Michael Chabon appeared at the Dallas Museum of Art on October 2, 2017 to discuss his latest novel, Moonglow, and answer a few audience questions. His interviewer was Kevin Moriarity, Artistic Director of the Dallas Theater Center. From a stack of about thirty, fan-scribbled index cards, Chabon picked four. I was pleasantly shocked that one of them was mine: “What was the best part of working on JOHN CARTER?”
This was a literary audience. Pulitzer-Prize-winner Chabon was in Dallas as part of the Museum’s annual “Arts & Letters Live” series. I had written “JOHN CARTER” in big letters on my index card but assumed he would gravitate to questions about his books. But what did I have to lose?
When he read my question aloud, he had a powerful and visceral reaction – as did I. Realizing what was happening, I fumbled for my phone and began recording almost immediately.
Chabon had thrown his head back and exclaimed in evident pleasure. Now he turned to the audience.
Michael Chabon: Who here tonight has seen JOHN CARTER? Okay, a few. Bless you! So, to your question, “What was the best part of working on JOHN CARTER?” Everything!
Edgar Rice Burroughs was the first author I had a crush on. I came across this old manila folder with some of my old writings, stuff I had written when I was twelve years old. On the outside, in magic marker, I had written “Mike ‘Burroughs’ Chabon.”
He wrote the Tarzan and John Carter books. John Carter is a Virginia native who has been very magically transported to Mars. He wrote as many books about John Carter as he wrote about Tarzan [well, not quite], and in their day they were extremely successful and popular. They were very influential and the first, great, classic works of fantasy, adventure, science fiction. They were very influential on everything that came after, and they meant a lot to me. They got reprinted in the ’70s when I was a kid with stunning covers that made them very desirable and appetizing [elsewhere he has specified the Gino D’Achille covers], and I really loved those books.
I wrote a screenplay, an original screenplay, that was called “The Martian Agent.” I sold it in Hollywood to 20th Century Fox, and that was my version of John Carter. It’s set on Mars. It’s about the British Empire, having conquered Earth, embarking on the conquest of Mars in the 1880s with H.-G.-Wellsian kind of technology. It was steampunk before that term was being tossed around much. It got developed up to a point that it needed special-effects work. I thought it would happen, and it didn’t happen. The director [Jan de Bont] fell out of favor at Fox because he made this movie called “Speed 2.” He had had a huge success with “Speed” and then “Twister,” and then he made “Speed 2.” I don’t know how many of you saw that movie, but it was about this exciting, high-speed chase involving a cruise ship, which didn’t really go all that fast. Anyway, that all fell apart.
Then many years later, ten years later, a guy who had been one of the special-effects guys and production designer working on my project is now at Pixar. I ran into him at a party, and he said, “Hey, did you know that Andrew Stanton (the director of ‘Finding Nemo’ at that point) has got the rights for the John Carter books and is working on a live-action ‘John Carter of Mars’?” I said, “Oh my gosh, that’s so cool. I’m so glad someone like that is doing it.” Then the next day Andrew Stanton called me. It’s like Woody Allen says, “Ninety percent of success in life is showing up.” I don’t like parties, and especially this was a holiday party. I almost didn’t go, and if I hadn’t gone I wouldn’t have reconnected with this guy who put me in touch with Andrew Stanton who invited me to come on the project….
To answer this question, “what was the best part of working on JOHN CARTER” was the whole thing. These books were so crucial to me, and Andrew Stanton loved them. I had so much fun. We ended up closely collaborating on what became the script. I got to go to London when they were making it and visit the set.
Everything was great about it, right up until about three months before the movie came out. All of a sudden people just started whispering that it was going to be this colossal flop, that it was really bad, even though nobody had seen it yet. It just seemed like people were kind of gunning for it and maybe for Andrew Stanton because he was getting uppity: he was an animation director and now he was trying to do live action. I started to worry that maybe it wasn’t going to go so well when the studio decided to change the title from “John Carter of Mars” to just “John Carter,” which might be the least exciting movie title I’ve ever heard. Sounds like it’s a movie about an actuarial, right? And this was their reasoning. I love this. The marketing people said, “We’ve looked into it, done the research, and the last eleven movies that had the word ‘Mars’ in the title all flopped.” That was their reason, so “We’re just taking ‘Mars’ out. This is ‘John Carter.’”
For various reasons, the predictions were borne out. It’s now become a legendary flop. It’s right up there with, like, “Ishtar” and “Heaven’s Gate.”
Kevin Moriarity: It will be part of the history books.
Michael Chabon: Yes, exactly. It was so hard to do something that I thought was…I think it’s a good movie. I’d give it a solid B, B+ for the kind of movie that it is. It didn’t deserve the opprobrium it got when it came out. Then, of course, two years ago the movie “The Martian” comes out and was a huge blockbuster, and the whole logic of changing title is….
Kevin Moriarity: Now you can put “Mars” back in the movie title.
Michael Chabon: Yeah, I’m going to only do movies called “Mars.”
Additional Michael Chabon Interviews and Reports re: JOHN CARTER
How did Wonder Boys’ novelist kill time in Texas? He dropped by Conan the Barbarian creator’s home (October 3, 2017): https://www.dallasnews.com/arts/books/2017/10/03/novelist-michael-chabon-drove-5-hours-honor-texas-legend
Michael Chabon’s 17-Year Quest To Write a Mars Adventure Movie (March 29, 2012)
Michael Chabon: The Complete Unedited Interview (March 29, 2012)
Michael Chabon Attacks Prejudice Against Science Fiction (March 7, 2012): https://www.wired.com/2012/03/michael-chabon-geeks-guide-galaxy/
The Michael Chabon Interview Conducted by Richard Lupoff (January, 2010), Transcribed by Bill Hillman: http://www.erbzine.com/mag30/3047.html
NOTE: This following two stories on Andrew Stanton are enlightening with respect to changes the creative team behind JOHN CARTER made to the source material, as well as some of the filmmakers’ other challenges and decisions.
Harry [Knowles] interviews Andrew Stanton about JOHN CARTER, GODS OF MARS & WARLORD OF MARS (February 14, 2012): http://www.aintitcool.com/node/53561
Second-Act Twist: Andrew Stanton, the director of “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E,” faces the complications of live action (October 17, 2011): http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/10/17/second-act-twist
THIS POST ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE PRINT PUBLICATION “ERB-APA” #135