Sunday, April 14, 2024

“Avatar” Director James Cameron, After Years of Filming Water Scenes: “I have the concentration of a goldfish at this point”


At a recent Q&A for “Avatar: The Way of Water,” with the cast, actor Sam Worthington — who reprises his role from the original film — was asked about James Cameron’s directing process. He said, “Jim creates this imaginary world and we film it,. It’s not like he’s gone in and knows exactly how the day is going to progress or how the month or the scene is going to progress. We have a feeling about where we want to take the scene, how we want the thing to feel, but when you’re filming it, this essence of acting or movie-making… And the challenge is letting yourself go there and not blocking yourself.”

“Totally,’ said actor Stephen Lang, also on the panel and a returnee from the first movie. “And I always say it’s acting at its most fundamental. The least of the difficulties or obstacles in performance capture to me have to do with the gear, the stuff that you have to put on. When you put that on, that’s putting on your wardrobe. I’m getting in costume when I do that. But what is required is a collective understanding of what the situation is, a shared imaginary circumstance which is being specifically delineated by the director. But essentially, you are in a rehearsal room.”

Lang, a theater actor, took a beat. “You are Lear on the heath, you know. A bare stage is where you’re at. Did you get that?. Is my agent here?” he asked rhetorically, knowing he sounded too ponderous.

“Fucked up,” Worthington said under his breath, gently mocking Lang, who has Tony and Drama Desk nominations on his resume.

Which interrupted Cameron’s train of thought. “I don’t know what I was saying. I have the concentration of a goldfish at this point. I was saying something good, though.”

“Bare stage, Lear on the heath,” Worthington again repeated softly as if it say, don’t take this too seriously.

James Cameron picked up: “It’s this collective imagination… it’s such a collaborative kind of thing to do.”

As much as “Avatar” is in the technology vanguard, it’s also a movie with characters who have relatable experiences and feelings Cameron stressed, when asked how he wanted audiences to feel after watching the film: “I haven’t gotten asked that question yet… First of all, because I’m a pretty logical person, so I’m writing and I get hung up on logic, and I’ve got to just write everything and set it all up. And we go through the shooting process and then the editing process, and I wanted to take a lot of things out.

“And I realized, it’s like that game where you can keep pulling things out and the tower doesn’t fall down,” he said, referring to the game, Jenga. 

“But it starts right at the beginning, with that blank page. First thing I did when I put together the team of writers who were going to write movie two, movie three, movie four, and movie five, we put together a team to do them all. And they’re all written through the end of the movie five. We challenged ourselves at the beginning to figure out how did that first film work again.

“Because it really hit every culture and every language group across all different cultures around the world. So it had to have been at some universal level of the human heart or the human experience. And we tried to quantify it before we even started writing it because we didn’t want to miss that…In science fiction, there’s some great stuff out there, but sometimes it lacks heart. And so we really put a kind of extra emphasis on that in the writing process. And as the writers, we fell in love with the characters. I knew who I was writing for with Sam and with Zoe, and with Sigourney, and with Stephen Lang.”

As you’d expect from Cameron and the subtitle, the water scenes are spectacular; they are where Cameron is in his element. The sea creatures are ethereal and funky, including a sad-eyed whale that responds to sign language and (spoiler alert) becomes heroic in the final battle scene, which is so maximalist you wonder how Cameron will top it it in Avatars to come.

As to how he created this world, Cameron said: “You get together a shit-hot team of artists, step one. And you just start saying, “All right, what could this look like?” And we didn’t even have a script yet. I had a treatment. So I asked them all to read the treatment, then we just sat around and talked about it and just started figuring, okay, what does our island culture look like, and what do the people look like? Get the character design team to start figuring that out. I gave them one edict, which was no Creature from the Black Lagoon has webbed hands. We’re not doing webbed hands.”


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