Andrew Stanton, 'John Carter' Director, On The Trials And Tribulations Of Bringing The Film To Life
It probably wasn't the best time to speak with "John Carter" director Andrew Stanton. Hours earlier, Deadline.com had posted a story about the troublesome tracking numbers for the film. Considering Stanton is a life-long "John Carter" fan, and the film marks his live-action directorial debut, this wasn't particularly good news. The Stanton I spoke with was, at times, pleasant and, at other times, noticeably edgy -- his mood often turning on a dime, which seems understandable under the circumstances.
Here, Stanton discusses how he became involved with the story of a Civil War soldier who mysteriously finds himself with superhuman abilities on Mars. He also addresses the many frustrations with his labor-of-love, including: consolidating a group of serials into a cohesive narrative (the film is based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs series), the vast amount of characters and backstory, and those underwhelming tracking numbers.
"John Carter" has infamously been in production for such a long time. Was there any part of you that thought, maybe I shouldn't get myself involved in that?
No, it's my own damn fault that it fell in my lap. What happened was, I had been following it as a fan my whole life, hoping somebody would make it. And then when I got into the business, from the '90s on, and I had a little more of an ear to the ground of what was going on. And in the 2000s it seemed like there was a lot of activity around it. Then it went to Jon Favreau [director of "Iron Man"] and it started really getting traction and I was like, "Oh, we're finally going to see it!" And then it all fell apart and I was so crestfallen. Serendipitously, I was on the phone with the head of the studio at the time, Dick Cook. And I said, "Look, I'm in the middle of 'Wall*E', I've got two more years, I don't know if I'm a one hit wonder or not, but you should consider me. But, regardless, you should make this thing."
Did they want to see the box office returns of "Wall*E" first?
No. This was 2006 and a month later they bought the rights to the first three books and asked me if I'd do it. And it was one of these "be careful what you wish for." I had two more years to go on "Wall*E" and I was like, "Um... OK." I gulped and I took it. So I was working on "Carter" the whole time I was working on "Wall*E."
As an aside, I do love the word "crestfallen." It paints a picture so much more broad than "sad."
[Laughs] It's the accurate term.
You mention "Wall*E," which is interesting because "John Carter is the opposite. "Wall*E" is very quiet and "John Carter" has a lot going on.
[Laughs] Yeah, I know. It's a dense book. Each chapter could be a movie. So it was really tough to know what to take out. And also what to add from the other books so it all made narrative sense, for just the movie's sake. I'm not dumb: I know that very few people know about this book any more. So I didn't go in with the assumption that that would be any part of the selling point.
That's interesting that you say that. So did you think there was a possibility that people might be more familiar with Noah Wyle's character on "ER" then this book?
No. No, not at all.
And I only ask because you mention that very few people know the book and that was a popular show.
There was so much derived from this book over the last 100 years that if I was concerned with people associating it with other things, I shouldn't have done it.
I saw that there was a direct to DVD John Carter movie that came out in 2009? How is that possible with the rights? Is part of it public domain?
The national rights were public domain by now, but the international rights aren't. So anybody can make a crappy knock-off, yeah.
And you mention it being dense. Does that worry you? There's not a lot of exposition in this movie.
Well, that was the hard work. Because you're basically learning... we treated it like a historical film. We're going to have an adventure in the past, in a country that you didn't know about. And we're going to treat it with the same type of accuracy and sense of research that we would do if we were trying to respect whatever real land existed. So, it's no different than any other story, it's just the unique job of this kind of film -- how do you weave it in so it naturally comes out through the narrative without a lot of explaining. You can't always avoid the big space crawl at the beginning -- and we didn't completely. We still had to give a little of it at the front end in a "once upon a time" kind of way.
I'll disagree with you a little that it's like any other story. Because there are a lot of characters in this movie.
And I cut them way down! We cut them way down from the book.
What was your biggest change from the book? Something where you thought, OK, this just won't work in the movie?
That list is so long. I mean, basically, there is a wedding, but it was just one chapter in the book. It wasn't where the whole story was culminating towards. And there's a whole air factory kind of climax at the end that really had no connection to anything from the beginning of the movie. It was very disconnected. You're so used to -- when you see a well told story in a movie -- things you learn about in the front have some significance in the back end of the story. And the book isn't like that. It was a real problem. Because the book was written as a serial in a magazine -- each chapter had to have its own cliffhangers. You wanted to have a problem that was resolved by the end of the chapter. So as a novel, it looks like train cars all attached together with no attachment from the caboose to the engine. So we had to take the parts off of the car and remake a new car and use as many parts from the car and repurpose them.
It's weird asking you this with your Pixar background, but did the amount of CGI in "John Carter" give you any trouble?
Well, no, no... that's a good question. I've never had to deal with motion capture translation to the full computer animation. The best way to put it is, when you're on a live-action set, it's all about time. Basically, you can have two hours to shoot and do as many takes as you want, as long as you stay in those two hours. So you're just trying to get the best performance. Well, the way visual effects is, it's labor. So if they do one task, one take, They're going to charge you. If they do another take, they're going to charge you. And you can't make great performances that way -- you'd spend all of your money. So I had to teach these visual effects houses how to become character animation houses so that they'd make better performances and change their economic design.
Did you like directing human actors, as opposed to animation? I've heard they tend to have opinions of their own.
First of all, I'm not a power hungry guy trying to get whatever I want. And that's not the fun of it. Animation is the most team sport of all movie making. For as much as you have the ability to get whatever your asking for, it will not get done without the most cooperation with the most amount of people. So, if you're not a good team player in animation, you may be better off in live-action. You can play God much easier in live action.
I would have never have thought that.
No, the live-action world is wired up as whatever the director says, everybody does with no questions. The way it is with animation, everybody's got to understand and be part of the team to be able to row. Or they don't row. So I'm used to this sort of ensemble acting environment and what I didn't take well to in live-action was that nobody questioned me and that everybody would just do whatever I said. That makes me nervous because nothing good ever came out of that in my experience.
Speaking of nervous, do you find yourself more nervous right now than you have been with your prior films? Do you check tracking numbers?
I don't check any of that stuff. I learned a long time ago that all I can do is make it worth your while once you're sitting in the theater. That's all I have control over. And to think I have control over any more than that is a fool's errand.
Mike Ryan is the senior writer for Moviefone. He has written for Wired Magazine, VanityFair.com, GQ.com, New York Magazine and Movieline. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter