John Carter What Really Happened

John Carter “What Really Happened?”: Exhibit A: Interview with Producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins

What Really Happened

We’ve been thinking about it, and have reached the conclusion that “John Carter: What Really Happened?” is going to be an ongoing focus here in the coming weeks as we try to make sense of what has been instantly labeled the biggest flop in cinema history, but which we believe is likely to be more remembered as the biggest studio blunder in cinema history.  Are we splitting hairs by making such decisions?  I don’t think so.  Are we convinced of our view being right?  No — that’s the point of “What really happened?” as a unifying concept for our quest.   No one knows for sure what really happened and most of the principals are running for cover, blame-throwing as they do so, and the truth is only gradually emerging from the carnage.  To his credit Andrew Stanton, in spite of being blamed widely as the “main culprit”, has yet to emerge from writing bunker where, he has told us, he’s trying to #focusfocusfocus on the writing task before him (not, presumably, The Gods of Mars), and so he’s not part of the blame-throwing orgy.  Somewhere in all of this is a passionately crafted movie that has generated a loyal fan base who feel an injustice has occurred.  What’s the real truth behind all this?

I’m not talking about half-baked, emotionally satisfying  conspiracy theories.  That’s not who we are and it’s not what we’re trying to come up with.  Our initial thoughts were put forward in Our View: How John Carter was treated as a hospice case all along by Disney.  Those were early thoughts …. and they may change, depending on what we turn as we begin assembling the evidence and trying to drill down into the layers of ego, hubris, politics, and good old Hollywood ridiculousness and figure out “What Really Happened”.

It’s ironic — seems to us — that when we chose the name “The John Carter Files” for this site, it would actually evolve into a repository for the “files” on a story as strange and compelling as this one.   In keeping with the name, the “files” that we assemble will not initially attempt to tie it all together — rather they will shed light on various aspects of the situation and provide ‘grist for the mill” for …. who knows — maybe there’s a book in this. We’ll see.

Following is Exhibit A in our quest for answers — a lengthy interview with producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins just before the release of the film.  The interview is thorough; it’s with firsthand participants in much of the drama; and it is more meaningful now than when it was first released on March 6.

This is not the answer — it’s just a piece of the puzzle.  The beginning of building a file.

You can read the interview at Bleeding Cool by clicking on the link below, or read it here:

Brendan Connelly Interview with Producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins about working with Andrew Stanton

John Carter’s Producers Talk Me Through Filmmaking: The Andrew Stanton Way

 On Saturday afternoon, I sat down for an extended chat with Lindsey Collins andJim Morris, the producers of John Carter, and set about pulling together a picture of how the film came about.

So here’s a zippy version of how this John Carter was made, of who was involved, and how Andrew Stanton‘s very specific ideas about filmmaking shaped the process. This is how John Carter eventually escaped decades in development hell, and made it to the screen in a genuinely surprising, instant genre classic.

BC:Let’s start this by trying to get some kind of chronology of this. At some point either yourselves or Andrew became attached to the film. What way round did that happen, and was it then default that the other party would join?

LC: For us? Yeah. But Andrew was like “Shit – they’re coming?”

[Everybody laughs]

JM:Andrew loved this from being a kid, as you probably know, and had been following it on the sidelines. When there was news of it leaving Paramount and going back to the Estate, he expressed his interest to Disney and they got it for him. We’d been working on Wall-E as a team and we just picked right up and continued from there.

BC: Was it that they picked it up specifically for him?

LC: Yeah.

BC: And he knew that?

LC: Yeah. He was kind of surprised – “Wow! You bought it?”

BC: What a present.

JM: It had been a Disney property before in the eighties. John McTiernan was going to direct it and Tom Cruise was going to play John Carter and that one fizzled out for various reasons.

BC: So now all three of you are together. What’s the first step?

LC: Finishing Wall-E.

JM: Mark Andrews started doing some writing for Andrew before we finished Wall-E, before Andrew had any time to do writing. And then, as we started getting into the final months of Wall-E, Andrew was able to start writing as well.

LC: Basically, the two of them spent the first year writing, doing a couple of drafts of the script and finding out what some of the issues are in the story and in the books. They were finding ways of solving things that had always bugged them or had been stumbling blocks for prior attempts. They worked pretty exclusively on that for about a year and then, finally, had a draft that were happy with and we
surfaced it up to the Disney folks.

BC: Was Mark’s first run at this a script or an outline?

JM: They started with an outline that they agreed on. And then Mark went to pages, and he’d give them to Andrew and he would rewrite them, tweak them and give them back. They had a volley.

LC: They would trade pages back and forth.

JM: It was not terribly far off from what the film is. I would say a lot of the bones are what we have now.

LC: Andrew’s outlines are pretty hefty. They’re not like my outlines which are three pages, they tend to be about twenty five pages long. He’s good at making sure he’s gone through and make sure he’s got it worked out.

JM: But the very first script was very exposition heavy and told you a lot more about Mars, got you ensconced in all the names and so forth. And they hadn’t come up with quite as clever an ending, the second ending that happens now.

LC: We started thinking about casting, all the kind of the stuff you have to do long ahead so that you can take your time and get the right people, nailing them in the right time so that you can do the shoot. So we did that for about six months and then we were able to go to Disney and say “Here’s what we think is the script, here’s who we think are going to be our actors, here’s when we want to do it and here’s how long we think it is going to take.”

JM: Meanwhile we had gotten some money to be doing some design and prep work so there was a little bit of that happening concurrently before we got the official go ahead.

BC: And when did Michael Chabon get involved?

LC: Andrew had been a fan of Michael for a while, and Michael lives up in Northern California so they had met and it was one of those “You’re working on John Carter? I love John Carter!”, “What?! You love John Carter?!” and so it was the perfect thing. We needed another writer because, frankly, Andrew was getting very swept up in trying to prep for the actual movie, and Mark Andrews was also prepping for the shoot because he was going to be second unit director. But that is always how Andrew writes. He does a first major pass himself and then brings other writers in to help him punch up dialogue, be more economical and solve things that he’s running in to a wall with. And also so that they can be working quickly when he’s off having to do other things.

JM: You may also appreciate this story. I worked on a picture with Jan de Bont called Twister, and at the end of it, de Bont was wanting to make this film called The Martian Agent. It was a film that 20th Century Fox had, it was going to be an all CG film. I was at ILM at the time and we were bidding to work on the project with Jan. It was a script that had reminded me very much of John Carter. It was about an English colonisation of Mars based on steam travel, a kind of alternate Jules Verne kind of thing. Then cut to: I meet Michael Chabon. Unbeknownst to me he had written that script out of his frustration that he had loved the sensibilities of Carter so much he had wanted to make something like it. It’s not the same story…

LC: An homage.

JM: It was inspired by it.

BC: And now we’re getting into actual preproduction…

LC: Preproduction ran for six months before we went to a slightly smaller crew to see when we were going to start shooting. Were we going to shoot in the winter, were we going to shoot in the spring? So we pared down, and then ramped back up, so I’d say pre-production was nine months to a year.

BC: And was writing carrying on throughout all of this?

JM: Everything was carrying on.

BC: So did writing carry on into the shoot as well?

LC: No. The script was locked before we started shooting. There’s nothing comfortable to Andrew about him walking in to a 250 people shoot and having to tell them “I don’t really know yet.” He firmly believed that he needed to know exactly what he wanted, even if he later decided to veer from that. So the script was locked.

BC: And at that point was it considered that you would shoot for X days, then X days of post and then go back for some kind of additional shooting?

JM: We had scheduled reshoots from the start because you always need something. Basically, we had scheduled one hundred days of shooting…

LC: A hundred and three days.

JM: And then how many months of post before we were doing our FX turnovers?

LC: Not that many. We were doing FX turnovers while we were shooting.

JM: We had money that would have probably bought us a week maybe seven days of reshoots, depending on what we’d need. And we ended up doubling that, or a little over doubling that time. But we had always planned to do reshoots. You know, when I worked with George Lucas on the new Star Wars trilogy he had actually scheduled all of that in advance and included it in the actors’ deals. “We’re going to shoot seventy five days, I’m going to cut for six months, we’re going to shoot for then more days, I’m gonna cut some more, I’m gonna come back and shoot.” So he had worked it out, in the live action world at least, a way much more akin to how we work in animation. That you keep making the movie in reels.

LC: And that’s the reality for Andrew. And the best part about Andrew here is that he used his experience at Pixar in how he approached the making of John Carter. He did his director’s cut of the movie and then notes came back on it from the Pixar brain trust, Michael Chabon and others, and they came up with solutions to problems in the cut. And the way Andrew dealt with this was great, because it’s so rare, though it’s the norm at Pixar, is that he went in and drew what wasn’t there, what he needed to fix it, and then we recorded scratch voices for it, and you could sit down and watch it. He cut this in and we showed that to Disney and they said “Yep, you’re absolutely right, that makes it so much better, let’s go ahead and do that.”

BC: It makes so much sense.

LC: It makes so much sense.

BC: I don’t understand why this isn’t the normal way.

JM: Well, maybe it will become the normal way. Maybe as things cross over more with animation directors to live action and live action directors doing animation, you kind of hope that these processes over reach at some point. Especially as all of these tentpole films have so much CG they’re half animated films anyway.

LC: Andrew is uniquely qualified though because he can draw. He can sit there in editorial and do drawings on a Wacom tablet and get it into the Avid.

BC: At what point did Disney say to you “This is the release date.”

JM: We had a back and forth with them. We could have gone later in the year.

LC: We were going to be in June for a while.

JM: It’s a crowded Summer in terms of sequels and pre-known bits and pieces, and Disney had such success with Alice in Wonderland on this date, so we thought “You know, we think we’ve got the goods, and if we’ve got the goods then we should just go for it.” It’s a nice time where there’s not a lot of other stuff to compete for attention and we do like that we’ve got a nice window for it. Summer’s always appealing…

LC: Every day’s a holiday.

JM: …in the States in particular. But we thought it was worth a go.

LC: And Taylor has a few films coming out this year.

JM: Yeah, we also thought it would be good to be the first Taylor film out.

BC: You do have the goods. You’ve got an extraordinary film, I think. But… is that going to matter at the box office? Does it work that way anymore? Is the industry not churning through stuff too quickly for a good film to always get purchase?

JM: Well, again, given the option from a release date point of view, we always think about what is going to give a film its best chance to see the light of day. This seems like the best call. We know that if a film works there is an audience available at this time. That’s our hope.

BC: I don’t want to dwell on it too much but there’s an awful lot of pessimism out there at the moment.

LC: Hmm hmm.

BC: And it seems like a lot of people are on a mission against you. How does that feel?

LC: You can sit there and get caught up in it. Certainly, with some of it, you get indignant and you want to address it, but on the other hand you come back to the belief that, really, the only thing we can control on this movie, we’ve already done, which is we’ve made it and, ultimately, it’s a movie we’re really proud of. After that you can control almost nothing. Not in terms of the press on it, what’s out there and what’s not.

JM: What’s been weird to me is that I just don’t get it…

LC: I don’t get it either.

BC: Well… where has it come from?

LC: That’s what we’re trying to figure out.

JM: Is it because it’s a slow news day? Is it because people have been taking swipes at Disney management and changes? They start to talk about “They’ve changed their marketing team and they’ve got this big movie coming out.” We feel like “Well, watch the movie and if you don’t like the movie, have at it, but judging it and condemning it before you’ve seen it is bizarre.”

BC: All of this focus on the money seems to have died down…

LC: Yeah, it seems to have died down.

JM: It’s so stupid though because all of these Hollywood major films, these tentpoles, cost this money. This isn’t some anomaly. This isn’t Heaven’s Gate or something. We’re much cheaper than the new Batman movie!

LC: We can’t figure it out. But the good news is, to see the silver lining, that it’s such the better place to be than the reverse. In reverse, everybody has tons of hype and excitement going in to the movie and then they see it and they go “Oh…” and we’re actually in the reverse. We’re getting tons of flak from people who haven’t seen the movie but everybody who has, almost to a person, saying that they found it a really great movie.

BC: When I saw the twenty minutes that were doing the rounds earlier in the year, I felt like I was banging my head on a brick wall. Everybody was sceptical, and when I told them that I liked it they were saying “Really? Really?” and I had to keep saying “Yes, really. Really really.” And still, it seems to be that there’s a quieter version of the scepticism happening. As a result of the press embargo people like myself had to be quiet, pretty much, until recently.

LC: Have you guys been released yet?

BC: We’re completely off embargo now.

JM: I don’t understand it. We’ve been puzzling over the embargo, not that we’re specialists in that stuff.

BC: They’re general behaviour but this seemed like special circumstances.

LC: Yes, they should adjust.

Well, don’t believe the bad mouthing. John Carter is a special film, an exceptional example of this genre. I’ll be very happy to see it romp home at the box office this weekend, and so I’m going to put my money – and a group of my friends’ money – where my mouth is for a trip to see it again.

Come back for soon for their comments on the in-development John Carter sequel, as well as what else Andrew has in the works for his possible next film… or films.

14 comments

  • Even if there isn’t a conspiracy involved, I’ll never purchase a Disney product unless there is a JC sequel.

    Hopefully they loose/give up the rights and someone else picks up where they left off, and not 5+ years down the road.

    Disney’s actions and treatment of the film “Disgustingly unprofessional and pathetic”.

  • Couldn’t have said it better myself Jake. Like i said if they do decide to go forward with another one then they will obviously have to keep the costs down unless they want to make the same mistake like they did previously. Ah well… we will have to keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best in the meantime.

  • “So how can he say we are much cheaper? i have this feeling somebody (Disney?) lies about the budget?”

    That line about Batman’s budget struck me as a little odd, too. Why hasn’t anyone simply asked Disney or Stanton, point blank, how much this film and its marketing actually cost? Why is everyone content to just throw around estimates?

    For that matter, why hasn’t Disney made any attempt to emphasize the worldwide box office? Or retract their earlier comments about losing $200 million? Instead, we’ve seen more positive spin on the matter from random pundits and bloggers.

    If the film has already recouped its production budget and is expected to gross anywhere from $300 to $350 million…that’s the sort of thing most studios would’ve spent the last two weeks pointing out.

  • For me the most important thing is :

    We’re much cheaper than the new Batman movie!

    The new Batman movie has a budget of $250 mill.!!??

    So how can he say we are much cheaper? i have this feeling somebody (Disney?) lies about the budget?

    But why? Maybe it has something to do with tax?

  • The embargo was indeed strange. It should have been lifted when the negative articles went out, which were not about the movie they hadn’t seen, but about the budget and the poor tracking numbers. Good critics published at that precise time could have lowered the bad vibes, but no, they did nothing and watch the Titanic crashed. It as if they were never on the boat in the first place…

  • The more we see articles like this, the more likely we might actually get another film. But in the meantime were going to have to cross fingers and hope for the best when all is said and done. On a side note:Kudos to Taylor Kitsch, Andrew Stanton, and the rest of the cast and crew for sticking to their guns.

  • Lindsey Collins and Jim Morris (producers) say that it went off according to plan. They say there was an agreed upon budget which included a provision for reshoots. They say that they completed principal photography on time and either on budget or under budget (on budget might also be under budget if it means the contingency was intact). Not having overspent during principal photography, and having either extra funds or unused contingency, Stanton and company lobbied for more reshoot days and were granted them. From what I can tell, all of the impetus for longer reshoots (not really reshoots, additional shooting) came from Stanton and company, not from Disney.

