Sand blows into our tearing eyes as another strong gust of wind sweeps across the barren desert landscape. The air clears briefly, allowing us to see vibrant mountains of red rock in the distance. Each open patch of desert and distant mountain landscape is indistinguishable from the next, right up to the point where we come into contact with a batch of trucks, trailers and cables strewn across the ground. There are familiar rows of white star trailers, director's chairs, monitors and, everyone's favorite, craft service. Actors on stilts wearing green spandex suits covered in black dots bound across the landscape, addressing a chiseled Taylor Kitsch whose hand touches a sheathed sword.
It's hard to imagine a more alien-looking setting to double for the red planet than this patch of land in Big Water, Utah. On the day our press group was invited to the set, John Carter
entered the 71st of its 100-day production. We were spending the day on Mars.
For the uninitiated, John Carter is based upon characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912. The story's hero, first appearing in Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, is a Civil War veteran transported to Mars, known as Barsoom to its inhabitants. In the nearly 100 years since its creation, Burroughs' groundbreaking work has had a heavy influence on pop culture, particularly in the world of genre fiction and fantasy movies, with the likes of Gene Roddenberry, James Cameron and George Lucas citing its influence.
A feature adaptation has been discussed for decades, dating all the way back to a 1930s animated version that would have preceded Snow White as the first animated feature. But it was not to be. In the 1950s, Walt Disney attained the rights and Ray Harryhausen expressed interest but, again, it fell by the wayside. In the 1980s, John McTiernan was on board with plans for Tom Cruise to star as Carter and in the early aughts, Paramount snagged the rights and went through a series of directors including Robert Rodriguez, Kerry Conran and Jon Favreau. Again, no dice.
Finally, in 2007 Disney regained the rights and chose the unlikely Andrew Stanton to direct, the Pixar legend behind the likes of A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo and WALL-E. Scripted by Stanton along with another man best known for his animation credits, Mark Andrews (Star Wars: Clone Wars, Samurai Jack), and novelist Michael Chabon, the collective team behind this new take on John Carter received something none of the other attempts had over the 80-some-odd years of attempts - a green light. It seemed only fitting that, eight decades after an animated attempt was shelved, it would take a collective with a background primarily in animation to bring Carter into reality.
Production began in January 2010, Stanton in the director's chair and rising star Taylor Kitsch
stepping into the coveted role of John Carter. The supporting cast includes Lynn Collins as Princess Dejah Thoris; Willem Dafoe
and Thomas Haden Church as Martians Tars Tarkas and Tal Hajus, respectively; Samantha Morton as Sola, daughter of Tars Tarkas; Dominic West as Sab Than, Prince of Zodanga and Mark Strong as Matai Shang, leader of the Holy Therns.
Dafoe, nearly nine feet tall and wearing a complicated piece of head gear that tracks his facial movements and accounts for the two large tusks that protrude from the face of the Martian warriors, leads his fellow warriors with a speech (the characters will speak Martian in the early going before a plot device explains their transition to English). Dafoe raises his voice and finishes with, "On to the plunder!"
Stanton yells "Cut!" and Dafoe is helped off of his stilts while the next shot is prepped. He steps aside to speak with press. "There's just been a battle and John Carter has helped us in the battle, kind of by accident, unknowingly," Dafoe tells press. "So I'm kind of embracing him as one of our warriors and he's very reluctant."
Dafoe's challenging role as Tarkas requires he wear a mo-cap suit, the aforementioned head rig to record his facial movements and, as if that weren't enough, to do it all on stilts. But the actor has never been one to shy away from a challenge. "It's a work in progress, but we got a little time before to rehearse," Dafoe says of his stilt work. "You just keep it up but each time it's a new challenge because the terrain's different, the quality of the sand's different. But it's very important because that height relationship not only helps technically but direct eye line is good when you're missing effects with real actors. Also you just find the voice and play the scenes much better when you're that big."
As with all of the cast we interviewed during our day on Mars, Dafoe cites the enthusiasm of director Stanton as a drawing force for his interest in the project. While some fans and Internet chat rooms may be buzzing with doubts about Stanton tackling a project of this magnitude for his first live action feature, the cast feels like they are in good hands.
