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Behind the Scenes of MARS NEEDS MOMS
Celebrating Mothers and the Traditional Definition of Family
By Dr. Tom Snyder, Editor
Children need both a mother and a father.
That’s the surprising conclusion the cast, writers, director, and primary producer of the brilliant, highly entertaining animated movie from Disney, MARS NEEDS MOMS, came to while discussing their movie with Movieguide® and other members of the press during a recent day-long press junket in Beverly Hills, Calif.
“The point of the movie is that you do need moms AND dads,” Producer Robert Zemeckis (BACK TO THE FUTURE, FORREST GUMP, THE POLAR EXPRESS and Disney’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL) said.
“That’s how the movie ends.”
To reiterate that point, Zemeckis agreed
MARS NEEDS MOMS is not just a great Mother’s Day movie but it’s also a great movie for the entire family to see, especially because children are soon going on spring break.
“It’s such a big adventure movie,” added Seth Green, who plays the young hero of the piece, Milo, who must rescue his mother from an evil, despotic Martian matriarch who thinks fathers are unnecessary and Martian females shouldn’t be bothered with raising children.
“That was the thing I got excited about when I was watching it,” Green said.
MARS NEEDS MOM is a cinematic expansion of a children’s book about mothers and children by cartoonist Berkeley Breathed, creator of the acclaimed BLOOM COUNTY comic strip.
“I thought the story had an interesting subtext and emotional moments you’re trying to find in most children’s books and family faire,” Zemeckis said. “It was a great challenge to take such a small story and flesh out all the elements from it.”
“The two tentpoles in the book,” said Director/Co-Writer Simon Wells, “were when the boy is incredibly rude to his mother and then there is the payoff to that when he really discovers what his mother’s love means: that a mother would literally give up their life for their child.
“That really spoke to my wife, Wendy [who co-wrote the screenplay], and I. Plus, we have our own children, who at the time we started this movie were 8 and 10 and are now 11 and 13.
“Let’s be honest,” he joked. “We really wanted to indoctrinate them with that message.”
“It’s a really good message,” said, on a more serious note, Actor Dan Fogler, who plays the gadget-happy, stranded Earthman, Gribble, who helps the hero save his mom’s life. “The movie’s got a lot of heart. My wife can’t wait to have kids now, so we can show them this movie.”
“A good mom isn’t about being your best friend,” asserted Joan Cusack, who plays the hero’s mom in the movie and may even be modern Hollywood’s archetypal mother character since she’s played so many of them in recent years.
“Being a good mom is about building character. And, that’s ultimately what a mom does, and a good dad. A lot of times it’s really hard. Then, there’s the moments when it’s really awesome, when you get to see them get something, or they grow. There’s nothing better. But, a lot of times it’s saying things that kids don’t really want to hear but you’ve got to do it to grow up.
“It’s so fun to play that,” Joan said. “And, I’m so glad the movie’s about that.”
“This is such a beautiful movie for kids and for families,” agreed Actress Mindy Sterling, who plays the evil, despotic Martian matriarch. “Kids are going to realize, ‘Oh, she’s just like my mom.’ And, then oh oh, Mom’s taken away!
“It’s such a touching moment,” she added, “when [the son] realizes, ‘I’ve got to save my mom. It doesn’t matter. I will always love her, and she will always love me.’ Then, he doesn’t question what he’s got to do.
Discussing Real Moms and Dads
The cast and crew discussed their own mothers, and sometimes even their fathers.
“During the making of the movie, both Wendy and I lost our fathers,” Simon said, “so it’s not just moms, it’s moms and dads.
“The great thing my parents did for me was [to] have faith in the choices I was making. I was brought up by scientists, who had no idea what I was going to do in the art world. I love drawing. I knew I was going to do something with it. They didn’t have a clue how I was going to make a living. They though they’d be supporting me into my 50s. But, they didn’t try and stop me doing it. And, they had faith that I’d find something, which actually has turned out quite well.”
“I always wanted to be an actor,” Seth said. “My mom was supportive of that.
