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Hopefully you've already caught the first half of my report from Barsoom Studios in Emeryville, California, where Finding Nemo and Wall-E director Andrew Stanton was on hand to show off the first footage from his next film, John Carter. The movie is a departure for Stanton on many levels, his first foray into live-action and his first attempt at starting a trilogy-- "Most people know me at Pixar as the guy that doesn't like to do sequels or very reluctant to do sequels. The irony wasn't lost on me when I asked them to do this first book to option the first 3." But one thing Stanton certainly didn't lose from his Pixar experience is a penchant for tons and tons of research.
Between the slideshow presentation that came before the footage, in which Stanton showed us how he transformed the Utah desert into a Martian landscape and other magic tricks, and the reams of concept art and props that surrounded us as we ate lunch at Pixar later that day, the John Carter team was seemingly laying down all their cards-- though since we weren't allowed to take any photos, and none of those images came with plot details, there's still plenty being kept close to the vest. Since I'm not nearly as good as Stanton at explaining the visual world he's created and what he's aiming for here, I'll mostly be relying on this words from here.
He started the presentation, in fact, by showing this anachronistic image, a Frank Frazetta illustration of John Carter and the Princess Dheja that Stanton admits has unfortunately become pop culture's main associations with the John Carter of Mars stories, which were first published in 1912. For his film, which keeps the main character as a Civil War veteran and is set in the late 1800s, Stanton relied on a more period look, even though this was mostly taking place on a planet whose history didn't actually exist:
"I want to feel like I'm really there. I want to feel like it's really happening. This is not what somebody wished for; this is what really happened. This is the source of the book. Then I realized that's what it is: It's a period film of a period we just don't know about. It's as if somebody has done their Mars research really, really well and called in all the authorities."
[We were] picking landmasses that truly exist, and just doing the tiniest Photoshop tweak to them. They become man-made or Martian-made. That way when you watch the film, it feels real. A large percentage of the screen space that you're watching has truly been photographed, and it will hopefully help give it a sense of believability that I really wanted out there. It's having the effect we hoped it would: "Where the hell did they find this place to shoot it?"
In the concept art images included here you get a sense of what he's talking about-- the dusty old-fashioned combined with the impossibly shiny and new, and none of it quite looking like anything you've seen before. That goes double for the six-limbed Tharks, the alien beings who have in fact inspired pretty much every movie alien you've ever seen (right up to James Cameron's Na'vi) but who were the subject of exhaustive research and design from Stanton and company. He talked a lot about their design later at lunch, as we sat near a full-scale, 9-foot model and he explained how their five-pointed musculature works, but during the presentation he put a lot of emphasis on the motion-capture work, particularly the hell actors Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and all the others were put through during the shooting process.
"I went with my Pixar gut and experience and got actors because of their eyes, their voice, and their acting ability. That's all that's going to be left when all of this is said and done. Those are 3 things that can translate directly to the animated characters once they're portrayed there. I got Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton, and this is what I asked them to do, which was to be on stilts with gray pajamas on with face cams in 100 degree heat. That's how I sold it. I didn't know how else to get around this issue."
Below are some excerpted highlights from the Q&A with Stanton that followed the footage presentation, including talk about the process of reshoots for the movie and how committed the studio is to making John Carter as a planned trilogy. As you can tell, he's still pretty wary of revealing too many details, but is eager to talk about his process in putting together the film and how much enthusiasm he has for introducing moviegoers to a sci-fi world they don't know but have seen reflected in popular culture for the last 100 years. John Carter opens March 9 next year.
Did you try to avoid showing too much in that trailer?
Yes, I hate that. I feel that the audience is smarter than that. I don't care what their age is, what their demographic is, where they come from -- when they show a trailer everything in, I hear somebody whispering, "Well, that's the whole movie; it must not be good." All people see when they see that is you're not confident in what you have and you're afraid. You assume your audience is dumb or won't get it. If I have any say in it, I don't want to go with that.
Can you talk a little bit about the fact that this is not 3D?
AS: It's not 3D in the shooting of it; I have no say over whether it's 3D in the release of it, as far as whether they do prints there.
So you're saying it's an ongoing decision?
