Writing a geriatric comedy (“Grumpy Old Men”) and directing a tearjerker (“Simon Birch”) made Mark Steven Johnson an unlikely choice to write and direct “Daredevil.”
But Johnson’s vision for the blind superhero was so strong that he was willing to go to any length — even stalking Marvel Comics film franchise gatekeeper Avi Arad — to get the job.
“When people ask how I got ‘Daredevil,’ I say it was through sheer attrition,” said Johnson. “My partner Gary Foster and I stalked Avi for years.”
A week before its release, “Daredevil” has a lot going for it: slick commercials; Internet buzz; Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner and Colin Farrell; a spinoff film in the works for Garner’s sexy assassin character, Elektra; and “Daredevil” sequel options in place for Affleck and every star but Farrell.
“All I wanted in the third grade was to be (“Daredevil” character) Matt Murdock,” Johnson said. “I believed he was real. I’d watch the news with my parents, fully expecting to see him.”
Johnson didn’t think he’d make the film, because Chris Columbus signed on for it at Fox. When Columbus ankled and handed it to Carlo Carlei, Johnson made his move.
“I read their draft, wrote meticulous notes, and told them what I’d do,” said Johnson. “They said great, when can you start writing? I told them I couldn’t. I was off to make ‘Simon Birch’ and just wanted to make sure it was good. They looked at me kind of funny.”
When Fox’s rights lapsed, Johnson made Foster the point man for a telemarketing campaign directed at Marvel headquarters.
“Mark had me call Avi hundreds of times,” said Foster. They tried to get Disney to back them, but Marvel was in too much disarray, with boardroom battles and bankruptcy looming.
“Gary truly drove me crazy,” said Arad. “They were running from studio to studio, saying they had the rights. Finally, I met Mark. He had a love for ‘Daredevil’s’ universe that was unsurpassed.”
Johnson walked out of the meeting with the scripting job and the hope of directing, along with the nagging fear that a killer script could draw a big director and end his dream. Johnson armed himself with detailed storyboards, drawings, music. Johnson made himself indispensible by landing Affleck.
“He was always unavailable and I couldn’t get near him,” said Johnson, who eventually read an intro Affleck wrote to a “Daredevil” book of comics written by his pal, director Kevin Smith. “I called Kevin, and he set us up on a date, under the guise of Ben playing Bullseye, which fit his schedule.”
“I told Ben right away that was a ruse, that he was Matt Murdock. We spent a few hours talking, looking at the storyboards, and he said yes.”
Farrell came aboard as Bullseye to satisfy a two-picture option he’d signed with New Regency for “Tigerland.” Johnson then lobbied for then-neophyte Garner, whose TV series “Alias” had just kicked off.
“Jennifer had beauty and toughness, but a quality that made you want to take care of her,” said Johnson. “We were down to a few finalists, and tried to speed things up since she was up for a Golden Globe that weekend. Ben was there, and when she did win, Tom Rothman leaned over and said, ‘God, I hope we closed that deal.'”