Shelf Life: The John Carter That Could Have Been

Thu, March 1st, 2012 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist

Ron Marz interviews Rafael Kayanan

You know that guy on the Dos Equis commercials, the Most Interesting Man in the World? He's kinda dull compared to Rafael Kayanan.

I've known Rafael for at least a decade. I've known his art for twice that long and probably more. In mainstream comics, Raf has drawn "Firestorm, "Turok," "Conan," "Star Wars," "Amazing Spider-Man" and plenty of others. Though he's lived most of his life in the U.S., Raf carries on a long tradition of amazing Filipino-born artists making their mark in American comics.

Despite being friends for years, Raf and I finally worked together for the first time on a story in last year's "Immortals" hardcover anthology from Archaia. I suggested Raf for my story, since I knew he'd also worked on the "Tarsem Singh" film as a designer, contributing to the look of a number of characters. Raf's concept design credits include "Immortals," the upcoming "Mirror, Mirror" and even the "Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark" musical on Broadway, for which he was part of the set design team.

You also might have seen the fruits of Raf's other career this past Tuesday, when a knife fight he choreographed appeared on the most recent "NCIS: Los Angeles" episode. Raf has been doing fight choreography for years, both for live events as well as television and film (including training Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro in "The Hunted" and Sam Rockwell in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"). Raf has been a Master Instructor in Sayoc Kali, an edged weapons combat system, specializing in tomahawk, tribal weapons and close-quarter knife, for almost three decades. He is, to put it succinctly, the real deal.

Can the Most Interesting Man in the World list comic artist, concept artist, fight choreographer and weapons instructor among his job titles? Didn't think so.

Raf and I share an affinity for Robert E. Howard creations like Conan and Solomon Kane and the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Especially Tarzan. And very especially John Carter of Mars. Raf did a gorgeous, full-color illustration of Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkas in my personal sketchbook. I rarely ask for anything specific in my sketchbook and just invite artists, "Draw whatever you want." But I made the Tars and Dejah request of Raf because he loves the characters and because he actually worked as a concept and storyboard artist for a previous, ultimately aborted film version of the John Carter saga.

With Andrew Stanton's Disney-released "John Carter" finally reaching theaters next week -- I'm anxious like you can't imagine -- I talked to Raf about his involvement in that previous venture.

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Ron Marz: You and I are in the same age group. So is "John Carter" director Andrew Stanton, for that matter. I don't think it's an accident we all discovered Burroughs at just the right age for it to be magic. How did you discover "John Carter"?

Rafael Kayanan: The Ballantine Frazetta illustrations, mixed with the Tarzan books I started reading when I was 12 years old. I read the whole set of Tarzan books that sported those Dr. Martin-dyed covers painted by Neal Adams. From there I was hooked and sought out other Edgar Rice Burroughs books. The Kubert Tarzan comics were also a great intro, especially the Treasury Sized books. Then Marvel came out with the Rudy Nebres-inked Gil Kane comic book series of "John Carter." I"d long lost track of my original copies of those comics when I started researching for the film. I picked up the whole run again, as well as the old Schoonover-illustrated novels.

One of Rafael Kayanan's concept designs for John Carter and Dejah Thoris

When did you first become involved in the previous "John Carter" production and how did it come about?

James Jacks ("Tombstone," "Raising Arizona," "The Mummy") was the producer of "The Hunted" film, where I was hired on as the knife technical advisor. Jim first asked me back on the set in the spring of 2001. He found out I drew for a living and that I wasn't just a knife guy when I boarded the fight scenes for "The Hunted." We talked a few times about a list of cool sci-fi or comic book-related subjects and "John Carter of Mars" was always on the top five. Then around early 2002, right about the time the first "Spider-Man" film from Sony was premiering, Paramount and Jim wanted to show Danton Burroughs and the ERB estate that they would be able to do the material justice. So I was given a whole half a week to come up with initial roughs for the sudden meeting. Luckily, I had a pretty good idea of the type of tone I wanted to convey but they were still not fully realized visual images.

I wanted to show within a single image that Paramount could deliver a film close to the way the favorite illustrators of that time depicted Barsoom, but I also put some offbeat details in there as far as armor and weaponry to make them think we had something to add that wasn't breaking away from that established common-form language.

It ended up that they liked what I did and Paramount got the options partly based on my art. I knew that if I was part of the ride, then I'd be able to really delve into what I started with the sketches and really evolve from there.

Obviously there's a long tradition of illustration with these stories from J. Allen St. John to John Coleman Burroughs through Frazetta and Michael Whelan. With so much having been visualized before was there a way to put your personal stamp on the work?

What I expressed at the first production meeting was that although younger, misinformed viewers will assume "Star Wars" or Frazetta came first … this was pre-"Avatar" … the film should be so original and fresh that those previous designs would look watered down; time travel, as if Schoonover or Frazetta were riffing off our source material. If we thought that way, we wouldn't be derivative but we'd free ourselves up to imagine bigger, more challenging concepts.

