Avatar is out this week, so we’re stoking your anticipatory flames with material from last week’s London-based press junket. Held in the ballroom of Claridges, it was all fittingly opulent for such a big, expensive film release. In attendance at the press conference were writer-director James Cameron, producer Jon Landau and cast members Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington and Stephen Lang.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of the questions were directed at Cameron – or Jim, as most overly-chummy journos were calling him – about his design inspirations for Avatar, his experiences working with Weaver again after 20 years, the implications of the VFX technology used on the film, and even giving some tantalising comments on the possibility of an Avatar sequel, or trilogy! Read on, true believers!
Jim, it’s finally out there. How do you feel?
James Cameron: So relieved. We can hold our head high that we’ve got the picture done on time by the skin of our teeth. You know, it’s been a four and a half year process, so tonight we’ll pull the cover back and show the word, so to speak, here in London. It’s fun that we’ve chosen London to do this world premiere. And it’s really just a huge relief to actually let people see it, and quit talking about it. There’s a huge buzz around this thing, so the rumours can be put to bed by dealing with the movie itself.
Sam, Sigourney and Zoe, what was it like seeing the Avatar versions of yourself?
Zoe Saldana: It blew my mind. Jim would always incorporate us in the process of the results that he would get from WETA, and all the other companies he was working with, and we just couldn’t find words to express how it made us feel. It was something so new. They’re so beautiful, and look so much like us. It was kind of unimaginable.
Sigourney Weaver: We all had renderings of our Avatars as we were doing the performance capture. And for me, Grace had such a haunted face, and I think because her human life is so guarded and armoured. The rendering was a big inspiration to me, so I was very surprised when I finally saw the movie, and saw that he hadn’t done it like the rendering, that Grace looked just like Sigourney, only I was ten foot tall and blue, which is a much improved version of myself.
Sam Worthington: My biggest fear was, I try to be a subtle actor, and I was worried that the nuance of the performance wouldn’t translate once you go through the bits and bytes of a computer. I believe that, hopefully, successfully, in my opinion, that is 100% my performance. Every glimmer in my eye, every smirk, every goofy walk. That has encapsulated my spirit. You sit there and watch the film, but after 20 or 30 minutes, you don’t see blue people, you see the spirit of us.
Jim, was it always your intention to work with Sigourney again after Aliens. And, Sigourney, what did you think of the concept when you first heard about it?
JC: Interestingly, Sigourney and I had become good friends on Aliens, and carried that throughout. And since then. I even presented her with her star on the Walk of Fame and so on.
SW: …and I get to present him with his next week!
JC: That wasn’t meant as a segue! [laughs] But I hadn’t necessarily written Grace for Sigourney when I first conceived the script in ’95, but as we got to the casting process, it just suddenly struck me that she would be perfect. And I can prove that I thought of her, because the name of the character was Grace Shipley, and when Sigourney and I started talking about her doing the part, we said, ‘well, I think we’d better change the name, what do you think?’. But once it popped into my head that Sigourney would be perfect for it, then you suddenly have this moment where you send them the script and you hope and pray that the actor is going to respond to it. And Sigourney responded to the script immediately, and really quite effusively, not just to her character, but to the intentions of the film overall, and signed up pretty much right away.
SW: Yes. We had stayed in touch, and I was always a great admirer of the challenges that Jim had took on. So I have to say I was absolutely thrilled when Jim called, and, really very sweetly – because even though he’s so capable, he’s actually a very humble person – he said very sweetly ‘would you mind taking a look at this? I’ve been working on this, I’d love for you to take a look at it’, it was so sweet. So I spent the next three days reading the script, which I have to say, is so ambitious on every level, and I’d get to these parts that were, I’d think, ‘gosh, that’s so amazing, to ride on that banshee, but I just don’t see how you could do it’. But I certainly wanted to be part of the adventure of going for it. And I always know with Jim, you know, you’re never in better hands. There’s no one who’s going to fight harder, and stay longer, and work harder to give the audience a hell of an experience. And also the character of Grace, this woman who is a sort of a dichotomy between this very driven, dry, frustrated woman in the human world, and this free spirit who has lost her heart to the Na’Vi people. The combination of all these factors just made me jump at the chance to go on this adventure with Jim.
