Before he became the director of “Captain America,” Joe Johnston had already made a pretty significant cinematic contribution to Americana – he did, after all, design the X-Wing fighter and Boba Fett, and he crafted the very first cliffhangers to challenge Indiana Jones.
While he’s known for directing blockbuster films like “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “Jumanji” and “Jurasic Park III” (as well as the smaller-scale, critically acclaimed “October Sky”), Johnston begin his career as a storyboard artist and conceptual designer working with George Lucas’ Lucasfilm and the earliest incarnation of its special effects wing Industrial Light & Magic, where he helped envision much of the enduring iconography of the original “Star Wars” trilogy and later won an Academy Award for his visual effects work and art direction on “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” And Johnston admits his experience running Indy through the wringer came into play while bringing the original 1940s era of Captain America to life on the screen.
“We had always talked about films of this period that we liked – contemporary films,” says Johnston, “and 'Raiders' was the model that we used. We used it as a template for a lot of reasons, but it still feels contemporary today. I mean it was made 30 years ago now, and it still feels absolutely fresh. And I wanted 'Captain America' to feel like that – like it wasn't a film made in the '40s. It was a film about the '40s made today.”
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Before “Captain America,” Johnston took on another 1940s-era superhero, helming an adaptation of comic book artist Dave Stevens’ creation “The Rocketeer” (fun fact: Stevens himself was a storyboard artist on “Raiders”), and while that retro-but-before-its-time film wasn’t a smash hit, it continues to amass a devoted cult audience two decades later. “I will say that it was not in my mind at all making this film,” admits Johnston, “but I went to see the 20th anniversary screening of 'The Rocketeer' and I was surprised at how many very specific similarities there were in the picture that I had totally forgotten about. So it must have been in the genes or something.”
Johnston’s collaborators on “Captain America” admit that while making the film they were hungry to hear any tidbit he might offer from his singular cinematic experiences. “He's got this twinkle, and it's like, 'I bet you have so many stories,' but he's so shy – he's kind of coy,” explains Hayley Atwell.
“I was talking to him about Boba Fett and all of that experience on 'Star Wars',” says Sebastian Stan, who plays Cap’s friend Bucky Barnes. “It was nice knowing that about him, because it added a different element where I found myself really appreciating being around him, watching him deal with just the world of it."
“He'd be talking about some action sequence and you have one opinion and he has another opinion,” says co-screenwriter Christopher Markus, “and then you realize that he storyboarded the truck chase in ‘Raiders' and you're like, 'He's right – I have no ground to stand on.' It's almost like you become comfortable and then you get uncomfortable again because suddenly you realize that the guy informed half of your childhood.”