Interview: James Cameron Talks Avatar and the Future of 3-D

Are you a film lover? Do you live within driving distance of Santa Barbara, California? If so, you need to start taking the Santa Barbara International Film Festival seriously as a way to get up close and personal with your favorite filmmakers. This year alone, every single director nominated for an Academy Award showed up to discuss their work. There were plenty of stars on hand, too, sure -- Sandra Bullock, Arnold Schwarzenneger, even Kirk Douglas -- but it's the behind-the-camera filmmakers that really blow me away. There's nowhere else in the world where you can find James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, and Kathryn Bigelow all on the same stage to discuss their work. Over a period of three days this month, I was saturated in experiences like this, and consequently bring to you now a series of reports on some of this year's -- and any year's -- biggest cinematic successes. I begin with James Cameron and observations drawn from on-stage and backstage conversations with the legendary monster of film.

Until he wrote and directed Avatar last year, Cameron had actually been absent from mainstream filmmaking for more than a decade, ever since he won the Best Director Oscar for Titanic. Titanic spent Cameron's sabbatical as the highest-grossing film of all time, domestically and internationally, a position that was only recently usurped by Avatar. That's right, Cameron is now responsible for the two most successful films ever made. This is why I call him a monster. He's seemingly unstoppable, but the real question is how does he achieve this?

Avatar"Film is communication, and you have to have a value system," he argues. "You have to have something to say. You had to have experienced life a bit. Film school is great, but films about films become solipsistic, self-referential. You need a voice, you need some opinions. Good films are personal. Avatar was very much a personal film for me."

If you watch the writer-director speak at length about the projects he's tackled in his career, you realize that, yeah, his movies are big, they're loud, they shatter records, but they also retain a very specific voice that is undeniably Cameron's. It's impossible not to see that the hand responsible for Avatar was also behind The Abyss. Studio influence always seems light years away from what he delivers to audiences, and it's arguable that this is why we show up in droves to experience what he has to offer.

"When people ask me what my inspiration for Avatar was, I go back to my childhood, to...Ray Harryhausen films," Cameron explains. "That dream-like world of stop-motion, it was otherworldly."

In case the name is unfamiliar to you, Harryhausen was the special FX king of the world for decades. A protégé of Willis O'Brien (the man responsible for King Kong), he went on to generate stop-motion masterpieces like Mighty Joe Young, 20 Million Miles to Earth, Jason and the Argonauts, and his masterwork Clash of the Titans.

AvatarThere was nothing like Harryhausen at that time, Cameron says. "Special FX barely existed. There were monster movies, but in terms of sci-fi as we define the term today, it didn't come into its own until the '50s." Everything changed in the '70s, though, with Star Wars. "It wasn't dystopian. It was celebratory of the mythic hero." And the mythic hero is something you find in almost all of Cameron's work, exemplified in the character of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in Avatar. Cameron is a vocal proponent of the upbeat ending. There can be tragedy, but life must be heading in a positive direction, or at least appear to be, by the conclusion of his films.

When asked how he feels about the impact Avatar has had on the box office, the man who once shouted "I'm the king of the world" at the Academy Awards is considerably less effusive. This is James Cameron in award-stumping mode. He tends to try and blunt his over-the-top personality when it stands the risk of alienating voters.

"It's very satisfying as a filmmaker to know you're communicating, and to a global audience," he says. "That the audience is having an experience -- that's the part of it that's most satisfying. The awards are cool, mostly for the people involved in making the film. I don't necessarily need another award."

Sure you don't, Jim.

AvatarAs for the environmental message of Avatar, Cameron says it's a subject he's been passionate about for years, ever since he was a "junior naturalist" as a kid in his native Canada. Recently on The Charlie Rose Show, he admitted Fox Studios tried to get him to downplay this theme in the movie. Studio suits were apparently afraid it would alienate audiences, not engage them ... but attempting to engage them was exactly what Cameron had in mind when he set out to make the film.

"I don't delude myself that an entertainment film can change the world, but I do think an entertainment film can trigger an emotional effect or outrage," he says.

Others will argue it's not the social message of Avatar that's connecting with audiences, but rather the mind-blowing 3-D experience that is the world of Pandora. It's a far cry from the CGI that blew audiences away in Terminator 2: Judgment Day; T2 featured, according to Cameron, only 42 CG shots while Avatar employed 2,600. When asked about the impact 3-D will have on Hollywood, Cameron says, "Right now, you're seeing the immediate aftermath of Avatar. Studio heads are trying to jump on the bandwagon -- 'Let's turn our movie into 3-D' -- but you can't do it that way. It should come from the filmmaker, who wants to have that as part of their palate. It shouldn't come from the studio who just wants to rubber stamp '3-D' onto scripts."

Hmmm ... one wonders then if he's referring to recent announcements that Robin Hood, the Clash of the Titans remake, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are being upgraded to 3-D as an afterthought to the filmmaking.

Also at the festival, Quentin Tarantino was asked to comment on the "game-changing" success of Avatar's use of 3-D. Would he consider using it in the future? This question was clearly an attempt by the moderator to bait the independently minded, almost anti-commercial filmmaker into bashing 3-D as an attempt to exploit ticket buyers, but Tarantino surprised listeners. "I'll tell you what would have been a game-changer for me with Avatar," he began. "If I had seen it before I did Kill Bill. When I did Kill Bill, I had these ideas of what it would be like watching the movie. It would be like a ride, like taking a wild ride. I didn't manage to do that. It was good, but it wasn't the ride I envisioned. When I saw Avatar, I thought, 'That's the ride I saw in my head when I set out to make Kill Bill.'"

Imagine that, kids: Kill Bill in blood-splattered 3-D.

AvatarCameron soon went on to discuss the prospect of an Avatar sequel, something fans are clearly clamoring for, not to mention studio owners like Rupert Murdoch who recently announced there would indeed be a sequel ... without any confirmation from Cameron.

"Well, there are still some deals to be made," Cameron says before laughing, "which will be easier now that Rupert's announced it."

"I've had some good luck with sequels," he continues. "I think T2 was better than the first. There's an art to sequels. You have to make audiences comfortable while playing against that. It's hard to do. But I do have the story arc to the movies worked out, yes."

Does that mean Cameron intends for this Avatar sequel to be his next film?

"Going forward, I don't know what the next film will be, but I know it will be a challenge," he equivocates. "I know it's the best job in the world."