Disney soon will find out the wisdom of its massive acquisition of Fox and ownership of the billion-dollar investment in Avatar tentpoles that should give the studio a fresh supply of blockbusters over the next decade. Avatar: The Way of Water opens Friday, with only a modicum of budget drama, considering every movie he made since his 1984 breakthrough The Terminator has been preceded by media pearl-clutching that Cameron’s penchant for big budgets finally would ruin a studio.
It never happened, not on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Abyss, Aliens, True Lies, Titanic — for which a chastened Cameron surrendered his backend after doubling the budget of a film that won Best Picture and became Hollywood’s highest grosser — and again on Avatar, whose gross surpassed Titanic and is the largest-grossing film ever worldwide.
Not that it hasn’t been stressful; former Fox chief Bill Mechanic once told me he wouldn’t get a physical during one of these pictures, for fear his doctor would hospitalize him over blood pressure. But nobody to date has lost betting on Cameron.
In an interview done Monday, Cameron discusses the stakes, shooting sequels back to back and what happened when things didn’t go better after he lent his creative input on Terminator: Dark Fate, after swearing off the series when rights to his Terminator creation were bought out from under him by Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna and scuttled his plans to make a third film himself.
DEADLINE: Top Gun: Maverick was the movie that got people out of the house and back into movie theaters after Covid. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever followed, now Avatar: The Way of Water brings hope that they come back even further.
JAMES CAMERON: I just got back from Tokyo, I managed to pick up Covid on the flight, I think, and so, I’m isolated and I can’t actually go to my own premiere tonight, pretty much sucks. The number of people that I’ve told over the years, “Oh, we’ll catch up, I’ll see you at the premiere, you know?” So, no.
DEADLINE: What is the line? Man plans, God laughs.
CAMERON: Yeah. Man proposes and God disposes.
DEADLINE: You took 13 years, and unlike your first Avatar, which felt like a one-off, you’ve planted seeds here to sustain a series. A bit of manifest destiny where the bad guys have gone beyond ravaging this planet for its natural resources, and instead a potential landing place for a species that has ruined its own planet. When did the idea spark, the one that will fuel a franchise over the next decade?
CAMERON: It’s really interesting. You know, when we did the first Avatar we didn’t really see it as a start of any bigger story. We are a combination of the success of the first film, not only financially but in terms of its global message, and the amount of excitement that it generated within the indigenous community around the world and the number of indigenous leaders from South America, Canada First Nations people, Australia, all over the place that came to us and said, “Wow, you’re really talking about our struggle.” They would literally say, “You made the movie about us.” I always said yes, even though it was only true in the most generic sense. So it is funny you mention manifest destiny. That’s actually the name I gave to the spacecraft that comes down and incinerates the big kill zone [in Avatar: The Way of Water]. That sequence we actually call it the manifest destiny sequence. For a pretty obvious historical reason: the expansion. The colonial expansion in the U.S. was considered to be manifest destiny. [The attitude is] we deserve this, it’s ours, we can take it — regardless of the fact that there are people already living there. It’s the same principle. But you know, I think sort of causes and themes and subtext aside, it was also just the joy and the captivation that the movie seemed to create for people. And when I sat down with my writing team, I said, “We’ve got to figure out how that movie really worked in the mind and the subconscious of the audience, and we have to do that again.”
My key to it was beauty and a sense of belonging, a sense of connection. There were some subconscious themes that I felt that we needed, to make sure that the story took us to places that we could visualize that, and beauty’s one of them. I don’t think people put enough emphasis on beauty in movies these days, something that really touches the soul visually.
DEADLINE: Your own bout with Covid aside, what’s it mean to you to play a part in moviegoers putting the pandemic in the rearview mirror?
CAMERON: Well, we’re not going to be past this any more than we get past the flu. It’s always going to be around. It’s going to find its place in our lives, and we’ll learn to go on. People are coming back to sports, live music, they’re coming back to the movies, so it’s found its balance in our lives. But it is a critical moment. We’ve got to remind people who have been glutted on content by all these streaming channels trying to grab market share by just throwing crazy money at content production and doing theatrical movie-quality imaging and visual effects in streaming content. It’s really changed the rules. It’s like, “Well, why do I need to go to the movies when I can see something like The Rings of Power at home?”
