Welcome to the House of Crouse. This week we dig into the vault to chat with James Cameron. The Avatar director has just announced he will make four Avataronian sequels and shoot them all at the same time. In this conversation from 2010 Cameron discusses making the original film, “I’ll be back,” and much more.
An exercise in “found footage” handheld camera technique, “Into the Storm’s” story is almost as shaky as its visuals.
Playing like a cross between “Twister,” “Wizard of Oz” and “The Blair Witch Project,” the story is set in Silverton, a small Midwestern American town besieged by tornadoes. In just one twenty-four hour span deadly twisters rip through the town, sending sensible citizens rushing for cover while a storm chasing documentary crew led by director Pete (“Veep’s” Matt Walsh) and meteorologist Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies of “The Walking Dead”) rush headlong into the cyclone to get some up-close-and-personal footage. Meanwhile Gary (Richard Armitage) and son (Nathan Kress) are on the hunt for their son/brother Donnie (Max Deacon) who went missing when the storm started.
Director Steven Quale was the visual effects supervisor on “The Abyss,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “True Lies,” “Titanic” and “Avatar,” so the guy knows how to stage an action scene. It’s the other stuff he has trouble with. When the wind isn’t tearing the town apart it’s as if Quale doesn’t know what to do with the characters or the story.
To kill time between the wild wind storms the characters tell you what is about to happen—“Oh [crap],” says Allison, “it’s headed for the school!”—and talk about shooting anything that movies. “I can’t stop filming or I’ll be fired!” says cameraman Jacob.
Everyone seems to have a camera crazy-glued to their hands, and those who don’t seem to spend their time yelling, “Make sure you keep filming,” to the people who do. In fact, this movie should have been called “Keep Filming,” because it is the film’s mantra.
Mix that with a wooden performance from Richard Armitage that would make Woody Pecker’s mouth water, a series of tornadoes and a Firenado—an idea so silly I imagine the makers of “Sharknado” rejected it as too over the top—and you get a disaster movie that is a disaster of a film.
Paul Frommer has a varied resume. He taught English and math in Malaysia with the Peace Corps, is an American communications professor at the University of Southern California and the former Director of the Center for Management Communication at the USC Marshall School of Business. Most intriguing, however, is his designation as “alien language creator” on the James Cameron film Avatar. As the originator of the Na’vi language used by the fictional indigenous race in James Cameron’s 2009 film, Frommer is responsible for the most popular alien lingo since Klingon.
“Klingon is the gold standard for constructed alien languages,” says Frommer. “It is an extremely complex language. Of course, that language has been around for twenty five or more years and I think it is fair to say it took Klingon years to get to the point that Na’vi seems to be right now. Of course the reason is the internet, and the fact that a community can develop almost overnight and attract very many people who are interacting, and sharing material and supporting one another. I think in practical terms that’s why the language has gotten to the point it is now.”
Frommer was contacted in 2005 by Cameron’s people about creating a language for Pandora’s giant blue people. “I had a ball talking to him about language in general and about his vision for the film,” says the linguist. He left the meeting with a copy of the script and a mandate to create a unique language with “real rules, grammar and vocabulary.”
“[Cameron] wanted it to sound good; to be pleasant sounding. He wanted it to reflect the culture of the Na’vi on Pandora. I didn’t start from absolute zero. He had come up with a few words on his own, about thirty vocabulary words, the names of characters and the names of some animals and so on. So I had a bit of a sense pof the sound he had in mind. It sounded kind of Hawaiian to me, or maybe Maori, kind of Polynesian. Then I added some sounds that I thought would be kind of fun and the grammar was mine.”
The language in place, the next step was to teach the actors not only how to speak the language but to sound fluent.
“There were times when I was on set for twelve and thirteen hours,” says Frommer. “I couldn’t be there all the time because I have a day job but whenever I could and whenever the language was being used I was on set. I met with each of the actors ahead of time, maybe a couple of weeks before they would shoot a scene where they had to speak Na’vi. I gave them transcriptions of what they had to say and also I gave them an Mp3 filer so they could download them onto their i-pods or whatever and practice.”
