Out of this world: Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton aims high with interplanetary adventure of 'John Carter'

Sci-fi aficionados have thrilled to Edgar Rice Burroughs' pulp-magazine character John Carter of Mars since he debuted 100 years ago this year. In paperback reprints, in comic books and comic strips and even in a 2009 direct-to-DVD movie, Carter's sword-and-sorcery-style adventures on the planet the natives call Barsoom have found fans in science-fiction grandmasters like Arthur C. Clarke and scientists like Carl Sagan. Attempts to bring him to film have gone on since 1934.

Now WALL-E and Finding Nemo filmmaker Andrew Stanton has finally brought it to screen, in Walt Disney Pictures' PG-13 John Carter, starring Taylor Kitsch (TV's "Friday Night Lights"), Lynn Collins (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and, in motion-capture roles, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Samantha Morton. The first film of what Stanton has mapped out as a trilogy, it adapts the pre-Tarzan Burroughs' original six-part story "Under the Moons of Mars" (1912), collected as the novel A Princess of Mars (1917)—the first of several serialized Carter novels Burroughs wrote through 1943.

The story finds former Confederate soldier John Carter (Kitsch) being, essentially, faxed to Mars. (His life-force has been transferred to a copy of his original body.) There, owing to what Burroughs called "the lesser gravitation and lower air pressure" than on Earth, he finds he can leap like the Hulk and has somewhat greater-than-human strength. He's befriended—or sort of adopted as a pet, actually, to start—by Tars Tarkas (Dafoe), leader of the four-armed green race of Martians, and eventually becomes a hero to Dejah Thoris (Collins), the princess of one of two humanoid-Martian factions at war with each other.

Pulp-fiction period films sometimes find success (The Mask of Zorro, 1982’s Conan the Barbarian) and sometimes not (The Shadow, Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze). But with the similar sci-fi/fantasy sword-and-sorcery epics Clash of the Titans (2010) and Immortals (2011) having scored $493 million and $217.6 million, respectively, in worldwide box-office gross, the studio has high hopes for John Carter despite what The Hollywood Reporter called "underwhelming tracking numbers as it enters the last few weeks before opening."

We spoke separately with Stanton and Dafoe as they discussed newfangled technology and good old-fashioned storytelling.

Film Journal International: Like most pulp-fiction heroes, John Carter isn't as well-known as many comic-book superheroes, or radio/TV heroes like the Lone Ranger or the Green Hornet. What are the pros and cons of basing a film on a very well-established but lesser-known character?

Andrew Stanton: The pros are you're not going to offend an entire legion of people [i.e., fans] and that you're able to more quickly get into the state of mind that you should be in to adapt the book to the screen, because you're going to have to change things to make it work. I don't know if there are any cons. I wasn't doing it in the hopes that I'd have a start on [a fan-base] audience but because I was a fan—I spent 30 years as a fan just waiting to go see it. I was hoping somebody would do it. I wasn't planning my whole life to be the person who was going to put it on the screen.

FJI: Aside from aborted attempts in the 1930s and 1950s, it's taken about a dozen years, two studios and five directors before the current John Carter project has made it to screen. Were the visual demands of the story just too much to do economically before recent technology?

Stanton: I don't know all the reasons why each one of [those versions of the project] fell apart, but once the 2000s came in and technology took this huge leap with computer graphics, you suddenly saw [CGI-based] characters like Jar Jar Binks [in 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace] and Gollum [who first appeared fully in 2002’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers after a glimpse in that series' previous film], and now you knew it was possible to do a storyline like [that of] A Princess of Mars.

FJI: Willem, you've spoken a lot about the high-tech stilts, basically, that you and Thomas Haden Church had to be strapped into to play the motion-capture roles of the nine-foot-tall Martians Tars Tarkas and Tal Hajus, the idea being that other actors could, y'know, act opposite you both rather than a tennis ball on a stick showing where your eyes would be. You come from theatre, from the avant-garde Wooster Group specifically—you must have worked with weird appendages and props and things. Did any of that come to mind as you're playing this role, where you're thinking, "Oh, I've actually done this kind of thing before"?

