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Big Water, Utah • The wind kicks up the sand in the desert of Mars, and a few hundred Earthlings hunker down.
These Earthlings are an odd lot. A few wear skimpy warrior costumes that reveal acres of tanned skin, while most of the others are in T-shirts and cargo shorts. Many in the second group are wearing goggles and everybody else wishes they were.
Some people retreat to tents, designed to protect not them but the intricate electrical equipment that's recording a Martian adventure written a century ago.
These Earthlings are making a movie, the Disney-produced blockbuster "John Carter" (opening nationwide on Friday, March 9), and the sandstorms are part of the price of filming on location in the place producers say most resembled the Mars of their imaginations: Utah.
"We cursed [the sandstorms] on the day, then I blessed them once I saw the rushes," said director Andrew Stanton last week, nearly two years after filming "John Carter" in Utah in May and June 2010. "They made it more real. That was part of the beauty of it."
Finding Mars in Utah • That reality is what Stanton and his producers sought in locations for "John Carter," a sweeping epic based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' pulp novels about a Civil War veteran mysteriously whisked to Mars. On the red planet, he's drawn into a struggle between two humanoid tribes: the peaceable Heliumites and their 9-foot green allies the Tharks; and the invading Zodangans, goaded by the meddlesome shapeshifting Therns.
Location scouts looked all over Arizona and New Mexico, and even Argentina and Romania to find Martian settings. Then they hit upon Utah.
"Utah is so unique in the sense that it provides such different landscapes within a four-hour drive," said Lindsay Collins, one of the film's producers, at a media event last month near Phoenix. "I'm not sure we could have filmed it anywhere else without having to travel to 18 different places around the globe."
It was also a huge benefit for Utah's economy, as the production spent $19.7 million here, according to Marshall Moore, director of the Utah Film Commission. (The total production was budgeted at $175 million, and Stanton says he stayed on budget and on time; he disputes reports in the Hollywood trades that the production mushroomed to between $200 million and $300 million.)
The "John Carter" crew some 275 strong, according to Collins and Moore found Burroughs' Martian deserts around Big Water, northwest of Glen Canyon Dam and near Kanab. They turned the slot canyons of Lake Powell into the mystical River Iss. And for an Old West horse chase, before Carter goes to Mars, a landscape near Moab fit the bill.
Rediscovering red rocks • Stanton was familiar with Utah's history as a setting for science-fiction movies. While filming on Lake Powell, he spotted a rock formation that was the exact spot where Charlton Heston shot the opening scene of the 1968 classic "Planet of the Apes." "There was at least half a day spent geeking out over that," Collins said.
On the other hand, Collins said, Stanton's movie knowledge led to one Utah location being vetoed. The production considered shooting in Goblin Valley, but nixed the site because Stanton remembered scenes shot there for the 1999 sci-fi comedy "GalaxyQuest."
Another draw for filmmakers, according to producer Jim Morris, was the number of top-quality film-crew members. The only problem for the "John Carter" production was that some of the best ones were already employed, filming Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," the story of climber Aron Ralston's survival in a Utah slot canyon, on location and in a Salt Lake City soundstage.
"Those were two big movies in the state," Moore said, and "127 Hours" employed crew members for a longer stint than "John Carter" did. Still, plenty of Utah crew members found work on the "John Carter" set, he said, while others carried over from the London studio where the movie shot for four months before going on location.
Disney also chose Utah for "John Carter" because of the state's incentive program, which then offered a 20 percent tax credit to productions filming in the state. (The Utah Legislature has since raised the incentive to 25 percent for qualifying productions, such as the ABC Family movie "The Mistle-Tones" now filming in Salt Lake City and Disney's blockbuster production of "The Lone Ranger," starring Johnny Depp as Tonto, filming around the Southwest this spring and summer.)
The incentive program not only brings in crew jobs to Utah, but also "shows off the landscapes and gives us international, worldwide exposure," Moore said.
