(John Carter of Mars screenplay, etc.)
(Master of Adventure: The Worlds of ERB, etc.)
What are you doing for John Carter of Mars and how did you get involved?
Well, it was pretty neat. It was chance, and just good luck, because in the mid-'90s, right around the time I moved to Berkeley, about '96 or '97, I was working on an original screenplay called The Martian Agent. It was sort of my attempt to work with the John Carter material, the Burroughs, Barsoom material--but in my own way. Partly because I didn't have the rights, but also because I wanted to play with it my own way. The screenplay was set on Mars in the 1890s, in an alternate reality where the British Empire, through superior technology, had conquered the entire earth -- had reconquered the United States -- was the unchallenged master of earth, and was now proceeding to the conquest of Mars. So it was about the British Empire trying to colonize Mars in the 1890s. That Mars was my version of Mars, but it was very much in the ERB, Percival Lowell style, with canals, and ancient civilizations, and strange creatures. I was also working with the same stuff of Victorian adventure as ERB. H.R. Haggard. All those great Victorian adventure novelists.
My script was optioned by Fox, and it was supposed to be directed by Jan de Bont, the director who made Speed and Twister -- he was very hot at the time. And they did a million dollars of special effects testing over at ILM. So, when I moved up here, I was actually going over to ILM, I went a few times, and had a look at the art they were developing. The thing was going along pretty nicely. And then Speed 2 came out, and it was a disaster. Fox pulled the plug on the project. They killed all of de Bont’s projects that were in development, and in that mass die off my project got killed. And that was the end of The Martian Agent. I put it away. Subsequently, some years later, I took the first part of that script and novelized it, just as an experiment. To see if I could turn it into a novel. I got one chapter into it and then stopped, but that chapter was subsequently published in the first McSweeney's anthology that I edited.
Then last Christmas, at the end of 2008, I went to a party at the home of someone who works at Pixar. And I walk in, and this guy bee-lines across the room to me saying, "Remember me? I was one of the production artists on your Mars project back when I worked at ILM." Now he works at Pixar. We started talking, reminiscing about the project. In the course of that conversation he says, "You know Andrew Stanton is doing John Carter, right? Disney got the rights back, and Andrew’s doing John Carter of Mars." And I hadn't heard that! I got very excited. I said, "That sounds great. Wow! That sounds like a terrific project."
A couple of days later, Andrew Stanton contacted me. He said, "I hear you're really into Edgar Rice Burroughs and Mars. I heard about this Mars movie you had going, and I was wondering if you'd like to just come over and check out what we're up to and what we've done? I'll show you what we've got." I had met Andrew a couple of times in the past, so I knew him slightly. I went over there, and saw all the cool stuff they had done, production art, models, storyboards, some previsuals. And then Andrew asked me if I'd be interested in coming on board and doing a rewrite. Their script was in good shape. They'd already been through a few drafts.
Who wrote them?
Andrew Stanton and his writing partner, Mark Andrews who is also a story board/production artist, and a graphic novelist, and who worked with Brad Bird on a number of his films. Mark’s a real pillar at Pixar. He and Andrew Stanton had written the script together. They had done a lot of heavy lifting, had worked out and solved many of the thorny story telling issues that the first novel presents.
Is this based on just the first novel?
That’s hard to answer. I guess I'd say if all goes as planned, the first three films -- were there to be three films -- would more or less cover the same ground as the first three novels in terms of where we would end up, and what would be known to be true.
But the books--they’re serialized novels, from a pulp magazine in 1912 and 1915 or whenever. [RL: I was there : ) - not quite] They weren't really written with a two-hour, 21st-century major studio motion picture in mind. There are changes that have to be made. There’s not a precise one to one correspondence, as with the Harry Potters -- it's not like that. Nor is it a complete departure, not by any means. The idea was to gather up the important threads of story from all of the first three novels and weave them into a coherent, three part whole, yet with each part standing on its own. As if ERB had conceived the first three books as a trilogy, which he did not, since even with his wild imagination he had no reason to believe, as he was writing the first John Carter novel, that there would ever be a second.
Actually a few months ago I went back and looked at what I had said in my first book about Burroughs in 1965 and I discovered that I said A Princess of Mars is really not a very good novel. He was learning -- it was his first book -- and the series got much better. Then I went back and reread A Princess of Mars to compare my attitude in 2009 with my attitude in 1964-65 -- and I said, "This is right -- this is not a very good novel."
I mean, it's clear that he was making it up as he went along. So there are a lot of things, especially in that first book, ideas that just get tossed in there, and are never followed up on. Like having everyone on Barsoom be telepathic. It turned out he didn't need that. He could tell his story perfectly well without that. And in fact it was a storytelling disadvantage in many ways. At some point you sort of see him realize that: Crap! If everyone is telepathic how does anyone get away with anything? Oh, I know -- I'll just say Carter has a mental block against mind-reading! It's a very seat-of-the-pants kind of plotting.
And you have people fighting with ray guns and swords. Well, if you have a ray gun and I have a sword -- you've got it, I surrender.
