Sneak Peek: Andrew Stanton reveals secrets from ‘John Carter (of Mars)’

EMERYVILLE, CA – There were many interesting revelations during Disney’s show and tell for Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of “John Carter (of Mars)” last month, but the most surprising was that co-screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon could draw a pretty impressive Thark when he was a kid.  This revelation occurred in the famed Saul Zantz Media Center where Stanton was discussing his involvement on “Carter,” as well as previewing some select scenes, for the first time.  And if you’ve never heard of a Thark before, don’t worry.  The background lesson on Edgar Rice Burroughs fantastic world is about to begin.

Like Stanton, Chabon and Pixar vet Mark Andrews were all fanatics of Burroughs pulp Sci-Fi novels featuring John Carter growing up.  Conceived in the early years of the 20th Century, Burroughs imagined a Mars full of warring factions of different races fighting over sparse water supplies and where good and evil are clearly distinguished.  Readers related to John Carter, a former Civil War vet who was transported to the strange Red Planet after seemingly “dying” back on Earth.  Burroughs’ Mars includes tall, four-armed green Martians called Tharks and beautiful princesses in constant need of rescue.  For the trio who finally worked on bringing “Carter” to the screen, drawing Tharks was an obsession and after Stanton displayed some childhood renderings, well, Chabon wiped the floor of the critically acclaimed animators.

“John Carter (of Mars)” has faced a long road to the big screen.  In the 1980s, Walt Disney Studios was set to make a “John Carter” film, but there was concern the effects couldn’t do the franchise justice. Robert Rodriguez was set to direct a version for Paramount Pictures in the mid ’00s until his dispute with the DGA sidelined his involvement.  Paramount also worked with “Sky Captain” filmmaker Kerry Conran and Jon Favreau, but eventually let the rights return to the Burroughs estate. Enter Disney, once again, and Stanton, the Oscar-winning director of “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E,” who is making “John Carter” his live action debut.

Speaking in front of a room of about twenty journalists from around the country, Stanton’s passion for “John Carter” was evident from the start of the presentation.  Stanton recalled how he would carry a copy of Burroughs’ “A Princess from Mars” around in his coat pocket and the thrill of meeting fellow “Carter” fanatics like Chabon and Andrews.  His version will be mostly faithful to “Princess” and stars Taylor Kitsch as the title character, Lynn Collins as Princess Dejah Thoris and a slew of other impressive actors suchas Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Samantha Morton, Bryan Cranston, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy.

Before showing footage, Stanton explained the work that went into bringing the four-armed Tharks to life.  Both DaFoe and Morton shot all their scenes as Tharks in person wearing motion capture gear and on huge stilts to represent their 9-10 foot frames.  The director may come from an animation background, but has made real environments a priority on “Carter” and both Oscar nominees found themselves spending weeks on the stilts in the Utah desert.

Stanton recalls, “I got Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton, and [I asked them] ‘How would you like to wear gray pajamas and be on stilts and wear face cams and stand in 100 degree heat in the desert for 6 months or 3 months?’ They said, ‘Where do I sign?’ I think it was being honest with the challenge and it was different than things they had done before, they were really up for seeing where this would go. The reason I really, really wanted to do this is because at least for me I can tell when somebody’s acting to a tennis ball or nothing there versus somebody’s really being there. I wanted every possible chance to make this believable, so by having them really there, people acted better, people acted differently, people had actual eye lines. People reacted to things they weren’t prepared for, and even down to the cameramen: The cameramen framed it differently because there was somebody there. Cameramen are trained to frame nicely, so if you take somebody out of the background and have nothing there, they’re going to use the background — whether they know it or not — to try to frame to make that look balanced and good. When you have somebody actually there, they’re willing to be sloppier and do all the stuff they would normally do.”

For as much as they revealed on this sunny June day, Stanton would still prefer much remain secret about the action-adventure.  Like his Pixar peers, he’s a huge fan of keeping everything as close to the vest as possible.  It’s one of the reasons the film will not have a big presence at Comic-Con later this month and why a teaser trailer will finally debut this week – just eight months before the picture’s March 9, 2012 debut.  What can be disclosed though should make “John Carter” fans encouraged with Stanton and Disney’s direction.

[A CG rendering of the city of Helium from Andrew Stanton’s “John Carter (of Mars).”]

The first scene we were previewed begins with John Carter (Kitsch) waking up on the floor of Mars — although it’s clear he is not sure where he is.  When he gets up and starts to walk, he’s stunned to find he can’t.  The lower gravity of Mars throws him through the air and he can’t find a way to control himself. The shots are similar to Ang Lee’s “Hulk” where the green monster jumps huge distances over a desert landscape.  Eventually, Carter runs into Tharks and Tars Tarkas (DaFoe), a kind soul who will become his ally.  Further scenes featured a dramatic moment between Carter (Kitsch) in the private quarters of Thoris (Collins) before she is about to enter a forced marriage and an arena encounter with a gigantic and dangerous White Ape. That monster was the most impressive aspect of Stanton’s sneak, but it’s clear the filmmakers on hand – including producer Jim Morris – are most pleased with the CG development of the Tharks.  At this stage, the creations are not finished, but this pundit had major concerns that the faces of the creatures looked a bit too – for lack of a better description – cartoon-like. Each Thark has very circular white eyes and it takes you out of how realistic the creature is.  Of course, it’s a fictional Martian we’re talking about here, but it was a concern.  Kitsch looks like he’s ready to steal the show in most of the scenes, but it would be dishonest not to recognize that with his long straight hair, goatee and Martian Arabian inspired garb, he looks a lot like Jake Gyllenhaal from “Prince of Persia.” However, the true scope and spectacle of the film was revealed in the picture’s teaser trailer which we were provided an advance view of (FYI, it features a Peter Gabriel cover of an Arcade Fire tune).  Most surprising about the preview?  No title at the end (at least in our version).  But, it will likely make people take notice when it plays in front of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2” this weekend.

