Long before “Star Wars,” “Dune,” or “Avatar,” there was “John Carter of Mars” and his epic adventures on the Red Planet, which the natives call Barsoom. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy-adventure character that deeply influenced generations of authors, filmmakers and artists, among them George Lucas and James Cameron, who found plenty to like in the stories of outsider heroes and alien princesses. Now filmmaker Andrew Stanton (the writer-director of “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo”) is on a quest to bring the vintage hero to a 21st century audience with the Disney live-action epic that arrives in theaters in March with stars Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Mark Strong and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon as part of the writing team. Our Geoff Boucher caught up with Stanton to talk about the history, the hopes and the surprising Disney decision to skip Comic-Con International, which seemed like a natural stop on the project’s path to the public.
GB: The last time I saw you we were both covered in desert dust out in Utah on the set. …
AS: So much has happened since then. We’ve cut the movie together and started the whole visual effects animation process last summer and then we did a month of re-shoots in L.A. in April, and now it’s just a race to get it all done in time. I knew this was going to be a long journey. It’s like saying, “We’re going to cross the ocean in a sailboat, never done that before.” You just know that every day is going to be interesting and hard or both. And that’s certainly what it was.
GB: This source material has such history and such a legacy, but all of that is lost on most people today. You’re not going to have a chance — at least not with the movie posters or television commercials — to really communicate the fact that this is the Rosetta stone for decades of off-world fantasies like “Star Wars” and “Avatar.”
AS: No, that’s true, but I don’t want to explain it. Hmm, how can I put it? The fact that I became infected with it as a kid and then sort of put it aside and then didn’t read it again until I was in my 20s — at which point I had become more serious about following a career in film — I was able to recognize the fact that [the book] was not as solid in the material as I had remembered. At the same time I put a lot of value on the fact that I had remembered it and that I couldn’t ever stop thinking about it. The bones of it were strong, the sediment, the soil of it, was really fertile and ready to have built from it. I felt like the more history I delved into, too, informed my view of the material; that first book was really episodic chapters he did for a magazine and then put together in book form, so it really was like a serial with a cliffhanger on each chapter. It was more like putting train cars together instead of something with a grand design. I feel like looking for that grand design was the next logical step, the thing that maybe never got done by the original author. So then the question became: How do you find the one big conceit that has a beginning, middle and end instead of these little individual train cars of episodes.
GB: That must have been a very liberating realization for you.
AS: Oh yeah. If it had been a perfect piece of literature I would have been a little too intimidated to tweak it. I had every desire to make it feel on the screen like how it made me feel reading the book, and to me that’s the most important thing. And I thought the only way to get there honestly was to read the book, come up with a bunch of ideas and never look at the book again. And from there just to look at what organically came together. What was really fascinating: I finally let myself read the book after the script was green-lit and all of these things that, in my mind, I was starting to give myself credit for coming up with were in there. [Laughs] But it made me feel very confident that we took it apart and put it back together and it held.
GB: In the story, John Carter is a Civil War veteran who finds himself mysteriously transported to Mars, where due to the gravity he is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, so to speak, a conceit that would pop up in the 1930s in Superman. A battered, hardened solider, he learns of the alien culture and falls in love with a brightly hued princess, not unlike “Avatar.” In the Burroughs tales, leaders are called Jeddak, there are beasts called Banths, there’s a warrior rank of padwar — all of those seem to echo in the Lucas universe, as do key concepts and themes. Does any of that present a problem? Does it box you in or create the risk that “John Carter” will feel derivative to audiences that don’t know or don’t care about the chronology of the heritage?
AS: I’m just as much a fan of all that stuff as anyone, so I didn’t want to repeat anything and I didn’t want to go exactly to where other people had gone. And I certainly recognize the influences coming directly or indirectly from people like Edgar Rice Burroughs. But I haven’t felt the satisfaction [from the other works] that the thumbprint or the identity of the Barsoom books … [gave me] as a kid. I still felt like there was a flavor or a shading or a color that could still feel fresh or special. None of this is in reaction to those other movies. I want to come to everything honestly. If at the end of the day the dust settles and it’s very similar to another movie, then I can live with that if it came there honestly. But my big thing is this: There were so many personal fantasies that were fulfilled or cathartically found by fans through those books — in other words, they used the books as a conduit to their own fantasies and the things in their own head. I’ve never had to answer this before so I’m stumbling around a bit, but the thing is that because I know this book was so much the source material, directly or indirectly, for so many things, I got intrigued by the idea of treating it as if it really was the source material in the historical sense of the term. What if this really happened? That kind of opened my eyes. I suddenly had a fresh way to see it. And it goes back, in a way, to the way we take things in when [we were young readers]. When I was a kid I really wanted to imagine it as if it was a real sequence of events that took place on the surface of Mars in another century.
