Andrew Stanton is known for his stellar work with Pixar (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), but the exceedingly talented director now takes a stab at directing his first live-action feature. John Carter, a sci-fi action film from Walt Disney Pictures, is based on the Barsoom book series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. In the film, protagonist Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Confederate captain, winds up on Mars and becomes involved in another civil war between two alien nations. Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier spoke with Kitsch and Stanton, as well as fellow castmates Willem Dafoe, Dominic West, and Lynn Collins to shed some light on this supercharged flick.
Emmanuel Itier: What is the world of John Carter about for you? What does he represent, do you think? What are the messages, metaphors…
Willem Dafoe: I always have trouble with messages, but I’d say basically, the thing I keep on going back and running through the whole story is it’s very much about how we treat each other, and how we can find value in our lives by reaching out to other people. The quality of our lives is very much important to help other people. Basically that, and that risk is worth it – it will enrich your life, rather than withholding from people as a way of protection.
EI: Do you think you enjoy the genre? We’ve seen you in action movies like Spider-Man, now John Carter. Is it a genre you are affectionate with – sci-fi/action?
WD: Sometimes I’m like a little kid. I like to do action stuff, I like to do stunts… I do get pleasure out of that. And sometimes it’s nice to work on a big production where they have the resources to do it with a production value that’s very high. So yes, but in both cases, you had big movies, but…it sounds strange, but they were very personal movies. The approaches were very personal, both for Sam Raimi for Spider-Man – the first one, in particular – and with Andrew Stanton on John Carter. Both of them had a similar thing, that these were obsessions of theirs, ever since they were adolescents, and both as filmmakers, they had been thinking about making this movie for years, and then they reached a point in their careers where they were able to make it.
EI: Talking about Andrew Stanton, how was it to work with a guy that came from animation? Did that bring a different layer, a different approach, or it doesn’t really change it?
WD: I don’t know about animation, but he comes from Pixar, and they’re really smart and they know how to make things, they know how to research things, they know how to prepare things. I say that because they’re open and they’re flexible, but at the same time, they’re really disciplined about planning things, because in animation, you have to anticipate what you need for the animators, what you need from the technical side. So I say he’s very much a product of Pixar. And I think, just in general, they made a really kind of utopian place to work, where art and commerce are balanced in a really nice way.
EI: What type of challenge was it for you to be in this movie?
WD: It’s the same challenge always, and it just manifests different, because I had a lot of technical responsibilities, and I had stilts and I had cameras on my head, and I had four arms sometimes, and I knew I had to do this for the animators and do that, plus play the scenes. You’re always balancing control and abandon, and you’ve got to keep the control and that awareness of the technical things that you have to do, but you also have to be open and flexible, and not lose the spark in the scenes. So it becomes particularly dramatic when you’re playing the scenes, but at the same time, you’ve got a lot of outer concerns. So it’s about balancing those things and not losing contact with the scenes.
EI: What has been your favorite scene from all the movies you’ve seen in your life? Is there a scene that always moved you?
WD: I think there’s many, but when I was a child, I really loved, in Bride of Frankenstein, where Frankenstein reaches for the lever, and a tear rolls down his face and he says, “We belong dead,” and then he pulls the thing and the castle blows up. [Laughs]
EI: Emotional, was it?
WD: Emotional, and it somehow expressed a common pain of living.
Emmanuel Itier: You said in many interviews that it was one of the biggest things you’ve ever done, and the biggest challenge. Why is that? What type of challenge was it?
Taylor Kitsch: I think, for me, it was just a marathon. It was just exhausting. You’re working 106 out of 106 shooting days. You’re in every scene of the film almost. And then there’s the aesthetic that you need to keep through the whole film. So with the training, the emotional arc, and the pressure you put on yourself, it just became truly exhausting. But at the end of the day, it’s worth it, when you see it on screen.
EI: Do you think the movie is really about finding yourself? Is that really kind of the message a little bit?
TK: Yeah, I think it’s definitely there. I think there’s the second chance that he needed to find that cause again within himself, and to find love again, and what a guy would do for a woman. I think that storyline is so prevalent throughout the film.
EI: Why do you think he found himself on Mars when he could have found himself on Earth?
TK: I think that’s just it. It needed to be that extreme for him to find himself again, because he was just done with everything that happened to him on Earth. He’s so jaded and broken that it needed to be something that extreme.
EI: We’re used to you with your character on Friday Night Lights – this is quite a departure. Was it something conscious to do, to do something different?
TK: Yeah, I mean, God knows how many scripts you get to play a high school guy that’s so close to Tim Riggins. But yeah, you always want to do something different and keep challenging yourself and grow through those experiences.
EI: Do you think they’re gonna do the movie Friday Night Lights?
TK: I don’t know. I hear the same as you’re hearing right now, so I’m being exposed to all these rumors with you guys, so I don’t know. I love the way we finished it, or I finished Tim Riggins, so for me personally, it’s doubtful.
