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“My Brain Is Just One Big Hallucinogenic Renderer”

A Q&A with James Cameron after watching ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’

Getty Images/20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

While making Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron’s biggest visual effects challenge was, well, water. “Bubble simulations, computational fluid dynamic simulations, sims on top of sims on top of sims,” he says. “It’s a fricking nightmare.” But deep into the complex explanation of how he and his team managed to create every droplet of the oceans of the planet Pandora, he stops himself. “If you really think about it, the audience gives you zero credit for any of that,” the director says. “They don’t give a shit. As long as it looks real, it’s fine.”

Unsurprisingly, Cameron didn’t spend the last decade working on the follow-up to the all-time box office champ to give the world something that didn’t look real. Avatar: The Way of Water, which hit theaters Friday, is objectively more lifelike, immersive, and emotional than the original. It picks up where Avatar left off: with the heroes Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) living peacefully on Pandora with their children. But then the human colonizers, whom the Na’vi drove away in the first film, return. And hell breaks loose.

As technically advanced as the sequel is, Cameron knows it’d be an empty spectacle without a gripping story. At its heart, the three-hour movie is an exploration of the joys and fears of parenthood, family dynamics, and teen angst. All rendered in eye-popping 3D that might once again change all of Hollywood’s approach to making movies. At the very least, Cameron assures me, it’ll look better than when Anne Hathaway dressed up as Neytiri on WeCrashed.

It struck me when I was watching it on the big screen, just these little details that I was lost in. You were in it every day, but when you saw it on the big screen for the first time, did you notice any interesting visual details maybe that you didn’t see before?

First of all, the greatest joy in doing this kind of work, other than the part with the actors, is seeing it all come together in the last couple of months. And I purposely don’t spend a lot of time working on the 3D. I think about it when I’m composing the shots, but then I have a really good 3D team that I rely on to tell me if something’s not working.

So I leave that as kind of my final gift to myself—to sit and watch an entire reel, or ultimately the entire film, in 3D for the first time. And it was literally only about a week ago down in New Zealand that I saw it end to end for the first time in 3D. And I did see things that I hadn’t known were there. And I’m kind of a control freak. So that particle that crosses over in front of Jake’s right eye? “Move that one.” And it really gets down to that kind of crazy, finite, fractal level of detail. But there’s still surprises, which is good.

Anything specific?

Obviously the intention is to excite and stimulate the visual cortex as you’re going along with a lot of really interesting stuff, so there’s always this feeling that a shot comes off the screen a tiny bit earlier than you’re done processing it, on the principle that you always leave them wanting more. And I also am very directly involved with the editing of every scene. In fact, I usually do the final-pass edit on every scene. And there’s this equipoise where you don’t hang on a shot. You hang on a shot long enough so that the 3D, the lighting, the detail is nice, but you don’t overstay your welcome. And there’s always that pressure of, “Guys, we’re three hours long …”

After 40-plus years of doing this, is it still hard to let your work go?

It’s one of the big mysteries of the work, as I see it, which is you know when it’s done. People ask me that all the time and I think there’s probably an assumption that I just keep going and keep going and keep going, making it better and better until I collapse face down and they drag it off and stick it in a movie. But it’s not like that at all.

There’s a period where you’re going into something new and you’re slamming stuff together and you feel very creative. And then there’s a moment where it starts to jell up, and then there’s a moment when it’s done. And I’m not talking about eight months later—I’m talking about later that day. And then I tend to not look back.

When I’m satisfied, I don’t second-guess it. Now, that said, you put the whole movie together and then you watch it in a sitting and you go, “We’re on this too long.” Felt right on the day of cutting the scene, but in the grand scheme of things, “We’re on it too long.” Or, and this happens equally, “We’re not on it long enough. Let’s extend this shot.” And of course, the effects guys go nuts when you extend the shot.

The other thing is I’m dealing with a proxy level of facial performance for a long time and then I see the actual “finished motion,” they call it, coming through. Which is directly from the actor’s performance. And all of a sudden I see a nuance I didn’t see before: maybe a smile just starting to happen, and I didn’t notice it. And it cuts in the middle of an expression change. So now I’ve got two choices: I can either extend and finish that expression change or I can go back and cut off before it. The fiscally responsible thing to do is to cut off before it. And the thing that drives everybody crazy is, “All right, let’s go back, look at the reference, see what the actor did. Oh crap, we want that. Let’s extend the shot by three seconds.” That drives everybody nuts, but sometimes you’ve got to do it.

Was the studio patient with you? You’re literally inventing the technology as you’re making the movie.

I have a philosophy with the studio of radical transparency. If we’re having a problem, we call them up and say, “We’re having a problem.” If they want to see it, I say, “You can see it anytime you want. I recommend waiting until this date when X, Y, and Z is done.” And they’ve honored that.

