A First Look at John Carter


“It’s a little bit like Christmas,” beams the eternally-jubilant Andrew Stanton, “I can’t wait to show off some of this stuff.”

He’s got every reason to be excited. In moments, he’s about to reveal to the first-ever audience scenes from his own first-ever foray into live-action film making, John Carter. For Stanton and for fellow fans of the character the world over, the hero’s debut on the big screen has been a long time coming.

Based on the classic science fiction tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs (best known as the creator of “Tarzan”), John Carter celebrates his 100th anniversary next year, appropriately timed against the film’s March 9, 2012 release. Featured in eleven serialized tales, beginning with “A Princess of Mars,” Burroughs’ “Gentleman of Virginia” is a former Confederate soldier who, in the aftermath of the Civil War, finds himself mysteriously transported to Mars (or, natively, “Barsoom”) and who is forced to fight for his place among the planet’s diverse alien species.

A film version of Carter’s Martian adventures has been on the table since almost as far back as the birth of cinema itself.

“I remember reading about it possibly being animated in the ’30s,” says Stanton, “and then Ray Harryhausen tried to do it in the ’50s. Then John McTiernan almost did it in the ’80s. They just didn’t have the technology or the means to figure how to translate it visually.”

Just because a movie version never materialized, though, doesn’t mean that John Carter didn’t get translated into other forms of storytelling.

“To be completely forthcoming,” Stanton smiles, “my initial introduction to this property was through [Marvel Comics] and a short run in the ’70s… My best friend was a latch-key kid and had all these older brothers. It was a comic book heaven in their attic. I remember being introduced to this. They all used to draw, and they would draw these Tharks all the time.”

Tharks, in the world of the series, are one of Barsoom’s warrior tribes. Enormous green men with four arms and beastly tusks, they roam the desolate surface of the planet, proud of their fighting abilities.

Proving that directing this film is, literally, his childhood dream come true, Stanton precedes the footage with his earliest take on a Thark in the form of rough childhood sketches, aping the design from the Marvel Comics’ series. What’s more, he’s collected childhood Thark drawings from a number of important crew members, including a certain die-hard fan screenwriter who, as a child, signed his pictures “Michael ‘Burroughs’ Chabon”.

Though ComingSoon.net has been asked not to go into deep detail of the footage yet, what was shown was very impressive. Opting for a photo-realistic look, the cinematic world of John Carter would find its visual match in something like “The Lord of the Rings.” In the same way that Peter Jackson allowed the incredible natural beauty of New Zealand to represent Middle Earth, Stanton allows the otherworldly desolation of Utah’s desert to stand in as the surface of Mars with only the slightest bit of CGI trickery to sell the illusion.

In a bizarre way, he’s pulled off the same with his cast. Though the leading talent is recognizable for previous work in both film and television, by not casting “movie stars” Stanton aims not to show off Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins but, instead, Carter and his love, the fierce Princess, Dejah Thoris.

“Character was probably my biggest focus on the project,” says Stanton, “I needed to dimensionalize these heroes. Carter’s pretty much a do-gooder for most of the books. He can be very vanilla. Very two-dimensional at times. Dejah was too much of a damsel in distress. You’ve got to remember, they were the fresh adventure ideas at the time, but they became tropes.”

While Carter’s own dress during his arrival on Mars provides a realistic take on 19th century attire, Thoris’ extravagant regality seems to keep equal footing in fact and fiction. Matched by a tremendous palace background, Collins’ Dejah Thoris appears as though she stepped from a 1960’s historical epic made on an imaginary world.

“It’s a period film of a period we just don’t know about,” Stanton explains, “…How can we capture that faux-authenticity? Breaking that down was making things weathered, aged and having limitations. A sense of deep-seeded culture that you don’t really ever get to explore to the depths you’d like to. A sense that much has gone on in the world long before the times that we’re present to.”

To this end, it was very important not to update the time period of Burroughs’ story. Even though they were released in the early 20th century, the John Carter tales tell the adventures of a hero decades in the past. While Carter travels to another world and interacts with alien species, very little of the original story is rooted in technological science fiction, opting instead for a sort of Western gladiatorial fantasy adventure that Stanton has sought to preserve.

Hitting the design of the aliens is where things get really impressive, blending Avatar level effects into the real-world scenery. Since Tharks stand more than the double the height of the average man, alien actors like Willem Dafoe (Tars Tarkas) and Samantha Morton (Sola) actually performed their scenes on stilts with performance-capture headsets to preserve their facial expressions. Decidedly less cartoony than any iteration of Tharks fans have seen before, Stanton’s warriors are slender, pale green and, fascinatingly, have enough facial distinction to separate them from one another.

(Though a full-on view has not yet been released, click here for a closer look at some of the Thark production maquettes.)

“I went with my Pixar gut and experience and got actors because of their eyes, their voice, and their acting ability,” says Stanton, “…[Their dialogue] is very heightened prose, and I decided to round up the most seasoned actors I could, a lot of them British. I would often make fun of the dialogue and call it ‘Pulp Shakespeare’. I wanted to make sure when they say something out of their mouths, there was gravitas to it that you would believe it, that you would buy.”

While it’s far too soon to say how audiences will react to John Carter, Stanton has very high hopes that he’ll be able to proceed onto sequels and is currently eyeing a Martian trilogy.

“Most people know me at Pixar as the guy that doesn’t like to do sequels or is very reluctant to do sequels,” Stanton grins, “The irony wasn’t lost on me when I asked them to do this first book and to option the first three. I said, ‘I really want to try to attack the first three like a trilogy and give us a fighting chance to introduce it to the world the way it was introduced to me,’ which was as an ongoing series with a promise of something going on.”

Stanton is also aware of the controversy behind his decision to shorten the title from the originally announced John Carter of Mars to just John Carter, a move that he hopes will open up the film to broader audiences.

“I know I’m going to get this question all day and probably for the rest of my frickin’ life: Why ‘John Carter’?” laughs Stanton, “…Believe me, Mars is going to come into this thing, title and everything, before this whole journey’s over. You’ve just got to be patient.”

Stanton also confirmed that, while the film will be released in 3D, it will be done through a post-conversion process overseen by Bob Whitehill, Pixar’s stereographer. While Stanton himself isn’t particularly interested in a 3D version over the 2D, he does promise a quality conversion and, ultimately, more options for moviegoers.

Those same fans won’t have long to wait for their own glimpse at John Carter, as the trailer is set to arrive online this Thursday. Set to a Peter Gabriel cover of Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage,” the footage purposefully shows off only a quick sampling of what the final film has in store as Stanton is fiercely determined to keep as many surprises as possible.

“[We] got in line and waited hours because we didn’t know what was going on for most of your youth,” Stanton says, “…The 12-year-old [me] is so easy to please. It’s the nearly 50-year-old that has now seen way too many movies and read too many books and is very jaded. Can I appease that person? When you see too many things of something you love done poorly, whether they be animation or fantasy or anything, you start to not become a fan… The last thing I want to see is a sci-fi movie. It’s not because I’ve lost for it. It’s that I love it too much to see it done half-assed or see it miss the mark. I’d rather save my energy for when I think it’s being done right.”

Fans will have to wait until March to ultimately decide if Stanton has done Burrough’s work justice, but they should rest easy in the meantime knowing that, after years and years of work, John Carter is almost here and is being delivered by incredibly caring and capable hands.

Click here to view photos from the edit bay visit as well as concept art from the film.