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Posted at 11:15 AM ET, 08/27/2010

James Cameron on the special edition of 'Avatar,' eco-conscious DVDs and BP

By Jen Chaney

James Cameron. (AP)

Even a 15-minute phone conversation with James Cameron can become epic in scope.

During just such a chat this week with Cameron -- the Academy Award-winning filmmaker behind the 3-D blockbuster "Avatar," which reappears in theaters today in an extended, special edition -- we touched on everything from facial CG to environmentalism to Cameron's frustrations about the handling of the BP oil spill. Oh, and Sturmbeests. We talked about those, too.

Read the full Q&A for the details.

Of the nine minutes of new footage in the special edition of "Avatar," is there a sequence that’s most significant time-wise or thematically? Or that will be of most significance to the fans?

James Cameron: Well, there are short, sort of, 10- and 15- and 20-second bits that have been added back. And there are a couple of larger chunks in the one-and-a-half to two-minute range. The one that I like the best, just because it’s visually strong, is this big hunt sequence.

It’s got a lot of characters flying, riding the direhorses and you’ve got these animals that haven’t been seen before. Of course, we created all this – we knew all about it, but the audience doesn’t. It’s called the Sturmbeest, which is actually one of my favorite animals, but when we cut the sequence out we wound up taking it out of the whole movie. And that’s just a big action-adventure sequence.

Then there’s a scene that’s a very powerful, emotional scene pretty late in the film between the main characters, which -- I actually got a lot of flak for taking it out because it had a lot of fans within the production. But some of these decisions were made because we were feeling a self-imposed pressure to keep the film as concise as possible, despite the fact that we were sort of hoping to play to that epic market, if you will. So 2 hours and 40 minutes is what we went out at and the consensus was you could watch a 2-hour-and-40-minute 3-D movie and not have your eyes explode. In fact, the fan feedback was "We want more. We’d like to stay in that world longer." So, that’s why I felt pretty comfortable reinstating these scenes, which are basically my favorite moments that were removed.

You mentioned a powerful, emotional scene. Is that what people have been characterizing as the love scene?

Cameron: No, we put about 20 seconds back into the love scene. Of course because it’s titillating, it gets more ink. But in fact that’s -- I think it's an interesting moment, but it’s a moment. The scene I’m talking about is the death of one of the main characters, Tsu’tey, Laz Alonso’s character, which sort of happens off camera in the theatrical release, the first theatrical release.

It’s a big moment because it’s the acceptance of Jake into their society and their culture in a role of leader. It’s almost like it’s the emotional consummation of a lot of the themes of the movie. And it’s a powerful scene and beautifully acted and some of the best facial CG that’s ever been done, if not the best. And, you know, it was tough to take it out, but, again, we were facing that self-imposed pressure.

Why did you want to release the special edition now as opposed to during the holidays or at some later date? Was there something about re-releasing at this moment that seemed crucial to you?

Cameron: Well actually, we picked this date back in March. What happened in March was that, we were doing great guns and our business was shifting, week by week, more and more and more to the 3-D side. We started off about 50-50 and we wound up more than 80 percent of our box office was coming from 3-D. And our Imax screens were sold out right until the very last day that the film played in Imax. And then we lost 100 percent of our Imax screens overnight due to a contractual agreement to “Alice in Wonderland.” And that’s just how the business works in Imax. There’s only room for one big release in Imax at a time. It’s very linear.

And on the same day, we lost about half of our 3-D screens, again just because of prior commitment. Nobody expected “Avatar” to play so long and so strong. So we know that there are a lot of people that wanted that wide-screen, 3-D experience that didn’t get it. And so, literally, at that moment when we saw that train wreck about to happen, I started talking to the Imax guys and said: "All right, what’s our next window? When do you have a break in your schedule that we can slot back in for a while?" So we literally set this plan in motion back in March. At that moment, it was predicated on Imax. Now of course Imax will have “Tron: Legacy” in the holiday period, so you’re back to the same problem. So it looked like the end of August, early September was going to be the best window.