The answer is, in my mind, when you’re at home you got a remote and you’re in control and you can multitask; you don’t interrupt the flow of your life to watch. And when you go to a movie theater, you make a conscious decision to interrupt the flow of your life and let it come in, flood into you and hit you at a deeper level. I think we still want that.
DEADLINE: You shot this movie and part of the others over three years at Weta and New Zealand, where Peter Jackson shot three installments of The Lord of the Rings at once. He worked with the knowledge that failure could bankrupt New Line. How helpful was he, and what was the biggest challenge to keeping your cast engaged for such a long time?
CAMERON: Peter and I are pals, and I live in the same city that he does now in Wellington in New Zealand. I always tell him that was the biggest, craziest bet in movie history. I think this is a big bet, a very big bet monetarily, but I think that one was nuts. But they proved the model, and I was fascinated by that and I thought, “Wow, how cool would it be to go into that level of fractal detail in the world building of around the characters that Tolkien did and that Peter did from Tolkien’s books?” It would be great to do that.
The only problem for us is, we didn’t have three novels we could go out and buy. We had to come up with it ourselves, so that took some time, and that’s probably the gap between Movie 1 and Movie 2. Coming up with that story, that epic side with all that level of detail and across … it was supposed to be a trilogy, and then it kind of grew into four films. We were all pretty happy about that because we liked the story. It’s all written, all designed, we’ve got all our creatures and our habitats and our, you know, every prop that we’ve got, everything.
So all we got to do is just add a little success to the mix and those dominoes will fall, and then we won’t be out of the pop culture conversation for so long, between films from this point onward, which is how Marvel did it. They would follow success with success with success, then they stayed very prominent in the zeitgeist and built a huge fan following. I would love to be able to do the same thing, but you know, it all depends on how people respond to the movie.
DEADLINE: I feel like I’m talking to a card player sitting with pocket aces, especially after seeing The Way of Water. But let’s say it doesn’t do what you hope it will. What happens?
CAMERON: We would find a way to create as much as we could to finish the saga, round it off. We’d find an earlier offramp and then see if maybe the cost of production could come down through technical advances in the future and then revisit it. So, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, basically.
DEADLINE: Yeah, but that would be some hard conversation. I remember you telling me that when you made the first Terminator, they wanted to end the film when Michael Biehn’s character Kyle Reese sticks an explosive in the tailpipe of a gas truck which blows up the cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. I maintain that if you hadn’t argued and put your chips on the table for the final “your terminated, f*cker!” scene with Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, there might not have been anyone clamoring for Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
CAMERON: That scene took it to another level, and we just had to stand firm on that. Yeah, when the gas truck blew up, they said that’s where it ends because I suckered for their pitch that they knew how to watch movies and felt it was their job. My job was to make it, and their job was to look at them, and I believed what they said. And it turned out they weren’t able to watch a visual effects film before the visual effects were done. There were a lot of missing shots, slugs and things like that, and they didn’t get it. But we stayed the course, we got it done, and then you go on.
DEADLINE: This certainly bolsters your practice of standing your ground on creative decisions…
CAMERON: So I look back and I see — I’m constantly struck by how fragile the whole thing is, how many places it could have failed and blown up along the line, you know? And I think about that casting Leonardo [DiCaprio] and Kate [Winslet] in Titanic. Leo, the studio didn’t want him; I had to fight for him. Kate really liked him. And then Leonardo decided he didn’t want to make the movie. So then I had to talk him into it. You think at any one of those places, if that had really kind of frayed apart, it would have been somebody else and it wouldn’t have been that film. And I can’t imagine that film without him and without her. So there’s a fragility to the whole process, there’s a fragility to success. You change one element and it doesn’t work.