    The problem is — those in Hollywood far from the project and accustomed to the “normal” as opposed to “Pixarian” way of producing, viewed the fact that there were reshoots as an admission of a “troubled” shoot. I don’t think that’s valid.

    I will also throw in one tiny observation from my position at the low end of the film production food chain. Every movie I have made, I have planned a limited period of additional shooting because this is invaluable. After you edit the movie, you always discover things, and little tiny things — an insert of a slightly different closeup, a small new scene that supplies a missing character beat — these things can make “all the difference”. So I for one totally buy the idea that you plan for reshoots (again, additional shooting, but everyone calls them reshoots) from the beginning, and there is no stigma attached to it.

  • Many of the post-release articles flog the meme that this was a troubled project. While I have not dug deep into the archives of the JCFiles, I don’t recall hearing any rumors of trouble on set. They started filming when they said and finished when planned. The reshoots were planned for, more or less. But now everyone gleefully writes about how Stanton didn’t know what he was doing, while at the same time having the manipulative powers of Matai Shang, controlling every aspect of the project.

    Can anyone point to any serious sources that reveal the movie was troubled from the get-go?

  • Just look at how people have behaved since the release of this film: critics piling on almost gleefully, Disney insiders pointing fingers, Disney execs publically throwing the movie under the bus in the national media…..

    And while the rats scramble, meanwhile, the cast and crew have remained totally first class, loyal to one another, and tight lipped. None of them is running around blaming each other like Disney and the marketing people. That alone speaks volumes to me. And it should, because honor matters. It tells you who to trust, and who to believe.

    The producers, cast, and crew cared deeply about this project. They did their best with this film, and it easily could have been a success, and really should have been a success, because they did an awesome job.

  • “A connected friend of mine, who had friends in Disney, said that the failure of John Carter was intentional, as a part of a borderline illegal insider trading gambit to seize further control of the company by a cabal of key executives.”

    Such things have long been rumored to happen. “Friends of friends” in Disney marketing and animation expressed a strong distaste for the project. Apparently they were blaming Stanton, who’s probably not alone in taking responsibility for what has happened. The question remains, who was there in the new management at Disney that the JC could have trusted to act in the best interests of the project?

    If this was an insider’s gambit to gain control of the company, than it may only prove to be a pyrrhic victory. Time will tell.

  • They make a good point about the film’s budget. $250 million is not a Waterworld-sized fiasco by 2012 standards. It’s well within the range that is fast becoming a new norm for big budget blockbusters.

  • Yeah, to somebody hungry for news on twitter and elsewhere, the press embargo really was bizarre, considering what could have saved the movie was word of mouth.

    As a college student and the target audience, I got free tickets to a lot of movies before they came out. I saw the Social Network and Easy A before they were widely released. Why? Because those two films were REALLY good films and free screenings for college kids was a part of the marketing: word of mouth for surprisingly quality films. (Easy A looked like just another high school movie from the trailers alone.)

    A connected friend of mine, who had friends in Disney, said that the failure of John Carter was intentional, as a part of a borderline illegal insider trading gambit to seize further control of the company by a cabal of key executives.

    I know, I know – the source was a friend of a friend. Just like all the crazy urban legends, like the hitch-hiker with the hook hand, right? This should have about as much weight as something you hear from a guy at a bar. But I keep on going back to the “insider trading scheme” explanation because everything about the film’s mishandling all lines up and makes perfect sense when seen from the tilt of that crazy explanation.

  • Excellent, and I did go to the link to read it. What struck me was the embargo! I’d forgotten about that strange, badly timed, bunch of embargoes, just when the film needed all that positive talk, Disney says NO! Shut up! Yet another odd thing Disney has done to make me shake my head and wonder at their motives.

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