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Avatar - James Cameron interview

James Cameron

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JAMES Cameron talks about some of the many challenges of creating Avatar, its themes, its advances in technology and, reuniting with Sigourney Weaver for the first time since Aliens.

He also discusses why he hopes to be able to create a trilogy if audience demand is high enough and how he feels to have finally released the epic movie.

Q. How does it feel now that it’s done?
James Cameron: So relieved. You know, we got it done on budget and we an hold our heads high that we got it done on time by the skin of our teeth. It’s been a very lengthy process, so tonight we can pull the cover back and show the world, so to speak. It’s really just a huge relief to be able to pull the curtain pack and stop talking about it. There’s been a huge buzz around this thing.

Q. Was it always your plan to reunite with Sigourney Weaver at some point?
James Cameron: Sigourney and I have remained good friends since Aliens and I presented her with a star on the walk of fame. But I hadn’t thought of Sigourney when I started writing it in 1995, but when it came to the casting process it suddenly struck me that she would be perfect. But once it popped into my head that she’d be perfect for it, you suddenly get this moment where you hope and pray that the actor is going to respond to it, and Sigourney was really effusive about it, not just about the character, but to the intentions of the film and signed up right away.

Q. Taking the technology forward, how does that link in to your environmental theme and how does it affect work with your actors?
James Cameron: The interesting thing is that working with the motion capture technology, it’s probably the best actor-director process that I’ve ever been involved in. We shot for four months photographically in Wellington and parts of it were done virtually and on the virtual working process I’m not distracted by the lighting or the time of day, is the un setting, where’s the dolly track going to go and the 1000 questions that pull the director mind away from dealing with the acting process. I was really just there to do the acting. We spend all our time looking for some element of truth, emotional truth and the truth of the character. And then we’ll huddle around the high def playback and look at their faces. I won’t see them as their Na’vi or Avatar characters for months, sometimes because the process takes so long.

But as long as I know we’ve got it, I don’t have to worry about it again. I think wisely we didn’t make the assumption that we could alter it or improve it later. We worked really hard to get it at that moment and say exactly what we wanted to say. And now one was harder on Sam or Sigourney or Zoe than themselves. I found it very stimulating, and we all bonded around this process and we all strived for excellence.

Q. How much was the design influenced by your own aquatic adventures?
James Cameron: I just swept in every design influence in my life. I’ve always had this deep respect for nature and a lot of my youth was out in the woods hiking around. I was a total science geek. I spent over 2500 hours under water and I’ve seen things that are absolutely astonishing on the bottom of the ocean. It really is like an alien planet. I’ve always felt like that’s something I’ve been able to o was live out a science-fiction fantasy adventure for real in my diving work. So yeah, there’s a lot of stuff there. There’s even a lot of stuff in the shallow ocean that’s influenced things. The Banshee wings are based on the colourations of tropical fish, for example. We were a little concerned that these large creatures wouldn’t scale with these incredibly vivid colour patterns, but we managed to make that work.

Q. Can you talk about the politics of the film and its references to the war on terror, Ground Zero and the fact that the heroes are not the ones with huge mechanised forces. Was that deliberate?
James Cameron: Obviously, I think there’s a connection to recent events. There’s also a attempt to connect to Vietnam imagery, the way they jump off helicopters. I take that thread further back to the 17th and 16th centuries and how the Europeans displaced indigenous people from the Americas. I think there’s a lot of the wonderful history of the human race written in blood. You go back to the Roman Empire and further where we have this tendency to take what we want without asking, as Jake says. I see that as a broader metaphor, not as intensely politicised as some people might take it, but broader in that that’s how we treat the modern world. There’s a sense of entitlement. We’re here, we’re big, we’ve got the guns, the brains, there’s a sense of entitlement there fore we’re entitled to do every damn thing on this planet and that’s not how it works. And we’re going to learn that the hard way, unless we wise up and start seeking a life that’s in balance with the natural cycles of life on earth. This is the challenge before us.

James Cameron, Sigourney Weaver, Avatar

The film espouses this kind of love-hate relationship with technology. The film uses technology to tell the story that is a celebration of nature, which is an irony in and of itself. But, I think that it’s not that technology is bad, it’s not that that a technological civilization is bad, it’s that we need to be in control of the technological process. We’re not going to be able to just rip our clothes off and run back into the wilderness. First of all, there’s no wilderness left. Second of all, that’s not going to work for 8 billion people. So, we’re going to have to think our way out of this using technology and science. We we’re also going to need to be human about it, get in touch with our emotions and with our understanding of each other. Part of the theme of the film, I think, is symbolised by the fact that it begins and ends with the characters eyes opening. It’s about a change of perception and about choices that are made once that perception has been changed.

Q. 3D is being touted by many as the future of cinema. How industry changing is your movie?
James Cameron: Well, I think we’ll see what Avatar‘s role, little or large, is in this digital revolution. But it’s already in progress and was put in progress by a number of different films such as The Polar Express, which was also performance capture but was also one of the first films that showed 3D could be very, very profitable. That’s followed through with a number of releases this year with Up and Monsters Vs Aliens and Ice Age 3D, all of which showed an enhanced profitability of 3D that outstripped the additional cost of 3D. All of a sudden, the studios are looking at this as a source of additional revenue. The theatrical exhibition community is looking at this as a way to bring people back to the cinema…, to make the cinema exciting again.

During an economic downturn, cinema has done very well, but with emerging revenues, because of file-sharing, downloads, piracy and all of these things and the DVD business tapering down, this has so far been balanced by the increase in markets like Russia and china coming up. But we still need something that kickstarts public enthusiasm for the cinema as people seem to be going to smaller and smaller devices and watching movies on iPhones, we need something to balance it. I sort of set as my goal making the movie theatre the kind of sacred experience that it’s always been in my life. It has to be used in balance with all the other techniques of film as well. I would say that if one was to see Avatar not in 3D, it would still be beautifully acted, beautifully designed, beautifully photographed. It’s not like you’d suddenly be left with 50 per cent of the experience. But if you do want to see it with that extra turbo charger of experience and be prepared to pay a little extra to do so then 3D is the way to go.

Q. Is there going to be a sequel to Avatar? A trilogy has been mentioned…
James Cameron: I always said while making the film I dreaded it making money because then we’d have to do it again [laughs]. But when I pitched it to Fox I told them we’re going to be spending a lot of money creating all these assets – we call them assets – these CG mountains and plants and leaves and flowers and bugs and creatures. Everything you see on screen had to be created by people at work-stations over a period of years, so they have value. In terms of what the pitch was, I said, look you’re going to have to spend more money on the first one but on the second one we’ll be able to advertise that and spend more time on the story, and they bought that. So, I feel like I have to make a second one now. But that will only happen if we make money on the first this one. It’s still a throw of the dice at this point. I have a story worked out on for the second one and the third one, but my lips are sealed.

Read our review of Avatar