From the outset director Joe Johnston might have seemed an odd choice for Captain America: The First Avenger, but he was the perfect fit – having done a period superhero twenty years ago with The Rocketeer. He discussed the movie along with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and producers Kevin Feige and Louis D’Esposito in a recent press conference, and all spoke of the challenges of making a superhero film that’s meant to tie into next year’s The Avengers. Take a look…

Was there concern about depicting Nazis and the Third Reich in the movie and having Hydra sort of replace them?

Joe Johnston: A concern? Nazis are the universal villain. I mean, you can kill Nazis with impunity, and so these are uber-Nazis that you can kill even with more impunity.

Kevin Feige: And the Hydra, of course, is right out of the Marvel comics and we always said this is a Marvel movie, this is the history of the Marvel version of World War II and Hydra and Skull really were the primary ones. So it wasn’t anything we hid from, and as you see in the movie, there are Nazis in the film. But we wanted Hydra and the origin of Red Skull to be the primary antagonist for this story.

Can you talk a little bit about casting Chris, because I know it was a little tricky finding your Captain America? And secondly, are you heartened by the fact that most of the world is going to be using the Captain America title as opposed to just going with First Avenger? How do you feel about that?

Louis D’Esposito: Well, it’s common for films to change the title. You want to talk about controversy, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was changed to Cloudy with a Chance of Falafel in Israel. Dark Knight changed the title. We depend on our international marketing department and we take their advice. So no controversy there.

JJ: We screen tested about 12 or 15 potential Captain Americas, and we kept saying, Gee, I wish we could combine these two guys, because we liked one guy’s face, we liked the other guy’s acting. But Chris was always at the top of our list. He had said no because he was concerned about doing another superhero movie, but we just kept after him. One day we said, just get him in to look at the artwork that was on the walls in the Art Department. And I think it was that – and the fact that he liked us – that he eventually said yes, and he was convinced we were going to make the right movie with the right Captain America.

There’s a real throwback quality to the film, and a real innocence. There’s also a musical number and I’d like to that you for that. How did you approach this film in terms of tone and were there certain film serials that you were looking to?

JJ: We had always talked about films of this period that we liked, contemporary films, and Raiders was the model that we used. We use it as a template for a lot of reasons, but it feels contemporary today. It was made, what, 30 years ago now, it still feels absolutely fresh, and I wanted Captain America to feel like that. To feel like it wasn’t a film made in the 40′s, it was a film about the 40′s made today. And I think the character – as far as the tone – of Steve Rogers just has an innocence about him and this determination that is probably the most American thing about him. It’s not a propaganda tool, we’re not waving the flag or anything – it’s about this guy who just wants to do the right thing, and I think that that sort of runs throughout the tone of the picture.

Can you talk about Tommy Lee Jones, and your approach to directing him?

JJ: Tommy Lee Jones has played this part before and he was very well aware of that. He did play it differently. He played a Colonel Phillips that I’ve never seen before. But I found the most effective way to direct Tommy Lee Jones was just to laugh at him because he’s actually very funny; he has a great sense of humor but nobody ever laughs at him. I think people are afraid of him, but he’s the sweetest guy in the world.

One of my favorite of your movies is The Rocketeer and this really reminded me of that, because of the innocent guy who turns hero, the romance and then fighting the Nazis. So was that in the back of your head at any time?

JJ: It was not in my mind at all in making this film but I went to see the 20th anniversary screening of The Rocketeer and I was really surprised at how many very specific similarities there were in the picture that I had totally forgotten about, so must have been in the genes or something. I don’t know.

Stephen McFeely: Well, obviously we were aware of it. I think it more made us comfortable, not that we actually had any say in the matter, but that Joe was the right guy for it, in that, you know, that’s Joe’s wheelhouse, you drive a 1942 tank up in front of him and he grins like a ten year old boy.

JJ: That’s right. I have a tank now.

At first you wanted to use a different actor for the scrawny Steve Rogers but Chris insisted. Are you glad he insisted? It looked really good, and how did you accomplish that?

JJ: When we started the process of creating skinny Steve, we didn’t really know how we were going to do it. We knew we had to take him from the way he looks now – 6 feet and 180 pounds – to 5’7″ and 98 pounds. We shot a lot of different tests and we experimented with a lot of different things, but we found that the most effective way was basically to photograph Chris himself and to shrink him down using digital effects, just because that way we got the performance of Chris. We didn’t have to worry about trying to have another body double actor recreate Chris’ performance. There are a couple shots where it is a head replacement, where he is lying on a table or sitting in a chair or something where it doesn’t require any physical acting but it’s mostly Chris.

I like the way you worked in parts of Iron Man and apparently parts of Thor into this. Can you talk about the thinking behind that and how you worked those elements out?

Christopher Markus: In terms of the other things from the Marvel universe, that was just mainly, for us, a source of fun in that it adds this extra layer that you don’t have in other movies because, frankly, we don’t have to do anything to have that happen. You know, we have Howard Stark – he’s just a character, but the whole Tony Starkness of it is floating out there in the public’s consciousness, so it’s this neat sort of extra layer that you get that you don’t get in a different context.

JJ: Just structurally, you know, we’re going to need a McGuffin, we’re going to need something for the bad guy to go after, a Maltese Falcon, if you will, and if that McGuffin, the cosmic cube, has residence in other Marvel movies, so be it, it was a great starting point, actually. It’s very helpful.

