The director reveals how he got Fox to greenlight his $195 million technology-driven motion picture
James Cameron
Credit: James Cameron: Jason Kempin/Retna Ltd.

James Cameron is finally following up that movie about the boat accident. His new project, Avatar, is an epic, 3-D sci-fi film about an ex-Marine on an inhospitable planet where humans can only survive by projecting their consciousness into genetically engineered bodies (a.k.a. ”avatars”). The people of earth want to exploit the planet’s natural resources, of course, causing the inhabitants to revolt and a war to break out. The rub for the protagonist, named Jake (played by newcomer Sam Worthington), is that he’s fallen in love with a native (Zoe Saldana), forcing him to choose a side in the battle. Fox has gone out on a limb, granting Cameron a whopping $195 million to tell the tale — but hey, what’s a couple hundred mil for a guy who racked up 11 Oscars with his last full-length feature?

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: For a while now, you’ve been debating between two different projects: Avatar, which is an original screenplay that you wrote, and Battle Angel, adapted from a series of Japanese comics. So why pick Avatar?
Well, Battle Angel and Avatar were being developed at the same time. The thinking was that we’d be using similar technology to create either one or both of those films. It was little bit of a horse race there for a while to see which one was going to be done first. The way I pitched it to Fox was, ”We’re doing both these films.” The order is relatively arbitrary, because we’re making an investment in a methodology and a technical infrastructure that could produce both. But I ultimately had to choose which one was going to be first, and I began to run into a bunch of script problems with Battle Angel, because I was synthesizing down these graphic novels. There are 10 of them. It was the kid in the candy store problem — too many good ideas and no story. So we went through five drafts and didn’t solve them. So I switched to Avatar and we started developing that. Then, of course, a great script came in on Battle Angel! Which is a good problem to have, because I had two great projects, either one of which the studio would be happy to go ahead with. I would say it was August or September of 2005 we decided to push ahead with Avatar. Believe it or not, it was that long ago.

What was the deciding factor?
We did a test of the performance-capture techniques we wanted and needed to use to make this film — a live action, real-time, director-centric performance-capture process. In other words, as the actors perform, I’m able to see in the monitor not only what they might look like as their CG character, but in the CG environment we’ve created, and direct them accordingly. When we did the test, we chose Avatar, just because it seemed like the easiest one to get going for a test, for a lot of reasons.

This is an original screenplay, correct?
That’s correct.

How did you come up with this story?
Well, my inspiration is every single science fiction book I read as a kid. And a few that weren’t science fiction. The Edgar Rice Burroughs books, H. Rider Haggard — the manly, jungle adventure writers. I wanted to do an old fashioned jungle adventure, just set it on another planet, and play by those rules.

Your premise reminded me a lot of the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter, Warlord of Mars series.
It’s definitely got that feeling, and I wanted to capture that feeling, but updated. To be certain, I wanted a film that could encompass all my interests, from biology, technology, the environment — a whole host of passions. But I’ve always had a fondness for those kind of science fiction/adventure stories, the male warrior in an exotic, alien land, overcoming physical challenges and confronting the fears of difference. Do we conquer? Exploit? Integrate? Avatar explores those issues.

How long has this been in your head?
I wrote an 80-page treatment 11 years ago. We were working from the treatment in designing the world and the creatures and so on. I wrote the script the first four months of 2006.

Is it true you have developed a whole culture and even a whole language for the aliens in this movie?
Absolutely. We have this indigenous population of humanoid beings who are living at a relatively Neolithic level; they hunt with bows and arrows. They live very closely and harmoniously with their environment, but they are also quite threatening to the humans who are trying to colonize and mine and exploit this planet.

Sounds like you’ve crafted a story with a lot of political resonance.
Only in the very broadest sense of how we as a Western technological civilization deal with indigenous cultures; we basically supplant them. If not in an active, genocidal way, then in a passive manner. They just kind of wither away. Our impact on the natural environment, wherever we go — strip mining and putting up shopping malls. Now, we’re extending that to another planet.

How long did it take to brainstorm the language? Did you work with people on that?
There’s a guy named Paul Froemer who I was lucky enough to encounter a year ago. He’s the head of the linguistics department at USC. I talked with a number of linguistics experts, but he was the one who kind of got the challenge. He said, ”We’re going to beat Klingon! We’re going to out-Klingon Klingon! We’re going to have a more detailed and well thought out language than Klingon!” He’s been working on this for a year. It began by riffing off things in the treatment, but from there, it went to how sentences would be constructed, and what the sound system would be. It would have to be something that was pronounceable by the actors but sounded exotic and not specific to human languages. So he’s mixing bits of Polynesian and some African languages, and all this together. It sounds great.

What was the tipping point in terms of realizing that this movie was technically possible?
Looking at what Peter Jackson was able to do with Gollum, and then King Kong. And Davy Jones [from Pirates of the Caribbean] — all these examples of compelling photo-realistic, fully CG characters, in a photo-realistic world. I don’t think many people are aware that a lot of the jungle scenes in King Kong were actually CG. They did a lot with miniatures, but toward the end they were doing a lot of the jungles in CG.

Was the number of theaters that could exhibit a 3-D movie also on your mind in terms of when to go forward with this?
Absolutely. There’s been a sense for me over the past two or three years of, ”Well, if not this year, then it’s okay next year for me to start a movie, because the longer I wait, the more theaters there will be,” and I want to be able to land in 1,000, 1,500 theaters — as many theaters as I can — in digital 3-D. Because I’ve been working with our 3-D cameras over the past six years. We’ve refined them. They work great. They work perfectly. I love working with them. I don’t want to go back to shooting on film. I don’t want to go back to shooting in 2-D, so for me it was just a question of waiting for the right moment. In fact, I think I’ve actually waited too long. Everybody else is out there making animated films and putting them in 3-D and this is such a big picture. We’re not going to land in theaters until summer of ’09. But I think we can be sure that we will have a lot of 3-D screens by ’09 at the rate they’ve been increasing.