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Re: Total Remake

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Tim Wilson
Re: Total Remake
on Apr 4, 2012 at 11:10:18 pm

[Mike Cohen] "How is it that millions of dollars can get spent to make a piece of junk? ....sometimes money is the problem. To save a few million dollars perhaps a producer hires a second rate effects artist or an inexperienced director - it only takes one or two jagged edges for a puzzle to fall apart."

This is one of my very, very favorite topics. The short version is: for the most part, nobody sets out to make junk. It just happens some times. Movies are souffles. Maybe one drop too much water, maybe a teaspoon just a little too rounded or an egg not quite room temperature, maybe the oven just one degree off.

Frankly, knowing what it takes to get one made, it's amazing that there's ever been even ONE good movie. Except the fact is that most movies have scores of movie-lovers working on them, which is why it's still remarkable that some of them fail.

My experience is that audiences are actually a lot more cynical than moviemakers. Even the studio lawyers I've met have been more in the "Let's put on a show!" vein than many of us.

You and I might disagree about John Carter, and while the story isn't over, it's hard to avoid the potential that it may become a textbook example of a big-budget bomb. But what would that textbook actually teach us? Let's back up and see if we can see where it went off the rails.

People have been trying to make John Carter movies for generations, starting in 1931. The director (Bob Clampett) begged the studio to let him give it a try. That attempt got as far as test footage, which didn't fly in test screenings around the country -- but John Carter actually predates Tarzan, and since 1980, a number of wildly diverse and incompatible regimes at Disney have been trying to pull it off.

Among the lovers of comic books and epic movies based on them, Robert Rodriguez was attached to a John Carter movie called A Princess of Mars. (This is actually the name of Clampett's attempted movie, and, indeed, that particular Edgar Rice Burroughs story is the source material for the 2012 version we have as well.) When he left the DGA over their refusal to let him share director billing with Frank Miller on Sin City (oversimplified, but you get the gist - a director who loves comics), Paramount asked Guillermo del Toro (Hell Boy) to step in. The project takes a couple of bounces, and Jon Favreau was attached in 2005, steps out...and does Iron Man. He still loves John Carter, though, and asks for, and gets, a cameo in the version we have today.

This time, you get Andrew Stanton, one of Disney/Pixar's hottest directors. This worked out great for Brad Bird, who ripped the cover off the ball in his live-action debut, Mission Impossible 4. In fact, as a class, nobody is better prepared to direct a big-budget live action blockbuster than a big-time animation director. Massive crews, a million moving pieces, deadlines that have to be synced in every possible direction, coordination with an astonishing number of studio departments -- the skill sets for these kinds of projects are really well-matched.

Stanton also wrote the story for John Carter -- and had track record there, having written the story for all 3 Toy Story movies, A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and WALL-E. Has any writer had a better run in our time?

Then for the actual screenplay, team him with one of the best 3 or 4 novelists working today, Michael Chabon, who -- how perfect is THIS? -- has a flair for the epic fantasy as demonstrated in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which I predict will be remembered as the first great novel of the 21st century.

For the DP, get a guy whose long suit is highly stylized big budget action, fresh off Star Trek and MI III with JJ Abrams (and currently working on the Star Trek sequel), plus action pix as diverse as Domino and Enemy of the State.

The editor needs to know his way around really tricky source material, so how about a guy who edited not one but TWO Charlie Kaufman-penned features, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, among others including Where The Wild Things Are, and hey, if you can cut long-form videos and docs for Iron Maiden, Bjork, Tesla and Ice Cube, you have a sense of style that goes far, far outside the ordinary.

These are not the kind of people who get hired by morons trying to make a quick buck. Somebody put some thought into hiring grown-ups with a track record of doing special work. But I think that even John Carter fans will admit that this won't be remembered with the same fondness as some other projects by these outstanding artists, or by a studio that has been willing to take a lot of risks for a very long time. (Hey, Sleeping Beauty was no sure thing.)

Let's tally so far: Budget, check. Commitment from every corner of the studio, check. Grown-ups with track records, check. Some of the best effects houses in the business, including Cinesite, The Moving Picture Company, Double Negative...

At random in the credits in IMDb, I clicked on "First Assistant Cameraman" and found credits for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, X-Men: First Class, Alice In Wonderland, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Band of Brothers. Impeccable. For the FA camera!!! While the star wasn't exactly a star, he had done good work for years that people had really liked on Friday Night Lights - but a working pro, not some pretty face they found in the mall.

In other words, they didn't do ANYTHING wrong. No corners of budget, talent or marketing were cut. It just didn't exactly work, and it didn't exactly resonate.

Lessons? The only one I can think of is to avoid civil war-era sci-fi/fantasy. Wild Wild West movie, Cowboys & Aliens, John Carter...This doesn't bode very well for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but once again, grown-up movie lovers on board, starting with DP Caleb Deschanel.

So really, not that much of a lesson. The next civil war sci-fi movie might be just the one to do the trick. Which means that the textbook teaches us nothing except --- well, sometimes bad movies happen to good people.

We can all think of a bunch of franchises that got off to a wobbly start but came to redeem themselves -- Star Trek is the first that comes to mind -- and I'd like to see this one get another turn of the crank too. But I think that the best possible John Carter movie would be fortunate to have talent like this on board.

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