Interview with Mark Johnson

The good folks over at managed to catch up with Narnia producer Mark Johnson after the Prince Caspian Comic-Con presentation. You can listen to the full audio of the interview at their website, and we’ve done a transcript of it as well, which you can read below.

Interview with Mark Johnson

CS: Making a follow-up of Narnia, you obviously have the books to work with, but also there are heightened expectations now that the first film was such a success. What do you do to meet those expectations? Follow up by making it bigger, better, or different, or do you have more money?

MJ: The assumption is that you’ve got to be bigger; you know, the first one was really successful and I just heard myself in this film piece we did, say, “Oh, it’s got to be bigger and better than the last one.” It’s got to be as good, certainly; you don’t want to make a movie that’s not as satisfying, but I think “bigger” is probably wrong. I don’t know if an audience expects the effects to be, you know, more of them or more complicated. But it’s like anything else, you still have to make a good movie. And so people have said, “Were you intimidated about the fact that you got to make another one after the first one worked so well?” What I’m intimidated by is with every movie you’ve just got to make a good movie with compelling characters, and the spectre of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe wasn’t really so much over my shoulder. It’s great we’re a piece of that and you want to make sure that some of the information feeds from that, so that people who enjoyed that movie can enjoy this in a different way. At the same time, you have to assume your audience has never seen that movie and this movie’s got to work completely on its own.

CS: Also, the first film had a certain tone to it, and this movie (because of the book) is going to be darker and grittier, and not maybe as fantastical?

MJ: I think that’s true. This is a little bit darker. It’s a little bit more adult – it involves some tricky stuff; some things that Caspian discovers about himself and about his uncle, and so it is by definition a little bit darker. And then I think Andrew wanted to test himself. I think that he did a somewhat traditional telling of the last one and I think he wanted to explore a little bit more, and so he used the fact that it was a little darker as a jumping off place.

CS: What are you most excited about for the fans?

MJ: I think this is really satisfying as a sort of an old … in the Romantic sense – and I don’t mean in “romance” – but just movie-going. It’s just really cool. There’s a lot of action. It has lots of thrills to it. I think the last one was really charming, and sort of magical, and I think this one is a little bit more in your face. We’re still telling a Narnia story so it’s not like we’re doing something more adult just to be adult, but I think the trick is embracing this book and still making it a part of not just the Chronicles, but the mythology of Narnia, and respecting all of that – because it’s all interconnected, and all of the characters have precedence in the other books.

CS: What do you mean by “more in your face”?

MJ: It’s more action, it’s more immediate. It’s less lyrical. So it’s just more … “This is what’s happened – I’ve got to do something about this – how do we do it – I didn’t do it right – how do we straighten it?” I think that in this one, the characters have crises and conflicts. In the last one it sort of evolved itself into what they had to do. This one is where they really end up questioning themselves.

CS: How challenging was it to bring in all the new characters?

MJ: Well, we have a new set. You know, we haven’t even seen the character who’s probably going to be the most memorable, who is Reepicheep, who’s this two foot tall mouse. We don’t even know who is doing his voice yet. But it’s a great character. And the challenge is … Reepicheep is a very honourable character who is offended when anybody says “Oh what a dear little creature” because as far as he’s concerned he’s six feet tall and as noble and as sort of heroic as anyone else. So I think you’ve got to be careful that you don’t play him, the character, for laughs, but that what he ends up doing is very funny.

CS: Isis [Mussenden] had mentioned that she felt that the script was more inspiring than the book – it sounded like maybe it was a little more fast-paced. Did you feel the same way, that there were some differences there?

MJ: Yeah, I do, I think the book was hard to do. A third of the book takes place in flashbacks and we just realised that couldn’t happen in the movie, so we restructured it. Not that I want to say we improved upon it – we didn’t – but for a movie I think it’s slightly different. I think I’m going to find the movie a little bit more satisfying than the book. And you know, obviously there are seven books – you can’t like them all the exact same amount and some are better than others.

CS: Do you think fans of the book are going to be happy with the movie?

MJ: I think so, because it’s not like we’ve done a terrible injustice to it. With “Lion, the Witch” we didn’t tamper with it that much. But the whole frozen waterfall sequence doesn’t exist in the book. It’s so funny because we had people coming up to us and saying, “Oh, thank God you kept that in there” – you know it wasn’t there [laughter]. I’ve done a number of movies based on books and some of them we made big changes. I did this movie called The Notebook, and we changed it a lot. My Dog Skip and even The Natural, we were criticised for changing the ending. I don’t think any of them were as faithful to the source material as “Lion, the Witch”, and same thing with “Caspian”.

