LAKE POWELL, Utah — The windstorm on the way was a nasty one — blinding dust clawing at the red sandstone cliffs, big rigs shuddering and shimmying on their way to the Arizona state line. But with his scarf, goggles and ginger beard, filmmaker Andrew Stanton had the aplomb of an Old World explorer willing to take some elemental beatings if there’s a chance he can put his name on the maps of the future.
“On the really harsh days I just keep saying to myself, ‘OK, this is my David Lean moment, this will be the adventure I can look back on,’” Stanton said on that 2010 afternoon as the wind howled across the set of “John Carter,” the mega-budget fantasy epic that reaches theaters Friday. “This is an adventure and something like this shouldn’t be easy.”
Any explorer knows that you find glory by searching for other things: Recover some forgotten treasure and you can connect the dots of meaning between past and present; bring back the first glimpse of an uncharted landscape and you can listen to the world gasp. With “John Carter,” Stanton is trying to pull off both in a way — and also deliver a crowd-pleasing adventure that can live up to a production budget that reportedly finished somewhere north of $250 million.
The forgotten treasure here is John Carter, the character, and the mythology around him, and it has a considerable history. It was 100 years ago last month that the pulp magazine All-Story veered from Old West shootouts, shipwreck stories and battlefield tales for something truly different, the first serialized chapter of “Under the Moons of Mars,” which introduced the character widely considered the first true space hero of the bookshelf. It was Carter, a Confederate soldier plucked from 19th century America and whisked to Mars, where alien cultures clashed over dwindling resources.
That leads to the landscape of discovery. Stanton turned to digital effects, some imposing sets (such as the Ancient Ruined City that was built of plaster in Los Angeles and shipped to Utah) and terrain near Lake Powell where time, wind and water have sculpted a mineral skyline at once beautiful and eerie.
Stanton came here to find an alkaline desolation to stand in for that red planet as imagined by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author who created the “John Carter” novels, charting an alien geography for the next three decades with stories that would fill 11 novels called the Barsoom series — that what’s Martians call their world.
“The place and look of Barsoom, so important to the story, we had to get that right,” said Taylor Kitsch, the sinewy 30-year-old star of “Friday Night Lights” who plays Carter as man of Southern manners, until he flies into one of his combat rages. “We shot in London and there was stuff in L.A., there was a lot of green screen, but out here it was the first time it feels like we’re making an epic adventure.”
“Epic” is right. The movie — which also stars Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong and Bryan Cranston — is one of the most expensive films of the year. In addition to the six-month shoot there were reshoots tacked on later that stretched for 18 days, an unusually long do-over session that caused some alarm among industry watchers. Stanton shrugged it off, however, and has explained it as the byproduct of his own transition between worlds.
“John Carter” is the first live-action feature for the 46-year-old Stanton, who minted his career at Pixar as part of the “Toy Story” writing team and the writer-director of the commercial and critical smashes “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E.” He picked up two Oscars along the way, which — if “John Carter” doesn’t deliver as hoped — surely will lead to “friendly advice” about going back to animated family films.
Many of the reviewers, reporters and bloggers who have seen the film say it’s “good” or “great,” but the hero remains elusive to the moviegoing public. According to awareness research, the film may need one of those eight-legged, galloping Thoats from Barsoom to make up a lot of ground in a hurry.
Stanton and his movie apparently didn’t get much help from Disney’s “John Carter” trailers, which have been jeered on blogs and fan websites. The movie also lost some mojo, perhaps, when it changed its title from “John Carter, Warlord of Mars” to just “John Carter.” (Stanton said the new title is more precise because Carter is not yet a warlord in the film.)
The John Carter character has a long, lurching history with Hollywood, and it’s not very pretty. There was the animated feature planned in the 1930s (Burroughs himself helped with that one), but it only got as far as some concept footage — a test audience found the premise too outlandish, too unsettling. The idea was revived in the 1980s after the success of “Star Wars” and “Conan the Barbarian,” but mostly generated only stories in the entertainment trades.
The property circled Hollywood — Ray Harryhausen, Tom Cruise, John McTiernan, Robert Rodriguez and Jon Favreau were among the hopefuls.
“It’s a bit like ‘March of the Penguins’ where the eggs are passed from penguin to penguin,” Favreau said last week. “For 100 years, pretty much. We all have tremendous love for it.”
Favreau was so pleased to see Carter finally reach the screen that he makes a cameo — joining the actors (all on stilts) playing a group of avocado-colored Tharks eager to place wagers on the earthling’s survival chances.
