Forget everything you’ve read about him. Those tales of tyranny, pushing his actors to often dangerous extremes, the permanent scowl... James Cameron is nothing like you imagined. On this particularly sunny day in California, the 56-year-old filmmaker is dressed in a blue sports jacket and khakis, his mop of white hair cropped suspiciously short, with a big, warm smile greeting you as you’re ushered into his suite at the gorgeous Casa Del Mar located right on the beach in Santa Monica.
Cameron was in India earlier this year where he attended a media conclave, where he sat down to speak about the future of cinema with Aamir Khan. The topic of Indian food crops up during our conversation, and the filmmaker says: "I love it. Most people complain it’s too hot for them, but not for me!" He has no complaints about Indian summers either. "I live in California, I’m used to the heat," he cheerfully states.
‘We want more of Pandora’
Immediately, we dive into the subject we’re here to discuss: Avatar — yes, we’re still talking about that film! — his 2.7 billion-dollar grossing blockbuster that will be re-released the world over on August 27, with additional new footage.
Internet forums are buzzing with mixed responses over the announcement of the re-release. Fanboys have squealed excitedly over the discovery that two new creatures — the stingbat and the sturmbeest — will appear in the new cut, plus Cameron has promised more action scenes between humans and the Na’vi, and more of the love scene between Jake Sully and Neytiri.
For others, however, the re-release just seems to be another slick, money-making gimmick. Considering it’s the highest grossing film of all-time, is there really anyone who hasn’t seen the film? “A lot of people haven’t seen the film,” Cameron says. “And there are a number of people who’ve seen it only on home video and have never had the theatrical experience in 3D. So we’re doing a 3D-only release.”
Besides, he reveals, “If you’re a fan of Avatar, what we got resoundingly is that: ‘We don’t think the movie’s too long; it’s too short. We want more of Pandora.’ Which is why we’re adding the extra nine minutes.”
‘Avatar works on multiple levels, just like Inception’
Originally released in December 2009, Cameron’s sci-fi epic divided audiences over its all-too-familiar storyline, although even its biggest critics will admit that none of the 3D films that followed — Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans, The Last Airbender — delivered half the ‘experience’ that Avatar did.
And yet in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, unarguably a cerebral blockbuster, Avatar could be looked back as a spectacle that appeals more to the heart than to the mind. “Well, I would take exception to that analysis,” he says dryly. “I think Avatar works on multiple levels. I think it works on the level of visual spectacle, it works on a level of just narrative storytelling, it works on an emotional level. I think for some people if they’re receptive to the messages of the film and it resonates with them, it works on a… let’s call it a spiritual or a metaphysical level as well. And I think that it is a film that you have to think about.”
Addressing the comparison to Nolan’s mind-bending thriller head-on, Cameron adds: “If you think about it, it’s (Avatar) actually a little bit of a challenging story; it’s not all laid out for you. People are asked to follow some kind of challenging ideas — that you can have a consciousness that exists in another body, but your real body is over here in a trance-like state…” Summing it up, he says, “I think when a film makes its points in a clear manner, and the audience is engaged mentally as well as emotionally, it works best. That’s what makes a movie work best.”
‘I don’t begrudge Kathryn anything’
Pausing to sip from a glass of water, Cameron looks out of the open window in the direction of the sun-glazed sand. The last eight months, since the original release of Avatar, have been eventful. Despite its unprecedented, record-breaking box-office collections, the film didn’t receive much love at the Academy Awards.
Bagging only three trophies (for Art Direction, Cinematography and Visual Effects), it was trumped by low-budget indie The Hurt Locker, which took Best Picture, and Best Director for Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow. “I wasn’t surprised,” he claims. “It was David and Goliath, and the Academy likes to be the great equaliser. But I don’t begrudge her anything. I got my Oscar (for Titanic), she got hers,” he says.
‘Ultimately it’s about telling a story’
Spearheading the technological revolution in cinema comes easily to Cameron who developed special 3D cameras over a decade, and also used the performance-capture technology so effectively in Avatar. “Ultimately it’s about telling a story,” Cameron offers. “No technology and no cameras and no animation in the world can make up for a story that doesn’t engage.”
So while cynics may dub Avatar ‘a silly movie about blue people fighting with humans’, Cameron understands perfectly well why those blue people touched so many hearts.
As an assistant enters the room to signal that my time with the filmmaker is up, Cameron offers his hand to shake, wishes me a safe flight back home, and settles back comfortably into his couch. His day is far from over. There are journalists from across the world that he must speak to. Many of the same questions will be asked over and over again. To be fair, it’s a small price to pay for being the most successful filmmaker in the world. James Cameron is smiling; he’s not complaining.
Weaving passion with art
In the months since, Cameron has travelled across the globe speaking at environmental seminars, and attending fund-raisers to protect indigenous communities everywhere. Earlier this year he was in South America organising a screening of Avatar for an Amazonian community called the Achuar, who are protesting against oil companies drilling near their homelands.
When he isn’t diving into the deep abyss of the ocean looking for leftover clues from the Titanic’s ruins, he’s busy convening a council of deep-sea experts and presenting a report to Washington suggesting a solution to the BP crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. Cameron sees himself as more than just a filmmaker, but is most comfortable when he can find a way to weave in his passion with his art.
‘I think 3D is going to dominate movies’
Apart from tinkering around with ideas for two Avatar sequels, Cameron is currently working towards a 3D re-release of Titanic in 2012 “to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sinking”. There has also been talk of him directing a film based on the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That last one may be the only film he’ll direct hereon, that won’t be in 3D. This, because the director feels 3D would be too exploitative towards the horror of that bombing.
Yet, he does know where cinema’s future lies. “I think 3D is going to pretty much dominate movies. It’ll take about five years, but eventually it’s going to dominate the whole market as well, and I think it’s just going to become the normal way of doing business,” he insists.
Cameron may have a point there. Not only are major event pictures like the next Transformers movie and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film currently shooting in 3D, even Martin Scorsese has opted to shoot his new film, The Invention of Hugo Cabaret using the technology.
(Rajeev Masand is a film critic and Entertainment Editor at CNN-IBN)