Conversation: On ‘Avatar’ and ‘The Futurist’

Today marks the highly anticipated release of “Avatar,” the first film in 12 years from director James Cameron, whose last movie, “Titanic,” was the highest grossing movie of all time and winner of a record-tying 11 Oscars.

Much of “Avatar’s” development was kept in secret, but a few things we do know: It is one of the most expensive movies ever made and it was created using several new technologies, which Cameron and others believe have the potential of changing moviemaking forever.

To learn more about Cameron’s new film and the director himself, I spoke to Rebecca Keegan, who spent time on the set of “Avatar” and wrote the new biography, “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron.” She joined me by phone from her home in Los Angeles:

Full transcript after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rebecca Keegan, welcome.

REBECCA KEEGAN: Hi.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now you got an early look at the making of this film when you visited the set, I guess? What did you see?

REBECCA KEEGAN: I did. The first time I went to the “Avatar” set was in early 2008, and at that point there was still a shroud of secrecy surrounding the movie. Because it was a James Cameron film, I naturally expected to have an enormous set, props, actors, you know, a big spectacle like the kind there was with “Titanic.” But I showed up and it was this kind of this spare, drab soundstage in a dingy warehouse in Los Angeles, and there were a bunch of guys hunched over their computers in the corner, and there was Cameron holding the camera on this blank soundstage, and you know, directors by the way rarely hold cameras, especially elite, big directors like Cameron. So that was sort of unusual. And what was really unusual and when I looked in the camera lens and saw even though we are on this empty sound stage, he was actually shooting inside a virtual world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Shooting inside a virtual world…now well, explain that because much of the focus of this film, of course and the attention on it, is on the technological aspects, what’s going on? I mean, what ways is it different or more advanced from the past, what he is trying to do?

REBECCA KEEGAN: Well, there are a few ways in which “Avatar” is technologically sort of the next step for movies. Probably the most obvious is its use of 3D. The movie industry has been inching toward embracing digital 3D for the last about eighteen months or so, and “Avatar” uses it in a way that is very, very immersive. Cameron made this film in large part in hopes of nudging the industry toward embracing 3D all the way. There are a couple of other advances. One is his use of what he calls performance capture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, what does that mean?

REBECCA KEEGAN: Well, performance capture is when he’s filmed actual actors and then layered over their performances sort of CG detail. This is how he gets a tall, blue, alien version of Sigourney Weaver. And this was the real advance in how he filmed it, because looking in his camera lens he was able to see not a bare, blank, empty sound stage but this alien jungle and Sigourney Weaver there as her tall, blue self.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’ve seen the film, so how does it affect the viewing experience? What is it like?

REBECCA KEEGAN: The viewing experience is incredibly immersive. You know, “Avatar” takes place on this moon, Pandora, in the year 2154 and Cameron has really created a world that’s wildly fantastical and imaginative and you feel like you are there. It almost feels like you are watching sort of a nature documentary that happens to take place on another planet.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this comes directly from Cameron and his obsessions. You’ve referred to him as, I think, it was equal parts artist and gear head.

REBECCA KEEGAN: That’s right. Cameron is unusual, I think, in that both sides of his brain —left and right — seem to be equally developed. He has been imagining a lot of the creatures and the plant life in “Avatar” for decades, actually, since he was a truck driver in the ’70s in Orange County California.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh really, I didn’t know, so this has been with him a long time.

REBECCA KEEGAN: Well, a lot of the imagery — you know, there are these creatures in the film called wood sprites, which look like sort of a merger between a jellyfish and dandelions. He was sketching those in his notebooks when he was, you know, in his mid-20s and a kind of broke blue-collar guy. The actual process of making the movie didn’t start until 2005, but some of these images have been in his head for a very long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, he of course — the other thing that gets attention is, well, just James Cameron, you know, maker of “Titanic.” That’s a long time ago. He runs on his own clock, he does things his way, true of many prominent directors, of course, but you’ve talked to him and watched him — what’s going on with him in particular?

