Recently I was one of a handful of lucky journalists who got to have a sneak peek at Disney’s upcoming sci-fi flick ”John Carter”. This is a project dear to director Andrew Stanton’s heart, not just because it’s his first live action film (Stanton is best known for his animation work with Pixar, directing hits like Finding Nemo), but because, like many others he is a long-time fan of the Barsoom book series. The eleven part series, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, have been credited with inspiring many famous sci-fi films (including one that features some wars with stars…), and that might just be Stanton’s greatest challenge… how to take this popular source material and make it feel original. But from what I’ve seen of the footage, he is using his animation background to great affect, creating some very inventive CG characters that blend perfectly with the live ones. We’ll see the full film sometime next year, but in the meantime, here is an excerpt of the great Q & A I and a few other journalists took part in.
Q: Can you just give like a one paragraph kind of guide of the movie because apparently you said it starts in 1912 and we kind of see that turn of the century…
ANDREW STANTON: Well, I have it here. It says, “A damaged civil war vet is mistakenly transported to Mars and through his entanglement in the warring races of the planet and the impassion quest of a runaway princess, rediscovers his humanity.” Or you want the shorter logline that says, “It’s a man rediscovering his humanity among Martians.”
Q: Were you looking to do a live action film or is it just because you loved John Carter so much?
ANDREW STANTON: I wasn’t looking to do a live action film. But to be honest, I have never – how do I put this – gone to the church of animation. I loved animation. It was how I came into film but it wasn’t because of animation. t was just that I loved film and I loved certain animated films and that just happened to be the way I went into it. I have been interested in all mediums. I found out very quickly after Toy Story that really what got me going, because every film I have worked on has taken four years and this film is turning out to be no exception, is I got to love the idea. I have always been asked that question of what do you do, would you do a different kind of medium, would you live action, would you stop motion, would you do any of these other things, and I said it really depends on the idea. To be honest, this is an idea I loved since I was 12. I never thought I would get to make it. I always thought somebody would. It just turned out to be one of those things where I was experienced enough and the films I have done were successful enough that this suddenly was a logical leap because it was sort of half visual effects, half live action. It’s still freaking huge. I can’t believe I took this on because everything would be smaller after this but it hasn’t killed me… I definitely enjoyed myself thoroughly but… I think that what I’m more addicted to is just the feeling, the challenge of something different.
Q: What about these books appealed to you?
ANDREW STANTON: I think it was having a human being thrown into a world that they just didn’t see coming and not knowing anything about it and discovering it through them, with them. I think as a kid I pushed a lot of buttons I think in the primal aspect especially of a boy but my wife always likes to say I’m just gay enough so it’s like I really enjoyed a lot of the potential romance. I’ve always been a sucker for unrequited love I guess. Let’s put it that way as I’m sure Wall-E shows. Again, it was 1-0-1 for a 12-year old but like they’re getting the girl, they’re losing the girl, they’re getting the girl, they’re losing the girl, you know. That plus the adventure, it’s just that they had all these things in it. I’ll be honest with you, the resonant of it from that age reading it stuck with me but I didn’t go back and look at those books again until my late 20s and then I was sort of like wow. They’re very simplistic and they’re really meant for younger age. But I put a lot of value in things that stay in your psyche, the things that you can’t drop. I believe that means there is something there that is universal, something there that’s possibly sticking with a lot of other people. I felt there was really fertile ground there to mine from and maybe improve upon it.
So what you do is you take it all apart, you take the parts you think are the things that make… I always equate it to an archeological dig. t’s like you believe the story already exists and you’re just, hopefully, the smart enough person to pick the right spot in the ground to dig but you have no say what bones you’re going to find and when you’re going to find them. You may find yourself halfway through putting all these bones together and realize it’s not at all the dinosaur you thought you would put together. Are you going to have the guts to admit that you have something different than what you thought or are you going to be stubborn and force it to be what you said it was going to be which I think a lot of films do? That’s not what Pixar does. It’s not what I was taught. I was taught to fix it. I don’t care if we got one day left, change it.
Q: What was it like to have real sets?
ANDREW STANTON: I loved it because you can touch it. You could see it.