I wondered how taking the technology forward connected with your message of connecting with the environment, and how you connected with your cast when you’re directing them in virtual reality…
JC: Actually the interesting thing about working with performance capture is that it’s probably the best director-actor relationship and working process that I’ve ever been involved in. Because, normally, on a photographic set – and we shot for four months photographically in Wellington, you can see parts of the film were done photographically, and parts were done virtually – in the virtual working process, I’m not distracted by the lighting, the time of day, if the sun’s setting and you’re going to have to get the shot by 6:15, and where’s the dolly track going to go, and the thousand questions that pull the director’s mind away from the process of working with the actors – we’re really just there to do the acting. They’re there to act, and I’m there to work with them, to try to get the best possible performances.
So we spend all our time, just looking for some moment of truth – emotional truth or truth to the character – and then we’ll go over and huddle around the hi-def playback, so we can look at their faces. I won’t see them as their Na’Vi or their Avatar characters for months, even years sometimes, after they’re original capture, because the process takes so long, but as long as I know, in that moment, that we’ve gotten it, then I don’t have to worry about it downstream, it’s going to be a long, very patient process. But what we get to at the end, is exactly what we started out with in that moment. So, we, I think wisely, didn’t make the assumption that we could modify it or change it or improve it later, we fought hard in the moment to get exactly what we wanted to say.
No one’s harder on Sam or Zoe or Sigourney than themselves, and Slang’s the same way, but he wasn’t involved as much in the virtual process. I found it a very stimulating process, and I think we all bonded around the making of this film, and attempted to strive for excellence in the performances.
Pandora has a look of the ocean about it; how much was the vision of this film influenced by your own aquatic explorations. Also, I wonder what your feelings were about the death of Carl Spencer, the British diver who died earlier this year.
JC: In terms of design, I just swept in every design influence I’ve had in my life. I’ve always had the deepest respect for nature, and a lot of my youth was spent out in the woods, hiking around and being a total science geek and collecting samples, and looking at them under microscope. But then as an adult, I spent over two thousand, five hundred hours under water, and a lot of that in submersibles. And I’ve seen some things that are absolutely astonishing at the bottom of the ocean, which really is like an alien planet. And that’s something that I always feel has been a gift in my life, to have been able to live out science fiction fantasy adventure for real, in the diving work, which is something I get to do as an art form, as a filmmaker, but for real in those deep ocean expeditions. So yes there’s a lot of the deep ocean, even the shallow ocean as a guide and inspiration for the creatures. And sometimes even just in the textures. The Banshee wings are based on the colouration of a tropical fish, for example, and Brazilian tree frogs and things like that. We were a little concerned that these large creatures might not scale properly, or they might not look real with these incredibly vivid colour palates, but it was something that we fought hard to do.
And just to the last point. Carl was a friend, we had planned a number of things to do together, including some additional diving at the Britannic, where we were going to put together some of the robotics, and some of the subs that I had with the deep technical diving that he did. And, of course, his tragic death at the Britannic last year was something that rocked the whole technical diving community, because he was such a great guy. Whenever something like that happens, and it does happen periodically when people are pushing the envelope and going beyond, stepping out to the extreme edge of human experience, we mourn and we go on – because we’re going to keep doing it, we’re going to keep exploring, we’re not going to pull back just because it’s risky. Carl wasn’t somebody who took risks, or at least he took risks understanding it. So thanks for mentioning that, I appreciate that.
James, can you tell us a little about the politics of the film. The characters talk about martyrdom, about shock and awe, about terror. The collapse of the tree and the ash evokes 9/11, and I’m particularly interested in the fact that the heroes seem to be the ones not with the big mechanised military force on their side. Please can you tell us about the message you’re putting forward here?
JC: Well, I think that obviously there’s a connection to recent events, and there’s a conscious attempt to evoke even Vietnam era imagery, with the way the guys jump off the helicopters and so on. It’s a way of connecting a thread through history. I take that thread farther back, and I sure like to have a little historical memory that goes back farther than that to the 17th, 16th centuries and how the Europeans pretty much took over South, Central and North America and displaced and marginalised the indigenous peoples there. And I think there’s this long wonderful history of the human race written in blood, going back as far as we can remember. And the Roman Empire, and even farther back. We had a tendency to just take what we want without asking, as Jake says. I see that as a broader metaphor, not as intensely politicised as some people would make it. Broader in the sense that that is how we treat the natural world.
There’s a sense of entitlement – we’re here, we’re big, we’ve got the guns, we’ve got the technology, we’ve got the brains, therefore we’re entitled to every damn thing on this planet. And that’s not how it works, and we’re going to find out the hard way if we don’t wise up and start seeking a life that’s in balance with the natural cycles of life on Earth. And this is the challenge that’s before us. And I think that, certainly, the film espouses this love-hate relationship with technology.
