest, a Western Tales digest, with me. I told Josh this story; it was one of my favorite ones when I was a kid – when Jonah Hex is tied to a stake out in the desert, and Iron Jaws (sp?) bites off his bonds and then get bitten by a rattlesnake, so Jonah Hex staggers through the desert for miles to get to the town, but when he gets to the town there’s only a person doctor, so he kicks in the door and goes up the stairs and the nurse yells, “You can’t come in here, you can’t bring a dog in here, this is a people doctor!” And there’s this guy getting his foot worked on upstairs and he’s like, “Take that thing outside and put a bullet in his brain! It’s a stupid dog!” So Jonah Hex opens the window and grabs the guy getting his foot worked on and throws him out the window to his death and then goes, “Doc, you’ve gotta fix my dog!” His sense of comedy, his sense of humor… I was into it that long ago that I still remember those stories that I loved so much, about Jonah Hex’s sense of humor and stuff.
I know Jimmy [Palmiotti] and Justin [Gray], so I know you’ve been talking to them as they’ve been doing the book, and synching up with what their view has been for the past few years as they’ve revitalized the character.
Have I been keeping up with those guys? Oh yeah. I talk to Jimmy pretty regularly. I love Jimmy, and Justin’s great too. Those guys are hilarious, great guys, great sensibilities.
Matching Dragoons: Is there any chance of a cameo with Clint Eastwood as Jonah’s dad? The fanboys would love it.
No. Clint would be like [impersonating Eastwood], “There’s no way I’m doing that. Forget it.” [Laughs.]
How much of an influence were his movies?
A massive influence on me. We’re shooting this movie anamorphic. Mitch [Admunsen] has some of the gnarliest glass. Our flat 25, there’s three of them in the world, our big flat 25. The studio’s like, “Really? You really want to do that?” Mitch and I are like, “Yeah!” It was expensive but it was totally worth it.
There are so many classic western films. Which ones do you find that you’re drawing inspiration from?
Early Peckinpah I love – like Noon Wine, all that kind of stuff. I love that stuff. Obviously I love Corbucci. I love all those guys, all those nutcases. All of the same crazy communist westerns, where they were all clearly on acid when they made them. I love that stuff.
Can you talk a little bit about the set piece we’re looking at right now?
Yeah, I can talk a little bit about it. This is Turnbull’s boat and he’s going to take it to Washington to blow up the White House. [Laughs.] It’s great. Initially this set piece was in a fort, and I wanted the fort and the giant boat, so I just wrote the boat and here it is, we’re on it. But it’s part of Turnbull’s overall plan, so it’s another thing for Jonah to come and fight him on. But I don’t want to go too deep into it.
Can you say if the boat is featured throughout the film or is just something in the climax?
It’s just one piece of the movie. This is a one-er. We’ve got a bunch of one-ers in this movie, where we just built these huge sets and we want them for a chunk of the movie and then we’re out.
You mentioned you’re shooting anamorphically. As a filmmaker, what do you think about the digital revolution? Are you always going to be film?
You’re talking to a guy who made, like, six movies at Pixar and two movies at Blue Sky. [Laughs.] I am so not interested in digital anything. I love those movies that I made there, that I worked on for those other guys, and learned so much on. But we’re doing so much in this movie practical, like Megan Fox dodging a bullet while the lamp actually blows up. We’re doing all this old school stuff. It’s really fun. Like this sequence where Burke throws a knife at Jonah and he catches it in his hand. We’re doing it all practical, just because it’s fun to do, to try and get away with. And because Billy and those guys are such good operators and Mitch is so good at that stuff that we can get away with it practical. Whenever we can, we will. It just lends itself to the flavor of the movie. We’re shooting it in anamorphic, and we’re doing as much stuff practical, real stunts. Mitch shot Wanted and Transformers. He’s just a great choice, at the speed he goes. We have the same love for a lot of the same types of movies, and we wanted to shoot the movie anamorphic.
You mentioned Megan Fox – is her role fairly substantial?
