In June, I visited the editing room of John Carter, the big screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic sci-fi novel A Princess of Mars (you can watch my video blog here). At the event, director Andrew Stanton and producer Jim Morris gave a presentation explaining how they came to be involved with the project, and described the unique process they took to “shoot” the adaptation. After the jump you will find a complete transcript of the presentation and question and answer session, along with some concept art from the film and photos from the event.
Producer Jim Morris: This is where he made a lot of his films from here, including ‘Amadeus.’A lot of music has been produced over the years here, a lot of jazz greats as Credence Clearwater Revival and so forth. We got the space for our art department and editorial offices, which starting now, we needed space and we thought it set a good local vibe. Pixar is over here as well. It all gels beautifully. I had a chance to talk to many of you last night, at least. I’m Jim Morris, and I’m producing ‘John Carter of Mars.’ You may have met Colin Wilson, those of you who got a chance to go to the set in Utah. Colin did a lot of the production of the principal photography. Lindsey Collins, my producing partner, is primarily focused on the visual effects. She couldn’t be here today with us, unfortunately, but the 3 of us are working on the show together. We’re very excited to show you some of the stuff we have today. Andrew’s going to go over many things of the show and give you a rundown. Just to be clear, Andrew and I are both Pixar employees — Andrew, in addition to directing and writing there, is the VP of creatives there, and I’m the general manager of Pixar. ‘John Carter of Mars’ is a Walt Disney picure; it’s a live action picture. It’s not a Pixar film, it’s not an animated film, it’s not a G or PG rated film — probably PG-13. There are battles of dismemberments and things such as that not suitable for small children. We are going to show you the materials here, but we’re going to take a trip over to Pixar since we’re so close, and we have some stuff set up over there to show you, and we’ll have lunch over there and have a look around while we’re here. I’d like to introduce Andrew; many of you know him already. Andrew has been a key creative force since the beginning of Pixar. He’s written a number of the films here: ‘Toy Story’ films, ‘Bug’s Life’ he was co-director, ‘Monsters’ writer and director, ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘Wall-E.’ He is a great cinephile, music aficionado, great friend, partner, writer, director of ‘John Carter,’ Andrew Stanton.
Andrew Stanton: It’s a little bit like Christmas: I can’t wait to show some of the stuff. We’ve been working so long on this thing. A lot of people don’t realize I started working on this in 2006, so it’s been a long haul. I’ve still got a little under a year to go, so it’s nice to release a little steam and give you a little window. Let’s get started: How many of you guys actually know anything about the property that this is from? About half of you. Good, this shouldn’t be preaching to the choir too much. I want to give you a little inside into it. A lot of people seem to remember this: This is a Frank Frazetta painting from the late ’60s, very popular on vans in the ’70s. Sadly, this icon’s existed in people’s memories way longer than the actual property it’s derived from.
Next year will be the actual 100th anniversary of the novelization of the first book called ‘The Princess of Mars.’ Believe me, that fact didn’t get lost on me at the time that I asked to possibly do this film. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fitting to have a film that’s actually 100 years in the making being made on the 100th anniversary?” That was a little bit of a carrot to try to see if we could get it done for that time. 100 years ago, it was first publicized in serial form, in February of 1912 in a magazine called the All-Star Magazine. The title of it at the time was called ‘Under the Moons of Mars.’ It was a serial adventure magazine; it was what you had for movies — it was cliff hangers. You would have the next chapter that would lead you to buy the next magazine. It received its proper publication as a novel with Edgar Rice Burroughs finally owning up to being the author of it, under the title of ‘Princess of Mars’ in 1912.
Since then, it has literally inspired tons of things: It inspired novelists and moviemakers and astrologists, some directly and some indirectly. To be completely forthcoming though, my initial introduction to this property was through this. It was the comic book form — short run of it in the ’70s — and like most of the set, my best friend was a latch-key kid and had all these older brothers and it was nothing but a comic heaven in their attic. I remember being introduced to this. They all used to draw, and they would draw these Tharks all the time. From there, turned out to find out about the books that they were from, and I started to read them.
I decided to read them from cover to cover from my junior high school years bleeding into my high school years. My friends that were girls used to tease me and call them my romance novels. Everyone seems knows Tarzan; not many people know these books, even though I felt they were a little more compelling for me. I guess I just wasn’t into the jungle ape thing as much. There were 11 books, actually, written over a period of years. That’s how I was introduced as this: As a series.
