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"We know this'll be a hard sell": Pixar's Andrew Stanton on Disney's live-action JOHN CARTER

WhatCulture's Rob Beames sees some of Pixar's ambitious adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough's novel A Princess of Mars and reports back in this 3,000 word write-up!

You might not know it to look at him, but Andrew Stanton - co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and the director of the beloved Wall-E and Finding Nemo - is a self-described member of a "secret society" for years operating "under the radar". His co-screenwriter, the award-winning novelist Michael Chabon, is also a member. As are approximately "one in every twenty" people that he meets, including (apparently) the Governor of Utah. They are all obsessive fans of the "John Carter" novels, an obscured but apparently culturally significant series of books which have quietly been the inspiration for just about every major work of science-fiction and fantasy over the last hundred years, with an influence that can be seen in everything from Superman to Star Wars to Avatar, and which Stanton is now busily adapting into a major live-action feature film for Disney. Written almost a century ago by Edgar Rice Burroughs, probably best known as the author of the Tarzan novels, the first John Carter book, A Princess of Mars, is the story of an American Confederate veteran named John Carter who finds himself improbably transported to the Red Planet where he becomes a great hero. It was a concept that enthralled 12 year-old future filmmaker Stanton when he encountered it, then courtesy of a 1977 adaptation from Marvel Comics, with its depiction of a brave hero battling strange alien creatures on an exotic planet. "As a kid it pushed a lot of buttons in a primal way, especially for a boy," recalls the director, who also enjoyed the hero's turbulent romance with the titular princess: "I€™ve always been a sucker for unrequited love, as I€™m sure Wall-E shows." Listening to him speak at Barsoom Studios in Berkeley California (Barsoom being the name of Mars in Burroughs' books), it is clear that this life-long love affair with the source text is not the stuff of publicity hyperbole. He is clearly a huge fan of the books who feels lucky to have been given the chance to adapt them to the screen. But this fandom has not dulled his finely-honed sense of storytelling discipline picked up over twenty years at Pixar. Instead of treating the novels as a sort of sacred text he hopes to add depth to the thinly-drawn archetypical characters and improve upon the story, treating the novel as "a draft that's really close." "They€™re not perfect books," Stanton openly concedes, having found them less compelling as an adult. "They€™re very simplistic and meant for a younger age, but I put a lot of value in things that stay in your psyche €“ things you can€™t drop. I believe that means there€™s something there that€™s universal, something that€™s possibly sticking with a lot of other people." "It allowed me to look at it from an adult point of view of someone who has had to create feature films, and re-write them and break them down and put them back together... So I just used the same skills as I€™d use in my own stuff. And I€™ve learned that if it€™s meant to be in the story it will come back." Stanton even took the step of showing an unfinished cut of the film to his colleagues at his usual stomping ground, who gave him some vital pointers that allowed him to tighten up the picture: €œI improved the introduction of the love story. We found a smarter, faster way to get the second act moving and then a lot of little things.€ It's an approach that the director likens to archaeology: "it€™s like you believe the story already exists and you€™re hopefully the smart enough person to pick the right spot in the ground to dig, but you have no say what bones you€™re going to find and when you€™re going to find them. You may find yourself halfway through putting these bones together and realise it€™s not at all the dinosaur you thought you were going to make. Are you going to have the guts to admit you have something different then what you thought €“ or are you going to be stubborn and force it to be what you said it would be? Which I think a lot of films do.€ Part of this mission to improve upon Burroughs' original work involved giving more depth to Carter himself. €œI wanted to make this an origin story of someone€™s inner character, not an origin story of €œhow I got the powers€. All films are about somebody, in a minor or a major way, changing. People change over life, they have events that happen and things that go on that make them doubt themselves and steer away, so could I make this more about damaged goods.€ And in Friday Night Lights actor Taylor Kitsch (above), Stanton clearly thinks he has found the ideal candidate to bring all this to life for audiences: €œTaylor does €˜damaged goods€™ really well, and he€™s very good with broken characters. Disney never put any pressure on me to cast big names, which I was grateful for. They just agreed that we needed to believe that the actors were the characters they were playing.€ In that spirit it wasn't an easy choice selecting the young and handsome Kitsch, with Stanton at first dismissing the actor as too young to play the part of a rugged, former Confederate army soldier. €œI was looking at older actors, people in their late 30s and early 40s, but Taylor was someone I was always thinking of." The universal acclaim of Wall-E meant there was no shortage of established actors eager to meet with the director, making the decision to cast Kitsch all the more contentious. €œA lot of people came in to read who don€™t do that anymore.