“The past is a wilderness of horrors” | The Wolfman (2010)

‘I’m a big fan of horror movies as far back as I can remember,’ said actor Benicio Del Toro. ‘The Universal horror movies were the first films I knew the titles of [as well as] the names of the actors in those films.’[1]

All the way back in 1931 Universal Pictures stumbled upon a commercial gold mine with the release of two horror features. That February the studio released Tod Browning’s Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, and the following November it released James Whale’s Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff. Both films were immediately and enormously iconic, and continue to exert an influence over horror cinema today. A string of successful follow-ups and sequels ensued over the following years and decades, including Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and numerous sequels, follow-ups and crossovers.

One film that Del Toro particularly liked was George Waggner’s 1941 feature The Wolf Man, about a man cursed to transform under the full moon into a ferocious werewolf. It was an affection shared by Del Toro’s manager, Rick Yorn.

Yorn said: ‘Growing up, these monster films really had an effect on my brothers and me. When I first came out to Hollywood, I wanted to remake one of the old movies. A few years ago, when Benicio and I were walking out of his house, I saw the one-sheet for The Wolf Man. It shows a close-up of Lon Chaney, Jr. as the monster. I looked at the poster, then back at Benicio – who had a full beard at the time – and said, “How would you feel about remaking The Wolf Man?”’[2]

Benicio Del Toro had come a long way since obsessing over old horror movies with his brothers. After moving from Puerto Rico to Los Angeles, and following a few small TV appearances, he made his feature debut in Randal Kleiser’s comedy sequel Big Top Pee-wee. The following year he gave a much more widely seen performance as the henchman Dario in John Glen’s James Bond feature License to Kill. Other films followed, including Fearless (1993), The Usual Suspects (1995) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). In 2000 his career received a major boost with roles in Snatch, The Way of the Gun, and Traffic – for which he received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

In March 2006 Del Toro and Yorn arranged a meeting at Universal Pictures to suggest a remake of The Wolf Man. Del Toro said: ‘We proposed the idea to Universal of a remake of the original The Wolf Man movie with the intention of paying homage to those Universal classic horror movies. By paying homage I mean by staying close to the story and to also have the make-up be faithful – to have the actor in the make-up be a big part of the movie. They liked the idea and Andrew Kevin Walker and Rick Baker came on, and we were moving.’[3]

Andrew Kevin Walker was a successful screenwriter with a reputation for particularly dark, oftentimes bleak, subject matter. His 1995 feature Seven (directed by David Fincher) had firmly established that reputation, and he had solidified it with screenplays for 8mm and Sleepy Hollow (both 1999). He was also a well-respected ‘script doctor’, providing uncredited rewrites to improve the scripts of Event Horizon, The Game (both 1997), Stir of Echoes and Fight Club (both 1999).

Rick Baker was a hugely successful and liked make-up effects creator, whose work on An American Werewolf in London saw him receive the inaugural Academy Award for Best Make-up and Hairstyling. Baker subsequently won five additional awards in that same category, for Harry and the Hendersons, Ed Wood, The Nutty Professor, Men in Black and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. He would win a seventh for The Wolfman. ‘When I first found out they were going to do it,’ Baker said, ‘I went and talked to somebody I know at Universal. I said, “You know what? I have to do The Wolfman! You’ve got to let me do this! I’ll do some really cool stuff.” The Wolfman and Frankenstein were probably the two most important films in my childhood that made me want to become a make-up artist. I pursued this job. Fortunately they said okay!’[4]

Through Universal, Del Toro and Yorn connected with producer Sean Daniel, who was already well experienced in reviving one of the studio’s classic monsters to the screen. Between 1998 and 2008 Daniel had worked as one of the key producers on Universal’s The Mummy franchise. Prior to that, between 1984 and 1989, Daniel had served as president of production for the studio.

