‘Minds Will Be Blown’: James Cameron Tells Robert Rodriguez Why ‘Avatar 2’ Is ‘Dangerous’ and the Key Advice Guillermo Del Toro Gave Him

James Cameron is flanked by towering trees and lush, dreamlike vistas. No, the “Avatar” director isn’t dialing in from Pandora, he assures Robert Rodriguez. It’s just a screen saver, meant to enliven whatever drab editing bay he’s in, putting the final touches, this November afternoon, on “Avatar: The Way of Water,” his long-gestating sequel to the 2009 blockbuster that introduced the world to the way of the Na’vi.

The two men are old friends — having worked together on the sci-fi adventure “Alita: Battle Angel,” which Rodriguez directed and Cameron produced — and clearly have a lot of respect for one another. Cameron, for instance, makes Rodriguez swear a “blood oath” that they’ll make a sequel to “Alita.” And there are other perks to their friendship. Namely, Rodriguez and his sons are some of the first people to have seen an earlier version of “The Way of Water.” Afterward, Cameron drilled the group for their reactions, eager to incorporate their notes as he perfected his action epic. It’s part of a process that he says he learned from Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro.

“Directors are too much like lone wolves,” Cameron says. “We should be like college pals that are film geeks. Our pal Guillermo says that, in Mexico, when somebody makes a film, all the other filmmakers gather around like a baby was being born. They all get involved in the process. And I think that’s the way it should be.” 

It’s taken a long time and several blown deadlines to reach this point (“The Way of Water” was originally intended to debut in 2014), and Cameron has made it clear how much is riding on the film’s success. He has suggested that “The Way of Water” needs to earn $2 billion to break even. But in a wide-ranging conversation with Rodriguez, who knows his way around directing franchises (from “Sin City” to “Spy Kids”), Cameron doesn’t seem to be sweating. Instead, he’s looking ahead, eager to keep exploring the farthest reaches of the mystical planet of Pandora in a five-film series he likens to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”

Robert Rodriguez: This movie is a long time coming.

James Cameron: Yeah, no kidding.

Rodriguez: But you did it again, man. Even though there’s enough spectacle in the film to drive people to the theater, the real power of it is, once again, the emotion. You reach new dramatic heights with this film. What was important for you to focus on?

Cameron: I wrote the first film in 1995. And I wasn’t thinking about being a husband, father, family guy or any of that stuff. But sitting down in 2012, I said, “What story do I want to tell?” Of course, I’m going to go back to Pandora — I’m going to go back to Jake and Neytiri. And it’s like: What if Romeo and Juliet didn’t die? What if they married and had kids, and they had a family, and they had to think about something besides each other?

Jake and Neytiri have taken it upon themselves to try to save their world from these hostile colonizers from Earth. But at what point do you have to lay down your guns? And they’ve got boys coming up who want to be warriors; they’re 14 or 15 years old, and they’re feeling that testosterone and that sense of mission. How do you tell them, “Don’t be like me”?

When I was writing the new films, I was going through that as a father of teenagers. And my conclusion was, no matter what you go through in terms of dysfunction, the family’s your fortress. And I wanted to somehow, through my art, convey that, because I thought it was a big missing piece in action movies these days.

Rodriguez: That line makes a great trailer — “Your family is your fortress.” But when you see the movie, that’s really at the forefront. How much of your own family did you bring into it?

Cameron: My kids and I have a laugh about it now because of what they see as my silly attempt to portray them. It’s like each one knows which character was modeled on them, and they totally reject it. It’s like, “No, you don’t understand me at all.” Which is perfect, right?

Rodriguez: There’s so much that people will latch onto, because there’s such a richness of characters.

Cameron: It’s dangerous to tell a story with a lot of characters because it can lack focus. But I just took that challenge on. There’s this epic landscape with epic storytelling. I was trying to emulate a “Star Wars” universe or “Lord of the Rings.” Something that’s a persistent world that people can come back to and enjoy over time.

Rodriguez: I can see why you’re designing more films for this world. What is the writing process like?

Cameron: For me, it’s a journey of discovery. You set down a path, and you’ve got some vague goals in mind. I just start writing a lot of notes. But you know this, because I gave you 600 pages of notes on “Alita” — about the world and how cyborgs work. I don’t know how helpful any of that was, but that’s my process. I try to get to a granular level of what it’s like to live in that world. I look at Jake and Neytiri and think, “What’s their reality the day that humans return to Pandora? What’s their reality the day their first child of an interracial marriage — a mixed-race child — is born? How does the community react to that? It’s a new thing on Pandora, because Jake has human DNA; he’s mixed race. He’s an avatar, and so he’s marrying a pure Na’vi woman.

Rodriguez: This is on an amazing scale.

