WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ALL THOSE WHO HAVEN’T GOTTEN THE DVD YET.
Greg Johnson admits he had a few trepidations when he was asked to do the script for the Planet Hulk DVD.
“It was to make sure I had an understanding of what [Marvel writer] Greg Pak had done,” says the man whose past Marvel Animation work includes Wolverine & the X-Men and The Invincible Iron Man. “I wanted to make sure I was the right guy for the adaptation.”
Apparently it didn’t take him that long to come to a decision.
“Once I read it, and saw the characters and the world Pak had created, how they were all woven together, I just couldn’t wait to get involved,” Johnson admitted. “So initially, reservation; then excitement…I just jumped right in.”
That didn’t mean the 81-minute movie was going to be an easy job. The original comic series is nearly 400 pages. Using the old one-minute-equals-a-page formula for the script, it meant Johnson had to cut out nearly 300 pages of Pak’s story. Johnson concurs the process was like peeling the many layers of an onion.
“That was the first step, actually,” he said. “I had to go through and outline the major events that propelled the story. I just wanted to make sure we just didn’t squeeze anything in there. We were telling a story that knew what it was about, and it was about the Hulk; what he was up to and what he was accomplishing, the emotional arc he was going through. From there, it was to make sure everything paid service to that.Greg Johnson “So it wasn’t so much compressing the story. In a way, it was expanding it. It was making sure everyone knew what the central story was.”
Part of the process was also making sure the upper brass was in on all his creative decisions, particularly supervising director Frank Paur.
“He’s like a brilliant mad scientist,” Johnson says of Paur, who’s past work ranges from Gargoyles to Hulk Vs.. “I’ve worked with him since X-Men Evolution on several different projects. I think he’s brilliant. We had him in early on discussions of the script, just to make sure he was on board with what we were doing. That was the key to making this thing work.Greg Johnson [far left] at the PLANET HULK LA event, with [from left to right] Rick D. Wasserman, Blair Butler, Josh Fine, Frank Paur and Jeph Loeb “Usually, there’s a disconnect between the directing and the writing. The writers turn in the draft and then they are done. I usually like to involve all the creative individuals so that all of them have a stake in the story. We are all on the same page. So that’s how I work with Frank. I also worked with the producers, Josh (Fine) and Craig (Kyle). I never got to work with Sam [Liu, on-hand director], even though he’s directed a few of these. I met him for the first time at the movie’s debut at the Paley Center.
“You can’t treat comic books like storyboard. For one thing, the pacing is completely different. You can have a five-page scene where people are just talking in the cartoon that can be summated in one big splash page in the comic. They don’t translate.
“You really have to sift the stuff to make sure it is cinematic. In Planet Hulk there were subplots that would have been fun to explore, like Miek’s story, but I think ultimately it would have felt a little aimless. It would have kind of lost some of the momentum.”
Thus empowered by the encouragement of the animation crew, as well as Pak, Johnson felt he had the backing to make a number of changes he had to make for the movie.
“Compared to the Hulk I normally worked with, the one from the 90s series or the other movies, he’s a gabby one,” Johnson acknowledges. “The Hulk I usually worked with was the ‘Hulk Smash!’ or ‘Hulk not a behind!’ one. He’s been pretty limited in his emotional range, mainly just anger and sympathy.
“[On Planet Hulk] He actually makes complete sentences. So to actually have him able to have him speak was a huge change for me.”
Yet having the Hulk speak intelligently wasn’t enough.
“We wanted him to have some progression. In the beginning, he is roaring and raging in the ship. When he crashes, he’s still that beast we all know,” says Johnson. “Then slowly, he finds his voice. He starts speaking in short sentences. Then he starts speaking in longer sentences and forming opinions. We just didn’t drop an intelligent Hulk on everybody’s lap.“In the first gladiatorial confrontation, what does he do? He walks away. He sees an exit and tries to open it. The only reason he doesn’t leave is because he’s in a weakened condition and not strong enough to push the doors open. He’s not as powerful as he was…until he sees the guy who put him there. Then the old Hulk is back. Really, what his shortness in dialogue represents is his wanting to be left alone. He’ll talk if you make him, but he’d rather be left alone.
“This new Hulk doesn’t waste one word. That goes along with the persona he has in this movie. He is a man of few words. Then again, those few words are more than what he’s usually gotten on the screen. In print, he’s been all over the place. Still, we didn’t want him carrying on long conversations. The Hulk has his opinions. He’ll say it if he has to, but he’d rather not. When he’s challenged, he’ll challenge you back.”
There were other factors playing in the making of this film, particularly when it came to guest appearances of other Marvel Universe characters.
“If you notice, we kept the Illuminati in shadow. We had to,” says Johnson. “Fans will know who they are. The truth is not all the characters were available to use. That’s why some are in shadow. That goes for Silver Surfer. He was not available.
“So it came down to who could have the ultimate throwdown with the Hulk and be an opposing force of equal power? In trying to make it more organic to our movie, it made Beta Ray Bill rise to the top. We could introduce him in that flashback scene instead of just appearing out of nowhere and then being a fan favorite moment. It now all made sense.”
In all, when push comes down to shove, Johnson realizes it all now rests on fan acceptance.
“I think the comic fans will understand that 80 minutes was our running length,” he opined. “That’s how long the Marvel movies are. We told the Planet Hulk story and I think we did it well. It was really important for me to get it right. The scenes were big and exciting, even if some of them were in a different time or location.”
As for Johnson’s future? Well, the Disney merger doesn’t really apply to him.
“Technically, I’m not really a Marvel employee,” he explained. “I’m an MLG employee on Planet Hulk. I’m a Kickstart employee on Wolverine & the X-Men. As long as the checks clear.”
That doesn’t mean we won’t be hearing from Johnson for a while. Actually, he’s hard at work.
“I’m working on the second season of Wolverine and the X-Men,” he said. “There’s been quite a delay, but word is we’re going to be back on track real soon. I haven’t been involved in Iron Man: Armored Adventures or The Avengers because Wolverine and Planet Hulk has been a full-time job. I’m doing some other things for other studios, too.”
With the work he put into Planet Hulk, fans shouldn’t have any trepidations about whatever these other projects are.