Mark Steven Johnson's first Hollywood credits came on Grumpy Old Men, the romantic comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Before you know it, the cult classic got a sequel — Grumpier Old Men — and Johnson was able to turn his eyes to directing. Around these parts, the filmmaker is best known as the helmer of Ben Affleck's Daredevil and Nic Cage's Ghost Rider, the first time either of the iconic Marvel characters made their way to live-action.
We caught up with the filmmaker right as he started production on his latest feature — Netflix's Love in the Villa — to chat about all things Johnny Blaze, as part of our larger Hellfire and Brimstone: A Celebration of Marvel's Ghost Rider piece. You can see our full chat with the creator below.
ComicBook.com: You went from the likes up Grumpy Old Men and Simon Birch to Daredevil and Ghost Rider. What drew you to the world of superheroes? Did you read or collect comics growing up?
Mark Steven Johnson: I was a fanatical comic book reader as a kid growing up. I was that six year old kid waiting at the drug story for the comics to arrive off of the truck. Marvel comics were a huge part of my childhood. My world really revolved around them. I was definitely a "True Believer."
Even between Daredevil and Ghost Rider, there is a substantial difference. They're both darker characters, but Johnny Blaze is directly related to the devil and more macabre aspects of the Marvel mythos. What's the thing that instantly pulled you into the Ghost Rider story and made you want to direct the feature?
It's such a strong, graphic image. That flaming skull on a motorcycle. What could be cooler than that? That visual is what got me into the world of Johnny Blaze (and later Danny Ketch). I was an Evel Knievel fan at the time as well and Ghost Rider combined my love of comics with my love for motorcycle stunts. I thought that it offered up some really challenging and unusual. At the time the comic wasn't in circulation anymore so it wasn't very well known outside of longtime fans like myself. I've always had a soft spot for those Marvel characters that had a little darkness in them. And nobody was darker than Ghost Rider.
The earliest Marvel films took certain creative liberties with their characters to make it easier for audiences to consume at the theater — the X-Men and their black leather suits instead of the colorful comic-accurate looks, use of real names instead of code names, things of that nature. With Ghost Rider, you have a skull that's quite literally on fire. Was it always the plan to make Blaze comic-accurate or were there some discussions with creatives and executives on perhaps changing the look of the character a bit in line with some of those previous movies?
There really wasn't much discussion in regards to what the character of Ghost Rider should look like. It's a flaming skull on a motorcycle. That's what's so appealing about it. So I never wanted to stray from that. We didn't know at the time how hard CGI fire would be. That proved to be a lot more difficult than we thought. I was really happy with the look of Ghost Rider and the Hellcycle over all. Story wise we struggled to find the right tone. But visually I think we honored the character.
On the same note, Marvel film rights were all over the place at the time. Were there any certain characters or storylines you wanted to use for the movie that you were unable to use?
Yes. In my first pass at the script the villain was Scarecrow. I always loved the Marvel version of Scarecrow and thought he would have made a really cool and sinister adversary for Ghost Rider. But the studio was afraid it would get confused with the DC Scarecrow and so we ended up with Blackheart. That was a tough character to crack. The Son of the Devil. Wes Bentley did a great job. As did Peter Fonda as Mephisto. But I never got the story right. A hero is only as good as his villain. And we never quite got the villain and the villain agenda down.
This was just before the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off, so there wasn't necessarily one single structure in place. Despite being a Marvel Studios feature, did you feel it was more like the Wild West as compared to today's Marvel movies? Or were things still structured fairly well?
Oh no it was the Wild West! Movie rights were set up all over the place. It was so early then. You had to fight for everything. It's so much better today. Nobody questions the Marvel Universe now. The fans always knew. But now everybody knows how incredible and rich the universe is.
That said, the MCU has officially introduced the concept of a multiverse. What's it like now, nearly 15 years after this movie was released, knowing it could technically potentially be apart of this franchise in some shape, way, or form?
I would love it! I love these characters and can't wait to see how they would fit into the MCU.
Kevin Feige is the Marvel producer now, and has worked on Marvel movies since 2000. Did you ever work with him on Ghost Rider in any capacity?
Of course. Kevin was on both Daredevil and Ghost Rider under Avi Arad, who set the foundation for all of this. Kevin was always brilliant. Kind but supremely confident. His knowledge about this world is second to none. I'm really happy for him. It's just been a meteoric success.
Was Nic Cage always the choice for Johnny Blaze? Did anyone else audition or talk to the studio about playing the character?
Nic was always the choice for Ghost Rider. He has such a love for this character. There was never talk of anyone else playing Johnny Blaze.
It's inevitable the character will return to the silver screen. He appeared in another Marvel network show a few years back and was supposed to get his own series but Marvel Studios cancelled it because they have plans for the character. Who do you think should play the character next?
Oh there are so many great young actors out there. You don't need a big name for this character. Just a great actor. He'll become a star because of Ghost Rider.
You've directed a feature about Ghost Rider so you know more than anyone just how much of a cult status he has with Marvel fans. Why do you think a flaming head, motorcycle-riding demon resonates so well with so many people?
It's that image. It's so powerful. It's why Nic Cage had it tattooed on his arm years before we made the movie. And the deal with the devil story is one that has been around forever. It's a classic tale.
You had a stint there with working on Ghost Rider, Daredevil, and had producing credits on Elektra and Spirit of Vengeance even. Do you dream of coming back to the land of superheroes eventually?
It's been a wild career. I've had a blast. But I am back doing what I love and that's comedy. I started out writing the Grumpy Old Men movies and that's what I love to do. I'm doing my second comedy for Netflix right now in Verona, Italy and having the time of my life. If I did another Marvel movie it would be a comedic one. I just love the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. They are the perfect blend of comedy and action and heart. I would love to make something like that. Most of all I'm just excited to see what Kevin and the gang come up with next. I'm still the same fanboy I was at six years old.
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Ghost Rider (2007) is now streaming on HBO Max. For even more Ghost Rider goodies, you can check out Hellfire and Brimstone: A Celebration of Marvel's Ghost Rider here!
Cover photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images