DEADLINE: So I couldn’t even imagine having that conversation with you, where you’d change Avatar and the sequels from what you hoped they will be to something truncated, which nearly happened to Peter Jackson on The Lord of the Rings…
CAMERON: No, it’s doable. I mean, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s definitely doable, and it would be satisfying. Wouldn’t be as satisfying to me because what happens is, after [Avatar 3], the story goes in a really unexpected direction and three is a natural stopping point. We enter a whole new problem and then that whole problem absorbs Movie 4 and Movie 5. So it’s a natural stopping point. But I don’t like to think in terms of failure, I like to think in terms of success.
So I’m just going to not think about it too much for the next three weeks because I think it’ll be the third weekend of release that will tell us what our trajectory is — if we’re shallow or we run long, we’ll make more money. If we fall off quicker, it could be just market forces, it could be attention span, it could be Covid. There’s all sorts of things that I can’t predict right now.
DEADLINE: Kate Winslet really learned to hold her breath for seven minutes underwater? That is a long time.
CAMERON: We’ve got the video someplace, but her record is 7 minutes and 14 seconds. Now that said, that’s static apnea. She’s not swimming around, she’s face down, you go into a Zen trans-like state; you slow your heart rate down. She was taught how to do that. Sigourney was taught the same thing. Sigourney was doing 6 in a static apnea test. Now, what that translates to in practical terms is about 2½ to three minutes of swimming and acting. Active brain function uses up a lot of oxygen; swimming and moving around uses up a lot of oxygen, so you don’t get those kind of times in an actual scene.
We knew we needed more than two minutes with the actors underwater. But you know, actors love any kind of boot camp. You come in, if the gig is you’re going to be a Platoon, you’re going to be with Oliver Stone in the jungle, you’re going to learn how to field-strip your weapon, all that sort of thing. So I like boot camp. In this movie, boot camp was diving, learning how to ride the creatures, learning how to hold your breath. We didn’t really have the creatures, but we had these robotic bucks that could actually move around. They were actually piloted, they had a pilot inside and then you could ride on the outside of it and they would rip around underwater. They could even come up out of the water, fly along and dive back in. Pretty nuts.
CAMERON: You think,”How’s that even possible?” Well, you know those water jet things they have at resorts where you go up and fly around, do loops and all that? We got the guy that invented that and had him build the creatures for us using water-jet technology.
DEADLINE: You started this at Fox, which is then swallowed by Disney, and now when people wonder what Disney got for all that money, the answer is becoming, “Well, they got Jim Cameron and Avatar.”
CAMERON: I think Avatar undeniably was one of the jewels in the crown that they were after, because they’d already made a big bet on Avatar. Fox made the movie. Disney wound up spending more than the cost of the first movie, to build a landing in Orlando. Pandora, the land of Avatar, they made a big investment in that. It was a very successful play for them. It really rejuvenated attendance at Animal Kingdom, so there was success in that.
They were looking across all of their business sectors and seeing how their synergy for something like Avatar could work in the same way as when they bought LucasFilm for $4 billion, and all that. That has put a little pressure on us. We got to step up and do our bit as well, and they’ve been, I would say, remarkably supportive. These movies aren’t easy to make; there’s always a lot of concern around budget and deadline. Could we actually even get the thousands of effects shots done in time? Normally you split it up across a number of houses in parallel process, but we had spent so much time and energy perfecting our technique with water effects in New Zealand that we couldn’t take the work out and put it anywhere else. It had to go through their process.
We had spent tens of millions of dollars with them improving the capture pipeline so that what the actors did, every nuance of their emotional performance, was manifested in the final character, and you can feel it in the movie. I have to pinch myself and remember that there’s no damn photography. Those are all ones and zeros, a whole string. They’re not people in makeup, they literally don’t exist at all, and the world around them doesn’t. Except that the feeling that they exist is so palpable. There are a couple of human characters in that world, but that is less than 20 percent of the movie. Eighty percent of the movie is just made up. But there’s a huge responsibility there to be as real as possible.
