In anticipation of today's John Carter Blu-ray release, Disney hosted a special roundtable session last week, and Blu-ray.com was there to cover the event. The guests of honor: James Sullos, Jr, the President of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., and Cathy Wilbanks, an Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., archivist.
Because Sullos and Wilbanks are so vital to maintaining the estate of John Carter and Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, they have a unique perspective on the finished film; over the years, they have taken stock of all the aborted attempts to put a John Carter feature into production, and they know - first hand - the historical and creative challenges that filmmakers such as Bob Clampett, Ray Harryhausen, John McTiernan, Robert Rodriguez, and Jon Favreau faced when trying to achieve their respective visions for the property.
In the following interview, Sullos and Wilbanks discuss Burroughs' legacy in both literature and film, some of the challenges in adapting his work to the screen, as well as the positive qualities that director Andrew Stanton brought to his John Carter realization.
From left to right: Cathy Wilbanks and James Sullos, Jr
What do you think Burroughs would have thought of this adaptation of John Carter?
Jim Sullos: Burroughs would have been pleased that the movie accurately portrayed much of what was in his first novel A Princess of Mars. And he would have been amazed that current technology could finally do justice to his vivid imagination, which was not possible until CGI was developed.
What do you enjoy most about working with Burroughs' archives?
Cathy Wilbanks: I really enjoy working with the archives because every day is an opportunity to find treasures. The archives are filled with amazing artifacts from the past and I have the pleasure of discovering each and every one.
If you had to choose another adaptation of Burroughs to be made into a feature, which would it be?
Jim Sullos: First, I would hope that the planned sequels will be produced because they will show the path that John Carter took to become the Warlord of Mars. But in addition, Mr. Burroughs wrote many other science fiction novels and particularly intriguing is the Venus series that portrays the hero Carson Napier who planned to fly his spaceship to Mars but miscalibrated and ended up on Venus to discover an unknown world.
What were Burroughs' sentiments toward filming his works in general?
Jim Sullos: Mr. Burroughs was generally frustrated by the interpretation Hollywood gave to his literary creations. The Tarzan films were the most numerous but almost never followed the storyline he maintained throughout his twenty-four Tarzan novels.
At one point he refused to see some of the new Tarzan productions which led him to produce his own Tarzan film, Tarzan's New Adventures, in 1935. And after about a dozen Tarzan films this was the first film that portrayed Tarzan as the English Lord that he was.
Cathy Wilbanks: Edgar Rice Burroughs moved from Chicago to the San Fernando Valley in 1919 so he could be closer to the Hollywood scene. He was very excited and realized that he wanted to move in that direction.
However, once filming started, he realized that he had to give up some of the control of how his characters were portrayed. Burroughs was mostly frustrated with the portrayal of Tarzan. He wanted his Tarzan to be portrayed as an intelligent, insightful hero and did not like the line "Me Tarzan, You Jane."
Do you think that Edgar Rice Burroughs would have appreciated the movie?
Cathy Wilbanks: Yes! I believe Edgar Rice Burroughs would have been extremely impressed with the John Carter movie. Mr. Burroughs wrote for entertainment purposes and filled his stories with tons of action. The John Carter movie follows this vision very well.
What do you think makes the book A Princess of Mars so unique?
Jim Sullos: At the time this book was written in 1911-1912, the scientific knowledge of planet Mars was limited and scientists had to guess as to the makeup of the surface of the planet. Mr. Burroughs novel gave a vivid description in detail of Mars that persisted for decades as the imaginary life that might exist on any planet in the universe.
What do you think about Burroughs` complete sci-fi literary legacy?
Cathy Wilbanks: Edgar Rice Burroughs was a visionary. After trying many different professions, he finally turned to writing at age thirty-five. He began with A Princess of Mars' and received $400 in 1912 for that story. There is a quote from Edgar Rice Burroughs stating that, "Receiving that money was the most satisfying income of [his] life." From there, his career was set. I believe that writing allowed Edgar Rice Burroughs to use his imagination and create worlds beyond his existence.
Burroughs said he wrote for the money, but on the other hand he had an unbelievable imagination. What kind of author was he?