On the set • At Big Water, crews built extensive sets to match the naturally otherworldly landscapes. A large stone platform has seemingly risen from the ground, becoming a spaceship landing area where John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) first meets, and fights alongside, the Martian princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, no relation to the producer Lindsay Collins).
A dilapidated Thark encampment seems to have sprouted from a rocky canyon. Nearby, crews have built half of a massive arena, where Carter must battle a gigantic four-armed white ape while the other half is filled in by a huge green screen supported by a wall of container boxes, five high.
For the cast of "John Carter," shooting on location in Utah was a relief after four months in dreary London, where green screens filled in for the Martian vistas that special-effects wizards would create in post-production.
"No offense to the soundstages, but you get sick of 'em," Kitsch said. "Any time you can work in a live setting, it just brings so much more energy."
London, Lynn Collins said, "was most gray and intense. Then we went to Utah, and it was like everything opened up. Everyone changed, for the better, and it felt like the movie went into overdrive."
"Any of the scenes where I look like I'm boiling hot and about to pass out they were shot in Utah," said Dominic West, who plays Sab Than, leader of the villainous Zodangans. "A lot of the work's done for you if you're on location. … You look like you're on Mars. There's no acting required, really."
Finding the reality in a scene • Even for the actors whose faces don't appear on screen, being in Utah helped improve the performance.
On the set, Willem Dafoe who plays Tars Tarkas, leader of the tall, four-armed Tharks delivered his lines wearing a gray track suit with black-and-white reference marks for the computer-graphics experts who would later animate Tars' 9-foot-tall frame to the actor's movements. In some scenes, Dafoe would stand on stilts, while in others he would hold a foam-rubber Thark head mounted on a stick. (Lynn Collins said this would sometimes present an acting problem because she would be likely to look at Dafoe's face, which was at the level of Tars' torso, rather than the model Thark head.)
"I always prefer locations as opposed to a studio," Dafoe said outside his trailer at the Big Water location. Besides the practical aspects, like giving the other actors a point of reference, being there helps him "continue to find the reality in the scene."
"It was the biggest boost in the arm to be there," Stanton said. The cast and crew "weren't really aware how realistic and how vast this movie was really going to be until they got to Utah. Suddenly, they get off the plane, and there's a whole Western town in Kanab and we're shooting in it. It gave not only a second wind but a third wind, a fourth wind, to everybody. People were giddy."
For Stanton, shooting on location was vastly different from his directing work at Pixar Animation Studios, "Finding Nemo" and "Wall-E."
"On an animated film, it's not easy but it's bankers' hours. You're home on the weekends," Stanton said. With a live-action film, "you're up at 5 or 6 [in the morning], and in bed by 10 or 11 [at night], if you're lucky. … It's like doing everything that I had learned to do [at Pixar] over the last 20 years, but now doing it camping."
'Absolutely thrilling' • Even the sandstorms were inspirational. "I thought, 'This is what David Lean had to go through on "Lawrence of Arabia," this is what Spielberg had to go through on "Close Encounters." ' I would remind myself, 'You're getting a firsthand P.O.V. of what it was like for many of your heroes,' " Stanton said.
On one long shooting day, after the sandstorms shut down production for at least an hour, Stanton oversaw a night shoot on the Big Water desert that looked as epic as his vision for Burroughs' Mars.
With pipes spurting propane-fueled fires in the background to simulate a crashed Zodangan flying vessel, Kitsch's Carter and Lynn Collins' Dejah draw a solar-system diagram in the dirt to prove to Carter that he's not on Earth (or Jasoom, in Martian-speak) but on Barsoom, aka Mars.
Stanton, setting up a complicated crane shot, is tired but smiling. As the flames rise in the distance, and the Martian winds die down, he clearly knows he's as close as he's ever going to get to Barsoom.
"It's been as strenuous and as crazy and dirty and messy and exhausting as I thought it would be," Stanton said on the set, "but it's also been absolutely thrilling every day."
"John Carter's" Utah backstory
The new Disney-produced "John Carter," adapted from the pulp novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, opens in Utah and nationwide on Friday, March 9. For more about the making of the movie, see D1.