“Barsoom” reads a sign on the outskirts of the movie set we’re about to visit. “Barsoom” is what Martians call their planet in Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ A Princess of Mars. A group of my fellow online movie journalists and I are headed to the set of Andrew Stanton‘s adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel, John Carter. Mars may technically be in Big Water, Utah, but today we’ll be walking the ruins of an ancient Martian city, meeting a princess who bleeds blue, and a nine-foot-tall nomad tribe of warriors. Hit the jump to take a trip to the red planet and find out about my visit to the set of John Carter.
For those unfamiliar with the story, John Carter is about confederate soldier John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) who is suddenly teleported to the surface of Mars and thrust into the middle of a war between the planet’s various species.
Today is April 27, 2010 and it’s Day 71 of the 100-day shoot*. As we walk on to set, we’re greeted by the film’s producer Colin Wilson who has worked on a multitude of blockbuster films including Avatar and Jurassic Park. He is our tour guide as we walk through the ruins of an ancient Martian city. After working for five months in studios in London, Wilson is excited to be working on practical sets and it’s an enthusiasm we’ll see in every person we talk to during our day on set. Wilson explains that the city is occupied by the nomadic Tharks, a race of nine-foot-tall, green-skinned, and tusked creatures, who have set up tents among the ruins. We enter one of the tents and we’re surrounded by worn clothes of various colors hanging from the ceiling. Oh, and a giant throne built from the skull of great beast. Those are the best kind of thrones.
Wilson leads us out of the tent and we make our way to where the actors are filming a scene that takes place after the Tharks have, with the unintentional help of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), brought down a ship of the Helium tribe. The ship was led by the Helium princess and chief scientific officer, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Before we reach the set, we’re atop a giant platform. Wilson tells us that this part of the ancient’s city’s port and where Carter and Thoris have a swordfight against a swarm of hostile soldiers. In the distance, we see the giant Thark mannequins Wilson mentioned earlier how they were being used to provide a marker for the height, lighting, and distance of the creatures that will be digitally inserted into the film.
Moving from the “port” to where they’re currently filming, we come across the headset rigs being used by Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Polly Walker, and Thomas Haden Church. These headsets are similar to the ones used on Avatar where cameras capture the facial expressions of the actors and then map them onto the facial structure of the Tharks. However, we also get a look at other “Thark” rigs, which include polls with Thark heads and backpacks with Thark heads elevated by the poles. The actors playing Tharks sometimes have to wear these backpacks or hold these poles so that they can make sure their non-Thark counterpart in the scene meets the correct eye-line. But as we’ll soon learn, the actors’ preferred way of playing a Thark isn’t to hold up a fake head, but to walk on stilts.
But before we get to that greatness, we briefly speak with the lovely Collins who is in a stage tent a little way from the set. She’s made-up to look like she just finished a fight and we learn she has flecks of blue on her face because her species on Mars has blue blood. We also learn that Collins, despite playing a human-looking character, has to spend three hours in make-up to cover up her freckles and to have various tattoos applied to her body. The reasons for the tats are really cool: In the book, her species are red people. Since that would look a little too silly for the movie, her species now have red tattoos and the tattoos display the rank, position, profession, and personal history of the bearer. It’s as if an entire race had Russian prison tattoos and Russian prison tattoos were really beautiful and elegant, and could be removed and applied daily.
When asked about the swordfight Wilson mentioned earlier, Collins said that she already had martial arts training but she still prepared for the kind of stage combat that would be required of her character for the film. The way she describes Dejah’s fighting style is that the Princess of Mars fights on a “diagonal”. I don’t know what that means but I like the sound of it and I wish we could’ve seen her break out diagonal sword-fighting.
Click here to read the full interview with Lynn Collins.
Sadly, we didn’t have much more time to speak with Ms. Collins and we moved along to the set where second-unit director and co-writer Mark Andrews was working on a scene between Carter and Tars Tarkas (Dafoe). After calling cut, Andrews came to speak with us and told us about the process of getting to adapt A Princess of Mars. It was easy to see that it was a passion project for him and that it was one of those books he always dreamed of adapting and four years ago he got the chance. However, it was highly encouraging to learn that Andrews wasn’t precious about the material. He knew some of Burrough’s writing was dull and some characters lacked depth, especially John Carter. Andrews said that in collaborating with Stanton on the script, he would just spew out a scene and Stanton would then edit it and it was this back-and-forth that led the script 90% of the way. The other 10% came from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon who was able to be a fresh set of eyes and work his magic over sections of the dialogue.