“I had auditions from the time I was 7-years-old till the time I was able to go by myself. So, I appreciated that. And then, she’s an artist and always educated me very early on, before I could even speak, going to museums, teaching me about different painters, people who drew, sculptors, architecture. . . . She was just really informative and inspiring in that way.”
“My mom instilled an incredible sense of fear and worry into me,” Zemeckis said half-jokingly. “And, it’s served me well in this business.”
“My mom was like bawling at the end,” Fogler said.
“‘This is the greatest gift you’ve ever given me,’” he said, using a high-pitched voice to imitate what his mother said after watching the movie for the first time. “I’m glad she took it like that.”
Fogler added, “My dad’s funny too, but he’s more cerebral, I guess, and my mom’s. . . got a wacky sense of humor. I’m definitely a combination of the two of them.”
“One of the things I so remember my mother giving me,” Mindy Sterling said, “was always to say please and thank you. And, when you’re invited to someone’s house, always bring something. My mother passed saving years ago, [but] one of her things was always take one daya at a time. As clichéd as that is, it’s one of the most beautiful things you can say, because it’s true.
“It’s one of the hardest roles for a woman to play, being a mom,” she added. “Think about it. My God, what your mother did for you!”
Mindy works with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Greater Los Angeles, because her mother died from complications of breast cancer. A mother herself, she’s a candidate for Woman of the Year with that organization.
“My mom was passionate,” Joan Cusack said. “That’s a great gift, to feel like you’re living life for a reason – that you really care, that you really love. Then, also, she’s just really kind. She’s just a really nice person. You have to learn that, I think. People have instincts, but you have to nurture kindness.
“Go moms!” Joan exclaimed. “And, Dads too. Dads are awesome too!”
“My mom is an amazing woman,” said Actress Elisabeth Harnois, who plays the Martian girl, Ki, who helps the hero find his mom. “I have four younger brothers, one of whom is severely disabled, and she was just put on this planet to be a caretaker. Any compassion, patience, understanding that I have in my blood comes from my mother. And, that also has definitely fueled my creativity. She’s always been supportive of that as well.”
How did she like being in a Disney family movie, Elisabeth was asked.
“For me,” she began, “it’s like my mom is finally going to be proud of something I do. My mother’s very traditional. She’ll be really excited about something she can take the younger ones to watch.”
The Challenge, and Fun, of Motion Capture
“This was an exhausting film, physically, to make,” Green noted. “Everything you see the character do, I had to do in one form or another.
“Just physically, it was really difficult,” Green explained further. “A lot of running, jumping, falling, hitting, spinning. I wore a harness for, like, 85 percent of the movie. It was uncomfortable.”
Everyone at the press junket who worked on MARS NEEDS MOMS, however, was excited about the digital technology and acting challenges involved in making a 3D motion capture animated movie like this.
“As a filmmaker, it’s a limitless expression of a world,” Green said. “I won’t say you’re unlimited by budget, but look at what they made. You’ve got an entire landscape – a Martian landscape –and a world that’s as deep as a planet. It was just unbelievable. I could never play this part in any other medium. So, as an actor, it was a really exciting opportunity. If you put [it] in terms of practical special effects, you just wouldn’t be able to achieve the same kind of magic.”
Zemeckis says the 3D, digital and motion capture (or performance capture) technology “changes hourly.”
“Computer power just gets more powerful every minute of every day,” he added. “The resources Simon had when he made this movie are way more advanced than what I had when I made A CHRISTMAS CAROL [with Jim Carrey] and more advanced than EVN the stuff Jim [Cameron] had on AVATAR. The horsepower we have to create these images just keeps doubling every year. It’s really wild.”
Simon also added, “Things that were inconceivable when you’re starting off on the movie actually became practicable and very easy to do by the end of the movie.”
“It’s like comparing the suitcase phone with an iPhone 4G,” Green said. “It’s more accurately able to capture the performance of the actors at this point.”
Zemeckis noted he’s now worked with a lot of actors in the performance capture medium, having done four movies using that process.