Would any studio, anybody writing a check of this size, get a little nervous in the middle of it? Of course. But we’re so transparent. We created such a flow of communication and a sense of partnership. And the word that always came back down was, “If you can make it shorter, please do.” And they’re just thinking of run time and ultimately it having some negative impact on the total ability of the film to perform in the marketplace, which is natural. Except it doesn’t apply in this particular case.

I survived without peeing.

Yeah, exactly. I think most people seem to be agreeing that three hours doesn’t feel like three hours. So I think we’re good on that. But the word that came down from Disney—actually it didn’t come down, it came horizontal because I was dealing directly with the top guys there, like Alan Bergman—was, “We want quality, we want you to make this film excellent.” They knew that it only made sense if it was a spectacular, exhilarating viewing experience. So we were totally in tune. That’s what we went in to try to do. Pull out all the stops. Just make it a waking dream. We really wanted to do something that doesn’t look like anything else.

Storywise, I feel like all of your movies deal with family dynamics. But this movie, the intensity of it, it really took me back to being a kid. Being a dad, having teenagers, did that inform the story in a way that it maybe wouldn’t have 20, 30 years ago?

Very much so. I mean, I’ve been on both sides of that equation. I’ve been the teen whose dad just didn’t even understand who the hell I was. And meaning no disparagement to my dad—he was just a kind of average suburban, good breadwinner kind of guy. But I was off in some fantasy world and he didn’t know how to deal with that at all. He was an engineer.

So there’s a certain way of processing the world that’s very logical. And then I’ve been on the other side of it with five kids, all of whom are very, very different from each other. And I guess this movie is me processing some of that, some of the problems I’ve encountered, some of the mistakes I’ve made, some of the wisdom I’ve learned. I don’t think Jake’s gotten the wisdom yet. He represents the old me, not the new me, as a dad. But that’s OK. I know how to write the hell out of that. I’ve been that guy.

Were you trying to channel the terror of being a parent?

Zoe mentioned this at a press conference. It was kind of eye-opening. She said she never really was fearful. She was always rebellious and bold and confident. She didn’t really know fear until she became a mother. And I thought, “Is she describing herself or the character?”

So if you think about Neytiri, she’s absolutely fearless. It doesn’t matter. There’s an entire army of mechs walking toward her and she’s got one arrow left. She’s going for it in the first movie, right? And Jake’s trying to stop her and you can see that it’s not going to work. She’s going to go for it. She’s going to get herself killed. It’s certainly not fear-based decision-making when she goes into a free fall dive straight down because she knows the combined speed will punch the arrow through the canopy of the helicopter. But the only time you see her terrified in the movie is when she’s got her little daughter with her and they’re trapped and it looks bad. And Zoe was playing that fear beautifully. Her performance is stunning. I think all of their performances are stunning, but Zoe is incredible.

Maybe this is a stretch, but at the beginning of the movie, when the humans come and their ship emits flames and it’s torching the forest, it reminded me of Terminator 2 where Sarah Connor’s imagining nuclear war.

It’s similar, right? Because you’ve got the expanding shockwave of fire that’s taking out the city. I got a great complimentary letter from a bunch of bomb scientists at Sandia Labs and it said, “Yeah, we are literally the world’s experts in the blast dynamics of nuclear weapons and we just want to give you a big thumbs-up. And you completely nailed it.” I’m like, “I guess that’s a compliment?” First, it incinerates you and then it blows the ashes off your skeleton.

Oh my gosh.

Good to know. Thanks, guys.

In my mind, the difference was T2 was exploring how to prevent the worst possible situation and Way of Water is what happens when it actually happens.

Yeah. If you think about it, it is an aftermath story. The humans come back and they don’t screw around. It’s like, “We’re not going to get our asses kicked by the critters this time. We’ll just take them all out.”

Is it strange living in a world now where something like the Avatar program seems a little more realistic?

Well, look, we live in a science-fiction world, essentially. Things that were predicted by William Gibson and Neal Stephenson back in the early ’80s, that’s now our life on a daily basis. I mean, Stephenson coined the term “metaverse.” I think it was in Snow Crash. And we’re living it now.

The earlier science-fiction writers? Not so good at predicting the future. They just saw computers filling giant buildings. And we just have them with us all the time. We’re all wired, we’re all connected. So that’s the wonderful thing about science fiction: It’s not very predictive about what’s really going to happen. We just have to go through with this whole civilization thing and see how it works out.

The images in this movie are trippy; you get lost in them. And I remember when we spoke about Terminator 2, you told me that you got some pharmaceutical help coming up with an idea for John Connor. And I was wondering if you had any similar inspiration with this movie?

I’m sure people assume that I’m at least micro-dosing. But no, I haven’t done any hallucinogens in probably 30 years. But I just figure my brain is just one big hallucinogenic renderer as it comes out of the box. I don’t need much help there.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.