John Carter’s Producers Talk Me Through Filmmaking: The Andrew Stanton Way

On Saturday afternoon, I sat down for an extended chat with Lindsey Collins and Jim Morris, the producers of John Carter, and set about pulling together a picture of how the film came about.

So here’s a zippy version of how this John Carter was made, of who was involved, and how Andrew Stanton‘s very specific ideas about filmmaking shaped the process. This is how John Carter eventually escaped decades in development hell, and made it to the screen in a genuinely surprising, instant genre classic.

BC:Let’s start this by trying to get some kind of chronology of this. At some point either yourselves or Andrew became attached to the film. What way round did that happen, and was it then default that the other party would join?

LC: For us? Yeah. But Andrew was like “Shit – they’re coming?”

[Everybody laughs]

JM:Andrew loved this from being a kid, as you probably know, and had been following it on the sidelines. When there was news of it leaving Paramount and going back to the Estate, he expressed his interest to Disney and they got it for him. We’d been working on Wall-E as a team and we just picked right up and continued from there.

BC: Was it that they picked it up specifically for him?

LC: Yeah.

BC: And he knew that?

LC: Yeah. He was kind of surprised – “Wow! You bought it?”

BC: What a present.

JM: It had been a Disney property before in the eighties. John McTiernan was going to direct it and Tom Cruise was going to play John Carter and that one fizzled out for various reasons.

BC: So now all three of you are together. What’s the first step?

LC: Finishing Wall-E.

JM: Mark Andrews started doing some writing for Andrew before we finished Wall-E, before Andrew had any time to do writing. And then, as we started getting into the final months of Wall-E, Andrew was able to start writing as well.

LC: Basically, the two of them spent the first year writing, doing a couple of drafts of the script and finding out what some of the issues are in the story and in the books. They were finding ways of solving things that had always bugged them or had been stumbling blocks for prior attempts. They worked pretty exclusively on that for about a year and then, finally, had a draft that were happy with and we
surfaced it up to the Disney folks.

BC: Was Mark’s first run at this a script or an outline?

JM: They started with an outline that they agreed on. And then Mark went to pages, and he’d give them to Andrew and he would rewrite them, tweak them and give them back. They had a volley.

LC: They would trade pages back and forth.

JM: It was not terribly far off from what the film is. I would say a lot of the bones are what we have now.

LC: Andrew’s outlines are pretty hefty. They’re not like my outlines which are three pages, they tend to be about twenty five pages long. He’s good at making sure he’s gone through and make sure he’s got it worked out.

JM: But the very first script was very exposition heavy and told you a lot more about Mars, got you ensconced in all the names and so forth. And they hadn’t come up with quite as clever an ending, the second ending that happens now.

LC: We started thinking about casting, all the kind of the stuff you have to do long ahead so that you can take your time and get the right people, nailing them in the right time so that you can do the shoot. So we did that for about six months and then we were able to go to Disney and say “Here’s what we think is the script, here’s who we think are going to be our actors, here’s when we want to do it and here’s how long we think it is going to take.”

JM: Meanwhile we had gotten some money to be doing some design and prep work so there was a little bit of that happening concurrently before we got the official go ahead.

BC: And when did Michael Chabon get involved?

LC: Andrew had been a fan of Michael for a while, and Michael lives up in Northern California so they had met and it was one of those “You’re working on John Carter? I love John Carter!”, “What?! You love John Carter?!” and so it was the perfect thing. We needed another writer because, frankly, Andrew was getting very swept up in trying to prep for the actual movie, and Mark Andrews was also prepping for the shoot because he was going to be second unit director. But that is always how Andrew writes. He does a first major pass himself and then brings other writers in to help him punch up dialogue, be more economical and solve things that he’s running in to a wall with. And also so that they can be working quickly when he’s off having to do other things.

JM: You may also appreciate this story. I worked on a picture with Jan de Bont called Twister, and at the end of it, de Bont was wanting to make this film called The Martian Agent. It was a film that 20th Century Fox had, it was going to be an all CG film. I was at ILM at the time and we were bidding to work on the project with Jan. It was a script that had reminded me very much of John Carter. It was about an English colonisation of Mars based on steam travel, a kind of alternate Jules Verne kind of thing. Then cut to: I meet Michael Chabon. Unbeknownst to me he had written that script out of his frustration that he had loved the sensibilities of Carter so much he had wanted to make something like it. It’s not the same story…

LC: An homage.

JM: It was inspired by it.

BC: And now we’re getting into actual preproduction…

LC: Preproduction ran for six months before we went to a slightly smaller crew to see when we were going to start shooting. Were we going to shoot in the winter, were we going to shoot in the spring? So we pared down, and then ramped back up, so I’d say pre-production was nine months to a year.

BC: And was writing carrying on throughout all of this?

JM: Everything was carrying on.

BC: So did writing carry on into the shoot as well?

LC: No. The script was locked before we started shooting. There’s nothing comfortable to Andrew about him walking in to a 250 people shoot and having to tell them “I don’t really know yet.” He firmly believed that he needed to know exactly what he wanted, even if he later decided to veer from that. So the script was locked.

BC: And at that point was it considered that you would shoot for X days, then X days of post and then go back for some kind of additional shooting?

JM: We had scheduled reshoots from the start because you always need something. Basically, we had scheduled one hundred days of shooting…

LC: A hundred and three days.

JM: And then how many months of post before we were doing our FX turnovers?

LC: Not that many. We were doing FX turnovers while we were shooting.

