Hey folks, Harry here... Watching Andrew Stanton's JOHN CARTER and then having an hour long interview was a bizarre experience for me that really can't be adequately explained. I worked on essentially 4 different versions of this movie at Paramount, years before Andrew got the rights. Working with directors like Robert Rodriguez, Guillermo Del Toro, Kerry Conran & Jon Favreau. The film changed radically with each director. We wound up with different scripts, different Tharks, Woolas, Banths... Different skies, landscapes, flora and fauna... On a film like this, that is what happens. The director becomes the taste maker of the project - and it was one of the great joys of my life to go through development discovering each of their visions for Barsoom and John Carter. Yesterday, I got my first complete view of JOHN CARTER, a spectacular vision of Burroughs' story - and had a chance to talk with Andrew about the film, his choices and what is yet to come still for lovers of these Barsoomian tales. Here ya go...
Harry: So great job, man!
Andrew Stanton: Well I was probably more nervous with you than anybody else since you had such a fond love for that project yourself. I hope I did right.
Harry Well you know I mean I worked on the adaptation at Paramount for about seven years there and it’s bizarre, because I’ve never seen a film version of something that I worked on in development with like four major directors for a long time with and you know the thing is I could go through and nitpick and say “It’s not what we were going to do…” But the fact is I’m a fan of John Carter and oh my God, you got John Carter on screen and it’s amazing! (Laughs) It’s like I could sit there and go “I wish the Tharks were a little more muscular” and “I wish it was a little more Frazetta-esque,” just because that’s just the way my imagination had personally gone through it, but your version is an absolutely solid and very evocative of what I felt Jon Favreau wanted to do with the project. He was very much wanting to ground it the way you did in terms of making it for sure Mars, but still a slightly fantastical Mars, you know?
AS: Yeah and if you have a property with some of these… There’s a certain group, a minority of us… they’ve lived with it their whole life. There’s no way you’re going to make everybody happy, so I purposely didn’t want to hear how anybody had done any other projects or anything. I just wanted to be as pure in my thoughts as possible when we put this up on the screen.
Harry: That’s what you have to do. It was so strange, because I worked with four different directors and they all had completely different visions for what the film was going to be.
AS: Isn’t that funny?
Harry: It took me a while to just sort of warm up to the idea of “Wow, I wonder what this… I like Andrew Stanton’s other films, but I wonder if I’m going to like this one.”
Harry: When Disney said that they wanted to put me on the phone with you, I was like “Oh God, what if I hate it? What if I just want to scream at him the entire time? I don’t want to be in that position.” But no, it turned out fantastic.
Harry: Okay, I guess I’m supposed to do some kind of interview with you, which is just sort of bizarre for me.
Harry: I guess first why don’t we talk about the reasoning behind bringing the Therns more forceful early into the story like you did in this first JOHN CARTER film.
AS: Well the biggest reason was he needed a worthy antagonist, because it wasn’t even in the book. There was nothing to fight against him that is consistent through the entire novel. He had villains that would last a couple of chapters and I also knew that we had gotten the rights to the first three books and I wanted something that would continue on as a nemesis that he… Your Lex Luther to your Superman.
AS: Yeah, over a longer course. And you know Matai Shang is very prominent in book two and three and so I just decided “What’s the opposite of somebody that’s going to ultimately be the protector of the planet is somebody who is going to threaten the entire planet.” So that to me made them equals.
Harry: Yeah. At what point did you basically lose the atmosphere plant and do you have plans to bring that up in one of the future films? Is that something that we might get to see if the series continues?
AS: Absolutely. What we basically did is we mapped out a trilogy and we took all the cool elements and all of the cool characters, all the cool creatures, and sort of made a grocery list. We said, “We don’t have the time to put all of the things that are mentioned in the first book or in any of these books all in one movie and we don’t want to short change anything, so if we can make them much more grounded and integral to the story some of these things may be worth waiting for later while some of these other things may be worth putting in early,” so you get Matai early, but the air plants will be later.
Harry: Right. Okay, so when you said that you mapped out and did that, was that you and Michael Chabon or was that you and Mark Andrews?
AS: It was initially me and Mark Andrews for about a year, almost two years. Then we brought Michael Chabon in and started. It’s been wonderful to work with two… One, I hate writing by myself; I love working with other people. But to work with two other guys that also grew up from the age of eight or nine on loving the John Carter series, you immediately have a shorthand and it gave me a lot of confidence. I knew that if the three of us liked a certain direction, whether it came from…
[The connection drops out and they call each other back.]
AS: Hopefully I won’t break up on you.
Harry: (Laughs) Okay.
AS: So to answer your other question I said one of the nice things about working with Chabon and Andrews was that we all grew up with the books from similar ages, so we had a shorthand and it was also kind of a nice little test group like if we liked going a certain direction with the Tharks or with the air factories or Matai, if we all liked it then we knew that we had a good shot that it was a smart choice.
Harry: Yep. I have to say when I very first… When the movie started I knew instantly “Okay, this is Matai and wow he’s with Sab Than.” I was like “Okay, let’s see how this all comes together here, because I feel out of my safety net for a little bit.” Then as soon as we had the montage of Carter trying to escape things I was just like “You know what? I just have to let go, because this is too much fun to fight.”
Harry: “I’ve just got to enjoy this!” Before the movie actually started I brought my dad to the screening and before the movie actually began I said, “Okay, it’s a week after you saw EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, you’ve just finished the book and you’ve never developed this film, please play now…”
AS: Wow, no pressure.
Harry: You have to admit, have you ever heard of a reviewer that had to watch a film on any circumstances anywhere near this? I mean it’s really bizarre.
AS: No, that’s why I’m kind of fascinated. In a weird way like you were already listing, you know way more of the possibilities it has than I do.
Harry: As soon as I heard that you had Chabon involved I was like “Oh, I’m excited.” Frankly as soon as you optioned the books, which was about two weeks after Paramount dropped the ball on renewing the rights. As soon as I saw that press release saying that you were involved and everyone else, I was like “Oh well okay, it’s in good hands.”