After speaking with Andrews, we moved on to speak with Dafoe who had just finished a few takes where he recites the line, “Now…to the plunder!” And he said it while on stilts. I don’t want to say that seeing Willem Dafoe on stilts saying “Now…to the plunder!” is one of the greatest moments I’ve ever experienced in covering movies, but it was one of the greatest moment I’ve ever experienced in covering movies. I’m a huge fan of the actor and it was great talking to him about how he came to the project. Dressed in a motion-capture suit and his face painted with tracking dots (used for rendering his facial movements in post-production), Dafoe revealed that what caught him about the script was that he really wanted to play a Martian, but preferably Tars Tarkas because of the character’s interesting arc. As we spoke with Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church came saddling up in his own pair of stilts. We spoke about his character, his personal experience with the stilts, how the motion capture compared to Spider-Man 3 and more.
Click here to read the full interview with Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church.
When we arrived at the beginning of the day, it looked like the heat of the sun would be our enemy. As it turned out, the sun decided to hide behind overcast skies and our enemy was the wind whipping up little dust storms. It didn’t make the visit miserable or anything like that, but I eventually had to clutch my eyes shut and hope we would be returning to a Thark tent. Thankfully, that was the plan and we trekked back to the tent where we previously spoke with Wilson. However, before we headed inside, we stopped to speak with star Taylor Kitsch. I didn’t much mind my eyes stinging for a bit longer to speak with the film’s cordial star.
Kitsch was a little beat up from the physical demands of the character, but was gracious and funny as he spoke to us about how much his performance benefited from moving off the soundstage in London and into a physical location. We also talked about balancing the everyman aspect of John Carter with the action-hero side, how Carter functions as the audience surrogate, and more.
Click here to read the full interview with Taylor Kitsch.
After speaking with Kitsch, we went inside the tent, Stanton joined us, and the question quickly came up about how it was to move from his animated films Finding Nemo and WALL-E to his first live-action feature. Stanton explained that Pixar works in such a way that he was more-than-prepared to handle the challenges of directing a live-action feature. At Pixar, said Stanton, you have to keep hundreds of ideas in your head at once and you have to keep them there because you won’t see their outcome for months. With live-action, the time between idea and result is much faster and it makes the process easier. He also explained his largest frustration was that at Pixar they choose the most logical possession of creating a film because they never knew about all the hurdles that exist in normal filmmaking. Clarifying, Stanton said that antiquated rules regarding unions slow down production and while their intent is good, at Pixar, the benefits provided to unions were already built into the employee contracts.
We also learned that the filming in the desert provided a baseline where what we’ll see in the movie for these scenes will be 80% on-location shooting and then they’ll fill the background to create the expanse of the city. Stanton also mentioned how there’s not really “post-production” on the movie but “Principal Digital Photography”. We got the strong impression that Stanton was trying to seriously re-think the rules of live-action filmmaking, and I’m eager to see the final result of this novel approach.
Click here to read the full interview with Andrew Stanton.
It was almost time to wrap up but we got a chance to speak with Samantha Morton who plays Sola. Morton was cagey about her character and her scenes, not because she was trying to be frustratingly evasive, but because she wanted to make sure she didn’t spoil anything. The Oscar-nominated actress explained that she was more familiar with talking about a movie after people had seen it and I could understand why she wanted to err on the side of caution.
Click here to read the full interview with Samantha Morton.
After speaking with Morton (who, like her fellow Thark co-stars was wearing a mo-cap suit and had her face covered with tiny dots), we headed back to the bus and departed “Barsoom.” I had mixed feelings about my time on Mars. It was very cool to see the sets they were constructing and how the various species related to each other. Also, nothing beats Dafoe on stilts. But I also wished we could have visited an art department since this is clearly going to be a movie of magnificent designs. One of my fellow journalists on this set visit had visited the London set and seen the designs. He said it looked like a “steampunk Avatar.” If you add “and the story is actually good,” you have me 100% sold. The film has the talent and the vision that could easily lead to a great film. My biggest frustration is that I wanted to see more of that vision, but I would say that’s a successful set visit: one that doesn’t give everything away but teases you to the point where you want to see it all.
John Carter of Mars opens in 3D on March 9th.
*This does not include re-shoots.