Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dear Disney - Please Don't Screw Up the John Carter of Mars Movie

I will state right now I adore these books...so much so that the various and inevitable John Carter derived naming of  my signature RP and MMO gaming characters (Jayn Carter, Carterra, etc) is legendary amongst friends. Edgar Rice Burroughs epic mix of pulp sci-fi  fantasy adventure in a swords meets weird science world is crazy awesome escapist fun from a time when action and romance trumped realism. I discovered the series around the time when they received their outstanding Micheal Whelan covers - Whelan based his art as accurately as possible on Burroughs descriptions of the multi-limbed creatures and near-naked warriors of  Barsoom (Mars). So ultimately this is my John Carter...and my expectations for this film honestly may be very very hard to meet. 

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs - Cover art by Micheal Whelan
The early news items about the film were not comforting. First Disney announced there were shortening the film title to just John Carter!?!  That was followed up with this rather uninspiring teaser poster - which still includes an M... for Meh...I guess?

A couple of pretty cool looking concept art pieces were promptly released to counter the ho-hum poster.

This Monday (7/11) several of the Genre Media sites I follow (io9, Collider, Cinema Blend, /Film) featured articles about the recent inside look they all got on a visit with the director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) during the film editing process. The articles are all very extensive, they were able ask many pertinent questions, which generated thorough responses. I highly suggest clicking through to read them for all the info. Here's my initial take from the reports. I have no doubt that Disney will deliver a film with high production values and top of the line special effects -- and the enthusiasm of the director and whole production staff for the project is clear. But here are 2 items that most reflect my major concerns...

First, in answering the title change question Stanton gives an explanation that is rather long, weird, and
oh yeah...not an answer.
"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, what I thought was the resonant elements 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. Nobody's a bigger fan of these books than me, or at least I could match myself with a lot of people. I'm also a huge cinephile, and I have witnessed that to honor the book literally word-for-word never makes a good movie. How can I somehow do that and make you feel like how it felt to read the books when you're watching the movie? You have to be willing in private to be able to dismantle it all, break it apart, analyze it, and look at it almost objectively as if you were making it from scratch, and then see what comes back together. It's actually not that different than when you have to rewrite anything that you've done once you've done the first draft.
In doing so, I also found that — this is the wrong crowd to get this — 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 don't want to exclude anybody from a wrong first impression assumption about this movie or this property, so I didn't want to lie and say it isn't what it is, so I said, "Let's sell the character that we put all our efforts towards." Believe me, Mars is going to come into this thing, title and everything, before this whole journey's over. You've just got to be patient. There was a grand design to all this thing. That's the most I want to say, because I don't want to spoil it even for you guys. You've got to know that it was not a studio-driven hammer on me, and it was not a decision that came quickly. 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. That's the best way I can put it." (from io9)
The second problem is the "realistic" approach to the story that has previously been mentioned. Stanton again offers a lot of info. And while I'm really relieved the Earth aspect of the story will not be modernized, but retain it's period setting and even include ER Burroughs as a character as written -- some other aspects of the approach seem well...too realistic.
"How the hell do you make this and not look like you're being derivative yourself?" It wasn't until Nathan Crowley, who was the production designer on Nolan's film — and it was lucky that he was free for a while. He came in, and I wanted somebody that was not a famous sci-fi guy. I wanted somebody that would think more literally. He comes more from an architectural background. How would he attack some of these things? How would a different world come up with doors and windows? Not necessarily how we would do it — that challenge.
When I was on a rant, like usually when I'm describing something, how I wanted it to feel, he had somebody mock up this image. It was totally the touchstone for me. I said, "That's what I want. I want to feel like I'm really there. I want to feel like it's really happening." This is not what somebody wished for; this is what really happened. This is the source of the book. Then I realized that's what it is: It's a period film, of a period we just don't know about. It's as if somebody has done their research really, really well and called in all the authorities. I thought that's the way to approach this. I don't want it to seem like this is images of creatures that people have been drawing on their notebooks their whole life and just want to selfishly see realized on the screen; I want you to go, "No, sorry, this is actually how people dressed in Aztec times" or "This is how people bargained in Japanese feudal times." Can we capture that faux authenticity? Breaking that down was making things weathered, aged, having limitations, a sense of deep-seeded culture that you don't really ever get to explore to the depths you'd like to, a sense that much has gone on in the world long before the times that we're present to. Setting the time period on earth to match the books helped.
I set the time period on earth to be what the books were, and it really helped put you in a past mentality for both planets, which I think was a real helpful way to make it feel fresh. Petra in Jordan was a real inspiration, and we came up with this epiphany. [During filming in Utah we used] landmasses that truly exist, and just adding the tiniest Photoshop tweak to them. They become man-made or Martian-made. That way when you watch the film, it feels real. A large percentage of the screen space that you're watching has truly been photographed, and it will hopefully help give it a sense of believability that I really wanted out there. This is an actual set location, and this is what we're doing with it, seeing another angle. To those of you on the Utah set, this as you remember is ultimately what will happen to it. It's having the effect we hoped it would: "Where the hell did they find this place to shoot it?" (io9)
I'm sympathetic to the problem that despite providing a lot of the inspiration for faves like Star Wars and Avatar a JCM film could come off as derivative to those unfamiliar with the books. But I'm beginning to get a sense of way too much overthink going on here in how to avoid it. Besides, for me the whole charm of the books lie in their over the top colorfully implausible exotic high fantasy nature -- the last thing I want to see is John Carter cheat death by wishing his way off  Earth only to find himself on a dreary dirty "authentic" Mars.

The correspondents also got to view the trailer and some footage and came away feeling pretty positive about the film. But, not to be too harsh here - it is very easy to get caught up by the enthusiasm of the artists behind a project and then overlook the real issues. The first trailer launches later this week on 7/14 - so I'll be able get my own first impression and see if  I may be able to appreciate or at least live with somebody else's version of the Best Swordsman on Two Worlds.

Tars Tarkas and his Martain peeps do look very good in these maquette photos though.

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