Q&A: Creating the Mars of John Carter

Director Andrew Stanton and production designer Nathan Crowley talk about Mars, John Carter, and building a 100-year-old science fiction universe

John Carter is a movie that has that has taken exactly 100 years to reach theatres, and not for a lack of trying. Edgar Rice Burroughs first published A Princess of Mars_--the book upon which the movie is based--in March 1912, as a serial in the pulp magazine All-Story. His ideas would soon come to influence so many major science fiction works of the 20th century that _John Carter inevitably has to compete against the story's own offspring. We talked to director Andrew Stanton and production designer Nathan Crowley about the making of the film, and why science fiction is always invisibly handcuffed to society.

Popular Science: You've been a fan of the Barsoom series since you were a child. What about these books stuck with you and prompted you to finally adapt the story to screen?

Andrew Stanton: When you're an 11-year-old geek and you're too shy to really approach girls and you read about this guy who is extraordinary just for going to a new location and he's got the coolest best friend, the coolest pet and then he's winning the heart of the most beautiful woman in the universe, it's like a little checklist of all the things you need.

PS: Originally, the movie was entitled John Carter of Mars. Why was the "of Mars" epithet dropped?

AS: I felt that, sadly, there was proof in some of the studio's testing of the title that there were people that were just shutting off. Their assumptions are that it will be all spectacle. Once I realized that the movie is really about a guy named John Carter and he eventually earns the title, "of Mars," then I felt almost justified to go with what was their concern at the time. My feeling is frankly if you like a movie or a book or whatever, you could call it dirt and people won't care. But you just have to take the time to watch it.

PS: The movie's design is influenced by everything from pulp art to the Yangtze Dam. What was the overall aesthetic you were going for?

AS: I kind of took it more as almost an alternative universe, in which the people of Mars discovered some technologies and didn't discover some others, and vice versa with Earth. So in a weird way, their flying on light was the equivalent of us finding electricity. And it's not ahead of us, in a weird way. That's how I took it. And that's why I felt that we could make it all fit into this thing of the past. When I worked with Nathan, we had to find things that helped make you think that even though this is all made up and you don't know anything about the history of Mars, it feels like it's turn-of-the-century, at least relatively in their world, as it is turn-of-the-century when you're seeing Earth in the movie. And so, things like not letting anything be automated. And making sure that all the workings of things were exposed. That it takes a lot of manual labor to do things. Things aren't covered and hidden. And that really helps you put it into a thing of the past.

Nathan Crowley: For me, it's very important to give reason to everything, to have a good foundation for all the technology. I don't want to do anything that's silly and can't happen, so it has to be based on our rules. We know we have to fly around bouncing light off the ground to obtain levitation. But how are we going to do it? We kind of figured out that we're in the 1880s, we're in the start of the Industrial Revolution, so why don't we say we're in the times of tall ships? We're in that changing period when the book was written. So while we don't want to go down the road of Jules Verne, where do we go?
Nathan: "I still send messages to Andrew in Martian"We decided there's no fly-by-wire. There's no electricity. We're in a world where people messenger things, send each other telegrams. Say that if you are flying around you are basically flying a tall ship. That command structure is based on runners or bell systems. You have a man who tells the men to pull the wings to 10 degrees. We came up with all this technology. So again, we're on Mars – navigation is different, navigation is done by two moons. So the equipment you need to run to navigate changes. We actually wrote a rulebook. It was huge. We made a 90-page rulebook. I mean, we had to come up with an alphabet to translate. I still send messages to Andrew in Martian [laughs]. And we had all the extras coordinate, we said, "you're the lightmaster, you're in charge of navigating where the sun is as it bounces off the solar cell on the wing. But you have to also give commands to the 20 crewmembers" – or, as we called them, wingmen. Even though cinematically people might not understand that, it's there.

The realism of the thought is what makes it believable on screen, if it correlates to our rulebook. It was just so important that we understood how everything worked, and that goes across the board – we're on Mars, how do the doors work, how do the elevators work – in fact, are there elevators? It just becomes huge once you start reinventing a planet. On top of that, you have the red men, you have the Tharks, you have the Warhoons. So what are they? What do they use? How do they get around? We spent a lot of time preparing the movie. I mean, just even finding the shape of the hull of the ship! They can't just be tall ships in the air because that would look stupid, so that's where I came up with the idea of catamarans.

PS: That sounds like a big rulebook.

NC: Yeah, it was a huge undertaking. Our theory – or rather really Andrew's theory – in the film about the Therns is that they started the Industrial Revolution, as a precursor to bringing down Earth. We had layer upon layer of theory. When you're doing complete fantasy like that, you have to build yourself a structure because if you don't have rules, it's just chaos. Anyway, we thought the Therns were moving planets because Mars was dying. And their plan started the Industrial Revolution.

