Director Andrew Stanton’s John Carter opened in theaters last weekend (read our review) and has been the subject of a plethora of online discussions and debates for the past several days. Whatever a given individual’s take on the elements that surround the film may be, one thing is clear: the man at the helm had a deep passion for the material. We had the opportunity to sit down with the director in a roundtable discussion at the Arizona press event for John Carter, to talk about the path to his live-action debut.
Stanton has a life-long connection to author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” series, the first of which, “A Princess of Mars”, served as the source material for John Carter. The books were brought to his attention when he saw a friend’s drawings of – what he now knows are – Tharks (one of the alien species that Burroughs created for the Martian world). He was immediately hooked and waited for the next 30 years for someone to make a cinematic version of the imaginative tales.
A veteran of Pixar, Stanton had already completed production on Finding Nemo and was well into his work on WALL•E when it came to his attention that a John Carter film was being developed with Jon Favreau. Stanton was thrilled with the idea that he would be able to see his childhood favorite come to life, but a delay in production brought him closer to the project than he ever imagined was possible.
“It looked like they were going to do it for a minute. So here I’m getting really excited about it and then it fell through and went back to the estate, the property. I was really crestfallen. And it just happened to be at a point where I was three years out from finishing ‘WALL•E’ and had a serendipitous phone call the head of Disney at the time, Dick Cook, and I said ‘You know that property that went back? Maybe when I finish ‘WALL•E’, if I’m not a one-hit-wonder, would you consider letting me make it? It’s just a crime that it’s not going to get out there.’ And it’s like one of those ‘be careful what you wish for’ moments because then a month later, they bought the three books and said ‘do you want to do it?'”
Stanton had a decision to make: jump in with both feet, or pass on the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I had to make this tough decision where it was three years earlier than I was prepared to really be serious about it. But you know sometimes you can’t time these things. And then I pulled in one of the few friends I had at Pixar that knew the property and loved it as well, Mark Andrews, and that’s pretty much how it all got started. He started slowly working on it while I was trying to finish up ‘WALL•E’ and would check in and then we brought on Michael Chabon and the rest is sort of history.”
As many are aware, Burroughs inspired generations of fantasy, sci-fi and comic book properties, from Superman to Star Wars and beyond. So one of the challenges that the creative team faced was crafting a film that stayed true to the source material but did not, inadvertently, read as derivative.
“It was a tough property to tackle. How do you find the thing that made it special and unique when it was originally made? And, I felt like I found a way in, which was to make it feel almost like a historical piece of a place that you didn’t know about. My brother saw it and he goes, ‘oh, I get it, it’s masterpiece theater for guys.’ And I went, ‘yeah, I guess that’s kind of it.'”
Although a filmgoer may walk out with a clear understanding of what Stanton was communicating with the film, distilling the essence of the John Carter into a campaign proved to be a bit of a challenge.
“On the surface, when you’re doing these 30-second, 60-second sound bites, it’s really tough to capture that tone and flavor. And so I think that marketing’s been slowly just trying to figure out how to get this across.”
Despite the many hurdles and obstacles the production inevitably presented, Stanton never lost sight of what drew him to be a part of it to begin with.
“I just, you know if I love it…I saw that happen in commercials with Pixar. We would take ideas that we couldn’t do, but we loved the idea so much – it would make us rise to the occasion and solve it and figure it out. So we realized that the key is that you need to be that inspired. So I’ve always followed that muse since then. I just go with the idea I love so much because I know that every one of these films, whether it’s animated, whether it’s a hybrid, whether it’s live-action, is going to let me down and it’s going to fall apart and it’s going to go through a horrible puberty phase where it’s ugly and we still have to go to the prom. And what’s going to get you out of bed is going to be the passion. I just have always loved this idea so much and I’m dying to see it on the screen. So that’s what’s gotten any movie I’ve worked on made — including ‘John Carter.'”
John Carter opens in theatres now.
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