DEADLINE: Oh, those were real performances by characters, blue skinned or other. I mentioned Terminator. After the first two, you sat out multiple iterations that tried to finish the story of John and Sarah Connor and Skynet. Then you threw in with Terminator: Dark Fate, with Deadpool director Tim Miller. It didn’t feel like the outcome you were hoping for. Is there a lesson there about going back and messing with two near-perfect films?
CAMERON: I think, I’m actually reasonably happy with the film. Tim and I had our battles and we’ve both spoken about that, but the crazy thing is we’re still pals. Which is weird. I liked him before the movie, didn’t like him very much during the movie, and I like him now, and I think he feels the same way. We’re both these crazy sci-fi geeks and we like a lot of the same things, and I love his show, Love, Death + Robots. But yeah, we butted heads.
I think the problem, and I’m going to wear this one, is that I refused to do it without Arnold. Tim didn’t want Arnold, but I said, “Look, I don’t want that. Arnold and I have been friends for 40 years, and I could hear it, and it would go like this: ‘Jim, I can’t believe you’re making a Terminator movie without me.’” It just didn’t mean that much to me to do it, but I said, “If you guys could see your way clear to bringing Arnold back and then, you know, I’d be happy to be involved.”
And then Tim wanted Linda. I think what happened is I think the movie could have survived having Linda in it, I think it could have survived having Arnold in it, but when you put Linda and Arnold in it and then, you know, she’s 60-something, he’s 70-something, all of a sudden it wasn’t your Terminator movie, it wasn’t even your dad’s Terminator movie, it was your granddad’s Terminator movie. And we didn’t see that. We loved it, we thought it was cool, you know, that we were making this sort of direct sequel to a movie that came out in 1991. And young moviegoing audiences weren’t born. They wouldn’t even have been born for another 10 years.
So, it was just our own myopia. We kind of got a little high on our own supply, and I think that’s the lesson there.
DEADLINE: When you made the first Avatar, you showed it in advance to numerous top directors, to demonstrate the technology that maybe they would embrace in their storytelling. I recall seeing Michael Mann after, and he was raving about what you’d done. A few got made, including Scorsese’s Hugo, but it didn’t take off the way I felt in your mind you hoped it might. Why, and might this sequel make this quality 3D into becoming more a staple of moviemaking that gets us out of the house and in the theaters?
CAMERON: Well, the simple fact is, it is. Most of the big Marvel movies are offered in 3D, and I think it’s sobering to remember that when Avatar was released, there were 3,000 digital 3D screens in North America and about 6,000 worldwide. Today, there are 120,000 digital 3D screens worldwide. So that’s enormous growth in the platform and the infrastructure, and the thing that worked so well was that we got Texas Instruments to build into their chip set and into their server architecture the ability to do high frame rate and 3D. That was a baseline, and every projector that’s come out across all the different manufacturers has been 3D-enabled since then.
So I kind of don’t care if other filmmakers want to do it as long as all that’s out there and I can still do it. I think what we saw was that they weren’t interested in 3D at home at all on TV. It’s just a different viewing environment, it’s a different social environment. But people still liked it in theaters, but not everybody. So right now, like a big MCU movie in 3D might be selling 30 percent of its tickets in 3D as opposed to on the first Avatar, where we were at 85 percent.
But I see that as a consumer choice and if people like it, we’re always going to do it to the best of our ability. And we have a lot of really good technique around it to make it smooth, clear viewing — no headaches, no strobing, none of that stuff. We know how to do that, and I’m happy to share everything we’re able to do with any other filmmaker who wants to try it. Filmmakers tend to be kind of lone wolves, and a lot of them just aren’t interested. A lot of filmmakers use a long lens, and a fast-cut style. That doesn’t lend itself to 3D, where you’d have to shoot differently, and a lot of them don’t want to hear that.
So it’s going to have its own level. It’s there if people want it. We’re going to continue to do it. As long as the installed base is there for us to screen on it, that’s all I care about really. If it had died off in popularity in such a way that they took that out of the architecture of the projectors and servers, that would have been heartbreaking.