EI: How was it to meet Lynn again, from X-Men Origins…?
TK: It was great. We hadn’t truly hung out and really got to know each other, but of course we knew of each other, so the ice was already broken when we started working with each other, so the trust was there, and that’s everything within an actor’s relationship, for sure.
EI: What do you think Andrew Stanton brings to the movie, as a director?
TK: Besides brilliance and just a hunger and a passion? Man, he’s just a very egoless guy. For someone to have created this and obviously win some pretty big awards, and to have accomplished what he’s accomplished, it just speaks volumes to his character and to who he is.
EI: Can you tell us a little bit about Battleship, which is the next big film you’re going to be in? What can we expect from it?
TK: Oh man, I’m telling you, expect a fun summer film. Pete Berg and I are just very close, and we’re both excited to share that with you. It really is coming out even better than what we expected, which is so exciting. And it’s gonna be a fun ride, man.
EI: What do you think, after 100 years, which was when John Carter was created, how is it so relevant in today’s age?
TK: I think that’s what scary, is that it is still relevant – with the racism, the religion, the warring species, the civil wars going on, and unfortunately you don’t really see a change in that. So yeah, I think it was truly ahead of its time.
Emmanuel Itier: What is this world about? John Carter – what does he represent about the world of Mars? What is it about for you?
Lynn Collins: For me, what attracted me to this project, I remember I got this script and I was flipping through it, and I saw this monologue, and I was like, “Hmm, maybe it’s my character. Oh, it’s not my character, okay, I’ll read it.” It was Matai Shang’s monologue that he has in the elevator, about the parallels of the planets dying, and them using them. And I was hooked. Then I read the whole script and was hooked on Dejah Thoris, so when you ask me: what is this world? This world is just a parallel to ours, and that’s the sort of poignancy that’s to be taken away. Although it’s a fun ride and it’s a great time, it is a parallel.
EI: How was it to work again with Taylor Kitsch? You had seen him before in X-Men Origins…
LC: Yeah, we’re good friends, so it was amazing to work with him. We got each other through it with jokes and…[laughs] he’s such an athlete, so what he did to me was there was the very first stunt… I see the stunt people up at the way way way top of the studio, and they drop him and I’m like, [claps] “That’s great. Wonderful!” And I turned around and walk, and they’re like, “Lynn, it’s time for you to get in your harness.” [Gasp] I look at Taylor, and he looks at me and goes, “No regrets, Collins.” And that’s our relationship. So I did most of my stunts because he was doing all of his.
EI: Was there another scene that was particularly challenging?
LC: Yeah, there was a scene – the Dejah-Dejah fight, where I had to learn both fights and both dialogues, and at that time, there was a group of children who had cancer who were there watching us, and I couldn’t get it right. I couldn’t get the fight right. I was really unhappy with the performance, and I went back to my trailer and I collected myself, and I went out to the children and sat with them, and I realized, this is what it’s about! It’s for them! It’s for the next generation. It’s for men and women of all ages, actually, but it gave me a sense of gratitude, and I went back and I nailed that scene. But I couldn’t have done it without those kids.
EI: Wow. How was it working with Andrew Stanton? Do you think it’s different when you work with somebody that comes from animation versus a regular director?
LC: Well I’m spoiled by him. He completely spoiled me, so all I can say is that he is incredible. He is a genius. I can’t wait to see the rest of his films, whether they’re animated or not. He has vision, he has foresight, he’s intuitive, he knows each actor individually, he knows how to deal with each of them – he’s incredible.
EI: How was it shooting in Utah? I understand it felt like being on Mars?
LC: Yeah, Utah was 115 degrees at one point. It was, for real, intense. Beautiful.
EI: What’s going on with your TV career? Because you love doing TV as well. Anything we can expect from you on the TV side?
LC: I don’t know. I’m looking at scripts now. It’s hard, once you’ve…this movie – people are waiting for it to come out to then see what’s the next step. That’s what your representation – your agents and your managers and everybody, and your lawyers – that’s what they’re waiting for. So for me, I grew so much that I know I would take what I learned into any project, but the truth I can’t deny: I want to see where this goes. I really do. And that could mean less clothes, but that’s okay. [Laughs]
Emmanuel Itier: What is this world of John Carter about for you? And why do you think it’s so relevant, even 100 years after its creation?
Andrew Stanton: It’s funny. Everybody I’ve ever met that loved the book -- and it seems to be that the older they are, there are more of them because it seemed to have the biggest influence in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and it’s just slowly kind of dwindled a little bit. But they always seem to have the same story. Somewhere between the ages of eight and 15 and you’ve read this book, it just hits all these possibilities of adventure, of cool best friends, and pets, and the love of the universe…and it just sticks with you. It really hits the purity of boyhood dreams, I think. And for some reason, because of the age I read it, it’s always stuck with me.
EI: Is it true that you created a complete language for Tharks?