Willem Dafoe: I think doing theatre is always a preparation, particularly the kind of theatre I've done. We were always dealing with technology. So I got to love the fact that actors are sometimes like technicians and the technicians are sometimes like actors. So this Pixar world, this animation world, this creature world was something that I think I felt comfortable in and kind of enjoyed. I don't think I'd want to do it for every movie!

FJI: What were the stilts like?

Dafoe: They strip up your legs, they go up high, and they're adjustable. They've got a little spring in them. The difficulty was sometimes moving fast, so sometimes they'd have to put you on a wire. There was a lot of problem-solving. In one scene I'm lying on the ground and I have to get up—in that case with wires, but I had to walk [without wires] after that.

FJI: Did you feel like a cyborg?

Dafoe: There were many technical considerations. But if you embrace them and you try to take them as a blessing because they're a filter, then they force you to field your [acting] impulses differently. You're always looking for those opportunities, so that you're not going to the same well. And you're kind of transformed. I think that's thrilling—or it can be thrilling if you decide it's going to be thrilling rather than tedious or uncomfortable. And that's the only way to do it. And [working with] Andrew was a huge draw for me. I'd worked with him before [playing a voice role in the animated Finding Nemo] and he's just very detailed, very thorough, really good with story, really good with character. So given this kind of situation, it was a pleasure. It becomes like a game, where he says, "I need to accomplish this in this scene," and [within the technological constraints,] how do you do it?

Stanton: He was destined to be that character. He just has an inner gravitas and nobility—almost, and I mean this in a complimentary way, this otherworldy, alien-esque quality to him. The shoe fit.

Dafoe: Andrew's very good at explaining things, and he's very good with the actors; he knows kind of what they need. And I think he knew that I like to know this [technical] stuff, so it's fun. It's like a game to find your pleasures and play the scenes, but also you kind of have a shopping list of things you know have to technically be accomplished. And I've always like action stuff because you have a very clear structure. It's like a sport where there are certain rules. Whenever you explain to someone, as an actor, your love for structure, they think, “Oh, then you don't really care or you aren't personally involved.” I say think of some guy running a hundred meters: He starts, and then he runs to there. You can say that's a passionless thing, but he's not absent when he's running that thing; in fact, he's living in a very full way. So I approach things like an athlete sometimes.

FJI: In a way it sounds as if, just as you were on the cutting edge of theatre, you're on the cutting edge of film acting, because perhaps we're moving more and more toward a world of motion-capture cinema.

Dafoe: That may be, but I think what we're seeing right now is, yes, there are these tentpole movies that are into new technologies, but also there are those films with stories, with people, and those are the serious films that are doing well, and I'm attracted to those as well. So you can say that, but I don't want to say that because I want to believe that those other films will still exist. And I think they will because [studios are] starting to realize that the people going to the movies are not kids anymore. The kids are off playing [video]games and doing all kinds of social networking, and the people that have a relation to film and have a social discourse going, [with a] social life connected to film, are people older. And those people are always going to want good cinema.

Stanton: That's where me and [co-writers] Michael Chabon [the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay] and Mark Andrews [head of story on Pixar's The Incredibles] spent most of our time, putting more into John Carter so that he had more dimensions, as well as Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkas, giving these characters more complexity. It was really easy for me to tap into the sincere side of myself that remembered what it felt like to read the book, and that was always my guide through the fog: making sure I would feel that way when I saw it on the screen. For me when I read it, as fantastical as it was, it read like an honest desire to travel to another land that had yet to be discovered, even on our own world. It read almost like a tourist journal, and I think that's what really seduced me. By the end of the novels, I wanted to continue the exploration, wanted to continue the travel. I thought the strongest way to honor what it feels like to read that book was to make a period film that just happens to be about some fictional world.