When choosing a director to take on a big-budget, sci-fi adventure film based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ story “A Princess of Mars,” one might imagine Disney would’ve looked to James Cameron or even Michael Bay.
Instead, they chose Academy Award-winning filmmaker Andrew Stanton, who is best known for directing the animated films “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E.” Stanton joins fellow Pixar alumnus and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” director Brad Bird in making the leap to live-action features in the past year.
Yet in a recent conference call, Stanton said that there isn’t much difference in directing an animated movie and a live-action one.
“People think that when you work on an animated film, that it’s as if I’m talking to a bunch of computers my 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.”
The film follows the tale of a Civil War deserter named John Carter, who is mysteriously transplanted to Mars. Carter is forced to break free from the ravenous alien race that’s enslaved him and protect the human-like Princess of Mars and her people.
The long process of adapting Burrough’s novel for the screen, which had directors such as Robert Rodriguez, John McTiernan, and Jon Favreau crumble beneath the massive scope of the film’s epic-length universe and story, was one Stanton seemingly took in stride.
“I mean, making ‘John Carter’ was basically making two movies – almost literally two different film productions, where one was the live-action side that took almost a year to do, and then the computer graphic side,” he said. “Because half my main characters are completely (computer-generated) and half the world is sort of (computer-generated), and that was another year and a half of work that happened after I shot the live action.”
Stanton wasn’t alone in his journey to recreate the world Burroughs so meticulously crafted in his novel, as he was also joined by an impressive cast of actors, including Willem Dafoe, Bryan Cranston and Samantha Morton. Yet it’s the lead, rising “Friday Night Lights” actor Taylor Kitsch, who does most of the film’s heavy lifting in the physically demanding role of John Carter.
“I think I battled exhaustion throughout, just because you’re in so much of it and you’re working six-day weeks and all that kind of stuff,” Kitsch said. “You know, it’s that you wake up at 4:30 in the morning every day, and you train, and it goes from boxing to a lot of the core stuff of the wire work, and then sword training.”
Despite the physical nature of the role, Kitsch said “John Carter” isn’t your typical action film.
“I don’t see it as just an action role, you know,” he said. “Of, course the action is going to be insane, and it is in the film. But I mean, what really makes me choose a role is just the people I’m surrounded with and the character I get to portray in the sense of, in ‘John Carter,’ the emotion is no joke in that as well.”
Kitsch said he’s been privileged to work with experienced actors like Dafoe in “John Carter,” as well as Kyle Chandler in “Friday Night Lights” and Liam Neeson in “Battleship,” so early in his career.
“Yeah, I had to put them all on my back, all of them,” Kitsch said. “Just surrounding yourself and playing these incredibly character-driven roles, that’s the beauty of my gig, I’m empowered and I’m better for it by putting myself in with these guys. You learn and you take the best of each of these guys, hopefully, and you try and apply it when you can.”
While Stanton has writing credits on the upcoming “Monsters, Inc.” sequel “Monsters University” and Kitsch also has a role in Oliver Stone’s new film “Savages,” both seem hopeful that this isn’t the end of the “John Carter” saga. Burroughs’ novel was followed by more than 10 other books chronicling Carter’s adventures, some of which Stanton said he would like to see make it to the big screen.
“We actually got the rights to the first three books, and we planned all three movies together, so that we knew where they were all going,” he said. “But I also hated movies that had these unnecessary cliffhangers that suddenly just leave you hanging, as if there is this sort of vain assumption that there is going to be another movie. So we made sure each movie finished in a very satisfying way when we wrote them, even though there might be these meta-issues that could keep it going. It’s like having a good conclusion to a television season.”
“John Carter” opens in theaters Friday.