Posted on Monday, February 27th, 2012 by Germain Lussier
On a movie like John Carter, where so much has been – or can be – made of the budget, the effects and the first time director, the best source of information is the person who handles all that. The producer. One of the the producers on John Carter is Jim Morris, who produced Andrew Stanton‘s last film WALL-E . Before that, Morris was in special effects and worked on everything from Jurassic Park, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Forrest Gump to Backdraft, Starship Troopers, Mission: Impossible and much, much more. So he’s worked on a Hollywood blockbuster or two. Or 52.
We spoke with Morris at a recent press junket and asked him why now was the time for John Carter to come to the big screen, how its effects compared to some of those films, its place in history, the budget controversey and where Stanton stands compared to some of the great directors Morris has worked with in the past. Check out the full interview below.
/Film: So this film has been with so many people over so long with eight million directors and eight million people or whatever. Why are we seeing it now? What is it that finally got it pushed through?
Jim Morris: Well, interestingly, I worked on a version of this that John McTiernan was going to direct starring Tom Cruise in the late ’80’s. I was at ILM at the time when I did it and we were trying to do it. I mention that because, at the time, we were kind of scratching our heads. They came in with this script that had Tharks – and it was very different from our script – but had all of the same characters and so forth and computer graphics really had not gotten to a point where you could pull this kind of thing off. So it needed to be a mixture of prosthetics and suits and stop motion and things like that. It just seemed like way too big to pull off and I think that it’s taken a long time, because it’s only been in the last maybe six or eight years that you could kind of make this movie on any sort of believable level because the Thark characters are so pivotal to this and aside from Taylor [Kitsch] and Lynn [Collins] you know Willem’s [Dafoe] character and Samantha’s [Morton] character have the most screen time. So it really had to be a believable sort of way to bring those characters to life and I think… As I say, it’s not that it just happened now, but it has only been in the last half a decade or so that you could pull this kind of stuff off and I think that plus, if you read the original novel, there are things that are great about it and it’s very haunting, which is why people have always been drawn to it, but it’s very episodic and the characters are very one dimensional. They don’t really have arcs and they just kind of go from adventure to adventure and I think it’s taken a long time to come up with a way to crack that narratively, so that you had a routing interest in the Carter character. He’s kind of Prince Valiant in the books and we felt like “We need somebody that’s got a little more damage in there” and “We need this character to grow or change or get from one place to another.” So we felt like “Well this character is damaged and this movie is about him saving himself basically.” And he saves others in the process and in earlier scripts, other scripts I have read never really fundamentally did anything like that with the Carter character. I believe coming up with something where you’re going “Okay, that makes a more interesting story” and having the technology to do it and having a studio with the intestinal fortitude to put the kind of money on the table that you need to make a film like is, I think those three things brought it to play.
Awesome. Coming from visual effects, when you guys were preparing this what was the most daunting aspect?
I think the thing we needed to prove to ourselves was that we could create a Thark character that you believed could be sitting on that couch next to you talking and having a conversation with. We made a little proof of concept test to do that and felt it was pretty strong and that was the main thing we wanted. We just wanted those characters to be believable.
Now you’ve worked on some movies that have advanced effects in huge ways, like T2 and JURASSIC PARK. Do you think this movie fits into that category? It does have extremely impressive performance capture, but we’ve seen that now.
Yeah I would say… And just for the record, the only performance capture we really did was sort of facial as a reference since those characters don’t map to humans. But that said, to your point I think I wouldn’t say we see this film, nor did we ever set out to make this something that would change the state of the art. We wanted to use the state of the art tools to make those characters seem like primary actors in the film and very believable. We felt that kind of our benchmark in a funny way was the Davy Jones character in the PIRATES films, because we would look at him and as bizarre as that character is, you never question the fact that he’s there.
And that was sort of the level we wanted to be. That these characters… Almost in a way that they are pulled off so flawlessly that you forget about them. That said, there have been a number of films that have done a very great job at that. Even this year I’d have to say RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was really impressive. That was just fantastic, so I think we may have a scope and scale that’s creeping towards the AVATAR level. Again, we were trying to tell this story and to kind of create a big scale Hollywood epic sort of feel to it, but I’m not going to put a stake in the ground that we changed the state of the art.
