John Carter, the live-action adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs series of novels hits our screens this Friday. We popped along to the press conference where stars of the movie Lynn Collins, Taylor Kitsch, Williem Dafoe and Samantha Morton, director Andrew Stanton and producers Lindsey Collins and Jim Morris gave their thoughts on bringing a cult classic to life.
MGM were going to make his movie as an animated picture way back in 1931 since then there have been several efforts to get it together. There was even one notion that Tom Cruise was going to be John Carter, so how come it’s taken so long to make this futuristic, science fiction film?
Lindsey Collins: To be honest, there’s so much that goes into making a movie to begin with, and part of it is frankly the technology, which is why I think they wanted to make an animated film, initially, to avoid that whole problem. All subsequent efforts have been thwarted to some degree because the technology wasn’t there.
When Andrew talked about it initially, that was the biggest challenge: would we be able to be in the desert having a conversation between John Carter and Tars Tarkas and actually make it feel real? That simple scene, if you didn’t buy it, there was no point doing a big, epic spectacle. That was the hardest thing to do.
What are your plans when it comes to making this a franchise? There are still ten stories to do…
Jim Morris: Well, the first three books are known as a trilogy, and Andrew when he started this did outlines and treatments for three films – not so much presuming there’d be three films. Hoping there would be, but not presuming. But so if there are, we’re not boxed in from a story point of view and we’ve thought through all the character arcs and story arcs of the film. We’re in the process of writing a script for the second show and we hope to be able to make it.
Andrew you were a kid that found himself at midnight in a candy store making this movie as since you were ten or eleven this has been your dream.
Andrew Stanton: Well it has been my dream to go and see it I never had the hubris to think that I would be in film or directing let along doing this movie. I was ready to buy a ticket and go and see it since I was eleven years old.
Did you have to take care then that you didn’t let your passion for the subject matter get in the way of things?
Andrew Stanton: Oh, I let it get very much in the way – it’s the only thing that’ll keep you going. Making movies, no matter what kind of movie it is, is hard. It’s going be wrong more often than it’s going be right. So what the heck’s going get you out of bed each day and face it?
And it’s got to be something you love so much you’ll be willing to see it even if nobody paid you. I couldn’t think of something I’d love more than wanting to see this on the screen.
Samantha, you’ve said that when you tackle a character from well loved literature it is crucially important that you deliver for the fans of that work…
Samantha Morton: I think it was more important to find the spirit, understanding [Sola] and knowing that this character has a much bigger life. This is a birth: you see her at the beginning of a very, very long journey. And that was so exciting because it was like having a secret. So it was a huge responsibility but it was also a pleasure.
Willem it’s hard enough having to play a character without a) having to use stilts b) having to wear pyjamas with all the motion capture dots and c) having to learn an invented language – so was that part of the fun or at times a headache?
Willem Dafoe: It was all part of the fun. The truth is, you take something like the stilts. I, in a very easy way, found out what it was like to be nine foot tall! That’s a new experience for me! You take that newness and you apply it to the character and you can invest that character with a kind of energy, a kind of curiosity you’ve never had before. So you kiss those stilts, because that’s a gift they gave you.
One of the nice things about the language is that we didn’t speak it extensively but we learned this language – I’m not fluent in Thark, but I can get by! But the most important thing about that was that it helped me find my voice, my register, my cadence. So you try to embrace these things, not look at them as problems but as opportunities.
Andrew Stanton: I don’t know if we ever really talked about it a lot but it made you guys (the Tharks) parental and you (John Carter) the child because it was always that relationship that we know as children through adults.
Lynn despite your background in martial arts I am told that you were still slightly nervous about all the action films that you would be doing in this film?
Lynn Collins: Yes for me what was the most challenging aspect of the stunts and the fights was that my adrenaline would get incredibly high and I would fear that I wouldn’t be able to control my fierceness.
Then we would have to do a more relaxed scenes and it was hard to go from this high adrenaline rush to something where you would have to relax. But at the same time it was so much fun and I was conquering fears constantly.
Taylor, I was watching the movie and I thought the best way to describe your fate was an old-fashioned Scottish word called “jiggered”, meaning totally physically exhausted. Is this the toughest thing you’ve ever done, with all the wirework, etc?
Taylor Kitsch: There was many times where I thought that you (Stanton) had a vendetta, especially that great white ape sequence. But he (Stanton) made a great point when we were filming; I don’t know whether it was to motive me or what, but it was ’the more we beat you up the more you are going to be liked’.
And I think, you know, so much he sacrifices – for Dejah, the Tharks – but this was by far the most exhausting thing I’ve ever been a part of.
Lynn, I hear you had an irrational fear of heights but the movie cured it?
