James Cameron and Denis Villeneuve Talk ‘Avatar,’ ‘Dune’ and the Future of Movies
Art and Experience:
“It’s an honor for me to talk with you,” the 54-year-old director of “Arrival” tells the 67-year-old director of “Aliens.” “I’ve been a massive fan of your work, sir, since … a long time.”
“Don’t make me feel too old now,” Cameron replies with a smile.
Soon enough, though, these two celebrated directors are geeking out like old friends. Cameron repeatedly praises Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel “Dune” — about the rise of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) — which has been split into two parts (the second is set to debut in October 2023). Villeneuve interrogates Cameron about the four “Avatar” sequels he’s been making for the better part of a decade with a largely new, young cast (the first of which is scheduled to premiere in December 2022). Over the course of an hour, the two compare their philosophies behind the rigors of building out their respective planets of Arrakis and Pandora, and share their sanguine perspectives on how streaming is transforming their industry.
James Cameron: Let me kick off by just saying what a pleasure it is to meet you and get to congratulate you on your triumphant film “Dune.” Just to say up front, before I start hectoring you with questions, how much I love the film. At the end of two and a half hours, I didn’t want it to end. I wanted more. Thankfully, you’re going to do “Part Two”?
Denis Villeneuve: Yeah. I’m a bit responsible for the idea that I decided to split the first book in two parts. It’s a book that takes its power in details, the way Frank Herbert approached it: ecology, biology, all the different tribes, all the different cultures. I wanted to try to keep as much of the essence of it, and it felt too dense for one movie. The studio, they generally like the idea of several movies, so I didn’t have to fight for that.
Cameron: Yeah, I think it’s changing. This idea of a movie as an island has gone away. People want characters they can invest in over time. How did that sense of wanting to honor Herbert’s detail affect your visual style?
Villeneuve: I tried at my best to put the ecosystems in the center of the project. It will feel [like] everything has been influenced by biology, by nature. I was trying to go away from fantasy, bring as much science into it. Even if it’s an imaginary world, things will obey the laws of nature, gravity, aerodynamics, physics. When I read the book at 13 years old, I had a very visceral reading the first time. It’s an intellectual book, but I tried to go back to that viscerality as I was designing, directing, everything.
Cameron: It’s a beautiful book. Other filmmakers have tried to pay proper homage to it and not succeeded. I just want to say up front, I think you’re the first to truly succeed. As you were trying to crack the code of the book and adapting it to a script and ultimately to a film, how did that influence individual decisions?
Villeneuve: It’s always about your own intimate relationship with the project. Something that is not interesting for the audience or for anybody else but me. That’s like a kind of compass. I try to stay as close to the book as possible. I said to my crew, “That’s the bible. I would like us to deviate as less as possible from the book.”
There are similarities between the ideas behind “Dune” and “Avatar,” but I had that reference. I had the gospel of Frank Herbert. You went from scratch. You created that world. With all my respect, it must have been daunting?
Cameron: But I had the grand provocation of a book like “Dune” and the detail that Herbert went to in creating an ecology, and a culture, and an interstellar economy. You know what you have to do to compete with a world class vision like that. It wasn’t exactly a roadmap, but it was certainly a good challenge to rise up to.
The thing that strikes me about “Dune” is that it’s truly epic. When I use the word “epic,” I’m using it in a very specific way, meaning like a David Lean film, or to a very large extent like the “Lord of the Rings” films. But when I think of films that have epic events in them, like let’s say a Marvel Universe film where whole cities get destroyed and so on, they don’t feel epic to me. You seem to have the discipline, the vocabulary, of actual epic filmmaking, that kind of grand proscenium frame that’s just presented and takes its time with the music and so on. Is that just innate with you? Were you trying a style on this film that you hadn’t done?
Villeneuve: I would say that the idea was to try to bring back humanity to its right position in the ecosystem, like in the book where the humans are not in control of nature. There’s not a lot of middle ground shots: landscape and faces. I learned about the power of landscape working on documentaries at the National Film Board of Canada when I was an assistant back to Pierre Perrault, a documentary filmmaker. We went nearby the North Pole on Ellesmere Island. We spent several weeks there.
Cameron: I haven’t been there, but I know a bit about it because they’ve done some Mars simulation projects up there on Ellesmere.
