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'John Carter' director blends film fantasy with a real feeling for Mars

Director Andrew Stanton watches over the filming of a scene for "John Carter," the Disney blockbuster based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' century-old Mars fantasy novel.

Hollywood film director Andrew Stanton says no one should go to the $250 million 3-D blockbuster "John Carter" expecting to see a documentary about Mars — but he also says the movie, based on a century-old fantasy novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, reflects some 21st-century insights about the Red Planet.

He's not talking about the 9-foot-tall green aliens or the impossibly agile feather fliers that folks on Mars get around on. He's not even talking about the scenes where the title character, a Civil War veteran who finds himself mysteriously transported to the next world over, jumps hundreds of feet in the air and lands effortlessly with nary a thud. (Sure, Mars has just one-third of Earth's gravity, but you'd still land pretty hard.)

What Stanton has in mind is the wide-angle view: the fact that at least in some places, the real Mars looks much like the terrain in Utah where many of the exterior scenes were filmed. Some scenes were filmed just one hill over from the site of the Mars Desert Research Station, where researchers operating under the aegis of the Mars Society are testing the tools and techniques that someday might be used for real-life missions to the Red Planet.

Stanton notes that Burroughs had it right when he imagined a dry world where water once flowed in profusion. Findings from NASA's Mars rovers and orbiters have reinforced the view that Mars was warmer and wetter billions of years ago, but lost its oceans and much of its atmosphere due to its weak magnetic field and weak gravity. If life ever flourished on the Martian surface, it lost its footing a long time ago.

The vision of Mars provided in Burroughs' 11 "Barsoom" novels, and in Stanton's movie, is more like the Red Planet as it was understood in the late 19th and early 20th century. This was an era when tycoon astronomer Percival Lowell thought he could make out well-built canals and the hints of civilization through the telescope he had built in Arizona for Mars-watching. The Martian maps created by Lowell and his contemporaries set the scene at the start of the movie.

Civil War vet John Carter is mysteriously transported to Mars in "John Carter."

Burroughs' novels have been a staple of youngsters' imaginings for generations — and today they're freely available online, thanks to Project Gutenberg. Just go to Gutenberg.org's search page, type in "Burroughs," and start with "A Princess of Mars," the novel that provides the plot for "John Carter." You can even download an audiobook version for free.

The movie will hit your pocketbook a bit harder — and that raises the big question about "John Carter": Will the film earn back the estimated quarter-billion dollars in costs and go on to make a profit? Stanton has had a pretty good track record so far, artistically and financially: The 46-year-old Oscar-winner was one of the first animators to join the Pixar studio, became one of the key writers for "Toy Story," made a splash as the director of "Finding Nemo" and had an out-of-this world success as director, writer and voice character for "WALL-E."

"John Carter" marks Stanton's live-action directing debut — and the stakes could hardly be higher, not just because of the huge financial gamble, but also because of the tricky source material. Can Stanton breathe new life into a tale first told in 1912, and still do right by Burroughs' fans? Stanton thinks he can, in part because he's a super-fan himself.

"I’ve wanted to see this story on the screen since I was 11," he told me. "As a fan, I’ve spent my whole life just waiting for somebody to please put it on the screen. When it finally got put into my lap, I suddenly found myself in the driver’s seat."

Stanton and I talked about his vision of Mars, and his expectations for the movie, during a telephone interview last month. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A: 

Cosmic Log: A lot of directors say when they're doing a science-fiction movie, the first thing they think about is telling a good story, and then they have to think about being faithful to the source material, and then they try to slide in a little science just so the film doesn’t look too outlandish. Did you find that you had to keep a lot of those factors in mind as you were working on "John Carter"?

Andrew Stanton: Well, part of the charm and the romance of the book is attached to the time it was written, when we didn’t know enough. It was inspired by the slight improvement in telescopes, and you could see a little bit more of vague detail on the surface of Mars. And that inspired a lot of imagination and wonder in a lot of people’s minds, including Edgar Rice Burroughs. The fantasy he came up with was intriguing, and I didn’t want to debunk it. There’s no fun in that. I mean, there’s a reason why I do stories with fish that talk underwater. If you’re not up for taking that license with your imagination, then you might as well not read the story.

Frank Connor / Disney

During filming in Utah, "John Carter" director Andrew Stanton looks over some papers in the foreground while Taylor Kitsch, who plays the title role in the movie, stands in the background.

Q: Is there anything in particular you did to try to have the audience accept that?

A: Yeah, there was. As a kid, the 11-year-old part of me that read the book, you want to believe that it might be something that could happen. You want to put yourself in the position of the main character and say, "Wow, what would it really be like?" That was certainly part of the attraction. You want to believe that these kinds of flora and fauna and this civilization might exist out there.