AS: Favreau did the same thing. Favreau called me right after it was announced and said “I’m so bummed to have lost the property, but if it had to go to anybody I’m so glad it went to you.” I’m like “Well, then I’ll try to do good by you.”
Harry: Speaking of, at what point did you get Favreau involved to do a Thark voice?
AS: That was on that same phone call. He said “I only have one request” and I said, “Sure, what is it?” He says, “That I can be a Thark.” I said, “Okay” and I swear to god the entire shoot in 2010 I was just trying to get a day where he could come to the shoot in Utah and he never could and it took for the reshoots that we did in 2011 that he finally, because we were in LA for some of that, he was more readily available physically to come by and we were able to get him recorded for a couple of things.
Harry: How similar was the story development and like animatic development of this film to say like a typical Pixar film that you’ve done?
AS: Well it was very similar in the sense that that’s all I know. I was sort of one of the founders that helped create how we do it, so I’m very biased about working that way. I didn’t have the same manpower, nor did I have the same kind of time to put it all up so that you could watch it completely like a movie in storyboards with all of the dialogue and with all of the fancy music. I mean our reels, what we call them, are so fancy. You could almost sell tickets and just show those and I didn’t have that kind of resources and I also didn’t… Going into live action for the first time I didn’t want to be denied the thrill of what it’s like to sort of discover a scene with actors on the set, so I sort of divided the script into three different sort of subjects. If they were all talking and there wasn’t a lot of effects, then I would just worry about it on actual rehearsal day with the actors and just discover it with them. If it was something that involved a little bit of visual effects work and a little bit of thinking about it visually, like for example Carter waking up on Mars and meeting Tars, I would board it. Mark and I would board it and put it up like you would expect us to do at Pixar. Then when it was really complicated stuff like the white apes arena scene we completely went into previsualization which is, for lack of a better term, went all out in CG to make it look like a video game version of the movie so that we knew every shot and every angle, because we couldn’t afford to find it on the day of the shoot. We needed to be smart with our money.
Harry: Yeah. So what can we expect from Andrew Stanton? I guess it all depends on the opening of this film and how it performs, but are you now spoiled rotten and want to do live action forever?
AS: (Laughs) Well I’m spoiled with it now. I feel like I understand all options on the table for making a story to the screen. What I love is that I have had… I have always had lots of ideas that were somewhat hybrid ideas that would combine computer animation with live action and I’ve had ideas that were live action. Now I feel like anything that I’m interested in doing I have the means to do it, but to be honest I never left animation to make this movie. There are more animated shots in JOHN CARTER than in FINDING NEMO or WALL-E, so I felt like I ended up putting a live action movie on top of what I normally do. It’s like I doubled my load for doing this film.
Harry: You basically made MARY POPPINS.
AS: That’s pretty much a good analogy; it’s just not as cute.
Harry: I don’t know, those Thark babies are pretty cute.
Harry: It was so bizarre watching your Woola, because Ryan Church was one of the guys who was designing with us and he sort of captured our Woola design to a degree and so when I was watching it other than a slight colorization difference, it looked like our Woola and thank you. (Laughs) I fell in love with it. It’s exactly the way it was supposed to.
AS: Well Burroughs describes things very specifically, so you have a lot to go on and if anything it wasn’t making stuff up it was deciding to change the rules from what he said on things just because I wanted things to feel very believable as if nature might have really produced that. I didn’t want things to look like mutants, I wanted them to look like nature had actually evolved things in the desert that way.
Harry: How was the process of fighting for your story in terms of making this film? Did you have trouble keeping the civil war elements? Were there things that you lost that you wished could have been in this one? If so, what?
AS: Well to be honest I never had to fight with anybody but myself or with my other writers. I was very lucky in that I was given a very long leash to hang myself with by Disney. They really trusted me and they would give their notes just like they would on a Pixar movie, but that was about the extent of it. Nobody ever made me change a thing. It was just me having a very honest journey of discovering what worked and didn’t work in the story as we all continued writing and shooting it and watching it. It felt no different than the process of discovery that’s pretty pure that we have at Pixar. There are a couple of scenes… Actually there are about six scenes I shot that will make it on the DVD that I had to cut just to help smooth things out or I tried a different direction after I first did it and there’s two scenes I really love that didn’t make it in. One shows a little more extended of the telegram arriving to Edgar and we see Edgar at the College of William and Mary. I really liked that scene, but it ultimately to move the film along at a faster pace we had to sacrifice it and then there was a scene that’s very small and it was one of the first ones we animated and actually shots of it make it in the trailers of Dejah and Sola bumping into each other when Dejah is first rescued from Carter and jumps off the roof away from him to run away. It was this wonderful character scene between the two of them, very short, but I really loved it. I loved shooting it. I loved watching it, but it ruined the flow of the overall sequence, so it was a sacrifice that I don’t regret, but I always love watching that scene.
Harry: Was there ever any desire to hold John Carter there, to see the birth of his child and then be taken away like it was in the book?
AS: No. If anything I shot quite a bit of stuff that was more extensive about just his return home after the tragedy, but it was actually a later thought to come up with showing his family alive and it made such a more emotional impact on the film. I’m so glad we came up with that.
Harry: Yeah. At this point knowing what worked for you on making the first film, what is it that you’re most anxious for, for GOD’S OF MARS?
AS: Well I don’t know about… You mean anxious in a negative sense?
Harry: No, anxious in the sense of you just… Having gotten what you’ve gotten on screen of your love of Barsoom, what can you not wait to get on screen of Barsoom that you haven’t gotten to do yet?
AS: (Laughs) Well I don’t know if it’s in order of interest, but I can’t wait to see the goddess ISSUS herself and the plant men. I can’t wait… We kind of held back on really going full bore with air ships, because I knew what we were going to do in film two and I didn’t want it to feel redundant from film one, so I had to find that balance of “How much is just enough” to enjoy what you were seeing, but want a little bit more, “because we are going to give you more in the second one” and then more of… What I geek out on is just the character relationships and I feel like Carter and Dejah’s marriage is just getting started at the end of this movie and I really get to delve into a married couple’s first year of being together on this adventure in the second one and also delve deeper into what’s really going on with the Therns. It just feels like a great second season of a TV show that’s about to come up for me and I get to really delve deeper into all of the characters and the relationships. So that’s really juicy stuff for me.