“Every one of them, from Tom Hanks to Anthony Hopkins, they love it,” he said. “The only complaint ever from almost all the actors when they first step onto the set is that they miss the costume. They miss being able to play dress up.
“At the end of the process, however, they love it, because it’s 100 percent pure. They didn’t have to sit in their trailer for three hours to go work for one minute. They didn’t have to lean into their light. They didn’t have to worry about their marks. They didn’t have to worry about the camera. They didn’t have to worry about the focus. They didn’t have to sit in makeup. So what it became was all about performance – all about performance. It’s completely liberating.”
“The actor gets to do whole scenes in one run,” Director Simon Wells added.
“When you shoot a movie in live action, you’re doing little clips bit by bit, so the actors go away for half an hour, sit in their trailer, and come back and try to regenerate that energy, that emotion.”
“It’s a lot like doing theater,” Actress Elisabeth Harnois said.
“Super technical theater,” added Actor Dan Fogler. “Once you get past the two-pound helmet on your head with the mandibles (for sound). . . it’s very freeing. I loved making the movie. It looks like Cirque de Soleil meets STAR TREK.”
“It’s really fun,” agreed Elisabeth. “Every day was fun.”
A Labor of Love
“The thing that has always been at the core of the performance capture art form has been the performance of the actor,” Zemeckis explained. “This is digital makeup. That’s what this has always been.
“What we do is we just simply put digital wardrobe, digital hair and digital makeup on them. But, the emotional warmth and the emotional performance is what that performer has done, exactly as if a musician sits at a keyboard and plays but then a processor takes those keystrokes and turns them into an entire orchestra. That’s how it works.”
“We had skeletal props,” Fogler added. “It was like theater.”
“My experience was like experimental theater,” Joan agreed. “You don’t have to worry about the props. You don’t have to worry about costumes and makeup and all that stuff. You’re just acting – you do your scene. There’s not a camera right in your face. You don’t have to shoot it a million different ways. You just do it once, like a theater piece.”
“You do have the photo of what you’re eventually going to look like,” Mindy noted.
“So, you have that idea in your head when you’re working. You’ll have something that’s sort of like the prop, but not really. People piece something together out of cardboard and make it into a gun. Then, you, as an actor, have to create that [idea] that it’s a gun.
“Because we come from a theater background, we’re kind of used to [doing] that.”
Joan said the filmmakers took everything in MARS NEEDS MOMS seriously, including creating a Martian language for the movie.
“That was the nice thing about working in that environment,” she said. “Everyone cared so much. They thought through everything. It was such a labor of love. You get to do a whole scene [at once]. It was really fun. The director was right there. It’s really cool!”
“It’s really lovely,” Mindy chimed in.
Moments in Time
Zemeckis responded to the criticism that the characters in his first motion capture movie, the Movieguide® Award-winning family movie THE POLAR EXPRESS, suffered from having “dead eyes.”
“POLAR EXPRESS is the number one movie on ABC Family every Christmas,” he noted.
“It’s made hundreds and hundred of millions of dollars around the world. Major critics have gone back with the 3D reissue of the movie and said, ‘Oh, gee, you know I kind of like the movie now.’ You know, the audience has never had the problem with POLAR EXPRESS that certain aspects of the media have.”
Zemeckis also noted, “When John Ford made THE SEARCHERS and it was one of the very first Technicolor movies, inside the cabin it’s sunset and there’s this like ridiculous bright red light coming through the windows. It was an early Technicolor movie that the technicians were finding the way. They were finding the way. And, they thought they were doing their best to light a sunset effect coming through the window, which kind of looked like a gaudy carnival red light. Should John Ford have made that movie in black and white? Should he not have tried something? Performance capture is going to be perfected.
“What’s interesting about anything in the realm of visual effects is that these movies become these historical documents at the moment of time that they’re made, which I think is really fascinating. You’ll be able to go into the early 2000s and say, ‘Hey, look at the quaint digital cinema that was being done.’ I believe movies should live in their time. I don’t like the idea of going back and re-tweaking them and changing them, because I do think they’re made for that moment in time with the tools that we had.”