His is a story that ushered in the modern age of science fiction, inspiring a century of authors and sparking the imaginations that launched "Star Wars" and "Avatar" into the cultural canon. But it's only now, a century after Edgar Rice Burroughs penned his first excursion to the red planet, that John Carter's adventures on Mars are being presented on the big screen.
And to read the rumors surrounding the film's four years in production, the story of how the epic Disney movie got made seems nearly as legendary a tale.
"It's frustrating, because it's wrong," Lindsey Collins, one of the film's co-producers, says of years of trade reports that the film, the first live-action effort from Oscar-winning "WALL-E" director Andrew Stanton, was a bloated, over-budget mess.
"There's no way to talk about it without sounding defensive, but I'm going to sound defensive for a second and say this movie was made on budget," Collins asserted. "I think Disney took a huge leap of faith with us early on and said, Okay, we believe your number and it's higher than we wanted but we believe it so make it for that ... And in fact, in most areas, it came in under, and the one area we came in slightly over was offset by all the underages of the others, so it came within I think two percent of the budget."
The budget they say they hit was $250 million, which went into live shoots in desert locations and massive computer graphic work to create an elaborate world in which a leather-clad Taylor Kitsch, as Carter, leaps into a war between two rival nations and a race of green, horned, four-armed natives. Barsoom, as Mars is called by its inhabitants, is a rocky desert-scape littered with ornate cities, mystical ruins and anachronistic flying machines. And it's one that took over seventy five years of technological development to make believable on the screen.
Various attempts at adapting Burroughs' seminal, serial adventure series have been made since MGM and "Looney Toons" director Bob Clampett approached Burroughs in 1935 with the idea of making a cartoon feature from the Civil War veteran-turned-space hero's exploits. The test footage, however, did not impress, and the movie was scrapped. The property was acquired by Disney in the '80s -- Tom Cruise was wooed to star -- but that fell through, as did Paramount's attempts to make it, with both Robert Rodriguez and Jon Favreau attached to direct at different points.
Stanton, the current director, grew up a massive fan of the stories, and had always wanted to make the movie himself. Once that was mentioned to Pixar's chief John Lasseter, a quick meeting with then-Disney exec Dick Cook led to the studio scooping up the rights to the seemingly impossible-to-make movie.
"The Curse of John Carter? Yeah, I think everybody felt that the fact that this was a huge property," co-producer Collins laughed, adding that a meeting with Danton Burroughs, the author's grandson, gave her a sense of the books' long legacy. "If it's not done right, it's just going to seem silly and campy, you're never going to buy a live action person sitting next to a CG person. And at least that part, I completely appreciated. I was like, oh my god, how the hell are we going to do this?"
Luckily, Collins' co-producer on "John Carter" was Jim Morris, a Pixar exec who spent nearly two decades working for and then running leading special-effects house Industrial Light & Magic (ironically, "Star Wars" creator George Lucas' company -- how things come full circle).
"Our basic theory was that we wanted to have real stuff under peoples' feet and around them at all times," Morris said. "So what we did was shot them in these big landscapes and just did a little bit of enhancement. We would add ruins here and there and take natural formations and turn them into ruins, and the interior stuff, whether it's in the palace or light or whether it's in chambers, that work we shot on stage [in front of a green screen]."
It requires a certain buy-in from the viewer -- Carter has Superman-level leaping ability, he's often surrounded by the CGI aliens and the plot is tied together with magic thread -- but Morris and Stanton didn't want people to necessarily think of space when they watched it, even if it did take place on Mars.
"One of the ways that gave it a grit and a reality that differentiated it from some of the other films in the genre was to just shoot it like a period piece -- just a period that you didn't know existed," he explained.
The production did have some issues -- Morris explained that they had to condense story lines, give Kitsch's Carter a more sympathetic arc as a Civil War soldier who lost his family, and spend a bit more time on re-shoots than they had planned. The real challenge, however, has come in selling the film to the public.
"It's been tricky. It's been really tricky to market," Collins admitted.
The first step was changing the name. Initially called "John Carter of Mars," Disney chopped off the second half of the title, fearful that the inclusion of the planet's name would mean "people wouldn't give it the chance or the time of day to see that it was multifaceted," she explained.
Pixar's Morris acknowledges that the film's audience is still likely to skew toward young males, though he says Kitsch's hunk appeal has elicited positive responses from women in test audiences. His producing partner believes that they still have a chance to sell based on the long legacy of Burroughs' work.
"What we're trying to get across is that there's a strong story there. I've always been coming at it from the point of, look, I think women don't go see action films because ultimately there's no story, and I think the more we can be convincing, showing people by the fact that there's a good story," Collins said. "We'll see. It's tough. Hopefully the word of mouth will help us, too, because everyone goes in and says, 'Holy shit, that's not what I expected.'"
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