James Cameron's keeping his options open, according to his longtime producer Jon Landau: He may not direct an Avatar sequel or Battle Angel next. Landau also explained to us how Cameron might do underwater motion-capture for Avatar 2's ocean scenes.
We were lucky enough to get several minutes on the phone with Landau, who's doing interviews in support of the new Avatar DVD and Blu-Ray release, coming out today. And Landau, who's produced several of Cameron's films, says that the director is still trying to choose among a few different projects for his next film. He might tackle Avatar, he might tackle Battle Angel, or he might jump on "some third, as yet unnamed project," says Landau.
There are two main factors that will go into Cameron's decision-making matrix on whether to do Avatar 2 next, according to Landau:
1) Cameron and Landau will sit down with Fox and see if they can "work out a common philosophy on the next film."
2) Which film project Cameron feels has the best script. Landau repeated the thing he's said a few times before: James Cameron has only made two sequels in his career (not counting Piranha 2) and in both cases, they were as good as the original, if not an improvement. He won't do an Avatar sequel unless the same thing is true. So he'll only venture into production on an Avatar sequel if he feels strongly that the script is excellent enough.
Cameron, of course, will be writing the script for the Avatar sequel. But he already has a script in hand for the adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's Battle Angel Alita anime series, co-written by himself and Shutter Island writer Laeta Kalogridis. But Kalogridis also wrote another script for Cameron, The Dive, a non-science fiction project about two real-life free divers, Francisco Ferreras and Audrey Mestre. It's "a love triangle between Audrey, Francisco and the ocean, and ultimately the ocean took Audrey's life," says Landau.
But it's also a distinct possibility that Cameron might decide to direct another, as yet unnamed, science fiction project next, instead of any of those three films.
Landau and Cameron are also on board to produce a new Fantastic Voyage movie, with Paul Greengrass in talks to direct. As with the 1966 film, it would involve a scientist shrinking five of his colleagues and injecting them into his own body to cure his potentially fatal brain condition. Cameron has said he's eager to use the imagery that new medical scans give us to present a cooler look inside the human body.
We asked Landau where that stands, and he says:
First and foremost, it's not a remake. It's a new story set in that world. It's a story that deals with the issues of today, the issues of individual freedoms and rights and all of those things. And paul is not officially on board yet, but we're certainly in conversations with him, and hopefully all of that will work out. We've had an art department on, already working and doing research and pulling together some incredible visuals. And I think that's the really exciting thing about this. Truly, the greatest wonder of them all, more so than mother nature on the outside, is the miracle of life on the inside. And I think we're finding some very exciting ways to depict that.
Motion capture underwater
So since Cameron has been saying the Avatar sequel will explore the oceans of Pandora, we were wondering how exactly he could use motion-capture for swimming sequences. Sam Worthington has said that doing mo-cap for swimming in the first movie was a nightmare, because he basically had to perch on a chair and make swimming motions. (Since the motion-capture rig couldn't get wet.) So if a lot of your action takes place in the water with the Na'vi, how do you film that?
Well, I think we could put people in the water, and capture it in the water. We just didn't need to do that with this one. I think you come up with a different technology [for capturing motion in the water]. I mean, there are ways to do it where it's image recognition on the [actor's] body. I think what we did on this movie is we looked at what the script called for, and we came up with solutions for those. And we'll do the same thing on the next film. And look — the answer might not be [to capture motion] underwater, but we'll come up with something that works.
How to avoid making sequels and reboots?
Avatar is one of the few big science fiction movies in the past decade that's not a remake or sequel to an existing property. How does somebody go about getting a non-franchise picture into production, without being James Cameron with a string of hits behind you? We asked Landau, and he says:
Number one, it's about having a good script — a story that makes sense. [Also], not every science fiction movie needs to be on an epic scale. Those things don't necessarily go together. You can have small-scale scifi that works. I think a great example of that is District 9, and where there's a will there's a way. I think it comes back to story and character concepts, and what is the journey you take your characters on? I hope more people do it, because what science fiction offers is the ability to be a metaphor for the world we live in.
Landau, of course, was a producer on Solaris, the 2002 film directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney — which was a remake, but was also an example of this type of small-scale, more thoughtful picture. And he says this proves his point. "As long as you do something on the right budget scale for its potential, you can get those movies made. We made Solaris very inexpensively. George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh worked way below their going rates on the film, to get that movie made."
The popularity of Avatar.
Now that the movie's coming out on DVD, the flood of fan remixes and tribute videos and bizarre screencap parodies can begin. And Landau says he can't wait to see what people come up with. He's already been thrilled by how people have embraced the movie, all around the world. People will approach him and offer to send him pictures of their children putting on Na'vi plays, and he's heard about a high school that put on Avatar Day in Florida.
And he feels as though the depth of the movie's world and its lived-in quality help people to become invested in it. "We were doing an original science fiction fantasy world that had a foundation under it. We weren't just coming in there and saying, 'Here's a creature and here's a plane. We don't really know how it flies, but it does.'"
Designers like vehicle designer TyRuben Ellingson (whom we interviewed here) made sure every single vehicle was actually plausible and could really fly. And creature designers like Neville Page (whom we interviewed here) concocted a whole believable ecosystem. For example, Page was working on the Hellfire wasp, an insect that we only glimpse briefly in the movie being eaten by a Direhorse. And he drew some concept art of five Hellfire wasps resting on a tree, with the five of them joined together to form a star-shaped camouflage. "This was not something we asked him to do. This was something that he just took the initiative to do."
And he says Avatar proves that you can use science fiction to talk about environmental themes without turning off viewers — as long as you don't preach. "It's not overt. There's no moment where somebody says, 'Here's the facts about the environment. Here's the facts about global warming.' Leave that to An Inconvenient Truth," says Landau. "This is storytelling. Jake Sully goes on a journey of discovery, where he chooses his path. All we are asking people to do is to open their eyes. We're not telling them how to think. We're letting them come to their own conclusions."
Cameron's love of difficulty:
James Cameron faced a lot of challenges making his early films, from budget issues on The Terminator to rebellious studio workers on Aliens. Now he's in a position where he can do whatever he wants, with whatever resources he needs — but he still creates huge challenges for himself, from the underwater filming of The Abyss to the technological challenges of Avatar.
So why does Cameron like to make things difficult for himself? Landau explains:
Look, I think Jim is the consummate definition of an explorer - that person who always needs to be going to the next frontier and he does it both in his art and his life, where he goes down and dives into the thermal vents of the ocean. He does it in his art, when he presses the technology forward and everything. That's who Jim is, and he needs that to thrive.
Avatar is out on DVD and Blu-Ray today.