Most people know me at Pixar as the guy that doesn’t like to do sequels or very reluctant to do sequels. The irony wasn’t lost on me when I asked them to do this first book to option the first 3. I said, “I really want to try to attack the first 3 like a trilogy and give us a fighting chance to introduce it to the world the way it was introduced to me,” which was as an ongoing series with a promise of something going on — not as a cold crafts franchise, but again, to try to capture what I felt as a young kid when I got introduced to them. There was already 11 books, and they were my ‘Harry Potters.’ I wanted to see if we could do the same, get off on the right foot with this one. They were very receptive to that fact, and that’s exactly what we did.
We tapped all 3 knowing that the first one was really going to be the only promise of what could be made and whether it succeeds and does well, then we’ll move on. I was very sensitive as an audience member to films that are part of a trilogy. Often they don’t end well, or they’re episodic in a bad way. The terms I try to use was I wanted them interlinked but independent. I wanted them to be able to stand on their own. I wanted it that if you came on film 2, you’d be able to not have seen film 1. If you came to film 1, you aren’t demanding that you need to have film 2 to be satisfied. That’s easy to say, hard to do. I felt that I experienced that before in rare occasions with certain television episodes and with certain movies, and that was the worthy holy grail to try to shoot for.
Once we had this scope in mind, we put all our efforts into the first book, ‘A Princess of Mars.’ I know I’m going to get this question all day and probably for the rest of my frickin’ life: Why ‘John Carter?’ This has had quite an evolution of me figuring out what was the best thing to do for this book to preserve what I thought was timeless about it, what I thought was the resonant elements about it, but not be afraid to tweak or alter things for the benefit of it, so that it would translate the best it could to screen. Nobody’s a bigger fan of these books than me, or at least I could match myself with a lot of people. I’m also a huge cinephile, and I have witnessed that to honor the book literally word-for-word never makes a good movie. How can I somehow do that and make you feel like how it felt to read the books when you’re watching the movie? You have to be willing in private to be able to dismantle it all, break it apart, analyze it, and look at it almost objectively as if you were making it from scratch, and then see what comes back together. It’s actually not that different than when you have to rewrite anything that you’ve done once you’ve done the first draft.
In doing so, I also found that — this is the wrong crowd to get this — not everybody’s into sci-fi. I’ve tried really hard to capture what I thought was universal and timeless about this book that is above and beyond the genre itself. I don’t want to exclude anybody from a wrong first impression assumption about this movie or this property, so I didn’t want to lie and say it isn’t what it is, so I said, “Let’s sell the character that we put all our efforts towards.” Believe me, Mars is going to come into this thing, title and everything, before this whole journey’s over. You’ve just got to be patient. There was a grand design to all this thing. That’s the most I want to say, because I don’t want to spoil it even for you guys. You’ve got to know that it was not a studio-driven hammer on me, and it was not a decision that came quickly. I put a lot of thought into what’s the most promising way to make a good first impression to a majority of the world that does not know anything about this, and invite them in and hopefully make them enjoy it as much as the people that do love it. That’s the best way I can put it.
I’ve been following the Hollywood trail of this movie almost being made since I was a kid. It’s weird still to be on the other side of this thing, because all I’ve ever wanted is to see it on the screen: Somebody please do it; somebody please make it. I remember reading about possibly being animated in the ’30s and then Ray Harryhausen tried to do it in the ’50s, then John McTiernan almost did it in the ’80s and they just didn’t have the technology or the means to figure how to translate it visually. Certainly once I was in the know with the filmmaking community, I was always 2 or 3 separations away from people that I heard were possibly working development of it, almost get made and almost get made. I couldn’t believe it when it finally found itself back to the estate, and here I was already starting to think about what I wanted to do next even though I was in the middle of ‘Wall-E’ — that’s when I start thinking about that — and made a call.
Again, don’t take it lightly that for the fans that this is on my shoulders. I’m staying true to what I wanted to see all my life, and frankly that’s the most insurance I’ve ever had on anything I’ve worked on is you have to stop me from getting out of bed to work on it; that’s my best insurance policy. I met a couple people along the way that turned out to be just as avid that I was already working with, that we just turned out to have an equal love. Mark Andrews you met last night: Mark Andrews was head of story on ‘Incredibles’; he was thinking about working on another project at Pixar, and when I came to hear what his ideas were, I used a John Carter analogy. He stopped in his tracks and goes, “You know who John Carter is.” Then we started geeking out on each other and made this pinkie swear that if we ever got to work on it, we’d pull the other one in.
