On Movies: Seeing it was his passion, making it his fate

Although Andrew Stanton, Oscar-winning director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E, has been thinking about the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter books for decades - he was 12 when he first encountered them - it wasn't until relatively recently that it became clear that he was going to be the guy bringing the pulp classics to the screen.

"To be honest, it's been a project that I wanted to see done for a long time," explains Stanton, who makes his live-action debut with Disney's John Carter. "I never knew I would be the person doing it. . . . I always just planned to get in line and see it."

A fantastical adventure about a two-fisted Civil War veteran who finds himself transported to Mars, becomes buddies with a towering green guy, and falls in love with a red-tattooed warrior princess, John Carter was first optioned in the 1980s by Disney, but nobody could figure out how to bring this intergalactic swashbuckler, with its elaborate flying ships and Zodangan villains, to the screen.

And then, in 1999, George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode 1 came out, with that digitally rendered Rastafarian alien doofus, Jar Jar Binks.

"That was the one good thing out of Jar Jar Binks," says Stanton with a laugh. "It was like, 'Wow, you can do Tars Tarkas now. . . . Somebody may finally make this property!'"

Tars Tarkas, for the uninitiated, is a towering, froggy-skinned, four-armed, horned Thark - one of the indigenous nomads of Burroughs' Mars.

"And so, from then on, because I'm in the movie business enough that I'm like one or two separations away from whatever's going on, or at least hearing what's going on, I was aware of [John Carter] constantly being talked about, and almost getting made for the next five or six years. It got my hopes up really high, that finally I'm going to see it."

Stanton's hopes were dashed, however, when Jon Favreau bailed from a planned John Carter of Mars project in 2006, over budget disputes with the studio. Instead, Favreau went and made a little something called Iron Man.

"I was so crestfallen, oh my gosh, this is never going to happen," Stanton recalls thinking. "And just coincidentally, I got a call that same week from Dick Cook, the head of Disney at the time, and I said, 'You know what, I just heard that the John Carter property went back to the Burroughs estate. . . . That film really should be made. It's got all this high-adventure fun, I just feel like it's perfect material for you guys to do, and somebody should make it. And if nobody bites, I'll be finishing Wall-E in two years, and if I don't bomb, would you consider me?' And he said let me go look into it."

And Wall-E did not bomb.

"It's one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for things," Stanton continues. "Dick Cook came back a while later and said, 'I got the property for the three books and you can make it if you want it.'

"So I found myself basically, in tandem, developing that while I was finishing Wall-E."

John Carter, opening Friday in 3-D and traditional 2-D formats, stars Taylor Kitsch in the title role, Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, the Red Planet princess, and Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas. But many of the thesps in the cast, decked out in their flowing robes and gleaming breastplates, feathers and hides, are Brits and Irish - including Ciarán Hinds, Samantha Morton, James Purefoy, Mark Strong, Polly Walker, and Dominic West.

"Part of my thinking - and I don't know if this is stupid American thinking - is that the speech in these books is almost like pulp Shakespeare, this weird kind of 'Thou shalt, I shall' thing," says Stanton. "I thought the more I get stage-trained Brits, the more I'm going to buy some of this dialogue. . . .

"It helps give it some gravitas."

Wide-eyed Oscar winners. If you believe Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, the codirectors of Undefeated, they were in their respective Los Angeles abodes, sound asleep, when the Academy Award nominations were announced an hour before dawn on Jan. 24. Sure, their film about a struggling Memphis, Tenn., high school football team had made the Oscars' short-list of documentary nominees, but so had Bill Cunningham New York, Buck, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Pina, and 10 other formidable films.

Here were a couple of untested newbies. Not a chance, they thought.

But Undefeated not only was among the five films announced that morning in Beverly Hills. It was the winner in the documentary feature category, as the 84th Academy Awards lurched somnambulistically along last Sunday.

It's been that kind of ride for Lindsay, originally from outside of Chicago, and Martin, from Seattle. Undefeated, now playing at the Ritz at the Bourse, was acquired by the Weinstein Co. at the SXSW Film Festival last March. It's been racking up great reviews and great response ever since.

"We spent a year sitting in our editing bay thinking No one's ever going to see this movie - we can't even crack the first act," Lindsay said in a post-nomination/pre-win phone interview. "And to think within a year we sold it, we played at the Toronto International Film Festival, and now we're going to the Oscars. It's just completely insane to contemplate."


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.