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John Carter - Andrew Stanton interview

John Carter

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ANDREW Stanton talks about some of the many challenges of making John Carter having fallen in love with it since a boy of 10.

He also discusses making the leap from animated movies at Pixar to live action, living with the same kind of pressures and his hopes for the long-term future of the film.

Q. You were 10-years-old when you first read and became captivated by John Carter. Did you ever imagine that you’d one day bring it to the big screen?
Andrew Stanton: 10 or 11, yeah. Heck no! Who the hell imagines that? Nobody has the balls to imagine that! I just always imagined that it would get put on the screen. That’s what I always felt was a guarantee. In the same year that I read the book, Star Wars came out. But ironically I never put two and two together… I never saw the inspiration of it in the movie. They always seemed like separate things to me even though now I can see the inspiration. But what I felt like was… because the next year you were seeing Close Encounters, you were seeing Alien. I just felt there was this unsaid promise that I would get to see this on the screen. And I’ve just been waiting my whole life for it, so that’s been the thing that drove me to put my hat in the ring and make this.

Q. Is there an irony that this did, in fact, inspire Star Wars and now that it’s coming out it’s being compared to it?
Andrew Stanton: I know… but there’s no way it couldn’t be because it’s in the DNA. But being the ultimate fan of both those properties, and Avatar, I never felt I was seeing the book so I knew it had its own spot. I wasn’t worried about that.

Q. So, what was the biggest challenge of recreating the world of Barsoom?
Andrew Stanton: Just to physically realise what I always pictured in my head. I never wanted it to seem like it was a special effects movie. I know that sounds weird because every shot in the movie practically is a special effect but I didn’t want it to come across like that when you watched it. I didn’t want it to come across like we were showing off. I wanted it to come across like you were really going to an undiscovered land, an undiscovered continent that had a history as long as everything else that was going on in the rest of the world because that’s what the book felt like. It has these deep seated cultures and flora and fauna and animals and you fell in love with people from that world, and relationships from that world.

So, I just wanted that romantic sense of adventure and I wanted to believe it. I wanted to think I was there more than anything. So, that’s why we made the shoot so difficult. That’s why we really put ourselves in these amazing desert locations and put people on stilts. Anything that we felt would contribute to the sense that when we finished it you just think that we found it and we filmed it.

Q. Do you think the 3D helps with the immersive nature of it?
Andrew Stanton: It can and it can’t. If I’m being really fair there are scenes in it where I go ‘wow, that really helps’, And then there are other scenes where I go: “It doesn’t hurt it but I’m not so sure it may be a little sexier in 2D.” So, I think it’s sort of a wash… it’s sort of even.

Q. What was the biggest difference from stepping across from animation to live action?
Andrew Stanton: The biggest difference, and this is never sexy and never what anyone wants to hear, but truly it was the physical stamina. I was on my feet all day from sunrise to sunset for 100-plus days. I don’t think I’ve done that kind of schedule in one day prior to that [laughs]. The other big surprise was how much there wasn’t a surprise… how much all the conversations that I had to have with cameramen and actors and costume designers and make-up artists were the same conversations with everybody I’ve had at Pixar that do the same jobs. They just use the digital box as they’re tool but they’re doing the same job. It’s how do you get this wonderfully framed cinematic image to be dramatically energised and moving to the next cut.

It’s no different out there. It’s just this big epiphany of: “Oh, I can move the camera whenever I want in digital.” Here, it’s going to take 50 men and three hours [laughs]! So, there’s a real practicality that’s to learn. It reminded me of being a kid and making movies with my friends with Super 8 cameras. It all came back to me, all the limitations we had to deal with then… but there’s an actual thrill with always having to fight those limitations. There’s a sense of conquering the day.

Q. How much did a shoot this big take out of you personally?
Andrew Stanton: At least 25 pounds! I’ll tell you that! I came close to falling apart once or twice. I know Taylor [Kitsch] had the same. We were not spared a single free day so… but there’s a little bit of bragging rights for having made it to the other side and not crumbled. It’s like boot camp a bit, I guess. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was truly an adventure of a lifetime.

John Carter

Q. Did you enjoy the fact that you’re almost now discovering two new stars in Taylor and Lynn Collins?
Andrew Stanton: That’s what I feel. It’s weird to kind of have this secret for four years. I don’t know how else to put it. Once I’d decided, and my hunch was pretty strong with both Taylor and Lynn the minute I read both of them, and then when I saw them together, that’s what sealed it… then you just kind of forget because I’ve been working with them for so long and staring at them. So, I forget they’re new faces because they’re so familiar to me. But that’s exciting… introducing them to the rest of the world.

Q. Having come from Pixar, I guess every Pixar director talks about the pressure of maintaining such high standards and not being the first to flop…
Andrew Stanton: God bless you, you’re the first one to realise that every one of the films that I’ve worked on has had this kind of pressure.

Q. Is this different at all in that you have a different kind of fan-base with this, as opposed to creating something totally original with Pixar?
Andrew Stanton: No, every one has had some huge pressure to it. Toy Story was ‘can you even do it?’ And then every movie since that has been, ‘will you take the studio down’ and then as it got later it was ‘can you hold the legacy’? So, it’s these stupid made up things where people had to find something to talk about. Meanwhile, all we’ve been doing has been ignoring all that and just making the movie the same way we’ve made the others ones, which is just following your gut, hiding away in the studio and just painting. And I tried to do that on this.

