Even though, when it came down to it, I didn’t particularly like John Carter the movie, I know I will remember the experience surrounding it fondly. These past few weeks, I have lived a trilogy of press events: an introductory Q&A, a big bloated second act of a preview screening, and finally, this concluding wrap up. Of all the events though, I definitely enjoyed this last one the best. This is because I finally got the chance to peek behind the curtain and see the thoughts, personalities and relationships behind the film.
The framing of the event was simple: a Q&A hosted ably by a Mr. Millar, the sort of man you remember as a nebulous cloud of august grandeur. This affable gent was joined by a ‘volleyball team line up’ of personalities. At either end of the table, like sheepdogs herding a flock, sat a pair of producers: Jim Morris and the femme fatale-looking Lindsay Collins. Of the actors, we had the two leads, Taylor Kitsch (John Carter) and Lynn Collins (Dejah Thoris), and a couple of Tharks: Willem Dafoe (Tars Tarkus) and Samantha Morton (Sola). And then, seated in the middle like an understated monarch, was writer/director Andrew Stanton.
Proceedings kicked off with questions from Mark Millar to the rest of the panel. He began with producer Lindsay, asking how come it had taken so long to make the film? Her answer: they were waiting for the technology to be ready, so they could properly reproduce the spectacle. A fairly strange answer considering that Star Wars was made perfectly well 30 years ago, spectacle intact, but there you are.
Wrapping up with the producers, Jim Morris was asked whether this would be a first instalment of a franchise. With an openness I was surprised by, he stated that Stanton had already made treatments for 3 films, and was in the process of scripting a second. He was also of the opinion that the 1st three John Carter novels form a natural trilogy, so more JC seems at least rational. I’m guessing they make final decision based on how profitable the film is.
Andrew was next, asked about whether this was indeed his dream project. Stanton replied that it was certainly his dream to see it, but that yes, his passion for the mythos of John Carter was what drove him through the difficulties of putting this film together. I pretty much expected this. Passion leaks from every pore of John Carter, good and bad bits alike.
Samantha Morton was asked about the responsibility she felt taking on a role in such a longstanding, and massively popular, property. Morton, as meek a presence as her role in the film would suggest, mumbled an affirmative, and was not heard from again.
Willem Dafoe was asked about the difficulties of acting while on stilts (which he had to wear, to be the better model for the 9ft Martian warrior he plays in the film). Dafoe spoke very straightforwardly of his love for the experience, sincerely enthusiastic about finding out what it was like to be 9ft tall. Stanton joined in at that point, mentioning how the height automatically made Dafoe adopt a parental character towards Kitsch. An interesting insight into how on-set props can affect the creative process.
Learning Thark was apparently a similarly joyful experience, with Dafoe stating how learning the language let him create a voice for the character. For my part, witnessing the genuine pleasure Dafoe takes in the experiences of his profession was definitely the highlight of the whole Q&A.
Lynn Collins was asked whether, despite her background in martial arts, she was at all nervous about her action-heavy role. She replied about how her only real fear was that she wouldn’t be able to control her adrenaline rush, and as such mishandle the swift transition from fighting scenes to more emotional ones. I can say for certain this was not the case, though I have no trouble imaging Collins as a ball of nerves. She obviously found the Q&A fairly daunting and was visibly on edge throughout.
Taylor Kitsch meanwhile was completely the opposite: cool as the proverbial cucumber. Our host said his performance was ‘jiggard’ (totally physically exhausting), and Kitsch agreed, joking that he had thought Stanton had has a vendetta against him. According to him the philosophy was: the more we beat Carter up, the more he’s going to be liked. As was summed up by the host ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us strong’. And certainly, the effort seems to have left a strong relationship behind it between Kitsch and Stanton. The two seem more like buddies than co-workers.
Then the questions from the floor came on, the first two being for Collins. When questioned about whether she had any fear of heights, she said she had, but that fearless Kitsch laid a challenge that she couldn’t refuse. However she feels about rope harnesses though, she likes air travel. Being spiritual, she feels that flight brings her closer to God.
The second question concerned whether Collins was ready to become this generation’s Slave Leia? Her answer was that, though she never felt sexualised (being half naked being the natural state on Mars), she did at least tacitly acknowledge her and her more revealing outfits, might be popping up on young boy’s walls in future. Oddly, nothing was said about whether chained and muscly Kitsch might be appearing on walls of those of the opposite sexual inclination.
Stanton got the next couple of questions. Asked whether it was a relief to leave the Pixar studios after so long, he described it as a needed boost, though also mentioning how much hard work the real world had waiting for him.
The next question was one of mine: one concerning the thoughts that lay behind the extended backstories of Carter and Thoris. Stanton replied that the aim was to have characters that changed. In his opinion the book versions of the characters were static, the legacy of a serial narrative. In the interceding years, such static characters have become cliché. He said they preserved the core of these characters (debatable: John Carter in the film is a completely different person to John Carter of the source book) while adding enough for them to be relatable.
Next, both the producers were asked about the relationship with the Burroughs estate.
Apparently Danton Burroughs was a big fan of what Andrew chose to do with the story to update it and bring it to the big screen. This is pretty unsurprising though. Apparently Pixar is full to the brim with Burroughs geeks, and with that combined love for the source behind this project, I’m not surprised they won over Burroughs’ heir.
Stanton got the next couple questions. He immediately shot down the notion that modern science fiction has ‘plundered’ from Burroughs. He sees instead the legacy of his books as inspirational, which is why in fact he felt it worth adapting. Pure Burroughs has not yet been seen. Though honestly, I reckon we won’t see pure Burroughs while we live on a planet, not exactly ok with the whole colonialism thing anymore.
Stanton then got asked a question about target audiences, in the context of the rebranding of the film (during production the name was changed from John Carter of Mars to just John Carter). Stanton was at first extra vehement about never giving two shits about who his films are for: obviously it’s an area of discussion he has grown to hate. But when it moved on to the title change he revealed the depressing truth: production felt that removing the phrase ‘of Mars’ would trick people who hate sci fi into attending. Their opinion of the average intelligence of the general public is fairly depressing.
But this point did generate a little extra discussion on what the movie actually is. Lindsay Collins (producer not actress: they must have had problems with those names at some point) told a story that compared JC to a combo of Downton Abbey and Spartacus: a costume drama, with swords. Which honestly, considering the all-consuming focus on aesthetic and action, it might as well be.
There was a spike of amusement towards the end: the host commented on how Kitsch looked like he could take on Mike Tyson in the movie, but is now all dapper (Stanton whispers to Kitsch that he’s being called fat). But while Kitsch was talking about his effort to get the historically accurate level of muscly for the role, Willem Dafoe started shadowboxing to his left, getting a laugh from panel and audience alike. I regretted then not asking him a question: it was more professionally interesting getting something out of Stanton, but I figure questioning Dafoe would have been more fun.
The event wrapped with Stanton praising Twitter for allowing him to cut through the bullshit and talk to people directly. As such, I am still rather tempted to tell him to his twitter feed, that I thought his obvious love for the source material had crippled the film, and that he really has to stop using the Hero’s Journey to guide his storytelling. But the joy of finding out that I was right in my suppositions about his opinion of the books, and that Willem Dafoe is a lovely man in addition to being a great actor, has so far given me enough goodwill to restrain from doing so. Hopefully, for the sake of leaving bridges unburnt, this goodwill shall persist.