Can Wall-E director Andrew Stanton capture the pulpy greatness of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, in his first live-action movie? We've been keeping all our appendages crossed. Here's the first inside scoop on Stanton's John Carter movie — including a first ever shot of the alien Tharks!
Last month io9 went to Disney's Barsoom, with a sneak peek edit-bay visit. Stanton showed us footage of the leather-strapped Taylor Kitsch (John Carter) struggling with Mars' gravity. We ogled the four arms of the warrior clan of Tharks, and Carter's pet Woola! And here's what we learned about Disney's huge Martian adventure movie.
For those of you unaware of the John Carter series, here's a quickie synopsis that Disney is using for the film:
The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) [a giant green warrior creature] and the captivating Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) [Silverfox in X-Men Origins: Wolverine]. In a world on the brink of collapse, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands.
The whole story is revealed via the author Edgar Rice Burroughs, who actually puts himself in the novel claiming that he's discovered a manuscript of a factual account from an old Uncle. And yes ERB is 100% in the movie as well (and in the trailer, which we also watched).
Clearly a movie of this magnitude is no easy challenge to take on. Especially when it's being helmed by a director who (while clearly brilliant) has never directed a live-action feature film. We scanned and analyzed every still, each piece of concept art, we even examined Matai Shang (Mark Strong)'s robes (which were kind of a delightful version of the Necromongers race's aesthetic from Chronicles of Riddick with a Jedi sleeve) and here are some things we learned about:
The biggest surprise out of the edit-bay visit was the reveal of the 9-foot tall, four-armed alien creatures that also inhabit the red world of Barsoom, The Tharks. I've always imagined these Martians to be a bit more like giant insects with unfeeling bug-eyes. Not the case here. Stanton and team figured out a way to humanize the aliens, thus giving this alien species the ability to emote. As you can see in this little hint of a picture here, the creatures are slender but they're rocking the leather strap costume that is the uniform of Barsoom.
But, as a result of making them a bit lankier, the whole world feels a lot less like something you'd paint on the side of your van, and much more tangible. And even though they have four arms, green skin and giant tusks (on closer inspection I noticed that a few of the Tharks had carved their tusks, etching out interesting patterns barely visible to the eye) the most striking thing about this alien race were their eyes. Stanton had literally overlaid Willem Dafoe's eyes over the flat face of this warrior, and lightened the iris with a striking ice blue. Why blue?
"Because they arrest you," Stanton explained. "We had all these eye colors. Fortunately, Defoe is getting so defined and wrinklely so there is a lot of Defoe in that face so it translates really well." Here's a bit more from Stanton on creating the Tharks.
Tharks are 9-foot to 10-foot tall green aliens with four arms and tusks. They're all CG, so I went with my Pixar gut and experience, and got actors because of their eyes, their voice, and their acting ability. That's all that's going to be left when all of this is said and done. Those are three things that can translate directly to the animated characters, once they're portrayed there. I got Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton, and this is what I asked them to do, which was to be on stilts with gray pajamas on, with face cams in 100-degree heat. That's how I sold it. I didn't know how else to get around this issue. I said, "How would you like to wear gray pajamas and be on stilts and wear face cams and stand in 100 degree heat in the desert for six months or three months?" They said, "Where do I sign?" I think it was being honest with the challenge and it was different than things they had done before, they were really up for seeing where this would go.
The reason I really, really wanted to do this is because at least for me I can tell when somebody's acting to a tennis ball or nothing there versus somebody's really being there. I wanted every possible chance to make this believable, so by having them really there, people acted better, people acted differently, people had actual eye lines. People reacted to things they weren't prepared for, and even down to the cameramen: The cameramen framed it differently because there was somebody there. Cameramen are trained to frame nicely, so if you take somebody out of the background and have nothing there, they're going to use the background — whether they know it or not — to try to frame to make that look balanced and good. When you have somebody actually there, they're willing to be sloppier and do all the stuff they would normally do. I learned a lot of this working on Wall-E. It all added up to hopefully a very visceral, believable sense of being there, that you're talking to an actor. That's exactly what people did, so we were out there with the gray pajamas, standing on stilts with a face cam. The face cams turned out to be great for the actors, because they could treat them like they could use them for the actual distance that they had to be from things. That was a real benefit...
I swear now that I'm seeing the end product, finally getting finished shots on the other side, if I were to shoot again tomorrow, I would do it all over again exactly this way. It was the right call, it was the right way to be.... Even when I would take time of writing the Thoats [the creatures the Tharks ride]. We actually went through the pain of figuring out what it felt, looked like, animating it, figuring out what the lope of it and the gallop of it was, and then programming that data into an electrical cart so the saddle would move exactly at that, so that hopefully when it was all done and you put a Thoat on there and you put a Thark in it, that real saddle would match, and it does. So hopefully if we've done it right, people will go, "How the hell is he sitting on this? How the hell did he ride around on this thing?"
