Adapting the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of John Carter novels, about an ex-military captain who becomes the key figure in a battle between the conflicting inhabitants of Mars, offers a variety of challenges – how much to tell in one film? How best to bring it to life? How to get audiences unfamiliar with the source material interested in seeing a film version? Needless to say, these were all things that director Andrew Stanton thought about – extensively – while working on John Carter, his first live-action film, due on March 9, 2012. But he said that one particular hurdle made the filmmaking process surprisingly less stressful, and more inspiring. “Next year will be the actual 100th anniversary of the novelization of the first book, The Princess of Mars,” Stanton revealed. “That was a little bit of a carrot to try to see if we could get it done for that time.”
Several weeks ago, Movies.com joined a small group of journalists at Pixar’s Emeryville facility to preview footage from John Carter and talk with Stanton, a lifelong fan of the material and a filmmaker devoted to transparency when it comes to the creative process – even if he doesn’t yet want to reveal the end result. For example, film franchises, needless to say, are big business, but Stanton insisted that he didn’t undertake this project as a component of fulfilling studio demand for a new series. “Most people know me at Pixar as the guy that doesn't like to do sequels or very reluctant to do sequels, so the irony wasn't lost on me when I asked them to do this first book to option the first three,” he explained. “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 - not as a cold, crass franchise, but again, to try to capture what I felt as a young kid when I got introduced to them.”
He admits that there is certainly an opportunity for distributor Disney to turn this into something that unfolds over the course of several films, but for the time being, he’s focusing on one installment. “They said yes to optioning the first three, but I think they're just being prudent, and I would be too,” Stanton observed. “This may not be everybody's cup of tea; you could still make it great and nobody wants to go. I'm not waiting for a green light to be working on everything in case we go forward, so nothing's going to be affected creatively for it in a bad way. I get the logistics of it: This is not a cheap franchise, and it's not a cheap world. But to do it right, you have to go balls out.”
For Stanton, helming John Carter is the fruition of a professional dream, not to mention a lifelong obsession with seeing it up on the silver screen. “I've been following the Hollywood trail of this movie almost being made since I was a kid. It's weird still to be on the other side of this thing, because all I've ever wanted is to see it on the screen: Somebody please do it; somebody please make it. I remember reading about possibly being animated in the '30s and then Ray Harryhausen tried to do it in the '50s, then John McTiernan almost did it in the '80s and they just didn't have the technology or the means to figure how to translate it visually.”
It’s that same affection for the material which has given him a vision for its translation to the screen, and sustained his enthusiasm through the last several years of developing the film: “I'm staying true to what I wanted to see all my life, and frankly that's the most insurance I've ever had on anything I've worked on is you have to stop me from getting out of bed to work on it; that's my best insurance policy.”
As a longtime employee at Pixar, Stanton spent years working within a system that was markedly different from traditional studio filmmaking, and not simply because he and his colleagues were making animated rather than live-action films. Predictably, he brought to this film some of the methods which proved effective on his previous ones Finding Nemo and Wall-E. Getting Disney to agree that those were the best methods to make John Carter, however, required some convincing on Stanton’s part. “Pixar had this luxury of being ignorant and young and not knowing how it's done,” he observed. “We saw from afar how we thought movies were made, and we used logic – and it turns out that's not used that often. The simplest, most mundane things have been honed down to their most efficient and smart way of what's best for the film thinking. I saw nothing but improvement everywhere I went once I left this building.”
One part of the creative process he considered essential despite the stigma attached to its presence in many live-action productions was reshoots. “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, okay, I'm going to paint this, but I can only touch the brush once and I'm only going to make one stroke.’”
He admits that reshooting a film, as he did with John Carter, is more of a logistical challenge than in animation, where you don’t have actors to wrangle and sets to build. But Stanton indicated that should he be able to venture forward with additional installments, he’s already go ideas how to make the process he underwent on this one more efficient and effective. “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 of trying to do that. It's such a gypsy culture: You don't get to keep the same people. They're not in that building; you can't grab them on a Thursday and go, ‘What if we do this?’ All your actors are gone off. It's a real conundrum, and believe me, we're trying to think if we do another one, how can we improve upon what we've learned? We've managed to seduce some of that with our thinking on this, but there's huge room for improvement.”
The trailer for the film debuts soon, offering all of his fellow fans their first real glimpse at what John Carter will look and feel like. But for the time being, Stanton is struggling to balance the elation of getting the movie made with the exhaustion of actually making it. “The 12-year-old [in 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 that be animation or fantasy or anything, you start to not become a fan, and I found myself starting to become more and more like the last thing I want to see: The last thing I want to see is a sci-fi movie. I'd rather save my energy for when I think it's being done right.
“I'm trying to appease that part,” he continued. “I'm trying to appease the part of me that wouldn't easily go to something like this - for any film I'm working on. I'm trying not to think of other audience members; I'm trying to go, ‘How can I make this satisfy me on as many levels as it could?’"