James Cameron: I want to compete with ‘Star Wars’ and Tolkien

Aug. 25, 2010 | 7:04 p.m.

Avatar-vertical-cameron Apparently, there’s no such thing as a quiet little corner of the world when your name is James Cameron. “Welcome to the wind tunnel,” the 56-year-old filmmaker said as a Santa Monica sea breeze gusted through the French doors of his beachside hotel room on a recent afternoon. A hard-backed “Avatar” poster flew off a tripod stand in the corner and the filmmaker chuckled.

“Look at that, Neytiri just leaps at you the moment you walk in the room.”

Surprise attacks and second winds are fitting imagery these days. “Avatar,” the December release that stands as the highest-grossing film in history and was still showing on 500 screens as recently as mid-April, will return to theaters Friday with nine minutes of additional footage and somewhat uncertain ambitions.

The ubiquitous “Avatar” pulled in $2.4 billion in worldwide box office, which raises the question of who the target audience is for the release of “Avatar: Special Edition” — how can moviegoers miss a film if it never really went away? More than that, “Avatar” now stands as the bestselling Blu-ray ever and in its first three weeks on shelves the film sold a record-breaking 19 million units on DVD and Blu-ray.

“This is the big experiment — we’re coming out after the home-video release and relatively close on the heels of that home-video release,” writer-director Cameron said. “That’s what’s weird about this. Most people would say that ends the life cycle. But we know that there were not enough 3-D screens out there to support two big pictures when ‘Alice in Wonderland’ opened [on March 5] and then ‘How to Train Your Dragon,’ they took half our screens. We know there were a lot of people at that point who wanted to see ‘Avatar’ in 3-D on a big screen. Does all that go away after the home-video release? My instinct is that people who wanted to see it on a big screen will still want to see it on a big screen.”

Cameron says he hopes to pull in moviegoers who typically dislike sci-fi but may have softened their stance while watching “Avatar” win the Golden Globe for best picture and earn top Oscar nominations, including best director and best film. Most of all, though, he is counting on the true-believer constituency being lured back by the new scenes, which include a dramatic hunt sequence that pits Na’vi spears against the sturmbeest, a large herd animal that Cameron calls “Pandora’s answer to a buffalo.”


“I think a large number of people who go see this will be the repeat offenders, absolutely,” Cameron said with a smile. “I didn’t want to do so much that it became a different movie. I wanted it to be the same movie you remembered if you’ve already seen it but with some little special jelly beans along the way. There are some real chunks with some real payoffs in and of themselves but other ones are just little 20-second bits here or 40 seconds there, enough to add a little bit but not enough to break up the flow or the pace. It’s all the same experience but with a little bit more of Pandora.”

As for that additional footage, there are three with the sturmbeest. Why so many? Cameron says two shorter scenes with the burly creature were edited out when that primary hunting sequence ended up on the editing-room floor. “The other little scenes felt like orphans with the big-tuna scene so we took them out as well. Now you see the sturmbeest in the battle scenes toward the end of the film.”

“It’s not all endless stuff of people talking back at the base,” he said. “It’s all CG stuff or a few live-action shots with CG elements. It’s the good stuff. We have another 20 minutes [we could have added] of people talking back at the base, absolutely, but I didn’t think that’s what people wanted to line up for.”


There’s also more of the iridescent rain forest-at-night scenes, a new flying sequence with the banshees, the winged dragon-like creatures that glide past the hovering mountains of Pandora. More compelling from a narrative standpoint, however, is the restored death scene of Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso), the strong, scowling Na’vi tribesman who is betrothed to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) before the arrival of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as the earthling intruder in the dangerous Eden that is Pandora. Cameron had joked that he faced a near mutiny from his creative team when he decided to chop out the evocative battlefield death scene. Now he concedes that his team might have been right.

“This was a powerful emotional scene that we took out because I thought it was almost too many emotional beats toward the end of the film,” Cameron said. “I was really worried about fatigue. I think subconsciously I was concerned about a 3-D fatigue mixing with an experimental fatigue, and then when we put the film out there I started to think I erred on the conservative side.”