There’s a similar sort of game in Hollywood with “John Carter.” Dafoe knows that the film is being framed as a major gamble, but as he sat on rocks on the edge of the set, he said that for him the Burroughs mythology practically vibrates with the clang of battle, royal intrigue and a daredevil spirit that is forever hurtling forward.
“I like the source very much — coming from 1912 it was just the beginning of the imagining of space in popular literature,” said Dafoe, wearing a CG suit that would later be digitally embellished to transform the actor into a towering alien named Tars Tarkas. “Where did green Martians comes from? What things stayed in popular culture and what things were left behind? So much stuck from this, it has a real air of the classical.”
The cast also features Thomas Haden Church, who plays Tal Hajus, a sadistic Thark. Church has some spectacle-film experience and knows the feverish emphasis on opening-weekend grosses (and the snap-judgment, winner-or-loser mentality that follows).
Church played a hard-luck villain in 2007’s “Spider-Man 3,” which was (by far) the worst-reviewed film in that franchise but also (by far) its highest-grossing, thanks to an opening-weekend total of $382 million worldwide. That staggering number was earned by the franchise’s credibility to that point and global awareness of the brand, which goes beyond the screen with merchandise and licensing.
That’s why studios jump at sequels and remakes and turn board games into films. (Kitsch stars in “Battleship” this year.)
“I think it’s strange,” Church said. “The thing is with Spider-Man and Batman and Superman, they make these movies because people know them, but what we lose is a sense of real revelation or surprise or freshness. You haven’t heard of ‘John Carter’ and you don’t know everything about it? Wow, then let’s go see that.”
The John Carter novels are still in print and are enjoyed by dedicated fantasy readers, but for the wider public he’s something of sword-swinging curiosity — especially now that every schoolchild can inspect ridgeline photos from the next planet over and verify that there is no city-state called Helium with a red-hued Martian princess.
Burroughs was a Chicago wholesaler of pencil sharpeners when, in his mid-30s, he decided he was just as good as most of the fiction writers cashing checks on their loopy, lurid pulp tales. Even fans of the Barsoom series concede that it is limited as literature; it’s the imagination of the tapestry that holds the charm.
“Edgar Rice Burroughs was one of my first literary crushes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be the other one,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, who shares the “John Carter” screenplay credit with Stanton and Mark Andrews. “It inspired me in so many ways. ... He was writing quickly and writing for not much money, and there’s carelessness and haste, and no one would argue that all of them are masterpieces. But the power of his imagination, in his best moments, is incredible.”
Burroughs hoped for a lightning-strike success with Carter, but it didn’t really change his life — though a different story he published just a few months later did. It was called “Tarzan of the Apes.” Even as he scrambled to make an entire career from Tarzan, Burroughs continued to write Barsoom stories over the next few decades. But to some of his biographers and many readers, the Warlord of Mars was the opening act or strange and lesser cousin to the Lord of the Jungle.
Tarzan would swing across the silver screen in more than seven dozen feature films (there were also radio programs, serials, television shows, a couple of Broadway productions), but a strange thing has happened. Today, it’s John Carter that resonates in films even if he is unknown himself.
Chabon said clear bright lines can be drawn from Superman, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, the “Star Wars” films and “Avatar” back to Burroughs and his pulp creations. John Carter, for instance, is sometimes called the “first superhero” because on Mars the gravity enables him to jump vast distances — a core concept that would prominently pop up when Superman began to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
George Lucas and James Cameron have both acknowledged the passion they had for John Carter stories as children and those early mind-journeys have echoed in their films that take audiences off-planet. “Star Wars” was in another galaxy, but its alien deserts, sword battles, hooded holy warrior sect and princess rescues were a postcard sent back by a Burroughs fan.
“Avatar” and Disney’s “John Carter” practically have the same log line: A world-weary military man goes to a planet of mystery where he meets a strong-willed (and brightly colored) princess who teaches him about her primitive culture and helps heal his old wounds even as he steps in as her people’s most valuable new ally.
One problem facing Stanton: If moviegoers sit down to meet “John Carter,” they may recognize concepts and characters and think the movie is derivative — even though its story came first.
“I don’t see that as an issue,” Stanton said. “Our story stands on its own. We’ve added a lot to it that wasn’t there in the original — our princess isn’t just waiting to be kidnapped and rescued again and again, for instance — and if (audiences) see something that reminds them of something else, that’s what films do at this point.
“But for me and people who grew up loving these books and these characters and these adventures, this is finally the delivered moment,” he continued. “We’re going back to Barsoom. And a lot of people are going to go with us and they’ll be going for the first time and they’ll love it.”