Harry: Yeah, no I mean I love the casting of James Purefoy for Kantos Kahn.
AS: There will be more Kantos. I’m like “Look, it’s going to seem like a cameo in this first movie and if you don’t mind that, please come on this journey with me, because you would be the perfect Kantos for all of the other things I knew he’s going to do.”
Harry: That’s one of those characters that… It was actually funny, I had been notoriously staying away from the IMDB page for this movie, because I just didn’t want to know everything. It’s like after living in this world the way I did, it almost felt like I needed to go on complete sabbatical and only see a few of the trailers and TV spots, so I don’t think I even intellectually understood that James Purefoy was Kantos Kahn, but as soon as his character appeared on screen I was like “Oh my God! He’s perfect! I can’t wait for… Oh God, that’s not this film! I can’t wait for the stuff with him.”
AS: That’s what happened on the actual auditions. I brought him in, believe it or not… I didn’t know how old or how young to make Kantos, so I saw all of these wonderful British actors and the second he walked into the audition room… He is Kantos Kahn. I mean James Purefoy does not have to change much to be Kantos Kahn and the minute he started opening his mouth and talking to me I’m like “Oh my gosh, I’ve completely misjudged who you would be great for.”
Harry: Could you talk a little bit about what you told Michael Giacchino that you wanted him to do with the music for this film?
AS: I told him… I said, “Look there’s a sense of space opera adventure that of course comes from the DNA of STAR WARS that we are going to want to tap into for this,” because that’s what the books feel like and that’s what inspired people that went on to make other things based on their reads of the books, “so we are definitely going to want to be in that camp in that massive John Williams leit motif feel” which he was dying to jump into. I said, “I also want it to feel evocative of a culture” and I kept referring to things like THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and APOCALYPTO, just films that had scores that made you feel like there was a deeper history of culture that was behind many of these cities and people. I said “If we can find a way to weave these two things together, that would be ideal” and damned if he just didn’t knock it out of the park. I told him when I heard that score finally done, I said “I haven’t felt this way since when I bought my double LP of STAR WARS when I was a kid in 1977.”
Harry: It really does soar and support the characters. It fills in the emotion that might not have been so evident just merely through the performances. It lifts it up and makes it sing. We’ve talked a lot about the Burroughs influences and what you were drawing on for this, what film were you drawing on in terms of favorite films that you took lighting references or the look and pacing of the film?
AS: Well from a sort of tone standpoint? Not even just a tone, but also just a grounded gravitas feel, because I did feel like these books, at least the way we were approaching it, was going to feel like a western on Mars to some degree, but we have a guy that’s actually coming from an era at the time when the United States where it was still the waning days of the wild west and so we looked at OUTLAW JOSEY WALES and JEREMIAH JOHNSON and then for sort of a look and feel of a scope and scale of an ancient city I watched and had a lot of people watch THE LAST EMPEROR and I think it’s pretty obvious for any fans, when you watch it you can see the influence I had a lot from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. It’s my favorite movie. I know every shot in it and we watched a lot of that, because it’s the definitive desert film.
Harry: So you’ve been a geek sort of locked away in this secret laboratory of Pixar. All of a sudden they give you a vast budget, cameras and say, “Go out into the world, Andrew! Go make this movie!” What did you discover about yourself as a live action filmmaker?
AS: That I love, love, love actors.
AS: I think a lot of people are scared of them. I think maybe it’s because when you are an animator you are pretty much a shy actor and you’re thinking about all of the same things of how to make an animated character on the screen the same way an actor sort of breaks down a character and I think because I wanted to be an actor when I was in high school and I almost went that way that I missed the camaraderie of just I just know the social speak of acting a little bit and I love spontaneity and improv believe it or not, even though it doesn’t happen a lot making an animated movie. It does when you’re coming up with stuff for scenes with other writers or it comes up when you are talking with other animators about how to make a scene work. So to be able to use those same skills when you are with actors on set or on rehearsals I just loved and then it’s just impossible when you’ve been raised in a digital world where everything is virtually behind a computer screen and you’re kind of not able to touch it. To be able to stand there with cameras and say “Point it that way” and then shoot and then it’s done was pretty intoxicating.
Harry: One of the things I’ve noticed that ends up being a problem sometimes with special effects guys or animators that became live action directors is that they still treat live action with a slight degree of having a lack of gravity and weight and one of the things that I’ve noticed in both Brad’s [Bird’s] first live action film, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, and your film is that things have a weight to it, but that’s something that Pixar has always done. They pay attention to making a character connect with everything around it. How hard was it to find Carter’s leaping and just sort of the natural clumsiness and the evolution of that “I’m on Mars and all of a sudden this is what’s going on.” How did that scene find itself for you?
AS: Well I mean the leaping was probably the most difficult. I thought it would be the easiest thing to do, because it seemed pretty obvious to me that we would just put him on wires and make him land and we would play with it until it looks right. Then you fundamentally get to this problem where to make it look… You’re playing with rules that don’t really exist. You’re saying he can kind of jump like the Hulk or like Superman, but in the sense that he can do these grand leaps and then land and nobody else in the world can, so you realize right away when you are watching him physically land you wanted him to land with much more impact and there was no way on set that they could truly drop somebody from a stunt line and have them land like that and not bust his legs, so I was fighting that probably more than anything else on the movie, trying to make these believable takeoffs and landings, because I knew the middle part would be digital a lot. That was probably the thing that got me the most frustrated and we slowly perfected it, but it was something I was always fighting just because there’s this fine line between safety and making these fantastical jumps look believable. I think I’m still having these pipe dreams of how we can improve upon that when we go on to other films. There’s a lot more digital swapping out than I hope people could know when they watch the film that’s fixing a lot of these things. One of the things that I… You would think that I would know this stuff coming from Pixar, but the world of visual effects in digital animation is very different than the world of character animation animation.