PS: Which parts of the set were constructed manually and which were constructed digitally? At what stage in production do they synthesize into one cinematic vision?

NC: Every set in that film has a real element. You can't design a portion of a set without designing the whole thing. That's why I say it's so huge. We had to design three cities: two working cities and one ancient city. We know from the book that the city of Helium has a mile-high tower, and that was very important. Then with the ancient cities, I mean, what is the ancient architecture? The ancient Thark cities are grand cities of warfare, so this is like what ancient Egypt is to us. What is Mars' version of ancient Greece and Egypt?

My theory on that was, what if modernism was ancient? What if the modernists were now 5,000 years old? That's how I kind of coined the phrase "ancient modernism." The problem was we still had to draw and design everything, so we still had a massive job. I mean, when you're doing a film set on Earth, you kind of have stuff to base everything on.

Then with the ancient cities, we built an enormous set in Utah and we used the hills in the background. We thought, what if we find a landscape with these types of rocks and caves, then we just have to do a little bit of adjustment on those big rocks in Utah and it becomes, you know, like Petra. We needed to find those landscapes, because we knew that would be a great start because then the ancient cities would be quite realistic. Even more so, if we've got animated characters then those cities really have to be as real as possible. With every frame we need a real thing, to give us that grounding. Andrew loves the detail and he wants to know that there's a reason to stuff, and I agree with him.

PS: The film does seem to have a strong sense of cohesion.

NC: To me, that's the ultimate goal, is you have to make it make sense in this world. And to do that you can't really have fake backgrounds, I don't think. If you set them in real locations then the animators have make it work. Andrew is a master of detail. I mean, really to make use of the amount of work we did, we have to make at least three films.

PS: One thing the design for John Carter and the Nolan Batman movies share is a sense of functionality - the Batpod may amaze us when it shoots out of the Batmobile, but get to see how it happens just as we can figure out how the Martian doors and weapons work just by looking at them. Could you elaborate on what goes into making these technologies appear so visceral and realistic?

NC: With the Batman films, it's a lot easier because we built the Batpod. The Batmobile actually goes 100 m/hr. It goes naught to 60 in 6 seconds. And with that – I mean, Batman's a fantasy and if you want to ground the guy running around in a rubber suit, you have to give him reality.

"My theory on that was, what if modernism was ancient? What if the modernists were now 5,000 years old?"How do you build a city? How do you build a moving city? How do the legs move? Where's the reference? I looked at the Yangtze Dam, because if we can build the Yangtze Dam then we can probably build Zodanga. So that's my mindset: it's like, I need to find something to ground this on. The Batmobile was a Lambourgini mixed with a tank so it's like, could you actually make that? Would that make sense – a mid-engine tank? Same with the airships – how do you turn the wings? Are there upper and lower wingmen? We need pulleys and systems, and how are we going send messages? What's the great wheel at the front doing? Well, ok, that changes the angle of the solar cells but it can't change the angle of the wings because it's not strong enough to move those big wings. Those are moved with pulleys, but the giant wheel controls the cells.

Where does everyone sit? The line-master's over here, but where's the Captain? The people judging where the Sun is must always be in shadow. So then what do the army guys do? We need a Commander on the bridge to give orders to the gunner. Wough gh ell, how do you get messages to the gunner? Oh shit, you know!? So now, we have to get all this down into a diagram so I told my graphic designer to do diagrams, to do rules, to take all this information and make it cohesive.

And with the layout of the cities: where's Helium's Hall of Science? Where's the House of Light? Where's the Princess's Palace? To me, you just start going for it, and design-wise you have to base it on…well, ancient modernism was perfect for me because I had an architectural theory. Is ancient modernism like Saleri? Who are these guys? Who are the ancient modernists who build Martian cities? Then considering the Tharks are nine foot, everything has to be sized up a bit.

And God, then there's – so the seas have retreated, so how are we traveling around Mars? They used the canals of Mars, this Victorian idea, but the canals were the last of the water so the ancient cities have to be based around them. It goes on and on. Then you have the Therns – they're another alien race! What's their technology? What does it look like? They have the ability to multiply particles; they have indefinite particles – what's that? Because their evolution is hiding, their technology can turn them into rocks, it's sort of particle acceleration. So then I tie this all on to some sort of technology I've read in your magazine. How do you fake a kind of technology that no matter if something appears big or small it has the same structure? So that's what I mean, it goes on and on.

PS: A serious multiplicity of influences.

