The approachable ying to James Cameron’s intense yang, Avatar producer Jon Landau has been a long-standing foil for his Lightstorm business partner, creating the still waters in which the director can create his storms of banshee-fuelled artistry. Avatar isn’t the first time the pair have travelled into space together. They co-produced Soderbergh’s Solaris, crafting from Stanislaw Lem’s novel another living, breathing world that could easily share planetary DNA with Pandora. Their second sci-fi collaboration, though, has taken an amp-suited fist to the record books. It’s made Landau one of the most successful dollar-for-dollar producers in the history of cinema – Avatar’s $2.7bn in box office receipts equates to roughly 1 ½ Titanics (or 78,400 tonnes, displacement fans) – and he’s likely to become the most successful by the time the sun sets on Avatar 3.
As his partner sets to work on scripts for the sequels, the new three-disk Collector’s Edition brings nine minutes worth of new scenes – 15, if you didn’t see the special release – from the first film for those eager to return to Alpha Centauri. “Why didn’t we include these scenes in our initial release?” asks Landau rhetorically, “Very simply, the work wasn’t done. We worked all the way until the end of July to finish these sequences.” The most significant among them is a new opening - a bleak, Blade Runner-like vision of Earth that explains why Jake is in no particular hurry to go back. Aside from showing where all that unobtanium wealth is going, it’s a significant tonal shift for the film. So why was it chopped? The answer was simple: “We wanted to get [audiences] to Pandora sooner,” says Landau, acknowledging early concerns that pushing past the 162-minute theatrical run-time would be a stretch too far for audiences.
The New Yorker flew from a speaking engagement in Georgetown down to Weta Digital in mist-shrouded Wellington to talk us through Avatar’s new scenes – including that freshly restored Earth opening – tell us about Avatar 2 (and 3), and slug back a cup of coffee, before racing back to the airport. It’s a journey that would make Eywa’s eyes water, if she used eyes instead of woodsprites, but it’s all in a couple of days’ work for the producer. With his partner nuggeting out a script for the sequels, it was the perfect opportunity to quiz Landau on what we can – and can’t – expect from the films.
Tell us about the new scenes. How does the Earth opening change the viewing experience?
Jon Landau: I think it’s a more in-depth experience. You have a greater insight into where Jake is coming from, both psychologically and physically, and the world he’s coming from. It adds a lot of value and that’s what we tried to do with all the scenes we put into the extended cut. We feel that they’re valued-added not just to the consumer, but to the story.
It’s a bleak world you’ve created, with a strong flavour of Blade Runner about it.
|You see advertising in the sky, but you don’t see flying cars. We wanted to ground it.|
That’s interesting, but I think anytime anyone does something with the future, they see Blade Runner. We didn’t have flying cars. We have a scene in a bar – and a bar looks like a bar – but we did say, “Where’s the advertising going to be in the future?” So we advertised in the sky – a little bit like the Bat symbol. We also said, “What’s transportation going to be like?” You don’t see flying cars [in the film], you see mag-trains, because we thought that’s a possible future. We wanted to ground it.
You did, but we also see a news story reporting tigers being cloned and a glimpse of environment catastrophe…
Jon Landau: Yes, but look at the people too. They say, “We’re going to live with this.” They’re not dressed in rags, they’re still fashionable – they’re even wearing fashionable gas masks. If you’re living in a world were you have to wear gas masks, people are going to accessorise them. That’s the sensibility we wanted to achieve.
At what point did you decide to change the opening?
Jon Landau: It was the summer before the release of the movie – 2009.
Was it an easy decision to make?
Jon Landau: It was after we’d watched the movie. [Avatar] kicks off when Jake goes out the door and into the world of Pandora, and we just felt like we wanted to get there a little bit sooner.
Before I ask about the sequels, can you give us a quick status update on Battle Angel and The Dive?
Jon Landau: They’re further-out projects - neither one has that shooting script yet and both are really worthy projects to make. Jim is also looking at Cleopatra.
So let’s talk about Avatar 2. There’s been a lot of talk about exploring an underwater world. How do you see the Na’vi interacting with that world?
Jon Landau: Well, first of all, water will be a part of the movie, but it won’t be all of the movie. There’s been a lot of rumours that it’s an underwater movie – it’s not. Just like the Floating Mountains, and how the Na’vi interacted with the mountains, were a part of Avatar, it’ll be the same time of thing. We’ve barely touched the surface of Pandora, figuratively and literally, so there are many places we can explore. There’s the ocean but there’s other parts of the world that we haven’t gone to, even some of the different clans that Jake went out and recruited, so it’s a very rich and diverse world to explore.
What about those rumours that the film may leave Pandora?
|We want each of the sequels to stand alone. Movies fall into trouble when they say, 'You know what? It’s really one movie and there’s an intermission'.|
I think the next movie will stay on Pandora. That’d be my guess. Not all the answers are there yet, but I think we’re happy with Pandora. But we’ll only go back and tackle it when the script is right. Jim has only done two sequels in his career and I’d argue that both times they were at least as good as the first film.
Are you looking at a narrative arc that spans both Avatar 2 and 3?
Jon Landau: No, each one has to work alone. That’s where movies fall into trouble – when they try to say, “You know what? It’s really one movie and there’s an intermission” – so we want each one to be a stand-alone movie. The next one will kick off where the next last one ended, but just like Avatar resolved itself and doesn’t feel like a set-up to another movie, you don’t want Avatar 2 to feel like a set up for 3.
Empire Strikes Back is an exception to that rule…
Jon Landau: Yes, like Lord Of The Rings too, but those are just chapters in a bigger story. We don’t want to do that.
So when do you think you’ll see that script?
Jon Landau: I would say this decade… [laughs]
Avatar Extended Collector’s Edition is out on November 15 on DVD and Blu-ray.