GB: That’s interesting. So in a way that makes the anchoring approach more like a historical epic, say a “Ben-Hur” or “Gladiator”?
AS: Yeah, I looked at things like “Apocaplyto” and “Rome” and even things like “Shogun” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” things that as a viewer I could accept as having a level of historical research. They give me a sense of what it would be like in that land and in that age. So then you ask, “Well, what if we just did our Martian research really, really well and treated it as a period film. There are so many times and places in history in our world that I just don’t know anything about, and when I learn about them they’re always fascinating. I don’t need a predisposed interest in them if they are presented well. So we said, “We’ll treat it this way, we won’t treat it like some fantasy being fulfilled by a fan.” We tried to make it feel like we’re going with the story of what really happened. This is how it was, this is how those cultures really existed. That was one of the many levels, for instance, that I enjoyed “The Lord of the Rings” on. One of the similarities between Tolkien and Burroughs is that they came across to the reader as if they had done so much travel research; they seemed like they had gone to these places and documented the flora and the fauna and the architecture and the culture and the rules. They did it in ways that someone who visited those places would have done it. That made it much easier to treat the film as history in a weird way because I had this encyclopedia of all the aspects of Mars.
GB: That’s very true, in reading Tolkien or Burroughs you get the sense that the story being told is the tip of the iceberg. The threads of the overall tapestry seem as if they go well beyond the story presented…
AS: There was a book compiled — who knows how long it took to do it — but it was compiled in the early 1970s by a fan of those Barsoom books. This fan had gone through and pulled out all the names of places and people, all the rules of measurement, the terminology of society, all of it, and put it all together. It’s an encyclopedia called, I think, “The Guide to Barsoom.” I think everyone in the art department went out and we found every copy that was out there, and we used it as our bible. It was our rule book. It made things a lot easier. When we needed a name or anything, we tried to go with a history that had already been determined. Hey, someone had already done the work, why not leverage off of it? Having created universes from scratch before, that can consume all of your time and the character/plot child gets neglected. This allowed us not to sweat all that stuff and go straight to character.
GB: I was surprised to see you’re not going to Comic-Con International with the project. It seems like the logical place to start a conversation with fans leading up to the film and the 100th anniversary next year.
AS: I think what it was is the perception that it’s getting harder and harder to stand out amid the din. We’re going to do our special event to get some focus and separation. I know some people will read that as a sign that we’re unsure of our property. It’s just the opposite. We want to control how and what is being seen and the way it is presented. So much stuff now is just spit out so fast and the churn of it all. You almost gain nothing by talking about things really early in this day and age. I think in the future we might see things arrive the way Prince announces a concert where a few days before the show he announces it and tickets just go up. You might see that with movies and other things. That seems like the only way to get people interested and then capitalize off that interest.
GB: Well, it’s going to be hard to get Slurpee cups and all the Disney toys ready if you go that route. One last question: Give me some compass-point decisions you made about the look of this world and the textures of the visuals you’re going to put on the screen.
AS: I kept using the word “authentic” when I was out on set or doing art in development. I just wanted things to look like they had been through weather and use. I wanted things to look beat-up and old. This may sound weird, but I was always so impressed by the Monty Python films and Terry Gilliam’s sense of production value. Things really felt like they had been through the mud. And if you look at most historical films, for a little too long they always gave us things that looked a little too clean. People on my set could not distress things enough for me. Everything was pre-industrial; I wanted it to look made by hand. I wanted the pre-revolution days of Mars to look like tall ships on the skyline. And to get that to come across through the lens and then up on the screen, you just couldn’t beat stuff up enough. I remember once we had this great big deck gun and my weapons guy made this beautiful object. In his mind it looks weathered but I stepped back about 20 feet and said from here it looks brand new. I told him he should go take an ax to it and get it some really big nicks to it. He said, “You’re kidding me?” But he did it, he took the ax to it, he wouldn’t let anybody else do it to his baby. But that’s how we wanted everything, dirty, used, distressed and, hopefully, historical.
— Geoff Boucher
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