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Daily Archives: July 14, 2011
In late June, a group of film bloggers were brought to the Bay Area for an early look at Andrew Stanton’s “John Carter,” the Oscar-winning animator’s first live-action film after Pixar hits “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo,” the relaxed and enthused Stanton met the press with a barrage of production art, clips and behind-the-scenes footage explaining his plans to bring the pulp saga “John Carter of Mars” to the big screen. Created by “Tarzan” creator Edgar Rice Burroughs — and published in 1912 — “John Carter of Mars” tells the story of the title character, a Civil War veteran (played by “Friday Night Lights” star Taylor Kitsch) brought to the Red Planet by fate, caught between both two warring human groups and the natives, six-limbed 10-foot tall ‘Tharks’ who call Mars home.
It’s a bold, ambitious project – so bold, as Stanton explained, that Hollywood’s been trying and failing to film it for literally decades, a process “John Carter of Mars” fan Stanton has been watching his whole life. “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 (‘John Carter of Mars’) 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.”
But by the time Stanton was a film maker — and a film maker looking for a next film — the rights had reverted back to the Burroughs heirs, technology had caught up with his childhood visions and Disney was more than willing to back the director on a risky, expensive and technically complex could-be franchise. “I couldn’t believe it when (the creative rights for ‘John Carter of Mars’ 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, I don’t take it lightly that for the fans, 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 — you have to stop me from getting out of bed to work on it; that’s my best insurance policy.”
And the risk that demands that insurance? The fact that the swashbuckling sci-fi adventure that Stanton loved as a kid and brought to life as an adult has to come alive and capture the attention of a larger audience that doesn’t have a clue what “John Carter” means. Stanton recognized the difficulty of the effort. “Everyone seems to know 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 … and they were my ‘Harry Potter’s. 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 is very reluctant to do sequels. That irony wasn’t lost on me when I asked them to do this first book, and to option the first three (books). I said, ‘I really want to try to attack the first three 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, to try to capture what I felt as a young kid when I got introduced to them.”
While the first film will stand alone, Stanton and his co-creators are weaving the storylines and themes of the books together — so that if audiences come out, John Carter will come back. That kind of long-term planning, though, doesn’t mean that Stanton doesn’t know a lot is riding on this first film. “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 … 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. In doing so, I also found that 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 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.”
The best possible sign for the film’s prospects, though, wasn’t in the copious production drawings Stanton showed us – depicting anti-gravity airships and bizarre many-limbed monsters — or in the footage of actors walking through sumptuous half-simulated palaces previously only dreamed of. It was in the drawings — from Stanton, co-writer Mark Andrews (director of Pixar’s upcoming “Brave”) and Pulitzer-award-winning author Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” “Wonder Boys”) brought in to show each other to prove their “John Carter” fandom — not made here-and-now, but, rather, when they were all pre-teens. “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; Michael brought his in.” Stanton advanced to a final slide, laughing, a superb pencil-sketch of a muscled Carter fighting a Thark. “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.”
Stanton’s making his leap to live-action directing here, but there’s so much CGI that the line between live-action and animation is especially shifty in the sands of Mars. The actors playing the Tharks — including Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Samantha Morton — weren’t in motion-capture suits, but instead wore on-set rigs designed to capture their facial expressions while the rest of their bodies were used solely for reference. Stills of Dafoe — on stilts, with the cameras for recording his expression protruding from his face — looked odd, but the finished product was superb in the limited footage I saw — and, as Stanton noted, the protruding cameras also wound up serving as good reference points for the Tharks’ curving tusks. “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.”
But bigger than even the technical challenges? The storytelling challenges in adapting a 100-year-old pulp serial for the big screen , and trying to knock the dust off the property while still retaining the things that have made it endure. Stanton showed a now-infamous Frank Frazetta painting (as seen at left), all bulging-muscled masculinity and bikini-clad bustiness, that served as the cover for the paperback edition of the first “John Carter” book in the ’60s and laughed: “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? It was first publicized in serial form, in February of 1912, in a magazine called the All-Star Magazine. Since then, it has literally inspired tons of things: It inspired novelists and moviemakers and astrologists, some directly and some indirectly … ” And that, Stanton noted, was the real challenge: “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?’”
Matthew Lewis of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2 on Action, the End of the Saga and Horrible Sweaters
One of the pleasures of the “Harry Potter” films has been the way they function almost as a high school yearbook for a group of people we’ve never met, both actors and characters. But while we’ve seen Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe go from childhood to youth in the leads, we’ve also enjoyed watching several other actors grow from film to film — not merely in size, but, rather, in story as well. Hired on board the “Potter” franchise from the first film, Matthew Lewis was cast as series sad-sack Neville Longbottom — a character whose early mentions (and very, very British name) gave no clue to the importance of the role he’d wind up playing in the saga. I spoke with Lewis in New York as the acting job that had defined his life — through both the years and at least one growth spurt — was coming to a close.