Prep is one thing, but on a James Cameron production Frommer says you have to be on your toes.
“On the set there were a few times when the lines changed,” he says. “I thought for a film of this scope everything would be totally determined before they walked on set, but, in fact, I discovered there is a lot of creativity that happen on the spur of the moment. There were moments of panic when people came up to me and said, ‘Paul we need this line. We need to know how to say that.’ If I had the words and had the grammatical rules that was fine, but there were times when I had to say, ‘Give me a few minutes,” and I sometimes had to coin a few words. I can give you my most memorable example of that.
“There was a time when Sam Worthington and James Cameron came up to me and said, ‘Paul we’ve decided that Jake is going to be telling a story at this point in Na’vi and it is about a predator animal that almost bit him on his big blue ass. How do you say big blue butt in Na’vi?
“Well, I had the word for big and I had the word for blue, but I did not have the word for butt. I said, ‘Give me a few minutes.’ I tried to come up with something good and I tried it out on some people who were around and some people liked one word, some people liked another, but we decided the word was ‘Txìm’ so my big blue butt became ‘Tsawl ean txìm.’” (Na’vi spelling courtesy of Navilator.com.)
Since then the language has continued to thrive and grow.
“It’s remarkable how many people are interested in the language,” says Frommer. “For some people it is a way of holding on to the world of Pandora. It is a world a lot of people find extremely attractive. Then are there people who are very much into language. I’m pleased they find this language interesting, intriguing and challenging and want to be able to speak it. I would like to see it develop further and whatever I can do to help I certainly will, but interestingly it is kind of no longer entirely mine and that is a good feeling.”
The man who made the most technologically advanced movie to ever hit the big screen has just hung up on me. Not on purpose. Calling from his car, James Cameron was defeated by some very simple machinery—his cellphone.
A minute later, my phone rang again.
“Sorry about that,” he said, “it was totally my bad. I was reaching out to turn up the volume and I hit the disconnect, which is right next to it. I have to learn to keep my hands off the damn thing.”
Cellphone and their pesky buttons are one thing, but when it comes to big budget epics with complicated technology, nobody is as hands on as Cameron. Last December Avatar became the highest grossing movie of all time, making $2,712,115,019 on a budget that fell somewhere between $230 million (according to The New Yorker) to nearly $500 million (so says The New York Times).
“We’re very cognizant of the fact that it is a big expensive movie,” he says. “When you make a film at that highest level you know the imagery is going to be quite astonishing. That’s what I’m all about. That’s what my career has been all about, starting with the Abyss, then Terminator 2 and True Lies and Titanic. Every one of these films was decried in the largest way possible as being the biggest budget films in history. [But] as an artist, there is no second position on my throttle. It’s full throttle so it may as well be the highest grossing film in history because I’m working like it is anyway.”
Cameron may be the go-to guy for big budget spectacles, but despite his track record there are no guarantees of success.
“I don’t know if I knew it until it was really out there,” he says when asked when he knew he had a hit on his hands. “I had a suspicion that the film would perform beyond what its opening weekend would indicate. I thought our challenge was not the film itself as much as the marketing of the movie. We didn’t have Brad Pitt or George Clooney. It was an unfamiliar story. We had to create a brand from scratch and we had these characters that were blue and were maybe a little off putting when people first saw them. There were a lot of marketing hurdles. I was much more concerned about the 30-second TV spot than the film. I knew the film played fine.”
Now, just four months after its record breaking theatrical run Avatar and its eco friendly message is coming to DVD and Blu Ray just in time for Earth Day. This is a bare bones release, with no extras. (The “über edition” with extra footage and supplements will be out in time for Christmas.)
“It was going to take until November for us to do good supplement stuff and I didn’t think people wanted to wait until November to see an Avatar DVD,” he says, “so we put the plain wrap version out.
“By the way,” he adds with a swagger, “[Avatar] is the highest grossing film in history and has nine Academy Award nominations so people should acknowledge that that film needs to be in the marketplace before we start screwing around and getting creative.”
