There has been a lot of drama on the Disney lot this year and not all of it has been in front of the camera. The most obvious starting point was the failure of John Carter to live up to expectation and its massive budget. The studio ended up announcing an expected operating loss of approximately $200 million to its stockholders because of that film, followed shortly after by the sacking of studio chief Rich Ross.
There was a lot of finger pointing going around about who was to blame for the demise of both John Carter and Ross. A good portion of which centered on Pixar wunderkind Andrew Stanton — directing his first live action film from a script he co-wrote with fellow Pixar alum Mark Andrews — and Ross predecessor Dick Cook and John Lasseter.
The John Carter debacle was mitigated in early May when The Avengers, the first film released by Disney’s recently purchased Marvel subsidiary, set opening weekend records and continued to rake in dough throughout the spring. The Avengers helped dig Disney out of a hole. Still, the fact is most of Disney’s films from the last year-and-a-half have either underperformed like TRON: Legacy and Cars 2, or bombed outright like Mars Needs Moms and Prom.
Disney is hoping success shines once again this week when they release the latest computer animated film from Pixar, Brave, the first Pixar film featuring a female protagonist and the first film featuring a new Disney Princess since 2010’s Tangled. It was also supposed to be the first Pixar film helmed by a female director until Brenda Chapman was replaced by Andrews halfway through the production process.
I caught up with Andrews this week and had a chance to talk with him about not only Brave, but his thoughts on John Carter.
A good friend of mine used to work up at Pixar and he told me there is a lot of pressure related to living up to high expectations that everyone has for a Pixar film, both creatively and financially. How do you deal with that pressure?
Mark Andrews (MA): I try not to think about it. Joe Ranft was one of my first teachers and he kind of turned me on to what story was. It is basically directing in miniature. And all those problem solving things, I love that. I love getting something to work. To get the audience to feel something, to be captivated or to experience something was a mystery to me.
I talk about story as being alchemy. We’re trying to change lead to gold, and every time we get gold we don’t know how we did it. Because every time it’s different. The concoction is not the same. So I come out of that crucible, that fire. That’s hard. The rest of directing, animation, lay out, what you do with the camera, lighting, the art direction part of it. That’s all visual storytelling to support what is happening in the story. So if the story isn’t right, I can’t make those other decisions when I am directing.
The hardest thing about directing for me was who I am showing it to, which is John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Pete Doctor. These guys are walking around with Oscars. And they’re not going to be fooled by triteness, by cliche, by superficiality. They really want to have that experience of an artist. They can see right through the gimmicks. So that’s where most of the pressure comes. So when I know they’re laughing or they’re crying or they’re on the edge of their seats, then I know I’ve done it. It’s working. Because if they’re reacting then an audience is going to react. But I try not to look down or I would never get out of bed in the morning. I can’t have that self doubt, nor am I walking in totally confident, ‘lke, it’s going to work no matter what. I just look at what the daily problem is.
You came on Brave halfway through the production of the film. Were there a lot of changes?
MA: There were and there weren’t. The basic structure of the film, what was happening with the dynamic between mother and daughter was the same and continued to be the same throughout. That’s what we call the bones. The bones of the film were totally fine. That was not the issue. What was hanging off the bones, there were problems. There were things that were not working. The focuses and balances that were out of whack.
I think that by making the director change, getting somebody on– for Pixar to pick me to get on it, I’d already had a relationship with the film as kind of their outside consultant for everything Scottish, medieval and Celtic legend. That’s kind of my playground anyway. I would have done a film similar to this anyway. That I could come in with that objective eye and come in as I did with John Carter, as an adaptation [and say], ‘Here’s the source material, it’s great source material, there’s nothing wrong with it, but this doesn’t work, this, this, this doesn’t work. Now what goes and what do I have? Well, this makes sense, and this makes sense, I need that whole Mor’du story, I need it to foreshadow what’s going to happen that’s underwriting the whole story, that she’s going to realize something but too late,’ and just kind of constructing the story that way.
So in that sense a lot changed in the direction of the film, but the bones are the same. And I wanted to honor Brenda and what she wanted to do with the film. The direction she wanted to go and the statement she wanted to make about princesses and fairy tales and all that stuff, which I thought was great. Turn it on it’s head. To go to a darker place and be more serious.
The film is about transformation. That’s the whole reason you pick a teenage protagonist. Because they’re transforming from a child to an adult, and it is a crazy time. That’s why all these Grimm’s Fairy Tales are the same lesson. That when you grow up you have to mature because there’s evils out there in the world that are going to take advantage of you.
So you brought it up. Are you disappointed with what happened with John Carter?
MA: Nope. I mean, in the marketing and the fact that we didn’t get the butts in the seats and nobody saw it, yes, disappointed. On the other hand, it is the number one pirated movie of all-time, and it’s got four and five stars from customers on Amazon, people are buying it up, gobbling it up on Blu-ray, so people are watching it. And everybody who sees it, likes it. It’s just too bad they didn’t get to see it in the theaters.
Would I do anything different on John Carter? No it’s a fantastic film.
You can see Mark’s work on Brave beginning in theaters this Friday, June 22 and John Carter is on DVD and Blu-ray right now and can be purchased here.