James Cameron + Jon Landau Q&A on Titanic, casting, Marvel vs. DC, Avatar & technology stuff

On September 10th in Union Square, James Cameron and Jon Landau had a special question and answer session while promoting the 3D release of Titanic.

The first part (Cameron's detailed explanation on his 3D/blu-ray transfer process) can be read at the source or watched here:

Click the cut for the rest in transcript form.

James Cameron: We did The Final Word, and that aired on National Geographic earlier and it was very well rated as a kind of the final discussion of what really happened to the ship in its final hours as it sank and as it drove to the bottom. I think it’s kind of the best overview of the kind of science behind the Titanic site, and it’s a kind of an accumulation of 15 year investigation. Actually longer, 17 years since we first went out there in ’95 for the first expedition and that was 12 dives for me, went back in 2001 for another 11 dives and I think another 11 or 12 dives in 2005. So, I made 4 films about the Titanic: one, the movie, and then 3 documentaries.

This documentary, The Final Word, has never been available on disc before, but it is only available on this set, and if you’re really a Titanic geek, you’re going to love this documentary, and if not, probably just skip it and watch the movie and the other supplemental material, deleted scenes and the featurettes about the making of it all.

As film students, it might be interesting to watch the other documentary, Titanic Reflections. What that does is it recaps the making of and all the trivial information of that, and then it goes to what stuff has happened after the film came out and how it turned into a global pop culture production. It’s kinda interesting to watch our rollercoaster, which is kind of the depths of despair as everybody was basically crucifying us before the fact that we’re making the biggest stinker in history, and then it becoming 11 Academy Awards, 14 Oscar nominations, highest grossing film- all that, from the lowest to the highest in a period of a few months. It was a pretty amazing ride, so that’s all documented. There’s interviews with the cast members and the studio executives- about what they thought at the time, and it’s all pretty funny, since you know what they say, "Failure is an orphan and success has many fathers".

Host: Why do you think it was that the media was setting the Titanic up to be such a big block buster?

James Cameron: Oh they were sharpening their knives- I mean, it’s not many times that prominent filmmakers pour gasoline all over themselves and set themselves on fire in enjoyment of the Hollywood media, which is pretty much what they thought we were doing. See when you’re starting out, no one’s gonna see the problem if your first couple of films aren’t that great, no one will see it, so it doesn’t really matter. Second you make something good, people are watching and that’s when you’re screwed.

Jon Landau: When you hear the film Titanic, you put an open bulls eye for yourself right there, and like Jim mentioned, we didn’t have a open set, we had a very closed set, and if you really look at it historically, the people who we did invite to the set, the press, they held the reports since they saw what was going on. All the rest came from those who had never visited the set, who had known nothing about it.

James Cameron: What really turned it around was the internet. It was the earliest days of the internet of people managing to get spies in the previews, and the studio executives were worrying about them that were breaking the media process. The good news was that all of the reviews that did come from them were off the charts good and everyone had to reevaluate themselves. Like the Hollywood media was excoriating us on a daily basis, and then there was this news that the movie actually rocked, so the media backed off and had to wait to see it. But the thing that most people don’t remember now is that when the film opened, it opened to a 28 million dollar weekend, which is not spectacular, and is definitely bad now. It just so happened that the second weekend open to $29 million, and that had only happened once before with E.T. The weekend after that was $32 million and after that, we were in completely unknown territory. Unfortunately the studio had already sold off the studio rights before the film became a huge success, so they got one third of what they could of gotten if they waited a little longer. And here’s a little tidbit- the highest grossing day of the release was day 60, which is usually when movies are completely gone out of the market place and already on DVD, and that day was Valentine’s Day.


Jon Landau: Jim, you mentioned the preview, and it previewed in Minneapolis, the heartland of America, in the Mall of America.

James Cameron: And what we did was preview it as Great Expectations since we knew there were spies out there and we had to recruit people to watch the movie. We figured that if people wanted to see Great Expectations, they might want to see a historical drama. The theater became packed and I told Jon that when the title came up, we’ll know if it was gonna be a hit or not. And I was making the assumption that when the Titanic title came up, people would know it wasn’t Great Expectations, but when the title came up, you could hear a pin drop from across the room. I go to Jon and tell him ‘We’re fucked!’ And it turned out later that they actually believed it was the Titanic trailer. You know.. . they probably figured it out during the 2 hour mark.

