Andrew Stanton is one of Pixar's old guard, having had a hand in the story or screenplay of both TOY STORY films, A BUG'S LIFE, and MONSTERS, INC. He also co-wrote/co-director the Oscar-winning FINDING NEMO and the absolute perfection known as WALL*E. When I last spoke with Stanton back in June 2008, he was on the verge of locking himself in a room to work on the screenplay for what would be his first live-action project, the long-in-development adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' JOHN CARTER OF MARS. At that point, Stanton told me the powers that be at Disney had not even decided if the film would be live action or animated.
First and foremost, Stanton wanted to make this movie because he had been a fan of the Burroughs series since he was an impressionable youth, and while he had assumed he'd never get the chance to make his version of the JOHN CARTER story, he still paid extra special attention to all of the reports of directors signing on and dropping out like all true fans of the material did. So the idea that he would get to transform his passion for the material into an actual, big-budget film seemed almost unthinkable to Stanton.
This interview could have easily gone on another hour with all of the question I had for him about what he thought needed changing and what he would have held faithful to the book with his dying breath. But we still managed to cover a lot of ground in our short time together. As a point of reference, this interview took place a few days after Harry conducted a lengthy interview with Stanton, so my challenge was to cover different ground. So please enjoy my talk with the master storyteller, Andrew Stanton…
Andrew Stanton: How are you, man?
Capone: It’s good to see you again.
AS: Wild place, huh? It’s like WESTWORLD.
AS: Now that’s a movie nobody had remade that could be remade.
Capone: I want to say Oliver Stone actually was thinking about it at one point.
AS: I don’t want to lose your quality time, but I remember I watched WESTWORLD about two years ago and I was like “This is THE TERMINATOR. Wait a minute, this is THE TERMINATOR.” But you realize that the finale of WESTWORLD is half as exciting as the opening moment of TERMINATOR. [Laughs] It just needs a reboot.
Capone: After Harry abused you for an hour the other day, I’ll try to stay off those topics, but there is a lot to talk about here. When you were a younger man and you discovered these books, do you remember like an image or a description or something very specific about them that just hit you?
AS: Maybe it’s shallow, but I think when you’re 10 or 11, you’re buying albums for their covers, not for their music. [Laughs] I mean, I owned the Boston cover before I realized they were guitars upside down. The Michael Whelan covers just seduced me. I remember buying them before I had even finished the first book, because I was… They were wrapped around, and you could see the other side of them. They're the only ones I own, even though people have offered to like get the first-edition stuff, and they don’t really hold much for me. Those covers just really did something for me.
Capone: They do something for me now.
AS: And I’ve seen all of these other covers and I’ve got to say I’ve allowed myself to go look at that artwork a little bit more. I did a little bit in the development stage, but I didn’t want to accidentally copyright something, and so I just purposely stayed away. I just see what people bring to the table, but then now that the film has been done and sealed, I’ve been looking back at stuff and it’s just coming up naturally here and it’s interesting to see like “Oh there’s pieces of that. That person saw that too.” Still for me, and maybe it’s because it’s your first, but the Whelans still do the same thing to me now that they did when I was a kid.
Capone: And especially in the way the princess looks. When I watch Lynn [Collins] in this movie, and I’ve seen her in things before, but I specifically remember her more from THE MERCHANT OF VENICE than anything else. She’s going to be a real discovery for a lot of people. I’ve got to imagine in a lot of ways, as important as some of the other characters are, that getting her right was key.
AS: It was for me and I knew the same thing with Carter. I said, “For the greater good, I will be excluding some people, because he and she will not be matching what I have pictured.” There’s just no way around that. I felt like “Look, Carter can be much more than Prince Valiant, and Dejah can be much more than ‘Help me, help me, save me, save me.” And there are hints of that in their integrity of some of their conversations, but I felt “I need that to be more gettable right away when you meet them in these short scenes in movies. You need to get maybe what you got over all of these conversations over several books.”
There are people you meet that are just destined to lead. They may not be the most impressive person in the room, but when the shit hits the fan, you’re going to follow them and depend on them. They’ve got their scruples right. They’ve got their integrity. And she just walked in with such a sense of earned royalty and a passion. She’s a little bit like a, and I mean this in the kindest sense, a female Peter Sellers like she takes all of this whirling-dervish exuberance, and the minute she knows what her goal is with the character she’s playing and the things she’s got to do, it all gets zoomed in and focused and goes in this direction, and suddenly you feel like you have this weapon, you have this formidable weapon and I felt like “That’s Dejah.” Once I realized Dejah is Mars--if Carter falls in love with Dejah, if we fall in love with Dejah, then we fall in love with the cause. Nobody is going to fall in love with a political stance or a big broad statement; they are going to fall in love with how much that person cares about it, and the more I felt like she… It’s in her blood, she is the ruler. She was born to rule and lead and take over. She just did that for me. She just really did, and so I didn’t mind the licenses I had to take to push the look of her to get to match the books. It didn’t take much.
Capone: You’ve got to get kind of excited about unleashing that secret weapon.
AS: I feel like it’s just on the tip of the iceberg, their relationship. The big attraction for me is that even though they’ve spent all of this time in this movie, it was really a first date and then a rushed marriage, right? So what’s wonderful is like, “Okay, now comes the real relationship bumps and blumps of marriage.” And the real deep discovery of who each person is. Suddenly, I feel like we can just get meatier on the next one.
