Disney’s Visionaries Talk ‘John Carter’

Taylor Kitsch 

The Heights:What does it mean to you to portray a character that has existed for a century?

Taylor Kitsch:I don’t think you’re going to put more pressure on it because it’s existed this or that. I think that’s a lot of the outside pressure trying to come in, but no one is going to put more pressure on it than I will. I think the most pressure I truly had was probably playing a guy that’s lived and has passed on, but I’m not going to prep more because it’s Edgar Rice Burroughs’ vision or anything like that— but I mean it’s very flattering to be a part of it, and I think that scope of it all is quite cool to be a part of as well. I think to breathe life into Stanton, who directed it, his childhood dream is an amazing thing to do and be a part of

The Heights: It seems like you were really pushed to your physical limits with this film, so what did you do to prepare?

Taylor Kitsch: So many, I battled exhaustion throughout just because you’re in so much of it and you’re working six to eight weeks and all that kind of stuff. The diet is everything. You’re on that regimen and it’s the most boring diet you can think of ever, literally. I’m just like surrounding all the meals with protein and I was on it for almost 11 months, and then just the aesthetic part of John is such that you wake up at 4:30 in the morning every day and train and it goes back to boxing to a lot of the core stuff: water work, the sword training … man, I could bore you all day with what I ate, but I’ll just leave it at: it was incredibly boring.

The Heights: Do you want to continue to take more action roles, and what made John Carter different from other roles for you?

Taylor Kitsch: I think that’s just it, I don’t see it as just an action role, you know? Of course the action is going to be insane, and it is, in the film, but I mean, what really makes me choose a role is the people I’m surrounded with and the character I get to portray, and the sense of how in John Carter the emotion is no joke. It’s that arc of who I got to play, of the guy who’s lost his cause completely and then through this action and through the people who come into his life. That’s why I signed onto it. If it didn’t have that emotional arc, I wouldn’t have done it. As long as that action and the emotion is balanced, then I’m more prone to take the role. You never know, hopefully I keep throwing you guys curveballs so you can’t know what I’m going to do next, that’s the joy of it all.

The Heights: From Friday Night Lights to John Carter you’ve worked with an impressive ensemble of actors, including Kyle Chandler, Willem Dafoe, and Liam Neeson. What’ve you learned from working with talent like that?

Taylor Kitsch: Yeah, I had to put them all on my back, man, all of them [Laughs]. I can keep going on that list by the way—John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Oliver Stone … I mean I’ve been so lucky, and I think it goes back to the answer before, just surrounding yourself and playing these incredibly character-driven roles. That’s the beauty of my gig, man, I’m empowered and I’m better for it, by putting myself with these guys. You learn and you take the best of each of these guys, hopefully, and you try to apply it when you can. I hope to continue this kind of path we’re on for sure. I would love to tell you what the next gig is … if it is what I think it will be, it’ll continue on that path.

The Heights: How was it working with Andrew Stanton?

Taylor Kitsch: Terrible, just terrible. We hate each other, the communication is terrible, we can’t even stand to be in the same room as each other even now. No, it’s quite the opposite, obviously. For what he’s achieved, you’re dealing with a guy who has zero ego, and I think that’s why the movie is what it is. I think the biggest compliment you can give anyone, especially when you’re working with someone with who I would go to war with and I would do whatever it took to do it justice with him. These movies should test you on so many levels, and waking up every day knowing I would get to work with him was an amazing feeling.

The Heights: How was the transition from television to film?

Taylor Kitsch: I don’t think it was a big thing for me. I started, actually, doing film, so I think there is that stigma with it, from film to TV, ‘what does it mean?’ but I don’t know, I love doing film and I hope to keep doing film. The time you get, or is allotted for these character-driven things and the time it can take … in film, we can do a whole 12-hour day and do one scene. If I’m doing Riggs, I’ve done 17 pages in one day. I think that you can really take your time and break it down a lot more, maybe, but yeah, I hope to keep doing film, but there are some cable shows doing incredibly character-driven stuff, so you never know.

The Heights: What do you feel was your greatest accomplishment with this film?