He and I wrote on that together, and then I made friends with Michael Chabon through the ‘Nemo’ years, more of an acquaintance, and then was needing another writer. Michael doesn’t live too far from here. He and I, at a Christmas party I think it was at, and somebody came back that was working on the development for this, and he goes, “You know, he’s a big fan of the books.” I was like, “Oh my gosh, what was I thinking?” I called him up thinking there’s no way he’s going to have time or abilities — Pulitzer Prize winning author, oh my gosh. He said, “Where do I sign?” We found out right away that all of us had this similar link:
We’ve all drawn pictures as kids that we still had that we could prove that we were fans since we were little. I had mine from when I was 12, and I drew way too light; it’s really hard to see that. These were my Thark drawings. Michael brought his in, and he even gave himself Edgar Rice Burrough’s name. Mark is a bastard because he could draw this good when he was 10. I can’t believe that. He brought his in. We started to make this real like, “You can’t work on this film unless you can prove it.”
It was a nice connection for the 3 of us that allowed us to have a bond together working on this and to trust each other to, at least in the safety of our writing room and the production, think outside the box and come back in. I would have never guessed this trio would be a trio, that it’d work well, but it works very well for the 3 of us to be in a room together. We work very independently; we’re very busy people, so we’re all very good at being able to take somebody’s stuff remotely, plus critique it and bounce it back and forth.
So much has been derived from this book over 100 years that my first dilemma was, “How the hell do you make this and not look like you’re being derivative yourself?”It wasn’t until Nathan Crowley, who was the production designer on Nolan’s film — and it was lucky that he was free for a while. He came in, and I wanted somebody that was not a famous sci-fi guy. I wanted somebody that would think more literally. He comes more from an architectural background. How would he attack some of these things? How would a different world come up with doors and windows? Not necessarily how we would do it — that challenge. When I was on a rant, like usually when I’m describing something, how I wanted it to feel, he had somebody mock up this image. It was totally the touchstone for me. I said, “That’s what I want. I want to feel like I’m really there. I want to feel like it’s really happening.” This is not what somebody wished for; this is what really happened. This is the source of the book. Then I realized that’s what it is: It’s a period film of a period we just don’t know about. It’s as if somebody has done their Martian research really, really well and called in all the authorities. I thought that’s the way to approach this. I don’t want it to seem like this is images of creatures that people have been drawing on their notebooks their whole life and just want to selfishly see realized on the screen; I want you to go, “No, sorry, this is actually how people dressed in Aztec times” or “This is how people bargained in Japanese feudal times.” Can we capture that faux authenticity?
Breaking that down was making things weathered, aged, having limitations, a sense of deep-seeded culture that you don’t really ever get to explore to the depths you’d like to, a sense that much has gone on in the world long before the times that we’re present to. Setting the time period on earth to match the books helped. I set the time period on earth to be what the books were, and it really helped put you in a past mentality for both planets, which I think was a real helpful way to make it feel fresh. Petra in Jordan was a real inspiration, and we came up with this epiphany. I don’t know how many of you guys came to the Utah set, but you were on one of the examples of what we were trying to do, which was picking landmasses that truly exist, and just doing the tiniest Photoshop tweak to them. They become man-made or Martian-made. That way when you watch the film, it feels real. A large percentage of the screen space that you’re watching has truly been photographed, and it will hopefully help give it a sense of believability that I really wanted out there. This is an actual set location, and this is what we’re doing with it, seeing another angle. To those of you on the Utah set, this as you remember is ultimately what will happen to it. It’s having the effect we hoped it would: “Where the hell did they find this place to shoot it?”
