There has been oh so much discussion here about Andrew Stanton and Edgar Rice Burroughs — what does Pulitzer Prize winning writer Michael Chabon, who co-wrote the John Carter screenplay, have to day about ERB? Here is an unedited interview, courtesy of IO9
How old were you when you first read Burroughs?
I think I must have been about twelve, when Ballantine issued the complete series with those new fantastic covers by Gino D’Achille, and they had them in my local bookstore [in a pile]. All 12 or 15 of them, with these beautiful covers and a big piece of art on top. It was just this incredibly arresting object [that had] materialized in the bookstore in the mall in Columbia, MD, where I grew up. Without explanation, you know — it’s just how things happen when you’re a kid.
[And these new editions were presented as though] it’s this incredibly important thing, that one ought to know about: John Carter. I recognized the name of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but I hadn’t read any of his work yet. So I just started with the first book.
What appealed to you about these books when you were a kid?
For me, it was a combination of two things. Obviously, Burroughs was a narrative machine. He really knew how to keep a story going, and he knew how to use cliffhangers, and really propel you through the story. He had that great “pulp novelist” narrative drive. He also had a really fertile imagination, in a way that reminds me of Jack Kirby in comics, where he would just toss off one concept after another, in many cases never to return to them again…Just continually dreaming up new amazing vistas or societies or creatures whatever they may be. [There’s] kind of a heedless quality to that imagination.
I got caught up in all of that, but even at age twelve, I was aware that there was a historical importance to this material. It had obviously been the forebear to lots of other science fantasy adventures. There was just this sense that you ought to know about this, this is important — it is culturally important to people who share your culture. I had a slightly dutiful sense toward it. I don’t want to imply that it wasn’t pleasurable, but I did some how feel like it was my duty to immediately master this material. At the same time, the science fiction book club, as I quickly discovered, was doing these hardcover 2 for 1 deals with those much more famous covers by Frank Frazetta. If anything is associated with John Carter, it’s those Frank Frazetta covers.
I think that Frazetta is a big reason why people even know about John Carter.
I think in a way up until this movie, it’s sort of the last remaining reason — which is kind of sad. Not to knock on Frazetta… I know Andrew [Stanton] constantly tried to step back from Frazetta a little bit [in visualizing the movie]. He just felt like it had period associations. The period being the 1970s and the side of vans, spray painted custom fans. To me, there is more of a [Michael] Whelan feel to the look of the film. I think it even harkens back [to earlier sources.] Andrew had a strong sense of the period on earth in which the film was taking place in the latter half of the 19th century and there’s even evocations of the original artwork from the series, which was being done by this guy Frank Schoonover. There’s a real, rich depth to the visuals in the film.
I was re-reading A Princess of Mars, and one of the things that jumps out at you is just how much aplomb John Carter has. He’s just so matter-of-fact. “Oh, I’m on Mars.” He barely blinks.
He doesn’t waste a whole lot of time on the impossibilities. In the book, he’s already this bizarre guy who’s immortal – [and] people make so much of that whole element of it, people who are discussing this book. It’s so clear to me that Burroughs was just writing by the seat of his pants, and started with that idea, thinking he was going to be writing about this immortal guy. And clearly, he thought he was starting with that, and then he got this other idea and went with it instead. And he was probably trying to keep his word count up, because he was getting paid half a penny per word. So he left that in there, but it plays no role in anything that happens thereafter.
Just like the telepathy and a lot of other stuff.
Yeah, like the telepathy too. The thing to remember about Princess of Mars is, it was his first book and the first thing he ever tried to write. It wasn’t just the first John Carter book. It’s a real learner’s book, and he was a gifted amateur when he started writing John Carter of Mars. By the time you get to about the fifth book of the series, I think it’s Chessmen of Mars, then you’re in the hands of a true professional.
So the Martian Agent was a screenplay that you wrote almost 20 years ago.
Getting close. 17, 18 years ago.
And what’s in the McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales is just the first chapter of the novelization of your unproduced screenplay. Why did you give up after just one chapter?
Just time. I would love to someday, but I never found the time. It’s not like there was an ovewhelming demand, I didn’t get an avalanche of letters from people, begging me to continue the story. On the contrary, I didn’t even get a snowflake of letters begging me to continue the story. I did it as an experiment. It was really fun to do, and I thought well, it could be cool. But I never got back to it. And then it sort of got continued in this other way that I could never have dreamed.
Do you think that there’s any of the DNA from your Martian Agent screenplay in John Carter?
Not really, no. I think my approach to writing characters of that period — adventuring characters of that period — is probably similar. Whatever it was that made me think I knew how to write an American military adventurer of the middle 19th century transplanted to the planet Mars in The Martian Agent, I drew on that same internal resource — compounded by books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen, dealing with adventures of that period. I definitely drew on that, when I was trying to imagine how John Carter would talk, and the type of things he would say. Burroughs himself is not the best guide in that regard because his dialogue is typically very stilted, and his people don’t talk like people really talk. So I didn’t turn to Burroughs for guidance, when it came to writing dialogue.