Jim Cameron vs. Robert Zemeckis? An insider’s view of the rivalry

Nov. 26, 2009 | 9:38 p.m.

“AVATAR” COUNTDOWN: 23 DAYS

Our countdown coverage of “Avatar” continues with the conclusion of our two-part interview with the film’s production designer, Rick Carter, whose credits include “Forrest Gump,” “Jurassic Park” “War of the Worlds” and “The Polar Express.” The Oscar-nominated Carter has been one of the key members of director James Cameron’s “Avatar” team (that’s the pair working together in the photo below, with Carter on the left), and he has worked as production designer on six films directed by Robert Zemeckis. That résumé gives him an interesting vantage point on the two filmmakers as competitors on the motion-capture and 3-D frontiers.

This is Part 2 of the Carter interview; you can read Part 1 right here.

Rick Carter and James Cameron on

Geoff Boucher: James Cameron says you were the one that brought up “The Wizard of Oz,” a film that became a sort of touchstone for “Avatar” and even lent some of its dialogue to the new movie. What can you tell us about the connection there? 

Rick Carter: I actually thought this movie is like “Wizard of Oz” meets “Apocalypse Now” and I laid out a whole board showing that. Like “Oz,” you go into this whole other dimension, but unlike that movie, we go back and forth in this one. There’s a change too in the way the audience feels about the place they are going. The whole design of the movie, to be in sync with Jim, is to try to create an immersive experience where in the beginning you can be referenced by the humans and our world and what we are doing on this other planet. Then slowly there’s a transformation to embracing the “otherness” of Pandora and the Na’vi race and the whole ecological system from top to bottom. And then [the audience's sympathies] in fact change sides along with the main character too. What you emotionally relate to in the film changes. I think that’s part of the hybrid of the movie, not just technologically with live action and motion capture and CG animation. The hybrid is between where you, the audience, are and where the alien race is. That in fact is the [main character's] avatar state of being, which is a mixed DNA version of the two. The film is, in a funny way, trying to get you there in that state too, to understand that place. As a designer, to help Jim get to that, I had to kind of give myself over to something unknowable and is, in a sense, in conflict until I could resolve these two different worlds.

GB: It sound like you could teach a film theory class on this movie before you even reached the set.

RC: I know all of this sound highfalutin, but it is how my brain works now after spending time with directors like Jim, [Steven] Spielberg and [Robert] Zemeckis. Entering “Avatar,” that’s how I approached it and tried to get inside Jim’s head and his vision and the glimpses he could offer — which were quite elaborate at times. On this film, as production designer, it was like “The Polar Express“; I needed help in the full realization of that vision because I needed, physically, to be in two places at once. I had to be with the motion-capture part of the film, but I also had to oversee the live-action part of the film which was down in New Zealand.

GB: How on earth do you do that?

RC: Well, I got help. There’s a co-production designer on the film I brought in and want to acknowledge. His name is Rob Stromberg and he comes at this from the visual effects side of things — the matte-painting world — and he came up with imagery that he and his team could create, along with my input. And he really had to run the point a key thing: how to make this planet come across as an alien ecological that is connected, just like our world, but more than that is almost connected like a nervous system. The wildlife, the fauna, the people-esque creatures — it goes all down to the basic core of the planet and its spirituality. That spirituality and connection is what is at stake in the movie.

James Cameron and Sam Worthington on

GB: The theme then is two civilizations that approach nature with fundamentally different views. Do you dominate nature or place yourself under its dominion. That’s a classic clash, really, and resonates with the stories and imagery of films such as “Dances With Wolves,” “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” “A Man Called Horse,” “Farewell to the King,” etc.

