Exclusive: Narnia Producer Mark Johnson

There’s a little known trade secret among entertainment writers that whenever a new movie opens, you always try to interview the actors first, and if that fails, you at least try to talk to the directors. Because of this, screenwriters and producers tend to get a raw deal when they attend their movie junkets even though they often have the most interesting things to say about the project, having often been there from the very beginning.

Mark Johnson is certainly one of those producers, having made or been involved with many successful movies, including a few that might be considered classics, including Bugsy, Good Morning Vietnam and Rain Man, for which Johnson won an Oscar. He’s also been involved with a lot of cool projects like Galaxy Quest and others, but his most successful endeavor to date has to be 2005′s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which grossed nearly $750 million worldwide.

The upcoming Prince Caspian reunites director Andrew Adamson and most of the first film’s young cast while introducing newcomer Ben Barnes as the title character, a young prince destined to one day rule over Narnia. Because ComingSoon.net never talked to Johnson for the first movie, the release of the sequel seemed like a good time to talk to the man who had been so heavily involved with bringing C.S. Lewis’ books to life, and after a brief chat at the New York Comic-Con a few weeks back, we were able to sit down with Johnson in a quieter environment to talk about what went into making this enormous and epic film, as well as the future of the franchise.

ComingSoon.net: Congratulations on getting the movie finished on time with two days to spare.
Mark Johnson: It is amazing. You have all this amount of time, so we had almost a year of post and yet, it’s not enough.

CS: I want to go back to December ’05. I know that Walden and Disney always planned on making all of C.S. Lewis’ books into movies, but had you already started planning “Prince Caspian” when the first movie came out?
Johnson: No, the fun thing is no one knew the first one was going to be a hit. It’s like right now, I just heard the numbers for “Iron Man” last night and they’re scrambling right now… “Where’s that script for the second one? How come you don’t have that thing ready?”

CS: Did the same thing happen with this, where that Saturday morning after it opened you realized it was doing so well that you had to start thinking about doing another one?
Johnson: Part of it was that we were so exhausted, and you know what? We opened to $65 million, which is obviously a huge number and given that it was early in December. We didn’t know that we were going to do that strongly. Then everybody said we were going to get creamed by “King Kong” which ultimately we didn’t. It wasn’t really until January that both studios said, “Okay, we better get the second one going.” I got a call well into January, late at night from Andrew, and he didn’t announce himself. He just said, “Do you really want to do another one?” We were just so exhausted and it was so hard, and as much as we loved it, it was like, “Really? We’re going to do this again?” In his particular case, I don’t think he wanted anyone else to direct his kids.

CS: What kind of conversations did you two have about how to proceed? Obviously, the second book is very different and it’s not really a sequel as much as adapting another book.
Johnson: That’s right, and you know that’s what’s unique about this franchise, about these Chronicles, is that they are so different one from the other, so unlike say for instance “Harry Potter” where it takes place at the same school and pretty much the same characters, their wardrobe is pretty much the same. In this case, “Narnia” is completely different, as you can see. We couldn’t shoot this one in New Zealand because it was so forest-based. We needed dense forests. New Zealand is the most spectacular country in the world but it didn’t have the locations that we needed for it.

We thought at first that maybe “Prince Caspian” was going to be… not that it was unfilmable, but we just didn’t know how to do it. On the one hand, in a perfect world, I’m not sure that would have been the next book but then on the other hand, if we didn’t do “Caspian” next, we would never be able to do it with our kids. It was the logical one to do next with them, and I think that Andrew and Chris and Steve licked the problems inherent in the book. Part of them were just structural, just because a third of “Prince Caspian” takes place in flashback after the kids get to Narnia, and then we find all about Caspian. We even thought for a while whether we would combine maybe “Dawn Treader” and “Caspian” and make it work.

CS: That would probably have been harder because they’re also two very different books, but I guess shooting in the Czech Republic made things tougher, since Weta is based in New Zealand and you probably had to have a lot of communication with them throughout the process.
Johnson: We were dealing with FX houses. We were in Central Europe and trying to figure out when we could have calls with FX people in L.A. and New Zealand and Central Europe at the same time. There was one of those magic moments, I can’t remember when it was, 7 at night or something where everybody was alert and awake.

CS: Were you in the Czech Republic for most of the shoot or did you stay in L.A?
Johnson: No, I was mostly on set and location. Maybe I missed 20 days out of 120 or something like that. We started in New Zealand, shot there for five weeks then moved to Central Europe.