Jim Sullos: Mr. Burroughs did indeed begin his writing career because he needed the money. He commented that he had a wife, two children and a third one on the way which would have been difficult to provide for without money. He began reading pulp fiction stories and realized that if people got paid for writing such stuff, he could do better than that. He wrote to entertain the reader and did not worry about the literary world's opinion of his writing style. This had to be a successful approach because over 100 million copies of his books have been sold.
Attempts to adapt the John Carter story to the screen stretch all the way back to 1931 do you think this film John Carter would have been made if the previous attempts to bring the story of A Princess of Mars had been a success?
Jim Sullos: All previous attempts to film John Carter suffered from the fact that technology that then existed could not do justice to the detailed John Carter. It was then known as the "Curse of John Carter" in Hollywood as studios realized they could not make the film until current CGI technology finally evolved to its current state.
What can you tell us about your work in the Edgar Rice Burroughs Archives since the movie came out? What do you get to do on a daily basis?
Cathy Wilbanks: In the past, the archives have mainly contained items focused on Tarzan. Since the movie came out, our archives have grown to include John Carter collectibles. We have had a huge increase in novels, comic books, and miscellaneous merchandise like t-shirts, mugs, bags, and posters Every day is different. I have the greatest job in the world because I am surrounded by Tarzan and John Carter all day! My job assignments vary; some days I attend meetings while others I stay in the office. Usually I prepare letter agreements with licensees, complete inventory of merchandise, and tackle special projects as they come up.
Can you give us some examples of the artifacts you worked with in the treasure trove of Edgar Rice Burroughs material?
Cathy Wilbanks: The archives at Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., are filled with historical treasures. I have had the pleasure of holding in my hands many first edition books, a huge variety of comic books, toys, merchandise from around the world, movie props like a pterodactyl, and of course, original art. But some of the most meaningful artifacts include the handwritten Tarzan of the Apes manuscript as well as the A Princess of Mars manuscript and personal letters signed by Edgar Rice Burroughs himself.
What has been the most amazing fact that you have discovered since working with the archives?
Cathy Wilbanks: The most amazing fact that I discovered was the Edgar Rice Burroughs was denied admission to the Rough Riders. I found a signed letter from Teddy Roosevelt in the archives stating that he would not be allowed to join.
How you would evaluate the influence of Burroughs on American sci-fi literature?
Jim Sullos: Mr. Burroughs is referred to as the "Grandfather of Science Fiction" because he brought clarity to a bewildered literary world that was searching for an understanding of the greater universe. His influence is all around us when you realize that this is the seminal story that created Superman, Star Wars, and Avatar plus other very successful projects. The producers all gave credit to Mr. Burroughs for substantial content of the films.
What do you feel sets Andrew Stanton's vision for the film apart from all the other aborted attempts at realizing John Carter?
Jim Sullos: Andrew Stanton read all eleven books as a youngster, and at that age so many concepts stay with you for a lifetime. When you combine his early knowledge of the literary content with his professional talent and CGI, you get a classic film. It would have been difficult for someone coming into contact with material for the first time as an adult to stretch their imagination to the extent he did to making this film.
Stanton directing a key John Carter scene
In few words, can you compare the movie to the books?
Jim Sullos: The movie was a fairly accurate portrayal of A Princess of Mars. One concept was borrowed from the second book entitled The Gods of Mars by bringing the Therns into the first film. The concept of the Therns having sinister plans for the planet earth as well as Mars could be an intriguing storyline for the second film.
What part of the film do you think embodies Edgar Rice Burroughs' work the most?
Cathy Wilbanks: The part of the movie I believe best embodies the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs would be the hatchery of the Tharks and the depiction of the Tharks.
Despite being a hundred years old, the characters of John Carter and the Barsoom series are still relevant and don't feel the least bit dated. Why do you think that is?
Cathy Wilbanks: Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the story focusing on human conditions such as love and conflict. He understood that to have a successful story, he must include factors that would have a wide appeal. The John Carter character was developed with characteristics like humor, intelligence, emotion and strength. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is very relatable which makes the story current in today's world.
What would you say motivates John Carter?
Jim Sullos: John Carter discovered that he could be a successful warrior but after the Civil War he was exhausted. He wanted no part of civilization and enjoyed the relative solitude that came from prospecting for gold in the Arizona desert. When he was teleported to Mars, he discovered his human side again and it gave him a reason to live. He is motivated by his sense of fairness and his love for a beautiful princess.
Will there other movies based on the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs soon?
Jim Sullos: At the present time Warner Bros. has in development a Tarzan live-action film. And Constantin films will release its first Tarzan 3D animated film in 2013. We are currently in discussion with several producers who are looking at other Burroughs novels for potential new films.
How do you think the film's production design compares to the J. Allen St. John illustrations?
Jim Sullos: J Allen St. John was a master artist who gave us some of the very first visualizations of what Mr. Burroughs described in such detail in his books. I think the film did an excellent job in interpreting the detailed descriptions provided in the books. Not only was the storyline fairly closely followed but also the depiction of people and places in the film that were reproduced and portrayed followed closely to original production designs.
Why are you fascinated by the person Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Carter? Are there any similarities between these both persons?
Cathy Wilbanks: There are similarities between Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Carter. As you may know, Mr. Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars in 1911 and was his first story. Mr. Burroughs was 35 at the time and had gone through many careers before he tried his hand at writing. At the time, he had two children and his wife was expecting a third and he was working at selling pencil sharpeners.
I believe Mr. Burroughs fantasized about escaping his reality by living vicariously through John Carter. As far as personality characteristics, I believe they shared many traits such as a sense of humor, strength, morals and intelligence.
Can you explain how Burroughs came to the idea of John Carter, and specifically why he chose a Confederate soldier as a hero? Why didn't he place the story in his own contemporary times?
Jim Sullos: Mr. Burroughs father was an officer in the Union army during the Civil War, so he had heard many stories of the Civil War. As a teenager, he went to work on his brother's ranch in Idaho, where he learned how to break wild horses and became an expert horseman. In the late 1890's he volunteered to join the U.S. Calvary and requested to be assigned to the toughest post in the army and the army was happy to oblige. He was assigned to Fort Grant in Arizona with the job of chasing renegade Apaches. He commented that lucky for him he never met up with one.
But that whole experience brought the concept of the Arizona desert, which inspired his literary adventures. It could be that he chose a Confederate soldier because he had an interest in starting with an underdog that becomes eminently successful which is a thread that exists in his other works.
In your opinion, what's the key to make "larger than life" characters like John Carter?
Jim Sullos: There was a time when heroes had predictable traits of virtue, morality, honor and a sense of doing right over wrong. In recent years, the concept of the anti-hero has become the preferred style. What's interesting to observe is that ultimately these anti-heroes (to be "bad" is good) adopt the same virtuous traits even though they do so reluctantly in their character development. Those that become larger than life continue to demonstrate these traditional heroic traits of which John Carter embodies.
Do you think that Mr. Burroughs would have been fonder of Disney's animated Tarzan than of the disappointing early films of his Tarzan stories?
Cathy Wilbanks: I believe that Mr. Burroughs would have enjoyed the Disney's Tarzan animated movie tremendously. The main difference between the early films and the Disney's animated movie is the portrayal of the Tarzan character. It seems that Edgar Rice Burroughs was mainly unhappy with the character from the early movies and I feel that Disney was successful in depicting a character that shows depth while still appealing to a different audience.
Any final thoughts on John Carter?
Jim Sullos: I am thrilled that we now have a visual reference that has been applied to this 100-year-old story. This is a film that brings to life a classic story that continues to transcend many generations. It shows what can be accomplished by applying current CGI technology to classic stories. I would hope that the film industry will continue to explore classic literary adaptations for stories that could result equally timeless films.
Cathy Wilbanks: I am extremely impressed with the questions and interest level of this event. This movie, John Carter is a dream come true for us. When I first hired at Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. in 1984 I was fortunate enough to work with Danton Burroughs, the grandson of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He inspired me and his passion was catching. I often remember him talking about how wonderful it would be to finally see this movie on the big screen. We all loved it and want to thank you and Disney for supporting the project.