Cameron: If you look at something like “The Rings of Power,” with those multiple storylines and interesting characters, that’s what I was aspiring to. But they had a guide; I didn’t. I had to write my own “Silmarillion” or “Lord of the Rings” in the form of notes. But I also didn’t want to do it all alone. I knew that I was going to do multiple movies, so I created a little writers’ room like you would for a TV show.

Rodriguez: It feels like it has the richness that you would get from a series, but it’s a three-and-a-half-hour movie.

Cameron: It was when you saw it. It’s now three hours and two minutes. Plus a half-hour of credits.

Rodriguez: You normally watch 10 hours of a miniseries, where this is in one movie. It grabs you by the throat with story and characters that you love from the beginning. I was really taken by the fact that Neytiri hunts while she’s pregnant. And then you have one of the characters go into battle pregnant. Why was that important?

Cameron: Everybody’s always talking about female empowerment. But what is such a big part of a woman’s life that we, as men, don’t experience? And I thought, “Well, if you’re really going to go all the way down the rabbit hole of female empowerment, let’s have a female warrior who’s six months pregnant in battle.” It doesn’t happen in our society — probably hasn’t happened for hundreds of years. But I guarantee you, back in the day, women had to fight for survival and protect their children, and it didn’t matter if they were pregnant. And pregnant women are more capable of being a lot more athletic than we, as a culture, acknowledge. I thought, “Let’s take the real boundaries off.” To me, it was the last bastion that you don’t see. Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel — all these other amazing women come up, but they’re not moms and they’re not pregnant while they’re fighting evil.

Rodriguez: How do you feel you’ve evolved as an actor’s director?

Cameron: I started as a writer, terrified of actors. I had to discipline myself, earlier in my career, to give them input that was actable, and not too intellectual. Not too literary. Not about what’s going to happen four scenes down the line because of a choice they make right now, but to focus it on that diamond point of that moment.

Rodriguez: Can you speak about the performance-capture process? What’s it like for actors to not be on a standard set?

Cameron: There’s not much there physically for the actors to work with, but I think that’s kind of overrated. What’s there for them to work with are the other actors. We give them props and wardrobe stuff to interact with and that sort of thing. But if you think about a film set, there’s a grip with his butt crack hanging out up on a ladder. And then you look around, and it’s populated by ladders and people and lights and all sorts of stuff. You’re not really going to be in the rainforest or the Library of Congress or wherever the hell you’re supposed to be shooting, anyway, visually. The actors rely on each other, and they have that in spades. Actors who haven’t done it are very leery of it — rightfully so, with any new technology.

Rodriguez: What’s the theme of “The Way of Water”?

Cameron: Thematically, it’s still about the environment. It’s about what I call the struggle between the takers and the caretakers. The indigenous people are caretakers. They’re the ones that have the power in our world right now to reconnect us with a vision of nature that’s more protective and cooperative and harmonious. If we don’t adopt that attitude, we will die out. It’s that simple.

Rodriguez: I was so excited that you were expanding the world of Pandora and both the biomes and the cultures that are there.

Cameron: If you look at how George Lucas did it in the universe that he created, which is astonishing, he chose to make each different biome, each different culture, have their own planet around the galaxy. And I thought, “Well, that’s not the way Earth works.” Earth has the Arctic, the Antarctic, the rainforest, the desert and the mountains. All different biomes. And in doing my research on indigenous culture, you just see such an explosion of ideas and wardrobe and belief systems. I thought, “Man, I can spend as many films as I want to make just on Pandora, just by going to different places.”

Rodriguez: Why should people go see this movie in theaters?

Cameron: Minds will be blown. That was our goal. We would fail if we did not do that. Whether you see it in 2D or 3D, it’s authored for the big screen. Here’s the part that people will be surprised by or are not expecting. They see the trailer and it kind of looks like a brochure for a weekend on Bora Bora. It’s all about beauty and the promise of being transported to another world and getting to enjoy it. That’s part of it.

But there’s another thing that happens when you go to a movie theater. You make a contract with yourself to give that movie its time — three hours and two minutes, in the case of ours. You give it time to work on you, and you don’t get up. You don’t go order a pizza. You don’t talk to your pals and put it on pause. It’s a different level of commitment. But what you get is a different level of impact. You add that on top of the sense of presence that you get from the 3D experience, the sense that I’m there on Pandora. You’re going to get that in the theater. Now, you can watch it on streaming later, but you’ll never have that deep experience. This movie’s going to hit people a lot harder than they think.

Rodriguez: How so?

Cameron: There’s death, there’s loss, there’s grief, there’s fighting for everything that’s right. There are real emotional stakes in this movie. And I don’t think there’s a way for us to sell that in a trailer. The story that’s being told right now about the movie, while it’s all good and positive, is half the story. To get the other half of the experience, you just got to go.