Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a little report on some John Carter (nee John Carter of Mars, double-nee A Princess of Mars) stuff Disney showed to a handful of blogger-types. They called it an edit bay visit, but it was more of a presentation of footage hosted by director Andrew Stanton.
Our day was split into two parts. The first part of the footage presentation at Saul Zaentz Media Company and the second part involved lunch at Pixar in a room filled with John Carter costumes, production art and props.
Saul Zaentz’s place was kinda crazy awesome. The lobby was filled with album covers from the music that was recorded there and the walls of the floor were the screening rooms were located were covered with images from movies he had produced, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus.
Also, the elevator was a maneater, almost sending us falling to our deaths like a ride at Disneyland, but somehow we all survived the ordeal and got to see some John Carter stuff.
Stanton began his power-point presentation talking about his history with John Carter, so I figured I’d give you folks a little of my own. I picked up the occasional issue of the Marvel comic adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series, but it wasn’t until Big Red himself was attached to produce John Carter of Mars for Paramount that I picked up Burroughs’ novels and gave them a read.
I quickly fell in love with the universe. It’s so pulpy and fun and such a clear inspiration to the sci-fi/fantasy movies I loved growing up. John Carter is a hero’s hero, a man of perfect morality (even though he was a Confederate soldier… but I choose to believe he was just a very strong supporter of state’s rights and not a slave-driver) who always does the right the thing and is as courageous as humanly possible.
They’re just fun stories and they’ve been cherry-picked to death by everybody from George Lucas to James Cameron (read A Princess of Mars and tell me that’s not 85% the foundation of Avatar), so it’s about time the series is getting the big screen treatment.
Stanton’s passion for the material is evident. There’s nothing fake about this guy. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him a few times over the years and he’s just the kind of guy that genuinely loves what he does and doesn’t take one minute of his day to day for granted.
When he took the floor he was like a kid at Christmas. He even said as much, that it felt like Christmas for him to show off some of what he’s been doing over the last few years.
Here are some bullet-points from his keynote:
-Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of A Princess of Mars and that fact didn’t escape Stanton.
-Stanton’s first introduction to John Carter’s world was via the Marvel comics from the ‘70s thanks to his comic-loving friends who would draw Tharks all day.
-The first three John Carter books have been optioned (A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars) and are being developed as a trilogy by Disney. If the first does well, they’ll move on. In fact, Stanton is developing The Gods of Mars as he posts on John Carter even though there’s no guarantee of it going anywhere.
-Stanton is sensitive to the pitfalls of developing a trilogy and didn’t want the movies to feel episodic in a bad way. He said he wants them to feel “interlinked, but independent.”
-The aim is to capture the feeling of reading the books, not to literally adapt it word for word. He said as a cinephile he’s seen that attempted and failed. What works on the page doesn’t necessarily work in a visual medium.
-Stanton stressed the title change was not forced on him. He’s been struggling with appealing to those that aren’t into Sci-Fi and didn’t want them turned off immediately by the title and said it was his idea to just call it John Carter, to focus on the character and sell the character, not the spectacle.
-Producer Mark Andrews, Andrew Stanton and writer Michael Chabon all drew Tharks as kids. Stanton proved it by showing pictures of all three of their Barsoom drawings. Chabon even signed his Mike “Burroughs” Chabon.
-Nathan Crowley (The Dark Knight) was hired as the production designer because Stanton didn’t want a typical sci-fi designer. Crowley comes from a more architectural background and Stanton wanted someone who could come at it from that level. How would a different world come up with doors and windows? Early on in the pre-production period Crowley had one of his guys knock up one image that Stanton used as the touchstone of the universe. Here’s the image:
-Basically he views this movie as the actual events of what happens in the book. It’s not crazy fantasy, but very real, almost like a period film of a period we just don’t know about.
-Taking that stance made it easy for Stanton to place the bookends in the same time period (1800s) as the books because that immediately puts you in a period film mentality.
-Much of the Martian architecture is based off of the real mountains and rocks found in Utah’s Lake Powell area. Think Petra, Jordan (where Indy finds the Holy Grail in Last Crusade) on much of Martian buildings. That way there’s a reality to everything.
-Biggest struggle for Stanton was dimensionalizing John Carter and Dejah Thoris. Stanton said character was his primary focus when adapting the material with Chabon.
-On Taylor Kitch: “Plays damaged goods really well.” He’s also very talented at acting against things that aren’t there. Stanton compared him to Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
-On Lynn Collins: Wasn’t on his radar at all until she came in to meet for the part. He was attracted to her inner strength and intelligence.
-Stanton wanted actors that aren’t very well known so they could be John Carter and Dejah Thoris. He didn’t want movie stars playing characters, he wanted people that could become those characters.
-On casting the Tharks: Stanton wanted eyes, voice and acting ability and didn’t even consider the looks of the people he was casting because he said “that’s all that’s going to be left when everything’s said and done.” Those three things translate directly to the CG animated characters.