Harry: In what way?
AS: There’s a lot more that you can fix and cheat and magic you can do in post than I ever knew was possible after you’ve shot live action.
AS: Which thank God or else I think we’d probably… You can really plus stuff better than I knew before and now I know all of the tools I’ve got to my disposal and I think I would be a little bit more prepared the next round to make the jumps look even better.
Harry: One of the things that I thought as I was looking at it is it really kind of reminded me of the way that the Fleischer Superman pushed off and landed and some of his little hop leaps that he did, because I always loved that he didn’t really fly, but he was super and that was always the way I had hoped that John Carter would move. I thought you did a good job with that.
AS: I love the idea that not making him somebody that had in a weird way magical powers. I loved that he simply could leap about and nobody else could do that and he had extra strength to handle fighting things that were so much larger than him, but at the end of the day he was still with his wits and all of the skills he had as a military leader on Earth were pretty much his biggest assets on Mars and so I kind of liked how the leaping became just accepted and integrated right away once we were on Mars.
Harry: Yeah. Now the hardest part about adapting JOHN CARTER and the thing that we were always struggling with was the sheer amount of just stolen or tribute material that various filmmakers and novelists and writers and everyone sort of borrowed from this. When you see your trailers getting out there and you see comments from people that say “This looks like ATTACK OF THE CLONES” or “This looks like AVATAR…”
AS: It makes me feel old. (Laughs)
Harry: There’s that, but then at the other side I mean how much hair have you lost over the course of this? (Laughs)
AS: None. Seriously, because I knew this was unavoidable. If that was going to bother me, I should not make the property. I mean I can sleep at knowing “I know when this book was written. I know what’s inside the book. And I know what I’m taking from the book” and you know once this movie is done and it’s out on whether it’s a DVD or a BluRay or a pill that somebody takes ten years from now, there’s no order anymore about who finds what when and watches what movie. It’s not linear and I feel like if there are some lucky people that get to watch this and not have it associated with other pictures, great. Then they can just enjoy it for what it is.
Harry: From here… One of the things that I know ya’ll do at Pixar is you have an immense amount of time that you spend mapping the psychological color flow of a film, what sort of palate changes can we expect going from here forward?
AS: You mean if we do two more films?
AS: Well I think it’s going to get a lot darker before it gets a lot brighter. (Laughs) It really does have a chart that works like EMPIRE to RETURN, but it’s fitting and my whole goal was that by the end of this whole thing he would earn the title “Warlord of Mars” and that’s where we are headed with it. So the color will just… We go underground and then we go back topside by the time we are in the third one.
Harry: Okay, so this is something that you would like to see this through for the trilogy?
AS: I was so intimidated by just the first one I didn’t have the balls to think that I would want to go farther, but now that I’ve kind of made it to the other side and it doesn’t scare me as much yeah I’m very intrigued about seeing it all the way through. I mean I’m not interested… It’s not attractive to think that it will be the next ten years of your life and you wont do anything else. I’m hoping that I can somehow make that not be the case.
Harry: I think that was something that Peter Jackson was fighting in his refusal to commit to making THE HOBBIT and then the eventual just when he thought he got out they pulled him back in GODFATHER style…
AS: (Laughs) I totally get it. I mean I don’t claim to be anywhere near in the airspace of Peter Jackson, but looking at the world from that point of view I completely get it. I mean I even had that feeling when I was working on WALL-E. I could start to see like “Wow, I know exactly the next ten years of my life if I decide to just keep making other animated pictures,” so there’s definitely a part of you that needs to make it interesting for yourself and make it a challenge for yourself that you didn’t realize was part of the whole reason you got into movie making in the first place.
Harry: Absolutely. So at what point do you make your 2D animated hand drawn watercolor background film?
AS: You know when you look at it with those eyes it’s probably the film after the next one, because I can’t think of anything that would be more different than that.
Harry: Well it almost feels like of everything that Pixar could do that would be radical in terms of shaking up the industry, it would be creating a great 2D classic animated film and just saying “Here we go. We are going to do this” sort of thing.
AS: It would be this horrible mishmash of things that every oddball person has requested. It would be like this R rated musical 2D film.
Harry: Done in UPI animation, yes.
Harry: Talk about finding Taylor [Kistch] for John Carter and Lynn [Collins] for Dejah Thoris, because I imagine there had to be nightmares as you were trying to find who you were going to go with for those people.
AS: Yeah nobody else was putting this pressure on it, but I was. I mean for me these were characters that I had discovered in preexisting series of 11 books and so to me it was casting Superman or James Bond. It was like it was going to be a long run with whoever I got and I found that very daunting and so I probably interviewed everybody I could think of that I thought might be right for it for both Carter and Dejah and because I didn’t know the right age to make them, it’s a little bit of ageism, because I’m in my mid 40’s I thought I needed somebody closer to 40 when I first started thinking about it, because I had always pictured he was somebody older when I read the books and so I didn’t know what age to make Dejah, so I was looking at anybody between the ages of like late twenties to early forties and so I had this huge range of people, but the truth is that with Taylor I had actually seen him a year or a half a year before I got the rights to CARTER and saw him in the pilot for FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and I remember thinking “Wow. He really has something behind him that would make Carter really interesting if somebody ever did Carter, but he’s too young.” It wasn’t until I got the chance to do it and we were serious about casting a year and a half later that I kind of brought him up and said the same thing, but I had been sort of tricked in the fact that he was playing somebody younger than he was when he was doing the FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS stuff and everything you’re watching is shot about six months earlier than when you actually see it on TV and then I finally said “Maybe I should meet with him.” (Laughs) When I met with him it really clicked for me and even though I wasn’t 100% positive… I was in the state of mind of I kept finding reasons why people wouldn’t work in my head and then I went back and thank god you have IMDB… I went on IMDB and I looked at all of the ages of the people that were iconic actors in these roles like Harrison Ford was 31 I think in STAR WARS and Christopher Lambert was 27 for HIGHLANDER and SEAN CONNERY was 29 for DR. NO and then I suddenly realized “Oh my god.” Taylor was 27 going on 28 at the time and I thought “I’ve been thinking all wrong. He’s the perfect age.”