Jamessam350 It goes unsaid by Cameron, “Avatar” producer Jon Landau and their team, but there’s a sense that they will be watching the rerelease as a bellwether of the sort of connection that exists between their Pandora mythology and fans. Be it with toy-shelf ventures, video game releases or the wildly ambitious online tie-ins, Cameron and company have approached “Avatar” as a candidate to join “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” as omni-media franchises that inspire pop-cultural tribal followings across decades.

At this point, though, “Avatar” might just as easily go in a different direction and become a cinematic phenomenon with narrower life off the screen — like, say, “The Matrix” or Cameron’s own “Terminator” films. If that happens, it won’t be for lack of trying by Cameron.

The filmmaker, for instance, is finishing a companion novel to “Avatar” that will go further into the characters, the history and the environs presented in the movie’s story. At one point he had hoped the book would be finished in time for linked release with the film last year, but that didn’t happen.

Cameron said it may be on shelves in time for the holidays.

“It gets into the nuts and bolts of the Na’vi culture, their lore and mythology, and has more about Dr. Grace [Sigourney Weaver’s character] and her time on Pandora, but it doesn’t go beyond the end of the film other than to tease a little bit about what’s going to happen next. It will also be the bible for any future publication, a look-up guide for future writers who can come in and work within the world…. Think about all the ‘Star Trek’ novels and how they contradicted each other for a few years and it made it tricky to be a Trekkie for a while.”

The novel will tune Cameron up to write the scripts for the next two “Avatar” films to be released this decade.

“It will steep me in the stuff so I can write the two-film story arc that I want to do next,” Cameron said.

Cameron admires the universes created by George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry and the man who now has the two highest-grossing films of all-time (Cameron’s “Titanic” from 1997 still floats there at No. 2 worldwide with $1.8 billion) openly admits that he aspires to compete with his own cosmic aspirations.

“You’ve got to compete head on with these other epic works of fantasy and fiction, the Tolkiens and the ‘Star Wars’ and the ‘Star Treks,'” Cameron said. “People want a persistent alternate reality to invest themselves in and they want the detail that makes it rich and worth their time. They want to live somewhere else. Like Pandora.”

— Geoff Boucher


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Photos: James Cameron (top – credit: Art Streiber); Pandora’s sturmbeests (second); Sam Worthington and Stephen Lang in “Avatar” (third); and James Cameron and Sam Worthington, in a motion capture suit, shooting “Avatar.” Credit: WETA


30 Responses to James Cameron: I want to compete with ‘Star Wars’ and Tolkien

  1. Michael says:

    Cameron needs a reality check. The Lord of the Rings is one of the great literary achievements of the 20th century. Cameron wouldn't know a decent plot if it hit him in the face, his characters are cardboard cutouts, and his dialogue is a joke. Comparing himself to Tolkien would be like me comparing myself to Kobe Bryant on the basketball court.

    • lawrence says:

      On the contrary Michael.
      Though I agree Avatar is as yet as a hobbit to a Mumak, it may prove to be as epic a milestone in cinema literature. Howevermuch Avatar may remind us of other tales, the world Cameron designed and the culture behind it is unprecedented in sci fi. Look how shallow the original Starwars plot was. I loved it but it was "space opera"- pulp fiction that was with TESB & ROTJ fleshed out into a decent saga.
      As for the dialogues, lets be fair. Cameron may not be Tolkien or even Heinlein but Please Just compare Avatar with the plots and dialogues of the first StarWars and original Star trek.

      Also Tolkien was nominated but not short-listed for the Nobel literature prize, as none of the critics believed The Lord of the Rings would become such a classic. yet It has spawned an entire genre of heroic fantasy. Perhaps the same may occur with Avatar. Like Tolkien, Cameron has a story-world far better envisioned than Roddenberry or Lucas could ever come up with on their own.