RC: That’s absolutely right. And the interesting thing is if you think about those “going native” stories and even “Apocalypse Now” to some degree, they reached a point where it was harder to tell the full story of that without running afoul of history and political sensitivity issues. Take “Dances With Wolves.” Although God knows it was a wonderful movie and did as well as any movie could hope to do, it still had to run in that middle ground between the truthful Indian existence, as perceived today, and what is acceptable to the Indian community and then still be a Hollywood-oriented star vehicle for Kevin Costner. There was a lot of lines to toe and issues of political correctness, almost, to tell that tale. Now if you go back and make a movie that tells the story and is free of that. … Think of the imagery of the  Johnny Weissmuller movies of Tarzan and the portrayal of Africans, which any of us watch today and we go, “Oh, that’s a little cringe-making,” but at the same time there was a wonderful freedom to Tarzan’s existence and a freedom in the storytelling. By Jim picking a state of existence that does not exist and then all of the jumps of science — like combining human DNA with an alien DNA and projecting a character’s consciousness into the new being — all of that creates a “there” where you can stage a story that you can tell with a real freedom. The three of four leaps that you’ve taken, if you make them credible, you can mirror back on those themes that you were talking about and say what you want about them. Nature, what do we value, technology, all of that. Jim basically felt like the filmmaking technology had reached a point where he could create this place in a credible way to tell that story. The movie lets you take a journey to see what you value. And the movie is also, ultimately, a love story. The iconic storytelling patterns and structure allow us to access a big unknown story but through a drama that we can touch and recognize. The love story, the perceived betrayal in the middle of it and a choice that needs to be made. And then at the end of it, you can go back and answer the question that we talked about at the very beginning of this: What do I see?

GB: It’s interesting to see “Avatar” arrive in short order with the latest Robert Zemeckis film, “A Christmas Carol,” and to consider the journey of these two filmmakers, Cameron and Zemeckis, and their different paths along this contemporary frontier’s edge in 3-D and motion capture. I’m curious if, from your vantage point, you view them as being far apart in their approach or just several degrees removed from one another?

RC:  First of all, I like your questions and the way you’re approaching this. Because there is a difference. I also have to say some interviews that I do, the questions that I get — it all turns into “Dragnet” very quickly. Who did what? They want to put it into something they preconceive that they can write to a form. Ninety percent of what goes out falls into that, that marketing thing. And with good reason, it’s appropriate and I’m not knocking it. But those interviews — “We did this, then we did this, then we did this” — feel like a young person’s sport and I did that with “Jurassic Park” and “A.I.” and “Back to the Future” and it was fine, but now my interest is in conveying the things I see that are real. The real deal. To me, my whole time doing this, it’s been almost blessed since I’ve only been with Zemeckis and Spielberg and now Zack Snyder. So what I’m interested now is the simple question, “Is there a real vision there?” And that’s not the same as having a bunch of imagery in your head. That can be like confusing being nearsighted with being a visionary. It’s not even about having the vision being something that you can articulate and that it’s all yours alone. To me what it is is a director on the level of a Spielberg or a Cameron or a Snyder brings something to life by having enough glimpses of it and knows that it will work, and can convey that to people. It’s innate in them. Zack is a young version of those other guys. He doesn’t have to get his fingerprints over every single morsel or pixel of his movie in order to say, “That’s mine.” These are guys who can come up with something that’s inclusive enough that a creative team can get on board the proverbial train if it’s Zemeckis or proverbial planet if it’s Cameron. Or if it’s Zack [with his "Sucker Punch," now filming in Vancouver, Canada], it’s into the center of a generational zeitgeist that he makes his own and, importantly, has a lot at stake dramatically in its story. 

GB: It’s interesting to consider the scale of the movies these directors make and how, no matter the size of the machinery, the stories can veer from wildly complex to relatively simple — or perhaps elemental is a better word.

RC:  They come at from one place: what grabs them and holds their attention. It can be as simple a guy on an island and a volleyball or a story of a famous ship sinking where everyone knows how the story ends. It can be a weird creature from another planet who just wants to get home. For Zack, it can be going into the most interior-exterior place imaginable, on [the green-screen set of] “300,” and not getting claustrophobic. Something almost like alchemy happens.

GB: You worked on “The Polar Express” and I wonder how you would draw a line between that film, its technology and its filmmaking philosophy, and “Avatar.”