Harry: Especially if he’s going to make multiple films.
AS: Somebody that if these movies go on farther for another ten years to make, he’s going to still be great physically and in the prime of his life and so he made the shortlist with a couple other people and then I saw a lot of actresses for Dejah and Lynn to be honest was not on my radar. She walked in and I had seen her before… She’s quite a chameleon, so I have seen her in a couple of films before, but hadn’t connected all of the dots that it was the same actress and she kind of tricked me, because she’s actually very pale. Collins is her last name, so she’s half Irish and she’s half Native American and she had a tan and her hair was dark and she looked just right for the part. She was so stoic like somebody that you thought just had royal blood in them, but she had a firry passion behind her just in her read and left an impression on me and I was like “Who the hell was that?” When I went back I completely bought that’s who she was and found out later she looks completely different than that. I thought, “Well if she can fool me close up in read throughs then she’s a really good actress” and so she made the short list and then I did about a week of costume tests/acting scenes. I sort of had the scenes where she tries to get him to go back and say the incantation in the wedding chamber. I had that scene and I kept changing different actors with the actresses and just trying different pairings for a couple days to see what worked chemistry-wise and how people looked on film, but I must admit the second I saw her do her scene with Taylor I was like “It’s those two.” I just held my tongue and I waited until we put the film in the lab and got it back and watched it on the big screen and had some people that weren’t there who weren’t biased and they couldn’t take their eyes off of them on the screen. I said, “That’s it. They’re the right ones.” I find it funny that my hunch all along was Taylor.
Harry: What facilitated the need for the reshoots? Was that something that was planned all along?
AS: The reshoots were planned all along and people don’t get this, but I’m like reshoots may have a bad association in live action, but in animation they are fundamental to making the movies work. We basically storyboard our movies, which would be the equivalent of shooting them and then cut them together and watch them on the big screen and then rip it all down and do it all over again four times over the course of four years, so I only know how to make a movie with four complete reshoots of the entire movie again. That’s how I make a movie and I think that’s a lot of the secret ingredient of why we are able to make our movies as good as they are. We are not embarrassed to go “Look we are going to put up a lot of stuff that doesn’t work and we are going to learn from it and we will do it again,” so I felt it was a huge limitation just financially that I could only do one reshoot, but I planned really hard for it knowing I was going to come out of that initial shoot with a lot of awareness once I cut it all together of what I needed to still do and fix or what was missing and so we always had that planned.
Harry: Well that’s actually something that Peter Jackson does as well. He always builds into his films reshoot dates and I think he does two sets of reshoots or “additional shoots” as he calls them and it’s just because he wants to have the ability to go into the editing room and be able to actually make a difference. (Laughs)
AS: That’s insanely smart. I can’t imagine making a film any other way. That just makes so much sense to me, especially when you are making something this big with so many moving parts there’s no way you’re going to get it right completely going on your first time in.
Harry: I believe the first time you and I met was at Pixar when…
AS: Yeah, you got a tour at old Pixar for BUG’S LIFE. I remember meeting you then.
Harry: Yeah, and I sat down with you and who was the other person that was writing on TOY STORY 2?
AS: TOY STORY 2?
Harry: I think that’s what ya’ll…
AS: I wasn’t associated with the other writers, they were writing on an early show, so whatever they were credited on I came in on my own afterwards.
Harry: I always told everybody that of every visit that I’d ever done anywhere in film I learned more from Joe Ranft in like… He had me for like an hour and he took me through the entire Pixar process and then handed me off to an editor and said, “Show him every version that we do on these things.”
AS: That’s funny.
Harry: I found that at Pixar ya’ll are so in love with the process of filmmaking that ya’ll do want to share it with people, that you want to say “This is why these films are remarkable. It’s not magic, it’s hard work.”
AS: Yeah. Again we are not in it for the fame or the acknowledgement, although that’s wonderful for a lot of hard work, but we are in it because it’s such a drug to us to sit in the movie theater and have a great experience with a really good movie. We just want to create that again. It’s a bit addictive, that’s what it is.
Harry: So I hear you’re working on GODS OF MARS on spec?
AS: Yeah, well I mean if we go that way it’s going to be a huge movie again and you can’t get started early enough. Nobody has ever made a promise to me, but nobody has ever also led me on, it’s been a very honest discussion from day one with Disney of like “Look, this may work. This may not work and if it works then we will go for another one. If it doesn’t we won’t,” but I always need as much prep time as I can to get stuff right and I’m talking about the story. You can never be working on the story long enough. You need as much time as you can get, so if this ends up going on the shelf as a script I still consider it pretty damn good practice and we will be ready if we ever do go to it again.
Harry: Absolutely. How far along are you with GODS OF MARS in terms of writing and mapping the story out?
AS: Well it’s all mapped out and we’ve got a very extensive outline. I tend to write outlines that are like 30 pages long sometimes with dialog scenes in them and all of the details of all of the beats in the scenes and we’ve gotten that and now we are, in this coming month, we are going to start working into a first draft me and Michael. Mark’s going to be approving from the sidelines, but he’s very busy finishing up BRAVE.
Harry: I know for the “strict” fans of Burroughs and Barsoom they are a little annoyed at the height difference of the Tharks and the red skin of the people of Helium and Zodangs. Could you tell them why it is the way it is?
