Andrew Stanton has come prepared with visual aids. While the massive collection of concept art, costumes, footage and even props from his next film John Carter is surely impressive, it was three childish drawings projected up on the screen that sold me. Drawn in pencil and marker, some even captioned, each of the drawings depicted a character from the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel series John Carter of Mars-- and they had been drawn by Stanton and his co-writers, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon and fellow Pixar veteran Mark Andrews.
Sometimes you get a director handed a project that he swears allegiance to but you never quite buy it. Stanton, the director of the Pixar films Finding Nemo and Wall-E, has his bona fides firmly in place. "They were my 'Harry Potters.," he said during a presentation at Barsoom Studios-- named for the local name for Mars in the series-- in Emeryville, California, just a few miles down the road from the Pixar campus where he built his career. Stanton made headlines not long ago by deciding not to bring John Carter footage to present at San Diego Comic Con, the geek mecca where there likely would have been more than a few hardcore fans dying to get a look. My trip to Emeryville, in the company of about a dozen other journalists, was in some ways a replacement for John Carter's trip to San Diego, but Stanton emphasized again that he's not trying to avoid fans or potential critics. He's just trying to maintain a little bit of mystery.
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.
I want just enough, but I don't want too much. It's all a guessing game; you just don't know what's going to be at Comic-Con. I didn't want to get lost in the noise, and I wanted you guys to be able to focus on it and enjoy it.
Stanton also spent his time before the footage presentation addressing one of the other minor controversies around the production: the decision to change the movie's title to simply John Carter. Unlike the fact that the movie will be in 3D, which Stanton bluntly explains with "I have no say over whether it's 3D in the release of it," the title change was distinctly not a forced studio mandate. Here's how he explained it:
I know I'm going to get this question all day and probably for the rest of my frickin' life: Why John Carter? This has had quite an evolution of me figuring out what was the best thing to do for this book to preserve what I thought was timeless about it, what I thought was the resonant elements about it, but not be afraid to tweak or alter things for the benefit of it, so that it would translate the best it could to screen. Nobody's a bigger fan of these books than me, or at least I could match myself with a lot of people. I'm also a huge cinephile, and I have witnessed that to honor the book literally word-for-word never makes a good movie.
I've tried really hard to capture what I thought was universal and timeless about this book that is above and beyond the genre itself. 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. There was a grand design to all this thing. You've got to know that it was not a studio-driven hammer on me, and it was not a decision that came quickly. I put a lot of thought into what's the most promising way to make a good first impression to a majority of the world that does not know anything about this, and invite them in and hopefully make them enjoy it as much as the people that do love it. That's the best way I can put it.
Despite all his trepidation, Stanton said it "felt like Christmas" to be finally showing off some footage, and once he wrapped up his long and fascinating introduction he showed off three scenes, each shorter than the last and all of them showing off some different element of the Mars world he created. Here's some brief descriptions of what we saw, along with more of Stanton talking about the relevant and tricky elements that went into making them.
Stanton ended the presentation with the trailer, but since it will be revealed later this week I'll start there first. Go in knowing you won't learn much-- it's a true teaser, giving glimpses a lot of faces and places from the movie but not much of a sense of where the story will take you or how it all fits together. Maybe the best part is that it's set to a piano-only Peter Gabriel cover of The Arcade Fire's "My Body Is A Cage," setting a slow and almost mournful tone to a trailer that, of course, eventually gives way to glimpses of big action and sweeping Mars vistas. And even some of the details very specifically seen in the trailer, like Daryl Sabara playing Burroughs himself as the nephew of John Carter, Stanton would barely elaborate on-- "He is [a character] in the books, so he is in the film." But while he's clearly letting the mystery linger about the trailer, he does admit he's thrilled with the results: "Steve Jobs told me a great thing once: "You only make a first impression once." So we kept holding on until we had a trailer that we represented what it felt like we wanted. We finally nailed it, so I'm happy that it took this long."
The first clip began with our hero John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) crash-landing, face-first, on the surface of Mars. He soon realizes even the gravity is different there, and after spending some time adjusting to the low gravity-- in some really nice-looking flying sequences--he encounters the 9-foot-tall, green lizard-ish race that occupies Mars: the Tharks. The creatures are obviously one of the biggest challenges in the production, not only because any all-CGI character is a challenge, but the description of them in Burroughs's early-century novels has inspired dozens and dozens of alien depictions since. As Stanton put it, "How the hell do you make this and not look like you're being derivative yourself?" He hired two actors, Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton, to provide voices and motion-capture work for two of the main Tharks, and it's Dafoe's who John meets in that first encounter on the desert moon landscape. You can actually get a glimpse at the Thark design in this photo below, from Stanton's lunchtime conversation with journalists-- check out their tusks, their spears, and their lanky green design.
The second clip was actually kind of a bold one to show, relying on the emotional relationship built between John Carter and Dejah (Lynn Collins), the princess who teams up with him in adventures we didn't see. The scene Stanton showed finds John crash-landing into Dejah's palace, where she must pretend not to know him until they're behind closed doors. Maybe it's because the temp score they were using was the emotional theme from Lost (Michael Giacchino did that music and is scoring this one, which explains the choice), but I felt instantly connected to the plight of two people literally from different worlds who are trying to understand each other. Stanton had praise for his actors, of course, but a little more specific than what you might usually hear:
Character was probably my biggest focus on the project: I needed to dimensionalize these heroes. Carter's pretty much a do-gooder for most of these books; he can be very vanilla, very 2-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 that became tropes. Could I make both characters and made a little bit more of them, but still retain what I felt was an innate sense of justice in Carter and the strength of Mars at the core of Dejah?
Taylor plays damaged goods really well, and the thing I lucked out on was he's such a pantomime with things that aren't there. I kept calling him my modern-day Bob Hoskins. He could act against nothing. That was required of him, as if it was there. That was an added bonus with what I was already getting with him. Lynn wasn't really on my radar, and she came in with an inner strength and a demanding intelligence that I could not ignore until it translated on screen incredibly well. Neither are hard to look at, so that doesn't hurt. Neither of them are incredibly familiar faces yet, and that's a big thing for me too, if I can have any say, that I want to believe they are who they're playing.
The third scene was the quickest, but also my favorite-- for reasons unexplained to us, John is thrown into a gladiatorial arena to face off against a massive and angry furry beast. We see him evade the beast for a few turns, using his skills at leaping and general Civil War badassery, and the clip ends when a second beast is introduced to the arena and John Carter does what pretty much anyone would do in that situation, looking up with an "Oh, really?" exasperation. Anyone who's seen Kitsch on Friday Night Lights can be confident he won't play Carter as the "very vanilla" character Stanton saw in the books, but that quick scene seemed to be the best example of Kitsch's rough edges adding some texture to this fantastical sci-fi world.
In the second half of this report I'll get into some of the concept art and props that Stanton and company showed off that day, plus some of the highlights from his Q&A with reporters after the presentation. The trailer for John Carter is set to go online on Thursday, and is screening theatrically in front of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 this week; it opens next spring, on March 9, 2012.