The studio thought the risk was worthwhile—but Disney may also have been playing a larger tactical game. By saying yes to a very expensive movie, it kept Stanton from leaving the Disney-Pixar fold to set up a live-action deal with some other studio, as his fellow Pixar alum Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) did with Paramount for last December’s Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. Now Disney just hopes that “lifting the curse” means rivaling MI4‘s $95 million gross in its first 10 days of wide release (a respectable, if modest, success roughly comparable to the first day’s take of last summer’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2).
In his years at Pixar, Stanton has demonstrated a lot of raw filmmaking talent. But nothing impresses colleagues more than his ability to diagram a good story that’s working and vivisect a bad one that’s not. Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter hired Stanton as an animator in 1990, when the company was just beginning to make TV commercials. Feature films were a distant goal, but Stanton was soon specializing in story lines and plotting. It’s what Lasseter calls his “sense of what’s missing” that has made Stanton such a valued member of the brain trust—Pixar’s group of creatives who screen upcoming projects in various stages and offer input.
Whatever the project, Stanton is usually one of the first to start the critical ball rolling. Toy Story 3director Lee Unkrich, who codirected Nemo with Stanton, says, “I need time to digest and think about why things aren’t working. Andrew is ready to go instantly. The moment we finish a screening, he has a laundry list of big-picture issues that are broken or out of alignment with the story. It’s amazing to me. It’s a savant kind of quality.”
There are parts of our planet so stark, so bizarre in their topography, that it’s easy to imagine they’re alien landscapes. Today Andrew Stanton is determined to exploit the unearthly vibes of just such a place. The film director is on location in Big Water, Utah, in a vast dusty wasteland surrounded by ancient-looking rust-colored cliffs. His only defenses against the harsh environment are a red baseball cap—which adds to the 44-year-old’s boyishness—and a surgical-style mask to keep the dust out of his lungs.
He may be on Earth, but for Stanton the experience is as otherworldly as if he had actually donned a space suit, climbed into a rocket, and blasted off to destinations unknown. He never had to leave the comfy cubicles of Pixar Animation Studios to have a hand in writing and directing the Oscar-winningFinding Nemo or WALL-E—or to spearhead the screenplays for Monsters, Inc., A Bug’s Life, or the first two Toy Story films. There were no sets to build, no locations to scout, no actors to position.
But now, on a gusty afternoon in May 2010, on the outdoor set of his forthcoming $250 million Disney epic, John Carter, he’s facing shooting delays due to unpredictable winds. The crew and the actors are stuck waiting. So it’s only natural that he train a lens on his most recent career move. “I couldn’t have made a more difficult transition,” he says matter-of-factly.
Stanton’s production-design team chose this high-desert spot to represent a barren stretch of the planetBarsoom—which, as readers of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original John Carter pulp novels know, is what Martians call Mars. Barsoom may not be as well known as Tatooine or Pandora (which both owe a healthy debt to the planet), but for Stanton and other Carter devotees, it’s the Planet Zero of space fantasy. “I’ve been a fan of the books my whole life,” Stanton says, “hoping to see somebody make a movie of them. If we do it right, hopefully it will kick off a series.”
Of course, that’s if this first installment works out. John Carter is a huge Lord of the Rings-style marathon mashup of CGI and live action, and at times like this, day 73 of a 100-odd-day shoot, it’s also a logistical slog. The movie’s leading man, Taylor Kitsch (best known as brooding high school football hero Tim Riggins on TV’s Friday Night Lights), has been on call playing Carter nearly every one of those days and will eventually be exhausted to the point where he catnaps on set between takes. And this is just the warm-up to another year and a half of CG animation and visual effects, which Stanton calls digital principal photography. Essentially he’s making a live-action movie, then making an equally involved animated movie after that. The parlor trick is to marry them, to make what’s virtual look as realistic as what’s not. “I want that visceral feel I had when I watched the first 20 minutes of Star Wars,” Stanton says.