I'm not sure everyone else bought into that. There were many artists involved with various agendas. All of us wanted to make a great film but it doesn't mean we were coming from the same place.

What I got from Frazetta and St. John was movement, big gestures, shapes that were very solid. Frazetta's tharks had thick, prehistoric skulls on them, showing heavy bone density. It would shatter your fist to punch them. Frazetta was a baseball player, so he knew they would have thick forearms. I'd have gone with that too, since most sword fighters and MMA fighters I know have the same arm build; limbs that were used to generating impact. But my idea was also that the Tharks would move a certain way.

"What I got from Frazetta and St. John was movement, big gestures, shapes that were very solid. Frazetta's tharks had thick, prehistoric skulls on them, showing heavy bone density. It would shatter your fist to punch them."

Everything would be from a long-lost advanced civilization that"s been appropriated by the present inhabitants. So I was going to build ships in the sci-fi sense, and then break them down. I drew pulp-era spaceships, then started adding organic growth to them, trying to form artificial materials that had the same shapes. They started looking more like parasitic crustaceans growing around spaceships.

How did you approach the landscape of Mars?

It was dusty, ochre world. I had waterfalls that had the Barsoomian sands cascading from it instead. Like gigantic hourglasses being poured over impossible cliffs, filling up canyon craters. This way the terrain had movement. The ground felt alive. I filled up books with plants or types of organic structures that may grow around crashed airships. Why not have the landscape appear alive, moving slowly and creating huge sand waves that the ships or chariots would glide or climb over? Why do the insects have multiple limbs? Perhaps the creatures on Barsoom have them as a practical means to travel about an unforgiving landscape.

So imagine the classic John Carter artists and then add to them. Think of them as if they had but a glimpse into what we had in front of us. I started to get more ornate, and more decayed, depending on what I was drawing.

How about the people?

For the humans on Barsoom, I designed this scrollwork concept for the helms. Tarsem, the director, loved them enough to put them into his "Immortals" film that I also worked on under the late Eiko Ishioka.

In a hot climate or one where a heavy helm would be a problem, I broke down the shape into a scroll pattern instead of keeping it a solid piece of metal. This way you can still see the actor's face emote but it was still practical in the sense that a sabre sword has the same scrolled hand guard, which protects it from the enemy's cuts. Again, the concept was that this was a higher ancient civilization, so the lesser intelligence can only mimic it by creating bulky, crude helms.

How long did you work on the production?

From 2001 on, I was working on the film on my own, off and on, just in case. I started prepping fight designs and a more comprehensive visual bible to build upon. I went to museum exhibits on African and Asian armor to document how various knots were done, how teeth and bone were incorporated, how the Native Americans created new weapons based on discarded rifle stocks. From there, I brought in my knowledge of Pacific Islander and other types of edged-weapon fighting styles. After that, studies of horses, multi legged insects and shellfish.

Kayanan worked on the film from 2001 on his own on and off.

From there, I decided to focus on various habitats, then on the action end, various sword styles and how that relates. Eventually, I ended up filling three wide binders with sketches, images and written ideas.

The project went through several directors during that time. I'd get calls updating me on who was now attached and Kerry Conran was attached in 2005. I was really looking forward to working with Kerry, because I'd just seen the "Sky Captain" trailer and I knew he got the source material.

After my initial meeting with Kerry and his brother Kevin (who was the art director), I believed this would be a tremendous film. They not only understood and read the books, their whole outlook was heavily influenced by the covers of old pulps, science fiction magazines and film serials. Kerry also had a very dedicated crew of young animators ready to springboard off what "Sky Captain" promised.

Which character was your favorite to work on, and why?

Tars Tarkas was the one I focused on the most. Beyond the drawing, I created a whole way of how he would move, carry his weapons in a manner that made sense. You see him draw his blades and you know he's killed many times before, and so have generations before him.

He also had that air of a warrior's nobility, so his face although alien in many ways able to convey various emotions. The earliest images I drew can be contrasted to the later images when I started to find the way it could mesh with whatever the other artists wanted to convey. I wanted to have this split nose down the middle but that got nixed.

Tell me about the weapons and the fighting system you devised for the four-armed Tharks.

Tars Tarkis was Kayanan's favorite character to work on.

My approach was that they were not stupid in the sense that the Tharks obviously focused a lot of their culture and individual self worth on being an elite warrior class. Burroughs wrote that they learned the ways of war at an early age. At first, I had to convince everyone that someone who comes from a primitive-looking society, but lives and dies by their hand-held weapons, has a sophisticated point of view about how to use them. Not in a flashy, kung-fu theater sort of way but tactically, like the glimpses you saw in "Last of the Mohicans." They are not just going berserker in the way they move. They may emote in a very dynamic fashion, like the Warhoons, or for Tars, maybe more stealthily and gracefully, with his slicing and dicing finding angles and offbeat timing.