Exactly. The Tharks have their radium rifles. They're clearly meant to be like Afghani tribesmen out of Kipling, or something like that. But it's not as if the British Army charged the Afghani tribesmen with their swords alone -- they had cannons and artillery and rifles and gatling guns.
And they still got whipped
And they still had their asses handed to them
. . . and they still are.
There's a lot more satire in the novels than I remembered. The first time I read the books, when I was a kid--I'm not sure if I read all of them, but I probably read eight or nine. This time I've gotten as far as Chessmen, which is really good -- actually that might be one of my favourites.
When they're playing Jetan.
Yeah, that was fun -- but -- you know a lot of the wonders of Mars, and the marvelous things ERB is describing read like satirical exaggerations of American society at the time, of racial attitudes and cultural attitudes. ERB seems to be poking fun at human foibles -- creating little micro-societies that live by absurd rules. With the Tharks, in the first book, there seems to be some kind of an attempt at a critique of socialism.
Have you come across the religious dispute of whether the great truth is "Tur is Tur. . . or . . . Tur is Tur"? That's somewhere later along. It's a great debate : )
The books remind me frequently of the Oz books, a lot. They have same dry humour, that poking fun at human behaviour, especially when people get into some kind of collective enterprise, where they all try to outdo each other, or they all try to pull the wool over each other's eyes.
I did a radio show a few years ago with Michael Patrick Hearn, a scholar who seems to know everything there is to know about Baum and Oz. He told me that when Burroughs arrived in Hollywood he was met at the railway station by Frank Baum and they became pals.
You know I read something about that, too. I have often thought it would be a good subject for a play or film. They both had their Southern California estates: Ozcot and Tarzana, built on the proceeds of their books.
Anyway, that stuff is fun, I think in your memory of the books, you sort of forget about the satirical aspect. When you go back to them, it's actually part of the pleasure of reading them. But it won't necessarily feed into an exciting action-packed adaptation.
I want to ask you -- after reading your Wikipedia chapter, you seem to have got caught in the middle of people throwing rotten cabbages at each other and events between those who say genre fiction is nothing but garbage and those who say that genre fiction is legitimate literature. I haven't read all your works, but I've read most of them and I'm thinking, Final Solution with Sherlock Holmes. Kavalier ? Clay -- although it's a mainstream, real world novel, seems completely immersed in the world of comic book heroes. Summerland is a sort of fairy tale fantasy. You've done some Lovecraft-related short fiction, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union is both an alternate history novel, sort of science fiction without science, and is also sort of a murder mystery. So there you are neck deep in genre work and yet you've had the good fortune to be accepted as a serious literary writer. How do you deal with this?
Well I think I was just lucky, in that I started out writing more mainstream stuff. Though if you look back at my first couple of books, which are almost entirely mainstream, naturalistic works of fiction, you can see elements of my interest in genre fiction. I suppose because I got off to a start in the mainstream, I think it was a lot easier to move toward genre and still be taken seriously.
It's crazy. It's not that way in movies. You can be taken utterly seriously as an auteur, so-called, and have made nothing but detective movies or westerns - you can be Hitchcock or John Ford -- and nobody ever holds the genre against the films. In literature that isn't the case. I think it is easier if you sort of start out with kind of mainstream credentials and then move into genre. It's much harder to go the other way. It's much harder once you've been labelled or pigeonholed. It can be done. Jonathan Lethem, okay, he was never writing straight-ahead science fiction like Larry Niven. It was never hard science fiction. But he was overtly sf, and at first he was read primarily by people who followed the genre. Little by little he has succeeded in broadening his readership, but he did it the hard way. I did it the easy way.
He got a huge break with that Newsweek review of Gun with Occasional Music. The reviewer thought this was the first time anyone had ever done this, and lots of people have done it. So, you don't let that bother you?
I just try to write things I would like to read. I don't read anything exclusively. I have very catholic tastes, lower case "c".
You know Fred Chappell, you know his work? (MC: yes, Dagon) He also has written murder mysteries with a detective called Aunt Shirley Holmes.
If writers were like violinists, I would trace my lineage to him, because he taught a teacher of mine -- he taught Eve Shelnutt -- a short story writer. He had a huge impact on her, and she taught me and had a great impact on me.
I owe Chappell a letter. He wrote a letter to me recently and said he remembered the day when the latest issues of Astounding Science Fiction or Startling Stories were new on the newsstands . . . and there he is.
He's a really good writer. I loved Dagon -- I've read it a couple of times.
Back to the movie world. Are you aware of the recent movie, Princess of Mars with Traci Lords?
I've seen the trailer for it.
What's your comment about it?
It's hilarious. It made me laugh. When I watched the trailer I burst out laughing. It was not purely scornful laughter -- there's a certain element of delight in something that goes "over the top." It just looks like a hoot.
Well if it comes on the dish I'll look at it. But Avatar on the screens today is a different story. Multi millions and it may be the biggest thing ever. In a number of interviews James Cameron says he was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs -- five or six references to Burroughs and a couple of references to Haggard. The question then is, what is this going to do, especially the 3-D aspect of it, what is it going to do to the Disney production?
