Interview: Author Michael D. Sellers on John Carter, Tarzan and the Gods of Hollywood
One would like to believe that the hero always wins and that good always triumphs over evil and the righteous will always prevail. Unfortunately that’s not always the way it works in the real world and “good” often requires a great marketing plan in order to succeed. Case in point is last year’s cinematic whipping boy, John Carter.
Michael D. Sellers is a former CIA officer, a filmmaker, author and an Edgar Rice Burroughs über fan. He’s the brains behind thejohncarterfiles.com fan site and the awesome John Carter fan trailer that swept the web before the film’s release, making Disney’s own marketing team look like it was run by preschoolers instead of professionals.
Early on Mr. Sellers saw the tragic missteps that Disney was making with the marketing of the 100 year old John Carter of Mars story that inspired countless fantasy fans, artists, scientists, professionals and even presidents; and he decided to not only document the train wreck as it unfolded, but to also do his utmost to keep that train on the tracks.
Sellers’ book, John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood, tells the sordid story of John Carter’s ill-fated journey to the big screen and explains in detail how a great and long-awaited film about a much-beloved character came to be considered one of the biggest “flops” in cinematic history. Not because of the movie itself, but because of the perfect storm of inept forces behind the scenes that drove it off a cliff.
John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood is an excellent and highly recommended read for anyone who loves John Carter or is interested in how movies are marketed and how that marketing can make or break a film. Sellers’ story of John Carter’s long fought battle to the big screen is every bit as exciting as one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ adventure novels.
From working as a CIA Officer in Russia during the height of the Cold War to thwarting counterinsurgency coup attempts in the Philippines, Mr. Sellers himself has had a uniquely interesting life worthy of a big screen adventure film. He is currently a busy filmmaker and author living in California and he was kind enough to talk with NERDVANA about his book and his thoughts on the future of the Edgar Rice Burroughs franchises of John Carter and Tarzan.
You are obviously very passionate and knowledgeable about John Carter of Mars. What is it about the ERB [Edgar Rice Burroughs] character and his stories that appeals to you?
So many of us (ERBophiles, that is) have the same story. We discovered the books just as we were entering out teen years, devoured them throughout out teens, and periodically go back to them as adults. There is something utterly enchanting about them, even now. I’ve thought a lot about what the essential attractiveness is, and have polled a lot of the others out there who feel the same way — and it’s interesting, because while we can all talk about the obvious things like the creation of engaging, exciting worlds, particularly Barsoom, and exciting adventures — this fails to get to the real core of what makes it so special. Gore Vidal wrote about it in 1967, and he talked about how Burroughs, more than anyone else, tapped into our “dream-self” — a better version of our self, who could control his environment better than we can, overcome obstacles, vanquish enemies, win the love of the most beautiful woman on two worlds. Burroughs taps into something that’s very deep, very primal, and he does it better than anyone else I’ve ever read.
As you cite in your book, the John Carter of Mars stories have been “strip-mined” for material by countless authors and filmmakers over the past century and yet John Carter’s popularity has waned in recent years. Why do you think that is? Is it lack of recognition or consumer apathy?
Well, the strip miners didn’t exactly footnote what they did, so the average filmgoer doesn’t know that Star Wars was inspired to a very great extent by Burroughs, or Avatar. James Cameron did admit in about five interviews that when he made Avatar, he was trying to make “a John Carter of Mars type of story”. . . but that kind of thing doesn’t get out beyond the two percent of people who read about what went into the making of a movie. The general public had no idea — still has no idea — that Avatar is an homage to Burroughs.
I think any hundred year old book series is going to face a gradual diminishing of interest unless someone does something dramatic to renew the interest. Disney’s John Carter was that one big opportunity, and it didn’t turn out as well as we all would have hoped — but it has certainly spawned a new generation who is newly aware of Burroughs and is reading the books. At least there’s that.
I’ve always felt that The Hunger Games movie and its gargantuan marketing campaign helped lead to John Carter’s demise at the box office by completely overshadowing the Disney film. How did Lionsgate get it so right while Disney got it so wrong?
Lionsgate did everything right and Disney did everything wrong. There’s a chapter in the book — “A Tale of Two Trajectories — John Carter and Hunger Games” — that breaks it down pretty thoroughly. Hunger Games started earlier, that covered all the social media and digital bases, and most importantly — they seemed to have some concept of what’s cool and what’s not. What they did on Facebook, Twitter, and throughout the digital realm was pitch perfect. With John Carter, Disney first of all didn’t put in the effort — they were late getting their Facebook campaign going, late getting their Twitter feed happening, and when they did finally get it up, it was so far from being “pitch perfect” as to be tone deaf. It just didn’t seem cool. It felt like your mom telling you to do something, rather than cool people inviting you to share something exciting.
There is plenty of blame to be cast on Disney Studios for botching the John Carter marketing, but beyond the movie, why do you think that the public is not more aware of John Carter’s rich history? Maybe a decent Edgar Rice Burroughs bio-film is in order?
