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Ghost Rider - Mark Steven Johnson interview

Mark Steven Johnson, director of Ghost Rider

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MARK Steven Johnson talks about some of the challenges of bringing Ghost Rider to the screen, his experiences with Dare-Devil and working with Peter Fonda.

The Ghost Rider comic book has had several incarnations. When you were adapting the story how did you choose the mythology we see in the film?
Mark Steven Johnson:Ghost Rider has had a couple of different incarnations, with Danny Ketch being the latest in the 90s. And before that there was the original, Johnny Blaze, in the 70s. I got to cherry pick the best of both. I love the original Faust tale of Johnny Blaze, to me that was the most important.

The movie is all about choice and second chances, and so I really wanted to tell a modern day Faustian tale, but also use some of the great imagery from the Danny Ketch era. I was most interested in the Evel Knievel character from the early 70s.

What were your thoughts behind casting Peter Fonda as The Devil?
Mark Steven Johnson: For me it was obvious I wanted to get the biggest motorcycle icon to play the Devil in my motorcycle movie. But also there was something else that turned me on, in that we were trying to make a Gothic western, which is a new idea in a way.

One of the best westerns for my money is Once Upon A Time In The West, and of course his father Henry Fonda was the villain in that. As Peter gets older he’s looking like Henry, so there’s something really cool about seeing your villain out there in the desert, with that tanned face, and it’s a Fonda. It felt like I got two nods for the price of one. I also feel like it’s the first crossover, Captain America versus Ghost Rider.

How did you find the experience of shooting in Australia?
Mark Steven Johnson: Australia was wonderful. The people were fantastic and they really adopted us. Unlike LA, they don’t film much at all in Melbourne. We were the first big movie there. So it was new to them and they bent over backwards to make sure things worked out. The film is actually kind of a postcard, a Valentine to that city, because it’s so beautiful. I miss it terribly actually.

How did you work with Nicolas Cage in delivering a performance when Johnny transforms into Ghost Rider?
Mark Steven Johnson: I think that what made it so special, was when I wrote the scene I envisioned it only as pain, an incredibly painful transformation going on, which it is. And Nic rightly said: “It’s painful for Johnny but it feels good for the Ghost Rider.”

I think that’s really where you get that Jekyll and Hyde vibe, where those screams of terror and pain turn into maniacal laughter. That’s when it feels like you’re seeing something kind of special.

Do you agree with Nicolas Cage that Ghost Rider is essentially all-good?
Mark Steven Johnson: That was always the interesting thing about the character in the comic. He takes out demons, because they’re not humans. But he will not take a human life, ever. So the penance stare is a really interesting way to make someone pay for their sins, and still spare their lives.

I always envisaged it like being in a room and someone cements the windows, and you can’t look out forever, you’re just stuck in there with everything you’ve done and whatever sins you’ve committed. I thought that was a really ingenious thing that the original writers came up with.

The last time you did a comic book movie was Dare-Devil and you had to resort to bringing out a director’s cut to get your version seen. Did that make you apprehensive about taking on Ghost Rider?
Mark Steven Johnson: I was apprehensive, certainly. Dare-Devil was a flawed movie. I still love it but the director’s cut is 30 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, so it’s a very different film. It’s always nice but sort of a back-handed compliment when people say: “I really loved Dare-Devil, the director’s cut!”

In this case, I had a studio that had a lot of success with Spider-Man, so they trust Marvel and they trust the comic character. So they trusted me. There was never anyone at Sony saying: “Does it have to be a skull? This is ridiculous!” But then having a star in Nic, who’s as big a fan as I am, I got the best of both worlds. I felt a level of safety that everyone got it, so now what could we add to make it different.

Read our review of Ghost Rider