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Twenty-five years after winning the best picture Oscar for Titanic — and 12 years after his second best picture nomination, for Avatar — producer Jon Landau is back in the awards race with Avatar: The Way of Water. Landau talks to THR about besting his own box office records, what it will take for performance-capture roles to be acknowledged by awards voters and if the still-untitled third Avatar film will stick to its current release date of December 2024.
Do you have a favorite screening experience of The Way of Water?
My favorite screening experience was in early December when I flew from New Zealand to New York, and I screened the movie for Zoe [Saldaña], Sam [Worthington], Sigourney [Weaver] and Stephen Lang. It was the first time we were really sharing the movie in its finished form with anybody, and as they watched the screen, I watched them reacting to the movie. There was no greater joy than I could have as a producer than seeing our cast respond the way they did during the film and after the film. They each saw their own performances up on the screen, and that’s the commitment we made to them.
What is that commitment that you made to the actors?
Other movies might use prosthetics to transform an actor into the character that they need to play. We choose to do it through a computer-generated character. And we say to our actors that this is not other people interpreting your performance. This is us realizing their performances on the screen — all of the subtlety, all the nuance, all of the empathy that they create. You just don’t have to sit through three hours of makeup a day to transform. When they see their wry smile or the tears slowly come out of their eyes … It’s what they did. That’s the commitment.
Performance-capture roles are never recognized in the awards race. Do you think it will change?
It has to change, otherwise [awards shouldn’t] recognize performances that are in prosthetics. A performance is a performance. These characters are not animated characters. These actors did not do voice parts. They made every creative choice you see up on the screen, every blink, every quiver in a lip. Look at Sigourney Weaver, playing [her character’s] 14-year-old past self — that’s an amazing performance. You can’t do that with prosthetics. You can’t take Sigourney Weaver and make her two-thirds of her height. So, performance capture is actually allowing an actor to play a character they could not otherwise play. It is creating opportunities for actors. Actors should be embracing that. We don’t replace an actor if they’re a human character — we shoot that.
What will have to happen to get the industry on board with this thinking?
It’s an evolutionary process. It’s education, and we try to do that. We try to provide some incredible clips that we put out online, one in particular on the character of Kiri that shows the side by side of what Sigourney did and what Kiri did. There was a day and age where voters did not think a movie shot digitally could ever win an award. That’s gone by the wayside. I think almost every film nominated for cinematography this year is digitally photographed. So, it’s a process, and I encourage the acting community to learn. I think this is a little breakthrough: Our stunt ensemble got nominated by SAG. No one’s talking about that, but it’s a big deal.
What was a particularly difficult scene or sequence to accomplish, but when you got the visuals back, you knew you had pulled it off?
I’ll talk about the scene that we call “the first swim.” It’s when the kids jump into the water for the first time and we’re taking an audience into that environment. [We would] go back to references that we had shot of performers in the Bahamas and references we had done in the performance-capture tank. We’re in a realm where audiences know what’s real. If you are in an inferno and there’s fire everywhere and people are walking through it and not being affected, nobody can relate to that. But everybody has seen footage of people jumping [into water], many people have done it themselves. We shot references of all the costumes underwater and how they moved to make sure that it was authentic when Weta FX started coming back with their simulations. There is a moment of wonder on Kiri’s face — it’s a moment that I loved, where she reaches out and she’s touching things underwater. That is based on an experience that we all did together as part of the training for The Way of Water, where we went to Hawaii for a sense-memory experience for the cast. We did it on the first movie, but we only did it in the rain forest, and for this movie we did it in the rain forest and in the oceans. We took the cast diving underwater on a night scuba dive. In the darkness of the ocean, 30 feet down, we did perhaps the most Pandoran-like thing one could do on Earth: We saw giant manta rays come out of the darkness and swim over us. Sigourney was able to reach her hand out and touch one of their bellies. That is the sense of wonder she then conveyed to an audience with her performance in that first swim sequence.
How is it to be overtaking yourself at the box office, with The Way of Water beating Titanic‘s box office record?
The emotional state is surreal. It’s phenomenal. It’s great for the people who are part of the team who haven’t experienced this type of success before. What I, as a lover of film and a lover of going to the movies, am most proud of, I should say, is that our film has illustrated that in this post-pandemic or pandemic era — whichever you want to call it — there still is that potential to draw people out of their homes to go to this incredible experience that is called movies. And I don’t believe there’s anything else like it in the world. As producers, as directors, as studios, as exhibitors, we have a responsibility to continue to preserve that experience for generations to come.
Do you know how much repeat viewing is playing into box office performance?
Anecdotally, I think people are definitely going back to see it. For me, what’s most interesting — and I’m just going back to my experience on Titanic and my experience on the first Avatar — I have had more people contact me [about seeing] The Way of Water than [they] ever contacted me [about seeing] Titanic or the first Avatar. And that’s a great feeling.
And is Avatar 3 on track for its current release date?
That’s something that we’re definitely planning on. When we went into production on The Way of Water, we captured movie three [and] we captured the first act of movie four. We did the live-action on all of those as well. We have a lot of that process behind us now. We have still the virtual camera and other stuff that we have to do, but I’m talking to you from my office in Wellington, New Zealand, so we’re into it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a Feb. stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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