Exclusive Interview: John Carter Director Andrew Stanton
February 29, 2012
Although we're only two months into the year, one filmmaker is already facing one of the most difficult challenges of his career as Pixar Animation pioneer Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL•E) attempts to bring Edgar Rice Burroughs' "John Carter of Mars" sci-fi adventure series to the big screen in Disney's John Carter, out March 9.
You've probably already heard some of the rumors about how much the movie cost, but there's no one better to talk to about the genesis and evolution of the project than Stanton himself, and as we learned, most of the cast got involved merely because Stanton was directing it.
The director's first step was to cast Taylor Kitsch, a relatively unknown actor best known for his stint on NBC's show "Friday Night Lights" (and playing Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine) as John Carter, a former Confederate soldier from Virginia who is transported to a mysterious place called "Barsoom" by its inhabitants. There, he encounters Dejah Thoris, the Princess of (what he learns to be) Mars, played by Lynn Collins, a well-regarded actress who also appeared in that Wolverine prequel, oddly enough. She has been caught in the middle of a brutal battle between the different races of Barsoom, all vying for the planet's most valuable resources, her people the Heliums fighting with the warlike Zodangans, led by Sab Than (Dominic West), who will do whatever they can to dominate. Meanwhile, the planet's most alien race, the nine-foot, four-armed green Tharks fight back with their primitive weaponry to keep their planet alive.
A couple of weeks ago, ComingSoon.net traveled to the Boulders Resort in the beautiful desert environment of Carefree, Arizona, which best captured the Martian landscape, and we had a few chances to speak with Stanton about his first attempt at directing a live action movie.
First, we went up to the top of a hill for a rather brief video interview in which we talked to Stanton about:
* What made him want to tackle a book adaptation after two successful original Pixar movies
* Whether a project needs a good amount of time to develop before making it
* Whether part of the joy of doing an adaptation is to get people to read the book
* The casting of Taylor and Lynn as John Carter and Dejah Thoris
* Doing previs animation for the action scenes and whether it limited what they could do
For the second half of our interview, we moved indoors to go a bit deeper into the making of the movie as well as speaking with Stanton a bit about the future of his most successful movie to date, the animated Finding Nemo, which will be re-released in 3D on September 14. As we learned, Stanton has a lot of energy and can get really spirited when talking about things that excite him, including Burroughs' stories and characters.
ComingSoon.net: Why do you think it's taken so long for someone to get a movie about John Carter made?
Andrew Stanton: I don't know. I think the biggest thing is just the technology. I think if you really want to come close to realizing the way the books are described, it's such a fantastical environment and so many of your main characters are creatures that nobody knew how to do it and be able to afford to do it. I think that's honestly been it.
CS: I'm really curious about the designs of the ships and the cities. Burroughs is fairly descriptive but not to that extent, so I wondered what you used for inspiration.
Stanton: Because I wanted the film to be historical-feeling, I wanted you to feel like the movie is all in the past, both Mars and Earth, and I wanted it to have a sense of history, so I kept saying, "So what if we never knew Egypt existed? What if we never knew Machupichu in South America existed? What if we suddenly discovered that land?" There would be this hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years of history we didn't know about, so we'd be trying to catch up and going "Whoa, what's happened here? What's all this stuff?" And we know what that would feel like in our world, so I said, "Well, can we make it feel like that on that world?" So it's like screw the Martian part of it, screw the space part of it… ‘cause that's how the books felt. It felt like they just found a new land, and make it as historically accurate as it can feel even though it's all fiction, and so we had to look at why things seem old and layered in another culture, in another civilization in our world and pull from that. And then we had the added problem of "Can we make it feel like it had evolved off of rules that weren't necessarily set the same way as we were?" We came up with the wheel at a certain time in history, we came up with writing in a certain time in history, so it was small things that my production designer Nathan Crowley and I would go off forever on this. We would say, "There shouldn't be doorknobs - that would just show that it's us. There shouldn't be wheels on carts." In other words, could they have found out certain things in science that we haven't found out yet but there's things they haven't found out yet that we know."
CS: The flying ships are the main thing because he's not going into the future but they've already discovered flight.
Stanton: Yeah, the flying ships, and also, I don't explain it in there but the things that power anything, their spark plug, isn't coal, it's radium, and we used to explain a little too much and then we cut it out 'cause there's only so much information you want to take in.