-The Thark actors filmed their scenes in mo-cap suits, with face cameras recording their face for animation reference (which turned out to be great for the actors because they used these things protruding from their faces as the Tharks’ tusks), while on stilts. The Tharks are 9 feet tall in Stanton’s movie (a bit shorter than they are in the books), but the actors were on stilts to make them that tall in their scenes.
-It was important to have the motion-capture actors there not just for the other actors to play against, but it influences framing. “The cameramen framed differently because there was someone there. Cameramen are trained to frame nicely, so if you take something out of the background and have nothing there they are going to use the background, whether they know it or not, to try to make the frame balanced and good.”
-Stanton cast his character animators just like he cast his actors because they have just as much influence on the characters as the actors do.
-Trailer premieres in front of Harry Potter and Stanton said he annoyed the marketing people a lot because he was very critical of their passes at the trailer, sending it back over and over again until he was happy with it. “Steve Jobs once told me a great thing which is you only make a first impression once, so we just kept holding off and holding off until we felt we had a trailer that represented what it felt like to watch the movie.”
-The song you will hear in the trailer is Peter Gabriel doing a cover of Arcade Fire.
-John Carter will be 3-D, post-converted, but the producers were quick to stress that they’ve brought on Pixar’s stereographer, Bob Whitehill, and are spending a lot of money and time on a good conversion.
-Stanton did screen the film for the Pixar braintrust and did reshoots based off of their notes. He said his process on all the Pixar movies essentially let him make his movies with four reshoots built in when you consider how they work with animation and story… Build it, display it, tweak it, critique it, scrap it, rebuild it, etc. Animation is different and it’s much more expensive to do reshoots on live action, but he was able to get one round of reshoots out of Disney to improve the film.
We were shown three full scenes, one tiny moment and the trailer, which as I mentioned above will be in theaters July 14th in front of the final Harry Potter film. These scenes were, of course, rough and not 100% with the effects, timing, etc.
The first scene had Carter’s introduction to Mars, waking up in the desert and not realizing he’s on a different planet until he takes a step and comically leaps a few feet up in the air. He has to learn how to walk again, essentially, with the different gravity on the planet.
It was here that I began to worry that I may disagree with Stanton’s fundamental approach to this universe. He wants to ground it in reality and I get that, but Mars shouldn’t look like a John Ford landscape. It should be alien, right? It doesn’t have to be as far out as Avatar and bop you in the face with bright alien foliage, but I don’t think it should look pedestrian either.
I think The Lord of the Rings is kind of the perfect template. New Zealand is gorgeous and fantastical, but Jackson hit that perfect balance between a fantasy world and something tangible for us to grab on to. It was lived in, it was rough, it was dirty, but there was a majesty to it, a slightly heightened reality that gave us the best of both worlds.
It’s still way too early to tell if the final product will or won’t convey this feeling I was hoping to see in this footage, but it was my immediate reaction to watching this scene.
If you’ve read Burroughs’ books, you’ll know that this bumbling about (fully clothed, by the way… no butt-naked John Carter hopping around Mars for a quarter of the story like in the first book!) leads Carter to a structure in the distance.
He sees something shiny against the mountains, approaches it, and peers down through glass-like material into a room filled with eggs.
The hatchery is where the baby Tharks are incubated and born and that’s what John Carter sees. The little ones are rounder, their little tusks but nubs that haven’t broken the skin yet.
Across the desert, dust gives away the approach of riders closing in on the hatchery. Heading this group is Tars Tarkas, a Jeddak (leader), who sees Carter jump away in fear as the band opens fire on him and stops his group from killing the human.
Tars tries to communicate with Carter in a scene that feels like it’d be at home in Dances With Wolves. Tars repeats his name, uses one of his four hands to touch his chest and points to Carter, who suspiciously engages, knowing full well he’s staring at an alien being who has a ton of friends with weapons aimed at him.
Willem Dafoe voices Tars and he does a really good job. The interaction between Carter and Tars was fine. The CG on the Tharks wasn’t completely done so it’s hard for me to comment on them definitively. Stanton did show a quick moment between Dejah Thoris and Sola (Samantha Morton) that was maybe 15 seconds long, but it was supposed to be fully rendered and he wanted us to see a Thark at 100%.
My worry with the Tharks is that because of Stanton’s choice to go super realistic they’re going to stick out. Even with the fully rendered Sola the design is very much in Pixar’s modus operandi of not going fully photoreal, instead giving us a really detailed, but slightly exaggerated look for the people in their world.
The fear is that by not trying to go photoreal with the CG that it’s going to clash with the reality he’s trying to set up. It’d be like if Neill Blomkamp made District 9 and the prawns looked like prequel characters. It just wouldn’t work in that world.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing the CG here to the prequels. I still haven’t seen enough to gauge that one way or the other, to be honest. It’s just a concern I have as someone who loves Burroughs, loves Stanton and wants to see this movie be amazing.