A bio-film of ERB would be fantastic and there’s a great story there. He had an incredibly adventurous early life — gold mining in Idaho, chasing Apaches in Arizona — and then he moved back to Chicago, fell on hard times, really couldn’t provide for his family and was seriously down and out at 35 when he wrote A Princes of Mars and finally things began to fall into place for him. First Princess, then later that same year Tarzan — and he was suddenly the king of the pulps. But even then he couldn’t get publishers to take on either A Princess of Mars or Tarzan as books . . . they just wouldn’t consider something like that for book publication. He finally got a small Chicago publisher to publish Tarzan and the rest is history … but even then he never really got the recognition he deserved. When he died in 1950, he was the bestselling author on the planet – his books were in 58 languages and he had sold more than Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald combined — yet he was considered sort of a second class citizen in the literary world. Great stuff for a movie. Let’s go make it!
As a filmmaker yourself, what are your thoughts on the John Carter movie, just as entertainment and an adaptation of the book(s)? What would you have done differently?
I have a ton of respect for what Andrew Stanton did, but yes — of course if somebody had tossed $250M my way and asked me to make it, I would have done some things differently. The biggest thing is probably the character of John Carter. Stanton decided to re-imagine him as a damaged goods modern hero in need of redemption. I would have stayed closer to Burroughs original concept — which has him being more knight-like, even Arthurian — but with a certain poignancy because he never fit in on earth due to his strangely unexplainable failure to age, which meant (if you think about it) that people would grow old around him and die while he stayed young — not immortal, just ageless. I think setting that up, then sending him to Mars where the average lifespan is 1000 years and where he felt spiritually in alignment — offered something really great that Burroughs figured out, and was lost in the movie. But I still like the movie.
Veronica Mars had three things that differentiate it from the John Carter situation. First, the cast was spearheading the effort and second, they got the studio on board so there was a goal, $2M, after which the studio said they’d make a sequel. And finally the scale was hugely different — $2M is one thing, $250M is something else. But I do think that there’s something there, I’m just not sure exactly how it will end up forming itself. Disney has pretty much shut the door on John Carter by not only being silent on a sequel, but by stigmatizing it horribly with the $200M writedown announcement, etc. And Bob Iger has made comments to the effect that he knew it wasn’t going to work and it was a bad decision. So it will be hard for Disney under Iger to bring JC back. But we can hope. And work for it.
If there was a John Carter sequel, what direction do you think it should take? A full reboot and recast with a clean slate, or pick up where the first one left off in the book chronology?
Right now the call is for a sequel. At some point – a reboot. If it’s a reboot, I think all bets are off, you don’t have to start with the origins story. You can pick it up later on, and come back later for the origins story.
It took a hundred years to get the first John Carter film made. What do you think the likelihood is of ever seeing another John Carter film in our lifetime?
I just took one of those online tests that predict how long you’re going to live, and I got a good number — 102 — so I’m going to say yes, in our lifetimes. But not this year or next.
Warner Bros. has a new Tarzan film in the works and it was recently rumored that Jessica Chastain is being considered for the part of Jane Porter. As both you and Chastain have the CIA in common (you in your real-life and her in Zero Dark Thirty), what are your thoughts regarding this potential casting choice?
I have been a fan of Jessica Chastain for a long time — Jolene, The Help, Tree of Life — and she would be a great Jane. Given the kinds of roles she’s chosen, I think if word were to come out that she’s Jane, then that means somebody has written a killer screenplay with a great Jane role because she won’t take on anything that’s not challenging.
It sounds like the new Tarzan film plans to bypass the Ape-man’s origin story. Given today’s technology and ability to finally create a believable visual, it seems a shame not to include the origin. What are your thoughts on this? Is this a John Carter style marketing mistake?
I think it’s smart — they’re positioning Tarzan like Queen Victoria’s 007. If it works, they can go back later and do the origins story. And I do think Greystoke did the origins bit (the first thirty minutes of the movie) really well. I’m optimistic about Tarzan. My only concern at this point is that the antagonist is a diamond mine baddie … I would have hoped for some kind of hidden kingdom, but with David Yates at the helm, I bet the diamond mine will be pretty magical.
In order to be successful, what should the upcoming Tarzan production have learned from the John Carter fiasco?
Tarzan is very familiar to everyone so the challenge is to make it fresh. I think their choices so far seem to do a good job of that. By the way — isn’t it time to see a Tarzan who, like Burroughs’ Tarzan, was able to move seamlessly from London to Africa, speaking multiple languages, having the outer appearance of civilization but able to shed that when needed and become the savage Tarzan? I think that has never really adequately been done before, so it will be fresh. They just need to position it in such a way that people feel like they haven’t seen this before (unlike John Carter, where they did nothing to differentiate it from Star Wars and Avatar, leaving people with the feeling of, been there, done that) and they will respond.
So what can you do to keep the legacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his fantasy heroes Tarzan and John Carter alive? If you’re a fan, follow Mr. Sellers’ thejohncarterfiles.com where he does a great job keeping up-to-date with exciting articles, ERB news and fan efforts.
You can also follow Back to Barsoom on Facebook for fan updates and to be a part of the online John Carter community. But most importantly, tell your friends about all the wonderful fantasy adventures that await them when they pick up an ERB novel or watch the John Carter film.
If you’re not a fan yet, what are you waiting for? You can read the Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian novels for FREE online at erbzine.com, and you’ll be glad you did – guaranteed!