Tharks, the green-skinned, six-limbed creatures living on Mars in John Carter are about nine feet tall. Great actors though they are, Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church, are not nine feet tall. Even though they’re wearing the standard motion-capture grey leotards and tracking dots, there’s no accounting for height…unless you add stilts. Watching Dafoe and Church march around on stilts is one of the high-lights of any set visit I’ve gone to.
With a sandstorm whipping into our faces and into our microphones, my fellow movie journalists and I spoke to Dafoe and Church on the set of John Carter. In addition to talking about the stilts, we spoke about the scene they were currently filming, their characters, how doing motion-capture on set helped their performances, and more. Hit the jump to check out the interview. John Carter opens in 3D on March 9th.
WILLEM DAFOE: It’s a work in progress, but we got a little time before to rehearse and so you just keep it up. But each time it’s a new challenge because the terrain’s different, the quality of the sand’s different, but it’s very important because that height relationship not only helps technically with direct eye lines when mixing effect-oriented stuff with real actors, but also you find the voice much better and you play the scenes much better when you’re that character.
What made you want to take this role to begin with? It’s so unique.
DAFOE: The truth is, I like the whole project. When Andrew [Stanton] put out a feeler, I said basically, “Yeah, I’d love to play one of the Martians,” and then he’d say, “What?” [laughs] I did tip off that I would really love to play Tars Tarkas, which is the role I’m playing, because he’s an interesting character. He’s not what he appears to be, number one, without giving too much of the story away. He’s also got a really good relationship with the John Carter [Taylor Kitsch] character who he kind of takes under his wing and he has a relationship with the Samantha Morton character [Sola]. Plus an adversarial one with Thomas [Haden Church]’s character, [Tals Hajus].
Could you elaborate on the scene that you’re shooting?
DAFOE: Right now, basically, I’ll shorthand it. There’s just been a battle and the John Carter character has helped us in the battle, kind of by accident, unknowingly. So, I’m embracing him as one of our warriors and he’s very reluctant. Basically, that’s what’s happening. And also, it’s the introduction…we’ve taken Dejah [Lynn Collins] prisoner and she comes and asks us to help her rather than take her as prisoner, but we kinda blow that off. [laughs]
So on Mars, at first you speak Martian and then transition into English after drinking that stuff. What does your Martian sound like? Can you say something in Martian?
DAFOE: Sure, sure. [speaks Martian] Like that.
DAFOE: They had a linguist make a language that corresponded so the sound sounded right. I’m sure it’s a hybrid of many things. Then we found a place where we liked it. There’s kind of an alphabet and corresponding Martian words with English words, so the syntax is actually all juggled around, but it’s based on something actual. And, yes, someone did just be an outside ear for us to speak and see if we were…the important thing was for us all to speak in a similar vein, but also have our individual character voices.
How are you enjoying the shoot here in Arizona and Utah compared to shooting in a studio?
DAFOE: I prefer shooting on location, just because it always helps you. You go some place, you put your life on hold even more than when you’ve settled in some place. You can make a new life so it opens yourself up to the make-believe and the imagination in a way when you aren’t burdened by things that remind you of your life all the time.
After a certain amount of days on the shoot do you past the dots on the face, the way everybody looks?
DAFOE: What dots on the face? [laughs]
DAFOE: You do and that’s the only way to stay invested and to really play the scenes. I look at it as, I don’t worry about the scenes so …different processes. This is like an experiment in recreating information. These performances in front of the camera are sacred pilgrimages in creating fertile material for them to work with, probably in post.
What have been some of your personal challenges for working on this film compared to other movies?
DAFOE: Personal challenges for this? I don’t know. I’m having fun. I think with something like this…is not to get cynical…in the scene even with all of these technical applications. I think, partly because I’m really more of a theater actor, that’s my background and I’ve made a lot of movies like that, I’m used to that.
Was your balance pretty good before this or is it something you’ve had to practice?
