December 21, 2009, 9:00 am

A Few Questions for James Cameron

Zoe Saldana as Neytiri and Sam Worthington as Jake in “Avatar.”WETA/20th Century Fox Zoe Saldana as Neytiri and Sam Worthington as Jake in “Avatar.”

A northeaster may have dampened its box-office spirits this weekend, but “Avatar” is shaping up as the biggest movie of the year (in more ways than one ) and, somewhat surprisingly, one of the best reviewed. The architect of this futuristic epic, James Cameron, took a few moments late last week to discuss the technological leaps that allowed him to make this film, the look of the Na’vi and dealing with bad buzz.


In the New York Times article that John Anderson wrote on “Avatar, you joked about doing a sequel based on the positive feelings you had about an early December screening. If you did make a sequel, where would you want to take this story?


I’m not going to give out any story scoops now. I have a story mapped out that actually spans two films. Not in the sense that you’d do a film that ends in the middle, like the typical second-act trilogy problem, but I have enough story arc to cover two more films. And if we do make some money and I talk to Fox and they want to move ahead with a sequel, then I’ll sit down and write something. And you and I can talk again!


When you wrote the film in 1995 and decided that technology wasn’t at a place where you could make it, what specifically did you feel like you couldn’t do at that time?


The big issue was the scale of it. And by scale, I mean, we weren’t just trying to crack the code of an individual character. We had to have a system that was going to be able to do hundreds of characters. And there was nothing like that on the landscape.

In fact, there was no good example at the time that I wrote “Avatar” and even a few years later. I hadn’t seen enough movement forward even in the creation of a single human performance-based CG character to give me faith it could be done.

From left, Sigourney Weaver, Joel Moore, James Cameron and Sam Worthington on the set of Mr. Cameron's “Avatar.WETA/20th Century Fox From left, Sigourney Weaver, Joel Moore, James Cameron and Sam Worthington on the set of Mr. Cameron’s “Avatar.”

Then along came “The Lord of the Rings,” the second picture, and Gollum was alive. There was no question about it. And to me, that was the moment. That was the moment when I said, if they can do that, “Avatar” is possible.


There’s a unity to the way the N’avi look. For one they’re all very physically fit. How did you come to this physical look?


When you see an indigenous group, they tend to not have the big variety that we have. We’re a cultural melting pot, so we have people that have developed all over the world. Whereas indigenous populations tend to not travel much so they tend to be more physically alike. So we applied those rules.

The N’avi have a very attenuated and graceful physique which is slightly pushed beyond human, wider across the shoulders, hyper-developed lats because they’re supposed to be partially arboreal. Things are really thought out in this movie to an almost ridiculous level.


When you were assembling all of these bits and pieces over the past decade, were there times when you thought this just wasn’t going to work?


There was always that possibility. I would say the early days developing the main characters was the scariest part, because everything hinged on the main characters working.

Zoe Saldana plays the warrior Neytiri in “Avatar.”WETA/ 20th Century Fox Zoe Saldana plays the warrior Neytiri in “Avatar.”

We had character designs and WETA had been working for months and months. And the first stuff they showed us was just heartbreaking to me. But (the visual effects supervisor) Joe Letteri kept telling me this is a normal part of the process. It takes time to rig the facial musculature of these characters and get them to work.

So what you see is the character, slowly, slowly coming into alignment with the way the actor’s face works. And there’s a kind of amazing moment when, suddenly, the character is real.


There was the criticism and bad buzz around the blogoshpere when the teaser trailer came out for this movie. What was your response to that?


A lot of it is about context. You look at the image out of context and it seems strange. It’s this blue guy. You don’t know what it means.

What I always said when discussing the marketing with Fox was, “I’m not worried about the movie, I’m worried about the 30 second TV spot.” This is why we did “Avatar” Day (where 40 minutes of footage was screened last summer) in the first place because I anticipated that problem.

Fox kind of blew it. They weren’t supposed to release the teaser until after the screenings. But they released the teaser before the screenings, which was dopey and exactly opposite of the plan. In a way, it worked out well because it generated this cycle of controversy.

I also said to Fox we gotta get awareness, then we’ll talk about how good the movie is. Let everybody in the world know this movie exists and think it sucks is a better condition than having a few people think the movie’s great before it comes out. So actually, if we had been smart enough, we would have orchestrated it to be exactly the way it was. (Laughs.)


Have you gotten any criticism that the film might be perceived as anti-American?


It’s something that I’ve anticipated the possibility of because people will misinterpret things in certain ways. You can almost count on people misinterpreting things. The film is definitely not anti-American. It’s not anti-human either. My perception of the film is that the N’avi represent that sort of aspirational part of ourselves that wants to be better, that wants to respect nature. And the humans in the movie represent the more venal versions of ourselves, the banality of evil that comes with corporate decisions that are made out of remove of the consequences.

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Melena Ryzik is your guide on the red carpet to the news and the nonsense of awards season, covering the Golden Globes, the Oscars and more. The Carpetbagger — joined by Michael Cieply, Brooks Barnes and Rebecca Cathcart in Los Angeles, and Paula Schwartz in New York — will take a look at films and the people who make and star in them, business trends, technical breakthroughs and interesting moves by the moguls. Tips are always welcome.

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