Host: Well, as a director, what do you think about the shrinking window between theatrical play and DVD release?

James Cameron: I don’t know if there should be a rule, but on a film like Avatar, we wanna see how it’s going to play on a large screen before we agree to anyone to downstream it.

Jon Landau: Let’s just talk about Avatar and Titanic. We never set DVD releases until we were well, well, well into the run, and then we set dates.

James Cameron: But if it’s a smaller film with fewer trajectories, they will tend to make those deals and close up the window pretty fast.

Jon Landau: The best thing with Blu-ray today is that you get quality. It allows the viewers at home to get 100% of what you would get in theaters.

James Cameron: I watched Superman 4 and you can see all the wiring and contact lenses- there’s nothing that competes.


Host: I also heard that the costume artists had to reevaluate their work because of the digital transfer.

James Cameron: I think this is really just the new rush that the digital and 4k is bringing. I mean, what 40 something year old actress wants to be shot with a camera over 2k, and that’s the reality of our business- there’s a limit to how much reality and scrutiny we can survive. You’re not going to do a 7 mm close up of anybody- no matter how good their skin is. If they’re younger than 25, they’re going to have pimples and if older, they’ll have wrinkles.

Jon Landau: What’s more important to the audience is the color contrasting and how do you level those things.

James Cameron: The biggest downfall of 3D is that the theaters don’t have the lighting that is needed. The technology is there but to combat with the 3D, they turn the wattage down, which is useless since when you put the glasses on, you already out the lighting in half. What I try to tell everyone, is that you can’t tell everybody that 3D is the best because you’re giving one thing but taking away another.

Host: Well we’re going to open the floor, but one last question: Why did you change the title of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" from "Teenie Weenies"?

Jon Landau: Everyone got the wrong impression and think it’s a movie about me.

Question- You touched on themes with ocean ecosystem in your documentary, so what aspects of that are left to explore for the movies that you and Jon are making now?

James Cameron: Well we’re doing Avatar films now, so we’re making an ocean ecosystem for Pandora. That’s going to do less with the deep exploration that I’ve done than it has to do with the conservation of earth’s oceans. At the level we’re going now, by overfishing, climate changes, temperature rises; it’s all going to take out the coral reefs that we have now. Those won’t exist in 50 years at the rate we’re going by dumping green house gases. We understand the coral reefs very well, and we know that they are dying. Avatar 2 and 3 will not take place totally in the water, but it’s just part of the environment that Pandora has.

Question: What sort of qualities do you look for when picking actors? You have such an amazing track record with the actors you’ve chosen.

James Cameron: I go through a casting director that I really trust who finds a large number of possibilities. I try to narrow it down by video by finding unusual qualities that the actor has, it’s the subtle things the actor does when performing the monologue, and the critical factor of if I can personally work with the person. It takes around an hour for me to see how you work with the scene and I’ll give you notes so I can see if the actor can see the verbal notes I give them to get the most out of the scene. I don’t care if the person reads the scene how I want it read, I want them to read it and see if I can get somewhere with them. I’ve seen actors who worked with acting coaches to practice it one way and then they never get anywhere.

Jon Landau: That doesn’t just apply to the main two leads, but to everyone in the acting experience. Giovanni Ribisi, for example, came in and read.


James Cameron: It doesn’t matter how many credits you got, you’re still going to read. Leonardo almost didn’t get cast in movie since he refused to read. He got a nomination and didn’t want to read at age 19. Kate Winslet was already cast and Leonardo came in and he didn’t want to read. He said he wouldn’t read, so I said thanks for coming in and next time. I walked away and he yelled out, ‘So if I don’t read I don’t even have a chance?’ and I said “Yea, pretty much.’ And oh man, there was some serious eye-rolling. I have a five year old who doesn’t roll her eyes that much. And he groaned and moaned but he read the scene and before my eyes he turned into Jack. Now it was my problem because I had to cast him. It took me five weeks to talk him into doing it.