  2. Richard says:

    His films are so over-hyped that by the time they are released, I’m already bored with them. That and his over-use of CGI puts me off.

  3. jkc says:

    Gorgeous CGI eye candy does not a Tolkien make. Cameron's achievement with Avatar was astounding, as a commercial exercise first and foremost and as eye candy. Tolkien is on another level entirely inventing the fantasy genre among other things. Lucas had Joseph Cambell coaching him up and Yoda and Chewie and Hans and Boba Fett and R2D2 and C3PO. Awesome, appealing unique characters of all stripes. Avatar = Navi and Humans and cool flora and fauna. Too limited in its diversity of higher-level humanoid-like beings to be anywhere near Tolkien/Star Wars/Star Trek. The mythology and tribal allegiance etc. is born out of the characters and diversity of humanoid-like beings in these worlds. Like all great drama, it's the relationships that matter. Avatar is Pocahontas and killing snit in a gorgeous place.

  4. Chris says:

    Hey James:

    Want to compete with Star Wars and Tolkien? Make a good movie.

    Stop ejaculating over special effects and tell a good story.

  5. mulder69 says:

    Ugh, this movie is definitive proof that the moviegoing public mostly consist of morons. How could this pile of crap make the kind of money it did otherwise? For pete's sake, its Dances with Wolves on another planet with a truly lame ending. The entire planet rebels and the evil corporation just gives up?! What a joke! Just because its a pretty looking movie doesn't mean its any good.

  6. Henry says:

    Hey guys,
    It's not James Cameron, it's haters needs to have a reality check..
    James Cameron is an outstanding and inspiring director.
    By criticising someone who is talented and successfull you're ain't going to achieve anything in this Life!

    • Dave says:

      When Avatar books become the 20th century's second most read book after the Bible like the Tolkien Trilogy is, then come and talk to us Middle-Earthers about literary achievement.

  7. mircln32 says:

    I agree with all posts, except the last. Avatar and other over-hyped movies just show that stories have become very secondary to moviegoers, it's about special effects explosions, 3D, and high profile actors/directors. The Transformers movies, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Avatar were train-wrecks. Some of the dialogue in Avatar just made me cringe, it was just Pocahontas in space.

    • Lawrence says:

      Come on guys, I've heard ppl tell me "Avatar was just Dances with Wolves".
      Ok I agree the Naa'vi bear a little too much similarity to native americans than necessary, but who need 1000 different humanoid aliens? I love the common design format of fauna in Pandora (6-legs, quills, luminescent colours). Maybe the Naa'vi should have had 4 arms.
      Ok so maybe Transformers movies, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies WERE train-wrecks. Not Avatar. sorry. Cameron has done his best on this one, and I'm sure the director of ALIENS wont be fobbing fans off like in star trek, with aliens with a bit of plastic on their noses.

  8. Brian Foxworth says:

    Why don't you all shut up! But seriously, James Cameron is a storyteller. His story, though familiar is not without its own. This I say because, Cameron brought forth a story that is remniscent of Pocohontas, but is not. Its on another planet, and it is what could happen. His imaginary ethic has changed fimmaking, we must realize this is a good thing because Cameron has inspired many; including me

  9. GKCR says:

    I am u r fan james , can u give chance to act in u r next as hero movie

  10. MkzRaptor says:

    Haha, oh wow. This comment section in itself is very ironic. I totally agree that Cameron is way too focused on special effects, and maybe it looks prettier than LotR or Star Wars, it comes NOWHERE CLOSE in terms of an actual story, and yes, the fact that he and his fans even consider themselves in the same league is testament to how retarded the average moviegoer seems to be.

    So after being accused of being morons, here’s what these two Cameron supporters had to say in defense:

    “by criticizing someone successful you ain’t gonna achieve anything in Life!”
    “Why dont you all shut up! Bla Bla Bla.. His story, though familiar is not without its own. This I say because, Cameron brought forth a story that is remniscent of Pocohontas, but is not. Its on another planet, and it is what could happen. His imaginary ethic has changed fimmaking…”

    It is reminiscent of Pocahontas but is not because it takes place on another planet? Cameron has an “imaginary ethic” that changed filmmaking?


    You guys are like seagulls fascinated by shiny objects.

  11. brettghampton says:

    James Cameron is many things, but he cannot count good screenwriter among his titles. He tells a good story as a director. He may have come up with the stories for the first two "Terminator" films. But "Avatar" was the kind of story an elementary school kid could have written, gussied up in admittedly dazzling special effects. It's not the kind of movie I need or want to see more than the one time I caught it on HBO, however.

  12. FrostbiteFilms says:

    The original Star Wars trilogy will never be matched, it was a genius human story of triumph and love -and technically a "Space Opera"- where the story is first and the fact that it just HAPPENED to be set in a galaxy far, far away is incidental and WHY it's so good- it could be set anytime and anyWHERE. It's relateable and personal and FUN.

    LOtR is EPIC and rich and classic fantasy and was all of those things BEFORE there were films. You know, LITERATURE.

    ALIENS, Titanic, Terminator 2, and Avatar are cute sci-fi movies and fun blockbusters, nothing more. Cameron is great at bilking cash from the masses, in that he is unmatched. But to quote Han Solo – he must be "having delusions of grandeur."
    Poor James, maybe put down your expensive toys and pick up a book (or twelve) THEN come back and try to make something with more staying power and cultural significance than a modern day "JAWS."

  13. sarah says:

    woooooow. I never knew that so many people hated Avatar. I LOVE THAT MOVIE TO DEATH. and I can't wait for 2 and 3. Though I don't know about competing with Lord of the Rings and star wars. I love, love, love LOTR and star wars is okay. but if he wants to go ahead and compete with them, then let him. you never know, he probably could pull it off.

  14. JHawk says:

    District 9 was a better film. In fact I think it should have won all the awards that Avatar did. The effects were lite and everything sat really well in the real world environment, which if you know 3D is much harder than creating your world in 3D. And most importantly it was a good story with good character development and a good message. Avatar was the fluff of that summer. District 9 was the true SiFI film of 2010.

  15. JRRT says:

    James Cameron is a joke. He can never compete with my storytelling.

  16. Glen says:

    Enough of it, already.
    Nearly a dozen people have successfully poured their hearts out about what a horrible movie Avatar is, how nothing can compare with Star Wars & LOTR, and how you just can't stand the quality – or lack thereof – that is seen in Cameron's script.
    Good for you, moviegoers. You've made an excellent display of just how very opinionated people can be.
    I applaud you for your avid parroting of the other comments, and your remarkable ability to draw conclusions from others' thinking.
    You've certainly convinced me how very stupid I was to commit such a crime as to actually enjoy the movie. It was a horrible waste of my time, seeing as I should have been complaining that this wretched director failed to deliver us another Lord of the Rings.
    Obviously, seeing that it cannot compete with the all-time greats, it is no good and therefore not worth my time.

  17. JIm says:

    I hope I never reach the point where my desire to critically analyze everything to the nth degree gets in the way of just sitting back and enjoying the trip. I loved Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Titanic, Avatar, everything Quenton Tarantino and Coen brothers ever made, as well as lots of other movies. They're only movies, people. As moviegoers all we do is invest a few bucks and a few hours and hope that we have a good ride.

    • Dave says:

      Really? That's the extent of your cinematic appreciation? You completely ignore the transformative power of film.

      • Michael says:

        "–the transformative power of film."
        OK Dave–go to the local art cinema and listen to extended dialogue that doesn't have much to do with what you hear people actually say, and convince your self that you are somehow transformed. This is art snobbery at it's highest, spend $12, sit in front of a screen, and instant karma!..wow if it were only really so easy.
        Cameron may be grandiose, but what billionare isn't? At least he knows that he is providing an escape for his audience not psychotherapy.

