Avatar: Interview With James Cameron, Sam Worthington & Sigourney Weaver
There’s haven’t been many truly great trilogies in the history of film (sorry Pirates of the Caribbean fans) but this could be the start of one more.
We were lucky enough to be in London’s Claridges hotel this week to hear just what James Cameron, Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington had to say for themselves.
Unsurprisingly, the people who had just made the film of the year by reinventing The Smurfs were quite chatty.
Jim, how does it feel now that it’s done?
So relieved. You know, we got it done on budget and we an hold our heads high that we got it done on time by the skin of our teeth. It’s really just a huge relief to be able to pull the curtain pack and stop talking about it. There’s been a huge buzz around this thing
Sigourney, Zoe and Sam, how was it seeing the Avatar versions of yourself, especially your facial characteristics?
ZS – It blew my mind. Jim would always incorporate us in the process of the results that we would get from Weta and all the other companies we were working with, and we just couldn’t find words to express how we couldn’t find words to express how we’d feel. It was something so wonderful and so beautiful and it looked so much like us.
Sigourney – Grace had such a haunting face. Her human life is so guarded and armoured. The rendering was so amazing to me, so I was really surprised when I saw the movie and Grace looked just like Sigourney, only I was ten foot tall and blue and 30 years younger, so I was a much improved version of myself. I could leap tall buildings at a single bound. It was wonderful having a double life as a character and seeing it realised so magnificently by Jim.
Sam – I try to be a subtle actor and my biggest fear was that the nuance of a performance wouldn’t translate. I believe, hopefully, that it’s my performance, that it captures every smirk, every goofy walk, that it has encapsulated my spirit, that and hopefully after a while you watch it and it’s not a group of blue people, but us. It was wonderful having a double life as a character and seeing it realised so magnificently by Jim.
Jim, was it always your plan to reunite with Sigourney and Sigourney, what was your reaction to the concept and reuniting with Jim?
JC – Sigourney and I have remained good friends since Aliens and I presented her with a star on the walk of fame…
SW – And I get to present him with his next week.
JC – That wasn’t meant as a segue but I hadn’t thought of Sigourney when I started writing it in 1995, yet when it came to the casting process it suddenly struck me that she would be perfect. But once it popped into my head that she’d be perfect for it, you suddenly get this moment where you hope and pray that the actor is going to respond to it, and Sigourney was really effusive about it, not just about the character, but to the intentions of the film and signed up right away…
SW – Absolutely. You, know we had stayed in touch and I was always a big admirer of the challenges Jim took on, so I have to say I was absolutely thrilled when he called and really very sweetly – because even though he’s very capable, he’s so humble – asked me very sweetly if I’d mind taking a look. So I spent the next three days reading the script which was so ambitious on every level. I’d be like, well it’s so amazing but I just don’t see how you could do it, yet I certainly wanted to be part of the adventure of going for it.
And you always know with Jim that you’re never going to be in better hands. There’s no one going to fight harder or work harder to give the audience a great experience. Also, the part of grace, this woman who is a dichotomy between this very driven, dry, frustrated woman in the human world and this free spirit who has lost her heart to the Na’vi people, the combination of all these factors was just made me jump at the chance to go on this adventure with Jim.
Taking the technology forward, how does that link in to your environmental theme and how does it affect work with your actors?
JC – The interesting thing is that working with the motion capture technology, it’s probably the best actor-director process that I’ve ever been involved in. We shot for four months photographically in Wellington and parts of it were done virtually and on the virtual working process. I’m not distracted by the lighting or the time of day etc, I was really just there to do the acting. We spent all our time looking for some element of truth, emotional truth and the truth of the character. And then we’ll huddle around the high def playback and look at their faces.
I won’t see them as their Na’vi or Avatar characters for months, sometimes because the process takes so long. But as long as I know we’ve got it, I don’t have to worry about it again. I think wisely we didn’t make the assumption that we could alter it or improve it later. We worked really hard to get it at that moment and say exactly what we wanted to say. And no-one was harder on Sam or Sigourney or Zoe than themselves. I found it very stimulating, and we all bonded around this process and we all strived for excellence.
