Taylor Kitsch on ‘John Carter’ Special Effects: Director put “performance before technicality”

taylor-kitsch-john-carterI caught a screening of John Carter the other night, and despite some hookey dialogue I really enjoyed it.  It’s the type of action/adventure movie that just isn’t done these days, and I hope the film does a lot better than last summer’s Conan the Barbarian — another pulpy action/adventure movie that was unfortunately ignored by audiences. 

But no matter how John Carter does at the box office, Taylor Kitsch, who stars as the titular hero, has definitely made a name for himself and sure seems like he had a lot of fun shooting the movie.  In particular, he opens up about the most enjoyable aspects of the production and what it was like acting a movie that involved so many digital effects.

Though much of the special effects-heavy sequences were shot in London, the scenes on the dusty surface of Mars were shot in Utah.  Kitsch preferred shooting in the outdoors, saying, “I loved it there. Maybe it was just being outside after being on the stages in London for so long, but it was the first time I really had the feeling that we were making an epic adventure movie. We did some Lake Powell scenes, and the sets were remarkable. That really felt like something special. I think audiences are going to love this movie.”

Though Kitsch enjoyed the Utah sequences, he understands that it would have been much easier to shoot the whole movie against a green screen — but he admits his performance would have suffered.  He explains, “We could have just as easily done this whole thing in eight months against green screen, but Andrew [Stanton, director] made an incredible effort to make my scenes as real for me as possible. For example, for the Thoats, [large beasts of burden] they built these huge four-wheel rigs, with a saddle on a gimble, so it feels like you are riding on a Thoat that has movement—you have the reins and you are driving it.  All those things have been created to help make it more real for the actor. It has been that from day one: performance before technicality.”

Though much of the film involves computer generated characters, Kitsch reveals that he was thankful that he wasn’t acting to empty spaces but to actual stand-ins.  For example, when Carter arrives on Mars he finds himself face to… well, waist with several Tharks, which are four-armed, nine-foot-tall green Martians!  Kitsch explains that having actors portray the digital characters on set was very helpful, pointing out, “You bring in an incredible group of actors to bring these characters alive.  There is one scene I have with Willem Dafoe [who plays Tars Tarkas, leader of the Tharks] and it is very intense.  I have to look at Tars and there is only one way you can shoot it.  With him there in front of me, on stilts, I could connect with him, his face and the character.  It helps so much with the energy.  What happens in that scene is a very important moment in the film; you are going to definitely feel it and be empathetic to these characters. There is no doubt.”

So it isn’t much of a surprise that Kitsch’s favorite scene involves another digital character, a giant, four-armed ape.  Kitsch recalls why he loves the scene, revealing, “The Great White Ape scene is probably something I will never forget—just the energy in the arena was really great.  When I went for the screen test, Stanton showed me the Great White Apes and I knew then that scene would be epic. If we have all done our jobs, I think it will be awesome. The stakes are incredibly high for that scene; it represents something huge to my character and for the overall arc of the film, and I loved that.”

The special effects in the movie are fantastic — some of the best since Lord of the Rings — so Pixar Kitsch isn’t kidding when he heaps so much praise on Pixar vet Stanton!

John Carter opens in theaters everywhere on March 9.

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