The John Carter director measures the true cost of success and reveals his passion for Edgar Rice Burroughs' source material.
Boasting screenplay and/or story credits on the Toy Story trilogy and having directed mainstream charmers Finding Nemo and WALL-E, director Andrew Stanton knows all about bringing home the big bucks. But is he about find out about life on the opposite side of success with his live-action debut, John Carter? Focus groups and Disney’s obsessive tracking of their title along with public opinion in the run up to its theatrical release do not bode well.
Stanton, a friendly if understandably defensive fellow, met up with LWLies recently to bat away mega-budget criticism, discuss the much-discussed title change, his lifelong passion for the source material and why box office stats don’t matter to him.
LWLies: John Carter has been talked up as a lifelong obsession for you. What is it about character and his adventures exactly?
Stanton: It’s funny because it’s like going on the psychiatrist’s couch. When you’re about 10 or 11 and you’re starting to discover girls but they haven’t discovered you and you’re starting to find out about yourself, starting that journey defining yourself, to read a story about an ordinary person who finds himself in an extraordinary place and befriended by the coolest, noblest person in the world and the coolest pet and winning the heart of the most beautiful woman in the universe, it’s like a checklist of all the things you hope will happen in your life. Burroughs wrote out of frustration and not liking what was out there in adventure stories and he perhaps naively tapped into something really mythic.
Hollywood blockbusters can appear not to care about giving audiences a well written story and rounded characters.
To be honest, it’s a little less crass than that when people make movies. I’ve seen it happen even at Pixar when we catch ourselves… it’s easy to get distracted by the spectacle and that instant gratification. You’ll never see this complaint go away and you’ll always hear people saying ‘Hollywood has lost it’ but the truth is they’ve always complained they’ve lost it. It’s the human condition to get distracted by the spectacle.
Did you ever consider making John Carter as an animated feature?
No. The kind of myth people fall into is I make movies because they’re animated. I didn’t fall in love with cinema because of the costume: I fell in love with it because of the person. I fell into a group of people who best understood what stories would be better served with being told as computer-graphic animated. I wasn’t dying to be a live-action director but I wanted to see this movie and the story on screen, as I imagined it. I didn’t dream, as a kid, in cartoons.
Did it ever feel like you were taking a risk going into live-action?
Every movie I’ve made has felt like there was an element of risk to it.
So there’s no feelings of fear and sense of pressure to deliver?
Exactly the same fear and pressure for any other movie I’ve worked on. For me, it’s always been part of the package. I’ve never made a film that wasn’t huge, big budget, had massive expectations. It’s been part of the package and I’ve learned how to work with it and not let it scare me. I had to, just to be able to do my job.
The title change from John Carter of Mars to plain old John Carter seems to have got a lot of people talking. Was this your decision alone?
The title changed right away when we bought the property because the title was A Princess of Mars. We changed it to John Carter of Mars. I’m convinced if we left it as Princess of Mars then changed it to John Carter of Mars [in the marketing campaign] people would be like ‘why did you change the title?’ It’s such a knee-jerk question that nobody really cares about. It seems a false misdirection.
You don’t entirely abandon the title John Carter of Mars.
Hey, don’t give that way! But yeah, I think it’s more satisfying and shows how he earns the title.
So all the chatter on internet forums and such doesn’t bother you?
You realise that stuff is all 12 year olds?
It doesn’t get on your nerves and you don't pay any attention to it?
No. If I did I would never have made any of the decisions I did on any of my movies. I don’t.
What about the box office expectations talk?
It is cheap, easy and lazy to make all the predictions you want in the world. What impresses me is somebody who goes out there and does it [make a film]. It’s very safe to be anonymous online so I’m like ‘it means nothing to me’. If you want to sit face-to-face in a room and talk about this then I’ll have the debate.
The budget is another factor being talked about a lot.
There’s no way you could make this movie and not be in the club of big budget filmmaking. There’s no way! Is somebody hoping we don’t make a movie that puts it all on the screen? Fine, I’ll go and make a five million dollar film. All I hear is an editor trying to make a story out of nothing – that’s all I hear. I’ve got to think an editor is smarter than that and not so weak-willed that he can’t find a better story than that. I don’t care if it is 15 million dollars or 500 million dollars, I’m always going to ask for what ever I can get to put what I think needs to be put on screen. So, in a weird way, a long time ago, I never asked what the budget was… you guys always ask about… it’s too lazy and simple to say ‘can’t do it so we won’t do it.’ What I learned at Pixar was we’re always going to do it – it’s just how and when we’re going to do it with the means we’ve got. There are no gains in worrying about how much money you’ve got.
Some blogs and sites seem to be obsessed with box office takings. There are sites devoted solely to such matters.
I know. Because it’s cheap and lazy.
The film does look stunning and clearly attention has gone into the look and feel.
Every dollar is on the screen. It wasn’t a business decision. I can’t speak for the studio. I can speak for myself and I fought for the opportunity to do it and introduced Disney to this property. Anything that won’t leave my brain for 30 years has got to have something about it. That tells you there’s something worth pursuing.