Villeneuve: What amazed me is all the emotions that were coming every morning when you were waking up. It felt so cinematic at the time. It was a very important lesson for me, how to listen to nature and the power of nature in order to create cinema. That’s part of my, let’s say, film school. That brings a question. As a filmmaker, I’m inspired by reality. I need something tangible, and when I’m in a virtual environment, my energy is sucked out. It’s like if I have nothing to ground myself. You have all my admiration because you are, I think, working mostly in virtual environment, and I have no idea how you can you keep your creativity alive in those kinds of environments. It’s amazes me, the way you work.
Cameron: Well, I’ve been in the filmmaking game for about 40 years. I started off with all real sets and real tricks, all in-camera, and made an aesthetic discipline out of that. If I hadn’t done that, I don’t think I could do all the virtual stuff now. I think that your documentary experience has given you enough, because you’re clearly working also with visual effects and blending the two quite seamlessly. The last time I checked, there were no 400-meter-long sandworms around that you could call up…
Villeneuve: (Laughs) Very long casting process, I must say.
Cameron: It did strike me that you built as much as you could. You could feel that. I thought that the transition to CG was happening a little bit farther away from camera than it is on an “Avatar” film. I also feel that you tried very hard to put cinematic aesthetics into your CG shots. There’s a lot of lens flares, there’s a lot of almost glare-y lighting. They’re beautiful images, but they’re intentionally imperfect so that they feel photographic.
Villeneuve: Thank you. I’m going to get a little bit technical. It’s very uncommon for me to have you in front of me. Do you work totally in virtual environments where you have some kind of a pre-vis of the world? On my set, I had an iPad where I could actually see a [full CG] building, but I was still in a real environment. But you are in total virtual world. Your mise-en-scène is so precise. You had to know this world with such an intimacy, like if you had been there for real. I think I should shadow you for a few days to understand!
Cameron: Oh, I don’t think so. I think you’re doing fine. Two things. One, I assembled the best team of designers that I could. Then, we basically stood up a virtual environment like a video game. And like your iPad, I was able to move around within that space and ask the actors, “What do you want to do?” As we put a scene together, if I wanted to move a waterfall over there, or cliff over there, I could do it pretty quickly in that virtual world.
By the time we got to the sequels, we spent a lot of money to formalize that process and create what we call Simulcam. I’m able to look through my live action camera and see those set extensions automatically, in real time. So however I turn the wheels, because I like to operate, I can look around that world and compose within the world in live action. Now, it took us six years of development to get it to that level. The performance capture stuff is very specific to “Avatar,” but the Simulcam stuff I think could be applied to any imaginative film that requires something there beyond the live action.
Villeneuve: For your actors, if they are in a forest, do they have live reference in front of them, or is just like blue structure in which they are walking on? How can you bring sensuality, something tactile?
Cameron: I took the actors on what I called a sense-memory odyssey. We went to Kauai. We lived in the rainforest for a few days. We cooked in underground fire pits. We drank water from the leaves. I said, “All right, we’re going to walk up a trail and I want you to observe as much as you can about how you place your feet, how you place your hands when you go up a steep section. You’re going to have to remember it, what it felt like, what it smelled like, and you’re going to have to bring it back into a relatively sterile environment.” We all just embarked on that journey.
Villeneuve: When I look at “Avatar,” it is so exotic. I was going in a different direction, which is something more familiar. It’s not better or worse, it’s just a different feeling that I was looking for. I wanted to bring Arrakis closer to us, because it meant that the audience will have a sensation of realism to therefore be more touched by Paul’s journey. You, I think, thoroughly succeed going in a totally different direction.
Cameron: Not that different, because I tried for real touchstones of everyday reality in the human environment. If I can use an example of what you’re talking about from within your film, there’s a very specific shot of three ornithopters. You see two initially and they’re stacked on a very long lens shot. Then a third one swoops in across the foreground. You instantly made your exotic aircraft design familiar. We’ve all seen that shot in “Black Hawk Down” or whatever. Right?
Villeneuve: Exactly! You’re the first one to mention it. It’s an homage to Ridley [Scott]. I wanted to have exactly that subconscious response in the audience’s mind, thinking those machines could be real. You did the same with “Avatar” when you were designing your aerials, using lenses that felt grounded in reality.
Cameron: I think the classic mistake that people make when they’re using CG for a helicopter scene is they’ll have the helicopter come right by the lens. Anybody that’s ever shot air-to-air knows you can’t do that. I think that a lot of CG artists didn’t come up in photography as we did, which gives us a bit of an advantage, I think.
