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“John Carter” – a film that comes to the big screen 100 years after its lead character made his debut in turn-of-the-century science fiction – is a prime example of what can happen when the filmmaker is the fanboy.
Andrew Stanton, best known for his directorial work in two of Pixar’s most moving computer-animated films “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E,” has long held a special place in his heart for author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ world-hopping character – sort of a reverse spin on Burroughs’ more famous creation Tarzan, Carter’s a Civil War soldier dropped into the middle of futuristic conflicts on the planet Mars. Stanton’s boyhood adoration of the Carter character made him an ideal candidate to finally bring the pulp hero to life on film.
A burgeoning artist as a young boy, Stanton has bonded with friends over drawing fantastic characters and was blown away when he saw doodlings of the tusked Tharks from the Carter tales – he immediately had to know where they came from. “I read A Princess of Mars [the first Carter story] when I was, I think, 11 – ironically I read it like the year just before I saw ‘Star Wars,’” recalls Stanton. “You read that book and you think it's tailored made for a boy that age, so I just got hit with it right at the ideal time.”
“From then on until about 2006 – so we're talking almost 30 years, yeah – I pretty much spent that whole time just waiting for somebody to make the movie,” says Stanton. “I just wanted to go see it. And I never had planned that I was going to be in the movies, let alone make movies, let alone write or direct them, so it was just never in the cards. It was just ‘I will pay any money go see somebody make this!’” He admits that once he did find his way into the film business through Pixar and had colleagues in the digital realm working on developing a John Carter film with Jon Favreau at the helm a few years ago, he was “crestfallen” when the project failed to get off the ground. Until suddenly, Stanton found himself plotting a trip to Mars.
“It just happened to serendipitously be at a point where I was three years out from finishing ‘Wall-E’ – I was deep into working on it , but I always like to think about what I might do next, so I won't have a blank canvas when I finish,” he explains. “And I just happened to have a serendipitous phone call with the head of Disney at the time, Dick Cook, and I said ‘I don’t even know if you know because you weren't around then but in the '80s Disney had it for 10 years and didn’t do anything with it but you're now in good stead with them because you made this animated Tarzan movie, so maybe you know maybe when I finish “Wall-E,” if I'm not a one-hit wonder, would you consider letting me, maybe, you know, get it made? And if you don’t you should buy it and have somebody 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 [scenarios] because then a month later they bought the three books and said ‘Do you want to do it?’”
“I had to make this tough decision, where it was three years earlier than I was prepared to be really serious about it,” remembers Stanton. “But sometimes you can't time these things, so: ‘Okay, yes.’ And then I pulled in one of the few friends I had at Pixar that knew the property as well and loved it as well, [screenwriter] 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 [screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist] Michael Chabon, and then the rest is all documented. So it's a long, long time. I would have never expected it.”
One of the most fun challenges of the project, explains Stanton, was finding the perfect actors to portray the denizens of Burroughs’ Barsoom – particularly the leading man and his typically scantily clad love interest, Dejah Thoris. “I think the only thing that I spent the longest time deliberating on were the leads, specifically Carter and Dejah,” he recalls, “because they're such a duo and they only become more of a duo with each progressive story that I felt it was just so much about the two of them. I knew that in the rest of the world there was very few people that have read these books that are still around or still remembering them. There wasn’t this kind of Tolkien or Harry Potter kind of pressure on it, but for me they were my Harry Potter so I cared as much as if I was casting Superman or Bond.”
Stanton admits he did have to overcome a specific vision stuck in his head since childhood: since he viewed Carter as a mature adult back then, he transferred the notion forward and found himself still imagining a patriarchal, middle-aged hero. “So I'm looking at this whole range of people between like 35 and 45 and then I'm going ‘Well, wait a minute…’” says Stanton. “I went back to IMDB and Sean Connery was 29 when he did ‘Dr. No.’ Harrison Ford was 31 when he did ‘Star Wars.’ Christopher Lambert was 27 in ‘The Highlander.’
Stanton says that his IMDB ah-ha experience “opened my eyes to Taylor Kitsch, because I'd always thought Taylor would make a great Carter. I actually thought that before this project had ever come my way. I was watching the pilot of ‘Friday Night Lights’ and I thought he has something really special, something really dark, yet it’s hiding a good heart. Once I figured out this IMDB moment, I'm like ‘Oh my gosh – he's prime real estate!’ So I had him, but I had all these other names and they ranged between late 20s to late 30s and so I had to get the same range of women to be opposite, just because I didn’t know who would pair well. I finally got it down to four-and-four, and I spent a week in a rented place in Pasadena – makeshift walls, poor man's costumes – just swapping: I would like put this actor against that actor, and they loved it because they'd never had that kind of extensive experience.”
“Part of that was my ignorance, because I've watched all these ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Gone With the Wind’ screen tests, and I'm like ‘Well, isn’t that what you do?’” he remembers wryly. “And nobody said no to me, so I'm like ‘Oh, okay’ – so I got away with murder, apparently, with just how extensive I did my research on these guys. But I’ve got to admit the minute I saw Taylor and Lynn Collins together, I was like ‘I think that's it!’ And then I held my breath, waited for the film to be developed, brought it to the Pixar theater and brought in people that hadn’t seen anything and they couldn’t take their eyes off them.”
Collins admits that she and Kitsch might have had an upper hand together against some of the other acting pairings. “Taylor and I have known each for seven or eight years,” she reveals. “We did ‘Wolverine’ together and then he did a movie called ‘The Covenant’ that my husband [Steven Straight] was in, so we’ve known each other since back in the day. So of course we were like ‘We’re getting this movie!’ And we did.”
“Man, she’s so good,” says Kitsch of the duo’s palpable chemistry. “There are certain actors that you work with that want the best of the scene, and not the best of them in the scene, and she’s the best of the scene. How can we make this scene the best it potentially can be? And when you work with someone like that, the giving and taking is just so great, and the trust is immense, so you take more risks – because I can fall and she’ll be there, or vice versa.”
Kitsch says that despite 100 years of chiseled, buff imagery as part of what’s defined the Carter character, he knew that he needed to go deeper than a hard-core physical regimen to make him memorable onscreen. “I take more pride in the emotional scheme of John Carter than the aesthetic part of it, and I always will,” the actor explains. “It’s a different sense of vulnerability, that I’ve never had, and it’s something you don’t get used to. When you’ve got to go on set and gear down to where he had to go, you’re just vulnerable, man. So you better look and feel good, too.”
Collins, too, had to find ways to inhabit Dejah Thoris beyond the Martian princess’ long-noted lack of wardrobe, which is toned down for the film. “You don’t see her at the beginning as a sex object, and she doesn’t see herself as a sex object,” says Collins. “She is a Martian woman who kicks ass as much as the men do. She is equal, so we wanted [her costumes] to be not distracting. And then through John Carter she starts discovering love, sexuality, her own body as being something that could change. John Carter isn’t used to all these women running around like this, so he notices her in a different way and that is her reaction to that, she starts growing.”
In the end, Stanton says he was pleased to find actors who were willing to work hard to match his vision for bringing the Burroughs characters to life – especially because they didn’t bring a lot of movie star baggage with them. “I was psyched that I could get unknowns,” he explains, “because I was looking at knowns and unknowns and maybe it's unfair to the acting ability of people that are known, but it's really intoxicating from a writer\director standpoint to have actors on the screen that people don’t associate them with something else.”