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James Cameron: The ‘Avatar’ sequel will dive into the oceans of Pandora

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On Thursday, which is Earth Day, Fox will release ‘Avatar’ on DVD and Blu-ray, but James Cameron says a longer version of the film will be back in theaters in August -- and that the franchise will return with a seagoing sequel. Hero Complex contributor Patrick Kevin Day recently spoke with the filmmaker.

PD: Will we see an ‘Avatar’ theatrical re-release this summer?

JC: We’re working on finishing an additional six minutes of the film -- which includes a lot of Weta work -- for a theatrical re-release in August. We were sold out of our Imax performances right up to the moment until they were contractually obligated to switch to “Alice in Wonderland,” so we know we left money on the table there. And the 3-D really helped “Avatar” right up until the moment that it hurt it. And it hurt it at the moment “Alice” and then “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Clash of the Titans” came in and sucked up all the 3-D screens. We went from declining 8% a week to declining 50%. Clearly, it wasn’t market forces directly; it was the availability of theaters. So we’re going to wait until there’s a time to come back in, inject the new footage into the mix and see if we can interest people in the “Avatar” experience in theaters.

It’ll be interesting because it’ll be on DVD by then, but I think “Avatar” is kind of a unique category where people are enjoying the unique theatrical experience even though they may have seen it on the small screen. They want to have that immersive, transportive experience. “2001: A Space Odyssey” played for three years at the Loews cinema in Toronto. I remember that. It just kept playing. People wanted to return to that experience. That may not be the best example because I think “2001” took 25 years to break even.

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PD: What goes through your mind when you hear that officials in China changed the name of a peak in Zhangjiajie peak to Avatar Hallelujah Mountains or that Palestinian protesters are dressing as Na’vi?

JC: I think it’s really interesting that these people see their reality reflected in the movie. And of course this is what’s caused all of these [environmental] groups to come to us and say, “Can you help us? Can we do fundraising? Can you help with awareness? Can we associate our website? Can we link to ‘Avatar’?’ All of these things. Right now, my challenge is to orchestrate this in a way that “Avatar” can continue to do some good. I think the movie itself is reaching people all over the world, which it clearly did by the amount of money it made. It created a sense of an emotional response to this environmental crisis and I think it even may have made it an emotional call to action. The next step is people need to know what to do -- what do I specifically do in my life next so that I don’t feel helpless and powerless.

PD: Does it change your outlook as a creator of entertainment?

JC: Well, I think it makes certain projects that I liked as potential films seem trivial by comparison. I think it makes the idea of making another “Avatar” film more attractive. Because not only is it good business, but it’s good for the environment. I think every model we should use in evaluating any environmental project moving forward should be: Is it good business and is it good for the environment? Because there’s this idea promoted by the right and by special interest groups that you have to choose. You can either have a strong economy or you can help the environment, but you can’t do both at the same time. That’s ridiculous. In fact, as a sustainable vision for a healthy economy has to involve changing our energy policy and changing with respect to the natural world. Because we’re hitting nature’s thresholds, we’re hitting nature’s limits with respect to water and crop yields and energy use and fossil fuels heating the atmosphere at the same time we’re past global peak and running out of that. So we’ve got to change anyway. The people embracing the change earliest are the ones facing the most vigorous economies in 10, 20 years. The nation that leads in renewable energy will be the nation that leads the world 10, 20 years from now. And right now, based on current trends, that’s going to be China. We’re not in any way competing with China in terms of renewable energy. That’s where it shows the proof that you have to choose between economy or energy. China has clearly chosen economy at the expense of everything else with 8% GDP growth a year as a mantra and yet 60% of the solar panels in the world are made in China. They are the most aggressive leaders in the renewable energy sector. So clearly those two are going hand in hand.

PD: Is your interest moving from cinema toward public policy?

JC: Not specifically. Look, I’m an artist. I’m just going to be a big mouth and blather my opinions around, as artists are wont to do. That’s fine. In the particular case of “Avatar,” I found there’s a call to action and a sense of duty that’s emerged from it. It wasn’t my intention going into [the film] to do that. I figured I’d be on vacation right now. I figured I’d make my big statement with the movie and let everyone else sort out what to do. Turns out there aren’t that many people figuring out what to do. The leaders have been scared off, people of conscience in our leadership in Washington have been scared off by the right and the fossil fuel lobbies. They won’t even use the term ‘sustainability’ or ‘climate change’ in an energy bill, which is ludicrous on its face. It completely ignores the elephant in the room that we’re all dealing with. The average American doesn’t even believe climate change is real, they think it’s all a hoax. Two years ago, 50% of Americans thought climate change was real and thought it was human caused. Now we’re down to a third. That’s the work of a very well-funded campaign to create a climate of denial in the media. You’ve got to work against that. Here’s my philosophy in life: If there’s a fire, you put it out. If there’s a flood, you fill sandbags and you build a dike. You roll up your sleeves and you get to work. I think we’re facing that kind of crisis and I’m not going to stand around and leave it to someone else to deal with it.