What other beasts from the Edgar Rice Burroughs work are in the film?
John Carter isn't all Thoat-riding Tharks (which would still pretty awesome, even if it was). ERB was a machine when it came to creating alien beasties and Disney had a lot monsters to make in order to make this world come to live. Creature animator Eamonn Butler [pictured here] took us through a collection of concept art and creature drawings and introduced us to Woola (Carter's Martian mutt!).
Woola went through a lot of concept art, specifically softening the monster pup's look, and in the last image we saw Woola looked downright adorable. Butler surmises that Woola may steal the show (even though it's only on screen for a small amount of time). Woola has a wide mouth with rows of shark-like teeth but kind puppy eyes. It looks absolutely nothing like the earlier concept art for the defunct Jon Favreau production. Think wider mouth, squatter feet and sweeter disposition.
Also on the monster roster: the big White Ape! We watched a few minutes of the infamous ape showdown, and let's just say Taylor Kitsch is swoon-worthy. Somehow, they've managed to take the boy scout out of Carter and replace it with a bit of Han Solo. Watching Kitsch roll about in the dust (in what I'm assuming was temple to the Therns) kicked the crap out of the Star Wars prequel's monster fight. And I only got to see that White Ape for a few minutes, but it just felt real. There was a weight to the giant beast.
Sadly, there are no giant lion Banths in this production, but plenty of sabertooth Banth skulls strewn about for the keen eye. Fingers crossed the next film will have some giant Martian cats!
What will Mars look like?
Very little time was spent with the Zodangas and Heliumates tribes (the humanoids living on Mars) but I did get to see each tribe's armor (channeling a whole lotta Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes) and watched a quick exchange between Princess Dejah and Carter in one of her more elaborate getting-ready rooms. Their exchange was intense, but little could be really revealed as it was one of the first times we saw these two together and already drama was flying. That being said, the set inside Dejah's world was a gypsy fairy wonderland, full of dirty sex magic. If you get what I'm saying. Stanton explained that Petra in Jordan was an massive inspiration for the world on Mars.
How the hell do you make this and not look like you're being derivative yourself?" It wasn't until Nathan Crowley, who was the production designer on Nolan's film — and it was lucky that he was free for a while. He came in, and I wanted somebody that was not a famous sci-fi guy. I wanted somebody that would think more literally. He comes more from an architectural background. How would he attack some of these things? How would a different world come up with doors and windows? Not necessarily how we would do it — that challenge.
When I was on a rant, like usually when I'm describing something, how I wanted it to feel, he had somebody mock up this image. It was totally the touchstone for me. I said, "That's what I want. I want to feel like I'm really there. I want to feel like it's really happening." This is not what somebody wished for; this is what really happened. This is the source of the book. Then I realized that's what it is: It's a period film, of a period we just don't know about. It's as if somebody has done their research really, really well and called in all the authorities. I thought that's the way to approach this. I don't want it to seem like this is images of creatures that people have been drawing on their notebooks their whole life and just want to selfishly see realized on the screen; I want you to go, "No, sorry, this is actually how people dressed in Aztec times" or "This is how people bargained in Japanese feudal times." Can we capture that faux authenticity? Breaking that down was making things weathered, aged, having limitations, a sense of deep-seeded culture that you don't really ever get to explore to the depths you'd like to, a sense that much has gone on in the world long before the times that we're present to. Setting the time period on earth to match the books helped.
I set the time period on earth to be what the books were, and it really helped put you in a past mentality for both planets, which I think was a real helpful way to make it feel fresh. Petra in Jordan was a real inspiration, and we came up with this epiphany. [During filming in Utah we used] landmasses that truly exist, and just adding the tiniest Photoshop tweak to them. They become man-made or Martian-made. That way when you watch the film, it feels real. A large percentage of the screen space that you're watching has truly been photographed, and it will hopefully help give it a sense of believability that I really wanted out there. This is an actual set location, and this is what we're doing with it, seeing another angle. To those of you on the Utah set, this as you remember is ultimately what will happen to it. It's having the effect we hoped it would: "Where the hell did they find this place to shoot it?"
But what about the major problems with the books? There are a lot of them, like the fact that everybody on Barsoom is telepathic except John Carter (and that's how everyone communicates)?
Stanton did explain that a lot had to be changed in the book, and yet I wasn't seeing any major differences until I brought up the issue of telepathy. In the books, everyone communicates this way — but John Carter can't. Stanton explained, "I explored that for a very short amount of time... after a while I realized I'm just doing it because it's in the book, not because it helped anything. There was no story need for it, it actually made things more complicated and created problems, it made every scene a "why can't he just read his thoughts?" So I killed it and people will hate me for it." Although we disagree that anyone will hate him for removing this plot obstacle — even the author did away with it in the end as well!
Also in this picture, a blurry image of a Mars ship.
What about the nudity? Will the everyone be running around in leather thongs?