AS: Well it was a choice. I mean I was very curious to see… We’ll just take the green men first. I wanted them to be believable and I didn’t only want them to be believable in their physiology, I wanted them to be believable when you looked into their eyes and when you thought that they were talking and in the physical space standing on the desert floor talking to Carter. I knew for that to work you’d have to have a real actor who’s real eyes were looking at the real eyes of Taylor and then you had to get into the physical reality of “How tall of stilts can you put these people on before they can’t actually do it and they can’t actually stand there?” It’s pretty much nine to ten feet and there was just no way around and I said “I can live with being on the lower side of the scale of what Burroughs described in order to gain real believability of that character truly being there.” More than anything else I didn’t care about matching the numbered description in the book, I cared about “Will I really believe in Tarsa’s character and will I really believe he’s there talking to Carter?” That was more important to me than whether I matched a number. So that’s what drove it. Then for the red men I wanted to go as red as I could get away with and it turns out you can’t go that red without it looking really weird. (Laughs) I was fortunately enough in my early talks I was talking with Roger Guyett at ILM before we knew which visual effects house we were going with and they had been struggling with the green woman on STAR TREK on JJ’s STAR TREK and the hell that they had to go through just to make that one green woman work and even then they weren’t completely satisfied kind of made me realize that to go to an entire nation of people in an unnatural red was pretty much unobtainable without it looking really processes and fake or just making them look sun burnt. No matter what we did… So I said, “Look, everybody buys a certain complexion” and they kept being referred to in the books as “copper skinned,” so I said “Well Jesus, let’s just make them a copper tan like Mediterranean skinned people and let’s give them lots of red tattoos, because then it’s a term of reference for them. It’s not that they are literally red men, but they call them the red men, because they are tanned and because they’ve got red tattoos all over them.” I thought that was a very interesting cultural technique to add to it that would give them a kind of gravitas of history that you would believe it’s a nation that had all of this history behind it and cultural habits and routines that we didn’t know all about, just like when you visit a country and you don’t know everything about them. I thought it would evoke that, so I thought that was a pretty smart way to get around something we just couldn’t achieve.
Harry: Talk about how you made the Tharks not just look like an endless throng of replicated creatures and tried to make them as much individuals with distinctive features and how they didn’t all just blend together and how you had to fight against doing that with something that’s as alien looking as a Thark.
AS: Well I mean they are so well described in the books, but again I felt like if the tusks came out of the mouths then you were going to be robbing a major element of using a real actor’s face that would help ground them into being believable once you did motion capture with them. So I felt we already were breaking the reality. We were moving the mouth much farther down from the eyes than what’s really on Samantha Morton’s face or Willem Dafoe’s face and so we started out with the main characters. We said “Tars is supposed to be the ideal Thark, like sort of the perfect specimen” and so we felt “Well if we can design him right then we will sort of derivate everything off of him” and we kept looking at pictures of Dafoe and pictures of Clint Eastwood, because we just wanted that kind of noble gravitas and so that’s how we sort of found the face and the look of him and I looked at a lot of photos of desert dwelling people, Aboriginals and Bedouin and the Masai warriors and they all… Nature has told us historically… Evolution has told us historically that people who live in the desert are thin and ropey and they are down to their essentials and I thought just by going with that grammar you are telling the audience “This is not fake. This is not some fanboy’s realization. This is not some mutant. This is something the desert really produced, because that’s what we’ve watched growing up in our world and so we won’t question it. We will think these guys know how to survive out in the desert.” That’s why I went with that thin ropey physiology and then it just became “What tells you female vs. male?” So we changed tusk shape if you were male vs. female. We changed head shape a little… We just found subtle things, that women have slightly wider hips… We just found things that you could just help sense the difference, but wasn’t obvious. That’s really what real life is like. We are much more similar looking that we are different looking in all our races and so it was trying to find that fine line where you would sense the variation in the same way that you would sense the subtle variation in real life on earth.
Harry: Okay. So what sort of live action film do you want to do that has nothing to do with fantasy sci-fi?
AS: (Laughs) Wow. I don’t think I’ll ever get asked that question, but I love that question. I would probably make a very dark two person relationship Miramax film. (Laughs) I had so much fun doing the scenes that have no visual effects in them like Carter in the jail cell and everything at the mansion and things like that. I realized it was an area that I would love to delve deeper, which is just a real dramatic charter piece with a lot of mood I would love to do.
Harry: We saw Joss Whedon… He shoots AVENGERS and then he disappears for like a little two week period and comes out with MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING where he gets a group of actors and does a low and gritty sort of modern take on something. Can you imagine rushing into a production? You’re somebody who prepares so much and that’s how you say you’ve come to do film, could you swing it?
AS: I don’t think I could do the Joss thing. I mean maybe over time I could make that a worthy goal, but I would need to get a couple more live action productions under my belt to know how to be faster and more live than I am. It’s just the reality of it, but I’m very envious. I would love to be able to work like that. It’s one of the advantages of coming out of TV is you just know how to do stuff fast.
Harry: Yeah. Let’s see, what else is there? Is there anything that you’re developing over at Pixar?
AS: Yeah. As a matter of fact I’m developing a short film with Pete Docter. There’s an idea that he and I have had for years that we are finally getting around to doing which is kind of funny. We are both way too busy, but we just love the idea of doing this one little project together and then I’ve been… I executive produce a lot of the films over there and so I spend a lot of… People keep thinking I’ve been away from there, but I actually have been on campus for the last year and a half just helping watch over other stuff, but I don’t have a feature film of my own that’s an animated Pixar film that’s coming up soon, no. That’s a ways away.
Harry: What’s it like when one of you Pixar directors say, “I’m going to go shoot live action?” Are there any hurt feelings? Does everybody just wish you well?
AS: I think it’s more fear that they think you’re going to get a taste for it and then leave. I’ve been saying this since the beginning, I said “What am I crazy? I worked so hard to help with this environment of this sort of free range chicken of being able to make movies without anybody messing with you, why would I ever want to leave it?” I’ll leave… If I’m making a live action film I’ll leave to actually shoot on location, but anything I’m ever going to develop or work on that’s animated this is my home. I’ve spent twenty years trying to make this my home; I’m not about to leave it.
Harry: How helpful were your friends at Pixar in terms of finding this film for you? In terms of calling you out on “This doesn’t work” and “This does work.” Were they involved in this process?