NC: I try to find the key to all the pieces, and then the hard part of designing a film is coming up with a theory that encompasses it all. That's the difficult part. You can't have ancient Egypt not relate to ancient Greece or Petra. You have to believe all these things in a fictional world co-exist in the same way. Locations help with that, of course. You know, we came across Utah and we've got grey sand and orange rocks. How weird is that? Our scouting was all about no vegetation because everything's dead on Mars. Anyway, design can be whimsical but for me, it's not a whimsical process. It's not like, "oh do a drawing, okay, that'll do." It's a very in-depth thing for me because I want to make the audience think it could really exist. That's a hard thing to do, I think. That's why I wanted to do John Carter. I thought, I don't want the audience saying, "How the hell does that airship work? I don't believe in it."

PS: Having seen the final product, what is your favorite part of the movie's design? Where do you think you and your team hit it out of the park?

NC: I think it's the landscapes. For me, it's the River Iss because we went to Lake Powell and shot there in really difficult places. I have a great affection for Utah, and the beauty of Utah. We built the old city there with the great grey sand and the orange rocks. I loved it. It was in the middle of nowhere, and impossible to get to, and it was windy and hard. And Andrew was like, "Where have you brought me?" And I said, "we're on Mars, dude, we're on f*cking Mars! It's not nice on Mars. I'm sorry, it's not particularly nice here." I'm really proud of that search for Mars, and it was a big search. Weirdly enough we were scouting around and we bumped into a place called Mars Landing where NASA trains, and it was like, Oh! We should probably shoot here!

PS: It was a NASA station?

NC: It was a NASA Mars station! With astronauts learning to be in a capsule basically, living in a capsule and growing plants. And also the old town where [John Carter] is captured by Powell is in Utah too. A truly phenomenal landscape. Now that I feel I know it really well, I thought, wow, why haven't I been to Utah before? It's truly one of the most stunning states in America.

I also have one favorite ship, which is Dejah's ship. It has a twin hull, and is shown when Sab Than goes after her. That was always my favorite ship. To me, that was where we hit the perfection of a good design, it was on her ship. It wasn't too big and lumberous. It was just a nice size. I thought, wow, that really works. And now, we've got 8 other ships to do!

PS: Why do we never have a scifi story in which Mars is doing better than Earth?

AS: The late Joe Ranft, who I learned to write stories and make movies with had this wonderful saying, "Nobody wants to see a story about the village of the happy people." And that's true. You want to see people overcome adversity. It's clearly hard when you're talking about even just a singular person in another world, and not include the whole global aspect of it. Just kind of comes with the territory. I had the same issue with Wall-E, even though it was completely made up from scratch – if I wanted this problem of somebody being so lonely I had to everybody gone which just forced me to have to deal with things on a global scale. You know it's funny, I just realized that something about science fiction really always, it's just invisibly handcuffed to societal things.

Green Screening the Red Planet

Andrew Stanton directs Taylor Kitsch and a motion-capture-suited Willem Dafoe on the London set.courtesy Disney

Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas

Dafoe plays a defecting warrior Thark in John Carter. This is the second time Dafoe has played a prominent green-skinned character, after donning the Green Goblin suit in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man. Dafoe: "It isn't easy being green, but it is fun."courtesy Disney

Brave New World

John Carter encounters green-skinned Tharks upon his arrival on Mars, while Taylor Kitsch encounters green-screened men on the set.courtesy Disney

The Martian Yangtze Dam

Production designer Nathan Crowley used the Yangtze Dam as inspiration for the massive mobile city-state of Zodanga, reasoning that "if we can build the Yangtze Dam then we can probably build Zodanga. That's my mindset: I need to find something to ground [the fantasy] on."courtesy Disney

Martian Canals Redux

Andrew Stanton wanted John Carter to read like a period piece both on Earth and Mars. In Burroughs' time, the scientific community supported Percival Lowell's theory that an artificial Martian canal system could be observed on the red planet. Stanton pays homage to the theory with scenes set on the River Iss, the last of the Martian canals.courtesy Disney

Helium at Dusk

Crowley remained as faithful to the book as he could in his rendering of the great city of Helium. "We know from the book that the city of Helium has a mile-high tower, and there's just certain things you stick with, and that was very important.courtesy Disney

Greater Helium

A light-powered catamaran airship defends Helium's borders. Stanton wanted to show that Martians innovated some technologies and hadn't happened upon others, and vice versa with Earth. He compares their discovery of light-powered vehicles to our discovery of electricity.courtesy Disney

Zodanga At War

Crowley tried to show the logic behind every mechanism in the Zodangan moving city. "They're living in this machine world that moves as it mines [so] we had to figure out how to counter-weight legs. You have 1,000 legs in a row – how does it move a city? We animated legs that kind of swung like an oil derrick to show that even though this may be a flash on the screen, it was thought about."courtesy Disney

The Dying World of Barsoom

Mars - or Barsoom as the Martians call it - is itself a full-fledged character in the film, played by the state of Utah. Crowley: "I'm really proud of that search for Mars. I have a great affection for Utah, and the beauty of Utah. We built the old city there with the great grey sand and the orange rocks. I loved it."courtesy Disney