CS: Since this is a series, do you guys find yourselves looking ahead all the time – and I’m assuming that they did that with the Harry Potter series. Are you guys always like, “Okay, what about the kids?”

MJ: Well here’s the crazy thing. I’ve been on the set of Caspian and we’ve shot for 105, 106 days – I’ve maybe missed 15 – but I just missed some because I went to Malta and Spain to scout locations with Michael Apted for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, so I’m a little schizophrenic right now. It’s like, which characters? And I’m talking to William Moseley and Anna Popplewell who play Peter and Susan, and they’re not in the next one. And so I’m starting to talk to them about it and say, “Oh that’s right, you’re not there”. It’s almost like I’m teasing them: “Oh, and you don’t get to be in it”. Yeah, you’re aware of it and there are certain things that you want to do … I was desperate because I so loved Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Andrew and I talked about it. Was there any way in the world to put him in Prince Caspian? And you can’t! It’s 1300 years later in Narnia and there’s no way to say, “Oh, he’s still alive”. So then we thought, could his great great great grandson …? And no! Not really, and so in that sense you’re aware of the whole fabric of the seven books.

CS: So how do you feel about Michael Apted directing the third film?

MJ: Oh, I’m really excited about him. I’ve been a fan of his for a while. And I think if you look at his strengths, they’re very different from Andrew’s strengths, and I think that’ll work for it. I think one of the best things that happened to the Harry Potter movies is they switched directors. Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newells were very different, and each one in its way was even better. And it’s not even so much a quality – I guess there’s a quality of things – but I just think they got better, they benefited from it.

CS: When a director comes in knowing they’re only going to do one of the series, do they ever work together to “pass the torch”?

MJ: Well I think Andrew and Michael Apted are working really well together. I think Andrew is relieved … it’s so funny, he just read the first draft of the script (because he co-wrote the first two) and he said, “Oh, I was so depressed because there’s so much work to do,” and then he said, “And then I realised – oh, that’s right, I’m not writing it, I don’t have to worry!” So he can just give notes and walk away; he doesn’t have to worry about the solutions.

CS: So is Michael Apted helping with the writing?

MJ: No, he’s not writing. But Chris Markus and Stephen McFeely who wrote with Andrew on the first two are writing this one, without Andrew.

CS: And you are looking ahead at seven films?

MJ: As long as the audience still loves them. You know, listen – this next one is the second, and in many ways from a commercial standpoint it’s the more important of the two, because this one will say, “Is the franchise is alive and well?” If the audience doesn’t like this one then we may be in trouble doing all of them. That’s why the intention is to do all seven of them – whether or not we do will depend on the audience.

CS: It’s different in that it’s not like a Harry Potter kind of thing where each book is another year and you’re following the same characters in the same situations – this is like jumping centuries, millennia, different characters …

MJ: And at some point we’ll do The Magicians Nephew, and the kids aren’t even in it, and there are a couple of shared characters but not many. And The Horse and His Boy is altogether different.

CS: It makes it a very problematical kind of franchise, because the only thing linking it, really, is the universe.

MJ: Right. The only character who is in all seven – and I may be wrong, but I think I’m right about it – is Aslan. And in The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan sings Narnia into life, and the uncle who is in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, whose house they go to stay at, is the young boy in that one, and they’re all tied together. The wardrobe is made from wood that was brought back from The Magician’s Nephew.

CS: How many times have you read the series?

MJ: Not as many as I should have. Seriously! And somebody asked me the other day, “Which characters are in The Silver Chair?” And I stumbled a little bit because I’d forgotten. So it’s not like I’m a fanatic. I talk to people all the time who tell me that the series changed their lives – but that wasn’t the case; I mean I loved the books, but there are a bunch of other books I loved at the same time too.

CS: How hard is it for you that you’re working on the second film, but you’re already kind of working on the third one as well?

MJ: It’s difficult. Between The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian I did three other movies, and one of them’s a movie that opens next month called The Hunting Party, with Richard Gere and Terrence Howard and Jesse Eisenberg. So it’s really good to get away and exercise muscles you’d forgotten you have.