Lynn Collins: I don’t know if it has gone away and I am sure if we do a second movie I am sure that I will be thrown around again, I will have to do it all over again. The first stunt that I saw the stunt doubles were way up in the corner of the studio and I was like ’wow that is so great’.
And I started walking away but they were like ’No Lynn it’s time to get into your harness’ and I saw Taylor getting into his and he just looked at me and said ’No regrets Collins’. So from that moment my fear was completely overcome by this challenge from this man – so I guess I should thank Taylor.
When I was a teenager I had a picture of Princess Leia on my wall in a certain dress, and I was wondering, are you prepared for that kind of thing, and how long did you spend wearing that dress?
Lynn Collins: That dress is amazing! Mayes C. Rubeo designed it and it had 100,000 Swarovski crystals on it and it was incredible but it was much lighter than you might think.
Playing this part I never once, really and honestly, never felt sexualised even thought I wasn’t wearing that many clothes. But that is just how she was and how she existed on Mars but that dress is actually Zodangan it’s not from Helium. She actually says ’this is too vulgar for me’.
What you would normally see Dejah in is what she is wearing in the Hall of Science, the long robes – but I don’t think the guys are going to be having posters of me in the long robes! (laughs).
Andrew, this was your first live-action film. Was it a relief to actually get out of the studio on location and see blue skies?
Andrew Stanton: Yeah, actually I felt like I was finally let outdoors for the first time in 20 years! Not that I felt held back, but it was definitely a boost I needed to make it all feel fresh again. But man, did I get more than I asked for!
What thoughts lay behind the extended back-stories of John Carter and Dejah Thoris?
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 want to 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 come from something that actually works, but when they’ve been abused or made redundant, 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.
How protective have the Burroughs estate been of the work, particularly as Edgar is in the film?
Jim Morris: We had a very good relationship with the Burroughs estate. Danton Burroughs, his grandson, who was the keeper of the flame of everything his grandfather did, unfortunately passed away but fortunately before he did Andrew presented what he wanted to do with the story.
Danton was thrilled with it and thought he’d solved some problems that had made it difficult to make into a film before. We were really happy about that; they were great people and worked with us very closely.
Lindsey what was your experience of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s work before you started work on this movie?
Lindsey Collins: Only in the sense that Andrew had talked about it for a long time. And quite a few people at Pixar would start sentences with, “Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars.” As you can imagine there’s a culture at Pixar where a lot of them were influenced heavily by these kind of books, so you don’t get far at Pixar without embracing Star Wars or Edgar Rice Burroughs!
So I read the first book and then waited for the script to finish and then read that – and I have taken a peak at the outline of the second one so I am excited; I have a sense of where it is going and it’s exciting.
Andrew, are people who are not aware of the work of Burroughs gob-smacked that almost every sci-fi movie, book and TV show since the fifties has plundered the work of Burroughs.
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.
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.
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!
Lindsey Collins: I think [the decision] was good, because it was going to pigeonhole it a little bit. If anything, this movie is such a broad film. I think the concern initially was that the Mars in the title was going to be something that was so specific that people would think they knew exactly what it was and they would decide whether to go and see it based exactly on that word alone.
Andrew Stanton: 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 ’0s, 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.
Samantha Morton: My daughter saw the movie last night, she is twelve, and interestingly her initial reaction was that it was like a costume drama to her, she didn’t know it was the future because it’s in its own world…
She wouldn’t have known the word sci-fi because one minute you are in nineteenth century America and the next minute you are on Mars. I was just so innocent and I just thought that was so beautiful – it is what it is and it’s in the world that you are in.
Andrew Stanton: That is how the books were for me
Lindsey Collins: I was at a birthday party the other day and this father was there and… we were talking about television. He said, “Oh, it’s Sunday night. Downton Abbey’s on! Do you watch Downton Abbey? I love that, man! I also watch Spartacus.”
And I said, “Do I have a movie for you…” It’s a little Downton Abbey, it’s a little Spartacus!
Taylor, in the movie, you look like you could take on Mike Tyson, and yet we see you today and you’re a slim, dapper young man. How did you get bulked up?
Taylor Kitsch: Yeah, I think I was just honest to the character. It’s funny, once I first got the role, I thought I was going to get comic-book big, but then once I finally got the script…
Andrew Stanton: I kept saying “Don’t get big!”
Taylor Kitsch: Once I started studying the Civil War, which was what I truly grabbed on for this I read that they averaged 145lbs, those guys. [Willem starts checking himself out – laughter] So it’s a happy medium of staying real. It made no sense to be walking around in the 1800s [being that big].
Andrew, 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.
John Carter is out Friday 9th March.