The New Yorker followed James Cameron’s alien opus Avatar throughout its production and has delivered a fascinating article, detailing Cameron’s tyrannical behavior on-set, Peter Jackson’s opinion of the effects, and how much more went into Pandora than naked cat people.
The new issue of The New Yorker profiles Cameron — from his stormy marriages to his obsession with scuba diving — as well as offering a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Avatar. There’s a great deal in there about Cameron’s tempestuous and controlling personality (when he’s gone over to the emotional dark side, the crew refer to him as “Mij” — “Jim” backwards), and the particularly colorful insults he lobs at the crew (“Watching him light is like watching two monkeys fuck a football.”). But the article also reveals how much detail Cameron put into Pandora, the planet where Avatar is set:
All directors have a God complex; Cameron takes his unusually seriously. For “Avatar,” he worked with a linguist to develop the Na’vi language, inspired by fragments of Maori he picked up in New Zealand years ago. He based Pandora, and its myriad flora (spike tears, cliff slouchers, stinger ivy) and fauna (direhorses, banshees, slinths), partly on the creatures of the coral reefs and kelp forests he has seen at the abyssal depths. He hired a team of artists to execute his ideas, but reserved one creature for himself: the thanator, a six-legged black pantherlike beast, twenty-four feet long, covered in plate scales, with a reptilian double set of jaws and a threat display resembling that of a fan lizard.
As well as how nitpicky he has been about bringing his particular vision of Pandora to life:
Any disagreement is resolved with the indisputable logic of an older sibling who has invented a game and deigned to let his kid brother play: his universe, he wins. “I hate this fucking thing, but I can be very specific about it,” he said, when an image of a rock arch sacred to the Na’vi came up on the screen. “This looks like petrified wood,” he said, circling the offending part with a red laser pointer. “It has a longitudinal grain structure. It looks very fragile to me. This hard, crystally structure looks like barn wood. We want to say that this arch formed as igneous rock, that it’s a lava formation that got eroded, but it’s fracturing out along the crystal planes of minerals.”
Regardless of your feelings on Cameron or Avatar, it’s a fascinating look at Cameron’s control-freakishness and the themes that have played throughout his movies. Cameron talks about Avatar as primarily a film about women and how men relate to their mothers or lovers (which is also how he largely views his Terminator movies and Aliens), but also sees it as his answer to science fiction adventure tales like John Carter of Mars. We also get a few more details on the film we haven’t heard before (the Na’vi arrows apparently seal off wounds — which help the movie’s PG-13 rating — and the marines have to employ modern ballistic weapons instead of futuristic energy weapons because of the humidity on Pandora), and a description of filming with the mecha AMP Suit (which Cameron himself is wearing in the picture above). The magazine also had other directors of big budget epics — Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Peter Jackson — weigh in with their views on Cameron, his world-building, and what they’ve seen of Avatar.
Man of Extremes: The Return of James Cameron [The New Yorker]