John Carter finally arrives on the big screen: Andrew Stanton and Taylor Kitsch discuss adapting the sci-fi classic

The fantastic airships of John Carter are the results of hundreds of hours of work by concept artists, production designers and computer animators.

It has been 100 years since the character first appeared in print, but over that time John Carter of Mars has never made his way to the big screen.

That makes Disney’s upcoming John Carter the first film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic science-fiction adventure novel A Princess of Mars. It follows Civil War veteran John Carter, who finds himself  transported to Mars (or Barsoom, as the Martians call it), gains super powers and does battle against a race of 15-foot tall, four-armed barbarians in order to save a princess.

A film adaptation of the novel has been suffering various forms of development hell for the past century. Looney Tunes animator Bob Clampitt tried to make an animated version back in the 1930s, with input from Burroughs himself, but failed, while John McTiernan and Tom Cruise tried and failed to make their own version in the 1980s. Despite various filmmakers’ interest in the science-fiction series, a production never materialized. The only elements of John Carter of Mars that have worked their way onto film are through movies it influenced, like Avatar and Star Wars.

The Sheaf was fortunate enough to take part in a conference call roundtable with John Carter’s director Andrew Stanton and star Taylor Kitsch on Feb. 21 and get their thoughts on their science-fiction blockbuster.

Pixar animator Andrew Stanton makes the move to live-action

Andrew Stanton is the Oscar-winning director of WALL-E and Finding Nemo and a Pixar animator. While he has worked exclusively in animation until now, John Carter marks his first move into live-action. Although there are differences between the two mediums, Stanton says the process of switching from animation to live-action is actually far simpler than most people would suspect.

“People think that when you work on an animated film, it’s as if [you’re] talking to a bunch of computers [your] whole life,” he said. “I actually talk to 200 people every day, 200 people that have different jobs, like how to do the lighting, the camera, the costume work. So it’s very similar, actually, in live-action. I’m talking to people that do the camera, the costumes, the actors, and it’s just that you’re doing it outside instead of inside.”

Stanton says there are also certain advantages to be had by transitioning from animation to a live-action film heavy with special effects.

“Making John Carter was basically making two movies,” he said. “One was the live-action side that took almost a year to do and then the computer graphics side, because half my main characters are completely CG and half the world is CG, and that was another year-and-a-half of work and that happened after I shot the live-action.”

Stanton got the gig after Disney regained the film rights after a Paramount production failed. He convinced Disney that they had to make a movie of it, and that he’d be happy to do it himself once he was done with WALL-E.

“Suddenly they said yes and gave it to me before I even knew what was going on,” Stanton said. “And it was sort of one of those ‘be careful what you wish for’ moments. It was my own pressure on myself, of like, ‘OK, now you can put your money where your mouth is and should put on the screen what you always wanted to see.’ ”

Stanton has been a fan of the John Carter of Mars series since he was young, having read all the books and wanting to see a movie made of them throughout the years. This definitely made the project near and dear to him, and he didn’t want to adapt the series incorrectly, but he was able to avoid the intense scrutiny other adaptations have gotten from fans, like the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings films.

“It’s slowly been a dwindling base and so I knew there wasn’t this massive social pressure about how it was executed,” he said.

This is mostly due to the story having been around for longer than most people have been alive. Although the story is a century old, Stanton didn’t worry about trying to update it to make it relevant for a modern audience.

“My interest was… the timeless human aspect about the character and the story that will always speak to me, no matter what’s going on in the world,” he said.

John Carter marks Taylor Kitsch’s first time as leading man

Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) appeals for help from John Carter (Taylor Kitsch).

Filling the shoes of this timeless adventure hero is Canadian actor Taylor Kitsch, best known for his role on the television series Friday Night Lights and his brief appearance as Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Kitsch is by no means an established leading man and banking a film with a rumoured budget of $250 million on a television actor is a risky venture.

The transition from television to film has been a relatively easy one for Kitsch, as his first few acting jobs were actually on film productions.

“In film, a big difference is, we can do a whole 12-hour day and do one scene,” he said. “If I’m playing Riggins [from Friday Night Lights] it’s — I’ve done 17 pages in one day. So I think that you can really take your time and break it down a lot more.”

Kitsch also had to adjust to reacting to creatures and objects that weren’t physically there while filming on a green-screen.

“Once we get the scene on John Carter, we have to do it another 10 takes, plus, for the effects people, for them to get it right to make sure we can get through all that,” he said. “I think when you’re acting to nothing, it’s tough. I’ve got big speeches in this film, when you’re looking at clouds. It’s tough to really connect to anything. It just kind of demands that much more of you.”

Although Kitsch has refused to let the history of the character distract him from the role at hand, he still got a certain satisfaction from portraying a sci-fi icon.

“It’s very flattering to be a part of it,” he said. “To breathe life into [Andrew Stanton’s] childhood dream, I think that’s a pretty amazing thing to do and be a part of.”

John Carter, a character who leaps hundreds of feet in the air and takes on entire armies single-handedly, also proved an extremely physical role. Although computer graphics and stunt crews helped the actor achieve these feats, the role was still very taxing. Kitsch even apparently lost 30 pounds due to complications from the rigorous training and diet the role required.

“You wake up at 4:30 in the morning every day, and you train, and it goes back to boxing, to a lot of the core stuff of the wire work, and then the sword training,” he said.

Kitsch was on a strict diet for 11 months that included tons of protein in order to sustain the physical work required for the role.

“And man, I can bore you guys all day with what I ate,” he said.

Kitsch took a lot away from working with Stanton. Kitsch has even said that he would refuse to do any sequels, which Stanton and co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon have already planned, if Stanton did not direct them.

“I would go to war with this guy,” he said.

The sequels have yet to be green-lit and Stanton doesn’t want do jinx the production by seeing them as sure bets. It still remains to be seen whether the blockbuster starring this relatively unknown actor based on a dated science-fiction property will even garner a sequel, let alone two. However, Kitsch is already worn out by the promotional period that preceded the film’s release.

“I spent the last 20 hours in my home in Austin,” he said. “That was the first time in a month that I’ve had that. And I won’t get to go back for another month plus. And jet lag is no joke, by the way. It is no joke. So you lose a job here or there because of lack of availability and that’s the last thing you want to lose a job for.

“But, you know, I’ll put the violin away. You just stay focused, you get through it and it helps when you love the movie and you love that work that you put into it.”


Photos: Supplied