After that we expanded the idea and said, "Well, why don’t we go into the best 3-D theaters across the country, digital 3-D theaters, as well as the Imax film and Imax digital screens. 'Cause there’s two flavors of Imax: There’s film Imax and there’s digital Imax. We’re going to playing in 200 digital Imax theaters. Anyway, the whole thing is expanding rapidly now and I’m hopeful that within a couple of years we won’t have that bottleneck.

Do you foresee a time when, holy cow, we actually can have two Imax movies playing widely at the same time?

Cameron: Absolutely. And the key to that is the digital Imax. I know a lot of people have dissed digital Imax as not being the real thing, but I’m actually a huge fan of it because I think it creates that spectacular giant-screen experience in a way that’s cloneable, where we can get a lot of these theaters. The film Imax theaters are incredibly expensive and, frankly, it’s kind of a dinosaur paradigm. The ones that are around are probably going to be around for a long time, but it’s not an expandable model. And I want a lot more people to have that experience in theaters and the way to do it is with the digital Imax, which I think is pretty damn good.

I wanted to ask you as well about the DVDs. There’s another DVD coming out in November?

Cameron: Right, for the holiday season. And that’s the all-singing, all-dancing, all-bells-and-whistles DVD.

And will that have the special edition on it?

Cameron: There will be three cuts of the movie on that. There will be the original release, the special edition with the additional nine minutes and then there will be an extended-play, FM mix that’s even longer than that – that’s 16 minutes long. And that’s got the original opening of the film that takes place on Earth. The story starts differently. But that just felt like that was going too far afield, that was going back into the annals of the development of the movie. And that’s not something I wanted to do for a broad audience in a theatrical marketplace. But that’s the beauty of DVD. You can experiment with alternative versions and giving fans a deeper, longer experience of the movie, if that’s what they want.

But this won’t be in 3-D?

Cameron: No. There aren’t enough screens and players out there yet and when we release “Avatar” in 3-D, we want it to be a big deal. So that’s probably a minimum of year away I would say. The screens are shipping and the players are shipping, but it’s going to take time.

You’ve been very vocal about environmentalism, and certainly the themes in the film touch on environmentalism and eco-consciousness. Is it possible to put out the next DVD releases in an eco-conscious way?

Cameron: DVDs are wasteful. I think there’s less plastic in a DVD than there is in a VHS. It’s a consumer product like any consumer product. I think ultimately we’re going to bypass a physical medium and go directly to a download model and then it’s just bits moving in the system. And then the only impact to the environment is the power it takes to run the computers, run the devices. I think that we’re not there yet, but we’re moving that direction. Twentieth Century Fox has made a commitment to be carbon neutral by the end of 2010. Because of some of these practices that can’t be changed, the only way to do that is to buy carbon offsets. You know, which again, these are interim solutions. But at least it shows that there’s a consciousness that we have to be dealing with carbon pollution and sustainability.

I guess I was thinking in terms of the packaging. Some DVDs have come out with the slimmer packaging and are made out of recyclable materials, that sort of thing. Is that something that Fox could entertain for this next release?

Cameron: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s something that would be absolutely the right way to approach the 3-D release, which will be next year. We’ll have time to do that. And maybe it’s recyclable paper container, that sort of thing. There’s nothing much you can do about the disc proper, although it’s not a use-once-and-throwaway kind of medium. These are things that people hold onto. So it’s not like plastic water bottles or something like that which people need to get out of their lives as soon as possible.

But the release in November is a box set, so it’s just physically, structurally there are some limitations on that.

But you’re right. These are things the studios need to be thinking about. When I do my next film, we’re going to go much farther than we did in terms of running a green set. You know, look at a typical film set. There’s thousands of plastic water bottles that are used in a given week and that all needs to be revisited. Honestly, the truth is, we have to revisit almost every part of our lives and our existence over the next few years. Energy consumption, I think, being the biggest one. Energy and global warming are interlinked issues obviously, and global warming is going to take us out long before plastic pollution. Don’t get me started on that. I just got back from a two-day renewable energy conference in Aspen and it’s grim trying to get the needle of policy to move. You’re there in D.C. You see what goes on there. You see the paralysis of our leaders, even when there’s a Democratic majority. It’s still paralyzed.