JM: We had money that would have probably bought us a week maybe seven days of reshoots, depending on what we’d need. And we ended up doubling that, or a little over doubling that time. But we had always planned to do reshoots. You know, when I worked with George Lucas on the new Star Wars trilogy he had actually scheduled all of that in advance and included it in the actors’ deals. “We’re going to shoot seventy five days, I’m going to cut for six months, we’re going to shoot for then more days, I’m gonna cut some more, I’m gonna come back and shoot.” So he had worked it out, in the live action world at least, a way much more akin to how we work in animation. That you keep making the movie in reels.

LC: And that’s the reality for Andrew. And the best part about Andrew here is that he used his experience at Pixar in how he approached the making of John Carter. He did his director’s cut of the movie and then notes came back on it from the Pixar brain trust, Michael Chabon and others, and they came up with solutions to problems in the cut. And the way Andrew dealt with this was great, because it’s so rare, though it’s the norm at Pixar, is that he went in and drew what wasn’t there, what he needed to fix it, and then we recorded scratch voices for it, and you could sit down and watch it. He cut this in and we showed that to Disney and they said “Yep, you’re absolutely right, that makes it so much better, let’s go ahead and do that.”

BC: It makes so much sense.

LC: It makes so much sense.

BC: I don’t understand why this isn’t the normal way.

JM: Well, maybe it will become the normal way. Maybe as things cross over more with animation directors to live action and live action directors doing animation, you kind of hope that these processes over reach at some point. Especially as all of these tentpole films have so much CG they’re half animated films anyway.

LC: Andrew is uniquely qualified though because he can draw. He can sit there in editorial and do drawings on a Wacom tablet and get it into the Avid.

BC: At what point did Disney say to you “This is the release date.”

JM: We had a back and forth with them. We could have gone later in the year.

LC: We were going to be in June for a while.

JM: It’s a crowded Summer in terms of sequels and pre-known bits and pieces, and Disney had such success with Alice in Wonderland on this date, so we thought “You know, we think we’ve got the goods, and if we’ve got the goods then we should just go for it.” It’s a nice time where there’s not a lot of other stuff to compete for attention and we do like that we’ve got a nice window for it. Summer’s always appealing…

LC: Every day’s a holiday.

JM: …in the States in particular. But we thought it was worth a go.

LC: And Taylor has a few films coming out this year.

JM: Yeah, we also thought it would be good to be the first Taylor film out.

BC: You do have the goods. You’ve got an extraordinary film, I think. But… is that going to matter at the box office? Does it work that way anymore? Is the industry not churning through stuff too quickly for a good film to always get purchase?

JM: Well, again, given the option from a release date point of view, we always think about what is going to give a film its best chance to see the light of day. This seems like the best call. We know that if a film works there is an audience available at this time. That’s our hope.

BC: I don’t want to dwell on it too much but there’s an awful lot of pessimism out there at the moment.

LC: Hmm hmm.

BC: And it seems like a lot of people are on a mission against you. How does that feel?

LC: You can sit there and get caught up in it. Certainly, with some of it, you get indignant and you want to address it, but on the other hand you come back to the belief that, really, the only thing we can control on this movie, we’ve already done, which is we’ve made it and, ultimately, it’s a movie we’re really proud of. After that you can control almost nothing. Not in terms of the press on it, what’s out there and what’s not.

JM: What’s been weird to me is that I just don’t get it…

LC: I don’t get it either.

BC: Well… where has it come from?

LC: That’s what we’re trying to figure out.

JM: Is it because it’s a slow news day? Is it because people have been taking swipes at Disney management and changes? They start to talk about “They’ve changed their marketing team and they’ve got this big movie coming out.” We feel like “Well, watch the movie and if you don’t like the movie, have at it, but judging it and condemning it before you’ve seen it is bizarre.”

BC: All of this focus on the money seems to have died down…

LC: Yeah, it seems to have died down.

JM: It’s so stupid though because all of these Hollywood major films, these tentpoles, cost this money. This isn’t some anomaly. This isn’t Heaven’s Gate or something. We’re much cheaper than the new Batman movie!

LC: We can’t figure it out. But the good news is, to see the silver lining, that it’s such the better place to be than the reverse. In reverse, everybody has tons of hype and excitement going in to the movie and then they see it and they go “Oh…” and we’re actually in the reverse. We’re getting tons of flak from people who haven’t seen the movie but everybody who has, almost to a person, saying that they found it a really great movie.

BC: When I saw the twenty minutes that were doing the rounds earlier in the year, I felt like I was banging my head on a brick wall. Everybody was sceptical, and when I told them that I liked it they were saying “Really? Really?” and I had to keep saying “Yes, really. Really really.” And still, it seems to be that there’s a quieter version of the scepticism happening. As a result of the press embargo people like myself had to be quiet, pretty much, until recently.

LC: Have you guys been released yet?

BC: We’re completely off embargo now.

JM: I don’t understand it. We’ve been puzzling over the embargo, not that we’re specialists in that stuff.

BC: They’re general behaviour but this seemed like special circumstances.

LC: Yes, they should adjust.

Well, don’t believe the bad mouthing. John Carter is a special film, an exceptional example of this genre. I’ll be very happy to see it romp home at the box office this weekend, and so I’m going to put my money – and a group of my friends’ money – where my mouth is for a trip to see it again.

Come back for soon for their comments on the in-development John Carter sequel, as well as what else Andrew has in the works for his possible next film… or films.

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