Quint forces Jon Favreau to spill all about JOHN CARTER OF MARS!!!
Published at: Oct. 9, 2005, 12:57 a.m. CST by staff
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a long chat full of information on how Jon Favreau is approaching his directorial duties on JOHN CARTER OF MARS. I interviewed him for ZATHURA, but considering I've now done two interviews with him on the film (read here for interview one as part of my set report and here's interview two from Comic-Con), so we spent 27 minutes of our 30 minute interview talking about JOHN CARTER.
We go over what the current status is on the script, how he slipped into the director's chair, how he's planning on adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs' fantastic novel and why he really wants to do the project. I'm really proud of this interview and I just love the genuine enthusiasm Favreau has for this project, the respect he has for the Burroughs novels and his overall honesty on what's currently going on with the film. Enjoy the chat!
QUINT: So... big news in your life at the moment, eh?
JON FAVREAU: Yeah, me doing JOHN CARTER is the film geek equivalent of me dating Jennifer Anniston. Now everybody all of a sudden has a personal stake in my career.
QUINT: Well, it's good for ZATHURA, too. Now the sci-fi geeks will want to see the movie to see how you handle the genre.
JON FAVREAU: Which is actually really good because up until recently it was on the kids' radars a lot and now it's going to have to stand up to the scrutiny of the sci-fi fans, but we put in the work, so I'm really curious to see how people respond because it definitely was a different approach to what is going on now in science fiction.
To jump to JOHN CARTER a little bit, here I am stepping in and the last two directors who have been attached have a very different approach to filmmaking than I do. They're both real Jack of All Trades, they both do a lot of different things on their films, especially (Robert) Rodriguez, who seemingly does every aspect of filmmaking. I'm much more specialized. I don't have that group of skills. I tend to be somebody who focuses more on the storytelling and then bring in people who are really good at what they do and are inspired by the material. Together we form a strategy based on the overriding thrust of the film.
QUINT: Well, both Kerry Conran and Robert Rodriguez are both heavy CG users. On ZATHURA you made a big deal about using as many models and practical effects as possible...
JON FAVREAU: Right. I think that the main goal for me as a filmmaker, being that I come from acting and then writing, is to approach it from the humanity of the characters. I haven't really responded to the approach that had been taking yet in the adaptation in the little bit that I've seen, but I found that the books themselves, specifically the first one, is a perfect myth in the Joseph Campbell sense. All you have to do is maintain the integrity of that myth and you have a story that could sustain a great deal of special effects and a great deal of visual fireworks, but you have to maintain the integrity of what Burroughs tapped in to.
The John Carter character is very archetypical and that's what was intriguing about this material is if you stand fast to what was there, you can have a lot of fun visually. I think that was ultimately the strength of the STAR WARS films, especially the first one, which stuck very close to the myth. Joseph Campbell himself even acknowledged that the STAR WARS story was right up there with world religions as far as how true it was to the mythological aspects of it.
That's what's exciting. As a director, that gives you something to hang on to that could sustain you even past a single film. That's why LORD OF THE RINGS was so strong. Again, you had a mythology that you were depending on and were sticking close to. On the films that I've worked on, I've had to impose that and really struggle to keep that aspect of it, because they were so mundane. You know, MADE and SWINGERS and ELF, but it's there. I mean, I really tried to.
So, this is very exciting. I feel like I'm at a point in my career where I've done enough different things. I understand the technical aspects enough to conduct a lot of other talented people around the technical aspects of it while still maintaining a very strong connection to the characters and the romance involved in the book.
QUINT: What's great about the book is that each and every action set piece goes to further either John Carter's quest or strengthen his love for Dejah Thoris. The visual eye candy, if adapted correctly for the material, won't be hollow, you know?
JON FAVREAU: That's right.
QUINT: Especially in the first couple books there is very little fat. Everything that happens is moving the story forward.
JON FAVREAU: There are issues in the book that have to be solved. There are things that don't lend themselves perfectly plot-wise, but thematically it's very strong and very true and as long as you have that spine you can solve those problems.
My instinct is going to be to take it maybe a different way than (how) most people would approach this. Most people would approach this as an epic. I would approach it as a very personal story. I would approach it as not the story of the book, but the story of the manuscripts within the book. Cut right to the story of John Carter and not take all that time framing it because that tends to make it a little more important and little bit more precious than it should be for general audiences. It may satisfy purists to use every page of the book, but my first instinct is to just make it about John Carter.
QUINT: Well, if LORD OF THE RINGS proved anything, if you get the essence of what the book was trying to and capture the spirit of the book, most of the hardcore fans will forgive you telling the story in a different way.
JON FAVREAU: They will like it if it makes them feel the same way reading the book made them feel. So, when I look at it I don't look at it as a big epic. I don't even look at it in the scope of LORD OF THE RINGS. Maybe eventually it gets to that point, but looking at mass CG battles gets... It's kinda interesting the first time you see it, but if you keep going to that over the course of a movie it tends to create distance emotionally. It's like watching a video game.
QUINT: Well, it depends on how you do it. I think the reason the Pelennor Fields battle in RETURN OF THE KING worked so well is that Jackson focused on single elements in the larger battle, following characters we've come to care for and focusing on them, not just faraway shots of CG people fighting. It's the same thing if you have an army of 10,000 extras. That'll get old unless you focus on the developed characters...
JON FAVREAU: That's right. That's right... you know, BRAVEHEART was very effective. But I think the first time people saw Massive rendering a battle scene it was just mind blowing in the technology. Now you've seen it. Now it is like watching a Cecil B. DeMille thousand extras scene. The pageantry of it doesn't forgive you poor storytelling.
So, my in to the film is to keep it very personal and small in the beginning. One of the movies I point to as I talk to the studio and people who I want to collaborate with is the first PLANET OF THE APES. It didn't bend itself out of shape trying to explain the technology behind it. They really made it a personal journey about somebody in a strange land learning about a strange culture in a strange society and eventually getting to a point where he understands it and could communicate with them.
But really, ultimately, you have to dial into what this guy is experiencing if this really were happening. The story is so fantastic that the responsibility of the filmmakers is to put it in a context that the audience can emotionally connect to. If that connection exists and is maintained, you can push all of these things. There's going to be no lack of excitement, visual excitement.
The other big challenge is the Tharks. How do you create a cast of characters that is an alien race that...
QUINT: That doesn't just look like a man in a suit?
JON FAVREAU: That doesn't look like... on one side a guy in a suit...
QUINT: Or a big CGI blob...
JON FAVREAU: Yeah, you got the two choices. You have sort of the BATTLEFIELD EARTH route to go, where you take a human and make them as different as you can size-wise and physically, which I don't think you totally buy, or you go the Gollum route, which is very expensive and ultimately I think that if you had 6 Gollums talking to each other I don't know that you could differentiate them that well, although it worked very well for one. Also, performances suffer.
What I would like to do is find a way to base it around performers so that I could actually cast people as Tharks and not just their voices to be behind CG puppets. That being said, I have to see what the state of the art CG does right now, but my sense is that it's a mixture of practical with some sort of CG augmentation to help sell how they're different from people. I don't to just put big shoes on them and rubber arms.
That's going to be the challenge, in doing a lot of research. I think that PLANET OF THE APES, the first one, even though the make-up was sort of restrictive of the movement of the faces and I wouldn't want to go completely down that route, I did feel that you were able to differentiate the apes. You knew it was Roddy McDowell in there and it was a wonderful performance and there was emotion involved.
I was talking to one of the people who previously worked on this movie in the art department and we were talking about Boris Karloff's performance in FRANKENSTEIN. His face was Boris Karloff and his performance, but it was augmented and built upon with prosthetics. Pretty extensive low-tech prosthetics. It was pre-Latex. I mean, it was like a terrible process and the stuff would melt, but somehow it didn't interfere with the performance. There has to be a digital equivalent of that now.
I think the biggest challenge is to humanize the Tharks and that speaks to how you would write the story and how much you'd have to thin out those characters for the sake of being cinematic.
QUINT: All I gotta say about the Tharks is Keith David.
JON FAVREAU: You like Keith David. Thanks to his voice?
QUINT: I do hear his voice when I read Tars Tarkis.
JON FAVREAU: The other interesting thing is I've been getting the information from people who have been involved with this project... I had no idea of the 75 year struggle of development that's been on this film.
QUINT: Like the cartoon?
JON FAVREAU: Everything. You mean concurrent with SNOW WHITE at Disney? That cartoon?
JON FAVREAU: Yeah. Everybody has either tried to get the rights or tried to get involved with it. The more I talk to people it feels like I'm Jack Nicholson in CHINATOWN as I'm, like, learning all the intricacies and talking and having conversations with people who are very passionate and have a history with this thing. It's very overwhelming to think of all these talented people who have been involved with this thing and haven't been able to crack this nut and I'm just hoping that the technology has created a tipping point that has made this very readable story now filmable.
It really is exciting, that whole aspect of it is really intriguing and I can see myself burying into this movie for years to come.
QUINT: You said that you don't think they've cracked the movie, yet...
JON FAVREAU: Script-wise, yet.
QUINT: So, are you going to go to someone other than Ehren Kruger?
JON FAVREAU: Yeah, I think we have to find somebody with a much more traditional take on the material that keeps closer to the books. I've never met with Ehren. I know that as a writer once you've worked on a project for so long and it hasn't moved any further to getting made, I get frustrated as a writer. We may need some new blood in there. I don't know how much of what he wrote were choices that were forced upon or how much came from him. I know that the drafts didn't really speak to me, in a sense of what I thought was appealing about the books.
I think you just have to find somebody who's very good with structure. Remember, I'm always there to help with the characters, the humanity, the dialogue. I'm not trying to reinvent these characters, I'm just trying to find their essence. I'm very confident in my understanding as a writer and as a director of the human dynamic between these people. What I need is somebody who could help break the back of this piece structurally, so you're not forced to make tough decisions about what can stay and can go.
I think there are set pieces that we can build around, but there are problems to be solved logistically about the language, technically about the physiology of the aliens and the alien creatures. The one thing I'm not worried about, however, is trying to reinvent it because it's too similar to all the movies that have picked the bones of this material for the last, you know, close to 100 years. I don't mind that it's close to STAR WARS or FLASH GORDON. Really, anything in science-fiction that dealt with similar issues since has drawn a lot from Burroughs. But I think the fact that since it's been around since then gives you the freedom to go right after it and not be afraid of being similar in certain ways to other things that have subsequently come. You know, I'm going fly right at it. I'm not gonna be scared of it.
QUINT: Since the script didn't connect with you, you must have been in the fortunate position of telling the studio you want a brand new script, even though they've already paid for this one... and I'm sure they agreed if you signed onto the film...
JON FAVREAU: Well, it's a new regime and that was part of what was cool. I was meeting with Brad Weston who I had known since before he was at Paramount. We had been trying to work with each other because we had both come from comedy. After we had gone through all the comedy projects... to be honest at my age, I'm getting close to 40 now, I don't really have a new take on comedy that I haven't done already.
I'm at a different point in my directing career where I actually want to do things visually and cinematically and I want to explore technologies while maintaining the emotional aspect of storytelling, but I'm not that irreverent in my tastes anymore. I'm a father now, I'm married. I'm not keyed into the same things I was keyed in to when I did SWINGERS, so this is the type of move that's really appealing to me at my core.
I know that my 4 year old... You know, I read JOHN CARTER to him when I put him to sleep at night and he's transfixed with it, even though he doesn't completely understand it. This is something that appeals to me not just as a filmmaker, but spiritually I think there is a really wonderful story to tell here.
After we had our big meeting with Brad and there wasn't any projects that seemed appealing with sort of the usual suspects of comedy and the usual concepts that accompany them... Those films are very lucrative and very funny and I enjoy watching them, but I don't know that I really have a take on that genre now.
At the very end, as we're paying the check, I said, "What's going on with JOHN CARTER?" And he said that it was sort of reaching a cross-roads and may be available because of what was happening with any number of aspects of it; be it the script, be it the change in the regime, be it what Kerry was going to be doing with his career. I'm not really sure, but there was a ray of hope that this material might be available.
I then looked over the source material and as it was indeed available, and the rights were coming up for renewal, they were about to lose the rights, I came in and gave a take on the material.
The basic take was: Stay true to the books, keep it intimate. Keep it emotionally true. Don't try to turn this into something it isn't. I think that take, in addition to what they may have heard about ZATHURA and the success of ELF, gave them the confidence to take the leap. They talked to the (Burroughs) Estate and the Estate then offered to extend the rights based on my involvement in the piece. That was very flattering to me.
As a result, I feel that I'm indebted, in a way, to the Estate. I want to stay very true to what Burroughs would have done and I know that Burroughs had foregone a lot of opportunities to make this into a movie because it did not maintain the spirit of the books. So, without being precious and without feeling confined by the plot of it, I definitely want to be true to the spirit of the story.
QUINT: So, then I take it that John Carter will still be a Civil War soldier?
JON FAVREAU: Yeah, and I've already mentioned this to them. I looked at that aspect of it. I think it is a story that would apply very well to today's soldiers, but I think it could do so more symbolically. If you really did change him to someone coming back from the Middle East it doesn't tell the complete story. First of all, he couldn't be a horseman and he couldn't be a swordsman.
QUINT: Him being a swordsman is such a huge part of the books is so essential for the image of John Carter.
JON FAVREAU: Well, it adds to the plausibility of the character. You're already cheating on the gravity, making him do super, you know, STARSHIP TROOPER leaps. It's already gonna be stylized. You're already taking a lot of artist license with the nature of life on Mars. You're already asking people to make a tremendous leap with the way he gets transported there, without asking a million questions. I don't want to undermine the plausibility anymore.
And I also think that being an officer in an army that no longer exists really speaks to his character and what makes him who he is. I think to sacrifice that you would lose aspects of the character that you don't even notice in a development meeting, but ultimately when you see the movie and write the script it would undermine the film.
My way around it is, "Don't spend too much time in the back story! Get to Mars pretty fast!" The manuscripts begin with him in the desert with his buddy, they're attacked by Indians and he's on Mars. I want to get to Mars!
In PLANET OF THE APES, the more that was explained in the later films really undermined the plausibility for me. When he (Chuck Heston) just showed up and got out of the capsule I didn't ask any questions. For some reason it all made sense. And the payoff with the Statue of Liberty really worked. It's not like I didn't understand enough. I understood just based on the little bit of exposition that snuck through. Same thing with ALIEN. I understood everything I needed to understand from that. And STAR WARS as well. I don't think more exposition is necessarily better. If that were the case, people would love Episodes 1, 2 and 3 more than 4, 5 and 6, but I don't think that's the case. I think people get their left brain fed and their right brain isn't entertained enough.
I think you have to stay true to the myth, be conscious of the emotional truth to the characters and the romance and all the rest of the stuff will fall into place behind it.
QUINT: Are you keeping any of Kerry's art team?
JON FAVREAU: I really like not just what Kerry had assembled as far as his group of people, but in talking to people who had been collaborating with him, his sensibility ultimately was not that far off from what my instincts on the material were. I think he was dealing with a different cast of characters at the studio, I think developing such a large project is a little bit overwhelming for somebody who doesn't have the political experience with the studios and I think that directors bring different skill sets to the equation.
I'm very fortunate in that I came up as an actor, then as a writer, through independent film and I've been around several times and I sort of understand how to get my priorities served. But unfortunately as a filmmaker sometimes it's a political dance and I know the old regime was a very difficult place even for me to get anything done. There were a lot of projects that I had that were languishing there because it was difficult for my concerns to be appreciated. It was a different time, a different generation.
And Kerry came to it with his vast skills as a filmmaker and his technical skills and his visual skills are up there with anybody, but you're really throwing somebody into the lion's den by having him try to do some potentially very lucrative and big career defining franchise for a studio, that could make or break a studio, with people who had been around a lot longer than him.
I think that if it had been truer to what his instincts were it may have gone a bit differently and he might not have been turned off to the process as much. My understanding is that there's a lot of other stuff that he could pursue where he doesn't have to concern himself with that aspect as much.
QUINT: The look of the film... You know, I have the '70s hardcover series with Frazetta's...
JON FAVREAU: I got (them), too. To me, my whole in to this material is the Frazetta paintings. Much in the way that for the Conan movies, (John) Milius' in was the Frazetta paintings. That becomes the be all and end all. From there you have the (William) Stout drawings and you have the iterations that came visually that were inspired by the books.
I even have the old Golden Key comic books. I've just stripped eBay. Anybody who has been bidding on John Carter stuff has gotten it sniped from them by me over the last few months. But I sort of want to put it all into my mind and then begin to do tests to see what technology right now can offer and find that we may be at the time where the pendulum has swung back and forth between the old Yoda and the new Yoda. There might be something in the middle that has the best of both worlds.
So, the technology is going to speak to the storytelling a lot, but as far as the look I think the Frazetta... Well, the Frazetta paintings were up on my walls in the production offices of ZATHURA. If you look at the Zorgons, you look at the armor that was designed by Stan Winston for these Lizard-men, its all very much inspired by the Thark armor.
When it was announced originally that Rodriguez was doing it, my whole art department was like, "Oh, man! Look!" because we were sort of drawing from the same stuff. I think it was announced, too, that Frazetta was somehow involved with it. It's so funny how all the filmmakers of my generation sort of share a common set of influences, especially the geekier ones. I know that Rodriguez is a huge Conan fan and we all sort of get excited by the same type of stuff.
So, when the thing rolled over a few times and then became available I was very excited that I was now in a position to really seize upon that opportunity. But I've been looking over all the stuff that the other filmmakers before me, even pre-Conran and Rodriguez, have been doing. I think that people have really cared about this and are passionate about it and I welcome anything that anybody's done right before me. I'm pretty egoless about this thing. The best idea wins. Whatever makes the movie the best it can be.
Hopefully the people who have been working on it before me will take an interest in the way this thing turns out. I'd love to hear their input because they've obviously given things a lot of thought. There have been a lot of dead ends on this movie and you don't to repeat the mistakes of the movie that came before you.
Harry talked to me for about half an hour last night about the history of this project. He should write an article about how this thing dates back all the way to SNOW WHITE and Disney and (Ray) Harryhausen and he even said that Lucas was interested in the material before he did STAR WARS... and, you know, there's (John) Boorman and the list goes on and on of people who really saw the potential in this thing. It's a bit intimidating in a way, but it also makes me feel like I'm on to something and this is worthy piece of material to spend the years that I would have to to not just ensure that one movie would come out good, but that I'm true enough to the material on the first movie that it would lend itself to extending it into a whole franchise.
QUINT: So, you're interested in being a part of more than just the first movie?
JON FAVREAU: Part of what we're telling Paramount is that I'm willing to get involved with this thing in a much great way than just as a director for hire on one movie. I want to make sure that I don't steal from later books so much that I can't go ahead and help bring those to the screen as well.
QUINT: Good, as long as we get to the Plant Men in Book 2. Those things scare the shit out of me.
JON FAVREAU: Yeah! They are scary, but there are things in the book that are... You know, you're dealing with religious issues, you're dealing with a lot of social commentary. Burroughs had a very strong opinion about religion and about different issues of his time, but ultimately I think the books are very spiritually correct. What Carter represents and what the different cultures represent, it's a real cautionary tale of where we're heading in our future and I don't want to lose that.
If you're going to make a movie of this scope, it has to have a social relevance that is not overtly obvious, but people, as they're enjoying and being entertained by the movie, under the radar a message comes through. The aspirin in the applesauce as they say and that's really what's appealing about this to me.
[After a medium-ish pause]
We should talk a little bit about the other movie. We have five minutes left!
QUINT: Sure... How do you think the screening went last night?
JON FAVREAU: I was really stoked. I was really stoked on the fact that all the things that I had fought to keep in because it was appealing to me were finally getting responses in this audience as far as the humor, the storytelling, the sensibility. After test screenings... for families there's a lot of stuff in the movie that got too scary at times, the sensibility was adult in certain areas. I think it was a nice balance where it's appropriate for kids, but it's still entertaining for adults. And that it played to a room full of adults and they responded to it and were engaged by it was a really encouraging for me as a filmmaker and it made me feel like I did a good job.
QUINT: What aspect of the film did you think got the best response?
JON FAVREAU: I think people dig the humor. Some of the humor got responses, but I think the responses that you can't gauge, you sort of feel a little bit, but you don't gauge like you would laughs, I think people really dug the technique used in the storytelling. We had Guillermo Navarro shoot it and the reason I hired him was THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE. I was a huge fan of that film. It was a movie essentially with children at its center, but it was told in a very compelling way visually.
