"John Carter" filmmaker faces risky debut with a smile

By Jordan Riefe LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As a boy, Andrew Stanton fell in love with author Edgar Rice Burroughs' series of "John Carter" books about the space adventurer and his exploits on Mars. As a man, Stanton never forgot the character even as he forged a successful career within the cozy confines of Pixar Animation Studios directing "Finding Nemo" and "WALL-E." Their combined earnings of $1.4 billion worldwide gave him the chance to make "John Carter" his live-action debut on Friday But well before "John Carter" made it onto silver screens, the movie was plagued with negative reports over its huge cost that producers have put at $250 million, although some reports go higher. And when any expensive, high-profile movie from a hot director flops, it can spell career trouble. Stanton knows that fact of Hollywood life, but shrugs it off with a smile. "Every picture I've been on has had a huge budget with all the world watching," Stanton told Reuters. "This is not that different other than, maybe, people are betting more against me because of the oddity of me suddenly stepping out of Pixar." Stanton worked at Pixar in its early days before it was bought by the Walt Disney Co. when it was still a scrappy animation company run by John Lasseter and the late Steve Jobs. There, he found a tightly-knit cadre of artists and storytellers honing their skills on commercials and short films. After the phenomenal success of 1995's "Toy Story," Pixar became the focus of a resurgence in animated film. A key to their success was subjecting rough cuts to a "brain trust" of artists, writers and directors for comments. Filmmakers were free to take or leave advice on how to fix their movies, a luxury seldom afforded by Hollywood's major studios. When tweaked to perfection, the scene was then committed to full-blown animation. Animators habitually plan every moment on film, but the two-time Oscar-winning director found that live-action production moved faster and was more fluid with changes. Stanton admits he ran into problems making the transition. "I kept trying to apply my Pixar over-plan-it mentality," he laughed. "They would take a little but you could see it just didn't fit well with people. (Live-action) seems to attract more of a thinking of 'let's just fix it as we go,' more triage oriented." MOVE TO LIVE-ACTION FILM "John Carter" had an auspicious beginning when Disney chairman Dick Cook was replaced by former TV exec Rich Ross in 2009. With such regime changes, projects in development are usually scrapped, but Ross held on to "John Carter." The title character is a Civil War officer (played by Taylor Kitsch) who is miraculously transported to Mars and endowed with superpowers. He befriends Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) the Jedda of Tharks, a tribe of multi-limbed green people. Soon, he finds himself caught between the warring humanoid Red and Green tribes whose conflict turns on who will ultimately possess the beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Disney and Ross believed they were investing in a movie that could spawn a franchise like the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, which they could milk at box offices for years. Late last year, Stanton delivered an initial 2-hour, 50-minute movie to Disney studio brass. In reply, they suggested changes that focused on the story's clarity and expressed concern that the film felt impersonal. Stanton drew up some fixes and went out and filmed the new ideas over 18 days. But such "re-shoots," while often done in the industry, can bring negative media reports of problems with the film, and that is the buzz that has preceded "John Carter." Stanton adamantly believes reshoots should be an inherent part of the filmmaking process and insists his were planned for, claiming he delivered the movie on time and on budget. "Every one of these films is going to let me down," he said about making a mega-budget movie. "It's going to fall apart, and it's going to go through this horrible puberty phase where it's ugly and we still have to go to the prom." Whether "John Carter" proves to be a hit awaits Friday's debut. Critics are mixed. Website Movie Review Intelligence, which scores films based on an average of critics' comments, gave it a 50.4 percent positive rating based on 11 reviews. Other aggregators, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, score it 62 percent and 42 percent positive, respectively, as of Wednesday. But action-adventure, effects-filled sci-fi movies like "John Carter" are often immune to negative reviews because their target audience, mostly young men and boys, either don't read the criticism or simply ignore it. And there is at least one adult man who hasn't yet paid attention -- Stanton. He said he is superstitious and does not think about opening day box office. "I'm not going to let anything get me down, no matter how far south it seems to go," he said with a smile. "I'm the luckiest guy in the world that I even get to know what it's like to make a movie like this. Because how many people get to?" (Reporting By Jordan Riefe; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

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