On a parallel track at the same time, my other main issue was, “How do I deal with these archetypal characters?” These four main characters in particular, John Carter and Dejah Thoris. Character was probably my biggest focus on the project: I needed to dimensionalize these heroes. Carter’s pretty much a do-gooder for most of these books; he can be very vanilla, very 2-dimensional at times. Dejah was too much of a damsel in distress. You’ve got to remember, they were the fresh adventure ideas at the time that became tropes. Could I make both characters and made a little bit more of them, but still retain what I felt was an innate sense of justice in Carter and the strength of Mars at the core of Dejah? After many casting calls and an elaborate week of film tests, I found my 2 heroes. I really struck gold. Taylor Kitsch as Carter and Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. Taylor plays damaged goods really well, and the thing I lucked out on was he’s such a pantomime with things that aren’t there. I kept calling him my modern-day Bob Hoskins. He could act against nothing. That was required of him, as if it was there. That was an added bonus with what I was already getting with him. Lynn wasn’t really on my radar, and she came in with an inner strength and a demanding intelligence that I could not ignore until it translated on screen incredibly well. Neither are hard to look at, so that doesn’t hurt. Neither of them are incredibly familiar faces yet, and that’s a big thing for me too, if I can have any say, that I want to believe they are who they’re playing. If you’re going to play these characters that are going to be possibly seen again and again, how can you can follow in belief that they are who they are. That’s all I ever want when I go to the movies: I want to be sucked in, and I want to believe it.
Casting the other 2 main characters was an entirely different challenge. They are Tharks in this book; Tharks are 9-foot to 10-foot tall green aliens with 4 arms and tusks. They’re all CG, so I went with my Pixar gut and experience and got actors because of their eyes, their voice, and their acting ability. That’s all that’s going to be left when all of this is said and done. Those are 3 things that can translate directly to the animated characters once they’re portrayed there. I got Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton, and this is what I asked them to do, which was to be on stilts with gray pajamas on with face cams in 100 degree heat. That’s how I sold it. I didn’t know how else to get around this issue. I said, “How would you like to wear gray pajamas and be on stilts and wear face cams and stand in 100 degree heat in the desert for 6 months or 3 months?” They said, “Where do I sign?” I think it was being honest with the challenge and it was different than things they had done before, they were really up for seeing where this would go.
The reason I really, really wanted to do this is because at least for me I can tell when somebody’s acting to a tennis ball or nothing there versus somebody’s really being there. I wanted every possible chance to make this believable, so by having them really there, people acted better, people acted differently, people had actual eye lines. People reacted to things they weren’t prepared for, and even down to the cameramen: The cameramen framed it differently because there was somebody there. Cameramen are trained to frame nicely, so if you take somebody out of the background and have nothing there, they’re going to use the background — whether they know it or not — to try to frame to make that look balanced and good. When you have somebody actually there, they’re willing to be sloppier and do all the stuff they would normally do.
I learned a lot of this working on ‘Wall-E.’ It all added up to hopefully a very visceral, believable sense of being there, that you’re talking to an actor. That’s exactly what people did, so we were out there with the gray pajamas, standing on stilts with a face cam. The face cams turned out to be great for the actors, because they could treat them like they could use them for the actual distance that they had to be from things. That was a real benefit. Then you get into weird situations like this, where you’d have people making sure they weren’t going to fall over. You’re doing your scene, and there’s going to be a huge crowd in that shot. I would stand out on days like this and say, “What the fuck was I thinking? This is either going to pay off, or… Well, it’s a way to go.” I swear now that I’m seeing the end product, finally getting finished shots on the other side, if I were to shoot again tomorrow, I would do it all over again exactly this way. It was the right call, it was the right way to be, and I think Jim can attest to that. You were there for the whole damn thing.
They even had Thark-on-Thark action. Technically, that could be nobody with nobody acting, but we realized, no, this has been great, this is great reference for animators. Coming from the animation ranks really gave me an insight to how much you’d want to have as the animator, because the way I treat it is whoever’s cast as your animator is your actor, and you’ve got to treat them the way you treat your other actors. You have to cast them as smartly as you’d cast your other actors. They’re going to ask the same questions and need the same context and the same know-how that any actor’s going to have. To see a scene played out by 2 actors and all the choices made that are ultimately going to be taken over by 1 or 2 animators is gold; you can’t replace that. We would go through the pain of doing this. Even when I would take time of writing the, we actually went through the pain of figuring out what it felt, looked like, animating it, figuring out what the lope of it and the gallop of it was, and then programming that data into an electrical cart so the saddle would move exactly at that, so that hopefully when it was all done and you put a Thark on there and you put a in it, that real saddle would match, and it does. So hopefully if we’ve done it right, people will go, “How the hell is he sitting on this? How the hell did he ride around on this thing?”