With a production team being assembled, and with Walker hard at work on a screenplay, Del Toro, Yorn and Daniel set about finding a suitable director to helm the film. They settled upon Mark Romanek, a noted director of music videos whose sole narrative feature One Hour Photo (2002) had gained widespread acclaim. ‘What I was trying to do,’ Romanek later explained, ‘and thought I was invited to do – and that Benicio and I were trying to do together – was infuse a balance of cinema in a popcorn movie scenario.’[5]

The story developed by Walker saw Del Toro play Lawrence Talbot, a professional actor dragged back to see his cold, antagonistic father upon the death of Lawrence’s brother. His investigations suggest a werewolf is the culprit, and when he is bitten by the creature he begins to transform into a werewolf himself.

Lawrence’s father, Sir John Talbot, was played by Anthony Hopkins. He based a large part of his performance on his own father, Welsh baker Richard Hopkins. ‘In this case,’ said Hopkins, ‘my own father was a tough man. He was a pretty red hot guy, but he was also cold. I learned from that, and I liked that coldness because it was harsh, and he taught me to be tough. So I know how to be tough. I know how to be strong. I know how to be ruthless. It is part of my nature. I wouldn’t be an actor if I wasn’t. You have to be certain of what you want. So I use all of that as an actor.’[6]

‘I asked Joe Johnston early on if I could play this guy as a long, dirty fingernails sort of man, a man with a dirty beard, clothes that he’s worn for years and a house full of dead mice and spiders. It’s all falling apart and so is he. He’s remote, living there with this strange Sikh manservant. When he goes to the village it’s only to buy provisions and he goes in a horse and cart. This is not a man who acts like a knight or a lord or anything like that.’[7]

Gwen Conliffe, the fiancée of Lawrence’s murdered brother, was played by Emily Blunt. At the time Blunt was best known for her striking supporting turn in the 2006 comedy The Devil Wears Prada, but had also carved out a successful career in independent films including My Summer of Love (2004), The Great Buck Howard and Sunshine Cleaning (both 2008). Blunt said: ‘People were, like, “Why have you strayed away from independent films?” I thought, “Give us a break! I’ve hardly done anything but independent films.” I think Benicio put it best. He said, “C’mon, man. I like candy too, y’know?”’[8]

As the film went through the pre-production and casting process, tensions began to rise between Mark Romanek and executives at Universal Pictures. He was an exacting and highly creative director, whose ideas for a psychological thriller did not fit well with the studio’s expectations of a crowd-pleasing monster film. ‘It wasn’t coming together,’ said Romanek, ‘where we were all wanting to make the same film. I wasn’t able to bring to it what I thought I could. It’s a big investment, and a big project, and I felt they should have a director who’s more in line with what they want.’[9]

Another key point of dissent between Romanek and the studio was the film’s shooting schedule. Universal wanted the film shot over 80 days. Based on the screenplay, Romanek was insistent it would require 100. When the argument became intractable, Romanek spontaneously removed himself from the project. Shooting was still scheduled to commence within two months. With significant amounts of money already invested in cast, crew, costumes and sets, Universal Pictures pushed ahead with the project while seeking a replacement director as soon as possible.

Multiple directors were approached regarding replacing Romanek, including Martin Campbell, James Mangold, Brett Ratner, John Landis, Bill Condon and Frank Darabont. In the end the studio hired Joe Johnston, largely because of the directors approached he was the most insistent that he could shoot the film within 80 days. He was hired with less than four weeks before photography was due to commence.

Johnston had built his career as a concept artist and effects technician for Lucasfilm Ltd, making his professional debut as part of the crew of George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977). He was one of four technicians to receive the Academy Award for Visual Effects for their work on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). After continuing to work in a variety of roles on such films as Return of the Jedi (1983), Howard the Duck (1985), Batteries Not Included (1987) and Willow (1988), he becomes a feature director with the 1989 visual effects vehicle Honey I Shrunk the Kids.