Those movies I mentioned you worked on, TERMINATOR 2, JURASSIC PARK, FORREST GUMP, all have these incredible directors. Now you’re working with Andrew Stanton who has made two movies that won two Oscars. How does he compare to working with those kinds of gentlemen? I know you worked with them on a visual effects level and here’s it’s different.
I did, but I have been around the set with all of those guys and worked with them and I think Andrew, as a storyteller, Andrew is extremely strong. He comes from a story background. He was the story drive behind films that he didn’t direct like TOY STORY and MONSTERS and so forth. Andrew was very impressive as a first time director and you wouldn’t know he was to watch him on the set. He trusted his keys a lot and certainly got a lot out of them, both in camera area and other areas, but I think the strength that he had that he brought to it was, in addition to the story side, his comfort with the actors. When he would shoot he would be on his feet with the actors all day long for 12 hours or 14 hours or whatever… right where the cameras… He wouldn’t be sitting back at the video village hanging out, he would be right there with his actors. So I think in a film like this it’s so easy for the characters to get lost in the sprawl and the landscape and the action and so forth and I think what he brought to it was to kind of keep the characters always to the foreground. It’s never about the setting, it’s always about what’s going on with more intimate characters in front of you and I think he brought that to it. Again, you’re talking about Zemeckis, Spielberg, and Cameron. Those are the great live action directors of your and my lifetime, but as a storyteller and a guy out the gate I think Andrew really held his own.
So you’ve talked about Andrew’s role as the director,but the role of producer is such a crazy thing. It could mean almost anything. What was your real role as producer on this movie? What was your day-to-day like?
Well one of the things for me starting out was to get Andrew schooled a little bit in what live action is like and so forth and then to try to surround him with the people, whether it be other production people, AD, camera, production design, etc.. that could really compliment his skills and help buoy him up where he didn’t have the experience in some areas. So casting all of the roles was one of the primary things. I think also going into the studio at the outset and being very frank about what a movie like this was going to cost. Originally they wanted it for less and I said “Well then it’s not worth making. You’ve got to kind of either do it or not and if you don’t want to do it, we understand. It’s you’re money…” Kind of walking the line on that, so we didn’t get into the situation where we lowball it and then have to come in and beg for more money and have that sort of theater. Kind of shepherding things along on the day-to-day through pre-pro and then when we were in production was the main thing in the job… All producers spend a lot of time putting fires out when you are in production, because there are always things that go wrong. You’ve got an army out there and it’s akin to a military maneuver and some times the weather doesn’t cooperate and some times the prop breaks that shouldn’t have and the backup didn’t work and all of the things that happened and dealing with the triage of that and keeping all of the personalities happy and keeping the actors content and your crew happy and the director insulated enough that he can focus and do his job, those types of things. Then seeing it through post production with putting the music deals together. Shepherding the effects work through in a film like this is roughly half the cost of making a movie like this and obviously I had a lot of background in that which was helpful; not so much in any interest I had in micromanaging the facilities, but more importantly helping give them structures and paradigms that would allow them to undertake work like this, because for all of them it was at a much higher and more sophisticated level than they had done before. The amalgamation of effects experience and animation experience, which is kind of what this movie has a lot of as well, a lot of guiding to help them set up to succeed.
Sure. And the last thing. A lot of the early buzz on this movie was only about the money and it was only about the budget and has sort of painted it in a different way. What was that like? Was that frustrating?
One thing that is frustrating is while this is a very expensive movie, we didn’t go wildly over budget. We went a couple points over budget and all of that was… We had planned for summer shooting, but we did a little bit of additional to kind of hone stuff and tighten it up and so forth. [That wasn’t] because things needed fixing, just because we wanted to improve them. So when you’re reading this stuff it’s sort of like “Well judge the movie.” We executed the plan we came up with for this. There wasn’t anything wildly out of the box. A lot of the things, like the visual effects for example, came in under budget, which is unheard of. So that stuff is just all bullshit. I mean just to say it. I’m not saying the movie wasn’t expensive, it was very expensive. It was expensive from the day we started, but it didn’t get out of whack or out of control. So that’s the stuff that is frustrating to read, because it feels like “Well that’s not about anything. That’s not about the movie. That’s not about making the movie.” The critics and audience and all of you guys will decide whether it’s good or bad and whether it’s successful or not, but that stuff just seems like extraneous.
Thank you so much Jim.
In the coming days, check back for one on one video interviews with John Carter himself, Taylor Kitsch and Oscar-winning director Andrew Stanton.
John Carter will be released March 9.