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The fantasy of making Disney's 'John Carter'

Published March 2, 2012 4:45 pm

Movies • Director explains how he came to make a movie out of Edgar Rice Burroughs' pulp classics.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Carefree, Ariz. • In 1995, when "Toy Story" was a fresh success for Pixar Animation Studios, Andrew Stanton — then a Pixar screenwriter, animator and story artist ­— made a pitch to the boss. "What if we could do hybrid movies?" Stanton asked Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull.

The live-action/animated movie Stanton had in mind was an adaptation of A Princess of Mars, the 1912 pulp novel by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs. It's the first of 11 space fantasy adventures centering on John Carter, a Civil War-era soldier magically transported to Mars, which the inhabitants there call Barsoom.

Stanton had dreamed of the project since he was a boy. He had even honed his art skills by drawing the characters of Burroughs' adventures.

Now, a century after Burroughs created them, Stanton — who rose within Pixar's ranks to direct two of the studio's most beloved films, "Finding Nemo" and "Wall-E" — has brought those characters to a movie screen in the science-fiction epic "John Carter," opening nationwide on Friday, March 9.

What "John Carter" has wrought • Burroughs' "Barsoom" books are the Rosetta Stone of science fiction. Authors such as Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles), Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Robert Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land) cited Burroughs as an inspiration. So did astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who read the books as a child. "Flash Gordon," "Star Wars" and "Avatar" all can trace their creative DNA to Burroughs' novels.

But while Burroughs' other famous creation, Tarzan, has been adapted into countless films, a movie about John Carter and the Martian princess Dejah Thoris has never been attempted on the big screen. (There was a cheap direct-to-DVD movie, "Princess of Mars," starring Antonio Sabáto Jr. and Traci Lords, in 2009 — but the less said about that, the better.)

Stanton alerted Disney to his interest in acquiring the rights to Burroughs' books in 2006, while he was still working on "Wall-E." A few months later, Disney (which had good relations with the Burroughs estate after making an animated "Tarzan") secured the rights to the first three books. Then Stanton started working on a script with his Pixar writing partner, Mark Andrews.

"You start with a grocery list of cool stuff, and how you're going to make a story that's interesting," Stanton said at a press junket last month at a resort outside Phoenix. The first draft, he said, "had much more of the books than I thought."

Making the story better • After a couple of drafts, Stanton said he and Andrews decided "this story needs to get better." They decided to find another writer ­— and contacted Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon (The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay), not sure if he would be interested.

Chabon was also a Burroughs fan — and, like Stanton and Andrews, still had the drawings of the Barsoom characters he made as a kid. "He said 'yes' before I could finish [asking him]," Stanton said.

Stanton and Andrews would write pages of the script by day and e-mail them to Chabon, who works at night. In the morning, Stanton would find rewritten pages in his inbox. "He was like the elves and I was the cobbler," Stanton said.

Then Stanton started assembling his cast and crew, which differed from his work at Pixar's Bay Area offices, where he usually worked with the same animators and artists from film to film.

"It's a gypsy world vs. lifers — it's an extreme difference," Stanton said in a phone interview, comparing live-action filmmaking to animation. He determined one of the things he could control was to hire people who were easy to work with. "If I got a vibe that they would be difficult to work with, then I moved on."

Lynn Collins, who portrays the Martian princess Dejah Thoris, noticed the difference at her first audition. Instead of just asking her to read a few pages, Collins said, Stanton gave her a 40-minute presentation of his vision for the film, complete with artists' renderings of the characters and settings.

"I was like, 'What is going on? Do I have the job?' … Then he left the room, and I thought, 'Oh, he's not from Hollywood,' " said Collins, best known for her role as the mutant Kayla Silverfox in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine."

Assembling a cast • That openness, Stanton said, carried over from animation and the casting of voice actors. "We're used to showing [actors] everything ahead of time, so they can have as much of this fictitious world in their heads when they do the voice work," he said. "I didn't know who was going to be the best person for any of these roles when I was casting, so I had to treat them all like they're going to be the one."

Ultimately, Stanton gathered a strong cast. The good-guy Martians, the Heliumites, are led by Ciaran Hinds ("The Debt") as Dejah Thoris' father, Tardos Mors. The villainous Zodangans are led by Dominic West ("The Wire") as Sab Than. British actor Mark Strong ("Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy") was cast as Matai Shang, king of the Therns, meddling shapeshifting beings who urge Sab Than toward destruction of Helium.

Then there are the Tharks, the 9-foot, green-skinned, four-armed nomads who inhabit Barsoom's desert areas. They were created by computer graphics, with actors — Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Samantha Morton and Polly Walker — providing the voices and the motion-performances that would be adapted to animation.

For the title role, Stanton cast Taylor Kitsch, best known for his role as running back Tim Riggins on the TV series "Friday Night Lights." "John Carter" is one of three movies starring Kitsch this year (the others are the summer blockbuster "Battleship" and Oliver Stone's narcotrafficking thriller "Savages").

Sprayed with gold, sprayed with dirt • The production started in early 2010 with four months on a London soundstage, then moved to a month of filming on location in southern Utah — where the barren landscapes were a perfect double for Stanton's vision of Mars.

Kitsch endured a severe training regimen to accommodate the torso-baring costume. He ate what he called "the most boring diet you could ever imagine" and lifted weights at any available opportunity — even in his trailer and on the set (just out of camera range) in Utah. "I truly and literally suffered from exhaustion," he said.

For Dejah Thoris' sun-streaked look, Collins went through weekend tanning sessions in London and hours in the makeup chair to add the Martians' identifying face and body tattoos. "Then, if it was the princess look, they would spray me with gold. And if it was the warrior look, they'd spray me with dirt," Collins said. She also took sword training, as the movie's Dejah is more of a fighter than Burroughs' original incarnation.

Stanton discovered one thing about live-action filmmaking after comparing notes with fellow Pixar director Brad Bird ("Ratatouille," "The Incredibles"), who made his live-action debut last December with "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol." The mechanics of Hollywood filmmaking, of keeping on schedule, is designed to make sure a movie is completed "almost despite the director," Stanton said.

Through filming and a long post-production period — necessary to complete the computer animation of the Tharks and other Martian wonders — Stanton maintains that he stayed on time and on budget (around $175 million). He has had to deal with stories in the Hollywood trades that say the movie's cost ran much higher, as high as $300 million, and that Disney will take a massive write-off on the film.

Stanton dismissed those stories, saying, "somebody clearly has an agenda. It's always suspicious when they're anonymous."

With "John Carter" finished and heading toward audiences, Stanton is now considering his next move. If the movie is a hit, he has plans for a trilogy, drawing from Burroughs' 11 Barsoom books. "If there's a desire to go on, we know where we're going," he said.

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