Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a tale of adventure to tell. This particular tale has your humble narrator traveling to the Martian land known as Barsoom (or Lake Powell, Utah), being jostled by the elements in a tiny craft (or a small prop plane from Phoenix, AZ to Page, AZ), being caught in a sandstorm (true) and getting to tell Willem Dafoe about how “Chaos Reigns” has become a battle cry at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.
It’s safe to say that I’m a Barsoom fan. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp sci-fi fantasy adventure novels have influenced all science fiction and fantasy that you know and like.
Picture a movie about a military man taken from Earth to a strange world where he falls in love with the Princess of an alien race, tamed and rode a crazy wild creature and proved himself to be a great warrior as well as a key figure in an epic battle that was fought on land and in the air…
Did you see blue cat people when reading that? Well, I just described the plot of Burroughs’ A PRINCESS OF MARS, which serves as the basis for JOHN CARTER, directed by WALL-E’s Andrew Stanton, his first live-action feature film.
I don’t mean to single out James Cameron’s AVATAR as the only story to liberally borrow from Burroughs’ Barsoom series. He’s not alone. Everything from The Lord of the Rings to Star Wars to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon have borrowed elements, great and small, from these books.
Burroughs’ novels have been cherry-picked for decades and in all that time film adaptations have begun and failed. Did you know that Walt Disney’s SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES might have been the second full length animated film if events had unfolded differently? Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett was working closely with Edgar Rice Burroughs and his son, John Coleman, to produce an animated feature starting in 1931, going so far as having an animated sequence completed that was shown around town in 1936.
Since then Ray Harryhausen, John McTiernan, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Robert Rodriguez, Kerry Conran, Jon Favreau and even our own Harry Knowles have tried to make the film a reality.
Even though I have been to the set, have seen Stanton directing Tharks and John Carter himself, I’m finding it difficult to believe this movie is actually happening after all these years.
My adventure really began on the road to the set. The lovely driver who picked me and fellow traveler Geoff Boucher of the LA Times up from the tiny Page, AZ airport knew the general direction we were going, but not the exact location.
We passed over the state border into Utah without any fanfare… I didn’t even see any signs welcoming me to the state… and he asked us if we knew where we were going. I was clueless, my usual state, and we couldn’t get anybody on the phone, so we kept on driving.
The terrain was total John Ford territory… Red clay sand, purple mountains majesty and all that. There was a glint of something at the foot of these far off mountain that could be the set, but no real way to get there short of going off-road and hauling ass through the desert.
Just when it seemed like we were hopelessly lost and would soon turn on each other out of desperation and hunger we came across a giant yellow sign with the word “Barsoom” fit nice and snug inside an arrow pointing the way we were headed. That was a pretty good indication that we would eventually get to where we were going, which was pretty good because I didn’t like my chances going up against Boucher in a survival-of-the-fittest one-of-us-is-going-to-be-dinner scenario. The driver I could have handled… I stood no chance against Boucher.
Soon enough we followed the production signs deep into the desert and were met with layer upon layer of security until finally we were wandering around the red planet’s surface and interacting with Tharks.
There was a real set in place, not just empty desert standing in for Mars. Large pillars rose up out of the ground, surrounded by gypsy-like tents made of animal hide. The pillars were part of long run-down ruins, adobe-colored and at odd angles. They weren’t what I’d call crowded together. In fact, all the action we saw filmed that day pretty out in the open, with the ruins giving character to the natural landscape.
At the time I assumed these structures were the beginnings of the world of Barsoom, but judging from the trailers and the footage I’ve seen since this visit Stanton really wants the iconic US desert geography to be a huge part of the look of the film. It’s a decision I don’t know if I’m on board with yet, to be honest, but we’ll see what the final product delivers.
They were shooting a scene from early in the movie with our leading man still in his Earth clothes, giant scraggly beard and all, being dragged along the ground by his Thark captors.
Tharks on set that day were Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas, Polly Walker as Sarkoja, Thomas Haden Church as Tal Hajus and Samantha Morton as Sola. For those not obsessed with Burroughs, let’s do a little clarifier here.
