SDCC: James Cameron reveals Avatar's genesis

James Cameron can pack a lot of interview into a short walk. In between his last scheduled print interview and his walk to the television press line at San Diego Comic-Con on Thursday, Cameron agreed to answer a few questions in an exclusive interview with SCI FI Wire about his upcoming 3-D film Avatar, which garnered rave reviews from fans.

About 6,500 fans in Hall H got their first peek at the 3-D footage from Cameron's long-awaited sci-fi epic, which Cameron had previously touted to 3-D industry professionals and theater owners. Now we know what the alien Na'vi look like on the planet Pandora. With this chance to follow up on the film's story and themes, Cameron explained specifically what he's still waiting to show us on Dec. 18 and even a tidbit about the video game tie-in.

Avatar is the story of an ex-Marine who finds himself thrust into hostilities on an alien planet filled with exotic life forms. As an "avatar," a human mind in an alien body, he finds himself torn between two worlds in a desperate fight for his own survival and that of the indigenous people. Following is an edited version of our exclusive Q&A with Cameron about his film.

As far back as The Terminator, you've made science fiction accessible to all audiences. How are you doing that in Avatar?

Cameron: Well, first of all, I think you have to know that you're making science fiction for a broad audience, not a science fiction audience. I think you can do shows targeted on [Syfy] to a science fiction audience. They get all the references. They know the history. They've seen Stargate and Star Trek, and they know that there are different ways of moving around, faster-than-light ships, wormholes, all this stuff. I don't think you can make those assumptions with a broader audience. So now you've got a twofold problem. You can either do something that would be rather pedantic to a true sci-fi fan, but the general audience is still almost lost, or you don't explain it, and they're really lost. I don't know what the answer to that is. I don't think there's a simple answer. I think you keep the narrative elements recognizable to anyone as narrative archetypes. You keep the characters very accessible. A really good example of that is Jake Sully. He's not a scientist. He doesn't understand all the stuff that's going on around him. He's explaining some thing that he's seeing. He says, "Grace explained to me what that is, and I don't really understand it, but it's something to do with superconduction, and I don't even know what that is." So he's a grunt. He's an Everyman. He's also an Everyman with an emotional resonation that I think audiences can relate to, which is he's got a disability. He got the disability in combat from having been a marine.

Sam Worthington, who plays Jake, said in an earlier interview that an element of the script is about bullying. How does that work into the story?

Cameron: It is, it is. He's introduced in a bar at the beginning of the film. He sees a guy slap a girl, big, solid guy twice his size, plus he's in a wheelchair. He goes over and beats the crap out of him. That's the first thing you see the character do. Later, what you find is—I mean really, our cultural history for the last 5,000 years is about bullying. I've got the men, I've got the weapons, I've got the armor, I've got the ships and the cannons and all that stuff, and you don't. You've got bows and arrows. Your s--t is mine. That's how it works. That's what this country's based on, the musket versus the tomahawk. You've got the oil, we're coming. So it is a form of bullying. It's about the cultural interface and how one culture always buckles to another culture. Very seldom are we so enlightened that we're culturally inclusive of the culture that's getting hammered and displaced. So this is about a culture that fights back and says, "No, no, no. You don't get to do that."

How do you conceive of an entire race, and then individuals within that race?

Cameron: It's a lot of work. You really have to think it through. You've got to find the thing that is alien and you've got to balance the thing that is alien with the thing that is recognizable, because you'll lose the audience if you just create aliens. If you create true aliens, they're not going to look like us, they're not going to think like us, the things that motivate them will be different, their emotions will be different, their culture will be so different. That will be a cool thing to do at this point, but now you're making something for a very narrow hard sci-fi fan base. I'm trying to tell a love story that's got some kind of universal kind of appeal to it. So the trick was how to find the alien within the recognizable. The Banshee is a good example. Maybe it's kind of like a pterodactyl, but it's really not. It has aspects of an eagle. It has aspects of a barracuda. It has aspects of a lot of different creatures, and it's neither a dragon nor a pterodactyl nor a big bat. It's its own thing, but the alien within that is in the details, like the fact that it breathes through intakes in its upper chest and vents through an exhaust here, so it's almost like a jet, in a way. Things like that. Some of it you didn't get to see [in the footage]. The same thing with the people, with the Na'vi. We have some things that they do that are pretty darn alien, but really it was "How do we find the things that remove them from human just enough to remind you that you're on another planet but still make them very accessible?"

You've clearly thought of every aspect of the story and the technical production. Are you that well versed in the world of gaming as well?

Cameron: Ubisoft came to us with such a strong pitch that I didn't need to sit over their shoulder all the time, but I was definitely a strong partner with them in the development of the game. Here's an example. We were all excited about stereo[scopic 3-D]. Doing a big title in stereo was really cool. We looked at their first demo scenes, and we're playing it, and it's a first-person shooter. We're shooting a bow as a Na'vi. It's really cool watching the arrow go out there and hit stuff. At a certain point I said, "Guys, this is great, but should it be first-person? If you're supposed to be a Na'vi, and you can't see yourself, you don't see how kind of beautiful and noble and powerful and you don't see how all your cool gear looks on you. Maybe it shouldn't be a shooter." A shooter sort of says, "I know what I look like." Anyway, we decided to change the experience to a third person over the shoulder.

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