I was really impressed with the effects in this movie, especially young, scrawny Steve. Is your approach to visual effects informed by your time at ILM? And then also, what was the genesis of the musical number and were you a little worried about it – especially after Spiderman 3?

JJ: My time at ILM was a long time ago, and the technology was completely different. I mean, we had to build models and photograph them in front of a blue screen and there was no digital technology at all. Since then, CG has gotten so advanced and so great that you can do anything you can think of, as long as you can communicate that to the guy who’s sitting at the keyboard. Which is sort of the hard part. So for someone like me, that’s really all you need to know is that if you can translate your thoughts to the artists and the technicians, you can achieve it. And as far as the dance number goes, it’s my favorite scene in the movie.

KF: We knew we wanted to introduce the idea of the costume in the USO type setting, and Joe embraced that idea and liked the idea of a musical number. Spiderman 3 hadn’t occurred to me, but we always knew from the start that Cap wasn’t going to sing and dance. He was sort of overwhelmed and felt out of place in the stage show, and had very little choreography and had to read off of cue cards, so that was part of the fun for us. And Chris, even, when he first found out we were doing something like this, was like, “Am I singing and dancing? What is this?” We said, “No, no, no. That’s not what it is.” So, had we gone that way, I think we would have been more concerned but we were pretty confident in the way that we were talking about it.

JJ: As you may have noticed, Alan Menken wrote that USO song, and Alan Menken probably has more Academy Awards that anybody else in history.

CM: He does, yeah. Any living person in history. That song has been in all of our heads for the better part of a year.

With Captain America – as with Thor – the specter of the Avengers film coming out next year is hanging above it and is something that you have to take into account. And I was wondering how the eventuality of The Avengers and Captain America’s presence in there influences your ability to write the story and come up with a script; does it make it harder or easier? What are some things that you wouldn’t have to consider that you now do, and some things that you can sort of let slide because of that eventual Avengers movie?

SM: We always knew that we weren’t just telling a one-off story or the first of a trilogy or something. We had to do his origin story and in essence his death story, all in the same two hours, and leave it baggy enough to go back if anybody ever wanted to go back to a 1940′s story. So that was particularly challenging.

CM: In The Avengers Cap has to be essentially the world’s greatest soldier, the most seasoned leader, and if you only show him have one adventure in the preceding movie, you’re not going to buy that guys like Iron Man are like, yeah, he’s the man who should lead us, this 22 year old who fought one battle. So you have to load into our movie the sense that he’s an incredibly seasoned veteran by the end of the movie. So in a way, it required a longer span of time than you might otherwise have done if you were just doing an origin story.

We’ve been talking a lot about how much the 40′s era added to the spirit and the charm of this film, so was there much debate? Like should we set a movie in the 40′s for a contemporary audience, beyond just trying to maybe tell a nugget-sized version of his origin story? And then how much do you think the 40′s may factor into future Captain America films outside The Avengers?

CM: In the early days of developing it, we developed a script that took place half in the 40′s, half in the present day, but it just felt like both sides were getting the short shrift. And when we were initially, in our conversations with Joe, two or three or even longer years ago, we brought him into that conversation. Do we go full 40′s, do we do half and half, what do you think? And he was very much in support of the full period. And because it is an origin story and it is his initial adventure, it just made sense. And frankly, because there are so many other comic book movies out there, we knew that this could help it stand apart, if we just, again, stayed true to his origin and to that source material, it would be the best story, the best version of the movie and give us a way of separating ourselves from the pack. There’s a logic that says, Oh, modern audiences aren’t interested in period films, but if you look at the top 20 movies of all time, if you have a slightly looser – Harry Potter’s almost period, right, I mean, at least in its vibe – they’re almost all period. So we were pretty confident in it.

And what are you thinking as far as future possible Captain America movies?

KF: Well, as Chris said, the span of the movie is about two or three years, and there’s a few times in the film where you jump four months ahead, you jump six months ahead, so we did that with the intention of saying, okay, there’s certainly unseen adventures that Captain America went on in that period, that if we want to, we could go back and explore later.

Given the upcoming Avengers and the necessity of placing the Cap within this bigger group, once Joss Whedon was brought on board, did he work with you guys on the script at all to make any adjustments?

CM: Mainly just in terms of continuity in that we, we couldn’t have next year a totally different Cap coming out, with a different attitude and different tendencies. So he came in and did a couple of things that he knew he wanted to deploy later, which was really cool. I mean you get a guy like Joss Whedon and you’re not going to kick him out the door. Yeah, it was mainly just a sort of tuning up, and I can’t wait to see modern day Cap, because in a way, that’s the Cap we all know, that’s the guy in 50 of the 70 years of comics is the man out of time. So I can’t wait to see what Joss turns him into.

The look of a superhero in the movies is one of the most important things for fans, so how long did it take for you guys to come up with the look that you wanted for Captain America that would be functional for the movie and also please the fans?

JJ: We wanted to reference the original suit and the only way we could figure out how to do that was the USO show, because it is basically like wearing flag pajamas. But his combat suit, we spent months and months developing that, and we built several versions of it that we then took apart and basically threw away and started over. It was a long process and we knew what we wanted, basically working from the Brubaker series of comics, we wanted it to have that flavor, but it also needed to be something that he could run in and move in. We built a great suit that he could barely turn his head in, and it didn’t work. So Anna Sheppard came in and designed and built by hand this amazing suit that we then continued to modify until it was something that Chris was happy with, but I think it looks great.

Captain America: The First Avenger opens July 22. Check it out.