All in the desire to believe that it’s really happening and it’s really there. It’s all I wanted as a kid was to be there. The last piece of the puzzle was making sure that the manner and look of how everyone spoke in this world wasn’t silly. It’s very heightened prose, and I decided to round up everybody with the most seasoned actors, a lot of them British if I could. I would often make fun of the dialogue and call it “pulp Shakespeare.” I wanted to make sure when they say something out of their mouths, there was gravitas to it that you would believe it, that you would buy. Trying to retain the spirit and sense of the books without anything becoming laughable. I’m giving you where I came from, where it’s going to. The core of this film is about survival, it’s about a man rediscovering his humanity and the Martians, and that’s where I’m going to leave it.
Footage screened, back for Q&A
Stanton: …We were not nice citizens — we kept saying it wasn’t good enough. It felt like other trailers; it felt like other movies. Steve Jobs told me a great thing once: “You only make a first impression once.” So we kept holding on until we had a trailer that we represented what it felt like we wanted. We finally nailed it, so I’m happy that it took this long.
Question: What was the song in the trailer?
Stanton: That is Peter Gabriel doing a cover of Arcade Fire — cool on cool.
Question: Did you find that in the construction of the trailer, it was imperative to not have a lot of close-up “here’s everything” moments?
Stanton: Yes, I hate that. I feel that the audience is smarter than that. They’ve heard me rant this way too many times, but I said, “Give them some credit.” I now hear anybody — I don’t care what their age is, what their demographic is, where they come from — when they show a trailer everything in, I hear somebody whispering, “Well, that’s the whole movie; it must not be good.” All people see when they see that is you’re not confident in what you have and you’re afraid. You assume your audience is dumb or won’t get it. If I have any say in it, I don’t want to go with that. I’ve been teased way too many times very successfully for most of my career and my youth to know that it can be done, and it can be done every time. It ends up being sometimes a reflection of the people doing that they can’t do it, so they point at others. We all want to. We say we want you to see more, but we actually don’t. We just want you to have a little bit of a sense that we won’t be wasting our time to go on the air.
Question: People have an innate understanding of the mechanics of gravity from living within it. Do you find that you have to be careful about conveying that in the way where it parses logically for our standard perception of gravity?
Stanton: Yeah, that’s why I did the whole teaching scene. I felt that I had to teach you that it was different and that it was not easy, and he stays awkward for quite a while.
Question: Can you talk a little bit about the fact that this is not 3D, and was there a lot of talk –
Stanton: It’s not 3D in the shooting of it; I have no say over whether it’s 3D in the release of it, as far as whether they do prints there.
Question: So you’re saying it’s an ongoing decision?
Stanton: No, I think they’ve made their decision. It’s going to be 3D.
Morris: For a lot of reasons it isn’t 3D out the gate, and it became — especially with some of the international characters — became more and more important as they’re opening up. It wasn’t something we’d started out with, but when it became evident that we needed to go that direction, fortunately Disney supported an elaborate and expensive approach to create a stereo version of the film. There’s so much CG in it that we have a lot of 3D elements already that we can do stereoscopic views of. Then the challenge was how do you create dimension with the 2D elements? Your human characters that you shot flat, and we’re going through a pretty elaborate process of making geometry and making 3D characters of them, if you will, so that we can do true stereo views that ______ (3:56). We were fortunate to be able to pull in Bob Whitehill, who’s our Pixar stereographer who has immaculate taste in this and it gives it some dimensional feel: It’s not spears-chucked-in-your-face moments.
Stanton: Fortunately Disney supported in a way to do a really great version of it, even though it wasn’t something we had gone out the gate to do.
Morris: Yeah, I’ve got to give them credit: They didn’t force it on me. It was hard enough to leap to this medium and learn all these other things, and it was the same reason I didn’t do it on ‘Wall-E’: It wasn’t that I was so against it; it was more like I have enough to worry about — I’m worried that it will be one more plate to distract me from trying to get the job done. It may just be the limitations of my brain, but it was the most I could handle.
Question: Is Edgar Rice Burroughs actually a character?
Morris: He is in the books, so he is in the film.
Question: When you’re working on a work of fiction which is from the early 1900s and that depicts an era even prior to that, these are obviously different eras in terms of gender politics and racial sensitivity. Have you felt yourself slightly massaging the tone and tenor of the novels?
Stanton: Yeah, I wasn’t going to go into places that were going to cause controversy. I didn’t see the need to. That’s been an ongoing debate with the subject matter ever since it was written. I didn’t need to put my foot in that pool, so I’ve made sure to steer clear. There was really no need to.
