In 1990, Pixar hired John Lasseter as their first animator. Then they hired their second: Andrew Stanton. Together, the two men shaped the studio and set up some seriously high standards for the company and themselves. Though Stanton has had a hand in every one of Pixar's films from writing Toy Story to voicing a truck in Cars, he's only directed two—Finding Nemo and Wall*E—and both won the Best Animation Oscar. And now, he's startled the industry by taking that track record and veering his career in a new direction with John Carter, the live action and high-pressure space adventure he's wanted to make since he was 12-years-old. It's a passion project that predates Pixar—and, as Stanton jokes, people took bets on whether he'd survive it.
With your animation background, people might expect that you'd rely heavily on post-production and CG. Instead, you went the other direction and tried to use practical effects whenever possible, even putting actors in stilts. Why was that a key decision for you?
I just feel like there's a certain point—and it's different on every film—that if too much CG gets in there, it just feels synthetic and there's a slight cold artifice to the film. I just wanted this to be as believable and as warm and as close as possible to what it would feel like to capture history on a nice period film—all dirty and imperfect. So I thought that the odds would be in my favor that the more I did in camera, the more it would feel real, because to be honest, that's one of my favorite parts about the first Star Wars: the limited budget that they had to deal with when they did all the stuff on Tatooine. It was all in really front of the camera—there were very few things that they could do in post. And you felt it, you felt like you were really there.
Audiences definitely know when the ingenue is running from a guy in a mask or when she's running from nothing—and even if it's a bad mask, the mask is still scarier.
Exactly. And there's way more digital in here than I ever thought at the beginning of this thing, but hopefully we've done a much better job of not letting you know that.
If you had animated the film, what are some things you would have done differently?
I wouldn't have animated the film. I never, ever imagined it that way. Since I was a kid, I always imagined it as what it would be like if it really happened. So I never saw it as a cartoon world.
So John Carter is a film you've been wanting to make since you were little.
Since I was 12—since I first read it. Up until about 2006, when I got a little more serious about seeing this movie and thinking I could be involved in making the film, up until that point I'd spent 30 years just as a fan wanting to see somebody else make it. That's a long time to just want to see it as a fan. So it was more being a fan than a filmmaker that helped me take the leap because once it fell apart in Favreau's hands at Paramount, I thought I'd never get to see it in my lifetime. And I thought, "I'm in this rare place where I have a lot of clout with one studio, Disney, and maybe I can convince them to make it." It was more that than a career choice.
Were you that 12-year-old kid who was always scribbling in his notebook during class?
Yeah—I still am!
Ray Harryhausen once thought of doing his own version of John Carter, which of course also would have used a lot of practical effects. Did you ever consider speaking with him?
I'm very skittish about tainting the waters. I can doubt myself pretty well just by myself, so I figured that if I started muddying the waters, then I'd start questioning even more stuff. At some point you have to just be insanely crazy and just jump into the pool with whatever you're passionate about, and I'd spent most of my life wishing John Carter would look a certain way and feel a certain way, so I had to just use that as part of my engine to get through it all.
Speaking of following your passion, has it become harder to have the freedom to make those big decisions now that the industry—even people outside of your studio—is closely watching your choices? Even cutting two words from the film's title triggered a flood of speculative articles.
There's a great line in Lawrence of Arabia when he puts out a match with his fingers and the other guy tries it and he goes, "That bloody well hurts!" and he goes, "The trick is not minding that it hurts." I had to learn a long time ago just to not worry about what other people say.
A hundred years ago, Burroughs had the freedom to imagine what Mars was like, but now we've all seen pictures. How did you reconcile his vision of Mars with what today's audiences expect to see?
I didn't even worry about what today's audiences expected to see—I just did what he wrote. If people can believe that fish are able to talk underwater, they'll be able to follow this.
John Carter the character preceded Burroughs' Tarzan and in some ways is the ancestor of characters like Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones. But until now, he's never had the same level of name recognition—what did you see in him, and what about him do you think will connect with the people of today?
I had to believe that there's a reason that a 12-year-old kid could read that 60 years after it was written and just be smitten. And there's still kids that read it every once in a while. It's had less and less of a readership with every generation, but it still seems to affect kids who are at the right age when they read it. You just have to put a lot of value in that. And I think there are just some primal things—whether they were done unconsciously by Edgar Rice Burroughs or not—the idea that you're a normal person on one world, but when you move to another you're suddenly special. The idea that your best friend could be this really cool other creature, cooler than any other best friend. The idea that you could have the most loyal, cool dog in the world and fall in love with the most beautiful woman in the universe and travel to another world to try to win her hand. These are very romantic notions that I think almost instinctual fall into a lot of kids' heads.
