If God took six days creating the universe and then put his feet up, James Cameron would consider that slacking off.
One of Hollywood’s most audacious power hitters, the man behind such blockbusters as The Terminator, Aliens, and Titanic, Cameron spent the last several years building his own universe with his science-fiction epic Avatar — and he worked nonstop. ”I took half a day off for the swine flu back in May,” Cameron says, his tall, lanky body folded into a couch in a Los Angeles hotel suite. ”That’s it.”
Avatar, which opens Dec. 18 and is rated PG-13, tells the story of a disabled ex-Marine (Sam Worthington) who travels to a distant moon called Pandora. His mission is to help extract a precious natural resource from the resident aliens, the Na’vi, but he finds himself falling in love with his guide, Neytiri (Zoë Saldana). Cameron’s vision of a totally immersive alien world required a quantum leap in motion-capture and 3-D technology, and untold hours of mentally and physically taxing work. ”I don’t think Jim even sees it as work,” says Saldana. ”He can’t help himself. He doesn’t surrender, and he doesn’t settle.” Anticipation has been intense, to put it mildly. Avatar‘s budget — reportedly in the neighborhood of $300 million — has been the subject of breathless speculation. Its trailers have been greeted with both rapturous enthusiasm and withering skepticism. The pressure seems unimaginable, but Cameron clearly thrives on it.
Entertainment Weekly: There has been so much anticipation building up to the release of Avatar. How does it feel compared with what you went through before the opening of Titanic?
James Cameron By this point with Titanic, we knew we had a movie that was a crowd-pleaser and maybe even potentially a critics’ favorite, but we still thought we were going to lose money. Here, we really don’t know. We haven’t done any test screenings at all. In a funny way, Titanic was almost an underdog story because the press had stoned us in the market square and called us idiots for so long that when people saw that the film was good, we were kind of underdogs again. This film doesn’t get to enjoy that because we haven’t been pounded down far enough. I almost wish there were more scathing insults being heaped upon us at this point. [Laughs]
There is a major wow factor around the technology you’ve developed for this movie, pushing the boundaries of 3-D and motion-capture CGI. How do you keep that from overwhelming basic things like story and character?
Cameron Right now the technology is the only thing people can talk about because they haven’t seen the movie. But I think it’s ultimately not an issue. The experience of watching the movie is to go on a journey to a new world, get chased around by creatures, learn to fly them — all that sort of thing. The technology goes away for the audience at that point. I don’t think the average viewer cares. When they see a Pixar movie, they don’t need to know about the hundreds of artists who slaved away at computers for years to make it. It’s just: Do I like this story? Do I like the characters? I think Avatar will work that way.
From the beginning, you said your goal in Avatar was to figure out a way to seamlessly translate an actor’s performance into a synthetic computer-generated character. Where did that idea come from?
Cameron It evolved from a couple of things: growing up on a steady diet of science fiction, imagining alien characters, and being ultimately dissatisfied with what was possible with makeup and prosthetics, with an actor having to be in the makeup chair for six hours a day. This technology isn’t about replacing or marginalizing actors. It’s about allowing actors to transform and empowering them to be as creative as they want to be. And by the way, we did tall blue people with pointy ears here. But we could easily have done a straight human look if we’d wanted to.
Really? Motion capture has been great at creating creatures like King Kong or Gollum but not as good at making convincing human faces.
Cameron If we had put the same energy into creating a human as we put into creating the Na’vi, it would have been 100 percent indistinguishable from reality. The question is, why the hell would you do that? Why not just photograph the actor? Well, let’s say Clint Eastwood really wanted to do one last Dirty Harry movie, looking the way he did in 1975. He could absolutely do it now. And that would be cool.
Despite the guns and explosions and robots, your movies usually have an element of romance and a strong female protagonist, like Ripley in Aliens or Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies. Where does that impulse come from?