Politics of the film: war on terror, ground zero and the heroes are not the ones with huge mechanised forces…
JC – Obviously I think there’s a connection to recent events. There’s also a attempt to connect to Vietnam imagery, the way they jump off helicopters. I take that thread further back to the 17th and 16th centuries and how the Europeans displaced indigenous people from the Americas. I think there’s a lot of the wonderful history of the human race written in blood. You go back to the Roman Empire and further where we have this tendency to take what we want without asking, as Jake says. I see that as a broader metaphor, not as intensely politicised as some people might take it, but broader in that that’s how we treat the modern world.
There’s a sense of entitlement. We’re here, we’re big, we’ve got the guns, the brains, there’s a sense of entitlement therefore we’re entitled to do every damn thing on this planet and that’s not how it works. The film exposes this kind of love hate relationship with technology, using technology to tell the story that is a celebration of nature, which is an irony in and of itself.
But we’re not going to be able to just rip our clothes off and run back into the wilderness. First of all, there’s no wilderness left. Second of all, that’s not going to work for 8 billion people. So we’re going to have to think our way out of this using technology and science. Part of the themes of the film, I think, is symbolised by the fact that it begins and ends with the characters eyes opening. It’s about a change of perception and about choices that are made once that perception has been changed.
Sigourney – can you contrast the working practices of Alien and the working practices on this film? How are the advances in technology going to impact actors?
SW – There have been several revolutions but I think this one is the biggest. When I did the first Alien here at Shepperton, there were was this awesome special effects crew who with a few hoses and things like that made those special effects. On Aliens we did use green screen. I think green screen is harder for actors. In Avatar, when we were in our little suits with our ears and our tales on this empty set, we could see the world in Jim’s magic camera. I don’t know what he calls it. I call it the magic camera. We could see what we looked like in this landscape but we were completely free to be with each other as actors and characters and as Jim said, he could just focus on us.
I think Green screen and some of the intermediate things were men thinking up clever things. I think the green screen was the most awkward and as an audience member, I always thought they put the characters too close together, it was just unbelievable to me. I’m so grateful as an audience member and as an actor that we have a new technology where we can get to the essence of the moment and each scene.
James – 3D. Is it the future? How industry changing is your movie?
JC – Well I think we’ll see. Avatar’s role, little or large, in this digital revolution that is already in progress and was put in progress by a number of different films such as Polar Express, which was also performance capture but was also one of the first films that showed 3D could be very very profitable. All of a sudden, the studios are looking at this as a source of additional revenue. The theatrical exhibition community is looking at this as a way to bring people back to the cinema, to make the cinema exciting again. During an economic downturn, cinema has done very well, but with emerging revenues, because of file-sharing, downloads, piracy and all of these things and the DVD business tapering down, this has so far been balanced by the increase in markets like Russia and China coming up.
But we still need something that kickstarts public enthusiasm for the cinema as people seem to be going to smaller and smaller devices and watching movies on I-phones, we need something to balance it. I would say that if one was to see Avatar not in 3D, it would still be beautifully acted, beautifully designed, beautifully photographed. It’s not like you’d suddenly be left with 50 percent of the experience. But if you do want to see it with that extra turbo charger of experience and be prepared to pay a little extra to do so then 3D is the way to go.
Sam, don’t you have a story about the rainforest?
Sam W – Yeah, we had nothing on but a light g-string a couple of ears a tail and a wig. I thought Hawaii was going to be a holiday and I could go surfing. But we got there and it was work. But we had this guy walk past us and he goes, what are you doing. And I said, we’re making a movie. He said, who’s the director. And I said, that bloke over there. And Jim was over there with a handy cam. And he goes, is that James Cameron? And I said, yes. And he said, “Fuck, he’s gone down hill since Titanic.”
Is there going to be a sequel, a Trilogy?
JC – I always said while making the film I dreaded it making money because then we’d have to do it again. But when I pitched it to Fox I said, look, we’re going to be spending a lot of money creating all these assets – we call them assets – these CG mountains and plants and leaves and flowers and bugs and creatures. Everything you see on screen had to be created by people at work stations over a period of years, so they have value.
In terms of what the pitch was, I said, look you’re going to have to spend more money on the first one but on the second one we’ll be able to advertise that and spend more time on the story, and they bought that. So I feel like I have to make a second one now. But that will only happen if we make money on the first this one. It’s still a throw of the dice at this point. I have a story worked out on for the second one and the third one, but my lips are sealed.