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'Avatar' Director James Cameron on Sequel's Emotion: 'Look Past the Spectacle'

James Cameron, Kate Winslet and Zoe Saldana reflect on the fear that drew them to Avatar 2: The Way of Water.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
4 min read
A young man grins in a breathing mask surrounded by blue aliens in sci-fi sequel Avatar: The Way of Water.

Avatar: The Way of Water tackles the responsibility of family.

20th Century Studios

Avatar was the biggest movie of all time, and we're about to see the first of four sequels that will continue the franchise for the next decade. But writer director James Cameron says a return to Avatar was far from a foregone conclusion.

"It wasn't a no-brainer," Cameron says of Avatar 2: The Way of Water. "You want to call down the lightning strike again? In the same spot? It's a lot to live up to."

Despite any reservations, Avatar 2 finally hits movie theaters next week. Like the original 2009 sci-fi spectacular, The Way of Water uses cutting-edge filming techniques made for IMAX-sized screens. Cameron again directs original stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang and Sigourney Weaver, along with new faces Edie Falco, Cliff Curtis, Oona Chaplin and Kate Winslet.

Speaking at an online press conference Monday with Saldana, Winslet and other cast members, Cameron emphasized the closeness of the cast and crew despite the scale of the production. "When you see a crowd scene in this movie of 100 people," he said, "it's the same 10 actors just moved around. So it's a small group, and we tend to really love each other and enjoy the process. That was a big incentive for me to come back and do this all again." 

Having been knee-deep in the details of making the film, Cameron had only seen the full movie six months ago -- without completed visual effects. Last week he finally watched the completed film. "What struck me," he said, "was the work. The performances, the people. I look past all the spectacle, the design, the creatures and all that."

But he goes on to hail the visual-effects artists who turned the cast into computer-animated fantasy beings that still show all the nuance of each actor's performance. 

"There are times when [the characters] are not even saying a word," Cameron said. "There's no dialogue, and yet it's close-up, close-up, close-up with a whole dialogue in the eyes. The subtlety of that being preserved gives us permission, when we're in the capture space, to be as detailed and specific as we want to be."

As spectacular as the effects are, all involved felt the characters and their emotions were the heart of the story. "It's important for a sequel to honor what the audience loved about the experience of the first time," said Cameron, "but also to get them off balance, do things they don't expect. There are a lot of surprises in terms of where the story goes that we're not putting into the trailers and the TV spots. But it also goes a lot deeper in terms of the heart and the emotions."

In the years since the first film, Saldana and Worthington have become parents, while Cameron is a father of five. The film explores family dynamics and the responsibilities of having children (which also includes the kids' perspective). That parental angle helped Saldana relate to her character. 

"Neytiri and I, we've lived parallel lives," she said. "There's a level of fearlessness and rebellion that I have and was able to find kindred with Neytiri in that … But also when I became a parent, fear entered my realm, the fear of losing something that you love so much and you just spend a great deal of your time creating these hypothetical scenarios that are just unimaginable."

"You learn fear when you have kids," Cameron agreed, "when you have something greater than yourself that you could lose. Sam plays a character that would leap off a [flying creature] leonopteryx and go flying through through the air with no parachute to solve his problem. Would he do that as a father of four?"

Kate Winslet reunites with Cameron after starring in Titanic. "Jim has always written for women," she said. "Characters who are not just strong but are leaders, they lead with their heart with integrity. They stand in their truth, they own their power, they have physical power, that is admirable. To be part of that was just so flattering that Jim asked me because Jim does not suffer fools."

Winslet broke a record for holding her breath while filming underwater. She held it for 7 minutes 12 seconds (beating Tom Cruise's previous 6-minute record while filming a Mission Impossible movie). Having been a free diver for 50 years, Cameron joked about his annoyance at how quickly Winslet took to being underwater, while Sigourney Weaver drew howls of laughter from the assembled cast by suggesting it wasn't a competition.

Winslet asked her husband not to come to set on the day of the big underwater scene, although he snuck in and filmed a video of her popping out of the water after breaking the record. 

"I have the video of me surfacing saying, "Am I dead? Have I died?" she remembered."Straightaway I wanted to know my time … and when they told me, the first thing I said is we need to radio Jim."

The original Avatar is available on Disney Plus now, and The Way of Water is in theaters starting Dec. 16.

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