Andrew Stanton on his new film, John Carter
Almost a century after it was
written, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic sci-fi novel, the swashbuckling interplanetary romance A Princess of Mars, is finally coming to the big screen. The film—retitled John Carter after its main character, a Civil War veteran who finds himself mysteriously transported to the Red Planet, is in theaters now. We spoke with director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo) about his first foray into live action and how to make aliens seem real.
What got you interested in directing this story?
I was a fan of the novel as a kid. I’d always hoped somebody would finally make the movie of it, and I was really crestfallen that it wasn’t going to be done. Then I thought, “Well, maybe I could get away with doing it.” And here I am.
Why did earlier efforts to make a movie of the novel fizzle out?
It took until now for the technology to finally catch up. Nearly half the characters aren’t humanoid. To do that before computer graphics was either too expensive or just head-scratching. A lot of people forget the very first main computer-graphics character integrated into live action was Jar Jar Binks—as much as he gets derided. I remember watching Star Wars: Episode I, and within minutes of seeing Jar Jar on the screen, I went, “Wow, you could do the characters from Princess of Mars now, the way I’ve always pictured them.”
How did you reconcile Burroughs’s version of Mars, which was influenced by astronomer Percival Lowell’s idea that it was home to a civilization depleting its resources, the barren, hostile world we now know it to be?
To get out of that conundrum—
although you’re talking to a guy who let fish talk underwater—
I made the movie take place
when the book did, at the turn of the century. So nobody can tell me what was happening on Mars then. We had complete license to do it there. But we did use the topography. When we’re zooming in on Mars and looking at terrain on really wide shots, we based it on terrain that we know exists on Mars.
We haven’t yet found any Martian life, but in Burroughs’s novels the Red Planet is crawling with outsize, many-legged creatures. How did you go about creating the alien characters?
You don’t have to look far to find some crazy stuff on our own planet, so we tried to derive the Martian flora and fauna from our knowledge of nature here on Earth. For example, some characters in the book are from this race of green men—anywhere from 9 to 15 feet tall with four arms and tusks—called Tharks. We decided to stop thinking about something with four arms as one Ken doll torso stuck on top of another. Instead, we thought, what would the musculature of something multilimbed like that have to be? How would nature evolve it? We ended up looking at starfish and changed the whole pectoral design of the Tharks’ chest so that it was a natural stretch to go to four points.
If the big picture is so fantastical, why go to such lengths to make the little details so realistic?
We may not think about these little cues, but they give a sense of how things evolved, so that you could come to this planet and believe that it had a long history without knowing any of it. I wanted it to feel like we were really good anthropologists and had done our Martian research really well, even though it’s all fictitious.