An animated film, an Iraq war movie and one of the biggest blockbusters of all time were among the expanded list of 10 pictures nominated for Oscars Tuesday morning.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its Oscar nominees in Los Angeles, and the list included some favourites as well as a few surprises.
The list of best-picture nominees:
* The Blind Side
* District 9
* An Education
* The Hurt Locker
* Inglourious Basterds
* A Serious Man
* Up in the Air
Canada AM film critic Richard Crouse said the best picture list, which included 10 films for the first time since 1943, was notable for what was not on it as much as for what was included.
“The movie that surprised me that wasn’t nominated in the top 10 for best picture was ‘Star Trek,'” Crouse told Canada AM Tuesday morning.
“And I only say that because when they first announced that they were going to expand the field to 10, everyone said that’s because they want to have ‘Star Trek’ in there. And ‘Star Trek’ was used as an exemplar of the kind of movies that were then going to get nominated.”
In what’s emerging as a showdown between ex-spouses, James Cameron’s “Avatar” is tied with “The Hurt Locker,” directed by his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, for nine nominations each, including best director.
While “Avatar” has swept awards shows leading up to next month’s Oscars, Bigelow was named best director by the Directors Guild of America, long a harbinger for directing honours at the Academy Awards.
Bigelow is only the fourth female best-director nominee, following Sofia Coppola for 2003’s “Lost in Translation,” Jane Campion for 1993’s “The Piano,” and Lina Wertmuller for “Seven Beauties” in 1975.
Upon hearing the news of her nomination, Bigelow said she was gratified and humbled.
“It’s a huge, huge compliment to the entire cast and crew,” Bigelow said. “It was a very difficult shoot of heat and sun and windstorms and sandstorms and they had to unite crew from Lebanon and Israel.”
Joining Cameron and Bigelow in the directing category are Quentin Tarantino for “Inglourious Basterds,” Lee Daniels for “Precious” and Jason Reitman for “Up in the Air.”
Daniels is only the second African-American filmmaker to be nominated for best director. John Singleton received a nod in 1991 for “Boyz N the Hood.”
Daniels said Tuesday he was just as excited about his film’s nomination for best picture.
“After 82 years, it’s the first film nominated for best picture directed by an African-American,” Daniels said. “Isn’t that great? It’s so exciting.”
The nominees for best actress include emerging favourite Sandra Bullock for true-story football flick “The Blind Side.” Bullock won the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards for her role as a wealthy woman who helps a homeless teen, Michael Oher, who is now a star with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.
Bullock said winning is less important to her than the opportunity to meet her fellow nominees, actresses she greatly admires.
“You laugh at the absurdity of it all and how they pit women up against each other. We go, ‘Why are they making us out to be fighting when we’re just happy to share this moment?'” Bullock said. “The women I’ve met and gotten to know along the way have made me so happy for this business that didn’t really support women for a long time. It’s been really sweet. I feel really lucky to be working at this time.”
Joining her in the category are Helen Mirren as Leo Tolsoy’s wife in “The Last Station,” Carey Mulligan as a rebellious teen in “An Education,” Gabourey Sidibe as a teen mother and abuse victim in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” and Meryl Streep as chef Julia Child in “Julie & Julia.”
Mirren said she was “very happy and honoured” to learn of her nomination. Mulligan said hearing the news was “like a really good, friendly punch in the stomach.”
Favourite Jeff Bridges, also a Golden Globe and SAG winner, heads up the best actor category for “Crazy Heart,” in which he plays a down-on-his-luck country singer trying to turn his life around.
Also nominated for best actor are George Clooney as a company hatchet-man in “Up in the Air,” Colin Firth as a gay professor grieving his dead lover in “A Single Man,” Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in “Invictus,” and Jeremy Renner as a bomb defusing expert in Iraq in “The Hurt Locker.”
Los Angeles Times film critic Pete Hammond said Bridges is “by far the front-runner here.”
“He’s a veteran, he’s 60 years old, people love him in the industry and they think he’s due and this is a terrific performance,” Hammond told Canada AM. “So look for him over George Clooney in the final race.”
Despite being a long shot in the best actor category, Freeman, who was in Rome when the nominees were announced, pointed out that it is his fifth nomination, “and I’m more proud of that than all the rest of it I think.”