The story has a Civil War vet transported to Mars, a planet in turmoil with rival factions either at war with each other or on the brink of war. Most of the planet’s tribes are human-ish, with the Tharks being the big exception. They are very tall, have tusks, are green and come equipped with an extra set of arms for good measure.
Tars Tarkas has a soft side, but is a strong leader, Tal Hajus in a conniving power-hungry character, Sola is kind and Sarkoja’s a huge bitch.
Now that you’re all caught up with the characters let’s talk about the Tharks’ physicality. In the book they’re huge, well over double the size of your average earth-bound human. In Stanton’s film they’re a little smaller, the males topping out around 9 ½ feet and the females a bit shorter.
Even though the Tharks will all be computer animated characters in the film, they used performance capture on the set and had the actors there performing in the scenes with the live action actors. As a result they had crazy rigs to wear. Not only did they have to do the standard grey leotard covered in dots get-up, but they had the Avatar head gear that recorded their facial tics and eye movements. And they had to do that all while on stilts.
There’s something cool that you can’t see in that above photo (because it looks like the photo was taken during a rehearsal, I’m guessing). Each Thark actor had hard drive backpacks on, storing the data recorded by their face cams, and they decided to use those hard backpacks for another purpose. Sticking out of the top was a head on a pole. So, each actor had a crude actual-size Thark head (tusks and all) about 2 feet above their real heads that served as a representation of just how they fit in the frame as well as giving an eye line for the other actors in the scene.
Stanton was shooting anamorphic 35mm because he wanted a more realistic look for the movie, a tone he described as historical documentary. I’m all for shooting on film, which has a personality that just seems more cinematic to me than all but the top tier digital cameras wielded by the top 1% of brilliant cinematographers.
So, I like this technical decision and was very pleased they were going through the effort, especially on a film as effects heavy as this one.
The sequence Boucher and I saw filming involved John Carter in his filthy Civil War uniform and thick beard being dragged around by the Tharks. Sola (Samantha Morton) and Sarkoja (Polly Walker) get in a tussle, which is broken up by Tars Tarkas (Dafoe). As Jeddak (or leader) Tars is riding a giant Thoat (think of a cow mixed with a Bantha and you’re close) and leading the pack. He not only breaks up the fight, but instructs Sola to go back to their captive.
Poor Captain Carter is being dragged behind and is kind of caught in the middle of the fight between the females. The cameras were low on him, looking up from the ground as Sola approaches. She pulls out a knife and he cries out, “No! Wait!” and she cuts his bonds.
They got another angle, coverage on Dafoe as he angrily calls out, “Sarkoja!” as she attacks Sola. Even in the ridiculous jumpsuit when Willem Dafoe sharply called out her name and stared daggers into here I was struck with the uncomfortable feeling of daddy hitting mommy at the dinner table. That man can glare!
Of course he wins the stare down and she walks off, dragging poor Mr. Carter along for a bit before dropping him. Cables were actually doing the pulling, but she still had her hands on him, dropping him at a certain spot. Remember Ms. Walker was doing all this on stilts with that crazy giant headgear on. Plus they needed to do a clean pass after they got the performance, which mean they had to drag Taylor Kitsch around the frame without the Thark actors in it.
To complicate matters a mini-sandstorm blew in during this sequence, which looked great on the monitors, actually, but it played hell with continuity.
It was pretty cool watching Willem Dafoe work, especially since he was working in such a unique way. He was speaking Thark at this point and hearing him shout orders as Tars Tarkas was pretty geekerific stuff, I must say.
Even though the visit was short on observing actual filming we got a lot of time with the various cast members talking about their characters and the experience of shooting the film. I was there on day 72 of 100, so by then they had gotten into a flow and every actor seemed to adore Stanton.
It’s hard not to get caught up in Stanton’s infectious enthusiasm. He is so passionate about filmmaking and even more passionate about the source material he’s almost Mormon nice and energetic. It’s the uncynical, almost childlike, enthusiasm that sneaks up on ya’.