Taylor Kitsch: With this film, getting through it. I think I keep going back to how tired I was, but you’re truly on bended knee at times for days, not even able to walk to set you’re so exhausted. I think it was just that task of how many days you question the love of your work so many times just because you just want to sleep for another eight hours or so. That was just getting through it and, you know, setting the bar that high for myself personally and keeping it at that level of energy and aesthetic and emotion, that’s probably the biggest thing I’ll take from it. You did it, you got through it.

THE HEIGHTS:After your work on Friday Night Lights and The Bang Bang Club, was it strange to be reacting to creatures and objects that weren’t really there?

Taylor Kitsch:Yes, it’s a good question just because it’s tough, man. If it was a scene with me and him, me and Nick doing it mano a mano, it’s over and done with after you get the scene. Once we get the scene onJohn Carter, we have to do another ten takes plus, for the effects people, for them to get it right to make sure we can get through all that. I mean that’s just so exhausting. I think when you’re acting to nothing, it’s tough, man. I’ve got big speeches in this film where you’re looking at clouds and it’s tough to really connect to anything, so it just kind of demands that much more of you.


THE HEIGHTS:How hectic is the promotional period before a movie’s release?

Taylor Kitsch:I can go on a tangent right now where the studio would probably hang up [laughs]. This is cool, what we’re doing here, but it’s beyond exhausting, man. Put it this way: I spent the last 20 hours in my home in Austin. That was the first time in a month that I’ve had that, and I won’t get to go back for another month plus. Jet lag is no joke by the way, it is no joke, and you lose a job here or there because of lack of availability and that’s the last thing you want to lose a job for. I’ll put the violin away and you just stay focused and you get through it, and it helps when you love the movie and love the work you put into it.


Andrew Stanton

The Heights: How much did you draw on the source material when bringing this world to the big screen?


Stanton: Well I was really smart, and I don’t like to write by myself, I like objectivity and I need people to bounce stuff off of. I’m always smarter in the room when I’m working with somebody, so I got myself two people that I wrote with, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon—both of them were huge lovers of the books growing up as well. Not only did I get better writing by having these two guys, but I had people that knew all the material and cared about it, and that really, really helped us sort of be really smart about what stuff to keep from the source material. The source material was always there, we were always referring to it, but we ended up treating it more like an encyclopedia, because he had so much data in it about names of places, and what the cultural rules were, and character descriptions. The narrative of the story, like how the story moved forward and how the drama was put together, we had to take licenses because it really didn’t play well as a three-act structure movie that you would see in two hours, and most books have that problem. We had the luxury that there were multiple books, and so we could tell that there were things that he got better about or more interesting characters he discovered, or situations, or rules in later books. We had the luxury of being able to grab those things and move them earlier, and also take some things away that we knew we could use later if there were more movies. It’s like doing a television series and you know there’s going to be season 2 and 3—you can have the patience and the willpower to sort of spread things out differently to tell a better story. But we hope that at the end of the day, my one big goal was, does it feel like when you watch the movie, what it felt like to read the book? That’s to me the goal. [The goal for] any adaptation is that it made me feel like how I did reading the book.


The Heights: Can we expect sequels or any content beyond John Carter?


Stanton: I’m actually knocking on wood. I sure hope so. We actually got the rights to the first three books, and we planned all three movies together so we knew where they were actually going. I also hated movies that had these unnecessary cliffhangers that suddenly just leave you hanging, and there’s this sort of lame assumption that there is going to be another movie and I didn’t want to jinx that either. We made sure each movie finished in a very satisfying way when we wrote them, even though there might be meta-issues that keep going. It’s like having a good conclusion to a television season, and maybe you’ll be picked up for the next year and maybe you won’t, but at least you know there’s closure for what you were dealing with for that season. So we did that for this movie and we planned that for the others.


The Heights: What is the relevance of John Carter to a modern audience, and what message would you hope the film sends to the audience?


