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For Andrew Stanton, director of Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Wall-E and Disney’s upcoming John Carter, bringing Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp adventure to theaters is a dream come true.
“I pretty much just spent 30-plus years waiting for somebody, dear God, to put it on the screen!” Stanton laughed during a press gathering for the sci-fi epic.
It’s an adaptation of Burroughs’ 1917 novel A Princess of Mars, originally serialized five years earlier, which follows the adventures of John Carter, a veteran of the American Civil War who’s mysteriously transported to Mars (dubbed Barsoom by its natives). Discovering that the planet’s lower gravity gives him super-strength and agility, Carter embarks on a journey across Barsoom to save the ancient Red Martian civilization and the beautiful princess Dejah Thoris.
While retaining most of the elements from A Princess of Mars, the Disney film also borrows from its sequel The Gods of Mars, a decision Stanton said was designed to make the story more cohesive.
“It was train cars on those first couple books, especially the first one. It was like, ‘Then this happened, then this happened. Oh, shit, I need some kind of climax to make this all come together at the end and then I add that on,’” the director explained, pointing to the story’s serialization as the cause. Looking over the first three Barsoom books — Princess, Gods and The Warlord of Mars — Stanton and co-screenwriters Michael Chabon and Mark Andrews kept some plot points while discarding others.
“Here I had the luxury that Burroughs didn’t, of where are all these characters going? Where are these worlds going?” Stanton said. “So you could push these together and go, ‘Oh, well, I’m sure if he had this oversight he might make a couple changes, too, and shift when you learn about stuff.’”
Explaining that a good chunk of the writing process involved informed picking and choosing, he added, “I just would hang stuff on the side I loved from the first book as ingredients in the kitchen, and then we put it away and said, ‘OK, we know what the basic line is: It’s a guy who has lost his way, has lost his humanity, and has discovered it with a whole other culture. How do we make that arc work?’”
There have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to bring A Princess of Mars and the other 11 Barsoom novels to the big screen — the most recent being in 2005, when Iron Man director Jon Favreau tried to get an adaptation off the ground at Disney.
“When Favreau had it in the mid-2000s, artists are one step away from other artists,” Stanton said, “so I knew people working on it and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, it’s going to get made, finally, finally!’”
“Crestfallen” that the film fell apart, Stanton said when Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook called him to talk about other projects, the director only wanted to talk about the Barsoom books.
“It’s the most Hollywood kind of conversation, which I don’t have, that I had with him,” Stanton recalled. “‘You know, I just heard this property went back to the estate. I know Disney has not had good blood with them because you guys had this property in the ‘80s for almost 10 years and didn’t do anything with it, but you’re now on good standing with them because of the Tarzan animated movie. You guys got to make this!’”
Cook liked the idea so much he called Stanton back during the filming of Wall-E to offer him John Carter, a project the director gladly accepted.
“We had a saying when we got the property: ‘Break the curse!'” he said. “But then I started getting really superstitious!”
Beyond films, the Barsoom novels have been adapted as comic books and interpreted by fantasy artists like Frank Frazetta. But when it came to bringing his version of Barsoom to life, Stanton decided to avoid previous visual representations of Mars.
“I didn’t want to make a Xerox of a Xerox,” he said. Calling the Barsoom books the template for modern genre adventure stories, the director continued, “I knew going in, by the uneducated it’s going to be blamed for copying other things. There’s no way around that. So how can I make a film that, when you watch it, it doesn’t feel like that?”
Stanton and his production crew decided the answer was in treating John Carter more like a historical drama or a historically accurate adventure story than a science fiction movie.
“The books don’t feel like a sci-fi novel, they feel like a world where Earth has been mapped completely,” he said. “There’s no new countries, no new cultures, so where do we keep exploring on our boats and find another culture to meet? We’re going to make one up and go to the shores of Mars.”
Using that logic, the three screenwriters set out to devise the rules of evolution and behavior on Mars, given that the oceans had died and there was more than one race of sentient life on the planet.
“That was half the fun, going, ‘If you just shift it enough, how will mankind be slowly building the same path to the industrial revolution that we are?’” Stanton said.
Touching on the business behind the movie, the director addressed the title changes as the film went from John Carter of Mars to simply John Carter.
“At the time there was panic of [confusion] with Mars Needs Moms, and that wasn’t convincing me to do anything. Then they did all this testing and they found that a huge bump of people were saying no just off the title,” Stanton admitted. “I realized that the movie is about that arc, so I said, ‘Look I’ll bend if … you guys let me keep the JCM logo because it’s going to mean something by the end of the movie, and if there’s more movies I want that to be the thing you remember.”
Stanton also spoke out about media reports that John Carter was over budget, ballooning from $175 million to $300 million.
“It’s bullshit! I was on budget, on time, the entire time,” Stanton declared, saying that Disney awarded him extra reshoot days because of his diligence in sticking to budget and time constraints.
“I want to end this principal shoot on budget, on time, so I said I will be a good citizen and if there’s things that are broken or missing I’ll add it to the reshoot,” he said, adding, “It’s a big-budget movie, and that’s why Disney gave it to me, because they associated me with huge-budget movies. I think they would have been scared to death to give me a $50 million indie picture.”
As to the criticisms that audiences won’t buy a film set on Mars because they know there’s no life on the red planet, Stanton merely grinned.
“Well, fish don’t talk underwater, either!” he said with a laugh. “It’s how you handle it.”
John Carter opens March 9 nationwide.