Helmer snags spooks on angry red planet

Mars pic stars Henstridge, Cube

John Carpenter has escaped from New York and L.A., conquered “The Thing” in “The Fog,” and now he’s taking on Mars. The iconoclastic director, noted for blending terror with a variety of genres, had as his latest challenge the creation of an ancient civilization on the infamous Red Planet in his upcoming “John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars.”

Carpenter, who wanted to do a Martian-themed story since the mid-’80s, now has accomplished his mission. The Sony/Screen Gems release, skedded to land at theaters Aug. 24, is the tale of a tough lieutenant (Natasha Henstridge) who leads a prisoner transport squad of the Mars Police Force. When a mining operation accidentally unleashes the vengeful spirits of Martian predecessors, she is forced to team up with the most wanted criminal on the planet, James “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube).

Producer Sandy King colorfully summarizes the appeal of this extraterrestrial entertainment: “At its heart, our film is good guys meet bad guys and battle worse guys. It’s a theme John has visited many times throughout his career. He loves the unlikely alliance between the lawbreakers and the lawmen, led by an unwilling hero.”

The genesis of “Ghosts” was an inquiry from Peter Elson from Global Cinema Group for projects to take to the Cannes Film Festival in 1999. A treatment and Carpenter’s strongly visual reputation helped briskly line up foreign and domestic distrib possibilities. King and Carpenter then turned to their longtime friend, Larry Sulkis, to co-write the screenplay.

Having already worked on shows for Showtime and Nickelodeon, Sulkis’s first feature credit began with him rewriting Carpenter’s treatment, then vice versa. Carpenter’s notes on the first act of their vision of “2176 A.D. Mars” led to Sulkis doodling storyboards and a galactic event: “I went home and in a caffeine-fueled frenzy wrote the entire rough draft in nine days.”

The first draft went considerably faster than erecting the Martian mining outpost of Shining Canyon. After Carpenter did research on futuristic terra-forming and colonization, all that remained was grading 55 acres of gypsum outside of Albuquerque, N.M., creating a main street and 12 buildings, erecting lightning rods to ward off frequent electrical storms and painting the whole thing with 100,000 gallons of bio-degradable red food coloring.

King and Carpenter, a team in married as well as professional life, utilized the help of the New Mexico Film Commission and the Zia Indian tribe, which not only granted permission to shoot on sacred land but joined the producer and director in a benevolent prayer blessing, prior to the five weeks of shooting Mars-like exteriors.

“There is an expectation that John’s films will fall into the ‘horror-sci fi’ genre,” Sulkis contends. “But on closer examination, one finds mysteries, westerns, action, suspense, comedy — pretty much everything but musical dance numbers. And given his musical talents, even that wouldn’t surprise me. ‘Ghosts of Mars’ has what may be his best score yet.”

Carpenter’s multiple talents are aided by a crew that follows him from project to project and location to interplanetary location. After New Mexico, the interiors, also five weeks in length, were shifted more locally to Eagle Rock, where production designer Bill Elliott transformed a five-story building that was one of Southern California Edison’s main power generating plants. (This does not, however, account for the Southland’s recent rolling blackouts.)

This location would double as a jail where cops and criminals would engage in a fire fight with Martian warriors, as well as a recreation facility for the Mars police force. Alas, there would be little relaxation in the latter. Special effects makeup head Greg Nicotero and his crew would be responsible, if not legally liable, for 25 mutilated and beheaded corpses in this area.

What genre is “Ghosts of Mars,” exactly, anyway? Sulkis sees “…that Earthling miners have uncovered the remnants of an ancient Martian culture, a culture whose main ‘technology’ was spiritual. So, our Western became a ghost story.”

“The joke has always been that John is continually making Westerns,” King kidded. “But this time, he’s made a war movie. Instead of making ‘Gunsmoke’ on Mars, he’s made ‘The Longest Day’ on Mars.”