Avatar: The James Cameron Interview. Sequels? ‘Hell Yeah’

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Even if you don’t love every James Cameron film, even if you’re suffering from Titanic – or hell, Avatar – fatigue, you’ve got to give him this: The man’s got energy to spare.

Only hours after flying from London to New York City this past Monday, the director was on the Today show, explaining the oh-so-foreign concept of an “avatar” to Meredith Vieira. A few minutes later, he was on the phone with me, breaking down the details of the 3-D epic that has consumed just about every waking hour for Cameron over the last half-decade.

By now, the man must be exhausted, right? Wrong. Before I knew it, Cameron was even talking sequels: “Hell yeah, I’d be interested. You can speculate about budgets here and how much it will take to turn a profit, but the truth will be told if there’s no talk of a sequel. Then you’ll know we didn’t make money. But yeah, there’s two, possibly even three films…From the beginning, when we began to build this world and create all these CG animals, we’ve got the train set built now in these hard drives here and in New Zealand, and it would be easy to get another story going.” (More Avatar Coverage: The Techland Avatar Roundtable and our Avatar Review)

So Cameron’s clearly rearing to go for another epic. But before he can move forward on the next project,  I was curious if he ever felt intimidated in the by the shadows of his past, by the pressure of following up Titanic, the biggest box office blow-out of all-time. “No, I know the game, and I’m up for the challenge,” he said. “Look, I took some time away from filmmaking, not because I’m J.D. Salinger and I could never write another novel but because I had the money and I felt like my directing career wasn’t in jeopardy and you only live once. And so I started following some passions. We dove to the Titanic, and I realized there was this whole other world down there, and I started using my engineering capacity to geek out, developing robotics and fiber optics for deep ocean expeditions. I’ve never done something so challenging as mounting an expedition to go to sea for two months. Hollywood says shooting a feature is hard, but it’s nowhere near as hard as going out into the ocean; the ocean didn’t get the memo. We went out for six expeditions and so I almost felt as if I’ve gone on six space missions, and when I came back, I wanted to do something as challenging as that. So we came back and we threw ourselves into the challenge of creating a whole new world, and I learned how to man up and be a good leader, which basically involves not letting everyone know we’re about to fall off the cliff.”

More on Techland: The 10 Best Sci-Fi Films of the Decade

I told Cameron that, in discussing Avatar with my Techland colleagues, we all agreed that it’s being slightly mis-marketed – played up as an action film while ignoring all of the romantic and adventure elements that could spark the excitement of more women. “Originally the final battle was much larger and went on much longer, but it didn’t have the emotional drive. So we scaled it down. I wanted to make this more about the characters, and I think the reviews and the word of mouth will help spread that message, that this movie is a solid two hours of setting up and genuinely caring about characters. But yes, it is a marketing challenge, when you only have 30 seconds to tell the story. You want people to know it’s exciting. But this is such a strong love story and there are such great female characters here. Sigourney is amazing and Zoe’s performance as Neytiri – what she created on the capture stage is every bit as much a performance as someone would have given on a live action set. Probably even more so, because she had to keep developing this over the period of an entire year.”

Given the vastness of Pandora, and how much he had to create from scratch, I asked Cameron about what elements and creations were his favorite. “I love all the little details and the ways things move, all the way down to the wood sprites. But when I watch the movie, the scene I like the best, the one that holds my interest even after seeing it 10,000 times, is when Jake first learns to fly. The dynamics of how the Banshees take flight, we took a long time getting that just right and there’s something about the rush there, of seeing how they fly for the very first time. Our whole goal in making this film was to take you to another world, to make you forget that you’re sitting in a movie theater wearing glasses, to have an out-of-body, transformative experience. And you have these moments in movies from time to time, but most movies don’t work this way, where our goal is to sort of overwhelm the senses. We set out over two years to design a world so rich and captivating that even if you decide to not follow the story, you should still be able to get swept up in it all.”

Just before we hung up I snuck in a question about the book excerpt we published on Monday, about a terrifying underwater moment on the set of The Abyss where Cameron ran out of oxygen in his scuba suit, and then had to punch a safety diver in the face when he attempted to restrain the director who was making a rapid ascent to the surface. The director fired the safety diver, and the assistant director who was supposed to be monitoring his oxygen levels, on the spot. “It was a tense situation, but the irony there is that by lunch that incident was no longer even the biggest challenge of that particular day. We just moved forward. And I think that was the only time during my career with I fired two people right there on the set – mostly because if I couldn’t trust my assistant director, how could I trust them with the lives of the cast? But they took good care of me. I had a good team, and I’m sure if things had gone really bad they would have brought me back [to life].”

So near-drowning: Apparently just another day at the office for the King of the World.