Like most sf/fantasy writers, I have read Edgar Rice Burroughs and was looking forward, though hesitantly, to John Carter Of Mars, later truncated to John Carter. You almost want it to be: John Carter, CPA, just to give the guy some identity.
Now, as with most bombs (think WATERWORLD, ISHTAR, HEAVEN’S GATE, MARS (note to Disney: avoid!) NEEDS MOMS. , we clutch our hair in disbelief, falling prostrate on the ground and yelling “Why? Why?” with the agony of Nancy Kerrigan.
I think that I know why. I’ve done extensive research on the Web (where we know that everything we read is true), and, coupled with my fifteen years of servitude in the bowels of Hollywood studios (including Disney), I think I’ve found a scapegoat: The director, Andrew Stanton.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve never met Mr. Stanton. I cooed with as much pleasure as the next gal at the charm of Finding Nemo; marveled at the first half-hour of Wall-E, as graceful as a Chaplin short. Clearly, this guy Stanton was a master storyteller; hell, he’d co-written all of the Toy Stories, and his finesse with CG was acknowledged with two shiny Oscars for Best Animated Film Of The Year.
Stanton was riding high, as high as Woody on Bullseye. His two animated masterpieces had earned Pixar a cool $1.3 billion, and he was the Buzz who could do no wrong. Per his peer, Pete Docter, director of Up, “He can outthink and outtalk anyone in the room.” Stanton had apparently started believing his own press – he hung a sign in his home office reading, “I don’t want success to follow me home.” If you have to remind yourself not to be a prick to your family, it might be time to go in for an Ego Deflate.
Regardless, Stanton had a pet project bathed in the affection of childhood (like Peter Jackson with King Kong), and Disney, convinced of his infallibility, blew kisses and a $250 million budget to film the live-action John Carter.
This is what he said, in a lengthy interview given to The New Yorker (web link below): “We came on this movie so intimidated: ‘Wow, we’re at the adult table!’ Three months in, I said to my producers, ‘Is it just me, or do we actually know how to do this better than live-action crews do?’ The crew were shocked that they couldn’t overwhelm me, but at Pixar I got used to having to think about everyone else’s problems months before all their pieces would come together, and I learned that I’m just better at communicating and distilling than other people.”
Do you hear what I hear? The tinny blast of hubris, which felled a lot of people before Stanton: Achilles, Ajax, Oedipus, Leona Helmsley, Bernie Madoff. Stanton thought he was better at the live-action game than its longtime practitioners, and that he could play the same hand as he had in animation: lots and lotsa reshoots. However, there is a big difference between manipulating pixels on a screen and supporting a full cast and crew on location at a rough cost of $1 million a day (factoring in CG and post). In April 2010 alone, he reshot for 18 days. This is what he told the New Yorker:
“Reshoots should be mandatory,” Stanton insisted. “Honestly, if we had the time and everyone was available, I’d do another reshoot after this one.” When I said it sounded as if he longed for the old studio system, he replied, “That’s exactly what Pixar is! And some of the Pixarness we’re trying to spread at Disney is ‘It’s O.K. to not know, to be wrong, to screw up and rely on each other.’ Art is messy, art is chaos—so you need a system.”
Guess what? You had better goddamn know before your ass hits the set on a mega-movie. You do what the big boys do: storyboard, wireframe, rehearse, get a locked-in script, so that you don’t march out to the Utah desert and start bleeding hundreds of millions.
For that kind of green, you cast at least one movie star. As your lead. Not an unknown hunk from a low-rated TV show. You don’t have the only names in the cast hidden behind CG (in this case, four-armed and green). It has been brought to my attention that certain little films named Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings didn’t have lead stars. What they had were great directors, stellar special effects, and one primary difference: they were good.
You write a script that actually makes sense. Don’t incorporate two lengthy framing narratives at the head, because that’s the way to lose the audience. The so-called Pixar “Braintrust” tried to tell Stanton, but he wouldn’t listen: have the audience learn about Mars the same time as JC does. Don’t bore us with exposition for characters we don’t know (and it is still dry exposition, even if spaceships are exploding). Don’t introduce a cutesy character named “Burroughs” since that’s the way to make us lose our lunch. Even if it was in the book. Maybe the late Johnny Weissmuller could have leapt from a canoe into the “River Iss.” With Cheetah co-starring as a Thern.
I fully understand that A Princess of Mars, the ostensible basis of this film, was published in 1917. We all know that filmmakers like Lucas, Cameron, Spielberg, et al have stolen from the source material until only the bleached skeleton remains. That’s why a set piece like the gladiatorial combat with White Apes was done better by Lucas in 1980. That the steampunk contraptions flying above Barsoom were co-opted by Terry Gilliam in Baron Munchausen. That the pulpy serial tone was done, and done better, by Spielberg in Indiana Jones. Alas, this project was too late, and too little. But instead of using their brains (as Nina Jacobson, former head of Disney production did, when she passed on M. Night’s execrable Lady in The Water script), the Disney execs bent over and asked for more more more. Yes, they were trying to please Herr Direktor. But there was a bit more involved.
None of the execs at Disney have a fucking clue as to what they are doing. The CEO, Bob Iger, is an ex-ABC man. His hire for the spot of Studio Chairman is Rich Ross* – former head of the Disney Channel. The President of Marketing during the JC campaign was one MT Carney – probably great at what she did in the world of New York advertising,, but she had zero movie experience. See the trend here? This new slate of suits, while trying to do something “different”, did: they hired people who had never been closer to a movie than the screen at their local Cineplex.
Let’s talk about the advertising campaign for a moment. Pair a novice (M)adwoman and a hubristic director, and what do you get? $100 million worth of crap. Stanton didn’t want JC portrayed as a kids’ film – so he refused to put “By The Guy Who Directed Nemo And Wall-E” in the ads. He assumed, that since he was a major John Carter fan, this hero was as familiar to audiences as Superman, Thor, and Conan. Wrong. So what we got by dint of an advance poster was a strange reddish mishmash of a man – in some kind of caveman gear – walking. The huge, enigmatic text? “JOHN CARTER.” The trailers stank and didn’t attract anyone: not women, who would have gone for the love story; nor men, since the emphasis was not on action (unlike the film).
Take all of these toxic ingredients – no stars, a bad script, a tired premise, a lackluster ad campaign — shake, then pour, and what have you got? A $200 million write-off for Disney, acknowledged even before the second weekend.
Yes, the studio was at fault: Know Nothing executives, unthinking worship of a Cash Cow, an overly compliant marketing staff. However, I contend that Stanton – with his arrogance, his complete misunderstanding of how live-action is made – shoulders 90% of the blame. What will happen to him now? Will he return to the bosom of Pixar, to make animation forever more? Or will he be given another chance, perhaps on a much, much lower budget? Only time will tell. In the meantime, he can hone his superior “communicating and distilling than other people” skills to a sharper, perhaps more modest, edge.
* now fired
All quotes taken from this article