Stanton took questions from the press after the presentation and reiterated his thoughts on keeping as much of the project as secret as he can within the marketing process.  The director notes, “The core of this film is about survival, it’s about a man rediscovering his humanity and the Martians, and that’s where I’m going to leave it. I may be totally wrong on this, but I am done with hearing about stuff early out. As a fan, I just want to hear about it just as much, and I want to hear about it within a timeframe that I can do something about it and go see it.”

Regarding the film’s conversion to 3D, Stanton gave the most diplomatic answer possible noting, “I have no say over whether it’s 3D in the release of it.”  He did add, however, that Pixar stereographer Bob Whitehill is bringing brought in to help “give it some dimensional feel.  It’s not spears-chucked-in-your-face moments.”

[A Helium airship lands in Andrew Stanton’s “John Carter (of Mars).”]

What was also enlightening about Stanton’s Q&A was his absolutely unapologetic and blunt discussion about the use of reshoots on “Carter.”  Reshoots are an every day process in the world of animation and he doesn’t see why it’s not built into the shooting schedules of live action films more.  And if you excuse his lengthy justification, he ties it back to the acclaimed creative process at Pixar.

“Pixar had this luxury of being ignorant and young and not knowing how it’s done,” Stanton begins.  “We saw from afar how we thought movies were made, and we used logic.  Turns out that’s not used that often. Then the other advantage is we have a pseudo-studio system of the modern era. We have the same people working together again and again and again. It’s like having the same team players on the same sports team for 20 seasons. You get really good at all the things that you would never value. How information is brought across to things, how things are delegated. The simplest, most mundane things have been honed down to their most efficient and smart way of what’s best for the film thinking.”

Stanton continues, “One of the other things that I realized is [in] animation, because you can put it all up in drawing form that you’re not going to keep, in the grand scheme of things it’s a cheap way to make something. You draw it, you put your own voice on it, you cut it, and you don’t like it, and you do it again. You do it every six months over three to four years. Every time you do that, that’s the equivalent of a reshoot, so I’ve been taught how to make a movie with four reshoots built in every time. And you wonder why our movies are good? It’s not because we’re smarter, it’s not because we’re better, it’s because we are in a system that recognizes that you don’t go, ‘Oh my god, O.K. I’m going to paint this, but I can only touch the brush once and I’m only going to make one stroke. That stroke’s passed and we’re done.  We’re not making this painting.” I get to try it, play it, don’t like that, play it again, no, play it again, record it — most creative processes allow for somebody to go off into their shack, their studio, their recording booth, and try stuff until they figure it out and find it. This is such an expensive way to make something creative, which is a movie. People freak, and they want to hold it all in. They want to see, ‘Can you be really smart and think about it some more and plan some more? Just do it once. Or maybe twice.’ Most places now aren’t even letting you think about it. They’re like, ‘Just do it! Maybe you’ll luck out.’ We planned the bejesus out of it here. I’ve never met people who plan more than [Pixar does], and we do it four times over. You have no excuse. It’s got to be good. I never had to argue, but my explanation to Disney when they were going, ‘Why do we have to reshoot and why is this number so bad?’ I said, ‘You’re taking somebody who’s learned how to do it three to four times and do it once.’ I tried to be as smart as I could and raise the bar as high as I could with the script before we went shooting knowing I wasn’t going to get these same iterations, then tried to be as smart as I could about doing the reshoots. It’s still less than what I’m used to. You start to understand the logistical problem trying to do that.”

[Andrew Stanton discuses “John Carter (of Mars)” with the press during a post-screening reception at Pixar’s headquarters in June.]

Admitting the 12-year-old boy who fell in love with Burroughs fictional Mars may be easy to please, but the almost 50-year-old Stanton is as jaded as most hardcore moviegoers, the Pixar legend is just hopeful he can create a movie that endures as long as his previous animation efforts.

“I am a believer that if something is really good that people will get to it and they’ll flock to it. Whether it happens on the schedule on the box office meter that everybody else would like it to, I don’t have that control of that,” Stanton says. “Maybe if you pull it out now, you pull it out a year from now, 10 years from now, 15 years from now, 50 years from now, you still might want to watch it. I’m grateful for those movies everyday. That’s the only game I’ve been in, and that’s how I’ve been taught.”

Moviegoers will get their first look at “Mars” when the film’s teaser trailer debuts this Thursday.

“John Carter (of Mars)” opens nationwide and in 3D on March 9, 2012.