Stanton: I don’t really consider those things. I’ve had a lot of those kind of questions when I was doing WALL-E, because it seemed to be so appropriate to the times, the concern of the environment, but they’re all just ingredients for me for what’s the drama of the story. My interest was, what’s the timeless human aspect about the character and the story that will always speak to me no matter what’s going on in the world, and having a person that discovers that they think their purpose in life is over, and was misguided to begin with, suddenly find where they really do fit in? I think that’s what all of us are searching to do, heck that’s why you’re all in college, right? You’re all trying to figure out where you fit in and what’s your true calling, and that’s what this person’s dealing with, and I think I’d do anything I could, even if it was subject matter that might compare to today, and even if it didn’t, if it would help tell that dramatic drive. That’s what I did!


The Heights: How is directing a live action film different than directing an animated film?

Stanton: It’s actually not that different. People think that when you work on an animated film, you’re talking to a bunch of computers. I’m talking to 200 people each day, 200 people that have different jobs, like how to do the lighting, the camera, the costume work. So it’s very similar, actually, because in live action I talk to people who do the lighting, the camera, the costumes, the actors, and it’s just that you’re doing it outside rather than inside, and you’re doing it under a very tight schedule whereas you have a lot more sort of banker’s hours when you’re doing animation. So the big difference is just physical stamina. I know that’s not sexy, but that’s the truth of it.


The Heights: Did your experience at Pixar help with the CGI in the film?

Stanton: My experience at Pixar was tremendously helpful. I don’t think I could’ve done this had I not … I mean, making John Carter was basically making two movies, almost literally two different film productions. One was the live action side that took almost a year to do, and then the computer graphics side, because half my main characters are completely CG and half the world is sort of CG, and that was another year and a half of work, and that happened after I shot the live action. I kind of was in this live-action world with all the sort of production rules and pipelines, and then I moved on to animation and I worked in the same kind of pipeline that I would work and production flow for a Pixar movie. I knew I would know that half of it really well, and I was working with people I hadn’t worked with before, and that was fun. I think they enjoyed working with a director who actually knew and cared about animation.


The Heights: Did you feel a certain kind of pressure tackling a story that so many people already knew?

Stanton: I did and I didn’t, because the harsh truth of it is that not that many people know about it. It’s not like Harry Potter or Tolkien, it’s slowly been a dwindling base, so I knew there wasn’t this massive social pressure about how it was executed. But I didn’t worry about that so much also because I’m a huge fan, I’ve read the books my whole life and wanted to see them and I’m probably one of the more rabid fans, so I didn’t want to screw it up! I kind of got pregnant with this idea, with telling Disney when the property suddenly went back to the estate in 2006, I told them, “You’ve gotta make this, I want to see it on the screen. I’ve been waiting 35 years and it’s still not gonna happen. Somebody’s got to make it! I would consider it once I finish WALL-E.” Suddenly they said yes and gave it to me, before I even knew what was going on, and it was sort of one of those “be careful what you wish for” circumstances. If there was any pressure, it was my own pressure on myself, because I was like, “Okay, now you can put your money where your mouth is and put on the screen what you’ve always wanted to see.”

The Heights: What was it like working with human actors rather than being able to manipulate your characters via computers?

Stanton: Well, I don’t work with the manipulated CG characters, I work with the animators that are human beings that manipulate the characters, so I don’t talk to the puppets, I talk to the puppeteer! To me, talking with actors is really no different than talking with an animator—animators are just shy actors. They may not be as fun as the actors, they may not jump around and give you a million great ideas or come back fighting you with their own agendas as much as an actor might, which is really exciting, but the way an actor is thinking is exactly how an animator’s thinking. They’re trying to figure out the character’s motivation, what are all the choices I have or the tools at my disposal as the character I am, what are my marks, where do I come in, when do I exit. Talking to an actor was like talking to my animators and my story guys at the same time, because my story guys can be really crazy and try a million ideas at once and we’re just thinking of the wackiest ideas out there like a good improv group. It was really like having these two conversations I was used to having as one!

About Brennan Carley 80 Articles
Brennan Carley served as the Arts & Review Editor for The Heights in 2012. He's currently an Assistant Editor for Spin.