Cameron First of all, last time I checked, women were 50 percent of the population. And when you’re making a movie that costs over $200 million, you don’t want to have a target audience. Your target audience is people with a pulse and $15 — or even just $15. [Laughs] Secondly, I like women. I like how they think. I like how they see the world. The funny thing is, with Avatar I set out to do a pretty male adventure movie: a stranger in a strange land encountering this other culture. But in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ”Well, in my life, the way I’ve learned the most is through relationships.” I’ve always found that lovers tend to be teachers. So I took that idea and made that the story. What we found as we were editing the film was that the emotion was so strong, we just said, ”F— it, it’s a love story.” [Laughs]
So what went through your head when that first trailer came out and a lot of people took shots at it, comparing the Na’vi to Smurfs and Jar Jar Binks?
Cameron I think the Smurfs thing is funny, personally. Jar Jar is a bit of a low blow, because we’re not playing it for comedy — at least not intentionally. [Laughs]
Part of you must have thought, ”Well, if you’re so smart, let’s see your friggin’ aliens.”
Cameron ”Yeah, let’s see your movie! Put up or shut up, punk. Get out of your mom’s basement.” Look, most of these people are the kind of person that will say [in a nerdy, nasal voice], ”The 14th time I saw the movie, I saw something I didn’t like, and so I hate this film.” That’s the kind of hate I can live with. [Laughs] I suppose if I hadn’t done Titanic and gone through that whole cycle of hate-love-hate, I would have been more worried about it. With Titanic, first it was hate, then it was love, and now it’s disdain again. It’s like nobody admits they went to see Titanic, like it was something you did when you were a kid that you’re not too proud of now, like wearing bell-bottoms. [Laughs] But I actually think if there isn’t a negative story, there can’t be a positive story later.
For whatever reason, some people want to see you fail. Why do you think that is?
Cameron It’s always the case. It’s like Whac-a-Mole: Whenever the mole pops up, you’ve got to knock it back down. For any filmmaker that has a profile, it’s not a lovefest with garlands being scattered before you every time you walk in. It’s like, ”Okay, what have you got this time?” And I think that’s healthy. It keeps filmmakers honest — like, ”You’d better pony up every single time.” We demand that of our athletes, right? The second they start missing those shots, they’re out.
Obviously you’ve upped the ante by pouring so much time and money into this movie. There’s been a major obsession in the press for months with trying to figure out how many hundreds of millions of dollars Avatar costs.
Cameron [Deadpan] Let’s just call it an even billion. They keep rounding up. It used to be that people would round up, like, 10 percent. Now they round up 100 percent. [Pauses] Look, there’s only one way that discussion will ever be publicly resolved: If we announce Avatar 2, we made money. If we didn’t make money, we’re a bunch of dumb f—s. But we still made 2,000 jobs for three years, and that’s a good thing.
Studios have become increasingly risk-averse. Are we reaching the point where a filmmaker soon won’t be able to take a huge gamble like Avatar anymore?
Cameron Well, look at 2012. It wasn’t based on anything else. It wasn’t part of a franchise. God bless ’em, they just went out and made a big-ass movie and made a bunch of money. That’s how it’s done.
Won’t it just take one of these huge gambles failing —
Cameron It takes one of anything failing to piss in the soup, to scare people. The studio executives are nervous because DVD is starting to drop off, so the revenue streams are less than they were. Costs aren’t going down. And the audience is more demanding. If you showed anything that’s been done in the last couple years — in terms of the quality of the visual effects — to an audience 20 years ago, they’d be s—ting themselves, with their mouths wide open. Now they’re like [shrugs], ”Meh.” Studios are rightfully scared about how to get people’s attention.
When you look back at your own work, what movies give you particular pleasure, and are any painful to watch?
Cameron When I look at Terminator — the entire fabric of the film was determined by when it was made, who I was at the time, how much money we had. To me it’s more of a curiosity at this point than anything. I think Titanic is about as far back as I go being really proud of something that I think totally stands up right now, that I couldn’t do better tomorrow. I might do it differently — I’d do a lot more CGI — but I don’t think I could do it better.
What about Terminator 2 or Aliens?