AS: They were in spots and a lot of times they just couldn’t be, because I wasn’t here making it. But when I was writing it I would bring them in when I did a script read and then when I came back and I did my first cut they watched the reels and treated it just like a brain trust session and gave me great notes which helped me be smarter about how to prep for my reshoot and that was pretty much it. It was pretty limited, but then there would be key people that were really good in certain areas like if they were an expert in lighting or an expert in other qualities, editing or something, I might bring them buy, because that’s how we work on any Pixar film, you just get advice wherever you can from experts in any subject matter.
Harry: How sad are you that Danton [Burroughs] didn’t get to live to see this film?
AS: Incredibly sad. I remember saying to him, because I pitched all three films to him, because before they gave us the full rights they wanted to come up and meet us and so I wanted to make sure that we weren’t going to… They had had a bad history with Disney in the 80’s as Disney had sat on the property for over a decade and they just felt like they didn’t want it to just go into limbo all over again. Danton at the time sadly was feeling like “Look, am I ever going to live to see this?” So when they came over I wanted to do them proud and I pitched as best I could what we had come up with like “Here’s what would happen in the first film, the second film, and the third film” and he kind of almost came to tears. It was really sweet and I remember saying “I really want to break the curse. I want to break the curse that this will never make it to the screen.” (Laughs) We almost thought of getting T-shirts made “Break the curse” with the medallion on it. It was such a shocker… I mean we had already gotten the rights from them. They had given me their okay. He had invited me down and he gave me a tour of their estate and even showed me footage of Edgar Rice Burroughs that he had taken while he was a war correspondence on the Pacific Theater for WWII and it was pretty fascinating footage. He showed me the sword that he had actually whittled out of wood that matched what he felt was Carter’s sword. It was really special. Just to be able to do that was pretty special, but when he passed… I just want to believe that maybe he’s up there somewhere watching this all be completed.
Harry: Well Edgar liked to create totems, especially for John Carter. He wanted it to feel like a real world for him. Do you do anything like that as a writer? Do you build up stuff and start putting sketches around? If so, as you’re working on GODS OF MARS what sort of things do you have visually that you draw upon?
AS: This may sound weird being such a visual guy, but I actually am superstitious about getting too much, if any visual stuff for a while until I have an outline that works, because you can get really seduced by visuals and they can sometimes hide that you actually need to change the story or that your story’s not good enough and I’m very much a purist, like I should be able to just pitch you the story without any visuals and it holds your attention, so I do that almost to myself like I won’t almost reward myself with creating visuals until I’ve got at least an initial outline that I think already is an interesting pitch and it’s just sort of a self imposed test that I put on myself and so I’m at the place now where I think I can finally reward myself with very interesting visuals. Again, we’ll wait and see how it does and if so, then I will be pulling the trigger immediately on development artists and I will have a long list of stuff I want them to create.
Harry: So when do we get to see banths?
AS: I wanted to show banths in the first… To be honest I didn’t have many compromises in the movie and I had one and it was when we were doing the visual effects budget they kept with “Hey, can we cut out the banths?” (Laughs) They got to the point where they were like “You can either have the banths or you can have the Warhoons.” I was like “I will have the Warhoons, please.” And then I said, “Alright, can we at least have dead banths? One dead banth that we can propagate around in the arena?” I really wanted to set them up so that you would be prepared for Subbiah in the second film and I lost that, but I didn’t fight that battle too hard, because it kept my war hones alone. There will banths in the second one. There’s already a design that we were almost ready to pull the trigger in and made articulated models that we can animate with them, so I already know what they are going to look like.
Harry: I have to say my heart skipped a beat when the word “banths” was spoken in the film. I was like “Oh? Do I get to see them?”
AS: (Laughs) I know….
Harry: My thing is I’m such a little kid when it comes to this property and I sit there and there’s a part of me that’s like “The white apes weren’t blind!” But oh my god, I love your blind white ape design! I think it’s spectacular.
AS: I wasn’t thinking that way either until Michael Cousch who designed them came up with it and I suddenly loved that added rule. It didn’t really demand it, but I felt like it just grounded it in the reality of nature like there’s always these one odd things you find out about… Think of something like a beaver, it’s just the weirdest thing in the world or a mole. It just made sense and then it started us thinking like “What if they are only nocturnal and you have to be careful…” We did have a scene where they were at a campfire when they were traveling and they heard the white apes howling in the night and they had to start covering each other in dust so they wouldn’t be smelled and it was explained by Sola that they have no eyes, but it really slowed down the middle of the picture and we realized you could get away with discerning that just by being in the ape scene without having to have that whole setup, so we cut it and it never got animated. I just love those rules, it just made the whole world seem a little bit larger and a little bit more real.
Harry: It was actually funny, I read some interview with you and I can’t remember where it was, but you said something about how Edgar Rice Burroughs when he was writing PRINCESS OF MARS originally he didn’t allow himself the luxury of really truly mapping out the entire series and really thinking about the through lines. I mean when he wrote PRINCESS OF MARS it was a hope that there would be other stories and other books, but he didn’t know that that was going to happen and so when ya’ll set about creating the franchise of the film series you decided to take that luxury to sort of go though it. You have the rights to the first three books, but have you looked beyond that for little elements to help pepper these three films with or is there more than enough in the novels for you?
AS: Well I’ve been completely prepared to do that. I feel like I know every book really well, but what I do is a I go through each book like for PRINCESS OF MARS I read it, I mark up things that seem like great moments or facts or any details that I would love to use and I underline them and I sort of make a separate sheet of all of those things and then I put the book away, because I want to go “Alright, what would just make a great narrative story without feeling anything is too precious?” It was amazing after the dust settle how much it retained a lot of what the book felt like in its narrative order even though I wasn’t trying to hold to it too honestly at the beginning. It just told me that in a weird way, I don’t know how else to put it, Edgar Rice Burroughs was really close. He was really close to making a solid through line and he just didn’t have the luxury or the time to do it and so I felt like “We have the luxury and time to do it.” Now we now have eleven books and we can kind of see the whole scope of it and we can go back and we can chiropractically adjust and shift things so that it does feel like one big grand master plan in design and so we decided to end it with the first three books and I think we’ve managed to do that, but to be honest there’s so much stuff. His stuff is so dense with stuff almost on a per chapter basis, at least in the first two books that there’s really more than I have to work with.