€ Yet even so the young star was finally decided upon after Stanton realised that many of the great heroes of yesteryear, played by such stars as Sean Connery and Harrison Ford, were first made iconic by actors in their late 20s. "I had to get this ageism thing out of my head!€ Besides, Kitsch will be acting opposite a plethora of established acting heavyweights anyway in supporting roles, with Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Thomas Hayden Church and Mark Strong also starring (many of them as animated alien characters). With Brad Bird currently wrapping up work on the fourth Mission Impossible movie, Stanton's decision to helm John Carter could be seen as endemic of a desire amongst animators to jump into live-action filmmaking as soon as their stock is at its highest. Yet for him there is no great schism between animation and live-action: both are simply filmmaking and it's more about picking the form that suits the material. €œI wasn€™t looking to do a live action film... how should I put this? I€™ve never gone to the church of animation. I€™ve been interested in all mediums, but I found out very quickly after Toy Story what really got me going €“ because every film I€™ve worked on has taken four years €“ is I€™ve got to love the idea... This is an idea I€™ve loved since I was 12 and I never thought I€™d get to make it. It just turned out to be one of those things where I was experienced enough, and the films I€™d done were successful enough, that this suddenly was a logical leap because it was sort of half visual effects and half live-action.€ In fact Jim Morris (above), a fellow Pixar veteran and the film's producer, points out that, ironically, there are more effects shots involved in creating John Carter than there are on a fully CG Pixar feature "by about 500". However, it's perhaps not unreasonable to assume that big success with John Carter - for which Disney are hoping Stanton will helm at least two sequels - might see Stanton leaving the illustrious animation studio. When asked how those at Pixar reacted to his hiatus from day-to-day involvement in the studio, Stanton was quick to dismiss a permanent move from animation. €œI think everybody was nervous," he admits, "but '06 is when I set this up so I was prepping this for two years whilst I was on the last two years of Wall-E, so I think people had a long time to calm down and realise that it wasn€™t some sign or harbinger of me leaving. Why would I ever leave Pixar? It is the safe haven of filmmaking. We€™re like free-range chicken: we€™re allowed to wander around without an affectation or any influence from above or below €“ we just make the movie." "Selfishly I had ideas that just didn€™t match Pixar . Like it or not, Pixar has a trusted all-ages association and I knew that to do this film right it would be PG-13. I didn€™t want to take advantage of that trust that we would have under name. Disney has done a broad range of films all over the map, between Pirates and National Treasure and Snow White, so there€™s a range there that I can work within. And Disney is our boss so I didn€™t have to leave.€ But on the subject of being given the chance of exploring live-action, Stanton couldn't be more enthusiastic: €œI felt like a kid who had been stuck indoors for twenty years and was allowed outside. I was so excited to see stuff being made on the same day within the same hour. I was so used to saying €œthis€™ll be great: see you in three months!€ I had towns built, I was like €œput a town there€. It was fun.€ Stanton wasted no time taking full advantage of all the new toys at his disposal, with John Carter utilising wire work and elaborate sets alongside state of the art digital effects, whilst the director confesses to an addiction to more regular interaction with real actors. He even indulged himself by deciding to shoot the movie on film, candidly revealing that he "wanted a chance to know what it was like before that was a dead art.€ Yet overall the main message the Stanton is keen to impart is that there was little difference between making a film in live-action rather than animation. Contrary to the preconceptions of those in the industry. Though many in Hollywood expected Stanton to find adapting to life outside of animation difficult, he found the reverse to be true. "They thought that I would be overwhelmed and I found that I used maybe 50-75% of my muscles that I have to use everyday . Because when you do an all-digital project every pixel has to be planned, you get nothing for free. You don€™t find a sunset, you don€™t find a costume in a store, you don€™t get somebody putting something in front of you going €œwhat about this?€ You have to come up with it, you have to plan it and then you have to tweak everything. I think the amount of decisions to make a good shot in CG probably takes ten-fold the amount of decisions in the same shot in decent live-action. I felt like I€™d been lifting 500 lbs everyday and now I was only being given 200 lbs of weight. I€™ve only had two dinners with Brad Bird since he got back from MI:4 and we both said the same thing: they both were amazed that we knew what we wanted and that we had an answer for every question. If you don€™t have that when you€™re making a film at Pixar nothing moves forward.