From left to right: Director Andrew Stanton and star Taylor Kitsch on the set of John Carter
As an added bonus, Disney also provided a new interview with John Carter director Andrew Stanton. Stanton first emerged as one of the top creative architects at Pixar Studios; beginning as a writer on the studio's landmark Toy Story feature, Stanton has helped guide the direction of some of contemporary cinema's most beloved - and lucrative - animated stories.
Working alongside Pixar's Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, Stanton made his feature-length directorial debut with 1998's Academy Award-nominated A Bug's Life; his first solo effort at Pixar came in 2003 when he directed Finding Nemo, which netted Stanton an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, an award Stanton would receive for a second time five years later with the success of his striking futuristic epic WALLE.
John Carter marks his first live-action feature, and in this interview, he discusses his passion for the project, how he went about adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs' work, and the pleasures of working with John Carter stars Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins.
Did the fact that you were a huge fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs' book series affect your work on John Carter?
Once I got the job, I knew that as a writer I had to stop being a fan because it can blind you. You have to do that with your own work, too; even when you have your own original ideas because you can fall in love with them and they can blind you from the adjustments that you've got to make in order for the project to work.
That's the reason I like to work with other writers; it helps keep the objectivity alive because other writers will tell you if they don't think an idea is right.
Describe your process of adapting the first John Carter book, A Princess Of Mars, for the screen.
I'd read and re-read the book many, many times from my teenage years until a few years ago but I didn't let myself look at the books while we were writing the story for John Carter. I trusted my knowledge and I gave myself complete freedom to make changes, which was very important for me.
The funny thing is that when we finally felt we had a really good script that we were ready to shoot, I then let myself go back and look at the book and it didn't feel like it had changed as much as I thought we had changed it. In my head, that meant it was like fate; it was meant to have just the slightest adjustment.
How tough was it to cast the lead role?
I felt a lot of pressure when I was casting John Carter; I felt like I was casting Bond or Superman. I first saw Taylor Kitsch in a show called Friday Night Lights and I thought to myself, "Here's a guy that seems broken, damaged and dark, but I can tell that he's got a soft heart." I thought he was perfect.
In fact, I could never get him out of my head during the casting process, although I always thought he was too young. He was playing a teenager in Friday Night Lights, but I then discovered he was actually playing a character almost ten years younger than he was in real life. I was incredibly happy when I could consider him as an option.
How old is John Carter in the novels?
When I first started work on the project, I thought that Carter was forty. However, I soon realized that most people who fought in the Civil War were nineteen years old. That's when I decided to trust history, and I was psyched because I wanted Taylor to play Carter. He was twenty-six going on twenty-seven, which worked well for the movie.
What made Taylor Kitsch stand out from the other actors who auditioned?
Taylor is a natural talent. He has incredible instincts and such great, raw qualities. I felt like the luckiest guy in town to have captured his fire before everyone else had saturated it. He was exactly what I wanted for the role of John Carter.
He's viral, charismatic, and dark and you'd be hard-pressed to find an actor with his work ethic because he brings 150% every time he has to come up to the plate.
Similarly, what drew you to Lynn Collins for the role of Dejah Thoris?
Dejah has such pressure on her. She's the next in line to the throne and she has to try to save this world when it's failing. However, Lynn Collins came into her audition with a sense of strength and passion inside her core. Immediately, I knew that's what I'd been looking for. I wanted somebody who was like the women I knew in my career; they have to close off a little part of them to be career-tough, but they fall into the trap of believing that if they're vulnerable at all, it's a weakness.
The pressure on Dejah to try to save the world didn't allow her to be vulnerable, and I mirrored that with her costume. I slowly stripped away the armor and the under-armor. In the end, she's exposed, naked on the bed, and she can finally just be herself and trust Carter.
Will you continue to make live-action films or will you return to animation?
We'll see. I'm driven by ideas and it just so happens that the idea for John Carter demanded this medium, but we'll have to see what happens next. It's never about my career; it's about finding the best way to make the next movie.
What do you have planned for your next project?
I don't know yet. Steve Jobs had a great saying that I firmly believe in: "It's our job to know what people want before they do." That's our goal. After twenty years in the business, I find myself going to go with my gut but I don't know what's going to happen next for me.