Producer Jon Landau has been a close collaborator with director James Cameron for over 20 years now, going back to the time they brought the mammoth "Titanic" to the screen — literally and figuratively. (Landau is COO and partner at Lightstorm Entertainment, the production house co-founded by Cameron in 1990.) When Cameron decided to embark on an even more gigantic project in the form of the world-building, fully immersive "Avatar" films, Landau became his right-hand man, helping guide and shape the project since the mid-'90s.
That's why it's a special treat to listen to Landau speak about his various experiences making the movies, which so far include 2009's "Avatar" and 2022's "Avatar: The Way of Water." On the eve of "The Way of Water" being released for home viewing on digital platforms, I was invited to spend a day at Lightstorm Entertainment on behalf of /Film. While there, Landau previewed some of the digital release's bonus content for me and other members of the press, and in between, he regaled us with tales of how Pandora came to be, both conceptually and physically.
The Ethos Of Avatar
James Cameron actually wrote "Avatar" sometime between 1994 and 1995, a time when both he and Jon Landau "knew the technology did not exist to make the movie the way we wanted to make it," the producer noted. However, Landau was quick to point out that he's not referring to 3D or any of the first film's major tech innovations necessarily, but instead, the tech that would allow the filmmakers to fully realize the people of Pandora: "For us, it was about putting up a motive and engaging characters up on the screen to tell the story."
In 2005, when Landau and Cameron agreed that technology had improved to their liking, they hired only five artists to begin work in earnest on the film on May 5th of that year: 05/05/05. The filmmakers went to work on creating "a production paradigm that would allow Jim Cameron to work with actors with the same intimacy that he worked [with them on prior films]," leading to a system they referred to as "virtual production." That system resulted in the various performance-capture technologies as well as virtual camera rigs that the "Avatar" team is still essentially using to this day.
In developing the sequels, Landau and Cameron similarly wanted the stories to shine above all else. Inspired by television's use of writer's rooms and using Cameron's 1,500 pages of story notes as a jumping-off point, Landau and Cameron hired "three teams of writers," as Landau described, who were initially tasked to re-watch the first "Avatar" and come up with theories about why and how it worked before they started writing ideas for the next films. Even then, Landau and Cameron didn't assign each writer to a particular movie until later, allowing the conception of the sequels to be about the overall story first.
'Boy, He's Gone Downhill'
When embarking on the first "Avatar," Jon Landau and James Cameron understood that obtaining performance capture from the actors was going to be awkward in the "very sterile environment" of the Volume, as Landau described it. So, early in the process of making the two films, Landau and Cameron took some of the cast to Hawaii, rehearsing in the rainforests and on the beaches. Landau related an experience he, Cameron, and star Sam Worthington had while rehearsing in Hawaii for the first "Avatar":
"We were out there, and Sam Worthington was out there in a loincloth, pale as a ghost. Not in the best shape of his life. Very bad fake ponytail wig, and a rubber bone arrow in his hands. And Jim Cameron was over there with his handheld little Sony cam, just like videotaping what we're doing. And on our third day out there, sure enough, there's a guy walking his dog. And the guy sees [Sam]. And he goes, 'What are you doing?' And Sam gets all proud, pops up his chest and says, 'We're making a movie, mate.' 'Making a movie?' Sam goes, 'Yeah!,' and points to Jim. 'See that guy over there? That's Jim Cameron.' With his little Sony handheld cam. The guy goes, 'Boy, he's gone downhill!'"
Landau And Sigourney Weaver Encounter 'A Pandoran Creature' In Real Life
For "The Way of Water," James Cameron and Jon Landau felt it important to not only train the principal cast in breath-holding techniques and other aspects of diving safety but to have them encounter some Earth-bound underwater wildlife as well. According to Landau, being in the ocean is "the most Pandoran-like experience one can probably have here on Earth." After training the cast in SCUBA usage, Landau arranged for them to have that very experience. One cast member who got the full benefit of that experience is Sigourney Weaver, who plays the 14-year-old Na'vi Kiri in "The Way of Water." As Landau told it:
"We did a night dive. And we went down and we sat on the bottom of the ocean, about 20 to eight feet of water, just with flashlights. And out of the abyss came these giant manta rays. And it was like a Pandoran creature coming towards us. And they swam over us, and Sigourney reached out and was able to pet one on its belly. And I always think of that, when I see the scene in the movie where she sees the Pandoran, you know, ray and she reaches out to touch it. She was conjuring up that feeling to take into our performance capture Volume."
The Trouble With Spider
Jon Landau and James Cameron knew from the beginning that the "Avatar" would be a multi-year process, especially where creating the world of Pandora was concerned. What was perhaps a little unexpected was facing the realities of nature when it came to the human cast, especially those of a young age. Casting the role of Spider (eventually played by Jack Champion) was the most evident example of this challenge. As Landau explained:
"The hardest was Spider. We had to cast him for performance capture two years before we were going to do the live action filming, and hope that he grew into the Tarzan-like young man that we wanted him to become. And he did that very gracefully, and did it very well. We shot half of his work in 2019, and we were coming back for the second half of his work in 2020 — and the pandemic hit. And we were shut down. Now what wasn't shut down was Jack's growth spurt. And he kept growing and he kept growing. And that was one of the challenges that people don't think about on these productions. We had to get back into production before he outgrew matching what we had shot in the prior year."
'You've Already Been To Oz'
As he wrapped up the event, Jon Landau was very excited about "The Way of Water" and its home entertainment release, reaffirming that there won't be any "The Abyss" or "T2"-style director's cut or special edition in the future ("This is the cut of the movie!" he said).
There may indeed be other, more in-depth, and robust releases of the films to come after this one, however. Landau was previously approached by someone about doing "a long-form documentary" about the entire "Avatar" journey, but turned them down given that only two out of the proposed five films have been made so far: "[It's] only a quarter of the experience, let's save that for down the road," he explained. Landau did say that Lightstorm is very interested in a future physical release of the films, especially 4K Ultra HD: "4K is something we love … we would love to offer that," he said, stating how they'd also love to do a 3D and High Frame Rate release as well.
No matter which home entertainment release of the films you choose to watch or buy, however, they've been carefully attuned to that experience by James Cameron himself. As Landau explained, "We go to great lengths to master every piece of content at the best level for its distribution stream. So Jim spent quite a bit of time color timing. It's not the color timing that we did for the theaters, because it's a different [medium]."
In terms of offering as much bonus and behind-the-scenes content about the films as possible, Landau expressed his philosophy on pulling back the curtain, as it were, especially in contrast to how "movie magic" used to be kept under wraps. "You've already been to Oz," he explained. "People have gone to Oz, they've experienced it. Now you can see behind the curtain. […] And once it's out there, it's out there, and that's okay. Because this is gonna be the old story by the time the next one releases, and you're gonna go back to Oz. And then we'll do it again."
"Avatar: The Way of Water" is available on digital March 28, 2023.
Read this next: The 10 Best Moments In Avatar: The Way Of Water
The post Avatar Producer Jon Landau Shares Some Strange Tales From Behind the Scenes appeared first on /Film.