Johnston’s directorial career – which includes the likes of The Rocketeer (1991), Jumanji (1995), Jurassic Park III (2001), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – seems to paint the picture of a filmmaker with an excellent handle on visual effects, cinematography and editing, but with something of a problem with screenplays. A common feature of most of his works appears to be relatively underdeveloped or weak scripts, and they have continued to under-cut his potential as a popular director. In the case of Jurassic Park III Johnston was caught in the unenviable position of shooting a film before its screenplay had been completed to anyone’s satisfaction. With his last-minute appointment as director of The Wolfman he found himself in that position once again: the screenplay was not in a state that met Universal Picture’s satisfaction, and by awful circumstance his appointment coincided with a Hollywood writer’s strike that made any formal rewrites impossible.

Realising that the film was unlikely to be ready for its expected November 2008 release date, Universal Pictures delayed it by three months to 12 February 2009. It was not an act of confidence, since January and February were traditionally used by Hollywood studios as a dumping ground for failed product.

One key role yet to be cast was that of Detective Inspector Francis Abberline, a London police detective sent to solve the murder of Lawrence’s brother who then becomes closely involved in Lawrence’s unwilling transformation. The character was loosely inspired by Frederick Abberline, the real-life police inspector who led the 1888 investigation into the Whitechapel murders by the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper. Hugo Weaving was cast in the role just two weeks before principal photography.

Despite being inspired by a real person, Abberline ultimately bore little in common with his namesake. Weaving said: ‘From an actor’s point of view I deal with the material that’s in front of me. But at the same time this is a real person, so let’s find out about the real person. Is there anything about the real person that’s going to be pertinent or useful for me? So you do your homework. And really most of it was read and thrown away.’[10]

Of the original film, Weaving said: ‘I was familiar with it but not that familiar with it, and I wasn’t really a fan of it. When I read this script and decided I wanted to be involved in it, I did have a quick look at the original just to see how different it was from the script, and I thought it was a funny hoary old film to be honest. I thought it was probably a great idea to revisit it in the way it was being revisited.’[11]

Another casting challenge to face Johnston in his first week was keeping Anthony Hopkins; with Mark Romanek out of the picture, and the film seemingly in chaos, Hopkins had informed the studio of his imminent resignation. Johnston personally flew to London to meet with Hopkins and, over a drink, persuaded him to remain. One key offer that swayed Hopkin’s hand was the re-instatement of several cut scenes of his character from the screenplay. Ultimately those scenes never made it to the final theatrical cut of the film.

The Wolfman commenced shooting at London’s Pinewood Studios, with location scenes occurring in multiple regions around England. Chatsworth House in Derbyshire’s Peak District stood in as Talbot Manor, while the woodland scenes were shot in Black Park near Slough. An early morgue sequence was shot inside a heritage-listed building in Lacock, Wiltshire. The production donated £5,000 to Britain’s National Trust in return for permission to shoot there.

Despite Joe Johnston’s last-minute appointment, production on The Wolfman commenced relatively smoothly. ‘Yeah,’ said Johnston, ‘we were a few weeks from photography but Mark Romanek had made some good choices. For one thing he hired Rick Heinrichs, the production designer. He also found some great locations, he cast some great supporting roles. Obviously I wasn’t going to come in and make Mark Romanek’s film but he supplied some ingredients.’[12]

‘I was amazed, actually,’ said Hugo Weaving. ‘There were still things bubbling away, but I was amazed at how the production settled down.’[13]

One element that remained consistent between Romanek and Johnston’s versions of the film was the use of practical effects to create the film’s werewolves. ‘The one thing they all recognized,’ said Johnston, ‘is that Van Helsing was not the way to go. When I said “I want to put Benicio Del Toro and a stunt guy in a great suit and make-up and have them running through London and the woods,” I didn’t get any argument about it. Never heard “Shouldn’t we have a CG wolf?” and if I did hear that all I had to say was, “Oh you mean like Van Helsing?”’[14]

Del Toro’s Wolfman make-up took roughly three hours to apply, with Rick Baker using a combination of foam latex pieces and hand-applied facial hair. ‘It’s very much the way the Wolfman was done in the original,’ explained Baker.[15]

The Wolfman’s iconic howl was developed by recording a range of singers, including Gene Simmons and David Lee Roth, and treating them electronically. ‘We were looking for really interesting voices,’ explained Johnston, ‘and people who could interpret what a sound might be with their own voice, and we showed him the scenes where he howls and said, “What would you do? It’s an open mike, just do what you think is right.”’[16]

While much of the Wolfman itself was created using prosthetic make-up, the transformation from Lawrence to the creature was largely achieved using CGI. Johnston ultimately made the choice to follow a CGI transformation for reasons of time: having joined the production with only a few weeks of preparation, using CGI meant that most of the design choices for those sequences could be made during post-production rather than immediately before the shoot.