RC: For background, for Bob, “Cast Away” was like looking at his own life and at the end of it he felt like he was at a crossroads. He had run a course in his career of how he was making films and how he wanted to make films. I think he was at a place where he was ambivalent just like the Tom Hanks character after he returns from the island in the film. Then Bob went to another place with “Polar Express” where he tried to go a new path. He tried to find something new and fresh to him and he saw this [motion-capture] technology that Peter Jackson had used in “The Lord of the Rings” and thought it could be utilized but that didn’t drive the thing. At the beginning the source was a simple 10-page story as a memory of something that you had to believe in. That was what he wanted, to see if he himself could find something to believe in again and get on that train.

You can ask the question, “What is the legacy of ‘Polar Express’?” and talk about its dead eyes and all of that, but it still went out and made its money and, for a lot of young people, it became a perennial, a part of their holiday tradition. For all of its crude, ugly duckling aspects, it still had enough of a heart that people could make it mean something to them. Now, Bob has gone that road further [with "Beowulf" and "Christmas Carol"] to see how close he can get to portraiture, frankly, a human face that is created in our likeness that we believe. Obviously that runs into the aspects that everyone has talked about, the uncanny valley, and some people will look at it and always point to what is not there, as opposed to what is there. You know, if you’re in space and in every part of the journey you get halfway to the destination, you never actually reach it; you just get very, very close. I happen to think it’s gone through this process where now the inner and outer are starting to get very close. I haven’t seen “Christmas Carol,” so I can’t comment on it and what emotion comes out through those characters. I do know that at its essence it’s Bob trying to create portrait characters at this stage and then broaden out again and that, hopefully, lead the technology to a place where it can solve the issues in order for people to relate. We’re talking about a very fundamental thing: Is it alive or not? Is it animate or not? We know that when we’re babies and when we were cavemen going into the jungle. Is that a threat or not? Do I like this or not?

GB: Do Cameron and Zemeckis view themselves as rivals? I don’t ask that to be crass — we live in a public arena now that searches for, invents and amplifies conflict, but that’s not my goal in asking. They just seem to be in the same arena but with different philosophies, so I wonder if that stirs up a sort of competition between cinematic belief systems.

Robert Zemeckis RC: I would put it on the Lennon-McCartney level. Look how healthy that competition was even when it was unhealthy. Look at the results of it. Different approaches and personalities and each makes the other better. There’s this dialogue right now and I would throw Spielberg into it too. There’s a dialogue among a generation of filmmakers. I would say Spielberg is out ahead of it at the forefront, I’d say, being older and with what he carved out with George Lucas and the creation of the summer blockbuster. But to answer your question, of course, between Zemeckis and Cameron, yes, there’s a tremendous awareness of what the other is doing. It’s like Beatles and the Stones. And I’m so pleased that they are doing this; to be in their 50s and forging new avenues, to be taking risks and putting this much work in to it — and to be taking a certain amount of flack. Both Cameron and Zemeckis have remained true to their visions and gone places that people would rather they not go, in some places. Don’t think that people haven’t said, “Hey, Jim, can maybe you make a movie that doesn’t cost so much and puts the entire studio on the line again?” And, “Hey, Bob, can you maybe give us something a little more safe commercially and maybe not push so hard and so far out there?”

GB: Do you think Cameron is eager to see “Christmas Carol” and Zemeckis is eager to see “Avatar”?

RC: I can’t get too much into their heads. Are they eager? I don’t know. Will they be sure to sit down and watch the other one’s movie? I can assure you, yes, they will do that. And my guess is that coming out of this season we will find that there is a recognized new way forward in this arena. It doesn’t mean that others in Hollywood will pick between the two and replicate one; what I mean is there is a sense that this area is coming of age now. Some of the challenges that have been defining these movies are getting sorted out, so all of us can get on with the comfort of having this just be a part of the way we make movies and we will have this foundation in place that lets storytelling be the primary focus. That is the next level.

– Geoff Boucher 

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Top photo: Rick Carter and James Cameron at work on “Avatar.” Credit: Fox.  Second photo: Cameron and “Avatar” star Sam Worthington. Credit: Fox. Bottom photo: Robert Zemeckis.

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