The first person we got to sit down with was Dafoe (in the shade of a natural rock face, by the way. Remember this whole day was outside in the Lake Powell area of Utah… kinda dusty, deserty conditions) and like I mentioned at the beginning of the article I totally regaled him with tales of drunken shouts of Chaos Reigns that echoed the halls of the Alamo Drafthouse during Fantastic Fest. I probably freaked him out talking about Anti-Christ so much, but it had to be done, you understand.
One of my favorite parts of talking with Dafoe was hearing about his background with Burroughs. He told Boucher and myself about skipping church as a kid so he could go play Tarzan. Later on he fell into the Barsoom films and found himself fascinated by its place in history and the questions it raised as a template for what we take for granted as common pop culture. Did the notion of Green Martians come from this tale? That kind of thing.
When questioned specifically about his character, he spoke of the joyful gray area between Tars Tarkas’ public face and his private one. Apparently it was in this space that he had the most fun, switching between the stoic, strong and cold Thark leader and the more caring, emotional creature he is underneath.
I asked him about finding Tars’ physical voice and how he came to find it. Dafoe laughed and said it was quite the process. They actually had a linguist build the Thark dialect so everything he says in the alien tongue has a root in real language so it makes sense for him as an actor and also doesn’t come off as jibberish.
For the voice itself he found himself influenced by a number of factors, but the two on the forefront were Nelson Mandela and an unspecific Native American inflection.
Dafoe was very open to our questions and our short time with him flew by as he was pulled away and we moved on to chat with Thomas Hayden Church, which was a much more unfocused bullshit session.
The few moments that were on point in this discussion involved his discussions with Stanton about Tal Hajus. He’s kind of a bad guy, but he has a very rigid view of the world and his place in it. There’s no extenuating circumstances, no room for gray area. There are strict societal rules for the Thark; specific ways to prove honor. It’s a culture that rewards blood-thirsty, cold-hearted ambition and Tal has that in spades.
So, there was that kind of talk for about 4 minutes, then the rest devolved into chit-chat about how he couldn’t stop hitting on Dana Wheeler-Nicholson during the filming of Tombstone and how great Austin is.
It actually turned into a bit of an Austin contingency because during our chat Taylor Kitsch joined in. He spent many seasons of Friday Night Lights in Austin and we talked about the music scene, the amazing food and I also brought up Church’s directorial effort Rolling Kansas. He filmed that in Austin as well and even cast my little brother in the movie as a rude bully who flips off one of the lead kids in a flashback.
Kitsch was half out of costume, changing for another shot to be gotten later in the day, explaining that he was in transition between “hero Carter” and “jaded “fuck-off!” Carter.” I thought that was actually a great way to describe the John Carter that arrives on Mars, but I don’t expect you’ll hear him repeat that too much out on the press circuit. This is a Walt Disney production, afterall.
This conversation was quite fun, very relaxed and not at all an interview even thought it technically was. That’s just my impression of Church as a person. He’ll always go for the laid back comfortable chat instead of the on-the-clock let’s-get-down-to-business type talk.
We need to talk about Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. I’ve been pretty critical of her casting, I won’t deny it. I had a pretty definitive type in mind for Dejah, who is kind of the Cleopatra of Mars. I know Collins has had a very successful career on the stage, but her film work didn’t show me the qualities I was expecting in the woman who would play the Princess of Mars.
One of the big reasons I was eager to visit the set was to see how Ms. Collins was as Dejah and how they were going to visually execute the Red Men of Mars. Talking with the producers it became clear that the Red Men of Mars aren’t really going to be red. They said they did a lot of tests and couldn’t figure out a way to pull it off. The make-up either didn’t read or it made them look like they had a bad sunburn.
So ultimately they decided on combining a heavy tan with red tribal tattoos as a way of meeting in the middle.