I had also gathered probably some of the best real-world stick fighters and sword instructors on the planet, and we had our own weeklong workshop where we came up with ways to move with multiple limbs. So the swords would pass from one level of Thark limbs to the other, knives thrown and loaded by the other hand. Close-quarter distractions, long-range feints, strikes, grabs and adding crazy patterns of sword work. How would a Thark roll, or execute a double-leg takedown of a White Ape? I asked Olympic Greco Roman champions to show me what they would do, I looked at Jujitsu guys, Western fencers, all kinds of arts. How the torso would stay together, how the legs would step so the Thark was balanced. It was fun as hell!

So you worked out completely different styles for different fighters?

After a while, I consolidated them into categories of fighting styles for Warhoons, Tharks, White Apes, the humans and John Carter. The humans would need to rig their spears in a way that would defeat a four-armed attacker. Anyway, I could go on about Thark fighting in group formations and standing on shields etc., but you kinda get the idea. This is where the film could shine in its own distinct way. It could go beyond what typical Hollywood will do, which is probably running, screaming, jumping with everyone fighting basically the same way.

For Carter, I trained his stunt guy in the ways of Civil War-era sabre fencing, based on manuals. It would take Carter a while to adjust his style of fighting to these huge attackers.

So I'll probably miss that part the most in this new Disney film. I have no doubt the story and effects will be solid. I'll just look at it for what it is and judge the film on those merits. No one else in the theater cares or knows what they missed.

"John Carter" has had a long, tortured history in terms of making it to the screen. How did the production you worked on fall apart, and how disappointing was it for you?

I was on the pre-viz stage of the production. We were to return once Paramount had greenlit the film. Kerry put together a great sizzle reel.

The artist designed completely different fighting styles for the different races.

The film was dependent on keeping the option rights. What truly happened? Only the director and certain execs in Paramount would know. There was a regime change at the studio and Jon Favreau was now director on the film. I was no longer part of that production crew, which were mostly the guys who worked on the "Star Wars" films. I heard that version looked good as well, how could it not?

How difficult is that reality? I mean, you do something for comics, almost invariably it comes out, everybody sees it. For film, there's a chance all your work never sees the light of day. Is that tough to deal with?

There's certainly a small period of time when you have to just let it all go. You move on to the next challenge, and drive your skill sets towards those goals. No use trying to understand how Hollywood suits think, because it's very fear based, and I don't live in that bubble. I find that it's less the actual story you are trying to make that will keep you going, and more the individuals you are working side by side with. Since it is far from a singular effort, when you get film projects that everyone is on the same page on, with decent people then it's all worth it.

I'm just glad there're young directors like Kerry or Tarsem that have their niche and they love what they do. They often have the most distinct vision.

What's your reaction to what you've seen from the Stanton version thus far? Are there any elements that are very similar, or very different, to what you did?

I love that a storyteller like Stanton took on the project. I give him all the benefit of the doubt.

From what I've seen, there are many similarities; the Tharks are muscular but not overly. The earlier drawings I did were of Warhoons, which were supposed to be larger, but I think they kept them all the same size, which works fine. It seems to have enough visual info to get across that this is Burroughs. I like that they kept some of the tribal, organic designs. Iain McCaig was pushing for that way back as well. He liked the weapons I designed, which were salvaged parts from human weapons combined with environmental objects to make functional weapons for the Tharks.

I like most of the casting, and really it's how they are directed and written that counts the most. Dafoe is spot on as Tars. Purefoy as Kantos is a smart choice.

The one piece of footage that tells me they really may have something here is the one with Woola racing around Carter. Being Disney, if they had dropped the ball on Woola and Carter's relationship, then forget it. That's their bread and butter.

Do you have a preference between production design and comic work?

A concept piece of John Carter with his trusty pet, Woola.

Artistically, I like them both equally. Comic work just pays less and you put in tremendous time at the board, but if the project and people you work for are decent, then that's all worth it. There's no beating telling a story with panels. The design work is there anyway. However, these days the schedule makes a monthly commitment difficult. So I try to take on short gigs.

What are you working on now, both in terms of comics and films?

I have a couple of films that I did creature designs for which I can't announce yet and of course like most of us, developing some creator-owned work.

Good to see the dark stage sets I drew for the "Spider-Man" musical were the one piece that didn't get skewered by critics. Now the show is a tremendous hit, so tells you what the naysayers know.

I'm also designing blades in collaboration with Master bladesmith Daniel Winkler ("Last of the Mohicans"). The one that was just on "NCIS: Los Angeles" is one we created. They've gotten a lot of attention.

And finally, I know I'll be there, first show on opening day, to see the Stanton version. How about you?

I'll be at the theater. It's been over 10 years, so I'm not going to miss it!

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts" and "Magdalena" for Top Cow, and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

TAGS:  shelf life, ron marz, rafael kayanan, john carter

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