Film producer Jon Landau

Academy Award-winning film producer describes what made his blockbuster film Avatar work and weighs in on the debate over 3D movies.

Producer Jon Landau is one of Hollywood's big hitters. He's played a significant role in numerous major motion pictures, including Solaris and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and teamed with James Cameron on two of the all time blockbuster films: Titanic—for which he won an Oscar—and Avatar. He also helped develop digital production tools that enable filming and mass digital distribution of 3D movies. Landau began as a production manager and later became executive vice president of feature production at Twentieth Century Fox.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Jon Landau is an Oscar-winning producer whose resume includes the two highest-grossing films in all of Hollywood history: “Titanic” and “Avatar.” This weekend, a new expanded edition of “Avatar” will be released in select theaters around the country. Here now some scenes from “Avatar” special edition.
[Clip]
Tavis: You guys keep doing this; you might make some money off this film. (Laughter)
Jon Landau: We’re hoping that this weekend we’ll eke into profits. It was a big movie, Tavis. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, this just might, might push you into the green.
Landau: It might. But more importantly, I think what we’re trying to do is deliver something that the fans have asked. The fans have said they want to go back to Pandora and that’s what we really tried to do with this special edition.
Tavis: Without giving it away, what are they going to see different here than what we saw the first time out?
Landau: Well, we tried to look at what people responded to and give it back. People responded to the night bioluminescence. There’s more of that. There’s more of the back story of Grace’s character and the school that she taught in. There’s new creatures; there’s new action scenes.
So it’s spread out and we were really happy when we watched the movie. It’s all scenes that play very organic to the movie. None of them feel like added scenes. They all embellish the stories and the characters.
Tavis: What do you think most made this work? This may be an unfair question. Do you think it is the technology or -
Landau: No.
Tavis: – do you believe it was that strongly the storyline?
Landau: I think it’s the story and the characters. Movies are about stories, characters and themes, and I think that we take, in our movie, a hero who is confined to a wheelchair, but he rises to save really a whole planet. If he can do that, it gives us hope that maybe there’s a hero inside of each one of us.
Tavis: Given all the stuff that you guys can’t see when you’re working on a movie like this, the way “Avatar” was made, how do you sense along the way that you’re on to something special, that this is going to be big? That this will work? It’s not like shooting a regular film where you can see the dailies every day and say, “This is working” and “This isn’t working.”
How do you feel over a number of years making this film that you’re on to something here?
Landau: Well, it starts with a script, and we felt we were on to something with the script. Then we took a big leap of faith after the casting process, because we were thrilled with our casting decisions. But we really waited almost three years into the process to see our first finished shots back from Weta Digital.
Tavis: See, I can’t imagine that. That’s why I’m saying how do you know? You’ve got to wait three years to see whether it’s good or not.
Landau: It was nerve-wracking. The first scene we saw was the scene were Neytiri sees Jake for the first time and she holds up the bow, and Jim and I were both really excited. It really held up. It was exactly what we wanted it to be. Then we realized that was five shots and we had 2,000 more to go, and we went, “Oh, my God.”
But it’s by hiring the right people around us. Weta Digital, Joe Letteri and his team, Richie Baneham on our side, Andy Jones, we believed in them, and we felt that they could deliver what we were asking.
Tavis: When you do something this monumental, in the end, I guess it does on some – you tell me. Does it really matter whether or not you get picture of the year?
Landau: No. It never – it didn’t matter on “Titanic.” We make movies for the audience. I go to a movie, while they’re watching the screen at one of my movies, I’m watching them. We got the biggest reward possible by the reaction to the fans, not just in North America but on a global basis. I’ve been around the world with this movie and the movie has reached and touched people universally.
Tavis: Speaking of universally, if you’re going to make money in this business these days, I read this all the time, you have to have a story that can sell, to your point, around the world.
Landau: Absolutely.
Tavis: That everybody can relate to. What is it about this particular project, you think, that related not just here in the domestic box office, but in fact around the world?
Landau: I use the term having themes that are bigger than their genre, and I think this was a theme about awakening, about realizing that our actions have an impact on both people around us and the world around us. It didn’t preach and tell you what to do. It just challenged people to do what Jake does in the movie – open their eyes.
Tavis: I want to ask you a few questions, Jon, about 3D, the first of which is whether or not we are starting now to get so much 3D that the specialness is going to get worn off pretty quickly. Everybody’s doing something in 3D now.
Landau: I don’t think so, because I think 3D adds to the experience. Just like stereo sound – do we have too much stereo sound when we listen to music or go to movies? No. We see our lives in 3D. It’s only natural that movies be in 3D.
I think that the most compelling scenes in “Avatar” where the 3D helps you are the dramatic scenes. It’s when Jake is thrown out of Home Tree, not the big action scenes. So I think we’re going to see 3D in all of our lives, in our computer screens, our mobile devices, home televisions and of course the cinemas.
Tavis: That’s a good thing?
Landau: I think it’s a good thing because what we want to do is we want to engage the audience and as narrative storytellers, the more immersive we could make the experience the more engaged in the narrative the audience is.
Tavis: For lack of a better word, for the theatrical purist who would look at a film like “Avatar” and say, “You guys are just damning the notion of what it means to be an actor with all this computer-generated stuff,” you say what?