  18. Kel says:

    Avatar was a good movie, but no where near the level of SW or LOTR, in my opinion. He can't really compete with Tolkien, Tolkien was a literary genius. Cameron makes movies. If he competes with anyone it'd be Lucas and Jackson. Lucas isn't the greatest with dialogue (especially romance, Attack of the Clones anyone?) but has a wild imagination and the original trilogy is a classic and will remain a favorite throughout time, as do I believe will LOTR. And I do agree Cameron focuses more on aesthetics than plot. Peter Jackson, I believe, is the strongest overall. The writing is excellent, the directing is great, the production is always high quality, and I don't think any other movie in history put more work into than the LOTR. Just watch the extra features.

  19. kluckmeister says:

    Ok seriously people. James Cameron is not a "storyteller" he is an embellisher. Just because you pour $300 million into a movie doesn't make it great. This isn't like sports where you can buy a ton of extremely talented players and expect to compete for a championship.

    I'm sure he has great vision, and he certainly appeals to the unintelligent masses, but real moviegoers and critics demand more than expensive visual tricks… how he doesn't understand that yet is beyond me. Oh wait he makes a shit ton of money on his shitty movies. Nvm…

  20. ken says:

    AVATAR,,LOL..couldnt even sit through it ..titanic was camerons,best..

  21. John says:

    LotR. Great, rich, fascinating, layered, the product of a man obsessed with creating a complete mythology for its own sake. This man knows language, myth, all that stuff, loves it, and dedicates himself to that work. It's timeless.

    I love "Star Wars". "Empire". "Jedi". Strong stories that get to you on a basic level, but the mythology of Star Wars is pure boilerplate once you get past the basic Joseph Campbell level on which it resonates. It's a commercial mythology. The more light is shone on it by the awful prequel trilogy and the hundreds of novels and the many video games, the less interesting it becomes. But those first three movies stand on their own.

    Avatar. 3D. Every element is boilerplate. The whole damn thing is conceived as a financial enterprise. Tolkien's world is "applicable" to ours. The nature of hope, evil, power. A pluralistic worldview. A respect for nature. And then all the religious applicability. Cameron's "Avatar" has nothing to it beneath the surface. All it says has been said before, better. It says it in the language of bad movie tropes, a general simplistic vilification of corporations that's enough to piss off even anti-corporate lefties like myself. A completely borrowed aesthetic. Like "Titanic", a movie that's so calculated to make money that it doesn't even feel like a movie. You can't compare yourself to Tolkien when you create a world with merchandise and shitty paperbacks in mind.

    • Dru says:

      Go and read 'Glen's' comment… "..how very stupid i was to commit such a crime.."
      Then 'Michael's' comment… "..the art of snobbery at its highest.."

      Everyone's a film critic nowadays (pfft..!)..

      btw,,, People tend to forget that the amount of press/ publicity/ media/ social coverage inherent in todays times leaves little room for error/ experimentation or quiet development of ideas or scripts without an unholy amount of scrutiny (the likes of which Tolkien, Lucas, Roddenbury had never EVER experienced)

  22. Lil'Bino says:

    i want to send message to James Cameron …sell the idea of ​​making movies

  23. David says:

    Haters going to hate but also they are illiterate… The headline was presumably chosen by Geoff Boucher or his editor not Cameron. Nowhere in the article does he say he is equal to or better than Tolkien he talks about an omni-media business model similar to those other franchises, and he talks about competing with them (surprise all you trolls movie making is business). He indicates admiration for those other franchises (a sentiment that apparently 90% of you bozos share) and apparently he aspires to do the same thing. It is a business and elements of the Tolkien's books was reworked to make it a better movie experience. I guess that was only for artistic reasons and not because Peter Jackson wanted people to go to the movie and buy popcorn. Such a struggle artist is he not a tramp to the almighty dollar like Cameron. I guess Cameron is right about one thing – people do love to live in their fantasy worlds.

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