The Dual Worlds of John Carter


Since his serialized magazine debut 100 years ago, Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter has fueled the world’s imagination as a man caught between two worlds. Traveling from Earth to Mars, Carter uses the strength, skills and morals of the former to forge his destiny in the latter. It’s only appropriate then, that Andrew Stanton, the man responsible for finally bringing Carter to the screen, is simultaneously crossing worlds of his own, moving from directing animated fare like Finding Nemo and WALL-E to embracing an epically scaled live-action production roughly five years in the making.

In an unprecedented invitation, traveled twice to see two very different sides of Stanton’s film. The first set visit, in February of 2010, took place at Surrey, England’s Longcross Studios on a series of massive production stages. The second, several months later, occurred in Utah’s Moab Desert, where the incredible landscape doubled for the rocky surface of Mars (or, as the natives call it in Burrough’s books, Barsoom).


“A lot of people think that when you’re on an animated CG movie, you’re working with computers,” says a beaming Stanton inside a fully-realized cockpit of a Martian airship. “I have to keep telling people, ‘No, I work with human beings.’ I work with 200 human beings. I have conversations with at least 50 human beings a day about the art form, about why a character would do this or what a set should look like. Why we should use the color red or the motivation of the plot. The conversations I’m having here are absolutely no different. It’s just real and you can actually touch it. Instead of saying, ‘The bottle kind of look like that there,’ I can actually touch it… The intellectual, artistic and even practical conversations on a lot of things haven’t been as huge a transition as I had thought.”

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Seeing John Carter come to the big screen was a dream of Stanton’s since childhood, though he admits that his fondness for the character didn’t begin with Burroughs’ series of books.

“If I’m giving full disclosure,” he laughs, “I first read the adaptation that Marvel Comics did in the 70’s. I was fascinated by those and that lead me to wonder what the origin was. I went to the books and I had a friend with many older brothers. They were always drawing these nine-foot tall, four-armed, green-tusked creatures. I said, ‘What the heck are those?’ They said, ‘Those are Tharks!’ and they’d tell me about them. .. Pretty much my entire life between ten and maybe about six years ago was, as a fan, hoping that somebody would finally realize the book and the world and put it onto the screen.”

Plans for a feature film version go back almost as far as the character himself, but the elaborate fantasy of Barsoom has always been a challenge to bring to life. It wasn’t until an Oscar after-party in 2004 (the night Finding Nemo won “Best Animated Feature”) that Stanton realized he might wind up even tangentially involved in the project’s production.

“I bumped into Robert Rodriguez and he was about to do it,” Stanton recalls. “I was seething with jealousy, not that I thought I’d be able to do it, but just that someone was going to do it. As a fan and because I knew him I said, in the most loving way, ‘Don’t f–k it up! Don’t screw it up! I just really, really want to see it done right.’ He said, ‘Oh, no, no, no!’ I said, ‘Here’s how I would open it! You can have it!’ He said, ‘Lay it on me! Lay it on me!’ I pretty much thought, ‘Okay, it’s finally going to make it to the screen!’ Then he had a falling out with the DGA in the middle of making ‘Sin City’ and it just kind of fell apart. Then it went to Kerry Conran, who did ‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.’ I was always following from afar as a fan going, ‘Is it going to make it?'”

It wasn’t long before Stanton discovered that a co-worker shared his enthusiasm for the property. Mark Andrews, the head of story on “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” also grew up with the world of Barsoom. He and Stanton even shared pictures with one another that they had drawn as children, depicting Tharks battling against the red deserts of Mars.

“[Mark], too, had independently been tracking it,” Stanton says. “…We just sort of made this goofy pinky swear to each other. ‘If you ever get involved in it or if I ever get involved it, we’ll carry the other one on board with it.'”

By then, the property had ended up with Jon Favreau slated to direct but, as fate would have it, he left the film to take on Iron Man instead.