REBECCA KEEGAN: Well, I think with Cameron the time he took in between “Titanic” and “Avatar” is extremely unusual. I mean, “Titanic,” he was in his mid-40s when he had released the highest grossing movie of all time, winner of a record-tying 11 Oscars. At that point he was really at the pinnacle of his career and probably could have done whatever he wanted to do. So to choose to step away from Hollywood for several years is really unusual.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did he do when he stepped away?

REBECCA KEEGAN: He decided to pursue things that had been his passion for years. Deep sea exploration has been a passion of his for a long time and he made a number of documentaries, used those documentaries as an opportunity to do some research and development into the 3D cameras. Cameron also is a big kind of space junkie, and he became very involved with NASA creating technology for a Mars movie that ultimately he ended consulting with NASA on and became someone NASA brings in as sort of a motivational speaker for its scientists.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does he say when you talk to him and interview him about what he’s doing, I mean he could have done anything, as you said, and yet he didn’t and then he went back to this older passion, I guess, older story. How does he see his work?

REBECCA KEEGAN: As far as Cameron is concerned if something is not hard, it’s not worth doing. One of his sort of catch phrases is “break new ground.” So for him, after doing “Titanic,” which was grueling and complicated in so many ways, he wasn’t going to make another movie unless he felt like he could really advance the ball in some way. And that’s why he spent so many years developing the technology he would use to film “Avatar”. I mean, I personally would like to see him do a small movie for a change. It would be just kind of interesting to see, well what does a, you know, $7 million James Cameron movie look like?

JEFFREY BROWN: What is he like on the set by the way? I mean, what do you see when he’s in action?

REBECCA KEEGAN: Cameron is very intense. One thing that I kind of got a kick out of is that he communicates exactly the same way whether he’s talking to a grip or a studio executive. I mean, he’s just a very no nonsense guy. He’s incredibly descriptive and often critical, you know, I’d be sitting in a meeting, a teleconference with the artists at Weta Digital in New Zealand, who were doing the digital animation spending months and months on these shots. And he would be looking at the images with his little laser pointer and singling out something he didn’t like, maybe a tree branch. He could spend half an hour on that tree branch or how alien sap was dripping. I mean, incredibly detailed oriented.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now this is not a $7 million dollar film. I saw, what number is it, in the $200 or $250 million just for production, so a lot is riding on this, right?

REBECCA KEEGAN: Absolutely. I mean, the “Avatar” budget I don’t we’ll really know for a couple of years what really cost. It tends to take a while for the true cost of movies to come, but I would guess, yeah, it’s around the $250 million dollar range for production now. And it’s interesting, because in this price range I can’t think of another movie at this time that’s made wholly from an original idea from one person. You know, you have the “Harry Potter” movies or the “Spiderman” movies or “Transformers” — these are all movies that came with a preexisting intellectual property and therefore kind of a built in fan base is a way of a studio hedging its bet. “Avatar” is really unusual. There is no built in fan base, except for fans of Cameron.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I don’t want you to give anything away here, but you’ve seen the film, most of us have not because it is just opening. Do you think it’s a success?

REBECCA KEEGAN: I do. I think it’s a very epic feeling film. The footage that takes place on Pandora is extremely transporting. There are some weaknesses in it that are the kinds of weaknesses you tend to see in Cameron’s films. He struggles with dialog a little bit. The story is very complicated. One of the things I think he suffers from is sort of an abundance of ideas. To me it’s kind of nice to see a filmmaker in this category suffering from an abundance of ideas, because so much of his competition seems to have no ideas and nothing to say. But I think what he really succeeded in making you care about these blue characters, which I was skeptical of. Why am I going to care about these sort of cat-like looking creatures, and that’s been a lot of criticism of the trailer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

REBECCA KEEGAN: Once the movie takes off you are really wrapped up in them.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the movie is “Avatar”, the new book is called “The Futurist: the Life and Films of James Cameron.” And author Rebecca Keegan, thanks for talking to us.

REBECCA KEEGAN: Thank you.