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James Cameron on ‘Avatar’: Like ‘Matrix,’ ‘This movie is a doorway’

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EXCLUSIVE: PART 1 of the HERO COMPLEX interview

“Go ahead, fire away, I’m your guy.” That’s the first thing James Cameron said to me, and I had to smile – I certainly had plenty to ask him about. I had just sat down and watched about 35 minutes of footage from “Avatar” and, to put it bluntly, I was dazzled. I saw more footage than fans at Comic-Con International (I saw, for instance, a tense scene toward the end of the film as Sam Worthington’s character, Jake Sully, is made a prisoner on the alien world of Pandora) and even found out how the film ends (don’t worry, no spoilers here). But let’s get to it -- this is Part 1 of the Hero Complex interview with Oscar-winner Cameron, the 54-year-old Canadian filmmaker whose 20th Century Fox sci-fi epic ‘Avatar’ reaches theaters on Dec. 18.

GB: Jim, congratulations on the film, it’s very, very compelling. I’m excited to see it in its entirety and even more excited to talk to you about it.

JC: Well, thanks; I’m really glad you liked it. And that’s what we were hoping for. We’ve been working like crazy on this for a long time. And what we want is for people to like it, so that’s nice to hear.

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GB: I have to say it was refreshing to see a big, special effects film that was not based on a bestselling novel, a comic book, toy, old television show. That’s rare these days, and it’s a treat to go in, sit down and have no idea where the plot and the characters were going to go.

JC: It’s simultaneously one of the great strengths and one of the potential weaknesses. We have no brand value. We have to create that brand value. “Avatar” means something to that group of fans that know this film is coming, but to the other 99% of the public it’s a nonsense word and we have to hope we can educate them. Well, I shouldn’t say a nonsense word – it doesn’t mean anything specific in terms of a brand association. And in fact there may be even a slight negative one because more people know about the Saturday morning cartoon, the anime, than about this particular film. We’ve got to create that [brand] from scratch. On the other hand, ultimately, it is probably the film’s greatest strength in the long run. We’ve had these big, money-making franchise films for a long time, “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” you know, “Harry Potter,” and there’s a certain sort of comfort factor in that; you know what you’re going to get. But there’s no kind of shock of the new that’s possible with that. It’s been a while since something that took us on a journey, something that grabbed us by the lapels and dragged us out the door and took us on a journey of surprise.

GB: “The Matrix” immediately springs to mind…

JC: Yes, yes, that’s a very, very good example. That’s something where we had no real way of knowing what that film was going to be about and it really just took us on a great ride.

GB: And like “The Matrix,” this movie presents this immersive experience. The alien world and the technology you’re using to tell the story, it’s a big movie .

JC: The story is told very much from character. You go on Jake’s journey with him. It actually starts quite small. It starts close to him, in his apartment with him, and it just expands and expands in scope as it goes along.

GB: I smiled at the “You’re not in Kansas anymore’ line when the main character reaches the alien world. There really is this “Wizard of Oz” sense of transportation when the story reaches the planet of Pandora.

JC: Yeah. It’s my favorite movie; I had to get it in there somewhere. The production designer was Rick Carter, who actually played that out. He thought how it was, in some ways, like Dorothy’s journey. I didn’t quite get as much of that [when I first wrote it]. You do things sometimes as a writer subconsciously, things you’re not even aware of. I’m always comfortable doing things instinctively because I see it as taping into this vein of archetype that works for a broader audience base. I don’t question what I’m doing if it feels right. There might be some other references there I might not be aware of.

GB: You wrote the first script for this film almost 15 years ago. While you were waiting for technology to reach the point where it could be made, I’m curious how much of that very earliest story remained intact.

JC: I had to rework to make it possible. My treatment was so expansive and novelistic that it needed to be necked down just to make it something that could be done on the screen. This film is done on an epic scale, but it’s done within the parameters of a Hollywood movie. What I found is that instead a script I had written the outline of a novel, and it was just too much story, too much back story, too many secondary characters … but look, sometimes lightning just strikes; you have write everything down, get it done. Better to weed it out later and not miss an idea. It was essentially the longest script, in terms of the amount of time it took me to get a workable draft. The first time I tried, it ended up being more than 200 pages, so I had to go back and throw out big chunks, a lot of ideas went out. But I have to say the essence of all the big ideas stayed and I felt pretty good about that.

GB: The heritage of the project and the mystery of it, since it’s not an adaptation, have created this fairly intense interest among the fanboy sector. That was obvious with the interest leading up to Comic-Con International. Do you feel you have to win fans over now to create the sort of success you want for this movie?

JC: I think there are no real negatives because we aren’t going to get prejudged like “Watchmen” or even a Batman or Spider-Man movie because you don’t have all that history and that huge, brand-based mythology that you have to live up to. We aren’t going to piss anybody off because they don’t know what this thing is. Nobody read the novel, nobody read the graphic novel, we’re not going to be playing against expectation. They aren’t going to be viewing us as a disappointment or letdown before the movie even starts. This is a doorway and they don’t know what’s on the other side. We’re going to open it for them.

There are a lot of fans of this kind of science fiction and fantasy film, and I think it’s pretty fertile soil for us. I don’t want to sound like, you know, ‘Pride goeth before the fall,” or too much hubris, but I think we get those fans to support this. I think our greater challenge is the wider public, which isn’t as predisposed to embrace the movie like those fantasy and sci-fi fans. We need to talk to that audience and make them believe that this is a must-see even if they aren’t sci-fi fans. And I’m not putting down Comic-Con fans. When I go down there I’m among my peeps. It’s a great place to unveil “Avatar.”

-- Geoff Boucher

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Photo: Cameron on the set of ''Avatar.’ Credit: Mark Fellman / Associated Press for 20th Century-Fox


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