Comedienne Mo’Nique appears poised to add to her award haul for her blistering turn as an abusive mother in “Precious.” She is joined in the best supporting actress category by Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick for “Up in the Air,” Penelope Cruz for “Nine,” and Maggie Gyllenhaal for “Crazy Heart.”
Matt Damon in “Invictus,” Woody Harrelson in “The Messenger,” Christopher Plummer in “The Last Station,” Stanley Tucci in “The Lovely Bones,” and Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds,” make up the best supporting actor category.
The 82nd annual Academy Awards will be handed out March 7 at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre, and will air on CTV.
New Oscar producers Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic promise a livelier, more fun show than years past.
After Hugh Jackman livened up last year’s show with song-and-dance numbers, humour will likely be the order of the day for co-hosts Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin.
While television ratings for the show have sagged in recent years, the presence of the highest-grossing film of all time in so many categories will likely draw in viewers.
Ratings peaked 12 years ago when Cameron’s “Titanic” nabbed 11 nominations. “Avatar” has since surpassed “Titanic” as the number one film of all time at the box office, with $2 billion in revenues worldwide.
Chances are the first movie assassin names that pop into your head are The Jackal, Martin Q. Blank or El Mariachi. What do they have in common, other than flashy names and a predilection for gunning down their on-screen enemies? They’re all men.
What about the ladies? Beatrix Kiddo, Charlie Baltimore or Jane Smith?
Jean Luc Goddard said, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun,” and often these days filmmakers are placing that gun in the hands of female film assassins. Nikita is back on the tube and earlier this year Saoirse Ronan played a deadly 16-year-old in Hanna. This weekend, Avatar’s Zoe Saldana is back as a stone-cold killer in Colombiana.
As Charlie Baltimore, Geena Davis created one of the screen’s most loved female assassins in The Long Kiss Goodnight. Suffering from amnesia, when her past catches up with her she flip flops from suburban mom to killer. Best Line? “They’re gonna blow my head off, you know. This is the last time I’ll ever be pretty.”
Angelina Jolie’s deadly demeanour has pumped up several action movies. Lara Croft was a gun-slinging super-heroine, but she’s also played assassins in two movies.
In Mr. and Mrs. Smith she’s a hitlady assigned to kill her own on-screen (and future real life) partner, Brad Pitt. “Still alive, baby?” she purrs after trying to shoot him through a wall.
Also, as Fox in Wanted she was a member of the Fraternity, a deadly group of killers with the useful ability to shoot around corners. Best line? “We kill one, and maybe save a thousand. That’s the code of the Fraternity.”
The highest body count must go to Beatrix Kiddo, played by Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. As a bride done wrong by her former Deadly Viper Assassination Squad colleagues, (including Vivica A. Fox who plays Vernita Green and Lucy Liu as O-Ren Ishii), Kiddo slices and dices her way through more than 100 opponents.
But the two most unlikely female assassins on film were found in Leon: The Professional and Kick-Ass. In the former, Natalie Portman was a 12-year-old who learns how to kill from her teacher, Léon (Jean Reno), a skillful but sensitive hitman.
In Kick-Ass, a 2010 action-comedy starring Nicolas Cage and Chloë Moretz, Hit Girl (Moretz) asks her father (and assassin mentor) for a Benchmade model 42 butterfly knife for her eleventh birthday.
In the gap between James Cameron’s last theatrical feature, Titanic, and his new film, Avatar (in theatres this weekend) Clint Eastwood directed 11 movies, Michael Bay made six and even Uwe Boll, a director so reviled an on–line petition demands he stop making films, has made 15 in the time it took Cameron to make just one.
So what’s the hold up?
Some suggest Cameron takes so long between gigs because his commitment to his projects is so intense he wants to be sure he is on the right track before camera starts to roll.
“I want you to know one thing,” he allegedly told one producer, “once we embark on this adventure and I start to make this movie, the only way you’ll be able to stop me is to kill me.”
Also, Cameron isn’t bound by the same considerations as most directors.
He wrote the script for Avatar in 1994 and was prepared to wait until special effects technology caught up with his vision.