Landau: It is the exact opposite, and you can talk to our actors about that. Our goal throughout the whole technical process was to preserve the actor, to allow actors to play roles that they could not otherwise play. These characters that you see up on the film are not decisions made by animators. They’re decisions made by Zoë Saldana, by Sam Worthington, by CCH Pounder.
They perform those characters and the visual effects team then brought them to life. They took those performances that the actors gave and applied them to CG characters. It’s no different than an actor wearing prosthetics, makeup. The makeup of the 21st century is a CGI character.
Tavis: This was fascinating for me in reading more about your back story. You have done about 10 films now? All right. (Laughs) I’m laughing already. How do you do, like, 10 – 10 films is not nothing, but it’s 10 films. It’s not 50, 60, 70, 80 films.
How do you do 10 films and two of them end up being the top-grossing films in the history of the movie business?
Landau: Well, lucky enough to have hooked up with Jim Cameron, but I think that movies for me are about passion, and it’s not about going out there and just making a movie. It’s making something that you feel passionate about and that you think will reach a universal audience. It’s what you talked about.
I look back on “Titanic” and “Titanic,” if someone said to me, “Why did that work?” I would tell you it worked because Rose was in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, losing the love of her life, yet the movie showed she went on to live a full life. Again, it tells me as an audience member, there’s hope for me too.
So creating worlds where people escape to and giving them hope through those movies.
Tavis: Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were just there. (Laughs)
Landau: They were the characters, but really, at that time, Leo had not even come out in “Romeo and Juliet” yet, so he was not a big star. But it was their presence and what they were able to bring to those characters that an audience can identify them.
Leo was a great everyman in that. He was a little bit Jimmy Stewart in “Titanic,” and he was under-credited, again, going back to the Oscars. He should have gotten a nomination.
Tavis: Yeah, I like Leo a lot. Speaking of “Titanic,” next year, 2011, the 100th anniversary of the Titanic.
Landau: Right.
Tavis: You guys are putting something out again next year?
Landau: We’re going to re-release the film in 3D. We believe that if you can shoot a movie in 3D, you should shoot it, but if you have a library title and you can take the time to do the conversion right and have Jim involved or the director involved – so we’re going to represent “Titanic” in 3D and we think a whole new audience will be exposed to it.
Tavis: Give me some sense – two questions here. What’s the process for taking a film – this is just inside baseball, but I’m curious; sorry, y’all. What’s the process for having a film that’s already been made and turning it into 3D, number one, and number two, on “Titanic” specifically, what will we feel, see in “Titanic” in 3D that we didn’t see the first time around?
Landau: Well, the process is one where you take the one image that you have and you analyze it and create a second eye. Why we see 3D is because we have two different eyes, and you create a slight separation of those two images. You’ll shift people over a little bit, and that creates a 3D space, creating the illusion of 3D.
Because when you go to the movies, it’s an illusion of 3D, it’s not truly 3D, and that’s what we’ll do out of the 2D element. What audiences will I think experience? I think the 3D will literally put the audience on the ship, and it will become a much more experiential cinematic-going experience.
Tavis: You ever worry that when you have what is now a classic like “Titanic” that getting – my phrase, not yours – that getting cute with it, like doing something like 3D, might in any way, in any way, damage, tarnish the classic that you already have?
Landau: I worry about it when other people do it. I think when we do it, our philosophy about these gimmicks are that they’re not gimmicks, that for us, 3D is not a world coming out of a window, it’s a window into a world. It’s a way of sucking the audience in.
So if you even look at “Avatar,” there are no times, really, where you’re ducking. You’ll go to these other movies, that takes you out of the movie. Also, Jim Cameron’s going to be involved in the process of converting this, and he’s not going to let anything become too cutesy.
Tavis: Without regard to this specific conversation about 3D, as a producer in this town, you like where this film industry, this business, as a business, is headed? The direction?
Landau: I don’t know that I love it. I think that we’ve always been the film business, and I wonder if we’re coming a little bit the business film. I think we have to re-instill some of that creative and allow people the opportunity to be unique, to take chances, to put out movies that are different on a small scale and different on a big scale, because I think that’s what audiences want. They don’t want just a sequel because it’s an easy thing to justify from a business standpoint, or a remake of a TV show. So I’d like to see people taking more chances.
Tavis: I’ve got 30 seconds here, and let me preface by saying I’m not asking to give away your trade secrets, not that you would anyway; you’re much too bright for that. But have you and Cameron already figured out, again, without regard to what it is, have you guys already figured out that next big thing you guys are trying to pull off that we’re, at this point, obviously unaware of, but you know what the next big hurdle is you’re trying to pull off?
Landau: Well, I think our next big challenge is trying to do an “Avatar” sequel. I think that people have told – we always said if the movie was successful and the audience we wanted it, we’d do a sequel, and I think we’re talking about how to do that and how to do it more cost-effectively, more time efficiently, and to give people a few surprises in there.
Tavis: Jon Landau, producer of the two highest-grossing films in the history of this film business – “Titanic” and “Avatar.” In the right order, “Avatar” and then “Titanic.” “Titanic” back out in 3D next year for the 100th anniversary of the Titanic, and “Avatar” out in 3D momentarily.
Landau: Momentarily.
Tavis: Jon, good to have you on.
Landau: Thank you very much, Tavis.
Tavis: Tell James we say hello.
Landau: Will do.
[Walmart - Save money. Live better.]

Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm