'A Complete and Utter Lie': The Fact, Fiction and Fury Behind John Carter's Woes

John Carter, directed by Andrew Stanton

With John Carter currently drawing both mixed reviews and potentially catastrophic early box-office returns, Movieline today revisits our conversation with director Andrew Stanton and producer Lindsey Collins about the film's troubled back story — and what they and Disney really have to lose. - Ed.

A trade report last month suggested that Disney’s March sci-fi tent pole John Carter was in serious trouble owing to Pixar vet Andrew Stanton’s relative inexperience directing live-action film, citing rumors that production reshoots and late-game rejiggering had bloated the budget from $200 million to as much as $300 million. Speaking with press Thursday, Stanton called the report “a complete and utter lie,” insisting that he stayed on time and on budget – but it’s easy to see how the Pixar way of moviemaking may have made for a bumpy transition for the filmmaker.

John Carter, adapted from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom sci-fi/fantasy series (created in 1912), introduces a hero and world that influenced many an iconic property that followed, from Star Wars to Avatar; Stanton, a lifelong fan of the series, makes his live-action directing debut with the pic which combines live-action and CG to create an entirely new world on which its titular hero (Taylor Kitsch) finds himself a stranger in a strange land populated by eight-foot tall, four-armed aliens and fantastical creatures.

The scope and detail of John Carter’s alien world and its inhabitants is ambitious, which is both the draw and the risk. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jan. 19 report cited insiders close to the production and talent in its assessment calling the costly Disney actioner out as being plagued with various problems stemming from Stanton’s inexperience with live-action filmmaking. “Industry sources with links to the project believe it might lead to a staggering write-down,” wrote Kim Masters, portending doom for the ambitious potential trilogy-starter.

At the film’s press junket, Stanton and Co. were eager to refute the rumors. “I want to go completely on record that I literally was on budget and on time the entire shoot,” Stanton said. “Disney is so completely psyched that I stayed on budget and on time that they let me have a longer reshoot because I was such a good citizen, so I find it ironic that we’re getting accused of the opposite.”

That said, Stanton and producer Lindsey Collins confirmed that the process of hammering out the John Carter story was a long and laborious one even after a first cut of the film was submitted. Collins, a Pixar producer who worked with Stanton on WALL-E, described it as a learning process for translating the Pixar way of doing things into huge-scale live-action filmmaking – first working out the basics, then moving around the pieces until a satisfying film falls into place.

“It’s the way we’ve always worked and certainly at Pixar that’s how we work – we get it all up there and put it up and we watch it and go, ‘That’s not working, let’s move that over here,’" she said. "So it doesn’t surprise me at all that that’s how Andrew worked on this one."

That process has resulted in stellar storytelling at Pixar, where films are famously developed and worked over for years with seasoned teams of writers and animators before coming together. The problem comes when that way of working is applied to a project like John Carter, in which live-action footage must first be shot with actors against green screen, sent off to VFX houses to be merged with CG environments, creatures, and effects, and then returned in order to even begin the editing process.

Because of his background, Stanton was involved in the animation process more than many directors might have been. The level of involvement was unusually demanding of visual effects vendors who were working on various moving parts with the director, according to Collins. “[Stanton] himself was drawing in all of these draw-overs," she said, "because when you shoot that stuff 90% of it’s not there. He’s actually cut together these shots of Taylor, by himself, acting to nothing. Andrew was like, for us to be able to look at it narratively I have to be able to draw in these other characters that should be there. It was the only way that we could watch it as a narrative film and see what’s working and what’s not, ‘That’s dragging or that’s playing too fast’ or ‘I don’t understand what’s happening here.’”

As reported by THR, even after putting together a first cut Stanton was rewriting major character arcs and story sequence. The lead female character of Martian princess Dejah Thoris, played by actress Lynn Collins, wasn’t quite as strong initially as she is in the final cut, according to producer Collins. Stanton then rearranged key character reveals and scenes — nothing new or shocking to any filmmaking process, live-action or otherwise, but a process that could become incredibly demanding of resources if story was still being hammered out after principal photography.

Meanwhile, rumors of skyrocketing budgets aren’t the only issues facing John Carter, which opens March 9. Poor tracking numbers and audience confusion about the project are also concerns Disney is trying to address in the weeks leading up to release. The film’s title, for one, was changed from John Carter of Mars to John Carter to avoid too much of a science fiction/genre association to general audiences, but the truncated title now leaves those unfamiliar with the Burroughs book scratching their heads wondering what John Carter is about. Despite a great initial trailer, subsequent spots have lent too much of a Star Wars feel to the proceedings, and the studio is scrambling to convey that the John Carter of Mars tale isn’t derivative of many of the genre properties of the last few decades, but is in fact the series that spawned many of them.

But while nobody’s talking yet in definitive terms about sequels, Stanton’s already prepared to continue; he’s already outlined a full trilogy, filtering the entire John Carter saga down from eleven books, and last week delivered a 25-page outline for the first sequel.

[This piece was originally published Feb. 17 on Movieline.]

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Comments

  • Brian Z says:

    I'm very much looking forward to the movie, but I can't say any adds have done much for me. The excitement is based purely on the talent.

  • Discubed.com says:

    I like that you mentioned the "Star Wars feel." When I started reading my initial thought was, "but what about all the money they saved getting their footage from Lucas' cutting room floor?"

    • Jen Yamato says:

      It's an interesting problem to have - how do you stay true to the source material when said material inspired such iconic, famous properties? It's in the execution, but it makes it so much trickier...

      • Good question. But....I'm not the guy for conjecture.
        Not much in the hindsight department like some
        either!
        But I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you, Jen,
        for continuing to bring us such a variety of topics to
        mouth off on. MAJQA, JEN YAMATO!!

        KRIS
        (RAT FINK for write-in President! He stands there
        smiling, and he doesn't talk! Perfect! RAT FINK!)

        • j'accuse! says:

          I heard a rumor you have Romulan sympathies. Just...people are out there, saying that...and to the best of my knowledge you haven't denied it. What are you hiding Kris? Why won't you address these charges?

          • What have I to hide? Nothing. NOTHING, I tell you...
            except my dignity and self-respect. And my dirty
            clothes. But I'll reverse those charges and send my
            soiled Klingon underpants back to the cleaners
            COD. (I don't exactly know what those letters mean
            in the Romulan lingo, but I'm hoping it's depraved.)

            Romulan Sympathy Orchestra, now rehearsing with
            guest conductor Alberto, from the planet V-O-5.
            Kris

  • SD says:

    I loved the books and have been looking forward to this for a long time but I agree the trailers have been confusing.

    I'm all for not telling the whole story but surely it isn't too much of a spoiler to let people know it takes place on Mars or to give a hint of the plot.

  • Remy says:

    I'm looking forward to this movie, too - I plan to be there opening night with a very large group of friends and family, actually - but this is easily the worst marketing campaign in movie history.

    They haven't done anything to court the fanboys, all of whom have blogs, Twitters and accounts on 239472323 online forums which could've helped spread the positive buzz. They waited until the 11th hour to do any marketing. In their terror that "Of Mars" would make the film appeal less to women (though nearly every woman I've talked to said that leaving it in would've piqued their interest MORE - women love scifi and fantasy, see the success of Harry Potter, Twilight, etc.) Disney has also not leveraged the considerable hot-guy appeal of its lead at all. A friend just drove down Santa Monica Boulevard and tweeted a giant billboard of... a four-armed green man. Twitter is abuzz with "I'm seeing this movie for shirtless Taylor Kitsch" and they're not putting him on billboards. That Super Bowl ad, even if it "upticked" interest in the film, was a wash one month out from the premiere. Even the posters have been generic and cheap-looking.

    I understand this is a learning experience for Disney. It's a shame this movie will bear the brunt of the studio's many obvious marketing missteps, because it looks like it may actually be a good film.

  • j'accuse! says:

    Is that Blue Steel that handsomely nippled actor is giving us? Or is is Magnum? I can't tell...

  • Spandex says:

    They should have done what they originally planned to do, branding this film as a Pixar feature.

  • James Van Hise says:

    Disney won't put MARS in the title because last year's Mars Needs Moms was such a bomb that the studio is afraid to put Mars in the title of the film. Do they really think audiences will believe it's a sequel to Mars Needs Moms? Do they think that audiences are that stupid? By leaving MARS out of the title they sow nothing but confusion and they might just as well have called it JOHN SMITH because the title conveys nothing. Even the trailers rufuse to say it's on Mars. I really thought that by the time the film was released that Disney would wise up and restore MARS to the title. After all, science fiction films largely do well these days, especially if audiences know that's what it is ahead of time.

  • dukeroberts says:

    I'm actually looking forward to this one. I wish they hadn't excised "of Mars" from the title because that's how I remember the stories, from the comic book series of the 70's, "John Carter, Warlord of Mars".

    I don't think "Mars" would have hurt it, but I know of one Disney exec that got an early retirement because of "Mars Needs Moms", so I guess it's better safe than sorry.

  • Jim says:

    "live-action footage must first be shot with actors against green screen, sent off to VFX houses to be merged with CG environments, creatures, and effects, and then returned in order to even begin the editing process."... Er... I don't think so. FX are not put on to the footage before editing a film. Otherwise you'd spend a billion on fx alone, which would end up on the cutting room floor. You edit the film with the live action and add animatic, storyboards, or basic FX created in the Avid in order to do the edit. Then you do the FX where needed. You lunatics!

  • Max Renn says:

    This still looks like a rather generic piece of science fiction, with CG shots seen in a dozen similar movies. Sure, it might be the progenitor of later successful franchises, but it doesn't make it an instant hit because of its pedigree. I'm sensing a Cowboys vs Aliens/Green Lantern type reception for "John Carter".

  • BobJ says:

    People are so eager for something to fail these days. "I get this vibe from a trailer because I'm limited in how I relate to things, have the attention span of a fruit fly and love to hate, so this is gonna suck..."
    This film has been handled so poorly by the marketing department it boggles the mind. I just hope it's well made and entertaining. If it tanks, at least we will have one Barsoom movie to entertain us Burroughs fans.

    • rick says:

      A Barsoom movie to entertain us? I think this movie has very little to offer Burroughs fans.I saw little from the books other than names and places. It lookes more like the abortions done to the Tarzan books in the movies of tne 40's and later years. This does look like A fun sci fi movie but it is not the John Carter I first read over 40 years ago, (bash the old guy). If the film doesn't do good, so be it, i'll just go back and read my books again.

      • SD says:

        I was at least pleased to see that they were keeping the Civil War time setting (after rumours of it being more modern) and the introduction from the first book.

      • Woody Birch says:

        Exactly my feelings :-(. Stanton's "spawn" isn't the Carter I have loved for the last forty years. Still I'm going to see the movie.

  • BobS says:

    This is the film I've been the most excited about in the last decade...probably longer. It's quite amazing how many uninformed people out there think this is some sort of Avatar or Star Wars ripoff, when those two films were actually directly inpsired by this work. Stanton has done an incredible job on this.

  • Carl Garb says:

    I forsee this being a bigger franchise than Pirates of the Caribbean. The film will undoubtedly be in a completely different class. Also, it looks like the developers have actually planned out sequels from the source material, and have saved some of the best stuff for later.

  • ArminPeabody says:

    I HAVE LOVED THE BURROUGHS MARS BOOKS SERIES SINCE I WASA KID 50 YEARS AGO ! AND STAR WARS AND STAR TREK ETC WERE NOT JUST ":INSPIRED" BY THESE BOOKS, AS YOU SAY, WHOLESALE PLAGIARISM OF COMPLETE CHARACTERS AND SCENES AND PLOTS IS MORE LIKE IT.

  • Rick says:

    AMEN ARMIN. Nice to know there are some real Burroughs fans out there.

  • Alboone says:

    The advertising on this movie truly stinks. I mean it will literally become a lesson of what not to do. Not including 'Mars' in the title = red flag. Those books are hugely influential inspiring everything from Flash Gordon to Star Wars to Avatar -- it is the granddaddy of Sci-Fi adventure, to not capitalize on that is just straight up moronic. Who cares if a bunch of dim witted mall rat twats wouldn't see a movie with Mars in the title, if its good people will come regardless -- twitter has emerged as the ultimate campaign, just concentrate on the flick itself. Two: the trailers are ultra confusing as if Disney were embarassed to be making this movie. Go the old fashion route -- play up the story, make it an event instead of something to kill time off on a weekend. Three: the posters are shit -- they should have a Frank Frazetta feel to them, they should be over the top and fantastical, not some moody Saul Bass hook that again tells you nothing of the story. If Hollywood continues to play to the common denominator the industry will go by the wayside sooner than anyone thinks. Aim high then the rest will follow.

  • Ron Hughes says:

    Why not have entitled the move "John Carter of Virginia"? That at least makes more sense than just "John Carter.!

    I really doubt if our hero will have a deep Sothern accent nor all of the gentlemanly attributes of the original however.

    Probably another re-write to impress sexually charged 15 year olds. LOL

    Still I look forward to it.

    Ron

  • ReaLLY...Excitement proved film to b gud.

  • SimAlex2000 says:

    I don't know anything about the books. I don't know anything about this movie at all. It's amazing how little I actually know about what this is or isn't. I know that the posters have a lot of red and yellow. I suppose I should see this? I think? The whole project just feels like a giant question mark to me, and from what I'm now learning about its pedigree, it should feel more like a "must-see" event than a "curiosity."

  • FocusPuller says:

    The marketing as been abysmal. It feels like Disney is actually TRYING to make this thing fail. I have been waiting most of my life to see this movie, and now they're screwing it up. Great.

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