For most directors, the pressure of making a sequel to the highest-grossing film in history (unadjusted for inflation) might be too much to bear, especially when that sequel cost $250 million and is arriving after a gap of some 13 years into a theatrical landscape decimated by both technology and the COVID-19 pandemic.

But then most directors – actually, most humans – haven’t been down to the bottom of the Mariana trench, the world’s deepest oceanic trench where pressure is a way of life. (Literally. The pressure there, in a part of the ocean deep enough to hold Mount Everest, is more than a thousand times that at sea level.)

Which is perhaps why James Cameron, who has braved those depths and directed two of the world’s highest grossing films (adjusted for inflation, “Avatar” and “Titanic” take the second and third spots behind “Gone With the Wind”) seems pretty chill about the imminent release of “Avatar: The Way of Water” this month.

Despite Cameron’s unparalleled box office success (or perhaps because of it), there is a sense of gleeful anticipation in the air that “Avatar 2” might be the film to finally fell the director – “That it’ll fall on its ass?” Cameron replies in his typically no-nonsense style when Variety broaches the topic with him. “I don’t worry about it. I don’t think anything one does artistically in life should be determined by the trolls and the naysayers. You just go where you think it makes sense.”

“And you make it, in a sense, for yourself,” adds Cameron, whose filmography also includes the first two “Terminator” films as well as “True Lies.” “But my tastes are so kind of blue collar and general. They’re not esoteric, my personal tastes. If I like my movie, I know other people are gonna like my movie. It’s very simplistic, really, ultimately.”

Unsurprisingly, given Cameron’s side hustle as a deep sea explorer, his personal taste also includes great affection for the ocean. Which is why when it came to writing “Avatar 2,” setting it in and around the water was a “no brainer,” he says. “I love the ocean, I have spent a lot of time doing ocean exploration, other films about the ocean.” (As well as “Titanic,” Cameron has directed numerous ocean-themed documentaries, including “Ghosts of the Abyss,” about his expedition to the wreck of the real Titanic at the bottom of the North Atlantic.)

Jake (played by Sam Worthington) in “Avatar: The Way of Water” 20th Century Studios

“Avatar: The Way of Water” sees audiences return to Pandora, where human turned Na’vi Jake Sully is now married (to Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana) and looking after a gaggle of teenage children while simultaneously fighting off the invading humans attempting to colonize his new-found home. As the battle turns personal – with Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) back from the dead and hellbent on taking out Sully and his family – the couple flee with their children across Pandora to seek sanctuary with another tribe, the Metkayina, who live in and around the water.

“They’re now refugees, going into a new place where they have to learn new things,” Cameron explains. “It’s kind of a reverse of the first movie [where] Jake had to be taught by Neytiri how to be Na’vi. Now [for] Neytiri, the shoe’s on the other foot; she’s having to learn to be one of the one of the sea people. She doesn’t like that very much. She likes it when it’s the other way around. Zoe played it – and I encouraged it – that of all of them Neytiri’s the one that doesn’t like the water. I said ‘Just be a cat. Just be a cat, you don’t like the water that much.’”

As well as meeting some new tribes, audiences will also be introduced to a cornucopia of exotic new creatures in “Avatar 2,” including the whale-like tulkun and the plesiosaur-inspired ilu, which the sea people use to ride the oceans. Did Cameron, whose deep-sea expeditions have resulted in the discovery of multiple new species (including a type of squid worm), use any of the aquatic creatures he has seen in real life for inspiration in the film? “Oh absolutely everything,” he says. “[But] the most amazing animals are actually quite small [in real life]. “So of course, for an ‘Avatar’ movie we just make everything bigger.”

Cameron’s love for the water is palpable as he waxes lyrical about the “richness of the colours, the profusion of life, the diversity, the way in which things move, locomotion, all their different schemes” found in the ocean, all of which he also incorporated into the film. “I could have made a whole movie, a 3-hour movie, that was just about the reef,” he admits. “I had to kind of pull way back and say, ‘Alright, we’ve got a story to tell about people, about family, about conflict, about conservation, obviously.’”

Both on and off-screen Cameron is known for pushing the boundaries of science and technology. Was there anything he wanted to do for “Avatar 2” that was simply too wacky, like maybe trying to mo-cap a real whale? “You know, everybody leaned into [the film-making process],” he replies, side-stepping the whale question. “I think we even looked at possibly shooting in the real ocean with performance capture. We looked at it, but everybody’s production instinct said, ‘You know, we’re gonna regret that.’” (For the record, producer Jon Landau says they did sort of mo-cap a whale by having one of the film’s troupe members move around a crude model of a tulkun in the water while vocalizing whale noises.)

While the crew may not have used actual whales for the film, they did shoot in the real ocean, rigging up some ilu-like robotic models so they could understand how a humanoid might sit on them, hold them and ride them at 15-20 miles per hour underwater. “It’s pretty dramatic,” says Cameron. “[The models] didn’t really look as much like them, but they performed just like them.”

Kiri (played by Sigourney Weaver) in “Avatar: The Way of Water” 20th Century Studios

He also immersed the entire cast, from Sigourney Weaver to Trinity Bliss, who plays Jake and Neytiri’s youngest child Tuk, in the way of water during a pre-production research trip to Hawaii, where Cameron says they spent time living in the rainforest and learning to free dive, scuba dive and night dive. “I figured the best way to learn is on a reef,” he explains. “Not in a pool. You don’t want to learn in a pool, you want to learn on the reef, because you’re constantly – you’re drawn to it. And even if you’re having fear and apprehension, it goes away. So I knew that was the way to do that.”

The trip to Hawaii was also an opportunity for the newer members of the cast – which as well as Bliss included Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton and Jack Champion, who also play Jake and Neytiri’s brood – to bond with their on-screen parents. “They very quickly became family,” says Champion of the adult cast.

Family, of course, is one of the themes of the movie and Cameron says he wrote “Avatar: The Way of Water” “as a parent and as a kid.”

“I was Lo’ak when I was that age,” he says of Dalton’s character, a misfit second son who feels like he can’t compare to his beloved older brother Neteyam (Flatters). “And I’m Jake,” Cameron continues. “I’ve been Jake with my teenage kids, the kind of hardcore disciplinarian dad.”

As well as family and conservation, one the film’s many messages is that children are the future. “The kids, of course, are the early adopters,” Cameron explains of the Sully children adapting to their new aquatic environment. “They get it the quickest, right? And then ultimately, they teach the parents how to survive.”

On the topic of family trips, Variety asks Cameron whether “Pandora – The World of Avatar” – the “Avatar”-themed land at Walt Disney World in Orlando – might be getting a water ride to tie in with the sequel. “When Bob Iger came back a couple weeks ago, I did send him an email and say, ‘You know, we can do “Avatar 2” and 3 motifs and put them into the physical hardware of “Avatar Flight of Passage” [a ride in which visitors can experience flying on a banshee],’” he reveals. “He liked that idea. So nothing has been decided. But, you know, we would like to carry that along and update it from time to time with things that flow back out of the new movies. Because I think there’s a good synergy between the physical base where you can go and just kind of meditate and be on Pandora and how the movies progress the story and bring in new imagery.”

Stay tuned.