AS: We did, yeah. Again, I wanted everything about it – the look, the feel of the environment, the way people spoke – I wanted it to feel as legitimate as any country that you might go visit and find out about its history. You may not know everything, but you can just sense that there’s a cultural legacy to everything, that it’s been around for centuries and it has evolved. So I felt the only way to do that is to really make it seem like there’s a real language, so we got Paul Frommer, who had done the Na’vi language for Avatar, and, fortunately, I knew he wouldn’t match that because he’s already done that, and then there were all these words that were already in the books, so he could use that as a starting point. And he helped translate the 50 lines that we had to turn into a martian language.
EI: What do you think was the biggest challenge for you, to do this picture? Was it the transition from animation to regular directing…?
AS: The filmmaking part of it -- as far as how to do the shots, how to talk to the actors and all that stuff – that was not new at all. That felt very familiar. The hard part was suddenly being outdoors and having to do it under duress, and just go-go-go and always be on your feet, and work from sunrise to sunset, and do it for 105 days straight. That was all new to me. It was like being in the Army.
EI: I understand Utah felt like Mars at times…?
AS: It always felt like Mars. [Laughs] It was gorgeous, though. I mean, it’s gorgeous country, so even when it was weird weather and tough, you always felt like you do now – you felt like you were in a special place.
EI: Is it true that you found some bones of dinosaurs?
AS: We did. On a couple days’ shoots, we were in an area that was very known for finding a lot of dinosaurs, and we kept coming across bones. Somebody made the mistake of telling some people that were digging up a dinosaur nearby in the morning, and we suddenly couldn’t shoot in the spot we wanted to. So for the rest of the day, we were like, “Don’t tell anybody if you find bones! Just keep your mouth shut.” So you’d look down and you’d see like a Velociraptor claw, and you’d be like, “Shut up. Don’t say anything. Don’t point.”
EI: Do you think the movie is also about finding yourself?
AS: I think it’s finding your greater purpose. It’s finding out that you may think that you’ve written off exactly what’s your point of living is, but the writing may not be finished for what your purpose is for other people.
EI: Are you going to adapt the other books? Is that true?
AS: We bought the rights to the first three, and we adapted them all as a trilogy, so that’s already sort of figured out. Now we’re just writing the more refined scripts to it. So there’s always been a master plan.
EI: Is it that the sequels are dependant on the success of the first one, or it’s planned anyway?
AS: It’s planned anyway, but we’re not gonna do it unless… Nobody’s gonna give you the money unless it does well, so we’ll see.
Emmanuel Itier: What does John Carter represent to you? What do you think he expresses about the universe? What is it about?
Dominic West: I suppose he embodies the fantasy we have, or I have anyway, of traveling to Mars and falling in love with a beautiful Martian princess…or, if not that, at least going to another world and exploring that world, and fighting that world’s foes and falling in love. Mars is a planet that exerts a lot of fascination, certainly to me, and we’ve been imagining, ever since Edgar Burroughs and probably before, what it might be like to go there.
EI: What types of challenges did you face with making this movie?
DW: The main challenge, really, was the fight scenes, so I trained for about a month, working out the scene, the choreography, and the style of fighting, because it was a very carefully worked out style which contrasted with the style of my opponents – the Heliumites – and that was the main challenge. The other challenge is that you’re working on a lot of green screen, so you’re reacting, a lot of the time, to a little cross on a green sheet, or a tennis ball, and that requires a little bit of a jump of the imagination.
EI: How was it working with Andrew Stanton, and do you think it’s different when you work with a guy that comes from animation?
DW: I don’t know because I’ve only worked with him, and I think really the difference is that, whether you’re working with a guy who’s a great storyteller and a very able man who’s able to command in this enormous film unit and yet still have the time to talk to you about your character and joke around on set. That was my experience of him, and I think that’s a very unusual man and a very unusual director who can do that.
EI: What’s going on with your TV career? Because you do a lot of TV as well. Is there anything we should be aware of, coming up?
DW: I’m shooting the second season of a series called The Hour, which is on BBC. It’s about the BBC in the ‘50s, and we’re coming to the end of that. We’ve got about a month left of the second season of that.
EI: Do you enjoy TV more than films, or is it totally a different medium?
DW: It’s different really. In TV, you probably get a bit more time to go more in depth into your character, and in film, you get to go to amazing places like Utah and play around on enormous sets. I mean, not in film, but certainly on John Carter, so it’s nice to do both.
EI: Tell me about shooting in Utah. I heard it was quite a trip over there. Was it like going to Mars a bit?
DW: Well it looks just like Mars. It’s extraordinary. The scene on the lake, which I thought was CGI – they said, “No, no, that’s the real lake. That’s what it looks like.” And I’ve seen that lake, so I had a great time in Utah. I spent two weeks after we shot just traveling around, and I hung out in all the canyons, and I thought it was the most amazing place I think I’ve ever been to.
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures' 'John Carter' is released in theaters on March 9, 2012.