I’m glad you brought that up because my next question was about your experience assembling that group and trying to get some attention on how to deal with the BP spill. You’ve expressed some frustration with how that went.

Cameron: We actually weren’t trying to get attention. In fact, I would have been happy if there was no media component to it at all.

Or a solution, I should say.

Cameron: A solution, yeah. I’m just like everybody else. I’m watching the spill-cam on CNN. I had approached BP initially and said "Look, we’ve got submersibles; we’ve got robotics. I know a lot of smart underwater engineers. Can we get some of our capability on site to help you out?" And they said: "Nah. We got too many ships here right now. We got more of these than we need." And I think that was actually the right answer.

So I backed off and I said: "All right. You guys know what you are doing. You’ve got this." And then I watched for another three weeks and nothing happened. So then I thought: "Screw this. I’ve got to get busy." So I called up everybody I knew in the deep-ocean community, not the oil deep-ocean community, but just the academic and scientific deep-ocean community -- people that operate vehicles regularly at depths much deeper than that well at 5,500 feet. That’s nothing. We wave bye-bye to that as we’re going past to whatever we’re doing that’s usually much deeper.

And we put together a blue-ribbon panel of people. We talked about deep-ocean environmental impact studies and so on afterwards, but my prime focus was "How do we shut this thing off?" As somebody who’s involved in a lot of engineering projects, I had some ideas. I wanted to hear their ideas. I basically stood at a white board and said, "We’re not leaving this room until we’ve got an answer." We sat in there for 14 hours at EPA headquarters and we had people video telecommed in from all over the place, including Russia. And when we walked out of the room we had a consensus on what the answer should be.

I worked with a few of the members of the team to draft a 25-page report, which we got in our initial summary, conclusions to the DOE, EPA, Coast Guard and NOAA by Friday of that week. So about four days later. This would’ve been on June 4th or 5th, something like that. I don’t remember. And it was pretty much two months before the well got stopped. First of all, our report was pretty much completely ignored, like it hadn’t happened. When they finally shut the well in, they did exactly what we said.

They did exactly what we had recommended, almost to a T. I don’t think they did it because we recommended it. I don’t think the BP engineering teams ever even saw what we drafted. I think it’s just that we were right. It was the right answer. And that was really frustrating because I could have accepted the idea that we were wrong because, presumably, we didn’t have inside information. But to have been right and then have the inaction of that -- be delayed that long -- was particularly frustrating. At a million gallons of crude going into the gulf a day, I don’t how that works out mathematically, but it’s something like an Exxon-Valdez every four or five days. To have had that kind of delay is impossible for me to fathom.

As you continue working on environmental issues and other issues of interest to you, does that make you feel like that you don’t even want to work with the government anymore?

Cameron: It’s easy to lose hope. It’s easy to just throw up your hands and walk away, but the reality is that we have to have policy-based solutions. I’m talking more about global warming and renewable energy. It’s not a level playing field right now, so it can’t be solved by so-called free-market forces when it’s not a free market. When the oil and coal industries are being subsidized at a level much higher than renewable energy, the people who try to do utility-scale renewable projects, they’re not competitive. They have to be competitive. And the only way to make it competitive is to price carbon accurately. And the only way that’s going to happen is for people to realize that carbon is a pollutant and it’s a pollutant that’s going to affect, not only the quality of our lives, but it will cause the destruction of 50 percent of all species on this planet by the end of the century. And people need to wake up to that. We've got to get these climate deniers out of the way. I mean, I’m talking about the paid disinformation campaign. People have to wake up to the fact that they’re being lied to. Then we’ve got to take action.

But you know, the leaders in Washington, they can’t do anything without a mandate from the public and right now they don’t have it. So the Waxman-Markey bill and [Sen. John] Kerry’s attempt to have an energy bill, it’s not going to go anywhere until we have a strong public mandate. And we don’t have that right now. So, I don't know, maybe guys like me that work in media can something about that. It’s difficult, but we can’t give up hope.

That was a rant!

I read that in the sequels to “Avatar” that you plan to incorporate some of your experience dealing with the BP situation. Is that true?