Of everything I saw on the set, this is the only thing that really struck me as being wrong. Sure, it’s a fan nitpick, but I would have almost preferred they didn’t try to make them red at all than have them covered in tattoos. Maybe they work in the context of the movie, but it looked kind of silly to me.
And thanks to Ms. Collins I got a close up look at them. Boucher and I were taken to her trailer where she was waiting to talk to us. She was in the process of being made-up. Her spray tan and tats were done and we had some time between that process and getting her fitted into her wardrobe and wig.
She was wrapped in a comfy looking bathrobe, but was very open about how… revealing… the make-up process was on the show.
“So much spray tan! I’m like so good at standing still and naked getting spray tanned! That’s a skill that any good actress needs to have,” she said laughing.
I didn’t get to see her work, so I can’t comment on her performance, but I will say that she’s a charmer in person. I see how she gets work just because she’s cool to hang out with, is super funny and willing to poke fun at herself. Her personality is just that bubbly and adorable, but not that sickening fake actress type.
If they let a lot of Collins’ real personality seep into Dejah I think she may work in the role.
Still not sold on the tats, though. They’re pretty gnarly up close, looking more like those scar-tattoos than typical ink tats. But then again I also only saw some of them and Ms. Collins was kind enough to reveal enough leg and shoulder to give us a peek. She wasn’t in costume under the robe, you see.
“I don’t have my costume on… I can’t get naked for you guys!” she exclaimed. Geoff responded immediately with: “It’s not going to hurt the story.” Huge laughs in the trailer as she was being pulled away to actually get into costume. “I’ll give you something to write about,” she threatened, but sadly didn’t follow up.
Told you she was funny. And also excited at the opportunity to sink her teeth into a really strong female character, which she says has an almost masculine femininity. Collins was very honest about being intimidated by the task at hand, saying she felt so much pressure to get her right that it took some time to actually get out of the way of herself and let the character just come out.
That moment happened pretty much by accident as she was practicing a sword fight and just let loose to be greeted by a chorus of “that’s it! That’s Dejah!” when she finished the sequence.
This caught my attention because in the books Dejah is written as a powerful woman, but does fall into the damsel in distress trope quite a lot. So, hearing she’s got some sword fighting in the film is a bit of a change of character and I asked about that. It was here that she brought up Dejah’s “masculine femininity,” saying this version of Dejah developed over time as she worked with Andrew Stanton to elevate her beyond the girl that needs saving archetype.
Then we were kicked out so Collins could have some much needed privacy. Here’s a pic of her riding on the back of what will be a fully formed Thoat when you see it on the big screen:
Last, but not least was Andrew Stanton himself. While he didn’t threaten to get naked for the good of our stories he was just as excitable about the movie and was very open to a frank discussion with this uber nerd (I won’t lump Boucher in with me without his consent, although he’s kinda nerdy too… shhhh, don’t tell him I talked!).
Stanton knows his shit when it comes the Barsoom books. Let’s get that out of the way up front. He loves them and has been under their spell since he was a child. He has some very strong opinions on how to translate that world to celluloid and it made for a very fun chat.
Let’s start with the transition from animation to feature filmmaking:
“People think because I worked on computer animated movies I worked with computers. No, I worked with 200 people. I had a person who was the best cameraman, I had a person who was the best storyboard artist, the person who was the best costume designer, the person who was the best with props, the person who was the best set builder. My dialogue here is exactly the same, it’s just learning how they do their jobs a little differently. But the goal is exactly the same, which is to make everything look great in a frame. The planning is no different. If anything Pixar plans more. Way more. People keep waiting for me to crumble, for me to become overwhelmed, but nothing has come even close to overwhelming like I get on a day at Pixar.”
He went on to say that the stress of making the movie wasn’t nearly as much as the Pixar work, but physically it’s much more demanding and that he’s been on his feet from 6am to 10pm every single one of the 72 days they had filmed up to that point.
One of the bigger departures from the iconography of the books is in the Tharks. I’ve already mentioned they’re smaller, but they’re also more lithe, thin and sinewy. That comes from Stanton’s research into various real world fighting tribes like the Masai Warriors and Aborigine Tribes. He noticed they aren’t hulking masses of muscle, but thin. He wanted the Tharks to have developed in a similar way.