No. They will, however, be running around in just-as-sexy leather chest plates, and elaborate head dresses and flowing Middle Eastern garb (specifically for Dejah). But no, this will not look like a heavy metal album cover, sorry. But trust me, everyone looks really darn good. Although I was curious to see if Stanton would want a little reality in his Martian movie. Not everyone can be an airbrushed chiseled brick house, so are there overweight Martians in this movie?
There actually are, but we cut them. We got a lot of half-naked running around. We're not going to make them look terrible. I looked at a lot of desert-dwelling people and they are very efficient and very lean and have been beaten by the sun and I just kind of wanted the Masai warriors and the Aborigines. We worked really hard on the physicality. If you travel enough, you will see things that you have never see anything before. That's just nature evolved that way. We all felt that it was all naturally evolved through nature for those reasons. So that every thing grown up would have a more natural basis.
Are any threads from the second book?
Yes! Matai Shang leader of the Holy Therns will be making an early appearance in this movie!
So Matai was such an important player in the second and third book, I need a greater issue that if there is a second movie, I will have a smaller issue in the first movie. There will be existence for a greater issue to be dealt further. I bring in the river Iss – I am setting up a lot of things that are hopefully able for you to get dropped in the second film.
Why did they remove the "of Mars" mention in the movies new title. Why is it just called John Carter?
I know I'm going to get this question all day and probably for the rest of my frickin' life: Why 'John Carter?' This has had quite an evolution of me figuring out what was the best thing to do for this book to preserve what I thought was timeless about it, what I thought was the resonant elements about it, but not be afraid to tweak or alter things for the benefit of it, so that it would translate the best it could to screen. Nobody's a bigger fan of these books than me, or at least I could match myself with a lot of people. I'm also a huge cinephile, and I have witnessed that to honor the book literally word-for-word never makes a good movie. How can I somehow do that and make you feel like how it felt to read the books when you're watching the movie? You have to be willing in private to be able to dismantle it all, break it apart, analyze it, and look at it almost objectively as if you were making it from scratch, and then see what comes back together. It's actually not that different than when you have to rewrite anything that you've done once you've done the first draft.
In doing so, I also found that — this is the wrong crowd to get this — not everybody's into sci-fi. I've tried really hard to capture what I thought was universal and timeless about this book that is above and beyond the genre itself. I don't want to exclude anybody from a wrong first impression assumption about this movie or this property, so I didn't want to lie and say it isn't what it is, so I said, "Let's sell the character that we put all our efforts towards." Believe me, Mars is going to come into this thing, title and everything, before this whole journey's over. You've just got to be patient. There was a grand design to all this thing. That's the most I want to say, because I don't want to spoil it even for you guys. You've got to know that it was not a studio-driven hammer on me, and it was not a decision that came quickly. I put a lot of thought into what's the most promising way to make a good first impression to a majority of the world that does not know anything about this, and invite them in and hopefully make them enjoy it as much as the people that do love it. That's the best way I can put it.
It's going to be a trilogy
Even though Stanton is staunchly against sequels (or we probably would have had a Wall-E 2 by now) he's 100% dedicated to telling the larger stories from the books:
Most people know me at Pixar as the guy that doesn't like to do sequels or very reluctant to do sequels. The irony wasn't lost on me when I asked them to do this first book to option the first three. I said, "I really want to try to attack the first 3 like a trilogy and give us a fighting chance to introduce it to the world the way it was introduced to me," which was as an ongoing series with a promise of something going on — not as a cold crafts franchise, but again, to try to capture what I felt as a young kid when I got introduced to them. There was already 11 books, and they were my 'Harry Potters.' I wanted to see if we could do the same, get off on the right foot with this one. They were very receptive to that fact, and that's exactly what we did. We tapped all three, knowing that the first one was really going to be the only promise of what could be made and [if] it succeeds and does well, then we'll move on.
Is Stanton worried that audiences will write this film off simply as a desert version of Avatar (but with green aliens)?
Let's let Stanton address this specifically:
I have the comfort of going to sleep knowing where this came from. They can misconstrue all they want. It's not a competition. I love Avatar. Other than the fundamental bones of boy meet girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. It's not that simple. And so I was very confident that we wouldn't be stepping on each others' toes.
And finally biggest take away from the day (for me personally) was when Stanton started showing off childhood drawings from Assistant Director and co-writer Mark Andrews (the head of story on Incredibles), Michael Chabon (screenwriter) and himself. It was wonderful validation that the folks behind this production truly cared about the source material and we're fans themselves. Plus, getting a sneak peak into Chabon's adolescent scribbles is really just amazing on its own. I left with these words from Stanton in my mind, "The core of this film is about survival, it's about a man rediscovering his humanity and the Martians, and that's where I'm going to leave it." So far it looks amazing, but it's got a long road ahead of it. Thank goodness there's this much talent behind it.
Full disclosure: Disney paid for io9's travel and expenses during this edit bay visit.