When his movie “John Carter” thudded into theaters in March, director Andrew Stanton escaped to New York and spent the next three weeks riding the subway, noodling on scripts and visiting with his daughter and some friends.
For the first time since he started at Pixar Animation Studios in 1990 at age 24, Stanton was facing an unfamiliar sensation — the gut punch of a public failure in an industry that hardly shelters it. The film had forced Walt Disney Studios to take a $200-million write-down and helped lead to the departure of two top executives.
Now, as he processes the experience, he’s still a bit bewildered by his movie’s “Ishtar"-like reception. He concedes he was taken aback by the creative and cultural leap between animation and live action. And rather than blame the studio, he says he’s actually surprised by how much freedom he was granted.
“I was left alone from Day One to the last day,” he said in an interview last week, his first since the film’s troubled release.
His experience illustrates, among other things, the risks of making movies that are too big to fail, and how the fallout travels in many directions.
With “John Carter,” he had hoped to bring his Pixar success to a live-action film. But between its development and its release the leadership at Walt Disney Studios changed, and new top man Rich Ross installed a new marketing chief and head of production. (Ross and his marketing chief, MT Carney, both left in the months surrounding the film’s release). By Hollywood conventional wisdom, a regime change would lead to shuttered projects and creative disputes.
Stanton was surprised, however, when the opposite happened and he got little push-back at all. “I thought, ‘Are we gonna lose the green light?’ In the very beginning I assumed it would be like that, cause who’s gonna give me the keys to a Ferrari if I’ve never driven before?,” he said. “But studios are not set up like that. They’re like, ‘Go and drive the car and don’t drive it off a bridge.’”
Instead of looking over the shoulder of an animator in an office, Stanton was shooting in sandstorms in the Utah desert and working within the spontaneous, adrenaline-fueled culture of a set full of actors, cameramen and grips. He also learned, while still in the scripting stage, that he had high-functioning attention deficit disorder.
In 2007, when he wrote his first draft, adapting it from a 1917 Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, he and Disney executives hoped the movie would launch a lucrative new sci-fi franchise. On its release critics praised the visuals but knocked the story as messy and overlong. It opened to a lackluster $30 million in the U.S., although it went on to gross $283 million worldwide, not nearly enough to pay off the studio’s hefty investment of more than $250 million plus marketing, nor warrant the sequel Stanton had begun outlining.
His wasn’t the only big, expensive movie to bomb this year — Universal’s “Battleship” and Warner Bros.’ “Dark Shadows” both under-performed. But “John Carter” bombed first and loudest, and seemed, even months before its release, to be caught in an irreversible spiral of bad buzz.
At Pixar, Stanton is known as an alpha figure, a counterweight to Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter’s big softie approach. He’s the guy who steers the conversation and encourages his colleagues to “fail as fast as you can” on a movie — to have enough time to fix mistakes.
Just the second animator to join Pixar after Lasseter, Stanton collected an Oscar apiece for directing “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E.” As vice president of creative at the Emeryville, Calif., studio, he’s earned writing or producing credits on eight other features, including hits like “Monsters Inc.,” all three “Toy Story” movies and “Up.” On Sept. 14, Disney will re-release “Finding Nemo,” his biggest hit, in 3-D.
The director was accustomed to Pixar’s method of storyboarding a movie and massaging the script multiple times — a luxury afforded by the deliberative way animated films are made, not on sets where massive crews can burn through $500,000 a day. Early on, he said he requested that multiple reshoots be built into the production schedule.
Disney granted that request, but a perceptual difference emerged. In Emeryville, reshoots are synonymous with improvement; in Hollywood, they’re synonymous with screw-ups.
The film was beginning to generate scorn. “There was this weird air the summer before of schadenfreude, of doomed to fail,” he recalled. “It isn’t a nice atmosphere to be in, but what can you do about it?”
“At Pixar, it’s safe to fail,” said Lasseter. “No one’s gonna judge you. We’ll keep tweaking that story to the very end.” Lasseter, who has a deep affection for Stanton, said he was flummoxed by the ill will the film seemed to engender.
As Stanton embarked on the reshoots, Disney changed the title from “John Carter of Mars” to simply “John Carter,” which, like the trailers and posters of bare-chested star Taylor Kitsch striding through the desert, provided little sense of what it was actually about.
“We didn’t always agree on which direction to take every step of the way, but there was never serious contention,” he said of the studio’s marketing. “The truth was everyone tried their very best to crack how to sell what we had, but the answer proved elusive.”
After his New York trip, Stanton returned to Pixar and resumed his work consulting with directors on their projects, including Lee Unkrich, his co-director on “Finding Nemo,” who said his friend was wounded by the defeat.
“Andrew poured every little bit of his heart and soul into ‘John Carter’, sweating the tiniest detail,” Unkrich said. “‘John Carter’ was the first time he’s been in a position where things didn’t work out in the way he hoped and of course he had to go through it in a really public way.”
Other filmmakers have had to recover from a disaster or disappointment. After “Ishtar” tanked in 1987, it was nine years before director Elaine May took another screenwriter credit. After his 1989 passion project, “The Abyss,” saw only middling box office returns, James Cameron said he did some soul searching. “It lost its opening weekend to ‘Uncle Buck,’” Cameron said. “To me, that’s a failure. You start to rationalize, what did we do wrong? “
After “The Abyss,” Cameron returned to the film that had launched him, “The Terminator,” and made “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Similarly, Stanton’s next directing project will be a sequel to “Finding Nemo.”
“What was immediately on the list was writing a second ‘Carter’ movie,” he said. When that went away, everything slid up. I know I’ll be accused by more sarcastic people that it’s a reaction to ‘Carter’ not doing well, but only in its timing, but not in its conceit.”
Stanton said he’s proud of his film and hopes, optimistically, that it joins the ranks of movies such as “Blade Runner” and “The Wizard of Oz,” which took years to find their audiences.
He said he has learned one important lesson from the whole experience.
“The ennui you have after a huge success when it’s all over is exactly the same as the ennui you have when it’s a bomb,” he said. “You loved the doing. You’ve spent every waking moment thinking about its birth, worrying about it, raising it. It’s an empty nest syndrome. Whether your kid went to college or went to jail, it’s an empty nest.”