From Here to Barsoom: An Interview with Andrew Stanton, Director of “John Carter”

By J David Osborne
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

On the phone, director Andrew Stanton comes off as wildly enthusiastic for his soon-to-be-released adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 classic, John Carter. Burroughs wrote eleven of the Carter books, starting with A Princess of Mars, upon which this upcoming film is based. The books are written in a propulsive, pulpy style: all action, all the time. John Carter is a prospector in Arizona, he collapses, astrally projects to Barsoom (Mars), where he discovers he has powers of badassery, thanks to the lighter gravitational field — powers that are in high demand by the planet’s warring, multicolored tribes. That’s a freaking setup. “How did he get there?” “WHO CARES? TUCK IN.” “But what about–” “SHUT UP. HERE COMES A MONSTER.”

To Stanton’s mind, this kind of “Clark Kent” simplicity regarding John Carter was the biggest challenge facing himself (and co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon) when penning the film. Though Stanton claims the overall story is more complex, with the warring factions and the lack of resources and whatnot, the John Carter character, at his core, is pretty simple and straightforward. There isn’t much character development in the novel at all. So the challenge was to get this cut-and-dry story of “rescue heroism”, about a guy who has a “noble quality related to justice being served, and getting involved,” into a story with relationships and characters that an audience could relate to.

I don’t know how many of you have read Michael Chabon’s work, but if you have (or for that matter, if you’ve seen any of the Pixar films Stanton and Andrews have worked on) than you are probably as confident as I am that they’ve probably succeeded.

They seemed to have assembled a pretty sweet list of actors for the thing, too. Names like Taylor Kitsch or Lynn Collins might still have that fresh “Weren’t they in…” quality, but the supporting cast is packed with awesome folks like Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, Bryan Cranston, and on and on. I wondered if directing a live action movie, even with all these actors, might be a little difficult, considering Stanton’s first directorial efforts were more in the computer generated realm. He was quick to assure me that this movie was basically like shooting half a computer-animated, half-live action film, so the transition was pretty smooth.

And the technology necessary to do that is pretty recent as well. I remember, as a movie geek, the John Carter rumor mill has been chugging along for at least a decade (a quick check reveals that Bob Clampett had plans for an animated version as far back as 1935). I would hear this about it, then it would be canned, etc. etc. I asked him, “Why now? The centennial? What makes John Carter right for right now?” The answer, essentially, is they needed to wait for the technology to catch up with the vision. The movie was too big, the ideas and creatures too complicated, to put on film at the time they had originally planned.

Stanton tells me his influences are too vast to mention, but if he had to pick a couple: Steven Spielberg and David Lean. He recounts with glee the experience of shooting the Barsoom scenes out in the Utah desert, burning up, thinking, “This must have been how David Lean felt shooting Lawrence of Arabia!” That kind of enthusiasm is infectious. He tells me he feels a special kind of kinship with this movie, in that “in 1912 [Burroughs] had never written a book.” He was an avid fan of Weird Tales Magazine, but just wasn’t getting what he wanted out of it. So he thought, “Hey, I can do better.” Stanton sees that as directly parallel to what he and the Pixar crew did with their first movie, Toy Story. And it’s that fan mentality that really has me excited. Because I know that these guys are capable of bringing the visual spectacle AND the ever-important character development. The movie is big, sure, and it’ll look pretty. But it’s also, in Stanton’s words, about “a guy with a good heart and an innate sense of justice who’ll stick his neck out for others, even after it’s all gone south.”

At this I giggle a little and say, “Gone south.”

Stanton says, “What?”

And I say, quieter. “South, because, you know…Confederacy…Civil War…uh.”

He laughed. My face slowly turned less red. Guy was so cool. Get psyched for this one, folks! I know I am!

[John Carter: The Official Site – In Theaters March 9]

J David Osborne is an author and blogger living in Norman, Oklahoma. His first novel, “By the Time We Leave Here, We’ll Be Friends” is available through Swallowdown Press.

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