“Disney called me just to check and see how things were going on ‘WALL-E,'” Stanton continues. “I don’t know what possessed me to do it, but I sort of said, ‘I just heard that this project fell through and has gone back to the Burroughs estate. I don’t know if I’m a one-hit wonder. All I’ve made is ‘Nemo.’ If ‘WALL-E’ is a bomb, just forget I ever had this conversation. But if ‘WALL-E’ is any good, I’d love to see this possibly made on the screen.’ I knew that, to do it right, half the characters would have to be CG generated. I felt comfortable in that world. I was always interested in live action and I thought this would be a good hybrid for me to try it out. They said, ‘Okay. We’ll look into it.'”

Soon, Disney had managed to work out the rights with the Burroughs estate and extensive planning began to bring the books to the screen. Teaming with Mark as his co-writer and second unit director, the team found an equally fanatic Carter devotee in Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon who, himself, produced childhood drawings of Tharks.

“It’s almost like a club,” Stanton laughs. “You have to prove that you’re that much of a fan. I think it’s almost lucky to have been a fan first and a filmmaker second on this movie, because then it’s not about my vision or my film. It’s about what I’ve always wanted as an audience member, which is what we’re always trying to do on any of the films that we make at Pixar. How to find the audience member in yourself and not the filmmaker in yourself.”

The trio began scripting John Carter even as Stanton was finishing work on WALL-E and, while though the goal is to make a single, solid film, the director is not shy about hoping for a full-fledged franchise.

“That’s the character that you’re following through it all, John Carter,” he explains. “…I always thought it would be cool to do, ‘John Carter and the something of Mars.’ All the books use that as the backend of the titles. ‘Chessmen of Mars,’ ‘The Gods of Mars,’ ‘The Warlords of Mars.’ If, by some lucky chance, there’s ever a film two or three or whatever, I think it would be an easier thing to track.”

Several months later, we caught up with Stanton again on our visit to the Utah desert where he welcomed press into the shade of a Barsoomian hut. Outside, leading man Taylor Kitsch had been rehearsing a scene that called for crane and harness that would let him recreate one of Carter’s seemingly superhuman leaps.

At this point in the day, production is winding down because of “Magic Hour,” the period of even lighting just before dark. Normally, that’s a boon for filmmakers, but Stanton is after harsh shadows and bright sunlight to make for the best Martian landscape. As he sits, the ever-smiling director betrays no signs of exhaustion and, in fact, looks even more energetic than he did in London.

“I just sort of accepted my fate before I went onto this that it was going to be hard as hell,” he says, laughing off the stress level involved of a production that has barely reached its halfway point. “It’s sort of like saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to go sail around the world.’ There’s nothing really easy about that, but there’s something mental about just accepting that up front.”

While on-location filming has roughly another month to go, Stanton is, at this point, still more than two years away from a finished film due to the extensive CGI work involved.

“I don’t call it post,” he explains. “I call it ‘Principal Digital Photography.’ Once you look at it like that, you realize, yeah, I’m not done with this shoot at all when I finish in June. Four of my leads are CG and I’d say three or four supporting cast members are CG. Then half the world — not half literally, but the extension of worlds and the extension of sets. These things that are so massive and fantastical that you can’t build them — have to be done. The movie always was planned to be half CG and half live action. Not in look, but in the attempt to build this vision we had. Hopefully, if we do it right, when it’s all done, nothing will look CG and you’ll just accept it… That’s really my goal, to not be showy or spectacle for as much as there is, but just believe that I’m really there. Because I’ve spent a whole lifetime just wanting to go there.”

Looking out at the Utah landscape, it’s not a hard shift to believe that it’s a different world entirely. Stanton plans to tweak that inherent awe with non-traditional effects work and the help of production designer Nathan Crowley, best known for The Dark Knight and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises.

“We came up with this idea of going around and finding geographical rock structures that already look like ruins,” says Stanton. “They just need a tiny bit of CG work to suddenly add a stairwell or a few window holes. It flops into your eyes and suddenly looks like a whole ruin, like Petra. We’re making it look like it’s bleeding off this whole mesa. The whole mesa is going to look like a city… We won’t need to do more than 20 percent CG work on top of the physical photography. Your eye will see 80% reality.”


