We’re now six months out from “John Carter,” Disney‘s hugely expensive flop based on the beloved novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs about a Civil War vet magically transported to Mars, a land of warring tribes, princesses, and adorable, multi-legged dog thingees (we love you Woola!) Since then, Disney has admitted to losing $200 million on the movie and two of its top executives – Walt Disney Studios chairman Rich Ross and marketing chief MT Carney – were fired in its wake. But director Andrew Stanton, who had made the hugely profitable “WALL-E” and “Finding Nemo” for Pixar and who before the release had maintained an air of bulletproof unflappability, has kept mum. Until now. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, the director opens up about the making and marketing of the movie and what’s up next.
Stanton admits that he wasn’t ever compromised, creatively or artistically, during the entire development process of “John Carter” (originally entitled “John Carter of Mars” and billed, for a while, as “Pixar’s first live-action feature”), a rare luxury for a director who had never worked in live-action before, much less a $200 million tent pole initially envisioned as a springboard for sequels and cartoons and theme park attractions that would zoom you through the craggy world of Barsoom. “I was left alone from Day One to the last day,” Stanton said. He then gave way to an apt metaphor: “I thought, ‘Are we gonna lose the green light?’ In the very beginning I assumed it would be like that, cause who’s gonna give me the keys to a Ferrari if I’ve never driven before?,” he said. “But studios are not set up like that. They’re like, ‘Go and drive the car and don’t drive it off a bridge.'”
While many point to Stanton’s unlimited freedom, mixed with his naiveté and inexperience, as the reason for the film’s downfall. Not only was Stanton not policed by the studio, but he also was unaware of how key components of live action marketing work and his personal assembly of things like the film’s wonky first teaser trailer led to the sensation that he was driving that Ferrari very, very recklessly.
Still, he points to a destined-to-fail mentality in the industry and press, which isn’t exactly off-base, with much made in the media of extensive reshoots that were actually built into the production schedule and budget. “There was this weird air the summer before of schadenfreude, of doomed to fail,” he recalled to the Times. “It isn’t a nice atmosphere to be in, but what can you do about it?”
The marketing of the movie, with that first teaser set to a gravelly Peter Gabriel cover of an Arcade Fire song, to the posters which promised a crimson red of Mars that never actually appeared in the movie, focused much on “Friday Night Lights” heartthrob Taylor Kitsch, then thought to be a rising star. (Instead, he would go on to lead another costly turkey, Universal‘s “Battleship,” and the ugly Oliver Stone drug world thriller “Savages,”) Things they chose not to highlight: the scope and scale of the production, the earnestly old fashioned Saturday afternoon serial vibe, the many bizarre creatures and vehicles, the involvement of author Michael Chabon, and the fact that the original material inspired everything from “Star Wars” to “Avatar” (something a very late television ad finally addressed).
“We didn’t always agree on which direction to take every step of the way, but there was never serious contention,” Stanton said of the studio’s marketing. “The truth was everyone tried their very best to crack how to sell what we had, but the answer proved elusive.” Stanton’s co-director Mark Andrews, in an interview with us a few weeks ago, was more damning, telling us that he thought, “The studio pulled the plug on it a little prematurely and I think there were some mistakes in marketing.”
The Los Angeles Times points out, and rightly so, that after “The Abyss” bombed, James Cameron went back to his first hit, “The Terminator,” for a follow up, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Similarly, an argument could be made that Stanton is doing the exact same thing, as he recently committed to a sequel to “Finding Nemo,” to be written by Black List scribe Victoria Stouse, set for release in 2016. This isn’t the case, according to Stanton. “What was immediately on the list was writing a second ‘Carter’ movie,” he told the paper. When that went away, everything slid up. I know I’ll be accused by more sarcastic people that it’s a reaction to ‘Carter’ not doing well, but only in its timing, but not in its conceit.” Andrews, in that same interview with us, said that he and Stanton would still work on the “John Carter” sequel, in the hopes that they’ll get a call one day and say that it’s back on.
Stanton remains proud of the film and told the paper that he hopes it will join the privileged ranks of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Blade Runner” in terms of films that took years to find their audience. (Andrews told us that ‘Carter’ was the #1 pirated movie of all time, which does say something.) We think that a reappraisal will happen at some point. “John Carter” might not have been a masterpiece, but it’s certainly more smart and entertaining than most of the big-budget junk that came out this summer in its wake (is anyone really going to argue that “Battleship” or “Total Recall” are more sophisticated sci-fi spectacles?)
“The ennui you have after a huge success when it’s all over is exactly the same as the ennui you have when it’s a bomb,” Stanton said, learning an important lesson after being so unaccustomed to the later. “You loved the doing. You’ve spent every waking moment thinking about its birth, worrying about it, raising it. It’s an empty nest syndrome. Whether your kid went to college or went to jail, it’s an empty nest.”