I’m going to geek out and be a fan here. Talk to me about how you saw Shai-Hulud [the sandworms]. You presented it as this vast, almost god-like, force. I read the book half a century ago, although it’s still quite vivid for me. I had forgotten that the Fremen worshiped it as a deity. It seemed to me that for you it was almost more representative of nature, as this raw elemental force. What was your thought process?
Villeneuve: The idea in the book, as you rightly said, it’s a figure that represents some kind of god-like figure for the Fremen. It’s their main link with the ecosystem. Everything is centered on that figure of the worm. It was a long development. The main idea was to try to create an animal that needs to survive in the toughest, roughest, environment. The way we designed the skin, the way we designed his movements, it was all linked with this idea of surviving in the deep desert, trying to make it.
Cameron: The vocal organ that you put at the base of that vast maw — all of a sudden, it’s talking to our guy, or communicating something. To me, the movie kicked to a higher level in that moment. I really felt his connection, his destiny with the worm.
Villeneuve: The idea here was to try to create an encounter between two species that, from an outsider point of view, it can look like a miracle. It’s a study about messianic figures. I wanted [that] Paul’s miracle could be scientifically explained.
Cameron: But people won’t interpret it that way.
Villeneuve: Yeah, exactly.
Cameron: They have permission to interpret it spiritually or religiously, or accept the secular, scientific explanation. This is what I asked my writers to do with me on the “Avatar” sequels. There’s a whole messianic through-line in these stories — again, probably inspired by “Dune.” The idea that there’s a scientific explanation for every single thing that happens, but you don’t have to accept it. You can also accept it at a level that doesn’t require explanation. I find myself drawn to spiritual themes, at the same time grabbing myself by the neck and saying, “But you’re an empiricist! You don’t believe in the supernatural!” But I do, in the sense that there’s so much we don’t understand. Nature is so vast. Nature’s the miracle.
Villeneuve: Exactly. We are from the same religion.
Cameron: To create that sense of reality that you’ve been talking about, it has to have the reality of the heart and human emotions, which a lot of filmmakers lose it in the sprawl of big, epic storytelling. The key to that is casting. How did you get such amazing actors to participate in this made up world?
Villeneuve: Casting — it’s like cliché — but I truly feel it’s probably the most stressful part of the process for me. Fortunately, I will say, the book created a lot of enthusiasm in the acting community.
Cameron: Chalamet is such an obvious choice once you’ve seen him in the role. Was he always obvious to you, or were you exploring and stumble over him?
Villeneuve: He was my only choice for several reasons. First of all, because of his acting chops. He’s a really solid young actor. He has an old soul to him. At the same time, he looks tremendously young on screen. Paul Atreides is supposed to be 16 years old in the book, or something like that. I needed someone that looks like an old teenager that is about to become a man.
Cameron: Yeah, and he’s not a man yet. He’s on the cusp.
Villeneuve: He’s a very masculine young man, but he has something feminine a little bit inside him.
Cameron: I was going to say that. He has a female energy.
Villeneuve: That is Paul Atreides for me. There is something about Paul as a young man that will get all his power from his feminine side, from his mother’s side. I thought was a very powerful idea in the book.
Cameron: And his fighting style wasn’t based on strength, it was based on speed and fluidity of movement. Even when he was doing the typical, masculine thing — nothing more masculine than a knife fight — he moved like water.
Villeneuve: Do you have a lot of rehearsals prior to shoot, or are you someone who prefers the spontaneity?
Cameron: I like preparation and spontaneity. I like to try to find the key moment of a scene with the actors way in advance so I can always protect it cinematically later so I know where we’re going. But then on the day of, I really like to give them a lot of freedom to explore and try different things. Because if there’s no lightning striking on the day, what’s the fun?
Villeneuve: So you do some kind of rehearsing before?
Cameron: Way ahead. Maybe two or three weeks before we actually start shooting. I just want them to have a confidence that they know who they’re there to be. Then see what they walk in with. You know?
Villeneuve: From that process, do you change your screenplay sometimes?
Cameron: Oh sure. I always make the assumption that I wish I could afford a better writer. (Laughter) Bill Paxton taught me this, back in the day. He would come in with so many crazy Midwest bits of slang and expressions I’d never heard before. I would tell everybody, if you want to show up with something a little extra, that works for me.
Villeneuve: When I decided to cut the movie into two parts, I proposed the studio, let’s shoot both parts. They said, let’s shoot the first part, see how it goes, because it was a bit expensive for them. I agreed. Today, I’m grateful it happened this way, because frankly, I don’t know I would have had the necessary stamina to be able to sustain a double shoot. After shooting part one, I was exhausted.