The luxury of having time is what happens when you make the highest grossing movie in history, a fact he celebrates, wearing a t-shirt that reads “Time Means Nothing in the Face of Creativity.”
Like Cameron, Stanley Kubrick spent more time off movie sets than on. In a career that spanned 46 years he made only 13 movies but spent years developing pictures that never went into production — like Napoleon, an epic look at the life of the French Emperor that he expected to be “the best movie ever made.”
Others choose long lay-offs between projects for different reasons. Actor Casey Affleck (Ben’s younger brother) had three movies released in 2007 but nothing else scheduled until 2010. Why the break?
“To be perfectly honest, I don’t really enjoy playing anybody,” he says, “except Casey Affleck lying on the couch watching the Red Sox … usually, when I’m working, I’m not really having a good time.”
Then there’s Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor whose lapses between projects makes Affleck look like a workaholic. The There Will Be Blood star routinely takes years off between films, once disappearing from the big screen for five years.
When asked why he doesn’t work more often he said, “I like to cook things very slowly. I learnt early on that I couldn’t jump from one kind of work to another. I did it a couple of times and it didn’t work.”
In the gap between James “King of the World” Cameron’s last theatrical feature, “Titanic,” and his new film, “Avatar” (in theatres this weekend) Clint Eastwood directed 11 movies, Michael Bay made 6 and even Uwe Boll, a director so reviled there is an on–line petition to prevent him from making any more films, has made fifteen in the time it took Cameron to make just one, but it’s quite a movie.
“Avatar,” based on an original idea by Cameron, is set in the 22nd century on a small planet called Pandora. Under the lush terra firma is a valuable mineral much sought after by the Avatar program—a collaboration between industry and military. Since the climate and atmosphere aren’t hospitable to humans a substitute for homosapien invaders is required. That would be living, breathing avatars of the Pandorian natives, controlled by a human “driver” through a high tech link-up that connects the driver’s mind to their Avatar body. The ten feet tall, blue skinned natives, called the Na’vi— although the humans dismissively call them “blue monkeys”—are deeply connected to their planet, sharing a connection with the land and all its creatures that defies human comprehension. Only one man comes close to understanding the Na’vi. He’s Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) a former marine who lost the use of his legs in combat. Brought on board the Avatar program he is initially used as a mole to infiltrate a Na’vi community to glean information that will make the harvesting of minerals easier, but what begins as simply completing his mission and using his legs again through the avatar soon becomes something else. He learns to love not only the Na’vi people, but one Na’vi in particular, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
First let’s dispel some myths. You don’t need to take Gravol with you to the movie theatre. 1.) There were rumors on the net that “Avatar’s” mix of hand held camera and 3-D was literally stomach turning. Not true. 2.) It’s not “Dances with Wolves in Space” or “Fergully” with aliens. 3.) Sight unseen people were calling it Cameron’s Folly, a three hour waste of film and money (a reported $300 million). Not true. 4.) “The Na’vi are the new Jar Jar Binks,” bloggers screamed! Also not true.
With “Avatar” Cameron has made a sprawling epic that lives up to the hype. It is something completely new, a movie that is not a sequel, a remake or based on an existing novel; a film that sprung from Cameron’s imagination and exists on its own plane. Brett Ratner, Michael Bay and all other Hollywood hacks, hang your heads in shame.
Cameron starts from scratch creating a whole new world with language, customs, religion and crazy creatures but never forgets that this is an action movie and not an anthological study. To that he adds allusions to the Iraq war, shock and awe policies and the Native American genocide all bundled up in one giant sci fi romance action flick.
It’s not all perfect, the dialogue is frequently 1980’s-action-movie lame, filled with clichés; there are logic lapses and Saldana’s character shifts from Ripley (remember “Alien”?) to damsel in distress in the blink of an eye, but the film’s achievements outweigh any of these misgivings.
Despite what the early word on the movie may have been Cameron—who at this rate won’t make another film until 2221—makes the audience feel compassion for obviously computer enhanced giant blue creatures, keep our interest for almost three hours and presents a dazzling climax that’ll leave you slack jawed.