Question: Are you going to Comic-Con?
Morris: No, you came here.
Question: What you just showed us was fantastic. I’m wondering if there was ever thought to showing that kind of presentation?
Stanton: I may be totally wrong on this, but I am done with hearing about stuff early out. As a fan, I just want to hear about it just as much, and I want to hear about it within a timeframe that I can do something about it and go see it.
Question: So we should all hold our stories until February?
Stanton: I can’t control that. I feel like the real courageous people are going to be the people that can be patient in the future, if not now — in anything. Patience is not a commodity that’s easily come by anymore. It’s dwindling more and more. If you’re going to give credit where credit is really due, come on: You got in line and waited hours because you didn’t know what was going on for most of your youth. We’re part of the problem as much as we’re part of the people that are lauding the very things we love and want them to be out there. I’m trying to balance that so that it doesn’t look stubborn, it doesn’t look like we don’t have something. There’s a certain element of showmanship that I really was thankful for growing up… I want just enough, but I don’t want too much. It’s all a guessing game; you just don’t know what’s going to be at Comic-Con. I didn’t want to get lost in the noise, and I wanted you guys to be able to focus on it and enjoy it.
Question: How careful/aggressive do you have to be when you have already planned for 3 films coming right out of the gate?
Stanton: Yes and no. You’ve got to know something’s out there. The boxed-in world I’ve been in from Pixar for 20 years is — we only have one mantra from Steve Downs, which is just “Make it good.” Everything else you’re worrying about will come if you make it good. There’ll be missed opportunities; there may be things that feel like you could have taken advantage of more; there could be bad first impressions you might make, but really all you have control over is how good you make it. That’s really where I want to put most of my efforts and not get distracted by how much or what’s been put up there. I’m always going to be like, “How little do we have to put up?” I care about everything after you’ve gone to the theater. I care about that “Will this be one of those movies that you might just want to take off the shelf?” I’m not in it for the 6 months now. I know I have to be to make sure people will even go, but I am a believer that if something is really good that people will get to it and they’ll flock to it. Whether it happens on the schedule on the box office meter that everybody else would like it to, I don’t have that control of that. Maybe if you pull it out now, you pull it out a year from now, 10 years from now, 15 years from now, 50 years from now, you still might want to watch it. I’m grateful for those movies everyday. That’s the only game I’ve been in, and that’s how I’ve been taught. I may even be a really horrible strategist on how to front-load these things, but I have to go with my gut as a moviegoer, and my gut is I want just enough to get a sense of what I think the film print is, get enough insurance that I don’t think it’s going to suck, and then you got me and I’ll go. That’s about how I’m going to play it, as much as I can control it.
Question: I wonder how strong the movie commitment to make the 3 has –
Stanton: Strong enough that they said yes to optioning the first 3, but I think they’re just being prudent, and I would be too. This may not be everybody’s cup of tea; you’d still make it great and nobody wants to go. I’m not waiting for a green light to be working on everything in case we go forward, so nothing’s going to be affected creatively for it in a bad way. I get the logistics of it: This is not a cheap franchise, and it’s not a cheap world. To do it right, you have to go balls out.
Question: You come from an environment where a lot of the creative process happens in the post-production. I was wondering, I heard you did a screening at Pixar and there was a bunch of reshoots. It sounds like you’re bringing that process to this.