Q: But you deal with the elements like you said, the wind, the storms…
ANDREW STANTON: Yeah, but you got to remember, nothing comes for free. It’s funny, I found the exact opposite of what my expectations were and everybody else’s expectations were on the live action set. They thought that I would be overwhelmed. I found I used maybe 50% to 75% of my muscles that I have to use everyday at Pixar. Because when you’re doing all digital project, every pixel has to be planned. You get nothing for free. You don’t find a sunset. You don’t find a costume in the store. You don’t get somebody putting something in front of you that you think what about this? You have to come up with it. You have to plan it and then you have to tweak everything. I think the amount of decisions to make a single a frame or a single shot look good in CG takes probably ten-fold the amount of decisions to make a shot like in live action. So the amount of challenges of decision making that I was thrown at everyday – I have been like lifting 500 pounds everyday and I was only giving 200 pounds of weight at most on a day. So people can keep throwing something and be like yes, no, no.
Now, that I’ve been on the other side of the fence, I realize we’re like insanely inhuman planners. I’ve been in this rare microcosm for, again, two decades where the same people have been making the same project together for 20 years. The names haven’t changed and we get to do it again and again and again. So we not only have become masters at making digital films, we become masters at production, at how to pass a note, how to make sure information gets traveled from one person to another. All these things that can be one-to-one translated to how to operate a movie production on a set. So we would walk around, after about three months on the set, and go, “Is it just me?” Because I had a few people in Pixar – Jim and Lindsey – and we’d look at each other and go, “I think we do it better on everything.” Now, they’re doing all of this.
Q: What about 3D? Are you using and planning 3D?
ANDREW STANTON: We didn’t shoot in 3D and I also didn’t on WALL-E maybe it’s because I’m not that smart but I couldn’t handle another plate to spend. I worry that it was enough distraction to figure out how to make a silent robot and how to do live action and I thought it was just going to consume me so much, I couldn’t add another ball to juggle. They were polite and Disney allowed me not to have to worry about that in the shooting, in the making of this, but it will still be 3D. It will be a post process. They’re doing very good job. They’ve sort of taken one of our top guys at Pixar who his Bob Whitehill who has done a very amazing job with making our last couple of films 3D and being very subtle and graceful with it.
Q: Do you think he’s going to add something?
ANDREW STANTON: I don’t know. It’s not in my wheelhouse. I’m not against it. Some people just… like John loves it and it’s not a flavor I’ve ever been… I don’t go out of my way to go find.
Q: So is it very restricting that when you’re making this film, because you had mentioned a lot of films like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, any sort of fantasy adventure films have pooled from this… Do you find it restricting when making this film that audience would sometimes look at certain scenes, they’ll be like, “Oh well, they’re ripping off this”?
ANDREW STANTON: If I cared about that but I just want to make the best story. All these things are such short one year thinking. It’s like in 10 years, nobody’s going to know when something came out. All I care is somebody who goes, “You got to see this film,” I’ll check out the shelf and I’ll watch it. I don’t care if I was made in 2006 or 1960. I’m in that game and that’s all I’ve ever been in and that’s all I’ve been trained to be in is to be in it for the grandkids not for the now or for the kids. That’s what helps us make the long term decisions about what’s best for the story and not the short-sighted decisions that are only about making a box office or a headline for, now what, a week? It’s just not worth it. None of this is worth it. I’m not going to spend four years of my life for something that’s trying to get a moment. I’m trying to make it so that you want to watch again and again and again. I can’t be influenced by what are the people might think. It doesn’t gain me anything.
Q: Did anything reveal itself thematically to you as you were writing it that you hadn’t thought you would or seen?
ANDREW STANTON: You know, yeah, well, it’s funny I’m superstitious about theme. I don’t want to solidify it too hard on the front because I worry that that means I’ll be trying to make that before the story has told me that’s what it is. If you really, really want to get down to the brass tax of it, I keep a notebook or file and I keep typing what I think that they missed and I just type a million things so it might exist somewhere there in the mess but meanwhile I’m just writing the story. At some point, the story starts to come to a point where you think you kind of can smell what it’s about and you do need a guide and then I go back and I look at that stuff and I go what is it I think that this is saying and if I’m lucky I’d find the sentence that guides me and then becomes my litmus test for should something stay on the film, should something go, should it bend, should it twist. I always ultimately, if I can, I try to have a premise, I have a sentence that – boy, this shows how anal I am – that literally construction of the sentence if I can has character, conflicting conclusion notes. Like for Nemo, I had “Fear denies a good father from being one”… so “fear” was my character and “denies” was my conflict and “being one” was the conclusion at the end. “Love defeats life’s programming” was my line for WALL-E. Those are things I came to in the last year or four years of writing. Again, it was there but I allowed myself to stay sort of open and roomy. I have one for Carter but I’m very superstitious about saying out loud.
– Alicia Malone