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The (Annotated) 2002 John Arcudi Interview – Part Seventeen

Annotated commentary by Stout is in italics.

This is a section that was cut from the magazine interview and posted on The Comic Journal‘s website.

Scene from The Gods of Mars by Stout featuring John Carter, the Thark Tars Tarkas, great white apes and plantmen.

In 1990 Stout was hired to work on the (potentially) disastrous A Princess of Mars movie, an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel. The director was John McTiernan (Die Hard, The Hunt For Red October, The Thomas Crown Affair). Luckily, the movie was never made.

ARCUDI: There were a bunch of films you worked on that didn’t pan out; I remember one in particular: A Princess of Mars.

Dejah Thoris, Tars Tarkas and Woola the calot by Stout.

STOUT: I’m almost happy that one didn’t pan out. That was the right project in the wrong hands at the wrong time. I was first approached to work on A Princess of Mars in early 1990. I was called by Hollywood Pictures, a subsidiary arm of Disney, to show my work and be interviewed.As with most job interviews for the film business, they never really tell you for what job you’re being interviewed. It’s always been a mystery to me. I don’t know why they just don’t come out and say, “We’re considering you for production designer or creature designer.” But they don’t.

That was probably the single worst interview I’ve ever had in my life.

I met with two young producers, a man and a woman. After talking to them for five minutes I could tell that these clueless individuals had never produced anything in their lives. Plus, they were idiots. They began by asking me if I was familiar with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian John Carter novels.

“Yes; very much so. I’ve read each one three times; I am now reading them to my young sons.”

“So, you’re familiar with the creatures in the books…”

“Yes! The tharks, zitidars thoats and calots…I’ve drawn them all many, many times.”

“Well, we want to see something different.”

At that point I thought, “Oh, my God. Right off the bat they’re already tampering with what may be the very thing that has kept these books alive for the past one hundred years.” Talk about throwing the baby out with the bath water! But I didn’t say anything. Our conversation from that point on went downhill fast, especially when we got to discussing contractual matters. They had real issues with my artist’s rights and concerns; getting my original art back and things like that.

“Of course Disney will retain ownership of all the original art that you produce.”

“I’m sorry; it’s my corporation’s policy that I keep all of my originals. You don’t need the originals to make your film; you can use copies of my art to make the movie.”

“Disney always keeps the original art.”

“My corporation always keeps the original art. It’s my 401K.”

It quickly turned nasty.

“Well, we’ve talked to some famous artists for whom our keeping their originals is not a problem.”

“They may be famous and excellent artists — but they’re lousy businessmen.”

A Burroughs artist never considered for the film: Reed Crandall (Collection of William Stout)

Anyway, I didn’t get hired. It was very clear about fifteen minutes into the interview that there was no way on earth that they would hire me to work on this film. So, I forgot about it. I was kind of relieved; I felt in their hands it couldn’t be anything less than a total disaster.

While on Conan the Barbarian, I learned that our line producer, Buzz Feitshans, owned the movie rights to several non-Tarzan Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. I let him know what a huge fan I was of ERB’s works. The novels I would like to film the most are his two novels featuring The Mucker.

A few months later I got a call from Buzz Feitshans.

“Bill, how would you like to work on a John Carter of Mars movie?”

“I’d love to…who’s it with?”

“Disney figured out they couldn’t make the film. So, it’s a joint production between Disney and Cinergi Productions. Cinergi will do the work; Disney will handle distribution.”

I knew that Cinergi was Andy Vajna‘s (1944-2019) new production company. Andy had produced First Blood, which I had storyboarded. I liked Andy.

“I interviewed with Disney for this film. We hit an impasse in regards to my keeping my original art. Do we have a similar issue?”

“No…I have no problem with you keeping your art. We don’t need your originals to make the movie.”

“Great! Let’s do it!”

So, I began working on A Princess of Mars. We were working out of Sylvester Stallone‘s Santa Monica art studio. To my amazement I found a room that contained over half a dozen huge bronzes by Antoine Louis Barye, the greatest animal sculptor who ever lived. Barye launched the Les Animaliers art movement in 1840 when he became the first European artist to acknowledge that wild animals were an appropriate subject for Fine Art. Prior to Barye, the only animals in Western art were animals in situations that related to man, either hunting scenes or domesticated animals. Barye changed all that.

As stated, the director was John McTiernan. We had briefly worked together on Predator when he asked me to design the creature. I greatly admired his film Die Hard. John seemed to be obsessed with an architectural computer program. Every time I visited his office he would show me a house he had designed.

I was given an enormous stack of John Carter art that had been previously produced by Ron Cobb, the Jim Henson studio and Ralph McQuarrie. I was told to select what I felt was appropriate and then toss the rest. I covered a wall of my office with some pretty wonderful art (especially Cobb’s pieces). But I’d say about 90% of what had been produced was unusable for our film’s needs.