CS: You really lucked out when casting the four Pevensie kids, so can you talk about how you cast Ben Barnes?
Johnson: What happened was that we saw lots of kids and as you saw now that you’ve seen the movie, Andrew’s idea of the Telmarines—which is not in the book—yes, they are from a pirate race, but he thought, “Okay, they’re pirates. Let’s make them Mediterranean.” As it turns out, the bulk of pirates were in fact British, but we said, “Are they Italian, Spanish, French? We’ll just sort of make them from that group.” Also, make them with darker hair so they don’t look like, as Andrew describes them, pasty British kids. Of course, Andrew’s very fair also, but he said, “Let’s make them more exotic.” We looked at actors with that in mind but as you see, we have Italian and Mexican and Spanish actors playing the Telmarines, but he said, “How do we do an accent? If that’s the case, let’s find a Spanish boy, a French boy.” Literally at one point in Prague, way before we met Ben, we brought in a Spanish kid, a kid from Argentina, a kid from Mexico to test, they were sort of finalists. They were all wonderful actors but all of them struggled a bit with the dialogue and we worked with them to see how do they feel comfortable doing this so they’re at ease doing the accent and yet still being able to act. We looked everywhere for kids for whom English was not their first language, but at the same time, we were always looking at British actors, who could do a little bit of an accent. We found Ben at the last minute.

CS: Having met Ben I knew he was British, but I think it’ll throw people off who meet him after seeing him playing Caspian with the accent. This movie is darker and more violent than the first movie, so was it a struggle getting it to a PG rating?
Johnson: It’s a fine line. We always wanted to make a PG movie, and it’s strange because I look at “The Lion, The Witch” the other day, and I’m not sure if this is any more violent. The difference is that it’s violence against humans, as opposed to the creatures from the last film. We wanted to make it clear that people were being hit or stabbed without showing the results of that. It’s hard, there’s a lot of action in this one. We showed it to the (MPAA) board and they had some good suggestions that we felt all worked out creatively, but the movie you saw is pretty much the movie that we showed them.

CS: I thought it was interesting that you’ve made this movie a period piece. In the first movie, I don’t think we really see too much that it takes place during World War II. Was that it ever talked about to make them modern kids rather than setting it during the ’40s?
Johnson: No, we definitely wanted to keep the war alive, both of them, and in the first one, it’s more important, because you want to believe that their father has gone off to war, which has a real impact on Edmond. You also want very much to feel as though you have these four kids who are somewhat powerless. All of a sudden, they’re in a war-torn world in which they’re being shuttled off to the countryside and in effect hiding and then all of a sudden, they find themselves in a new world where everyone’s looking to them to save the day.

CS: We spoke a little about “Dawn Treader” at Comic-Con, and that one you’re actually working ahead on before this movie comes out. Were you involved with getting Michael Apted involved in the movie?
Johnson: Yes.

CS: He’s done a lot of interesting movies including his “Seven Up” series with kids, but he’s not the first person you’d think about to do a big fantasy epic. What went into the decision to get him to direct “Dawn Treader”?
Johnson: Well, you know, I’d also argue that Alfonso Cuaron maybe wasn’t the obvious person to do the third “Harry Potter” given that he had just done “Y tu mamá también.”

CS: But he had done some fantasy stuff beforehand with “The Little Princess.”
Johnson: Which I did with him, and I remember they called me at one point and wanted a recommendation, and I said, “Are you crazy? If you can get this guy, jump at it!” No, I think with Michael, his work with actors is so strong, that I think that really allows… if it’s not going to be Andrew Adamson, then you don’t want an Andrew Adamson Lite, you want to just approach it from a completely different angle, which I think Michael is going to do. We’re taking Michael’s strengths with actors and storytelling and then we’re going to surround him with great people to help him to figure out how these visual FX all work.

CS: So we know that Ben and Skandar and Georgie will be returning but will you bring back Weta and use the same writers on the next few movies?
Johnson: We actually have a different writer right now on “Dawn Treader,” it’s a complicated process but it’s like the books. You want to have the connection to the prior movies but at the same time, it’s a whole new world.

CS: When do you start thinking about “The Silver Chair”? Do you have to wait until the next one’s finished again?
Johnson: Yeah, we don’t have a director for that, but we will soon enough. We’ve already been talking to some people. Let’s see how this movie does.

CS: Also, in “The Silver Chair,” Ben’s going to be 50 years older.
Johnson: That’s exactly right. I think when you see Caspian, he’s at the dock and getting on the boat and he’s an old man.

CS: I know that both Walden Media and Disney are really big on the 3-D experience, so do you think you’ll ever take “Narnia” into the 3-D realm? Have you had any talks about shooting future movies or scenes in 3-D?
Johnson: We did. We even talked about this for a while. Could we make this 3-D? I would guess that if we keep making these, we’re bound to make one or two in 3-D. You’re right. It so lends itself to it.

CS: When you started this movie, I’m not sure 3-D had exploded like it has in the last few months. I’m surprised to see you producing a lot more independent films this year as well, like “Ballast” and (“Narnia” executive producer) Perry Moore’s movie “Lake City.”
Johnson: Yeah, yeah, we’re really pleased that this year we had two movies I was involved in at Sundance, and then “Ballast” won Best Director.

CS: How do you balance doing bigger budget movies like “Prince Caspian” with smaller independent movies?
Johnson: Well, as a producer, I see myself as a moviegoer. I like to see everything. If you give me a big Hollywood fantasy, I’m there with my popcorn but my favorite movie of last year was “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” and any time I can help somebody with a smaller movie, I jump at it.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian opens everywhere on May 16 and stay tuned for our exclusive video interviews with Andrew Adamson and some of the cast from the film next week.

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