DAFOE: I think so, I think so. I shouldn’t be bragging, not yet. But, it’s always something that’s there, that possibility.
DAFOE: It is, it is. And I’ve got good core strength.
I know you probably don’t get a lot of downtime, but what do you do for fun around here?
DAFOE: We haven’t been here long enough to tell you that, but I would imagine sightseeing. [laughs] It’s beautiful country.
How’s it been working with Taylor? What’s it been like?
DAFOE: He’s great, he’s great. He’s a workhorse on this thing, he’s perfectly cast. I enjoy him a lot. I like how he works. He’s the center of this.
Have you been able to teach him a lot?
DAFOE: I don’t teach nobody nothin’! [laughs]
[Thomas Haden Church joins]
THOMAS HADEN CHURCH: He’s great. He was really an inspiration for me when I was younger and even though he’s not a lot older. … He’s so grounded and at the same time, so genuine. It’s been great, really great.
Can you talk about what you’re role is in the movie and in this scene?
CHURCH: Well, I don’t know how much you know, but we’re part of a warring tribe on Mars. There are different factions…I have to keep it on the down low as far as information. Willem and Samantha [Morton] and myself and Polly Walker, we’re all members of the same tribe. Then Taylor, as you can tell, is a dude. [laughs] An Earth dude. And then Lynn [Collins], if you’ve seen her, her appearance is a lot different than ours.
On a technical level, how does this compare to Spider-Man, for example?
CHURCH: It’s a completely different concept because this is all motion capture. Everything we do. Now, the whole world is apprised of how it works because of Avatar, but you just act everything out. For the most part, our physicality is captured by the cameras and then all of our facial maneuverings and manipulations are caught by the headset cam. There are two of them. It’s a different process because, on Spider-Man, so little of it, so little of the animation was available to me as a physical actor, whereas this, you’re completely embedded in it. My whole body and my head and everything is going to be in motion capture with an infusion of my body and, as I already said, my physicality and expressions and emotions of it.
Do you have a pretty good idea of what it’s going to look like, in your head?
CHURCH: They’re giants, but they have their own, for lack of a better word, they have their own humanity, a tribal humanity and a social order. That’s a pretty good representation of the way they’re going to look.
CHURCH: Willem is the leader of the tribe. My guy is sort of his pit bull guard dog. He’s very aggressive when it comes to violence and fighting. He’s probably a little bit too aggressive because Willem is trying to lead by example, his character. There’s, at times, a little friction.
Do you get to do any fighting in the film?
CHURCH: I do.
Do you have to do that on stilts? How is that handled?
CHURCH: A lot of it is going to be…again, as I was saying, it’s all melded. We rehearsed fighting. We had a stunt camp in January in England and we rehearsed fighting on the stilts. I prefer being on the stilts, I think Willem does too because it’s just become the character to me, to be 8’7’’ and still independently mobile. I spend a lot of time rehearsing on them by myself at the ranch where I live in Texas. They sent me stilts probably in November and I just started like a baby, just started getting up on them and moving around and getting better and better and better. Then at the stunt camp in January, I had a greater awareness of what was going to be expected as far as manipulating and movements, that sort of thing. I still can’t run. It’s disappointing because I thought I would get to where I’d be able to move with the facility of my normal kind of stature. It’s really difficult.
CHURCH: I don’t know. I haven’t seen him run in them. I’m assuming the stunt guys are really good in them. They also use, I think they’re called “leaping stilts” where it’s a completely different energy. “Powerisers.” It’s completely different. They can run in them, they can do layout flips.
With all the stilts and the motion capture and the facial recognition, was this more challenging than a normal live-action production or less so? Does it free you up?
CHURCH: That’s a good question. Probably a little of both, because you’re always aware that, especially with the helmet, the mo-cap helmet on, you’re always aware that it’s there. The camera’s right there with the lights. I know that it’s going to take it to another kind of level of menace and vitality that’s going to be in Andrew [Stanton]’s domain. And the production team, it’s not just him. There are literally hundreds of people working on this project.
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