There are many intriguing elements to this week’s release of “John Carter” beyond the discussed-to-death $250 million dollar (or so) budget. For one, it’s the live action directorial debut of Andrew Stanton, esteemed member of Pixar responsible for penning the “Toy Story” films and directing the beloved “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E.” Then there’s the fact that it stars Taylor Kitsch, best known for his role as Riggins on TV’s “Friday Night Lights,” who will follow this release with another not-so-cheap little movie in Peter Berg’s “Battleship.” Finally, we’ve got the fact that it’s based on material nearly a century old that influenced everything from “Star Wars” to “Flash Gordon” to just about every science fiction movie of the past 50 years in between.
So can Stanton make the difficult transition from animation to live action? Does Taylor Kitsch have what it takes to lead these tentpole releases out of the red? And is it even possible at this point in history to bring “John Carter” to life on screen without looking like you’re ripping off everything that’s come since Edgar Rice Burroughs first released “A Princess of Mars” in 1917?
The answer will come this weekend when “John Carter” hits some 3,500-plus screens. In the meantime, we turn to the men themselves to see what they have to say about the hoopla. We recently spoke with Stanton and Kitsch in Carefree, Arizona to get their thoughts on all the questions and curiosities around the project. Here are Six Things We Learned About “John Carter.”
There have been countless attempts over the years to bring “John Carter” to life on screen. At various points John McTiernan, Robert Rodriguez and Jon Favreau cirlced the project, with none of the versions getting off the ground. All the while, perhaps the biggest fanboy of all was watching from the wings and hoping he’d get to at least see it in his lifetime. “I read it when I was 11,” says Stanton. “Ironically I read it I think a year before I saw ‘Star Wars.’ You read that book and you feel like it’s tailor-made for a boy that age. I went with my brother to one of his friend’s houses and they were drawing these four-armed creatures I now know are Tharks. They first told me about the comic books and then I got led to the books. It was all pretty much in the same month. So from there until 2006, I was just waiting for somebody to make that movie. I just wanted to go see it. So when it got really close to being made with Favreau, I was just getting the scoop that it was going to happen. When it fell through and went back to the estate, I was really crestfallen.”
As Stanton’s own stature as a director grew alongside his association with Disney, who once held the rights, he figured he could at least bring it up. “It just happened to serendipitously be at a point where I was deep into 'Wall-E,' but I always like to think about what I might do next so I won’t have a blank canvas when I finish. I had a phone call with the head of Disney at the time, Dick Cook, and I mentioned the property and the fact that Disney had it back in the ‘80s. So I asked if he would maybe consider getting it and having me or somebody make it. It was just a crime that it’s not going to get out there. And then it’s one of those be careful what you wish for because a month later they bought the books and said, ‘Do you want to do it?’ So I pulled in another person from Pixar that had familiarity with it, Mark Andrews, and he started working on it while I was finishing 'Wall-E.' He brought in Michael Chabon and the rest is all documented."
Many films have reshoots. But when it’s a film that already cost a bundle, the rumor mills generally start to swirl. We asked Taylor Kitsch what kinds of work the reshoots required of him. The young actor was surprisingly candid, admitting they fixed some of his own mistakes and simply enhanced some smaller bits of the story. “One thing I didn’t see coming was the technicality of the jumps,” Kitsch tells press. “That’s something that, hopefully if we do another one, we’ll have down. It takes five to eight people to do a good one because it’s all timing. So a lot of that was during the reshoots. And then just these little moments. I was working six day weeks and I’m in almost every shot. So I was exhausted and coming into the reshoots super-apprehensive, but it was great because it was just like a look towards Dejah [played by Lynn Collins] to enhance a moment. All those little things. We added a scene for Tars [played by Willem Dafoe].”
“I think there’s that negative stigma with reshoots too,” says Kitsch, “but why wouldn’t you want to go back and make anything better if you had an opportunity? It’s a no-brainer.”
Those in the know are well aware of the Burroughs influence on pop culture and sci-fi material in particular. But the average American wouldn’t know a Thark from a Vulcan. Worse than that, they might just think these tall green men are little more than a ripoff of the countless green men of cinema history. “It was a tough project to make as a movie because so much has been derived from it,” admits Stanton. “So how do you find the thing that made it special originally? I found what I thought was a way in, which was to make it a historical piece, a place that you just didn’t know about. My brother saw it and said, ‘Oh, I get it. It’s 'Masterpiece Theater' for guys’ (Laughs). Still, on the surface, when you’re doing these 30 and 60-second sound bites, it’s hard to capture that flavor. So I think marketing’s been slowly just trying to figure out how to get that across.”
4. What Made Taylor Kitsch The Right John Carter?
Much like many aren’t familiar with the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, even fewer probably know the name Taylor Kitsch. On the other hand, unknowns have a long legacy in cinema, especially when it comes to launching big-time franchises. After first looking down the line at a long list of better known actors, Stanton realized he’d known who the right man was all along. “I knew for the rest of the world, there was very few people that read these books that were still around or remember them. There wasn’t this kind of anticipation of Tolkien or 'Harry Potter.' But for me, I cared as much as if I was casting Superman or Bond. I was looking at this whole range of people between 35 and 45 years old. And then I went to IMDB and saw Sean Connery was 29 when he did 'Dr. No,' Harrison Ford was 31 when he did 'Star Wars.' I was doing ageism," he said. "So then it opened my eyes to Taylor because I’d always thought he’d make a great Carter. I was watching the pilot of 'Friday Night Lights' and thinking, ‘He has something very special, something very dark and yet it’s hiding a good heart.’ So I did these extensive screen tests and the minute I saw Taylor and Lynn together, I knew that was it.”
We asked Kitsch what sets Stanton apart from more experienced live action directors. He answered without hesitation. “Story first, story second, story third,” says Kitsch. “That’s everything to him. That script is incredible. For everything that’s set up at the beginning to come full circle like that at the end. Going back to that emotional toll, it is weird to have that much of a story-driven character and it says a lot when you can get these guys like Bryan Cranston and Mark Strong to come in for these smaller roles to support the film. And then Dafoe and [Samantha] Morton, all these people wanted to come and be a part of it. It’s pretty great. I’m lucky to be a part of it.”
6. So Which Is More Fun, Live Action or Animation?
Now that Andew Stanton has a live action film under his belt, we asked which process he enjoyed more. While he didn’t give a direct answer per se, his opinion was pretty clear. “Stamina-wise, there’s nothing harder than live action,” says the director. “When you’re making a film like this, you’re standing in every kind of weather and environment for days. I don’t think you stand when you animate at all. You stand to walk from one room to another and that’s about it. And then pace. A lot of people at Pixar asked me what it was like and I said, ‘Imagine every meeting that we have about every issue over the three years we’re in production and having all those meetings in six months.’”
“The nice thing about animation is, you can’t put anything on the screen unless you plan it, so you become incredibly great planners. That’s the weakest link in live action. It seems to attract more of a thinking of, ‘Let’s just fix it as we go.’ It was fascinating. I kept trying to apply my Pixar over-plan it mentality so that you don’t get any surprises and they would take a little of it, but you could see it just didn’t fit well with people," he explained. "And then the minute something was on fire, everybody suddenly became twice as smart, twice as good. They’re just like adrenaline junkies.”
“John Carter” opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, March 9th.