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Avatar - Jon Landau interview


Interview by Rob Carnevale

JON Landau, producer of Avatar and long-time collaborator with James Cameron, talks about the budget claims surrounding the movie, working with the studio to get things right and why Cameron has mellowed over the years while still remaining a demanding director.

Q. When will the film break even? It has a rumoured cost of $300 million and Fox are investing $150 million. So it’s got to go some to do some…
Jon Landau: It will break even when the income exceeds the expenditure [laughs]. You know, we’re not a part of the financing at all. That’s all handled by Fox. It’s not unusual on large budget movies. We certainly went in knowing this was going to be an expensive movie for the studio to seek out financing to help fund it. One of the interesting things we did on this movie was that we asked Fox to support us for a year while we learned to walk. On most movies you have to run right away. They sit there and say: “OK, we’re ready to greenlight a movie, we have a release date, here it is, so try and make that date.” But that’s where things go off-kilter.

We said to Fox: “Let us learn to walk for a year.” We’re going to ask you to support us with a small sum of money, which was several millions of dollars. But we wanted to figure things out because we didn’t have any of the answers. At the end of that year, we’ll deliver to you three things. One, a flushed out script, which took what Jim [James Cameron] had written 10 years prior in the ‘script-ment’ and flushed out into a real script. Two, we’ll begin to develop the look of the world. And three, we’ll do the R’n‘D on the technology side. But we’ll also deliver you a 45-second scene from the movie so you can see what it looks like finished. That meant we’ll have known what it felt like to go through that process, the studio would know what it’s like to go through that process, and we’ll look at the result and say: “Is that a viable movie?” So, we’ll have learned whether we can walk and then we’d ask whether they were going to let us run.

Q. Two figures have been mentioned here: $300 million and $180 million. Which is it closer to?
Jon Landau: $180 million for sure [laughs]… if you’re asking which one it’s closest to. But again, truly I believe that we’re the only business in the world that doesn’t charge you more for more. You walk into a hotel room and get a bigger room, you pay more money for it; you sit up front on a plane, you pay more money; you get a larger order of fish ‘n chips, you pay more money! You go to the movies and you pay the same thing whether you see a $2 million movie, a $100 million movie or a $150 million movie.

Q. Do you think it’s because of James Cameron’s record that the studio was willing to be quite so accommodating? Because he can deliver…
Jon Landau: It’s down to a couple of things. Success in Hollywood is really judged on more than just one movie. I think if you really look at Jim’s track record, it’s Terminator, it’s True Lies, it’s Aliens… Almost at every step of the journey with Jim people have been out there saying: “Oh, it’s the most expensive movie this year.” But I will tell you in no uncertain terms that when we made Titanic we were not the most expensive movie that year. Everybody wanted to think we were, but we weren’t. Avatar is a very hard movie, no matter who you have on board, to get a studio to commit to. It’s not based on a sequel, it’s not based on some great comic book or television show. It’s original and it has blue people in the middle of it. Studio executives run away from those type of projects.

So, part of what that first year was about proving to them, and to ourselves, that you can put engaging and emotive characters up on the screen that people would buy watching. But they’d still ask questions like: “Do they need tails?” And Jim’s response was: “Yes, they need tails.” So, I don’t think there are many directors who even having showcased what we did could still have got the greenlight. But I think because of who Jim is and his ability to execute a dramatic story in the light of this sophisticated technology, that’s what sold the studio on this.

Q. Unlike Titanic, which ran for a similar length, this doesn’t automatically seem quite so female-friendly. Would you agree?
Jon Landau: No… and I base that on having shown it to people. One of the really surprising things is that there’s something about the empowerment of women in this movie, and the beauty of the world and its themes, that speak to the idea that our actions in life affect the world and people around us, that play very strongly to women. I think people return to movies truly when they get something out of it on more than just a visceral level. We can listen to music over and over again. Why? Because we get something out of it emotionally. I think that what movies offer you today is the escapism quality. You want to get away from the world and the headlines in the newspaper and on TV. So, you can go into a darkened cinema and transport people literally to another world as we do with Pandora. I think men, women and kids of all ages are going to want to do that.

James Cameron

Q. Jim has quite a reputation for being quite a demanding director to work for. Do you find that’s the case or has he mellowed?
Jon Landau: Those are two different things… mellowing and being demanding are two separate things. I think that Jim has mellowed but he’s no less demanding – and I think that’s what makes Jim great. But Jim is never more demanding of you than he is of himself. The people who you hear stories from about Jim being demanding tend to be the outsiders who view it from the outside looking in. The people who are on the inside, working with him, come back and work with him again. And I think that’s the biggest testament to someone being a demanding leader, whether it’s the first AD coming back, the effects supervisor or the actors such as Sigourney [Weaver]. No movie is easy to make. They’re hard. But when you work with Jim Cameron you know you’re going to end up with something extraordinary and people are want to go and see. It’ll be something that you will be proud of.

Q. How far back do you go with Jim?
Jon Landau: I met Jim as a Twentieth Century Fox studio executive… I was executive vice president at Fox when Jim did True Lies. So, I was the studio heavy [laughs]! But again, I think what’s so great about Jim is that he doesn’t care where a good idea comes from. But if you have an idea or an opinion, you have to be able to articulate it. It’s not good enough just to say: “You shouldn’t do this… or you should…” without being able to articulate the reason why. Jim needs to work from a foundation of understanding. So, when he and I had different opinions on things back then I tried to articulate a reasoning behind something. And I think that’s why, when I made the decision to leave the studio, Jim said: “Hey, do you want to come and do this little project called Planet Ice?” That was the codename at the time for Titanic.

Q. Was there ever any pressure to try and create a sequel to Titanic?
Jon Landau: There really wasn’t. We were very upfront that it was a one-off story. People have said: “Do the introduction of how Jack got there…” Or something else. But we always viewed that movie as a stand-alone, book-end, closed door story.

Q. What about sequels to Avatar?
Jon Landau: I think sequels to this are really come down to what the public wants after they’ve seen the movie. The world is ripe for future stories. Jim has those in mind. But whether they’re realised in publishing, the big screen or in other opportunities, time will tell.

Q. What would you say is the main quality that makes a great producer?
Jon Landau: I will tell you what Warren Beatty said to me when we were finishing Dick Tracy. He asked me: “What do you think your best quality is as a producer?” So, I gave him three that he told me were wrong answers [laughs]. He said: “I’ll tell you what your best quality is: it’s that you dream about the movie.” He knew that because every day I came in with ideas or suggestions about it. And I do think that’s what it is. It’s lighting a flame of excitement about the creation of what we’re doing. If you don’t live and breathe it, you can’t do your job as well as somebody else.

Read our review of Avatar

Read our interview with James Cameron