Cameron T2 holds up. Aliens, I see too many flaws, although I’m proud of the accomplishment. A fond memory for me is that at the premiere of Aliens, when Ripley walks out and says, ”Get away from her, you bitch,” the place went apes—. And these are your peers — they’re there to celebrate you with their knives behind their backs.
The year Titanic won Best Picture was the high-water mark ratings-wise for the Oscars. What’s your take on the Best Picture category being open to 10 nominees this year?
Cameron There’s a perfectly valid argument that it debases the coinage. But I think it’s wise that the Academy is willing to be more inclusive to actual movie fans. They get up there every year and put on this enormous production that’s supposedly for movie fans — and they celebrate movies that most of them haven’t seen and will never see. So people have gone: Snooze. Click. Movies are mass entertainment. Yes, celebrate the genius small artist. Celebrate Slumdog Millionaire. But also celebrate the movies people love. Long before I worked in movies, Star Wars was up for Best Picture and that was a milestone, but it lost to Annie Hall. In my universe, as a movie fan, Star Wars was an epiphany and Annie Hall was a cute little film. Ultimately, Star Wars had a much deeper impact on movies than Annie Hall ever did. So what was the best picture? History shows that Star Wars was. I don’t mean to dis the Academy. It’s a well-meaning impulse to try to share a sense of cinema aesthetics with the great unwashed. But there has to be a more balanced answer. I guess that’s my long-winded way of saying I’m in favor of [having 10 nominees] — and not just because I have a movie out this year that otherwise wouldn’t stand a chance. [Laughs]
When you look back on the long haul to get this movie made, what percent of the time would you say you spent inspired, and what percent were you pissed off?
Cameron It’s kind of both simultaneously. In any given production day, there are 10 defeats and 10 betrayals. But I tried not to get pissed off on this movie. At a certain point, I said, ”Look, I got my money from Titanic. I don’t need to do this.” I instituted a no-whining policy.
Seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey when you were 14 made you want to become a filmmaker. Is Avatar your 2001? Do you want some 14-year-old out there to see this and be inspired to become the next Jim Cameron?
Cameron Maybe. Look, Stanley Kubrick introduced stuff in 2001 that people had never even imagined. That movie just got beamed down from somewhere. It was revolutionary. Avatar doesn’t do that. Avatar is incremental, building on stuff that’s been developing over the last 15 years or so. My philosophy is, you put these tools out there and other filmmakers with imagination will take them and push things farther. It’s kind of like one big, long, continuous concert — and every once in a while I can show up with my guitar and play.
8 things you need to know about Avatar
1. It takes place in the future when Earth has run out of oil.
2. A moon called Pandora is home to the Na’vi tribe. They live in a giant tree that sits on a vast store of a mineral called Unobtainium, which humans want as an energy supply.
3. Cameron gave the Na’vi feline features to make them more relatable.
4. The Na’vi can commune with animals on their planet by literally plugging their ponytails into the creatures’ nervous systems.
5. To become a warrior, a Na’vi must tame and ride a creature known as a Banshee.
6. Sigourney Weaver isn’t trying to kill the aliens — she’s a scientist trying to protect them.
7. Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and many others visited the Avatar set to check out Cameron’s new technology.
8. Pandora is one of many moons orbiting a giant gas planet. If Avatar is successful, Cameron hopes to explore the other moons in future sequels, books, and spin-offs.
Sigourney Weaver on working with Cameron 25 years ago
When Cameron was hired to direct the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi hit, Alien, he was hot off his 1984 breakthrough, The Terminator, but Weaver — who played the series’ alien-battling heroine, Ripley — says the British crew was hardly impressed: ”They were like, ‘Who’s this whippersnapper? Where’s Ridley?’ Jim kept setting up screenings of Terminator, but they never bothered to come.” Cameron was undaunted, and the result was a 1986 blockbuster that earned Weaver a Best Actress nomination. Since then, Cameron has mellowed a bit. ”He’s demanding, but he’s harder on himself than anyone else,” says Weaver. ”Now he’s more settled. He does this because he loves it. And he can get what he wants.”