Q. And I guess there’s not going to be anyone harder than yourself on this given how much you loved it growing up?
Andrew Stanton: I have to be in it for after this is all over. That’s the only way I can get through any of the movies I’ve ever made before. I have to be in it for the grandkids. All this is going to go away much faster… whether it’s a huge success or not, it’s going to go away like that [clicks fingers]. But 10 years, 15 years, 20 years from now, will somebody want to pull it off the shelf and show it to their kids? Or their friend and say: “You can’t go through life without seeing this movie!”

We all know what those movies are like to us… that we feel like it’s our bucket list – I have to make sure that the people I care about see these movies before I go. That’s the game I’ve always been in, that’s the game Pixar’s been in and that’s the game I was taught in; not to be in the temporal box office this weekend, this year… be in it for when it’s all gone away. Will people still want to watch it? You make very different decisions when that’s the game you’re in.

Q. Will you be doing a John Carter 2 if it gets green-lit?
Andrew Stanton: Absolutely!

Q. And will you bounce between animation and live action now?
Andrew Stanton: Well, you don’t leave animation when you make this kind of movie because there’s more animated shots in this than Finding Nemo. You’re making two movies – you’re making an animated movie and a live action movie, so it’s will I always be adding more pain to my life?

Q. Will you be putting Tom Cruise on the side of a building [like Brad Bird]?
Andrew Stanton: Exactly! And that paid off!

From the UK Press conference…

John Carter

Q: What lay behind your extension of the backstories behind John Carter and Dejah?
Andrew Stanton: Well, I just wanted them to have more character and more growth. To me, you watch movies because you want to watch character growth and change, you don’t wanna watch static constantness. They were in the books – they were just who they were and they just repeated and reacted the same way every time, and that works in a serial nature and for a simplistic story that didn’t ask much more than that, but they’ve become tropes and clichés over the 100 years. Clichés, they come from something that actually works, but when they’ve been abused or made redundant, then they become a cliché that’s an off-putting thing. But they’re built on archetypes, so we started with the same core of those characters, but they just had to have more to them just so that we could relate to them.

Q: Are people who are not so aware of the work of Rice Burroughs absolutely gobsmacked by the fact that so many films or shows have plundered him over the years?
Andrew Stanton: I think “plundered” is a harsh word. I’m a fan of almost everything that gets associated with this property as its inspiration; I love it all, and me being a fan for 36 years, I’ve never felt like, “Hey, they stole!” To me it’s like the influence that The Beatles’ music did. It just made great artists do things that was of a similar inspiration but they gave it their own thumbprint, their own DNA. And that’s what great art does – it inspires other artists to do great art, and that’s what it should do. There’s nothing that you like in this world that wasn’t influenced by a bunch of key things; nothing came completely clean out of a vacuum. So to me that’s the biggest compliment that you can give to the work. For me, I can be a fan and know that book from the first sentence to the last and not feel like I’ve seen it robbed and put on the screen, I felt that there’s always room for it on the screen.

Q: How do you pitch this film to an audience?
Andrew Stanton: Well, you’re starting wrong, because you’re thinking that I have to assume what the outside world is going to think and if you go to any interview I’ve had in the last 25 years, since Toy Story, we keep telling you: “We don’t think about who the audience is.” So if you ask me this question next year, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, I’m going to keep telling you, “We don’t think about who the audience is.” I don’t expect other artists that I follow, whether it’s in music or books or art, to be thinking about who I am or what I want; I follow them because they’re following their passion and doing just what they want to do.

Q: But, on the same subject, why was the “Of Mars” taken out of the title?
Andrew Stanton: That’s a marketing problem, that’s their issue about, “How do you deal with getting people past their first impressions.” You see it all the time with subtitled movies – “Oh, I don’t like to read!” – so they don’t go and see it, and they rob themselves of a great movie. Sadly, people are victim to their first impressions, but the worst thing to do is to be making content that you’re making out of fear based on what you think first impressions will be. They did find a lot of people going, “I don’t like sci-fi” and they walked away. I know it’s hard for you to believe, but there are a lot of people who think they don’t like sci-fi! You look shocked, but believe it or not, a lot of people think they don’t like sci-fi!

Burroughs tapped into something out of sheer innocence 100 years ago that just was so mythic that a kid in the ’70s, a kid in the ’30s, a kid in the ’40s, in the ’50s, kids now, can still get into the book. So that’s what we tried to grab, was this timeless, mythic part. I’m just trying to tell you that whatever our desires for making alterations to the title, it was to try to get people to go, “Just trust us. This thing has already proved itself to hold up.” And just trust us.

Q: You’re very active on Twitter. You mentioned not being worried about the audience, but why is it important to be connected to the audience in this way?
Andrew Stanton: Well, I just want word of mouth to get out about what I really meant. There’s a lot of downsides to social media, but one of the nice things is that you can cut through all the BS and go straight to the person and ask them directly. I think that’s a wonderful thing. I love talking to people who are true fans or who have a true love of cinema, and so if I can talk to them directly, great.

Read our review of John Carter

Read our interview with Taylor Kitsch