CGI was also used for a brief scene of a performing bear. Rather than use a real bear for the relevant shots a pre-existing computer-generated bear was adapted from The Golden Compass.

With the screenplay stuck in an unfinished state, the actors undertook greater than usual liberties with their lines. In the case of Anthony Hopkins, that meant extensive improvisation of his lines and his character’s behaviour. In one critical scene Sir Talbot spontaneously chooses to play the piano (Hopkins being an accomplished musician in his own right). In another, he visits Lawrence in an asylum and plays a religious dirge on a harmonica. ‘I just decided to play this harmonica and I didn’t know why,’ said Hopkins. ‘Acting isn’t difficult. You show up and do your lines and that’s it. Some actors choose to make things difficult – I just show up and do it.’[17]

During the shoot Johnston was so impressed by Hugo Weaving’s performance as Abberline that he elected not to shoot the character’s death scene. Abberline instead survived to fight another day – and, more practicably, to appear in any potential sequels Universal Pictures might require.

During production, studio heads at Universal Pictures were buoyed by the footage they were seeing. Perceiving a greater commercial potential for the film, they shifted its release date again: out of the doldruns of February 2009 to 3 April, the beginning of the lucrative US summer period.

When they received Johnston’s completed edit of the film, however, their expectations soured. With the studio anticipating reshoots and a re-edit to improve the story, The Wolfman’s release date was immediately set back to 6 November.

Extensive reshoots were undertaken in the Spring of 2009. There were disagreements within Universal’s executive hierarchy over how significant any other reshoots – if any – should be, with studio president Ron Meyer pushing for a minimal number to create a modicum of sympathy for the protagonist but to essentially release the film to cinemas as soon as possible and recoup whatever expenses it could manage. Ultimately much more significant additions were made to the film, including a lengthy rampage by a transformed Lawrence through the streets of London that had ironically been cut during production at the studio’s behest. ‘I’ve been in this situation on almost every film,’ admitted Johnston. ‘The way to make the movie cheaper is to cut out all the stuff that works. The movie needed it and we went back and redid it again.’[18]

The reshoots ultimately took six weeks to complete, wrapped in late May 2009. Second unit director Vic Armstrong supervised much of the shoot, including a six-day reshoot of the film’s climax. While Benicio Del Toro was free to return to Pinewood Studios for the shoot, and Emily Blunt could work weekends in between filming the comedy Gulliver’s Travels, Anthony Hopkins was unable to attend. New shots of his character were filmed in Los Angeles and integrated into the Pinewood footage.

There were two versions of the ending [that] involved the fate of the Wolfman,’ said Johnston. ‘When we went back to shoot the new stuff, we enhanced one, because our suspicion was it was going to be the more dynamic ending. So we shot new stuff for that, the B version, which is now the version in the film.’[19]

Another change mandated by Universal Pictures was replacing editor Dennis Virkler with industry legend Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now).

Johnston said: ‘I sort of rediscovered what the movie was all about with Walter. He wrote the book, literally, on film editing. 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.’[20]

Danny Elfman was hired to compose the film’s orchestral score, however when post-production was repeatedly delayed by the reshoots he ran out of time to orchestrate his compositions to the film’s final edit and needed to work on his next film (Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland). Rather than hire someone else to adapt Elfman’s work, the decision was made to appoint a new composer. Paul Haslinger developed and performance an electronic score for the film, but it was felt that it jarred badly with the period setting of the film. In the final lead-up to the film’s release three additional composers – Conrad Pope, Edward Shearmur and Thomas Lindgren – were hired to adapt Elfman’s original score to the film.

The version of the score released to CD alongside the film contained Elfman’s original score compositions, without the additional bridging melodies by Pope, Shearmur or Lindgren.

Despite the reshoots, senior figures within the studio continued to believe that they had a guaranteed box office failure on their hands. The film was pulled from its intended November release and delayed for a fourth time – in this case to 12 February 2010, back into the Hollywood dumping grounds.

The Wolfman opened in American cinemas opposite the teen fantasy Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief and the romantic comedy Valentine’s Day. In its first weekend it was the second-most successful, behind Valentine’s Day, with an opening weekend gross of $31.5 million. Its fortunes fell quickly: in its second week the film slid to fifth place, and in its third to 11th. Internationally the film performed a little better, particularly in Spain, Italy and Mexico which accounted for almost a third of its non-American revenue.

All told The Wolfman reached a global box office gross of $139.8 million. Given its budget, which had blown out to $120 million after the reshoots, it represented a significant loss for Universal Pictures.

When the film was released to home video four months later, Universal Pictures permitted Joe Johnston to complete a director’s cut. This extended edition returned more than 17 minutes of footage, including an early cameo by acclaimed Swedish actor Max Von Sydow. As is often the case with director’s cuts, the home video edition restored a huge amount of nuance and depth to the picture. It is a superior version of the film, although it is doubtful whether Johnston’s cut would have fared better in cinemas with a mass audience.

The failure of The Wolfman was not quickly forgotten within the studio. The following year Ron Meyer continued to criticise the film. ‘It’s one of those movies,’ he told an audience, ‘the moment I saw it I thought, “What have we all done here?” That movie was crappy.’[21]

In retrospect Johnston seemed inclined to agree. ‘I had taken the job mostly because I had a cash flow problem,’ he admitted, ‘the only time in my career I’ve ever let finances enter into the decision process. Money is always the wrong reason for doing something that requires passionate devotion. The production was a leaky, rudderless ship in a perfect storm suffering from bad decisions, infighting, reluctance of the powers-that-be to take responsibility, and too many under-qualified cooks in the kitchen.’[22]

With the advantage of time and distance, it is possible to look back at The Wolfman – specifically Johnston’s director’s cut – and find a remarkably effective and entertaining gothic horror. There is a clear affection for old-fashioned Hollywood horror films that seems to ooze from every frame. It also a remarkably bleak film, framing the horrific elements in part as tragedy and offering little or no humour as a respite from its cold, wintry aesthetic.

What humour the film does provide tends to come via Hugo Weaving as the matter-of-fact, wonderfully pragmatic Inspector Abberline. Universal Pictures would subsequently attempt to launch a shared universe of classic monster pictures twice: first with Gary Shore’s Dracula Untold (2014) and again with Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy (2017). In all honesty they could have saved some time and developed a fabulous franchise around Weaving as Abberline, roaming Great Britain on the hunt for all manner of undead creatures and monsters. The Wolfman is a film with plenty of on-screen talent at its disposal, but for me at least Weaving is the absolute highlight.

Del Toro, on the other hand, seems to struggle slightly; he is, after all, a Puerto Rican playing an English Shakespearean actor. He seems to become more self-assured in the role as the story progresses. Either that or the audience simply comes to accept him as he is. Anthony Hopkins gives a typically Hopkins-esque performance, in a role that is effectively tailor-made for him: dry, lightly witty, and constantly malevolent. Emily Blunt is hugely engaging in one of her earlier studio roles, and it is no surprise to see her career has subsequently gone from strength to strength.

Rick Baker’s practical effects aid the film tremendously. Werewolves have always been a challenge to represent in CGI, and by allowing Del Toro to perform the role in prosthetic make-up the film preserves a great deal of his performance that would otherwise be absent. It acts as a great lesson for Hollywood visual effects design: the best tool for a job is the one which maintains the greatest amount of realism. Despite constantly improving CGI in the industry, in this case nothing matches the quality of a talented actor in make-up.