We weren't afraid of the darkness in this movie and we weren't afraid of how frightening mundane things are if presented in a way that's suspenseful. A lot like THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE when they go down into the basement down by the pool. There's a lot of that that Guillermo... you know, he breathes that stuff. Looking at (another Guillermo) del Toro's collaborations with him specifically, I enjoy the most. I screened DEVIL'S BACKBONE, like, I think 3 times for various members of the crew as we were preparing to do this movie. Then we ended up hiring Guillermo. This one spoke to us.
That aspect really worked well and the miniatures and all the stuff (Stan) Winston did. I think the people there really enjoyed that.
QUINT: We're in an interesting time right now where the standard has seemed to be set for the family film by people like Rodriguez. It's appealing to me to see something go a different route because I'm a sucker for the artistry of a film. I love seeing movie tricks done. I think hand done matte paintings are works of art.
JON FAVREAU: You look at a Rodriguez effects film and you're seeing what Rodriguez lives and breathes and does. It's all hand-crafted. Now, I'm not a Rodriguez. I don't have that skill set. But what I do have is a really excited enthusiasm for what's visually happening in the movie and to work with great artists and great effects people and great places like Stan Winston Studio.
You know, it's like you've got the best seat in the house. It's like a dream come true to be around it and from there making suggestions and guiding the vision of it. In a way, you're running the show as a director, but in a way you're really just empowering these talented people to bring their best to the table. So, when I see the movie, I remember all the input I gave to both the artists and the model makers and the people shooting it, but it was never like I was delegating something I didn't have time to do. It's something I don't have the ability to do, but I can help unify the vision of the film. I think that the film did ultimately have a very unified vision.
You know, the robot and the Zorgon ships were designed by different people, but they share a common feeling. The way the game was designed, that started off as a board game. "What if we make it like a wind-up tin toy? What if we really go down the road of making it feel like it's of this era? How do we separate this from the JUMANJI aspect of it?" Which, frankly, to me I felt was unappealing.
I think that for maybe family and kids it helps in the marketing that people have touchstones to compare it to, but ultimately it would turn me off as a film-goer. I don't think that a big studio cares about that. They make a bunch of phone calls. They ask them, "Would you see a movie called ZATHURA? Would you rather see a movie called ZATHURA, from the makers of JUMANJI," or whatever they said. Ultimately everybody says, "Oh, I know JUMANJI. Sure!"
It allows them to make the leap, it makes them feel safer that their investment's going to be protected. But for me as an audience member of my age, it would alienate me, so I went to great efforts to separate the movie visually, storytelling-wise, cast-wise in every way from the movie that it's going to most be compared to because there's a game at its core.
And this is part of paying the piper when you're working on a studio movie. What makes it exciting for me is the thing that makes it scary for them and the thing that makes it safe for them is the thing that makes it unappealing for me. It's a tightrope that you have to walk as you step up into another league of filmmaking as far as budget goes. This is their big Holiday movie. It was done for a fraction of the price that Potter was done for, and Narnia, and it's going to be in the same marketplace at the same time.
QUINT: Well, I'd say it looks as big as those movies...
JON FAVREAU: Thank you. I think we did a lot to do that...
[At this point Dax Shepard comes over, ready to begin my next interview and send Favreau over to another interviewer]
JON FAVREAU: (To Dax) Are they ready for me over there?
DAX SHEPARD: I'm your publicist, get over there! (To me) Did you find out if he was gay or not?
Interesting end to that interview, isn't it? I have my chat with Dax Shepard (really funny interview, by the way) and that should be finished shortly.
I hope you enjoyed the interview. As a Burroughs fan, I know a lot of the questions I had about how they were going to approach the world have been answered and I'm very happy to hear that Favreau has a healthy respect for the original text. It's also telling that he took the opportunity to talk so much about John Carter when he's supposed to be pushing ZATHURA. The enthusiasm was palpable during the interview and I hope it showed through in the written version of it.
I'm ready to slip into a small coma now. Fantastic Fest is killing me, but I've seen a lot of great stuff. I'll have some reviews shortly!