When you’re reading the script — with Neville’s big speech to rally the troops against series nemesis Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) — when did it sink in that you get to bring it in this film?
Lewis: I read the book, so I knew what Neville was bringing to the table. You never know when you’re making a film if (the exact story from the book) is going to make the screenplay, and it did. I read it and thought, ‘Geez, it’s going to be something — I don’t know what — (shooting) with Ralph Fiennes.’ I was terrified of the prospect of that; he’s an amazing actor. I (thought) they might not get around to shooting it, and then we did, with the whole process, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of it. That was enough — I was happy just filming it. Whether it got into the film or not, that we would find out later on. Then it did, and I watched it at first, and blew me away. I think you never really know until you sit in a cinema and actually watch it. I feel very proud and very, very lucky.
It’s not just the level of moral heroism Neville gets to bring with that great, rousing speech at the end — you get to jump around and do a lot of action. When you’re getting ready to leap with a weapon in your hands, do you have to psych yourself up?
Lewis: Yeah, definitely. Particularly in that scene you’re talking about, at that moment Neville’s been fighting not only all night at the final battle; he’s been fighting all year. He’s physically and mentally exhausted; he’s got nothing left in the tank. He’s on autopilot; he’s on instinct. Me and David(Yates, director) wanted it to be very primal, and to get into that frame of mind is not easy. I had to sit there very quietly for a long time and think to myself and try to get into that feeling. With the scream that comes out as he swings the sword, it was not something I’d ever had to do before, never had to do in real life ever. I certainly had to dig deep for that one.
When wardrobe showed you the sweater you were wearing in that sequence, did you roll your eyes, or did you go, “That seems pretty Neville?”
Lewis: (Laughing) Yeah, that’s what it is. It’s like the fat suit before that, and the false teeth and everything. They’re difficult to work with, but you go, “They’re Neville.” The thing about Neville that’s so brilliant is that he’s not a commander, he’s not Tom Cruise; he’s your everyguy, your everyday guy who just happens to be a hero. I don’t think he’s aware of quite what a hero he is; he just gets on with it and does the right thing. I love that, as an actor. As a male, 18, 19. It’s difficult to wear those cardigans sometimes, but it works.
You were worried you were going to get let go from the series for growing too tall, but screenwriter Steve Kloves said, “If Matthew had tried to leave, we would have kidnapped him.” Is it gratifying to hear things like that?
Lewis: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve not heard that before, but that’s an awfully nice thing to say. You never know in a film like this. It was a worry of mine, having changed physically, whether they wanted to bring me back or not, and they did. When you hear things like that, it’s very lovely. Steve Kloves knows these characters as much as anyone — J.K. Rowling and myself; he knows each and every one of them, so for him to say that means a great deal. I’m glad I could do a good job and do a service to him.
And not face kidnapping.
Lewis: And not face kidnapping. Again, if they wanted to kidnap me for these films, I wouldn’t have minded it that much. It’s a great series of films; I’d love to have been kidnapped to have done them.
In Part One of our sneak peek at “John Carter,” director Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s pulp adventure “A Princess of Mars” coming to theaters in March 2012, we shared some of Stanton’s thoughts before showing footage. With the lights brought down low — and our expectations raised up high — we then got to see four sequences. In the first, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) has clearly just arrived on Mars, first adapting clumsily to Mars’ lower gravity, stumbling across a nest of Thark eggs and then being approached by paternal full-grown Tharks — including Willem Dafoe’s Tars Tarkas, with Dafoe’s voice issuing from a 10-foot tall, six-limbed green alien.
The second shot, while shortest, was one of the most intriguing, as Martian princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and Thark Sola (Samantha Morton) confronted each other with guns drawn — and then conveyed a certain unity of purpose with just facial expressions and gestures. It was a brief moment, but you could still feel Morton’s performance behind the CGI creation — imbuing pixels with personality. Then we saw a clip of Carter and Dejah Thoris talking selflessness and strategy — with an angry Dominic West as a Martian warlord for some palace intrigue. We next got a gladiatorial combat sequence where Carter and Tarkas have to face down a giant six-limbed Martian White Ape for the amusement of some Thark despot — and while Carter’s low-gravity bounds and jumps were impressive, and the White Ape a fearsome beast, the sense of humor and adventure in the clip — with a perfect last line that both raised the stakes and got a laugh — was maybe the best part. Then we saw the trailer — reportedly attached to this Friday’s upcoming “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” and online this Thursday — and which conceals far more than it reveals, with a moody Peter Gabriel version of The Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage” setting a ominous-yet-epic tone.
I asked Stanton if he found, in cutting the ‘teaser’ trailer, it was imperative to not have a lot of close-up moments to give every beat and moment of the story away? “Yes, I hate that. I feel that the audience is smarter than that. My fellow crewmembers have heard me rant this way too many times, but I said, ‘Give them some credit.’ I don’t care what their age is, what their demographic is, where they come from — when they show a trailer with everything in it, 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. We all want to tease. 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 your time to go on the air.”