Megan’s? Yeah, yeah! She comes up a bunch of times. She plays Jonah’s girlfriend, so…
Clearly she’s the leading lady.
Oh, yeah, yeah. She’s in the movie. She doesn’t just show up and go, “Hey, what’s up?” We actually rewrote her character, and she fights and stabs and shoots. She gets into it.
She also wears period garb very well.
Yeah, she really does. I was like, “Can you breathe?” She was like [panting], “Yeah, that’s fine, dude.” [Laughs.] No, she’s fine in that thing. She fights in that thing. Literally fights.
The pictures of her from set were everywhere.
That’s one of three of those outfits that is that crazy. She wears like four or five different outfits. Michael Wilkinson, our costume designer, did 300 and Watchmen, and American Splendor, which is my favorite of his. He just got the mustard stains on Harvey Pekar’s cardigan perfect. I think he just did a great job with Megan. He cooked up the craziest garb for her, and she wore it great and fought in it. She was a trouper. I would be very uncomfortable and would complain if I had to wear that.
Can you talk about where that costume comes from?
No, that’s just what she wears. It’s just her choice. No, no, Jonah’s girlfriend is a prostitute. He’s the guy that doesn’t have to pay and he gets to stay all night. No, these are two people who kind of have shattered lives – their lives are busted and broken and they can never kind of really be together, and that’s why they love each other. So that’s the point of the relationship.
Is she sort of patterned after Tallulah in the current series?
No. How would they fight later if she was patterned after her? I’m kidding! (laughs) No, I’m just kidding, but no she was not.
Is this going to be a trilogy?
No, this is the prequilogy I’m doing right now, and then we’ll do the trilogy (laughs). No, I mean, I have stories to go to the moon. Did I just make up a new word? Prequilogy? I’m totally stamping that as mine! You guys heard it here first. Lucas is like, dammit!
I’m curious about digital cameras and you.
Oh, I think it’s fantastic and there’s different, it definitely has a place, and you know, it’s like calibrate before every set-up, or the flexibility you get with it. My experiences talking to all of the d.p.’s that I talked to, many, many, many d.p.’s before I made this movie, and obviously coming from digital and working with a lot of scientist guys and scientists at Pixar for many years or the guys I just know socially over the years, let’s just hear what everybody has to say about it, and it’s the future, but just film is film. I mean, I just couldn’t see shooting Jonah Hex any other way, or not Super-35. anamorphic, on film is the only way to make this movie, period. They tried really hard to talk me out of it, and I refused to do it anything but anamorphic, and on film, because it’s the only way to make this movie.
I’m a scope fetishist.
Dude, please! Every film I love, it’s just like that… (interrupted) It’s harder to cut. You know, you have to be really careful about your shot flow, and it’s like you can put stuff in lots of leg hole traps, like ow! But it looks so bad ass. You know, Josh’s face just owns it too, that giant head. It’s just great.
How much preproduction did you do designing the look?
Thousands of thousands of storyboards. Thousands. I think when I came in for my pitch, I had the first six minutes of the movie boarded completely. I stepped through it on a Quicktime, the first six minutes, and then I did another additional eight minutes, I think, for the second pitch. By the time we hit the greenlight, I think I had a third of the movie completely storyboarded with every little piece and composition.
Does that help you on set?
No, Mitch [Amundsen] ignores all of it. (laughs) I’m kidding. No, thanks for this Heyward! (pretends to be lighting storyboards on fire). No, I think we use it a lot. Sequences like this, and the train, we’ve got a big train sequence, sequences like that. And it’s you know, we did a scene with John Malkovich and Wes Bentley and it’s a plotting sequence in this big plantation, and it’s like, I’ll board it just because I’m a geek, but then we’ll just go in there and do moments in jazz, you know, where I want to feel like a snake in the garden. So he does this crazy snake move with the 50-foot technocrane and we arrive at them, and then John takes over with his crazy eyes.
What kind of visual style did you and Mitch work out as your aesthetic?