“Not to dismiss anything,” laughs Stanton, “but it was almost in spite of John Carter that I liked the books… He was always a kind of Prince Valiant, did-it-right-from-the-get-go kind of bland, vanilla guy. I think it was his situation that was more fascinating to me. It was a stranger in a strange land, guy thrown out to circumstances.”

Introduced as a “Gentleman of Virginia” in Burrough’s original text, Carter is a veteran of the Civil War, fighting for the Confederate side. The character being self-assured to a fault, Stanton wanted to make the on-screen portrayal of Carter far more three-dimensional.

“It’s not that unique to just this story,” Stanton continues, “It’s often that the hero is the least interesting person and that the interesting characters are the people around him. I felt like I’d rather watch damaged goods than somebody who has their act together. I went for someone who pretty much resigned himself to the fact that his purpose in life was over and sort of went with the thinking that it’s not for us to say what our purpose in life is. You may think it’s done or finished or ended or been missed, but life’s not done with you sometimes.”

Stanton found his Carter in Taylor Kitsch, best known for the television series “Friday Night Lights” and as Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

“I really fought for [the part],” says Kitsch. “You try to do as much research and everything else to draw from after the auditions. I’m very familiar now with the books, but the script has to take liberties and vice versa. When you’re reading both at the same time, you kind of get caught up in the middle.”

One of the main ways of humanizing Carter was to make sure that his skills grew throughout the film as he comes used to the Martian environment, the gravity of which enables him to leap with superhuman ability.

“I used to laugh because it seemed like, in every chapter, there was the sentence, ‘And then I fought the greatest battle of my entire life,'” smiles Stanton. “I went, ‘That can only happen once, technically!’ We decided, hey, it’s an action movie. It’s probably going to be two hours, two hours plus. I don’t want to bludgeon the audience. I don’t want to make it a gore-fest. I don’t want people to check out. I want every single battle to move the story forward. I want every single conflict to feel like it’s different from another and special… We worked really hard to make tentpole scenes of conflict and saved or combined things to make them that much stronger.”

“You’re definitely going to see him coming from zero,” Kitsch adds, “You’re going to see him at a point where he can’t get any lower than what he was. You see an incredible arc between there and where he finishes. That’s a beautiful thing to see. Playing him becomes an incredible challenge and I’m loving the ride.”

Training for the role began for Kitsch on a mental level, immersing himself in both the Burroughs texts as well as the history of the time period.

“I just enveloped myself in the Civil War and studied with all of these historians and guys who knew the Civil War inside and out,” he says. “You read the letters from the soldiers and I built a ton of John Carter off of that, where he actually came from and why he went to war to begin with.”

Of course, seeing the actor in costume in the heat of the Utah desert, there’s a definite respect for the purely physical demands put on the performance as well. Speaking with press between takes, Kitsch is literally bleeding from the last fight.

“I feel worse than I look, so what does that tell you?” he laughs. “I mean, I think getting into it you just try to prep as much as you can and get ready for the adventure, you know? …You learn a lot about [John Carter] with how he deals with fighting, It would be very hard for him to turn away from a fight.”

Beyond the straight-forward physical challenges, Kitsch also has to deal with co-stars that, in the final film, will be several feet taller than him. The Martian race called the Tharks (the green men of Mars) are four-armed creatures that stand nine feet tall and, while doing battle against them is tricky enough, Kitsch also has to interact with a variety of on-set stand-ins: everything from the motion capture suited actors on stilts to full-scale Thark replicas.

“[Y]ou have such great actors,” he says. “True actors behind it. Yeah, they’ve got dots on their face and they’re in pajama-like stuff and they’ve got these helmets on, but it’s like you truly just connect with the eyes. Like you would in any scene.”

In addition to the Tharks themselves, Carter also finds a companion in an enormous creature named Woola that serves the hero midway between a dog and a horse.

“I’m telling you right now, Woola will steal this movie,” Kitsch laughs. “He’s so great. The way he’s just seamlessly written in. And even the arc with John and Woola is fun. I had a dog, so there are little things that Stanton is letting me throw in there.”


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