€ Producer Morris explained why the film would not be promoted at Comic-Con later this month, saying that they'd been working hard to try and make the film more inclusive and to shed concerns that this was a niche movie. The same explanation was offered as to why the original title - John Carter of Mars - had been shortened, with many suggesting Disney wanted to avoid association with the calamitous flop that was Mars Needs Moms. Stanton denied this was his motivation saying: €œNo, a lot of people have made that association €“ and I can€™t speak for everybody €“ but when it was proposed to me, the truth is I€™m trying to make a film that anybody will go to, but I€™m not trying to make a film that only people who like sci-fi and fantasy will go to. And like it or not, I don€™t mean to offend, it€™s a smaller group of people that like sci-fi and fantasy. I want as many people to come to this and I€™m trying my hardest to make it a character relationship movie so that it won€™t matter where you are or what world you€™re on. People will go to any land and country and time period if they are really into the story. I didn€™t want people to make wrong first impressions and assumptions about the film because of the title. But I€™m not getting rid of that title. I€™m going to earn that title: the movie is all about a guy who becomes John Carter of Mars, so I€™m going to sell you the character, get you to come and then make you like that title. So that title is not going away, it€™s just not coming in on the front.€ After seeing four sequences from the film, in various stages of completion, it is safe to say that John Carter is an ambitious and potentially ground-breaking movie. The trailer (released later this week with Harry Potter) is especially good, but even more encouraging is the fact that significant action sequences and creature designs shown during my time at Barsoom are not even afforded a passing reference in the enigmatic teaser. Closer to the film's release you'd probably expect more secrets to be shared with the public (with one monster sequence surely too cool for Disney to resist showing potential customers for too long), but at the moment it is extremely impressive that the studio are keeping so much of the film under wraps. In the internet age it is uncommon for a project of this size - and of this much potential fanboy interest - to have kept so much so close to its chest. Yet with many of the book's biggest set-pieces apparently already used in Avatar et al, and with the obscure nature of the source text, there is no denying John Carter is going to be a hard sell for Disney. A fact Andrew Stanton and his producer readily concede. Some of this may be offset by the film's planned March release (€œso many big films coming out next year that you just want to have a voice for a little bit!€), but it remains a high-risk project for all involved. Personally I hope it succeeds, if only because of Stanton's sincere enthusiasm and his desire to create something new for cinema audiences. However John Carter ends up, you won't be able to accuse those involved of not spending long enough thinking about it or of not investing enough energy into its production. Lets hope that Stanton succeeds in bringing wider attention to this obscured piece of our shared pop culture heritage. Extra Info (hopefully interesting stuff I couldn't shoehorn into the article): The film's 3D is post-processed but Stanton says the work has been conducted by the same person who converted Pixar films Up and Toy Story 3, saying it will be "subtle and graceful". Though the director admitted that putting film into the extra dimension isn't something he spends a lot of time thinking about: €œit€™s not in my wheelhouse. John loves it but it€™s not something I€™d go out of my way to find.€ The studio work has been shot at the UK's own Shepperton Studios due to a favourable tax break, with much of the digital effects work being done at UK-based companies. Pixar did not contribute to the digital work on John Carter, contrary to early reports, with Stanton saying "no, we didn't cross the streams." The director also revealed that a significant portion of the film - not glimpsed in our time at Barsoom - will take place in the 18th Century USA, with Carter able to travel backwards and forwards and balance his two lives, with Stanton referring to it as the hero's "batcave". A core concept behind the film has been to treat Edgar Rice Burroughs' book as a historical account and think of the movie as a period piece that happens to take place on another real world, with its own rich history. It is known that Spy Kids actor Daryl Sabara appears as the author in the "real-world" sections of the film. Having trimmed down a three-hour cut, Stanton now envisages the final film will run at just over two hours. In preparation for shooting, Stanton watched Heaven's Gate, Lawrence of Arabia and The Last Emperor, the latter for the "sense of a dying civilization", however he studiously avoids watching similar films so he can €œarrive at things honestly€. When asked whether he thought the film would be compared to Avatar, Stanton conceded: €œit will be, there€™s no way it won€™t be. I can sleep at night, I know where this came from: the book is 100 years old!€ Immediately striking when you see clips of the film is the fact that the filmmakers have completely avoided the traditional dusty red colour palette of previous Mars movies, with Stanton taking responsibility for bucking the trend: €œIt was my own taste. If it€™s what you would instantly expect then I often found myself not wanting to do it.€ John Carter is slated for release in March of next year, though a fantastic and enigmatic teaser trailer - featuring an awesome Peter Gabriel cover of an Arcade Fire song that will soon set the internet a-buzz - is due to be released later this week in front of the new Harry Potter.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, GamesIndustry.biz and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.