And for Stanton, the people inside his widescreen visions and action moments are the point of it all. “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 two-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 make 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 two heroes. I really struck gold (with) 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. Lynn wasn’t really on my radar, and she came in with an inner strength and a demanding intelligence that I could not ignore; 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.”
I also asked Stanton if he felt a need to massage the social and political undercurrents of Burroughs’ 1912 work — Carter is a Confederate Civil War veteran, while some of the racial undertones of the books are a little retrograde. Stanton waved the concerns off. “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.”
Stanton also talked about adapting a multi-part epic like the “John Carter” series’ 11 books — and how often it’s a matter of instinct more than intellect. “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.”
As we wrapped the preview up, I had to ask Stanton: In your fullness as a filmmaker, you’re seemingly happy with the progress on “John Carter.” But that 12-year-old version of you that was drawing Tharks in his neighbor’s garage, is he happy on the inside? “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 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 is a sci-fi movie.’ It’s not because I’ve lost my love 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; 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?’” “John Carter” is scheduled to open in March, 2012.
With this week’s release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2″ closing out the Potter saga, it feels like as good a time as any to remind ourselves that no matter how you feel about Christopher Columbus’ skill set as a director, he certainly deserves praise for finding a set of child actors who, each and every one, grew to become actors — especially Tom Felton, cast as bad seed Draco Malfoy. With his shock-blonde hair and sneer, Draco was a kid you loved to hate – even as later events in the series challenged both our view of Draco and his view of himself. We spoke with Felton in New York.
This film series will never be out of your life, but when’s it going to be off your schedule in that you’re doing this last press tour? When does it stop being something you think about every day?
Felton: It will be a while, I imagine. We’ve been looking forward to this last film for so long. Of course, there’s going to be DVDs that come out of it, and I’m sure 3D, and 4D and “On Ice” and musicals and all the rest of it. It’s something that I’m not looking to shake. I hope to be remembered — all of us are going to be remembered, I think, for these characters for the rest of our lives. Obviously I’m hoping to develop things as well, but I’m definitely not looking to shake it any time soon.
When they announce ‘Harry Potter on Ice,’ you won’t be stretching and lacing up?
Felton: I’m actually developing the choreography of that myself; it’s my show. We’re working on a few different things. I doubt I would — I’m a terrible skater.
The great thing about your character is that this is a film where, while there’s conflict between good and evil, people aren’t necessarily one or the other all the time: If one character speaks to the humanity of that, it’s Draco. He’s torn, he’s conflicted, he’s caught up. Did you appreciate that acting challenge while you were given it?
Felton: Yeah, I was terrified — and a little nervous. It was hugely rewarding after: Faith was entrusted in me by David Yates and I obviously had a great cast around, which makes it a lot easier. Yeah, I was nervous, but ultimately things that are nerve-wracking usually end up being the most fun.
The action sequences are incredible and gripping; there’s a level of special effects here, it’s the first time Hogwarts is fully CGI. What’s it like being in the middle of that? It’s got to be like shooting a war film.
Felton: It definitely was. A lot of it, we dubbed it “The war of Hogwarts” for the last half. It did seem (as if) all the world was running around with thier hair on fire and blood. It was crazy, and it was not like what we’d ever seen previously. Even stranger was after we’d seen it — a lot of the things weren’t there when we shot them, and all of a sudden all this other stuff is picking up, so it was great. It was very exciting — and at the same time slightly devastating to see your home of 10 years being blown to smithereens as well.
Do you ever go back to the older films and look at them — not as works of art or to get notes on your performance, but because they’re –
Felton (laughing): A lot of big performance, as you know — there’s a ton of performance when you’re 11 years old.
There was, but at the same time these movies are what you have instead of a high school yearbook. Do you go back and watch them for sentimental reasons?
Felton: I haven’t yet, but I definitely will, and I’m sure that will be on the release of this film on DVD. I imagine, I can see myself sitting there one day and plugging through all 8. That would probably be the day I realize what we actually took part in, because I haven’t really: I’ve seen the films at the premieres and occasionally on TV, bits and pieces, but never actually back-to-back as a fan should.
In the films’ final flash-forward scene, we get a little glimpse of the older Malfoy … was that like looking in a mirror? Not scary, but …
Felton: It was very scary. They said, ‘We’re going to take on 19 years,’ I think. I saw myself: ‘Oh good grief. If I’m here in 19 years …’ I think they were trying to paint a message to the kids that crime doesn’t pay regardless: The evil guys age incredibly. It was fun, it was nice, it was cool — lots of prosthetics on your face and wigs and beards, all sorts of stuff like that. It was even funner to get (it all) taken off; that was the real rewarding bit of that.