Capone: You mentioned in the roundtable that you stayed away from production art from previous incarnations over the last few years. But I am kind of curious, because you said as a fan, you were following those other productions and getting excited about the various directors that had signed on during the Paramount years.
AS: Well I wasn’t following the artwork, I was following the Hollywood gossip of who had what.
Capone: That’s what I mean, at the very least you were following that. Was there a version of it or director that you were most excited?
] AS: I don’t want to put anybody out of turn. [Robert] Rodriguez is not going to remember this, but it was literally the night of the Oscars that I won on NEMO, and I was at the Vanity Fair party. I had met Robert, when he''d come by Pixar and showed us all of this cool stuff he had done for SPY KIDS, and we really got along all of us. And he was kind of drunk down in the middle of the party, and I made a B line for him and I said “Robert, I am so psyched somebody is finally putting this on the screen. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Don’t fuck it up.”
AS: And he goes “What?” “I have been imagining this so long. I’ll tell you what. I’ll pitch to you how to open the movie. You can have it. You can put your name on it. I don’t care. All I care is that it’s done right.” And he was like, “Lay it on me.” So I pitched it to him, and he’s like “Great,” and I could just tell that, “He’s not going to do it. He’s being a real nice guy about it. He’s got his own ideas.” I kind of died a little and I thought, “Okay, that was my one shot at getting a little bit of influence on what I thought would be up there.” Then I just watched it fall and fall, and at first I’ve got to say Favreau hadn’t made IRON MAN yet, so I was like “What?” Then I saw ZATHURA and I went “Oh.” You can see the IRON MAN director in that, and that’s what started giving me a little bit of hope. It seemed like all of the artists he was hiring made a lot of sense, and I was hearing a lot of positive things through the artist network of development artists that work with us, and so I started to allow myself to get hopeful. It’s like having a losing team your whole life, and you’re finally allowing yourself “Maybe they will make it to the playoffs.” So that’s just what made me get that much more crest fallen when that fell through. So I think the most hopeful I ever got was Favreau.
Capone: When it first became yours, what was the first creature or image or sequence that you were like “That’s the one.”
AS: Tars. It was all about Tars. I was like a dog with a bone. I said, “We have to get the Tharks right. If we get the Tharks right, it buys us a ton of however we interpret other things.” But for me, it was so much a buddy story so much between Carter and Tars through so many of the books, and you always missed his absence if he wasn’t around and you were always psyched when he came back. I was like “We have got to get he Tharks right.” So we just hammered all our time on that, and Scott Patton from Legacy Effects, God bless him, really nailed it.
It was an evolutionary thing like most things. Iain McCaig came on for almost a year and, bless him, he had done so many Thark designs already in other film productions, but he was very optimistic and very open minded about, “Okay, what’s your take on it?” Mine was all about, “I don’t want it to seem like a fantasy. I don’t want it to seem like a Ken doll torso stuck on another Ken doll torso. I want to believe this really could exist. That’s all I have ever asked as a kid. I don’t always know what that means, but I just know that that’s the buttons it’s got to push. I’ve got to feel like nature could have really made this.”
So we looked at as much desert-dwelling people, both animals and human beings, and then we redesigned the entire musculature of their torsos. Then when it went to 3-D, it was Scott Patton at Legacy that basically nailed how to turn that dimensionalized. And he had been looking at photos of Clint Eastwood, and then we were midway through when we suddenly found out we were going to get Dafoe, and he was able to push it a little more towards Dafoe. It was one of these scary things where like it just clicked, and we were like “That’s our Thark.” From then on, everything sort of grew from that, even apes, even Thotes. It was really the smart thing to attack first.
Capone: So much of the book is episodic. “I learned this today; I did this today.” It’s not always about pushing a story forward.
AS: No, it’s about just journaling a new experience.
Capone: It is. It’s like a journal. Was that a tough thing to stretch that and pull a story out of that?
AS: Yeah. I had to say, “Can I make Carter become the guy that he is already in the book? Can I turn this into an origin story?” That was really the key to making something worth watching for the first time and then make the rest of all of this wonderful detailed moments just be ammunition you could possibly use to apply for the needs of just that arc. Then the other thing is that you needed a worthy antagonist. If Carter is going to end up being the savior of the world, then you need to have your antagonist have equal amount of threat to that same agenda, that same goal. So “Who wants to take away the world?” Thank God I could come up with somebody that was pretty much of that agenda, change a little bit of their back story and exactly their motive, but they already existed, they just existed in a later book, and bring them in.
Capone: And changed their time frame, too.
AS: Exactly, but it ends up lining up. Believe me, it all lines up so that THE GODS OF MARS works the way GODS works.
Capone: I know we talked a little bit about this last night, and I thought it was funny that it eems like you’ve almost forgotten that NEMO was being re-released later this year.
AS: I have, completely.
Capone: Are you not involved with that and what they are doing?
AS: I sadly haven’t been, because I’ve been literally been away or been busy in meetings and I can’t check the 3-D. John [Lasseter] loves 3D so much and Bob Whitehill, who supervised the 3-D for all Pixar films including CARTER, was supervising it, and the two of them were going gaga about it, but I said, “You don’t need my opinion.” So I’m sure it’s amazing.
Capone: I can’t wait to see it. I mean even the trailer looks pretty cool.
AS: They all say the extra depth, because of the murk we did just makes it go to a special place.
Capone: I can’t even imagine like “What’s it going to look like when they get above water?” because that’s a different look too.
AS: I know, maybe we will all throw up. We’ll get the bends. [laughs]
Capone: I hope so. Alright, well great. Thank you.