The film’s one central drawback – and it is a near insurmountable one – is the screenplay. There is no hiding the fact that it is a terrible mess. There are great moments, and impressive scenes, and more than a few immensely effective lines of dialogue, but they are all individual parts with an insufficient skeleton binding them all together. The theatrical edit does the script few favours, cutting events down in such a way as to make the problem even worse. The director’s cut fixes many structural and pacing problems, but it remains an absolute curate’s egg.

The Wolfman falls well short of greatness, but the tragedy of the film is that the greatness remains visible on a moment-to-moment basis. It is still hugely enjoyable, but the recognition of a much stronger film – one never given the chance to be made – sours some of that entertainment value for me.

Despite its problems it absolutely deserved greater success in cinemas; I suspect the constant delays and production troubles gave it something of a ‘stench of death’ within Hollywood, and that led to a lot of pre-conceived notions of the film on behalf of film and entertainment journalists during its release.

In the end The Wolfman joins that odd echelon of Hollywood picture: the one where the miracle is not within the film itself, but that in under near-impossible circumstances the film was completed and released at all.

 

[1] Sean Decker, “Del Toro, Benicio (The Wolfman)”, Dread Central, 11 February 2010.

[2] Quoted in The Wolfman production notes, Universal Pictures.

[3] Sean Decker, “Del Toro, Benicio (The Wolfman)”, Dread Central, 11 February 2010.

[4] Lindsay Soll, “First look: The Wolfman”, Entertainment Weekly, 19 March 2008.

[5] Adam Chitwood, “Director Mark Romanek talks One Hour Photo bluray, his vision for The Wolfman, Cinderella, his desire to work on a larger canvas, and more”, Collider, 7 May 2013.

[6] Sean Decker, “Hopkins, Anthony (The Wolfman)”, Dread Central, 11 February 2010.

[7] Geoff Boucher, “Anthony Hopkins on the secret of his spooky success: ‘I like to act like a submarine’”, Hero Complex, 11 February 2010.

[8] Ryan Gilbey, “Emily Blunt: everyone wants the first bite”, The Guardian, 5 February 2010.

[9] Mark Salisbury, “The troubled history of The Wolfman”, TimeOut. (http://www.timeout.com/london/film/the-troubled-history-of-the-wolfman-1)

[10] Devin Faraci, “The CHUD interview: Hugo Weaving (The Wolfman)”, CHUD, 11 February 2010.

[11] Drew McWeeny, “Hugo Weaving talks about tone and gore and the Ripper murders for The Wolfman”, HitFix, 15 February 2010.

[12] Devin Faraci, “The CHUD interview: Joe Johnston (The Wolfman)”, CHUD, 10 February 2010.

[13] Devin Faraci, “The CHUD interview: Hugo Weaving (The Wolfman)”, CHUD, 11 February 2010.

[14] Devin Faraci, “The CHUD interview: Joe Johnston (The Wolfman)”, CHUD, 10 February 2010.

[15] Lindsay Soll, “First look: The Wolfman”, Entertainment Weekly, 19 March 2008.

[16] Mark Salisbury, “Gene Simmons and David Lee Roth howled for The Wolfman”, Hero Complex, 12 February 2010.

[17] Amy Kaufman, “The Wolfman”, Los Angeles Times, 19 January 2010.

[18] Scott Essman, “Joe Johnston conjures The Wolfman”, Below the Line, 10 February 2010.

[19] Mark Salisbury, “The troubled history of The Wolfman”, TimeOut. (http://www.timeout.com/london/film/the-troubled-history-of-the-wolfman-1)

[20] Geoff Boucher, “The Wolfman finally gets a chance to howl”, Los Angeles Times, 10 February 2010.

[21] Jeff Labrecque, “Ron Meyer bashes The Wolfman”, Entertainment Weekly, 3 November 2011.

[22] Quoted in “Captain America exclusive: One question/one answer with director Joe Johnston”, Comic Book Movie. (http://www.comicbookmovie.com/captain_america/captain-america-exclusive-one-question/one-answer-with-director-a27541)

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