Harry: It was at that point where I realized I kind of loved that you weren’t treating it so precious, because a lot of times when you see films that are being made by somebody who espouses to be a huge fan of the material, sometimes it might be too clingy to the written word and it doesn’t get to become a cinematic telling of the tale. At what point in the editing process and looking at the film do you suddenly relax and realize that you had the film that you had.
AS: Well I’ll be honest, as far as compared to the book I felt like that with the shooting script.
AS: Then it just became a process of refining it. After it was shot, I felt like I still had the movie I intended to make, but you find through going through the process that things are fatter than what you needed them to be, you have redundancies that you didn’t see before, and there’s always a piece missing or a piece that you don’t need and so I just felt like it got down to its fighting weight after we reshot and sort of put things together, but it’s pretty much what it felt like to read the script which was an attempt to try and make it feel like what it was like to read the book. It wasn’t an attempt to match it exactly, it was an attempt to go how you feel hopefully when you walk out of the theaters how it felt for me when I read the book.
Harry: I think everybody has their favorite John Carter artist over the history of John Carter, mine is J. Allen St. John personally I’m lucky enough to actually have one of the paintings that he did of the yellow men of Mars cover of the AMAZING STORIES pulp. When you were a kid, who was it that attracted you to this?
AS: Hands down it was Michael Whelan. I mean it was hands down him. They had reissued the books in the mid 70’s with all of his covers and for me those were the definitive covers, because that’s how I was introduced to him and if you look at them they are not… If you look at the cover of his PRINCESS OF MARS, it looks like Taylor. (Laughs) It looks like Taylor and the Tharks don’t look that different other than maybe the face design and I realized “Wow, a lot of that crept into me,” just his view of it.
Harry: It was actually funny, I had a conversation with dad that I said that your Thark design sort of stuck me as being a bit of a Whelan and Kaluta hodgepodge, because Kaluta’s were really thin Tharks. He did not make…
AS: Was that the one where there’s that book cover where he is riding straight towards camera with Dejah on his…
Harry: I believe that’s right, yes.
AS: No, I think you’re absolutely right. It is this weird sort of combination. Again, I tried not to follow anybody or any illustration. I purposefully never went online and looked at the history of them, I just wanted to go… What we started filling the room with was just nature photos of millions of things all over the world of any kind of animal that we felt was kind of referencing whatever aspect about the Tharks we were thinking of and I was very lucky that I had Iain McCaig who had had a history with the films come on and you know he was pretty good and disciplined bout not letting things creep in from other films, but I had seen some of the stuff he had done for Favreau and I really loved his take on some stuff. I just said, “Look, I don’t want you to rip off what you did before and I know it may be weird to ask you to do another version, but I really think you get this sort of turn of the century feel of Mars that I’m looking for” and so I think between me pushing the realism and the nature aspect of the Tharks and his version of romanticism with the Barsoom world, I really feel like we kind of hit on something.
Harry: Yeah. Well I think I’m about done with the interview stuff here. For me, I just want to say thank you for finally getting it up on screen. When Guillermo Del Toro left the project he was deeply concerned about my sanity, because we had already lost Robert Rodriguez due to Director’s Guild and then it was Guillermo Del Toro who was a day away from signing before he left the project with an unfortunate argument with a producer that was not me, but he had to call me up to tell me “Gordo, I’m going to leave the project. I’m sorry.” He says, “The only reason I’m even thinking about staying on is because I want to work with you” and I told Guillermo, I said, “Guillermo I know the history of this project. This is something that’s literally been trying to be made since 1932 or so and if you take a look at everyone who touched it…” I’m the fanboy of this thing that has seen some really bizarre designs from the John Boorman version in the 70’s that he was going to do and you hear about it was going to be the first animated feature… Just all of these different stories that Harryhausen was looking at it for a while, then other people… That George Lucas tried to option it, couldn’t and then created STAR WARS and you sit there and you look at all that and I told him “How can I possibly be egotistical enough to think that I’m going to be the guy who brings it to the screen?” I said, “I just hope that whenever it eventually gets made to screen that I know that I’m a part of this history that it went through and I just hope that whoever does it doesn’t make me angry.” (Laughs) So thank you for making me not angry.
AS: Well I’m glad I didn’t.
Harry: Whenever something is dear to your heart… I’m sure there has been more than your fair share of materials that other people made that you wished to God that you could have done and then you see the film and it doesn’t quite live up to what you had always envisioned making, I mean that’s part of what being a film fan is, but you made what I felt was a damn magical experience today, so thank you.
AS: Good. Well I’m glad. I know the fans will be the toughest to win over, but you know all I can do is just be honest and as sincere as I could with attacking it. Like I said, you’ll never be able to please everybody, because everybody has such different images in their heads, but it came from an honest place.
Harry: When Tars Tarkas says in that hushed awe tone “You killed him with a single blow” or “one blow…” I got shudders, because I could feel Tars Tarkas. It was like “My God, that’s him!”
AS: (Laughs) Yeah.
Harry: It’s just such a thrilling thing to have that happen. I mean when Kerry Conran came on the project I told him “Until we feel the awe & respect that Tars Tarkas considers John Carter with we don’t have a movie.” That is something when you are creating a CG character that’s not real and you have him doing dialogue I mean it never really worked until Gollum and then it hasn’t worked a whole lot since then. I imagine that had to be one of the most brutal processes for you, nailing down that look for the characters and then actually getting emotion out of it.
AS: Yeah, well that’s why I felt the Pixar experience would pay off, because I just knew what it had to be and I knew you needed a great actor. I feel like Dafoe was destined to be Tars Tarkas and so I just used that same measuring stick that I would use at Pixar as far as whether I believed him or not.
Harry: Well thanks a lot and I look forward to GODS and WARLORD.
AS: (Laughs) Okay.
Harry: And you better do them all or I’ll be angry at you. (Laughs)
AS: I’ll try, Harry