No, I think they've made their decision. It's going to be 3D. I've got to give them credit--they didn't force it on me. It was hard enough to leap to this medium and learn all these other things, and it was the same reason I didn't do it on Wall-E. It wasn't that I was so against it; it was more like I have enough to worry about -- I'm worried that it will be one more plate to distract me from trying to get the job done. It may just be the limitations of my brain, but it was the most I could handle.
How careful or aggressive do you have to be when you make one film but are already planning a trilogy?
You've got to know something's out there. The boxed-in world I've been in from Pixar for 20 years is -- we only have one mantra from Steve Jobs, which is just "Make it good." Everything else you're worrying about will come if you make it good. There'll be missed opportunities; there may be things that feel like you could have taken advantage of more; there could be bad first impressions you might make, but really all you have control over is how good you make it. That's really where I want to put most of my efforts and not get distracted by how much or what's been put up there.
I'm not in it for the 6 months now. I know I have to be to make sure people will even go, but 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. I may even be a really horrible strategist on how to front-load these things, but I have to go with my gut as a moviegoer, and my gut is I want just enough to get a sense of what I think the film print is, get enough insurance that I don't think it's going to suck, and then you got me and I'll go. That's about how I'm going to play it, as much as I can control it.
How strong a commitment has the studio made to making all three films?
Strong enough that they said yes to optioning the first 3, but I think they're just being prudent, and I would be too. This may not be everybody's cup of tea; you'd 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. To do it right, you have to go balls out.
It's been interesting to compare apples to oranges now that we're out there. I've always seen live action as the adults: They really get to make the movies, and we're just kids here doing our little thing. The shocking thing when I got out there was like, "Oh my god, we actually know how to do it better on a lot of things back here." I think some of that isn't because people are bad at their job but that people are stuck in a certain way that it's always been done. You can say that about any system. Pixar had this luxury of being ignorant and young and not knowing how it's done. 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.
One of the other things that I realized is 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 6 months over 3 to 4 years. Every time you do that, that's the equivalent of a reshoot, so I've been taught how to make a movie with 4 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." 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."
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 3 to 4 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. 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. It's a gnarly problem; I get it.
What did you keep from the first book A Princess of Mars and what had to go?
I didn't think of it that way. I didn't want to be trapped like that. I always treat it like an archaeological dig: Stories are already out there, and you just uncover them. You don't have a say when you find a bone and which bones you're going to find. You may have to face the music somewhere along the line that you dug up a different dinosaur than you thought, and are you going to have the intestinal fortitude to admit that instead of forcing it to be what you thought it was.
You could just tell by flipping through the book that I noted when things completely became cinematic to me and I could totally see that. Those became tent posts, and I knew the book so well and so did Mark and Michael that then we just looked at it from story analysis like we would do any of our stuff. "If this is the theme, if this is the character's arc, if this is where they have to go, how do you make that work?" You hopefully have dismantled all the pieces and all the scenes that are in the book and put them in this toolbox -- you can grab any of those to possibly use, but your goal is not to preserve that. It's like trying to preserve your first draft. I'm not saying Princess of Mars was a first draft, but I read it and I'm sorry, I know it seems to offend some die-hard fans, but it feels like a little bit of a train car: There's these little mini beginnings, middles and ends, sometimes within a chapter or a couple chapters together, and then it feels like it's just another train car situation. It's not a grand sense that it was all meant from an inner character arc and an inner thematic idea to happen.
That's what I do here is on people's projects to advise or whether I'm doing it on my own is to find those things and then strip away all the stuff that's not helping you in that, or repurpose it. That's all we did with this over 2 or 3 years. What I was shocked at was I didn't let myself look at the book. I didn't want to make anything sacred; I wanted to go, "What's best for this theme, this storyline, this character we're now telling?" That will make the best movie. Great if I can pull from that toolbox, but I was shocked was that when it was all up and we got the greenlight, I went back to look at the book like, "Oh, I thought we came up with that." It made me feel I could sleep at night, because I knew these things had a home -- they were just in the wrong scene or they were used improperly or this person should be combined with this person. They were things that made it a whole idea of saying as one. I tried very hard to always be considerate of where we were going to go on a meta level so that I wasn't biting myself in the butt for all these things I liked or thought were cool in other stories. It's easier to say than do, but we're trying our damnedest.