The director also talks day-and-date releases and the "insanity" of President Trump's plan to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.
James Cameron is in the midst of perhaps his greatest undertaking yet as he begins to shoot two Avatar sequels simultaneously (with two more to come after that) while also working with director Tim Miller on what they hope will be a new Terminator trilogy. The particularly busy period comes as Cameron sparked a controversy in August after giving an interview in which he called Wonder Woman "a step backwards" and said the character, played by Gal Gadot, was "an objectified icon." He pointed to Linda Hamilton's Terminator character Sarah Connor as what a female action protagonist could be ("Sarah Connor was not a beauty icon," he said.) Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins responded with a statement in which she ripped Cameron, saying "James Cameron's inability to understand what Wonder Woman is, or stands for, to women all over the world is unsurprising as, though he is a great filmmaker, he is not a woman ... I believe women can and should be EVERYTHING just like male lead characters should be. There is no right and wrong kind of powerful woman."
Days before he began production on the first of four Avatar sequels, the Oscar winner and director of the two highest-grossing films ever addresses those comments and begins a conversation with THR by saying how happy he is that Hamilton, 61, is returning for the next film in the franchise:
Well, you opened the door for the inevitable Wonder Woman question, so … you recently said in this summer's film, Gal Gadot was playing an "objectified icon."
Yes, I'll stand by that. I mean, she was Miss Israel, and she was wearing a kind of bustier costume that was very form-fitting. She's absolutely drop-dead gorgeous. To me, that's not breaking ground. They had Raquel Welch doing stuff like that in the '60s. It was all in a context of talking about why Sarah Connor — what Linda created in 1991 — was, if not ahead of its time, at least a breakthrough in its time. I don't think it was really ahead of its time because we're still not [giving women these types of roles].
Director Patty Jenkins responded by saying not every woman character has to look "hard, troubled and tough to be strong."
Linda looked great. She just wasn't treated as a sex object. There was nothing sexual about her character. It was about angst, it was about will, it was about determination. She was crazy, she was complicated. … She wasn't there to be liked or ogled, but she was central, and the audience loved her by the end of the film. So as much as I applaud Patty directing the film and Hollywood, uh, "letting" a woman direct a major action franchise, I didn't think there was anything groundbreaking in Wonder Woman. I thought it was a good film. Period. I was certainly shocked that [my comment] was a controversial statement. It was pretty obvious in my mind. I just think Hollywood doesn't get it about women in commercial franchises. Drama, they've got that cracked, but the second they start to make a big commercial action film, they think they have to appeal to 18-year-old males or 14-year-old males, whatever it is. Look, it was probably a little bit of a simplistic remark on my part, and I'm not walking it back, but I will add a little detail to it, which is: I like the fact that, sexually, she had the upper hand with the male character, which I thought was fun.
So, Avatar. Where are you in the process?
Our system has been running about six months now. I've been doing what we call scouting, which is where we take the virtual world, we put it out on the stage and we match up the physical set pieces to it. Members of our acting troupe play many, many different characters, and we go through the scenes and make sure that all of the technical hurdles have been met before we bring the principal cast in for their [motion] capture. We've been working in the volume — we call it the volume, which is our working space — for months now, and everything looks gorgeous and spectacular and we have the best concept artists in the world. We have, I think, some of the best CG artists in the world. I couldn't be happier about the way everything looks.
How many movies are you shooting at a time?
Avatar 2 and 3 will be captured together and then [go through postproduction] sequentially. Then we go back and capture 4 and 5. They're all written and they're all designed, so we literally hit the ground running the day after Avatar 3 comes out, starting capture on 4 and 5 and then post on those and release those. That's the plan. So, it's kind of a two-and-two structure.
You've now set the releases for December 2020, 2021, 2024 and 2025. Do you feel like these are finally their real dates?
No, we're good. We got this.
It will have been more than 10 years since people have seen those characters.
I'm not worried. It was seven years between Alien and Aliens, it was seven years between Terminator and Terminator 2.
Will there be a re-release of the first Avatar to pave the way for the sequels?
That's a great idea. Any chance I get to re-release my films so that people can see them on the big screen, the way they are meant to be seen … I'll never say no. We can remaster the film, we can do high dynamic range, things like that, so we can punch it up.
Did you notice Bob Iger's comment about the Avatar attractions for the Disney parks? He joked that someday Jim will make a movie.
Well, I think they were hoping Avatar 2 would come out more concurrent with the [May 2017] opening of Pandora — The World of Avatar [at Disney World]. But I think they're sanguine with the fact that by extending it to four films we basically future-proofed their rather enormous investment in that land.
You've been vocal on the issue of windowing. You are not very keen on compressing the theatrical-release window.
I don't like day-and-date in the home. I'm not going to hold my breath and stomp off if the collective feels that's the best way, but I can't imagine it working with my films, so it's kind of a nonissue for me personally. Obviously, people's tastes change, and sometimes they value immediacy over the spectacle of the experience. It's just another consumer choice that people need to weigh and analyze. Just try it, and if it trashes a couple of big films, then we'll pull back from it. As long as they don't try it on my movies, it's fine.
You've said you are more easygoing than you used to be. You know how some people feel like they have to be stoned to be creative? Do you worry that you can't be chill and not murder the crew and still succeed?
I don't need to be stoned to be creative, and I don't need to be mean to get the vision on film. We just had a wonderful morning where I brought in Wade Davis, who is one of the world's top anthropologist ethnobotanist guys. He's a fellow explorer at National Geographic [Cameron has made a record-breaking deep-sea dive], and we spent the first four hours sitting on the floor in a big circle with the entire [Avatar] cast and most of the creative crew and the designers and so on, talking about the importance of the ancient wisdom of indigenous cultures and cultural relativism and all that sort of thing. The cast was utterly inspired by the whole thing. So we're actually having a really good time making these films.
You have a lot of concern about the environment.
Oh, I have huge projects going on in that area. After the first Avatar, I endowed this entity called the Avatar Alliance Foundation that's run by a woman named Maria Wilhelm. We do a lot of things in environmental media. My wife and I run this thing called the Plant Power Task Force that was dually funded by Avatar Alliance Foundation and Craig McCaw, which is about raising awareness on the role of food choices in terms of pollution, climate change, all that sort of thing. So we've got a lot of activity around sustainability, and we've got 10,000 acres in Canada and 5,000 in New Zealand. We work with the University of Saskatchewan on sustainable agronomy. So we're developing alternate protein sources from plants. I don't just write big checks to Greenpeace and things like that. We're putting our money where our mouth is on environmental issues.
How much do you worry about Trump withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accord?
It's absurd for us to withdraw from Paris. It's insanity. I think it's actually psychotic to be doing that, or it's delusional. Possibly both.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.