We have the one advantage now that we know exactly what the surface of Mars looks like, thanks to all the Mars rovers rolling around and sending back all the images, and all the satellite images. You can Google-map Mars from your iPhone. What that told us is exactly what the geography looks like, and it looks a lot like the Southwest. It’s very much an empty 'Dead Sea' desert, where it’s very evident that billions of years ago there used to be water. That was something I could immediately take advantage of and incorporate. That allowed me to shoot in real locations, and make it much more believable and authentic. If you can take a little bit of license and ask, "What if Burroughs was right?" — this might be what it would be like.

Q: Are there things that you want to let Edgar Rice Burroughs fans know? To say, "This is going to be just a little bit different, because of the way we had to do this movie for the 21st century"?

A: No, the funny thing is, I took the exact opposite approach. If I was the kid in 1976 who could fall in love with a 1912 book, for example, the way it was written, I took it as no different from somebody suddenly coming across "Moby Dick" or "Romeo and Juliet." I fell in love with the time period that it evoked. I wanted to embrace, wholeheartedly, the timelessness of the story and the mythic aspects, but also embrace the historical aspect of it. So I delved right into the late 1800s in the U.S., and I tried to treat the surface of Mars as the people of that time period saw it. They’re all things of the past, and there’s nobody alive today to prove it was any different. It really kind of works that way. I think that's what I want, and I know that's what a lot of people want when they go to see movies. They don’t hope everything's been contemporized to now. I want to be transported somewhere else, and be brought to another place, and meet other people, and believe it.

Q: Are there any things that you drew from planetology, or anything you thought was helpful for filling the gaps when you go from the book to the movie? Often people have scientific advisers to tell them what it should be like in the movie…

A: I found that I had way more scientific advisers on "Finding Nemo" and "WALL-E" than I did on this one, because of the fantasy nature. I had more research done on what it was like to live and work in the United States in the late 1800s. But once it came to Mars, it was all whatever you wanted to make up and whatever Burroughs described. But my big mandate was, I wanted to treat it like a "period film" of a period we just didn’t know about. I wanted it to have as much authenticity as if I had done the historical research — as if we had gone back to somewhere in time in our own world, whether that would be the Middle East or feudal Japan or South America. I wanted it to have that kind of gravitas, even though we had to make it up.


Director Andrew Stanton (right) consults with actor Willem Dafoe, who is perched on stilts for a motion-capture scene. Another crew member wears a green body suit to blend in with the special effects.

It’s the same thing with the environment. Instead of making up these evil-looking creatures, we looked at anything we could think of in nature that would root itself with any the creatures that people rode, or some of the species. One of the most prominent things is this race of green men called the Tharks, which are 9 feet tall with tusks and four arms. I didn’t want them to look like characters that some little kid drew in his notebook and then put on the screen. I wanted them to look like beings that truly evolved in the desert. We have all this history to go back to — so many cultures that have had to survive and push for many generations in the desert, whether it’s Australia’s Aborigines, or the Masai warriors, or the Bedouin. You see all these common denominators that connect them: They’re very thin, they’re very ropy, they just need the essentials to survive. You can pull those common denominators and then make up your own derivative race from that. We did that with everything, so that it would really feel as if nature had evolved all of this.

Q: When it came to designing the landscapes for the movie, it sounds as if you were inspired by that blending of American Southwest and what’s currently known about Mars. Did you go with what our current knowledge of the Martian landscape, or did you go with the Burroughsesque fantasy?

A: I went with what’s really out there, because I wanted it to be believable. I didn’t have the money or the desire to make stuff up. If an ocean goes away, and the ground is left there … like I said, the Mars rover footage proved that it looks like it does in Utah. There’s really very little difference. As a matter of fact, there were areas where we shot where NASA has had people researching what it might be like to colonize Mars if we ever do put a man there. And you can see why: You feel like you’re on another planet. It’s very alienesque. It’s not flat and boring. It’s not like Sahara sand deserts. It’s very unique, and that was part of the attraction of Utah as well, that you could drive two or three hours in any direction and see entirely different, foreign, alien terrain. It’s like having a state-sized movie lot.

Q: Do you draw any inspiration from other science-fiction films? For example, a lot of people have been wondering whether this film is going to be another "Avatar" … What did you take from other imaginative presentations of otherworldly settings?

A: I didn’t need to. Again, Burroughs is the source. Burroughs is the Rosetta Stone of science fiction. It’s what everything else has been inspired by. It inspired "Superman," "Flash Gordon," "Star Wars," "Avatar" — so I had no interest in making a Xerox of a Xerox. I wanted to go to the original source to try to capitalize on what was specific to Burroughs’ DNA and thumbprint. That was the thing nobody had ever copied.