It’s pretty stylized. We’re doing a lot of camera movement. One of the things is we’ve used the anamorphic lenses, we did a big finale battle a little while ago where we did a lot of very traditional, classic sort of spaghetti-ish sort of stuff, and then we mix it in with a lot of crane work and a lot of modern action film techniques. So you kind of fuse those things together and when you go back out to the really snappy stuff, it really has more value and meaning. I honestly think that if you tried to show like a [Sergio] Corbucci movie to today’s audience, they would be texting each other like, WTF? I don’t think the pace and everything would, you know, and so I think it’s a matter of utilizing, using that as a starting, a jumping off point, because I don’t want to copy anything. But using it as a jumping off point and really using it as a touchstone and starting from there, you’re going to new places with it. Because, you know, Mitch has got, Mitch brings a really specific thing to it too, and together, it’s like, hey, you got your chocolate in my peanut butter! We got like a great Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup going. It’s good. In a totally not gay way.
How much room is there for improvisation? We also heard you might be tweaking the script.
You do it all of the time. We definitely [inaudible] stuff all of the time; John, you know, Will, just everybody. Josh, everybody does. I mean, we get there and we figure out what’s best on the day. If you know, it’s kind of like the whole Pixar “plussing-it” idea, like you know you’ve got something that really works well, when you get there and if you can achieve that foundation and you got that, great, then plus it from there. Let talented people be talented.
The rhythm of live-action and westerns is markedly different than animated filmmaking. Do you find yourself matching one with the other?
No, because I mean, my animated background has kind of nothing to do with what I’m doing. Really at the end of the day, rhythm comes later; I have to provide the material to create that rhythm. It’s a totally different way of working: this is like, you go out and capture something and then you shape what you capture. That’s shaping something and shaping it and shaping it and shaping it, getting to do it five and six times. It’s a totally different thing.
Are there any Easter eggs you’re planning for fans of the various comic series?
Like the one I just told you about? The ex? Yeah, we put stuff in there. I mean, I can’t help but be influenced by the comic because we’ve done so much, but whenever we can stick stuff in there, it’s great to be able to do it. But, I don’t really love the idea of his native background, like a tomahawk’s one of his weapons for sure. When we first started on the movie, he had a knife, and I’m like, dude, it’s got to be a tomahawk! It’s like little things like that that I draw from the comic that I think are so important. Like I said, the choice of Turnbull’s story, and mixing in some of the old comic book reasons for why his face has been burned into some of the lore and stuff like, that, really drawing upon the origin material as opposed to just creating new stuff out of nothing.
The Turnbull character looks a lot different than he did in the comic.
I’ve got to be honest with you: on the character design, I went further because I wanted it to sort of have its roots in the comic book, and I felt like if he just looked like a normal guy… and I worked on it with Josh. Josh has his own wig guy and this wig guy came and he had the long hair and he put the long hair on, and I was like, done! They were going to cut it all down and I was like, leave the Skynyrd hair, please. It was so awesome. And then we put like a tan line on the top of his head so the top of his head’s white and his face is dark, and he’s got a mask that he wears… it’s cooler that way. And Michael Wilkinson, he cuts great silhouettes and he’s really talented, so I like letting talented people be talented.
Because Jonah Hex is less well known, do you find that you have more freedom or there are fewer people looking over your shoulder?
I don’t know. You can’t make movies for those guys. You’ve got to try and order what people love about the thing that you love about it, and that’s the target for me as opposed to being like, I’ve got to please everybody. Because, especially now, you can’t please everybody ever, so it’s like you have to ask yourself, am I a fellow with good taste? And then find out what you love about it. You know when people make comic movies where they don’t care about – and they shall remain nameless, but there’s people that take video game properties, comic book characters, properties and are like, here’s an awesome profit-thing I can exploit! When you care about the source material, when those guys make choices, they have nothing to do with it, but when you base it on sort of its roots, I think you can get away with it, like making changes like have Turnbull not look like he looks in the comic.