Director Joe Johnston brings his 1991 classic to Hi-Def for the first time December 13
Before directing the Nazi smashing, highflying World War II era Captain America: The First Avenger, director Joe Johnston embarked on a similar adventure with the now classic pulp comic throwback The Rocketeer. Dismissed upon its initial release in 1991, this soaring escapade has grown into a solid cult hit, and stands as one of the best superhero movies of the 90s.
The film follows young pilot Cliff (Billy Campbell), who stumbles upon a secret rocket-pack that turns him into a daring masked vigilante, out to stop the Nazis and win the girl. We recently caught up with Mr. Campbell to reminisce about The Rocketeer's twentieth anniversary, its lovely debut on Blu-ray, and his return as Darren Richmond on Season 2 of The Killing.
Here is our conversation.
When The Rocketeer came out in 1991, it wasn't the box office smash people hoped it would be. But now, people regard it as a classic. Was the movie a little ahead of its time?
Billy Campbell: I don't think it was ahead of its time. I think the marketing campaign was misconceived. It had some other things to get over. You really needed a great marketing campaign for it. Because when you think about it, it was a period movie with no big names and no big stars, opening within two weeks of both Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It really needed a smart push. It didn't have one. I think they were a little misconceived in the marketing of the movie.
How disappointed were you at the time? And do you feel validated here, twenty years later, now that people regard the film as one of the best to come out of the 90s?
Billy Campbell: Everyone was a little disappointed that we weren't all going to get together again and make another movie. Beyond that, you are off and doing the next ting. What's been really gratifying has been to realize, over the years, how deeply those who loved it, did it. And how much it still means to them. That is especially gratifying.
How evolved were the special effects that you were dealing with at the time?
Billy Campbell: They weren't terribly advanced. We did a lot of string work. The stunt guys did some wonderful live action stuff where The Rocketeer is flying up to and grabbing onto the biplane at an air show. Then plummeting off the wings. That was all practical. That was a real guy. He was really on the wing, and he really fell off that plane. That was real, all of it. Then the effects we did at the beginning of the film. Flying around in the antique plane. At the air show. The ones I participated in? Those were all real effects as well, done in the air, in a stunt plane, with the pilot and me. That was exciting and fun to do. It's a great, old fashion movie. A lot of the effects are practical. They were done on the scene. I think it contributes to the pure heart and soul of the movie.
And its amazing watching it with kids. It moves them in a way movies today just don't do. There is something tangible and magical there, that you just don't get out of CGI. I've noticed that kids love The Rocketeer as much today as those who have nostalgia for it...
Billy Campbell: I think so too. I'm not a big fan of CGI. I'm not a fan at all, unless they use it in a way that doesn't call attention to itself.
If they made this today, I'd think that all of The Rocketeer scenes, in the suit, would be CGI.
Billy Campbell: Maybe, maybe not. Maybe they would insist on some of the old fashioned stuff. Generally speaking, I don't like CGI. I think the best place for it is where you don't know its being used. I don't know if you've seen Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World, but for my money, I think that's the best example of the use of CGI in a film I have ever seen. Because you don't know where it's being used. All you believe is that you are at sea. You can't tell where the real water begins, or where the real water ends. Which chunks of wood that are lying off the ship are real, and which are CGI. You can't tell, so the effect is real.
Did you get to keep one of the Rockeeter masks from the movie?
Billy Campbell: No. No, I didn't. I'm not really a mementos keeper.
I don't know if you are familiar with Ben Foster? He and his brother have one of the original masks. They like to wear it at Comic Con.
Billy Campbell: I didn't know that. That's hilarious. Ben is friends with my younger brother. I had no idea that he had a The Rocketeer mask. (Laughs)
Do you have a favorite scene, or a moment from the film, that you hold in high regard?
Billy Campbell: The whole thing is special to me. It would be hard to pick a moment. All for different reasons. It's all special, so it's hard to pick a moment that is more special than any of the others.
How was it for you to see Captain America come out this summer, and have so much of it be reminiscent of what we saw in The Rocketeer?
Billy Campbell: It reminds me a great deal of The Rocketeer. It has that sweetness. That innocence. It was great for me. It was wonderful to see that. I dug it. I was oddly proud, in a way, to see Captain America: The First Avenger. I was so happy for Joe Johnston that it turned out so well.
Did you participate in anything new for the Blu-ray?
Billy Campbell: I don't know! I don't know if there are extras on the Blu-ray. I don't remember participating in that, if there were any...
Is that ever disappointing? That they don't ask you to do an audio commentary on a film like this? It seems like you'd have so much interesting information to share with fans...
Billy Campbell: I'd love to do one. Can't say that I've ever thought about it before. So I'm not disappointed that I didn't do one this time. Hopefully. I will put it out there in the universe, that if they want to do that at some point in the future, I'd be happy too.
At the time, what did you think of your costars in the movie? The Rocketeer has such an awesome cast, with Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, and especially Timothy Dalton as the villain...
Billy Campbell: Absolutely. I was thrilled, as you can imagine, to be working with all of those people. It was like a field day for me. I was just thrilled, and I developed a lot of friendships. It was a pure joy.
Have you ever discussed a sequel with Joe? He brings it up every once in a while. He talked about it while he was promoting Captain America...
Billy Campbell: We talked about it this past summer. We had the 20h anniversary screening of the movie at the El Capitan theater, where it premiered in 1991. We talked about it then. I would love to see a sequel to The Rocketeer. I'd love to see that! I don't know that I would be in it. I may be a little long in the tooth to play The Rocketeer. But I would love to be a part of that in some form or fashion.
It doesn't seem like its been 20 years since I first saw this movie. Does it seem that long to you?
Billy Campbell: No, it doesn't seem like that long. It seems like just yesterday that we did that movie. It really does.
To change the tune a little bit, are you coming back for Season 2 of The Killing? We haven't heard. For all we know, you were shot and killed...
Billy Campbell: I am coming back. We are shooting The Killing Season 2 as we speak.
Can you tell me anything about it? Or is it all under lock and key at this point?
Billy Campbell: I can tell you, because the studio is telling fans, themselves, that all of those people who were disappointed at the end of Season 1 will have no reason to be disappointed in Season 2. They will find out who killed Rosie Larsen. And, what I can say, is that the scripts blow me away this season. They have really upped the ante this year. The scripts are phenomenal. People are going to be really happy with this new season. It's intense. Very intense.
Its known that there will be a second mystery that needs to be solved. That opens up a question: At least 80% of the cast wouldn't reasonably be a part of that new mystery. So, does that mean you are only here, in Season 2, for a couple of episodes? Or are you sticking around for the long haul?
Billy Campbell: Its all up in the air. I know they are thinking long and hard about that. They have to provide for if they'll have a third and forth season, and so forth. They have not really talked about that aspect with me. I hope to be back for another season. I love being in Vancouver. And I love being on this show. I'm hoping that at least some of us are back for a third season.
Billy Campbell: Yeah. Well, we'll have to see how they solve that.
The Rocketeer made its Blu-ray debut December 13th. It is in stores now.
The Rocketeer was released June 21st, 1991 and stars Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, Terry O'Quinn, Ed Lauter, James Handy. The film is directed by Joe Johnston.