Not so much the BP situation, but other things that have happened over the past few months. I was involved in a protest down in Brazil to try to stop a big dam project that’s going to displace 25,000 indigenous people down there in the Amazon. And that’s like “Avatar” for real. I mean, these are guys with bows and arrows and war paint that are gonna go to war against the government and the big utility's bulldozers when they show up to start making this dam. It’s like the real deal. These battles are kind of ongoing. What I learned from that -- it’s not so much that I went down there to get ideas to make a better movie, it was more like, well I was going to make a movie anyway. Now what I’ve learned may -- very subtly, probably -- change the way in which I tell the story now that I know more about how these indigenous leaders and how these people are thinking about what’s happening to them.

By Jen Chaney  | August 27, 2010; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  Movies, Pop Culture  
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One day soon, the hoopla over Avatar will be looked at with the same confusion as Maria Tomei's Oscar. Much as we look back at leisure suits, mullets and pet rocks, with a mixture of disgust and disdain, the nation will then collectively sigh "What the heck were we thinking?" Avatar, hands down the most over-rated movie in the history of film.

Posted by: Jayne | August 27, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

I agree Jayne. Glad to see I'm not alone in that arena.

Posted by: wadejg | August 27, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

"Nobody expected “Avatar” to play so long and so strong." and "I would have been happy if there was no media component to it at all." run counter to the image of Cameron as the king-of-the-world egomaniac he's usually made out to be.

Im general, I applaud his efforts to help BP and the environment. But is BluRay biodegradable? I don't know, Jen. "Avatar" was a decent movie (liked the first two hours, hated the last 40 minutes) but I saw it once and that was enough.

Reissuing the original three "Star Wars" movies with changes made and effects added ruined any possible taste I had for alternate "director's cut" versions of any movie, no matter how good the original. (As for 3D? Please. If the movie's not good enough without considering adding 3D, then don't make the film at all.)

How many versions of "Citizen Kane" would we have had if Orson Welles had CGI and 3D? Will movies one day be available scene by scene online so you can create your own version of a film, rendering director's cuts obsolete?

Posted by: td_in_baltimore | August 27, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

CGI Rosebud. Shoot me now.

Also, I always turn to Hollywood figures for my science commentary.

Posted by: reddragon1 | August 27, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

I think Welles would've loved to have all the tech & we would've had a Regular Edition, Special Edition, Super Special Edition, Super Mecha Scary Edition & a Super MECHA SpecialSuper-de-Duperdy Edition of Citizen Kane.

All with different features & extras that weren't in previous editions & completely different collectible packaging in the shape of the sled, one with a snow globe & one packaged in a mini-Xanadu, giant fireplace & all!

Posted by: wadejg | August 27, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

I love it when someone who won't amount to diddley squat criticizes a certified genius. And yes, he is a genius. The man built his own submarine. What was the last thing you built, other than a pile of turds in your toilet bowl.

Posted by: biffgrifftheoneandonly | August 27, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Built without a permit, I might add.

Posted by: byoolin1 | August 27, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

(But a magnificent structure nonetheless.)

Posted by: byoolin1 | August 27, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

(But a magnificent structure nonetheless.)

Posted by: byoolin1 | August 27, 2010 3:54 PM

The turds, the toilet bowl, the sans permit sub, James Cameron's love life, or Avatar?

Posted by: angelos_peter | August 27, 2010 11:29 PM | Report abuse

I don't think it's accurate to say Jimmy is an idiot. More that he is either a gullible fool or a religious psychopath. Cameron probably chickened out of the debate when he realized the counter arguments were very sensible, and he didn't have a way to counter them. That's because they ARE sensible, Jimmy. AGW is a religious fantasy. You've been had. The warming cult is the side of this discussion that is tax dollars. Look back in history and you can see who is telling you the truth. Start by looking at the record of all time highs for various places around the globe. Notice how many of them are in the 1930s? The dust bowl era? Hmmmmmm...? They aren't all clustered in the last decade. Gee, ya wonder why?

Posted by: sendAltothePole | August 28, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

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