CS: You have so many different races on Barsoom (i.e. Mars) but even the Tharks, I don't think they were even called that until halfway through the movie.
Stanton: We just found that people were listening and trying to find out when John Carter was finding things out, so we just followed along with that. And we also trusted that it's like any other historical journey. You'll slowly figure out. If we know the rules and we're consistent with them, they'll slowly rub off on you and you'll slowly get it. And Nathan Crowley had a really interesting take. His instinct on the architecture was, "Let's take modernism, but then let's put it backwards and put that kind of aesthetic back in time," and then people used the tools that we associated with the past with a modernistic style. It was this really ingenious way of making it feel like an alternative past that we just wouldn't know about.
CS: Did you use Nathan on any of your other movies?
Stanton: No, no, this was the first time. He was Christopher Nolan's guy and I just lucked out that I got him in between projects.
CS: "WALL•E" had amazing production design because you really did create a world. Two worlds actually.
Stanton: I tell you, you can spend years just coming up with worlds. It is a time sink. I mean, all that bitching they've done with George R.R. Martin, the author of the "Game of Thrones" stuff - give the guy a break. It is a full-time job trying to come up with worlds, my God.
CS: There's been a lot of talk about you directing a live action movie but you used performance capture and have actors playing CG characters, so is that the first time you were using that technique?
Stanton: It was for me. Again, I could care less about whatever the rules are. What is my goal? My goal is to make you believe that there really is a 9-foot tall creature, there in the sand, in the sun, talking to this human being. That's my goal, so I will do whatever I need to do to make that work, and I felt like to make you believe that you're getting real reactions and spontaneity from Taylor and Lynn, that you've got to have a real actor against them and to get a really good acting scene, you gotta have a really good actor in there. And then I also know from the animation side, animation doesn't come out of nothing, animation comes out of tons of reference. You can go back to "Snow White." They shot live action people for every scene and then they referenced it. It's not cheating. It's always been part of the process, so this mo-cap thing where you can't use or shouldn't use it is bullsh*t.
CS: It's interesting you say that because at least when it comes to the Oscars, the animators generally seem against using mo-cap.
Stanton: It's an argument about how you use the tool, and I don't want to get involved in… look, a pencil is a pencil and there's always going to be somebody writing something crap and writing something good with it. But I'm not going to argue about whether the pencil should exist.
CS: How did you end up doing Woola? Did you just have something on set used as reference?
Stanton: We had a puppeteer and we had a head of foam, like a Muppet, that was literally just Woola's face with eyes that could move left and right and a mouth that could open, so he had just enough puppet acting, like my hand right now. I can do just enough to make you start deciding to act against it, and that's all you needed.
CS: I was curious about how much you wanted to do, shooting with green screen and using CG. I know you shot some stuff in Utah on location, which means you had to deal with the elements and weather. How did you decide on what you were going to do there and what you were going to build on a green screen stage and do CG.
Stanton: My goal was "How little do I have to do that's CG?" I want to do as much as I can - which turned out to be never as much as I'd like to, because I just wanted it to be real. I wanted it to be imperfect, I wanted it to be dirty, I wanted to believe this place really existed. One of the biggest influences on me while I was growing up was seeing Terry Gilliam's production value on a lot of Monty Python films, because I felt like here were these serious historical pictures and they all seemed too clean and too imperfect and Hollywood and then suddenly, you'd go and see "The Life of Brian" or "Holy Grail," and it felt like you could smell how bad it was and how gross it was, and I thought, "I bet you it was more like that." So there's this found imperfect dirty quality to it that I loved and I wanted to make it feel like that for Mars so you just believed, "Maybe it really existed."
CS: And then he used this cutout animation which was literally a drawing of a dragon that would be animated across the background…
Stanton: (laughs) But there's a gravitas to that of just this embracing of imperfection.
CS: I haven't read the books in almost 25 years but I was curious about the dual father-daughter relationships, which were unexpected but interesting.
Stanton: You probably don't remember it. Tardos Mors in the books is her grandfather and there's actually a father between them, but for simplification - again, there's a lot of characters, and we had to truncate it down, and I felt Tardos Mors played a slightly more memorable role throughout the books so I just combined them.
CS: I don't know if this is a spoiler or not, but things like having the author of the books, Edgar Rice Burroughs, as a character in your movie…
Stanton: That's in the books, and all the books open with Edgar Rice Burroughs going "My uncle has come back and given me this journal and here's what happened," and I always felt that sort of campfire "let me tell you a story, it didn't happen to me but it happened to somebody else," that's a really great storytelling device. I think it really makes it interesting, so we totally embraced that.
CS: Were you able to use some of the other books as influence, knowing where the story goes after the first book?
Stanton: Well, we got the rights to the first three books right from the top and so we used all three in our laying out of how it all should work, so that's why we took license of pulling characters and places and events that might be in one book and using the other book and also save some thing that might be in the first book and use them in another. Rather than being literalistic to this exact book - because the first book in particular didn't have a great conclusion. In fact, you could almost feel like it was being made up as they go along, and you don't want to get that sense when you're in a story. You want to get the sense you're part of a grand design that has a whole thinking behind it, and every part of the buffalo is being used, and so we had to take a wider view and shift things and edit things so you would get that sense.
CS: I love how this movie ends and I think Jim Morris mentioned earlier that you and Michael Chabon have done a bit of writing or planning ahead even though a second movie hasn't been greenlit yet.
Stanton: We know where the whole thing's going. We outlined all three movies before we started writing the script for the first movie.
CS: So if March 12, Disney says "Okay, let's get another one going"...
Stanton: We're ready to go, and if not, I got other things.
CS: What ended up being the biggest challenge? Was it dealing with all the weather and the elements that come with it?
Stanton: I'm always letting people down with my answer but it was just the physical challenge of staying at it every single day in every kind of weather, every kind of temperature.
CS: Later this year, "Finding Nemo" is coming out in 3D and I'm curious how you've been finishing this up and dealing with the conversion.
Stanton: The dark truth is that I haven't been dealing with it at all, somebody else is.
CS: Are you at least going to go in and have some final say or okay?
Stanton: They wanted me to, but to be honest, Bob Whitehill, who also did the 3D conversion on "Carter" is so good, so I said, "Bob, I'm so swamped so you take this."
CS: I didn't even know this was post-converted. I wasn't really sure because I hadn't read much about this before seeing it, but that was something built into the schedule when you set out to make it?
Stanton: We planned in the time to schedule it but we made the decision early on. It's going to be hard enough for me to know how to do live action for the first time, I'm not going to add a 3D camera to it at the same time, I mean geez, that would be too many balls in the air.
CS: You've been at Pixar from the beginning and in the last couple of years, they've been doing more sequels and exploring that territory for movies that one would never expect a sequel, so has it been thrown out to do any more with the characters from "Finding Nemo"?
Stanton: It's always kind of put a bad taste in my mouth, because I never planned for that, and I hate that it would be… and we have said this at Pixar now. We've kind of come to terms with it. We're not against a sequel being made as long as it's a story we love so much that we'd be dying just to make it, so we're just waiting for stories to tell us if it's worthy of doing. Right now, I've never been able to think of anything beyond what "Nemo" was on its own.
CS: What about "Toy Story"? I felt that "Toy Story 3" really opened up some doors for more.
Stanton: "Toy Story" in a weird way--because we so quickly went to a sequel right after "Toy Story" and because kids grow up with their toys--it felt just natural to jump to one. I don't even know if we were thinking about it at the time. I think because we came up with "Toy Story 2" so quickly behind it, it kind of took this stink off it being for greed and fame or anything that we did it. But it put all this pressure on never doing another one. I think that's why we waited so long, partly because of the disconnection with Disney for a while, but the other thing was that now we've set a really high bar. You cannot do another one unless it's worthy.
CS: What about doing "Nemo" shorts? That's been one way the characters have been kept alive without doing actual sequels.
Stanton: I've never said "no" to anything. I've always just said, "Look, if somebody comes up with something that's worthy, let's do it." But we're really picky. We've just seen it happen in other places over time. If you start doing stuff that's even slightly less quality it starts to dilute, and you start losing the trust of your audience, and I think in the long term, I don't want to lose their trust. I want them to always trust us that it will be good.
John Carter opens in 3D, 2D and IMAX 3D theaters on March 9.