There's a current Texas Congressman named John Carter—this is almost free advertising for him.
It's funny! [Laughs] I can't run away from the influence of that. I can't run away from the inclusive of that. It's been fascinating—people have come out of the woodwork from the strangest places that are also fans.
Have you and Brad Bird had a minute to bond over making your first live action films?
That's about exactly the amount of time we've had: a minute, maybe two, to compare notes. He's been so busy and I've been so busy. But we were able to briefly talk about get the thinnest veil, the thinnest impression of: "Was it like this for you?" "Was it like this for you?" It was a very similar experience for us on the learning curve.
Why did you feel it was important to drop 20 pounds before you started to shoot the film?
Because I knew the biggest change was going to be the physical aspect of it. And sure enough, whether it's a virtual camera with a virtual set and virtual lights and virtual actors, it's still the same choices you're making in that rectangle that's going to go in the big dark room for everybody to go see. The hard part was the psychical aspect of it. Can I last from 7 in the morning until 10 at night every day for 100 days in a row, whether it's cold or hot? Just the physical stamina—I knew I had to be in really good shape.
And now you even had to put on sunscreen before you went to work.
I put on tons—I was very good. Never got burned once!
That's important, given that you're a redhead.
Very important. I was a little OCD, I think.
Did that effort to get fit make it easier for you to cut all the overweight martians from the final film?
I don't know? I didn't think about it that way? I just went with what I thought would be a very historically accurate film for something that happened to be fictional. And so I thought of Martians just as another race of creatures, a race of beings that lived somewhere. What are most desert-dwelling people like on our planet? There's a lot of similarities in some respects, so we derived our Martians off of that.
When you watch documentaries about the Maasai in Kenya, you think, "That's what human beings are supposed to look like."
It's fascinating. So it was more about doing these slight adjustments and not these big, extreme fantastical things. I felt like the subject matter was fantastical enough, so we could afford to counter it with things that are more in our vocabulary of nature on our planet. Because frankly, there's some crazy looking stuff in nature in our world—we don't need to make things too hard. So what we would try to pull from whether it was a multi-legged creature, or multi-eyed or multi-tusked, was from some sort of amalgamation of the vocabulary of what you'd find on this world. And I think that helped ground it all so you think, "Well, maybe this could have happened in a parallel universe."
That reminds me of the design work on Avatar-they drew the inspiration for their animals and plants from the deep sea and put them on land.
That makes complete sense to me. I think you're already much further along with people accepting it.
You strike me as a guy with a lot of creative energy. If there was a sequel to John Carter, would you want to direct it yourself or would you want to hand it over to someone else and take on something new?
If I'm being brutally honest, I thought, "If I survive this, it'll be just enough to have gotten through the first one and then I'll hand it off to someone else." I think there was even betting going on about whether I'd survive it. But I gotta say I got the bug. And we planned three—we got the rights to the first three books and we planned all three together so that they would work really well if we continued. But we were also very conservative and said, "Well, let's write them as if they're standalones so that if we don't go farther than one or two, it's not going to ruin anybody or leave anybody hanging." Knock on wood. We're very happy with this one and I'm kind of rejuvenated. It was like summer camp—I had such a good relationship with the crew and the actors, even when it was really hard, that the idea of getting together and putting on a show with them again is just really attractive.
Antonio Sabato Jr. and Traci Lords did their own version of Princess of Mars—did you see it?
No. No, I stay far away from anything that's in that kind of category. I've had people offer me scripts to movies that are similar that are like things I've written while I've been working on them, and I'm so superstitious about even unconsciously putting something in my movie that was in something else. Or that I did the opposite because I saw it in another movie. It's so temporal, this copycat and people comparing stuff. You have no say once you're done about how in ten years, who's going to watch what film at what time and know which one came out when. You just hope that the film's good and you want to know that you made it as honestly as you could. I go into a vacuum the minute I start writing a movie until the minute that I finish and I never look at anything else that might be similar.
This might sound like a silly question, but Pixar has yet to make a movie with a likeable cat even though they've had several dogs. Neither have most other animated films. Is there something about that species that's tricky to make into a protagonist?
A cat! Really? I've never, ever had that posed to me before—that's fascinating. [Laughs] I have never even thought about that. When you put it that way, it makes complete sense that it should be possible. I don't have a theory on that? I've seen it as a sidekick—it makes a pretty good sidekick. I don't know? Maybe because there's that anti-social aspect to cats. I'm a cat lover myself, so I think I'm not offending anyone by saying that. Who knows? Wow. I consider that a challenge. Alright: challenge accepted.