Andrew Stanton, the Academy Award-winning Pixar animator, writer, and director behind such critical and commercial hits as Finding Nemo and Wall-E, has, to put it mildly, a lot to prove when his first live action film, John Carter, hits theaters on March 9. While the Disney project’s budget reportedly ballooned to a conservative estimate of $250 million, Stanton continually downplays concerns and criticism, claiming the project was on target. Still, rumors of extensive reshoots have persisted, insinuating that there was trouble on set.
"If someone thinks that’s weird, then they really don’t know what the hell they’re talking about," Stanton says of the extra time behind the camera.
Still, John Carter of Earth might come across as a second rate superhero. After all, Bruce Wayne’s billions buy high-tech gadgets, Superman flies faster than a speeding bullet, and Gambit palms a deck of cards with Cajun swagger and explosive results.
Civil War veteran John Carter, on the other hand, is a regular Confederate Joe whose long jump rivals the best due to gravitational differences when he’s unexpectedly transported to Mars. But he has something the others do not: He’s officially a Centenarian whose incredible stories of militant Red Men, Tharks, and Therns—often considered the foundation of modern science fiction—have evaded becoming movie magic for decades.
Author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ hero has been around since 1912 in the form of serials and comics. In the late 1980s, there was supposed to be a Disney movie adaptation starring Tom Cruise, but it never happened. Later on, directors as diverse as Guillermo Del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, and Kerry Conran were attached to the project, which never took off. Finally, Andrew Stanton jumped on board and made it work.
"I’m very fortunate that I didn’t know what they were going to do," Stanton said about the other directors’ visions of the red planet. "Once it came to me, I didn’t want it to be persuaded by other images or ideas, I just wanted to come from the book as honestly as I could."
The role meant for America’s favorite Scientologist over 20 years ago now belongs to newcomer Taylor Kitsch, who previously played card thrower Gambit in the panned X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Ironically, Cruise went on to work with a different animating genius, Brad Bird, in his first live action film, Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol. Unlike Mission Impossible, an established franchise, Andrew Stanton had to approach the Burroughs’ estate and convince them it was finally John Carter’s time to leap into theaters.
After Disney held the property for the majority of the 1980s, without a movie being made, Stanton had his work cut out for him—especially when it came to Edgar Rice Burrough’s grandson, Danton. "They were really skittish that it would just go into purgatory again," Stanton says. "We outlined where it would all go and we showed them all of this inspirational photography that matched locations and cultures and things that made it sort of what you see now."
The locations and cultures focused on John Carter being a post-Civil War period piece, as opposed to strictly Martian fantasy. "Danton was a fan himself of his grandfather’s work and just wanted to see it honored on the screen. We just had this saying out of the meeting—we just wanted to break the curse and finally see if we could make this on the screen." Unfortunately, a few months after the dotted line was signed, Danton Burroughs passed away and Stanton began filming his first live action feature.
"Shooting live action is deciding to sail across the ocean," Stanton says. "There’s nothing easy about it, but it’s a hell of an adventure."
One of the biggest challenges—in addition to dealing with rain and wind—were the sequences in which John Carter jumps long distances, which Stanton says were a large part of the reshoots. "We’re so used to seeing Superman land or Hulk or Spider-Man from these miraculous distances that I came to the realization on the set that there was no way we were going to make him land without fixing it in post," he says. "There were never any huge story moments that I had to change or cut because I couldn’t get what I wanted."
Stanton also makes it clear that while John Carter is older and has inspired modern superheroes and stories, he’s not afraid of comparisons. "I’ve never watched Star Wars or Avatar or seen Superman comic strips and Flash Gordon and thought that I was watching the same property," he says. "A kid in 1976 actually enjoyed the 1912 book and I think someone in 2012 can enjoy it for the same reasons."