It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – Mark Andrews, who makes his feature directorial debut this weekend on Pixar‘s heavily hyped, medieval girl-power romp “Brave” (taking duties over for Brenda Chapman, who parted ways with the film – more on that in a minute) was also an assistant director and co-writer on “John Carter,” Disney‘s massively budgeted sci-fi spectacle that crashed and burned like an out-of-control Martian spaceship. Few filmmakers have been in the unenviable position of being involved in huge (and occasionally troubled) productions this close together. But anyone who has seen behind-the-scenes footage of Andrews knows that he is so excitable and energetic that he makes a rocket-powered cheetah look lazy by comparison. We talked to Andrews about the difficult process of making “Brave,” what he wants to bring to the fairytale genre, and how he feels about the lackluster response to “John Carter.”
Animated movies are notoriously hard to put together – with productions that can often last the better part of a decade and utilize hundreds of artists and technicians. But for “Brave,” the production was even more turbulent than most, with its original director, Brenda Chapman (a veteran on everything from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” to “Prince of Egypt“), who had developed the original story, being removed, and Andrews (who had previously directed the Oscar-nominated Pixar short “One Man Band“) taking her place.
“I’ve been on ‘Brave’ since the beginning in this kind of outside satellite consultant kind of way. I’m a Scottishphile, history buff, everything Middle Ages and Celtic lore and myth are things in my wheelhouse,” Andrews explained. “I went with them on their research trip to Scotland in 2006, and being a fellow director at Pixar, we’re all there helping the directors with their film in what we call the Brain Trust. Every time Brenda got it up on reels we could look at it and critique it and add suggestions on how to make it better and where it’s not working and all that jazz. About 18 months ago, Pixar asked me to step onboard to direct – to take over and to build upon what Brenda was doing.”
What exactly happened (and why she was replaced) isn’t some story fraught with drama but rather a clinical decision to get the movie done in the amount of time that was required. And it’s not an uncommon practice in Pixar history (although this case might have been more sensitive since it was their first female director). “The story reaches a spot where you have about 18 months to go before a release date and it’s time to really evaluate the movie and see where it needs to be,” Andrews explained. “And in this case, ‘Ratatouille”s case, ‘Toy Story 2‘s case, there’s been this moment where the story’s not working as well as it should be and we don’t have much time left and something drastic has to happen to get it going and get it up to that level. And sometimes that means a director change, which is exactly what happened. So I came on board and kind of treated it as an adaptation.”
Andrews knew immediately what needed to be kept and what needed to be jettisoned. “Because the bones of the story were fantastic – the root of the parent/child relationship, the magic of this child in this desperate situation asking for this spell, not really knowing what it’s going to be – all that stuff was there and those elements were working,” Andrews said. Echoing early test screening reports, though, he says that the main thrust of the story was unfocused and hard to follow. “Whose story it was – whether it was Merida or her mom’s story or Merida choosing which parent she was going to be more like – these things weren’t working, and having more of an objective eye coming into it, I killed some babies to get the story moving again in the direction that was entertaining and had action in it and didn’t compromise the heart or the humor.” Not that it was easy to get right: “I put it up on reels four times in the span of a year, in some very different ways, before I got it to where everyone was saying, ‘Yeah yeah yeah that’s it, it’s working, it’s working.'”
Andrews went directly from helping Andrew Stanton craft “John Carter” to “Brave,” and even though “John Carter” was a seemingly impossible property that hadn’t been properly adapted in a hundred years, he admits that “Brave” might have been harder. “‘Brave’ was much more difficult in that sense because it was an original tale,” Andrews said. “There were things in place that we didn’t want to lose. I wanted to do right by Brenda because we’re friends and it’s always an awkward, weird transition. But also deliver something that Pixar wanted to get. It was a lot to do. It was a crazy, crazy minefield, but there were things that I had to keep that couldn’t budge, which makes the combination of elements really tricky. It was a Gordian knot I had to untie and tie again to get it to sing.” The filmmaker brought in his own personal experiences as well: “I have a daughter and three sons, just like in the movie – and bringing in my own experiences from my teenage days to being a family man as well and plugging that into the movie.”
One person he did consult was Brad Bird, his mentor and coworker from back in the day (the two worked together on “The Iron Giant” and when Bird decamped for Pixar, he brought Andrews along for the ride). Even though Bird isn’t at the studio everyday anymore (although he could be soon, since he’s said to be working on a top-secret project for Disney), Andrews still sought his council. “To be honest, he was the first phone call I made after Pixar asked me to step in for Brenda. I said, ‘Can I think about this?’ and I called Brad,” Andrews said. “Because he had done this, he had stepped in for Jan Pinkava [taking over ‘Ratatouille’ with roughly the same amount of time Andrews had to finish the film]. And just getting his take on what it would mean and the trials and tribulations and what I would look out for.”
Bird has also been outspoken about the response to “John Carter” (and its supposed financial shortcomings), taking to Twitter to defend the film from its numerous snarky detractors. The whole experience is still a blur to Andrews, who helped conceive of the adaptation during a brainstorming session with eventual director Andrew Stanton. “It was a crazy experience. I had kind of gone through it with ‘Iron Giant.’ You have a great film and nobody saw it,” Andrews said. “And here it happens again on ‘Carter.’ And it’s like ‘Are you kidding me? This happens twice in a lifetime?'” Andrews remains defensive about what he perceives as a general lack of support from Disney, who had more or less written the movie off before it opened. “I was in denial for quite a bit and the studio pulled the plug on it a little prematurely and I think there were some mistakes in marketing. It was like ‘Give it a chance! This thing is struggling to find itself! Hold on a little longer!'” Still, he offers some perspective: “I think, ultimately, what’s really interesting now is that it’s the #1 pirated movie of all time. I think all the bad press has given it this mystique.”
What’s more is that Andrews is actually optimistic about returning to the series. “It’s going to get its legs back and me and Andrew aren’t done with that story yet and we really want to do two and three,” Andrews said. “There’s some great stuff for John Carter as a hero to deal with in the future.” He added that they continue to work on the script for the subsequent films: “We’re ready to go. As soon as somebody from Disney says, ‘We want ‘John Carter 2,” we’d be right there.” (Andrews also says that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon will be back to co-write the additional films.)
But as for what Andrews will do next, that’s somewhat up in the air. “I’ve got lots of irons in the fire. I definitely have ideas for live action and animation both,” Andrews admitted. “I’m developing stuff for Pixar – original animated tales but I have original live action tales as well. I’ll hit the ground running come September and figure out what to do next.”
For now, though, Andrews is proud of what he accomplished with “Brave” and what he added to the fairy tale milieu. “We wanted to make a story that would resonate with everybody, and I think this parent/child relationship, that heart, is definitely there,” Andrews said. “And for me, the one thing for me, that I really liked about the story is it is a dark tale. I’m really glad Pixar got behind it and supported it and didn’t try to lighten it.” He then explained the historical precedence: “There’s real stakes for this character and some real lessons. That’s what makes the original Grimm’s fairy tales so great – they’re warnings to youth about being mature when they reach adulthood. It is going to be a dangerous place and their decisions and choices can have dire consequences and they can’t take growing up lightly.” Andrews then paused and summed things up: “I like that it’s in the movie and it’s pushing the boundaries of animation and the types of stories that we tell out of the realm of just being for kids or kid-friendly topics.”
“Brave” opens this Friday.