As far as I can tell it is very good for John Carter that Avatar has done so well. It legitimizes and helps solidify the idea that a movie like that with interplanetary romance can be a big commercial success if it's done intelligently. As for 3-D, I have no idea. I don't know if John Carter of Mars is going to be shot in 3-D or not. It very well might be.
Have you seen Avatar?
I liked it. I really liked it. It's fun. It's well made, it's creatively well-thought through, it's so rich in detail. The alien creatures, the evolutionary process on that world is clearly worked out.
There's one total throw-away moment when you see the effort taken. They're stealing a ship at one point -- a military craft. As they're getting ready to power up the engines, a character climbs up on the back and lifts these fabric covers off the intake ducts. The manual labour involved in getting this thing ready... it just shows me that the dream is being dreamed very vividly. There's a checklist of things that are being done by every character about to take off on this vehicle. I really admire that level of care -- it's very carefully thought through.
Avatar is truly right in the line of Burroughs and Haggard, in that it's a story of adventure but it also a story about the contact between a doomed, traditional, but in many ways incredibly rich and advanced civilization, and an adventuring, imperialistic -- as far as we can see in the movie -- predominately white empire. It is a very old template, in many ways, that has been with us at least since the adventure fiction of the 1870s and 1880s.
You've surely read War of the Worlds (MC: Yeah) People who think that's about Mars invading earth are reading or seeing it only on the thinnest surface -- which is there, but it's really about the British Empire, most specifically India.
Adventure fiction as we most commonly understand it is about imperialism in one degree or another. All the great archetypes, the prototypes from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and John Carter, H. R. Haggard, and all the way up to, even the western novel, The Virginian, all the way through to James Bond -- they're all about empire -- the interaction between empires and colonies as they are colonized. So Avatar fits right into that pattern. I wasn't surprised to hear that at all.
But I don't know anything about the 3-D aspect of it. The one thing that I note on the Web -- there seems to be a lot of confusion about something that would be nice to lay to rest. People don't seem to know if the film is going to be animated, and if it is being made by Pixar or Disney. So: it is being made by Disney, and it is a live-action film -- it is not an animated film made by Pixar. Andrew Stanton is a director who is best known for his work at Pixar, and he has never made a live-action movie before. But this is a live-action movie.
How will they do something like the Tharks?
I believe it will be the same kind of effects wizardry that they used in Avatar, to create Gollum in Lord of the Rings, etc. They will use the full panoply -- a combination of CGI, models, puppetry, and whatever new techniques are available. But it is live action. The lead, John Carter, is going to be played by Taylor Kitsch.
I was just about to ask you that. IMDB gives the full cast and the works and they start shooting January 10th. The release is scheduled for 2012.
My final question -- I know you're an incredibly busy person. With the huge success of Avatar, you know Avatar is the elephant in the room -- do you feel that this is a cycle on the order of Jane Austen movies? Everybody loves them, but now it's time for something else. Do you feel that this is going to be some cycle which comes and goes and then it's over, or do you think it's going to be long term.
I don't know. There's so much great material out there that's never been filmed. . . both classic and new. There's Iain M. Banks. Somebody told me there's a plan in the works to film one of his novels. There's so much great stuff that's never been done. What about a movie of Ringworld, for example? How awesome that would be? I don't know. . . with Jane Austen, she only wrote what. . . six novels and so then you're done, right? They made all of them and then they sort of remade them a little bit again and that's it -- we're out of material.
But when you see Avatar -- if you're a science fiction lover, and you watch Avatar, part of what you're doing all the time is thinking about all the other cool things that could be done now. I love Clifford Simak's City, which like Avatar also employs the idea of people being altered to suit the environment of another planet and then deciding they actually prefer to be altered. As I recall, in that book humans go out Jupiter, and people are disappearing. They’ve altered people's bodies, to help them survive on the surface of Jupiter, and they don't come back. They think they're being killed but then they realize after that they prefer to be Jovians. (Oh, also there are talking dogs.)
Have you read Jack Vance -- The Dragon Masters?
Sure. I’ve thought of making that a movie many times! And now they can do it.
Well I think this gets back to John Carter of Mars. There's been attempts to make this, not just years but for decades -- and they always stumbled and fell very early in the process. I don't think anybody ever got much beyond a five minute test.
Right, except Bob Clampett. That was the most famous. It seems like Ray Harryhausen could have done it. It probably would have ended up being a little chintzy-looking but it still would have been great seeing that.
Kerwin Matthews as John Carter, but again with CGI and the special effects available in the 21st century.
MC: Dragon Masters is something that's been in the back of my mind a long time. It would be a terrific movie, and it’s short, so there wouldn't have to be much weeding out. In fact, you might have to add in a little bit.
I can still see the Jack Gaughan Galaxy cover painting of that.
Anyway . . . I'm so happy we've done this.
This Michael Chabon interview was transcribed from Richard Lupoff’s interview recordings
by Bill Hillman ~ January 2010
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