The second scene was to show us the chemistry between Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins as John Carter visits Dejah Thoris as she’s in the custody of Sab Than (Dominic West), the Jeddak of a city at war with her own. She’s to be married to him, which politically should save her city. Of course, she doesn’t love him and has developed some feelings for Carter.
For fans of Burroughs’ novels, you’ll be a little disappointed to know that Dejah isn’t red. The Red Men of Mars are red because of the color of their tribal tattoos, not because they have red skin.
I’m not sold on Collins just yet (maybe I’m hung up on her not being red), but I was pleasantly surprised with Kitsch as John Carter. He carried himself well and was able to play Carter with a bit of wonder, glee and toughness that I frankly didn’t expect when I heard he was cast. Of course, this is based on, like, 3% of his performance in the movie, but that was my impression.
We were next shown the trailer, which does set up the universe a bit starting in 1800s America as young Edgar Rice Burroughs is brought the bad news that his Uncle Jack is dead. Daryl Sabara plays Burroughs and looks good in the part. In fact, everything in America looked great… the cinematography sharp with a lot of deep blacks and fantastic production design.
Young Burroughs reads his Uncle Jack’s diary and that’s what takes us to Mars as Peter Gabriel sings Arcade Fire’s My Body Is A Cage.
Basically we get the set up… Earth man on Mars, the planet is dying, he’s their only hope, etc… with brief glimpses at some of the spectacle. Interestingly enough, they don’t give us a title, just the JCM logo you see on the poster.
The cherry on the cake wasn’t the trailer, though, it was a snippet from an action set piece that involves John Carter in a coliseum, one ankle chained to a rock, as a Great White Ape of Mars is unleashed. Think albino, tiny beady eyes, about Kong-sized, but with four arms.
Tars Tarkus is in there with Carter, obviously hurt, as other Tharks cheer from the stands. Of all the stuff they showed, this is the piece that I liked without reservation. Carter is handicapped and can barely jump free of the rampaging Ape, Tars is in trouble… there’s a genuine sense of thrilling adventure and real danger as these two do what they can to survive the encounter.
There will be those who think this scene rips off Attack of the Clones, but they will be the same people that were all over the talkbacks when Fellowship of the Ring came out talking about how Gandalf falling into flame was just ripping off Obi-Wan’s sacrifice in Star Wars (ie, the uninformed).
We left Saul Zaentz’s place to head over Pixar-way and have a bite to eat amongst props, maquettes, production art and models. They pounded it into our heads over and over and over again that just because we were at Pixar doesn’t mean this is a Pixar movie. It’s a Disney movie. Live action, most likely PG-13… Disney, not Pixar. So, do you get it? John. Carter. Is. Not. A. Pixar. Movie.
So, we went to Pixar and scoped out the room, which had a life-sized Tars Tarkas in one corner, a ship in another, a long conference table littered with maquettes of Tharks, Thoats (think war beasts), White Apes and even Woola, a faithful animal companion for John Carter that has an attitude of a loyal (hairless) dog (with 8 legs), but a giant mouth with Great White Shark-like rows of fuck-you-up teeth.
If you check out the picture below (click for mega big version) of Stanton talking with us in this room you’ll be able to see your first glimpse at his version of Tharks as well as the realized model version of the ship seen in the above production art:
The art up around the room was designed to show the difference between the factions of Barsoom. The Heliumites are peaceful, their flag red and blue with round edges while the Zodangan flag is more Third Reich-ish, hard lines harsh red and black. The design of their ships (and city, which is itself a giant floating ship) is very much like the Empire in Star Wars… that blocky, hard edged design.
That difference as apparent even in their weapon and armor design.
It wasn’t long before I had to take off, departing slightly early in order to catch a plane to destinations unknown. That next adventure you’ll hopefully be reading about sooner than later (but probably later). It’ll be worth the wait, though.
Overall, Stanton is always impressive when speaking. I’m a big fan of his previous movies and that buys him a lot of trust. I have some issues with what I saw, but I seemed to be the great minority as most all of the other guys on the visit loved what they saw.
We’ll see what we end up with. If Stanton captured the right adventurous feeling I saw in the White Apes footage throughout the movie then we could be in for something special. There are still a lot of X factors here, the most important of which is if we buy the central romance between Dejah and John Carter. If that doesn’t work, nothing works.
Hope you guys enjoyed my rundown of this visit and have a better idea of what Andrew Stanton and his crew have in store for us next year.
You don’t see a lot of video content on AICN, but the more progressive guys at Slashfilm and Collider roped me into a video discussion of the visit, which you can watch below if you wish. It’s a good chat, but you’ll see why I’m a writer and not an on-air personality.