Though the film may be called John Carter, the original book was titled “A Princess of Mars” and, over the last century, that princess, Dejah Thoris, has become every bit as iconic as the Carter character. For leading lady Lynn Collins, the role requires balancing sexuality and femininity with Thoris’ intelligence and fighting prowess.
“[She] is sort of scantily clad and it looks incredibly sexual,” Collins says. “ Dejah Thoris is the regent of science and letters on Helium, which is sort of the peaceful city of Mars, but she’s also the Princess of Helium. That’s sort of revealed in the movie. There’s an incredible masculine/feminine combination that I’m working with For me, personally, to combine those two forces as a woman is really quite empowering.”
In a deviation from the source material, Stanton decided not to depict the human-like race of Martians as having bright red skin. Instead, they’re heavily tanned and tattoo red markings onto their body. To prepare for each day’s shoot, Collins has to endure three and a half hours of makeup
“Underneath this, I have freckles and very light eyes that aren’t blue,” she says. “They’re green. And my hair is a dirty, dusty blonde. It’s really so fun to go through this transformation every day. I could complain about the hours but, when everything is said and done, I look in the mirror and think that this is what I dream about. Playing characters that are benevolent, powerful females. They’re doing such a great job making the image something that everybody can bite into.”
“I thought that I couldn’t hide that she’s technically a princess,” says Stanton of developing the Thoris character, “but I can make sure she has as much investment and drive and as much of a goal — if not more — than Carter for why she’s in the story. That’s what I tried hard to do.”
Trained as a martial artist, Collins gets plenty of opportunities to show off Thoris’ fighting skills and laughs that she “may even fight better” than Carter himself.
“They have several different pieces [of armor],” says Collins, standing in full costume on the desert set, “This is the classic version and they’ve got a hero version which is metal. They’ve had to adjust the arms, which are detachable, so that I can move. One of the things about Dejah is that, when she’s fighting, she’s operating on a diagonal so that it doesn’t look like a normal sort of fight. It’s sort of on a spin.”
As important as it was for Collins to play up the fighting side of Thoris, Stanton says that it was just as important to make sure that she keeps her femininity.
“I feel like that would be a knee-jerk, small-minded, male way of approaching it,” he explains, “I went for the tougher one of saying, I’m going to embrace the sexiness, but I’m going to go at it from an almost asexual approach of, Why? Why is she doing everything that she’s doing?’ Fortunately, someone like Lynn was a huge win because she brings such passion and strength and integrity to the thing. If the moment didn’t service it, we had to bring it up to that when I was working with her. It’s always a fine balance.”
THE GREEN MEN OF MARS
In addition to the Red Men of Mars, Barsoom is also the home of the Tharks, a proud, warrior race that Carter meets in the field of battle, sometimes as opponents and sometimes as comrades in arms. Though they’ve been illustrated in a many different ways over the years, Stanton wanted to give his Tharks an added level of realism.
“I want to go, What would nature really create if that was the case with Tharks and beasts with multiple legs?'” he explains, “What would the architecture have to be for a world that is so arid and desert?’ Always using the framework from the book as a jumping off point, but tweaking it the moment we felt it was fantasy for fantasy’s sake. For example, I made the Tharks in the height range that they’ve been described a little bit lower. In the book, they’re been nine and fifteen. I made them between nine and ten. But I also made them very thin and very ropey because I looked at all the desert-dwelling tribes that we’re aware of — the aboriginals and the Maasai warriors and the bedouins — nobody’s thick. They’re all down to the sinewy muscles and just the essentials. They’re the definition of the word essential.'” How would your pectorals be if you actually had a second set of arms and what would their function be? They ended up coming across as a very noble-looking creature.”
As noble as the final design looks, getting there can be rather tricky. Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church stand in the middle of the desolate, rocky mesa in gray motion-capture suits with dots all over their face that can be used as tracking markers for their expressions. What’s more, they’ve got two tiny cameras protruding from their headgear where the Tharks’ tusks are, filming their faces as they go. As if all that’s not tricky enough, this particular scene is one that they’re performing on stilts to match the height of their characters, Tars Tarkas and Tal Hajus.
“There’s just been a battle,” says Dafoe, “and the John Carter character has helped us, kind of by accident, unknowingly. So, I’m embracing him as one of our warriors and he’s very reluctant. We’ve taken Dejah prisoner and she comes and asks us to help her rather than take her as prisoner, but we kinda blow that off.”
Both Dafoe and Church are sitting on a specially constructed raised bench that let them rest between takes without having to take off the stilts.
“Each time it’s a new challenge,” the actor continues, “because the terrain’s different. The quality of the sand’s different. But it’s very important because that height relationship not only helps technically with direct eye lines when mixing effect-oriented stuff with real actors, but also you find the voice much better and you play the scenes much better when you’re that character.”
“I prefer being on the stilts,” says Church, “and I think Willem does too, because it’s just become the character to me, to be 8’7” and still independently mobile. I spent a lot of time rehearsing on them by myself at the ranch where I live in Texas. They sent me stilts probably in November and I just started like a baby, just started getting up on them and moving around and getting better and better and better. Then at the stunt camp in January, I had a greater awareness of what was going to be expected as far as manipulating and movements, that sort of thing.”
Beyond the physical look of the Tharks is an entire Thark language developed by Paul Frommer, the same man responsible for creating the native Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar.
“I’m sure it’s a hybrid of many things,” says Dafoe of speaking Thark, “Then we found a place where we liked it. There’s kind of an alphabet and corresponding Martian words with English words, so the syntax is actually all juggled around, but it’s based on something actual.”
Dafoe’s Tars Tarkas is the most well-known of the Thark characters. The first creature that Carter encounters on Mars, Tars and the earthman become unlikely friends.
“When Andrew [Stanton] put out a feeler, I said basically, Yeah, I’d love to play one of the Martians,'” explains Dafoe, “ I did tip off that I would really love to play Tars Tarkas, which is the role I’m playing, because he’s an interesting character. He’s not what he appears to be, number one, without giving too much of the story away. He’s also got a really good relationship with the John Carter character, who he kind of takes under his wing and he has a relationship with the Samantha Morton character [Sola]. Plus, he has an adversarial one with Thomas’ character.”
“My guy is sort of his pit bull guard dog,” Church agrees, “He’s very aggressive when it comes to violence and fighting. He’s probably a little bit too aggressive because Willem is trying to lead by example, his character. There’s, at times, a little friction.”
THE FUTURE OF MARS
With the release of John Carter just one month away, Stanton’s journey from childhood drawings to a fully-realized film is nearly complete.
“You have to hold all these disparate jigsaw puzzle pieces for such a long time,” he says, “You’re the only one who is hoping and crossing your fingers that this is what the picture will look like when it all comes together. I’m only asked to do that for a couple of hours here or a day. Then I get to see what we’ve all come up with. They’re very impressed with that mental strength or capacity. All the other animation directors are like, What’s it like? What’s it like?’ and I go, Guys, you’d be fine.’ Pixar is like a massive boot camp for that. They’re also very shocked that we can picture images in our head before seeing anything. Before we see rehearsal or anything like that. That’s all we’ve ever had the option of doing. We have to come up with it before we make it. I didn’t realize that it was such a weird muscle to have. It’s been very advantageous on something like this. But I’ve also been incredibly spoiled. I realize that one of the reasons that it’s easy is because I’ve been given some of the best people in the industry on the crew. I couldn’t have a better, more talented and more cooperative cast. They’ve made what is a very, very hard shoot seem doable and sometimes downright fun. I’ve lucked out on that and I can’t take credit for it other than saying yes to accepting all these people.”
Where the universe of John Carter heads after the film’s release on March 9th is, at this stage, anyone’s guess, but it’s Stanton’s hope that a successful box office can lead to future adventures of Burroughs’ sci-fi hero.
“I’m the guy at Pixar who is saying, I don’t want to do a sequel!'” Stanton laughs, “I don’t want to see a second ‘Nemo.’ I don’t want to do a second ‘WALL-E.’ But I’m the guy saying [on this], I would love to see a series.’ Because that’s how it was introduced to me. I’ve tried very hard, me and Mark and Michael Chabon, too, to think wider from the get-go before we ever set out on the first film. So in, touch wood, the event that this film is good enough that they ask for another, we have a plan… But we also worked really hard to give it closure. Nothing bugs me more than a cliffhanger with the hubris to think that there is going to be a second one.”
One of the hurdles that the film has to overcome is the fact that the Barsoom stories have been borrowed and homaged so much over its hundred-year legacy. Stanton mentions Avatar as just one example of a sci-fi world influenced by Burroughs’ legacy.
“That was on reels for a long, long time,” he explains, “but this book has been around for 100 years. I just want to see it. I’ve had the same pressure with other films I’ve had to make. Oh no, someone else is making one just like it!’ All that stuff. It all lasts for about three months — It used to be six — and it cycles before nobody gives a crap. It’s about is it a good movie and am I going to pull it off the shelf and watch it again?’ I’m in it for the grandkids and I always am. I’m not in it for the short term. I’m in it for who might watch it after all the B.S. about box office and anything else controversial that can be created goes away. And it goes away almost faster than you can say it now. It’s not worth getting caught up in. I’ve got a book that has held the test of time and I’m going to make a great movie out of it and hope it sails.”
John Carter arrives in 3D, 2D and IMAX 3D theaters on March 9th.