Stanton: It’s been interesting to compare apples to oranges now that we’re out there. I’ve always seen live action as the adults: They really get to make the movies, and we’re just kids here doing our little thing. I’ve always wanted to give it the intelligence and everything. That’s a bad trap you fall into, and the shocking thing when I got out there was like, “Oh my god, we actually know how to do it better on a lot of things back here.” I think some of that isn’t because people are bad at their job but that people are stuck in a certain way that it’s always been done. You can say that about any system. Pixar had this luxury of being ignorant and young and not knowing how it’s done. We saw from afar how we thought movies were made, and we used logic — turns out that’s not used that often. Then the other advantage is we have a pseudo-studio system of the modern era: We have the same people working together again and again and again. It’s like having the same team players on the same sports team for 20 seasons. You get really good at all the things that you would never value: How information is brought across to things, how things are delegated. The simplest, most mundane things have been honed down to their most efficient and smart way of what’s best for the film thinking. I saw nothing but improvement everywhere I went once I left this building — it was overload. One of the other things that I realized is animation, because you can put it all up in drawing form that you’re not going to keep, in the grand scheme of things it’s a cheap way to make something. You draw it, you put your own voice on it, you cut it, and you don’t like it, and you do it again. You do it every 6 months over 3 to 4 years. Every time you do that, that’s the equivalent of a reshoot, so I’ve been taught how to make a movie with 4 reshoots built in every time. And you wonder why our movies are good? It’s not because we’re smarter, it’s not because we’re better, it’s because we are in a system that recognizes that you don’t go, “Oh my god, okay, I’m going to paint this, but I can only touch the brush once and I’m only going to make one stroke. That stroke’s asked, and we’re done; we’re not making this painting.” I get to try it, play it, don’t like that, play it again, no, play it again, record it — most creative processes allow for somebody to go off into their shack, their studio, their recording booth, and try stuff until they figure it out and find it. This is such an expensive way to make something creative, which is a movie. People freak, and they want to hold it all in. They want to see, “Can you be really smart and think about it some more and plan some more? Just do it once. Or maybe twice.” Most places now aren’t even letting you think about it; they’re like, “Just do it! Maybe you’ll luck out.” We planned the bejesus out of it here. I’ve never met people who plan more than we do, and we do it four times over. You have no excuse: It’s got to be good. I never had to argue, but my explanation to Disney when they were going, “Why do we have to reshoot, and why is this number so bad?” I said, “You’re taking somebody who’s learned how to do it 3 to 4 times and do it once.” I tried to be as smart as I could and raise the bar as high as I could with the script before we went shooting knowing I wasn’t going to get these same iterations, then tried to be as smart as I could about doing the reshoots. It’s still less than what I’m used to. You start to understand the logistical problem trying to do that. It’s such a gypsy culture: You don’t get to keep the same people. They’re not in that building; you can’t grab them on a Thursday and go, “What if we do this?” All your actors are gone off. It’s a real conundrum, and believe me, we’re trying to think if we do another one, how can we improve upon what we’ve learned? We’ve managed to seduce some of that with our thinking on this, but there’s huge room for improvement. It’s a gnarly problem; I get it.
Question: Can you talk about the score?
Stanton: All of that is scratch. I’m sure you were throwing out of the picture going, “Oh my gosh, that’s from ‘The Wrath of Khan,’ that’s from ‘Lost,’ that’s from whatever.” That’s how we work with all of our films. I try to use as much of the composer that’s going to be on it to get into the airspace of their grammar. Some composers don’t want to hear what you’ve done, and some do. For me it’s really helpful. It’d be like doing all of your rehearsals with a different actor or actress, then suddenly after all that time you go, “I want to start to be in the headspace of their lexicon and use their lexicon.” There’s a lot of Giacchino in there, but I’ll use whatever I need to to get the tone I’m trying to get across.
Question: Can you talk about the companies you chose to do the effects and why you chose them?
Stanton: We started with 2 and then ended up with 3, partly because the scope of this thing got a little bigger than we expected it to. Most of the talent has all gone to London — not that it wasn’t there a lot before, but that’s because it’s a very gypsy atmosphere of all your talent. They tend to go where all the work is, and all the work has gone to London the last 6 years, 5 years. It’s now full _________ (17:13), no signs of stopping. Who’s literally going to be down pounding the nails, the craftsmen, they all float around the world, and they’ve all floated to London. The thing that impressed me the most about D-Neg was they felt — and I think I told this to you — they felt like what Pinter felt to me in its first 10 years: It was a little ragtag and a little messy, almost like an artist that doesn’t care about how they dress; they just want to get the painting done. That’s what I liked. I felt that their priorities were all about how did it get on the screen, how well did it get on the screen. The animation sensibilities they had were pretty damn good, so I felt like I was getting somebody on the curve going up of their talent as opposed to going off of past successes. I’ve seen that happen before where they did these great things but the people that you’re now working with aren’t the people that did that stuff. Being on the inside, I know it’s all about who you have, who your players are, and not the name of the team you have. They had great guys on ____ (18:34), so I felt very comfortable. Anything that they hadn’t experienced yet on long-form character animation — because that’s what this film is; as much as you may call it, most of the bulk of their work is main characters that exist in a large portion of the film, and many of them. From that standpoint, I had a lot of experience and I thought I could fill the gap in on that for anything that they may not have known, but I can’t make them talented. Then Cinesite was really great at making very good looking-environments, so that ended up speaking for itself. The workload was too big for any one house, so we were able to go, “Alright, we’re going to go with the character animation with D-Neg, and then we’re going to go with worlds and environments with Cinesite.” Then we got a big overload of stuff that we ended up bringing in MPC, which is another really smart house, and gave them a standalone sequence. Fortunately, they all literally are on the same block and a half in London and they all speak to each other; they’re all used to having this job that they may jointly be on top of. It hasn’t been some huge disconnect. It’s been weird to do it remotely, though: I meet with them every morning — I just did it this morning — where I’m linked to the end of their day, the beginning of mine, and we have dailies for an hour to 2 hours. It’s been like that for a year now.