I tried [being a mogul]. It bores me. I don’t really want to produce other people’s movies. Because they’re either grown-up filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh or Kathryn Bigelow that didn’t really need me -- and I’ve produced both of them. It’s fun to sit around with them and be collegial, but they don’t need me. They can make the film without me. Or it’s a new filmmaker starting out and I’ve got to hold their hand and lead them through the whole thing. I don’t get anything out of it in either one of those configurations. I don’t get anything out of putting my name on a movie as producer. It doesn’t do anything for me. I make my own stuff. There are tons and tons of other things I’m interested in that have nothing to do with movies or are documentary projects. So I pick my feature film battles very carefully. They’re going to be personal and they’re going to take a lot of my energy. I’m not going to be some big production company and be Jerry Bruckheimer or something like that. It doesn’t interest me.

PD: When you embark on your next film project, do you know what the challenge will be? Something on par with filming underwater for “The Abyss” or perfecting the performance capture technology in “Avatar”?

JC: Well you’ve already defined what the challenge will be on the next “Avatar” picture, which is to do what we did before at half the price and in half the time. Again, that’s an impossible goal, we won’t accomplish that, but if we can reduce by 25% in both categories, we’ll have really accomplished something. We know our methodology works. We also know it took two years to come up with. It didn’t even become efficient until the last two months of the production. So we were four years into a project before we had this machine running smoothly. So we take a snapshot of that moment in our production and say that’s what we look like on Day 1, we’re going to do better. Now, none of that has anything to do with coming up with a great story or great characters or great new settings and so on. That all is a given. That’s not to say that it’s done yet, it’s a given that we have to do that. But for me, the technical challenge is in improving the process having proved that it works.

We created a broad canvas for the environment of film. That’s not just on Pandora, but throughout the Alpha Centauri AB system. And we expand out across that system and incorporate more into the story – not necessarily in the second film, but more toward a third film. I’ve already announced this, so I might as well say it: Part of my focus in the second film is in creating a different environment – a different setting within Pandora. And I’m going to be focusing on the ocean on Pandora, which will be equally rich and diverse and crazy and imaginative, but it just won’t be a rain forest. I’m not saying we won’t see what we’ve already seen; we’ll see more of that as well.

PD: Are you still an avid science-fiction reader?

JC: No, not so much an avid science-fiction reader anymore. I probably spend more time writing than reading science fiction. I find that science-fiction literature is so reactive to all the literature that’s gone before that it’s sort of like a fractal. It’s gone to a level of detail that the average person could not possibly follow unless you’re a fan. It iterates upon many prior generations of iterations. The literature now is so opaque to the average person that you couldn’t take a science-fiction short story that’s published now and turn it into a movie. There’d be way too much ground work you’d have to lay. It’s OK to have detail and density, but if you rely on being a lifelong science-fiction fan to understand what the story is about, then it’s not going to translate to a broader audience. Actually, literary science fiction is a very, very narrow band of the publishing business. I love science fiction in more of a pop-culture sense. And by the way, the line between science fiction and reality has blurred a lot in my life doing deep ocean expeditions and working on actual space projects and so on. So I tend to be more fascinated by the reality of the science-fiction world in which we live. I read real science voraciously. I read science magazines. Lay science magazines. I don’t read science papers per se unless it’s been sent to me by a friend in the science community that they’re working on and is a subject that I’m conversant about. Like whether it’s the thickness of ice on Europa. Something specific. And if I need clarification on something, I can call the author and ask them. But generally speaking, I read Scientific American and Discover and Popular Science and that sort of thing.

--Patrick Kevin Day

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PHOTOS: Top, James Cameron at the Fabiolus Cafe on Jan. 6, 2010 (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times). Second, the box-art for the ‘Avatar’ Blu-ray (Fox). Third, a demonstrator against Israel’s barrier near the village of Bilin, West Bank, is dressed as a character from the film ‘Avatar,’ likening the Palestinians’ land struggle to the film’s fight (Bernat Armangue / Associated Press). Fourth and sixth, scenes from ‘Avatar’ (Fox). Fifth, Cameron on the set of ‘Avatar’ (Fox). Bottom, James Cameron goes native (illustration by Kevin Lingenfelser)


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