Nobody’s ever really done his book. People have only been inspired by it. It’s like saying people have been inspired to create very nice harmonious, catchy tunes, but nobody’s literally tried to riff off the Beatles, and nobody’s heard the actual Beatles music. That’s what I felt like I was doing by embracing the book itself. A lot of people don’t know that Burroughs wrote 11 books about this character and this world. So it was like having my own field guide. It was like having an encyclopedia describing how the history of this world went, the people’s names, the names of places, dates, flora, fauna. It was almost an overload of information. If anything, we had to cut down how much we described the place. The books are so dense with description. It doesn’t read like a sci-fi space novel, it reads like a traveler or a tourist who has gone to an unexplored area of our world and found a lost continent. That’s what was romantic and interesting to me. It really wasn’t space.

Q: Did you base it on "A Princess of Mars," or did you incorporate material from the other books as well?

A: It’s 100 percent based on "A Princess of Mars." But because we know that these relationships and stories continue, to improve the narrative, to give it a much stronger three-act structure and make it more of a character-growth piece — which is not what the first book was like — I took license to either edit things out or took characters from places that we needed to know about in the later books and brought them in earlier. We treated it like a good television season that you’re planning for, but now you’re putting out the pilot.

Q: So there may be a sequel in the works?

A: We were really smart, because I fell in love with this as a series. The series was finished in 1959 or 1960, so it was all written by the time I was born and started to read these things. I never saw it as a single novel, I saw it as my "Harry Potter" series. I always hoped it would start a whole legacy of films, so what we did is, we optioned the rights to the first three books and outlined all three together like a trilogy, and just set our sights on seriously making the first one. We’re just crossing our fingers that people will like it enough that we can continue.

Q: But you didn’t pull a “Lord of the Rings” maneuver and shoot scenes for future films, I take it.

A: We talked about it. Fortunately, Disney had been through shooting "Pirates" 2 and 3 at the same time, and they had come to the conclusion that there really was no upside to doing that. As clever as it sounds, it causes an equal amount of problems as if you  didn’t shoot the movies together. So they said it wasn’t worth it, especially for me, doing this for my first time. It’s hard enough for me to try to do this one time around, let alone shooting two movies at the same time.

Q: I wanted to ask about that idea of going from animated to live action. Was there anything about the subject matter that made it easier or harder for you to make the switch?

A: Every film that I've ever worked on has taken a minimum of four years. I learned a long time ago that I have to love the idea so much that I’ll be willing to get out of bed and face it when it’s not working, which is most of the time. Most of the time, these movies aren’t working. It’s like raising children. Most of the time, it’s a struggle, and then you get these wonderful little pockets of bliss. That’s the fuel. That’s what gets me into making a movie and working on a movie.

I don’t have a love for a medium. I don’t think, "Oh, I want to make this just because it’s animated, or just because it’s live action." There’s no carrot there for me. It’s all about the story and the idea that I want to see done. That’s what gave me the guts to tackle working in animation on "Toy Story" in the first place. It gave me the guts to suddenly jump into being a screenwriter and try my hand at directing when I did "Nemo." Everything I’ve worked on has had some huge challenge, some huge first that I’ve never done before, but it’s always been fueled by the feeling that I really wanted to see that story on the screen.

This had the deepest seed planted, because I’ve wanted to see this story on the screen since I was 11. As a fan, I’ve spent my whole life just waiting for somebody to please put it on the screen. When it finally got put into my lap, I suddenly found myself in the driver’s seat. That’s what gave me the guts to tackle the live-action part.

But what a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s half an animated movie and half a live-action movie, blended perfectly together. There are more animated shots in this movie than in "Finding Nemo." So I really wasn’t giving up anything that I’ve learned. This is capitalizing on everything that I’ve learned and then adding on top of it the live-action aspect. Which wasn’t as huge of a change as I expected it to be. It’s really still talking to 200 artists about what’s going to be on the screen, what’s the story about, what we’re designing. The conversations were identical. There was really no translation. It’s just that suddenly you’re doing it under duress, outside all the time, in extreme conditions. It’s almost like boot camp, because you don’t have a life. You’re working from sunrise to sunset for 100 days straight. That was very different. I was so used to working banker’s hours in offices for years. But the physical endurance was the only big, big difference.

Q: With the premiere coming up, I’m curious about how you’re feeling – because there are mixed reports. Some people say it’s going to be a huge bomb. Other people say they can hardly wait to see it. Do you get butterflies in your stomach, or have you been through all this before?

A: Yeah, you can look back, and that’s been said about every big film, and about everything I’ve ever worked on. You just have to ignore it all. All you can do is control how good it'll be when you sit in the theater. I can't control people's predictions. I can’t control people's responses afterward, as far as box office and all that kind of stuff. But what I've always been able to control is to make it the best experience I can for you when you sit down in the theater. And that, I feel I've done.

More about our changing view of Mars:

Later this week: Planetary scientists reflect on how our conception of Mars has changed in the past century, and how it will change again in the next year.

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.