You are planning four movies in the same time. It blows my mind how someone can have the energy to commit for some, I don’t know, 10 years. How can you find the energy?
Cameron: Well, it was a challenging decision because I either wanted to do it right, or just not even do it. I just made this — I guess, strange — decision that everything that I needed to say artistically about the things that were important to me, I could say within the framework of the universe that I knew it could be. Just like “Dune” takes place across worlds, the later “Avatar”s take place across…certainly across two worlds, because some of it takes place on Earth as the story evolves, and different biomes within. Arrakis is the desert planet, right?
Villeneuve: One ecosystem.
Cameron: Earth is not one ecosystem. It has desert, it has rainforest, it has ocean, polar, boreal forest, and so on. So I said, I’m inspired by Earth. I’m going to do a planet that’s so rich and so complex that has so many different ecosystems, I can just spend as much time here as I need to.
But then, I think what you’re talking about is the execution, actually getting out and doing it.
Villeneuve: Yes! Getting out of it alive!
Cameron: I might have underestimated that. I haven’t gotten out of it alive yet. “2” is fully in the can. We have a working cut that we’re filling in the visual effects within. I feel pretty confident with that film. “3” is still a bit shadowy. It’s way too long. I haven’t really turned my energy into a disciplined cutting process on that yet. But I know I’ve got the performances. That’s the important thing. I’ve done all the capture. I’ve done most of the live action shooting. I still owe a little bit on some of the adult characters. We were more concerned with the kids aging out. You got to get busy before Timothée…
Villeneuve: Grows a beard! (Laughter) That’s fascinating. Did you shoot everything in the same time or are you are pacing yourself through the years?
Cameron: We mixed the schedules for “2” and “3” together, based on the types of scenes and the environments. I said, let’s just treat it like it’s a six-hour miniseries and we’re only going to go to Frankfurt once. We’re going to shoot all the scenes from “2” and “3” at the same time. That was more or less the motif. Actor availability was an issue as well. Anything that had to be done with a specific actor, we did all the scenes for “2” and “3” together — and a little bit of “4.” Because once again, I had to shoot the kids out. They’re allowed to age six years in the middle of the story on page 25 of movie “4.” So I needed everything before then, and then everything after, we’ll do later.
Villeneuve: One thing I must say, you don’t make things easy on yourself.
Cameron: We’re both involved in these big, cinematic types of experiences that need to be seen in a movie theater. Do you think the idea of what a movie is is getting redefined, like the ground shifting under our feet right now?
Villeneuve: What is cinema? For me, it’s capturing images. It’s something that can be done in different sizes of screen. My problem is the danger of making movies that are built like a franchise brings the language of cinema to the structure of television. I see that with some franchises right now where it looks closer to TV. I’m talking about the language.
Cameron: The narrative language.
Villeneuve: I’m very optimistic. I think that the theatrical experience will prevail. I think that we need this kind of massive, immersive, physical [experience] — the sound, with Atmos system or IMAX, it becomes physical. It’s something that cannot be reproduced at home. There’s nothing more powerful than to share an emotion together in a theater. I think that as humans we need that kind of connection. I think we are not meant to be isolated. So I’m optimistic. I hope that the language of cinema will not become too much like TV.
Cameron: If you know your character’s always going to survive so that they can make another movie, then there’s no real jeopardy. There’s no anxiety on the part of the audience that someone that they’ve fallen in love with is going to die. You know?
Villeneuve: What is your take on the theater experience and streaming? Are you afraid of the evolution of things right now?
Cameron: I’m not afraid. I like change. I’m a child of the ’60s. I like it when things are chaotic. I think what we can see is an expanded form of cinema. I want to do a movie that’s six hours long and two and a half hours long at the same time. Same movie. You can stream it for six hours, or you can go and have a more condensed, roller coaster, immersive version of that experience in a movie theater. Same movie. Just, one’s the novel, and one’s the movie. Why not? Let’s just use these platforms in ways that haven’t been done before.
Villeneuve: It’s always fascinating to hear you thinking about the future of things, sir. It was an honor for me.
Cameron: It was an honor for me as well. Congratulations. As we say on Pandora, I see you.
Villeneuve: Exactly. I can’t wait to sit in a theater watching “Avatar.” I’ll be the first one.
Cameron: I’ll be the first one for the second part of “Dune.” Trust me on that.
Variety Directors on Directors presented by MGM Studios and United Artists Releasing