Ron Cobb Thark (Collection of William Stout)
Cobb Thark with head gear (Collection of William Stout)
Cobb Thark Jeddak (Collection of William Stout)

Filming a John Carter movie with all its fantastic creatures was going to be extremely difficult. CGI had only just begun. It was an extremely slow process. So, I was told to design creature suits for camels and elephants. The four-armed Tharks (key creatures in the story) would now just have two arms each.

I was getting depressed. After two days, I was ready to bail. I explained the issues I was having to my friend and fellow Burroughs collector Robert Barrett. He focused me. I asked him if he thought I should quit.

“If you leave, then who on the film will be in Burroughs’ corner?”

What Bob said made sense; I stayed on.

John Carter confronts a Great White Ape lacking the second pair of its arms.

I began to focus on Barsoom (the Martians’ term for their planet) and what I thought it should look like. I gave each part of Barsoom it’s own distinctive architectural look. I saw parallels between Helium (the city of Dejah Thoris, the princess and love of John Carter’s life) and Beirut.

I began thinking about and designing the city of Helium. I based the architecture of the city on some of the designs by Austrian architect Otto Wagner (1841-1918).

Otto Wagner drawing.

This planet had been engulfed in war for so long that the city’s needs had changed. Most Martian men and women functioned as warriors. The core of Helium was protected but the closer you got to the outskirts of the city, the more ruins there were from the war. Like Beruit, there were not enough civilians to maintain the outskirts of Helium, which was under regular attack.

Some Stout Thark head designs: “I am not happy with these designs; they’re too compromised,” said Stout.

I began to re-examine the Barsoomian cultures. I thought about the Tharks and their nomadic culture. I researched what nomadic cultures had in common. They tend to carry all of their wealth with them. They don’t use banks or have a permanent place like a home where they leave everything. Nomadic cultures tend to wear a lot of their personal wealth and decorate themselves. Those observations gave me good design directions. I had the Tharks, who have these big tusks, I had their tusks covered with scrimshaw-like, Maori-like carvings. I thought it was cool because it took the notion of what had been done visually in the past with Burroughs creatures to the next level, a deeper level. It went beyond what Burroughs had described without really violating what ERB had described — just adding to the richness of it.

ARCUDI: Right. Essentially fleshing it out for more “sophisticated” audiences, but also for the sake of yourself, for keeping your enthusiasm.

STOUT: But also, making it real for us and the actors. The more detail you can layer into things like that, the easier it is for the actors to have something to chew on and be inspired.

ARCUDI: How was the script?

STOUT: There were several John Carter scripts. I read all of them. I hated the one that made John Carter a gum-chewing goofball from Brooklyn. Had the writer even read the books? This was not John Carter’s character.

Okay; I understand why the writer did that. It’s really easy to do. It’s much easier to write humor if you’re writing jokes. It’s much harder to do what Burroughs did; he had humor all through the story in the form of reflective irony. Irony is much harder to write than wisecracks. It’s more subtle. But, hey — that’s why you’re paid the Big Bucks, writer guy.

The best John Carter script I read was one of the scripts planned to be directed by Kerry Conran. Kerry’s A Princess of Mars will be discussed in an upcoming Journal entry.

So, I’m happily humming away on this and from the other room (his office was right next to mine) I hear McTiernan say, “Virginia! Does he have to be from Virginia? How about if he’s from Alaska? That’s a much more butch state…and, we wouldn’t have to deal with those touchy race issues.”

I put down my pencil and walked into John’s office.

“John, there are really great reasons why John Carter needs to be from Virginia. During the Civil War, John Carter was a captain in the Confederacy. He was on the losing side. As the greatest warrior on earth, this was too much for him to take. To escape the turmoil within him he went west, away from all of the Civil War elements in his life. He didn’t own slaves; he was a warrior his entire life. He leaves Virginia for Arizona, where his plan is to be alone and mine for gold. Soon, he’s engulfed in another warrior situation; he gets caught up in the Indian Wars. Then, he ends up on Mars, in the middle of a world civil war. He’s back to Square One — but now he’s in a world he was born for. He learns that he can’t run away from himself; he comes to the realization that he is the greatest warrior of two worlds — there’s no escaping it. That is who he is; that is his ultimate destiny. If you make him come from Alaska, you lose all that.”

John came to me one morning. He was extremely excited.

“I just saw Jurassic Park. We can do all the creatures using CGI!”

“John,” I responded, “how much CGI do you think is in Jurassic Park?”

“Tons! It was all over the place!”

“John, there were twelve minutes of CG animation in Jurassic Park. The rest was Stan Winston‘s puppets and robotics. That twelve minutes of CG animation you saw took them two years to produce.”

John’s face fell.

“John,” I continued, “If we’re lucky, we could spend six years creating the CG for this film — but, honestly, I think it will be more like eight to ten years if we do it right. That’s how long it takes to do this kind of stuff right now.” We still had the enormous problem of creating believable Barsoomian creatures.

A budget was done for the film; my friend Buzz’s face was ashen. If we had made the film as written and budgeted, it would have been the most expensive film in movie history.

Not too long after that, the project fell apart.

More Mars and ERB to come….

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