Now, when I think of the Barsoom books I see Frank Frazetta’s art. It’s by no means the only vision of the story (hell, that version wasn’t seen until some 50-60 years after the first Barsoom book came to print), but having seen a lot of interpretations of the world over the decades, that’s the version that most resonates with me.
Stanton acknowledged that, but said he didn’t want “fanboy fantasy creatures.” He wanted believability, which is why he look to Earth’s warrior tribes for inspiration on the Tharks.
I said I understood and agreed there needed to be a solid real world grounding or else the fantasy would just look like fluff, but just speaking as a fan I’d miss some of the Frazetta influence on the design of the world.
Stanton loves the Frazetta work, too, but said by now he feels the look is cliché and has been over-used in pop culture.
“Had somebody made this movie around the era of Frazetta it probably would have been a bullseye, but now you’d think I’d just be making a Molly Hatchet album or the side of a van.”
I get his point, but I think there’s a way to find a middle ground in much the same way Peter Jackson incorporated John Howe and Alan Lee’s vision of Middle Earth while still keeping it rooted in a tangible reality. But I get where he’s coming from and maybe he’ll fully convert me when I see the finished film in the coming weeks.
Much respect to Stanton for being willing to argue a bit with a fellow Barsoom fan during his lunch break. And like I said no one’s doubting Stanton’s passion for the material. He told a story about working with Disney in the very early days of the project where he was up front that his vision is a strong PG-13, with real consequences to action, beheadings and blood-letting during the swordfighting and if they weren’t in for that version with him, he understood and they’d part ways, but he needed to be clear now so there’s not a problem later on. To his great surprise the higher ups at Disney said sure thing and have kept that promise even when there was a regime change during prep.
When talk turned to how he found his John Carter, he mentioned being a fan of Friday Night Lights and of Kitsch’s work there, but thought he was too young for the role. But when he found out Kitsch was in the same age range that Sean Connery was as Bond in Dr. No and Harrison Ford was as Han Solo he changed his mind right away.
Stanton said he saw something in Taylor Kitsch he felt John Carter desperately needed, a raw nerve quality that was hiding nobility underneath. He wanted Carter to be damaged goods so he would have some place to go with the character.
Finally we talked about the framing device that has Daryl Sabara playing Edgar Rice Burroughs and that’s probably the only bit of news that has survived the nearly two years since the set visit until the embargo lifting.
The Barsoom books are written as if Burroughs was hearing these crazy stories from his Uncle Jack Carter and presented as if they actually happened, so it’s great they’re incorporating that aspect into the movies. We’ve known this for a while, but the news is that Stanton said he plans on using this same framing device for the next two John Carter movies as well.
Disney and Stanton optioned the first three Barsoom novels and Stanton told us back in July that he’s writing the sequel, The Gods of Mars, as they post John Carter kind of on faith that the movie will do well and Disney will continue. There’s that passion thing turning up again. He didn’t have a deal in place, wasn’t getting paid to do it, but he wanted to get a jump on it should it happen.
It was clear from my visit that everybody from the AD to the actors, VFX guys, grips and producers was passionate about the material. That all comes from the top. I didn’t see enough to tell you guys definitively if Stanton succeeded in translating Burroughs world to the big screen, but I can say that should they succeed it’ll be well earned and if they should fail it’ll be a noble failure.
So much rides on the shoulders of Kitsch and Collins that it is really impossible to tell if the movie will work until we see if they work together. If we don’t buy John Carter and Dejah Thoris’ romance the whole house o’ cards comes tumbling down.
I can’t wait to see what Stanton delivers and I really appreciate the time and access he and the folks at Disney granted us. It was a fun peek at the process. Now all that’s left is just seeing the damn thing!
Hope you guys enjoyed the report! Next up in the crazy-long set visit reports will be the return of the Unexpected Journey Hobbit set pieces. Stay tuned!