Obviously, we used technology to tell the story that’s a celebration of nature, which is an irony in and of itself, but I think that it’s not that technology is bad, it’s not that a technological civilisation is bad, it’s that we have to be in control of our technical process. We’re not going to be able to rip our clothes off and go back into the wilderness. First of all there’s not a whole lot of it left, secondly that’s not going to work for 8 billion people. So we’re going to have to think our way out of this, and we’re going to have to do it using technology, using science, but we’re also going to have to be very, very human about it, and get in touch with our emotions and our understanding of each other. One of the themes of the film, I think, is symbolised by the fact that it begins and ends with the character’s eyes opening. It’s about a change of perception, and about choices that are made once our perceptions change.
Sigourney, how would you contrast your work with Mr. Cameron on Avatar, with your work with him on Aliens, with the new technologies involved?
SW: Well there have been several revolutions, and I think this one, leading us to Avatar, is the biggest.
When I did the first Alien, here at Shepperton, we had this awesome special effects crew who with a few – literally, a few – hoses and things like that made those special effects, we had no green screen or anything. With Aliens we used green screen. I think green screen is harder for actors, sure for directors.
In Avatar, when we were in our little suits, with our ears and our tails, on this empty Volume, we could see the world in Jim’s magic camera, I don’t know what he calls it – I call it the magic camera! We could see what we looked like in this landscape, but we were completely free to just be with each other as actors, with each other as characters, and as Jim said, his focus was on us. I think that the green screen was the most awkward and as an audience member I was uncomfortable, I always thought they put the characters too close together, or it was just unbelievable to me. And I’m so grateful, as an audience member and as an actor, now that we have a new technology where we can get to the essence of the moment and of the scenes, and then leave it up to the geniuses at WETA to spend 50 hours per frame building on our true – I had an acting teacher a long time ago who said ‘as long as you have it inside you, it’s going to work, you don’t have to show anything’ – well, we had it inside of us, and WETA just let that lead them, they just bring it out into 3D. And I, as an actor, am very grateful.
Another one for James, a lot has been said of 3D, with some saying it is as important as the Talkies, or Technicolor. What’s your take on that, and do you think that your film is an industry changer?
JC: Well, we’ll see. We’ll see Avatar‘s ultimate role – little or large – in the 3D revolution that’s already in progress and has been put in progress by a number of other films, going back to, let’s say, Polar Express, which was also a performance capture film, but was the first film that really demonstrated that 3D could be really, really profitable, and then followed by Chicken Little and a number of releases. Up through just in the last year, you know, Up and Monsters Vs. Aliens and Fox’s own Ice Age 3D.
All have shown an enhanced profitability in the 3D that outstrip the additional cost of the 3D. So all of a sudden, the studios are looking at this as a source of additional revenue, the theatrical exhibition community are looking at it as a way of bringing people back to the cinema, to make the cinema exciting again, during an economic downturn.
Of course, cinema has done very well compared to most businesses recently, so that’s a thing in and of itself, but, of course, there’s an erosion of revenues because of file sharing, downloading, piracy, all of these things, and the DVD business tapering down. This has so far been balanced by the increase in international markets like Russia and China, and India, so we’ve balanced so far, but we need something that maybe kick-starts public enthusiasm for the cinema as an experience, as people seem to be going down to smaller and smaller devices, and are watching movies on iPhones, then you do something to reverse this trend, or at least to balance it.
So, I’ve set as my goal, making the movie theatre back to the sacred experience that it’s always been for my life, and the 3D has been a part of that. And it has to be used in balance with all of the other techniques of film. And I would say that if one would see Avatar without the 3D, it would still be beautifully-acted, beautifully-designed, beautifully-photographed, it’s not like you’re suddenly left with 50% of the experience. But if you do still want to see it with that extra turbocharger of experience, and you want to pay a little extra to do so, then 3D is the way to go.
James, you say you’re relieved that people will be seeing the film tonight – is there an Avatar 2 planned? Or even a trilogy?
JC: Well, I always said during the making of the film, that I dreaded the movie making money, because we’d have to do it all again. But, in fact, when I pitched it to Fox, I said, look, we’re going to spend a lot of money creating all these assets – we call them assets – all these CG mountains and planets and trees and flowers and bugs and creatures, everything you saw up there on the screen had to be made by someone at a work stations over a period of years. And so they have value. So the pitch was, you’re going to spend more money on the first one, but on the second one we’ll be able to advertise that, and we can focus on the story and all that – and they bought that! [room erupts in laughter] But of course, that will only happen if we make money on the first one, so we’ll see. It’s still a throw of the dice at this point. I have a story worked out for the second film, and the third film. But my lips are sealed.