Andrew Stanton should be a household name by now: He’s directed two of the most popular and acclaimed films of all time, WALL-E and Finding Nemo, and he co-wrote the screenplays for Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., and A Bug’s Life. He was one of the first employees of Pixar, and has been an integral part of the animation studio’s rise to cinematic excellence. With this week’s release of the immense, long-awaited John Carter, an adaptation of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs’s early twentieth-century Barsoom book series, Stanton has taken on the biggest challenge of his career: An expensive, big studio, live-action, sci-fi-fantasy-adventure tentpole based on a relentlessly old-fashioned property that is not well known to today’s audiences. And the challenge was a long time coming for the 47-year-old writer-director. He’d been wanting to film these novels — about the daring, swashbuckling adventures of a U.S. Civil War soldier who is transported among the alien races of the Red Planet — since first reading them as a young boy. Stanton sat down recently with Vulture to talk about how he went about adapting the books, avoiding retreads, and hoping for a trilogy.
Scale-wise, this feels like one of the biggest films I’ve ever seen. Mainly because you’re creating a whole new world here, unlike in, say, Transformers.
That’s what the books felt like — like you were exploring this strange new world in all its detail. Here I am, a kid in 1976, and I’m reading a 1912 book that my friends suggested I read, and I feel like I’m reading a travel guide to some continent and culture that I’d never visited before. I didn’t take it as made up. I knew it was, but it was described as something that could exist and that we could travel to. And a part of me so desperately wanted to go there and meet these people. Then, one year after that, Star Wars comes out, and I feel like I have gone somewhere. And interestingly, seeing Star Wars made me wish even more that the John Carter books would get made. So I feel like there was some unintentional promise made to me, between those two events, that it would happen some day. I feel like I waited 36 years for it to happen. I spent my whole life as a fan just dying to go to this world. I wasn’t thinking I’d be the one to make it happen; I never even thought I’d be doing any of the things I’ve been doing. I couldn’t plan for that — but I’ve been planning my whole life to buy a ticket and go.
How did being such a fan affect the adaptation process?
What I did was I found two other huge fans. Working at Pixar you learn the really honest, hard way of making a great movie, which is to surround yourself with people who are much smarter than you, much more talented than you, and incite constructive criticism; you’ll get a much better movie out of it. It’s hard, it’s never fun, you’ll hear a lot of things you don’t want to hear, and you’ll fall down a lot, but I’ve only ever had greatness come out of that process. So I got Mark Andrews, who I knew well and who loved the property from the same age as me, and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, who also grew up with the book. So we all felt some kind of dedication to the story to not tarnish it.
How do you preserve something that, even though it’s technically never been done before, has, in a way, influenced so many other big movies that came later? How do you keep your movie from feeling like a Star Wars or Avatar retread?
You embrace everything about how it was originally done. Don’t worry about modernizing it, don’t worry about contemporizing it, don’t think about the fact that anybody has used these pieces. It’s like everybody’s made West Side Story, but nobody knows Romeo and Juliet yet. You just have to assume nobody’s done this one quite like this before. If you honor the direct DNA of it, you’ll be okay. Part of that was to honor the 1912 style of it. The 1912 lust for adventure, the way the world was seen at the turn of the century. You don’t look at Moby Dick and think, “How do I get a battleship in there?” It’s Moby Dick; part of what makes it great is that you get to go back and experience it and think, ‘This is what it was like back then.’” I mean, if I could make it feel like the movie itself was made back then, then I would — but obviously movie-making has changed in all sorts of ways and become more immersive since then.
“Immersive” is a good word to describe these novels, too.
Edgar Rice Burroughs was right on the cusp of that shift exemplified by writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. At the time it was all about discovering the next country, discovering the next land on your own planet. So, it was a natural instinct for him to just treat this world like it was just another continent, only you had to jump over the gap of outer space instead of the ocean.
That also brings up some strange similarities with WALL-E, and maybe to a lesser degree with Finding Nemo: the sense of exploring the world and the universe, getting lost in space or the ocean and discovering yourself.
Maybe having read those books, it affected my work. I think you could go back to any filmmaker or musician or artist, and look at what their input was in their formative years, and you could trace all the lines. I just think that’s the rule of how things work. Great art inspires great art. We’re all going to keep telling love stories, we’re all going to tell hero stories. It’s all a question of what your own thumbprint, your own DNA, is, and what it brings to the tale that makes it unique.
Was there anything in the adaptation that it broke your heart to lose?
Nothing broke my heart. If it broke my heart, I would have fought for it. There are some things that I had to agree to put aside for now, because we’ve always envisioned this as a trilogy with the first three books. So it’s really like we’ve made the pilot to a season we’re hoping to get. But there are these beasts called Banths, which are like lions with multiple legs, and they are in all the books. And there’s also this idea that all the air on Mars is actually created by these air factories hidden all over the planet. Those things I’ve had to just say, “We’ll sacrifice them in the first story, and we’ll come back to them later.” So for those 100 or so diehards like me out there who are bummed about losing those, I can say that we didn’t take it lightly, we didn’t slash and burn, we’re hoping to get to those later. We’ve just been a bit more strategic about where we place things and how we introduce certain concepts and characters.
I know also that you’ve had some stories printed about the budget and about reshoots …
First of all, it’s a huge budget. Absolutely huge. But, hey, it’s all on the screen. At least, I would like to think so, because man were we smart with our time and our money. I could approach half of it the way I approached Pixar movies — because essentially half of it is animated. I mean, there are more animated shots, number-wise, in this than in WALL-E or Finding Nemo. I knew going in that it would essentially have to be an animated movie combined with a live action movie. So both myself and Disney were willing to take the gamble. Fifty percent of it we knew I could handle. But could I rise to the occasion and tackle the other 50 percent?
As for reshoots: If you’ve ever done anything artistic, you know you never do it just once. You never get it right the first time. You don’t ask a guitar player to put their fingers to the frets once and that’s it. No, they jam until they get it. And then they jam again, and then they take a couple of licks and they add to it. Every good writer knows that it’s all in rewriting. Well, every good filmmaker knows it’s all in reshoots. And there’s nothing dirty about it. At Pixar, we plan the whole thing in advance with storyboards, and then we put it on the screen, and we know it won’t work, and then we take it down and put it up again. We do a minimum of four reshoots on every film we make. You wonder why our films are good? It’s not because we’re smarter than everybody. It’s because we know to get back on our bike and ride again.