"Prep is everything and he's done it tenfold," says Kitsch. "He knows exactly what's going on. And something as big as this and how technical it can be, the trust has to be that much more. He's written it and the vision is already there, so I'm just trying to bring this guy to life as much as I can."
"It's not as different as I thought it would be," says Stanton of the transition. People's unconscious knee-jerk reaction is, ‘Oh, you work with computers therefore you don't work with people.' And the truth is, I work with 200 artists every day that are incredibly talented. I've had to do all that stuff that you do out here and it translates pretty much directly."
The director first discovered the work of Burroughs as a child and has been picturing the reality in his mind's eye ever since. "I've spent 40 years of my life just wanting to see somebody make this movie and see it as a fan," Stanton tells press. "All I ever wanted was to just believe it when I see it on the screen. So that's really my goal, to not be showing or [have it be] a spectacle, for as much as it is, but just to believe I'm really there because I've spent a whole lifetime wanting to go there."
The movie aims to seamlessly integrate motion capture (mo-cap) work with live action, which makes the choice of Stanton to direct seem all the more logical. "Four of my leads are CG," says Stanton, "and then three or four supporting cast members are CG. And then half the world, you can't build them practically, have to be done. The movie was always planned as half CG and half live action, not in look, but in this vision we had. Hopefully, if we do it right, when all is done nothing will look CG and you'll just accept it. That's all I ever wanted. I've always come to this as a fan."
"It's a different process," adds Thomas Haden Church
. "This, you're completely embedded in it. My whole body and my head are going to be motion capture."
"I'm horrible at it," laughs Lynn Collins. "Willem keeps pointing to his face. Look up, look up. It's really difficult, especially because these actors are so fantastic."
Collins' character retains a more human form, but the look of her character still requires the actress spend three and a half hours in the makeup chair each morning. "Underneath this I have freckles and very light eyes that aren't blue but sort of green. And my hair is a dirty, dusty blonde. It's so fun to go through this transformation every day. I could complain about the hours, but when everything's said and done and I look in the mirror, this is what I dream about, playing characters like this."
Part of the trick in adapting Carter almost 100 years since its creation is to not look like you're ripping off all the things Burroughs' work influenced. "That's the catch-22 about it," says the director. "It inspired, indirectly or directly, things like Flash Gordon, Star Wars, Superman and all the way up to Avatar. If you literally made the book, people would think I was ripping off everybody else. So I thought, what's the spin into that will make it feel fresh and stand on its own ground? The approach that I finally decided on was that it should feel like a period film. If it's done right and approached that way, you'll feel like maybe that's the way it really is on Mars and you'll sense these layers of history."
Stanton and writers Andrews and Chabon also worked to spice up Carter himself, who could be seen as a little vanilla to cynical modern audiences. "It was almost despite John Carter that I liked the books," says Stanton. "That was where we put a lot of our work in, was how to make him somebody that I would route for. I really felt like I'd rather watch damaged goods than somebody that has their act together. So I went for somebody that had pretty much resigned to the fact that their purpose in life was over. I went with the thinking that it's not for us to say what our purpose in life is. That's the tact I took with Carter and that's what made Taylor perfect for the role. He's the bad boy, wrong side of the tracks and it works a lot better."
Although production was nearing completion during our visit, Stanton says he simply can't look at it that way. For him, the post production phase will be every bit as demanding as the shoot. "I don't call it post, I call it principal digital photography. Once you look at it with those eyes, you realize you aren't finished at all when the shoot ends in June."
With countless works to draw from in the Burroughs collection, John Carter could be the first in a line of feature adaptations. Stanton and co. have outlined three films and are currently scripting the second. But they are also aware that they may only get one shot at this. "I've tried very hard along with Mark and Michael Chabon to think wider from the get-go before we ever set out on the first film. If, touch wood, this film's good enough and they ask for another, we have a plan. But I've worked really hard to make it have closure because nothing bugs me more than have a cliffhanger with the hubris to think there is going to be a second one."
"You want this just to be a great movie that people come and escape and enjoy the characters and the ride," adds Kitsch. "Once you start immersing yourself with that, hopefully everything else will just set in the way it should. If I start thinking about this and that and how it's going to do, then you just drive yourself crazy. I'd rather put that energy into John."
John Carter is set for a nationwide release March 9, 2012.