Ever since the release of Avatar, James Cameron has been working to preserve Earth's own Pandora with the Achuar people from the Amazon. Last night at Popular Mechanics' Breakthrough Awards — where Cameron won the Breakthrough Leadership Award for his contributions to filmmaking — we asked the director how his many trips to the Amazon have influenced his sequel to his extraterrestrial blockbuster.
I was reading about your trips to the Amazon and how you screened Avatar for a few of the local tribes folk there…
James Cameron: That's not quite accurate. What happened was, Avatar was screened by the BBC for a group of Achuar in Peru. And I saw that online and mentioned it in a speech I was making at a fundraiser. And the woman who runs Amazon Watch came up and introduced herself to me afterwards and said, "I was at that screening." It was a very interesting moment where these Achuar people, it was actually the first time they'd ever been in a movie theater, and they were watching Avatar in IMAX 3D. So I was interested in that from a cultural standpoint. As a result of my ongoing relationship with Amazon Watch, I've been down to Brazil twice on missions to try and create some public awareness around the Belo Monte Dam, and that's how that came about.
How have your experiences there influenced Avatar 2?
I've certainly learned from it. I've learned a little bit more about the indigenous community's perspective on our world. The way they think and the way they feel that they are (in a way) tasked by destiny to be the protective spirits of their rainforest, of their world. They are the people who speak for the natural world and we need to listen to them for a number of reasons. First of all, they have the right to exist the way they're used to existing, we don't have the right to change that. Although that doesn't seem to stop us. And secondly, because we need their wisdom. We need to listen to nature a lot more than we do as as civilization. And we're not listening and we're in peril right now.
Did you change any plots because of it? Were you moved by a certain man, woman or family that you met and inspired rewrites?
No. It's undoubtably had an influence but I couldn't point to a specific scene. That's something I'd probably be more prepared to talk about later when the film's done.
We also asked Avatar producer Jon Landau (who has also traveled with Amazon Watch and Cameron) how these trips have impacted his film.
How did the Amazon experience impact Avatar 2?
Jon Landau: It gave us an even greater sense of social responsibility, that our films can have a social impact on people around the world and make an impact. And one of the great things I think Jim is able to do in Avatar is, he didn't preach but he exposed things to people and let them come to their own conclusions. So no one went out and said this is wrong and this is right, they took it upon themselves to interpret it however they saw fit. And I think as we go forward — not just as it relates to the movie — but as it relates to what we're doing with the Disney theme parks, whatever we might do in publishing. In the movies, we realize that we have a social responsibility to challenge people to do what Jake did in the movie. Open their eyes. We don't tell them what to do after they open their eyes, because we believe people make the right decisions, we just challenge them to open their eyes.
As a filmmaker and a writer, what did James Cameron change in Avatar 2 after going to the Amazon? Did he rip up pages and rewrite things? Or is it all set?
Number one: it starts with story. You've gotta start with a story that's compelling and you have people that you want to follow on that journey. And then if you get through that story, you weave in the themes that you want to convey. What we've learned from Avatar and Titanic is that we have a responsibility to put those themes in. Some people see it and say, it's too FernGully, it's too airy fairy, no that's what this movie is. Some people see it that way, other people won't.
So are things going to be a bit more brutal in Avatar 2?
No, I don't think it's about being brutal. I think it's about the journey that these characters go on. We'll continue Jake's journey, we'll continue Neytiri's journey in the next movies [...] We want it to be provocative. Good science fiction is a metaphor for the world in which we live. And I think Jim is great at putting those touchstones in all of his films. Even Terminator has metaphors for the world.
So instead of saving a planet this year, are you going bigger? Will you save a universe or different species?
I think movies aren't about saving the world. I think movies are about people, and saving people. Whatever backdrop you set, I think it's about who are those people, and who are you getting behind emotionally.
Image via André Vieira for The New York Times.