Question: What other things do you keep from the first book, and what had to go?
Stanton: I didn’t think of it that way. I didn’t want to be trapped like that. It’s the same instinct you use when you’re outlining your own original idea: There’re just some scenes that jump out and you go, “That has to be in the movie.” I always treat it like an archaeological dig: Stories are already out there, and you just uncover them. You don’t have a say when you find a bone and which bones you’re going to find. You may have to face the music somewhere along the line that you dug up a different dinosaur than you thought, and are you going to have the intestinal fortitude to admit that instead of forcing it to be what you thought it was. That’s why people say, “The story was speaking in me” or “That’s what the story wanted”; that’s the same sort of analogy. I did the same thing — you could just tell by flipping through the book that I noted when things completely became cinematic to me and I could totally see that. Those became tent posts, and I knew the book so well and so did Mark and Michael that then we just looked at it from story analysis like we would do any of our stuff. “If this is the theme, if this is the character’s arc, if this is where they have to go, how do you make that work?” You hopefully have dismantled all the pieces and all the scenes that are in the book and put them in this toolbox — you can grab any of those to possibly use, but your goal is not to preserve that. It’s like trying to preserve your first draft. I’m not saying ‘Princess of Mars’ was a first draft, but I read it and I’m sorry, I know it seems to offend some die-hard fans, but it feels like a little bit of a train car: There’s these little mini beginnings, middles and ends, sometimes within a chapter or a couple chapters together, and then it feels like it’s just another train car situation. It’s not a grand sense that it was all meant from an inner character arc and an inner thematic idea to happen. Plotwise it does, and plotwise the guy starts here and comes back, but not about something you’re trying to say or a value you’re trying to express. That’s what I do here is ____ (22:46) on people’s projects to advise or whether I’m doing it on my own is to find those things and then strip away all the stuff that’s not helping you in that, or repurpose it. That’s all we did with this over 2 or 3 years. What I was shocked at was I didn’t let myself look at the book. I didn’t want to make anything sacred; I wanted to go, “What’s best for this theme, this storyline, this character we’re now telling?” That will make the best movie. Great if I can pull from that toolbox, but I was shocked was that when it was all up and we got the greenlight, I went back to look at the book like, “Oh, I thought we came up with that.” It made me feel I could sleep at night, because I knew these things had a home — they were just in the wrong scene or they were used improperly or this person should be combined with this person. They were things that made it a whole idea of saying as one. I tried very hard to always be considerate of where we were going to go on a meta level so that I wasn’t biting myself in the butt for all these things I liked or thought were cool in other stories. It’s easier to say than do, but we’re trying our damnedest.
Question: In your fullness as a filmmaker, you’re happy with this progress. Is that 12-year-old that was drawing Tharks in his neighbor garage, is he happy on the inside?
Stanton: That’s easy. The 12-year-old is so easy to please. It’s the nearly 50-year-old that has now seen way too many movies and read too many books and is very jaded. Can I appease that person? When you see too many things of something you love done poorly, whether that be animation or fantasy or anything, you start to not become a fan, and I found myself starting to become more and more like the last thing I want to see: The last thing I want to see is a sci-fi movie. It’s not because I’ve lost for it; it’s that I love it too much to see it done half-assed or see it miss the mark — I’d rather save my energy for when I think it’s being done right. I’m trying to appease that part; I’m trying to appease the part of me that wouldn’t easily go to something like this — for any film I’m working on. I’m trying not to think of other audience members; I’m trying to go, “How can I not exclude anybody? How can I make this satisfy me on as many levels as I could?”