Host: My favorite casting was Vasquez by Janet Goldstein in Aliens. Was that your idea?

James Cameron: Well I had to sign off on casting everybody, and since we were making Aliens on a budget, and British Equity has a rule where you can only bring 2 people from America, so we had to find a Latina body builder. . . in England. And there was one-fortunately she was very talented. But no, Janet was a nice Jewish girl with fair skins and freckles.

Jon Landau: She’s the Irish mother in Titanic that’s reciting the poem to the kids before the boat sinks.

James Cameron: She gave an incredible reading for Vasquez and she made it very believable and had this dark makeup with long hair. I told her she had to cut her hair to a crew cut, and she said, ‘Reeeaaallly?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, reeeaally.’ And Vasquez was made. She learned Spanish and perfected the accent. It’s funny since you have people who want to see who played Vasquez and they see the name Goldstein. She has the ability to be such a chameleon when acting and that’s great for directors and castings, but it wont get you far fame-wise.

Question: Are there any other places in the world where you think you might explore and perhaps turn into a movie?

James Cameron: Exploring and filmmaking are two different things, but the commonality between them are what makes me want to make a documentary film out of it. But to me, those are two separate things. Making Titanic led to deep sea exploration, but I don’t want it to be the other way around. I have been talking about Avatar 4 which would lead back to the first expedition to Pandora. But then I would be playing by rules of exploration as I understand it. I’m involved in space exploration - I was on the NASA Advisory board and part of Mars Robotic exploration. That might impact how I view the film when I make it.

Question: With all the new technology, how do you find your process being changed?

James Cameron: Well what I found is that there are too many choices- when you shoot photographically, which is 1/3 of Avatar, there’s usually one or two takes to choose from which are in focus. It’s up to you how to choose the way you want the film to be. With the new technology where you can put the camera where you want it, it’s always the same performance from the actor and it moves everything back. What we did for Avatar, we had to edit everything twice- once for performance to capture takes we wanted, and then we had to edit the digital cameras and what they filmed. You had to think about every detail- I’m thinking everything through, ‘Why I am putting the camera here? How would this affect the angle?’ It really forced me to understand the visual anesthetics of the narrative in a way I never understood before. I learned an awful lot of how camera placement does to the film.

Jon Landau: In the moment with the digital cameras, we’re looking at the performances of the actor. Jim looks at reference cameras, since it looks at visuals on all of the actors. It’s all about the performances you get. You’re not worried about other things, so when we’re filming these things, Jim makes the choices as to what to film down the road.

James Cameron: There’s been some criticism that it’s a half-way between real acting and animation. I would say that when you act for film, you get a few close ups and over shots and angles. Let’s say you do five takes, which sounds reasonable. If you’re David Fincher, you do 50, if with me, maybe ten, so 5 is reasonable. The actors have acted the scene 5 times for the camera. Now you have overs, close ups, shot, and reverse close up. The actor would have done the scene 30 times. It teaches the actor to phone it in, and not go on to the full on. That’s why movies are always in a close up, since the actors save the weeping scene for the close up, they’re reconditioned to do their position one way. We may throw out everything on take one and have to go with only take 10. So I ask, what is real acting? I’m looking at the angles, the background the noises- I’m distracted by 100 things and try to do my best to just focus on this. So I find performance capturing just my focus on the actors and their performances.

Question: When you make a movie, what is more important to you: what the critics will say or what the people will think?

James Cameron: Well I’d like to lie to you and tell you that I don’t give a shit about what the critics will say, but unfortunately, you do. But I think it’s a mistake to make big movies for critics, I’ve always made movies for the 14 year old in the back of my mind.

Jon Landau: But also Jim talked about the preview process on Titanic. That’s something we did with Avatar too because it’s important to see how an audience reacts to your film, how moviegoers react. That’s what’s important- to get that feedback while you’re making your movies. Get the feedback from the people and process it yourself, so that’s what we’re trying to do.

Question: When you started 3D so many years ago, was it some kind of movie or anything you saw that made you want to do it or was it strictly for Avatar?

James Cameron: Yeah, well I think the whole team could tell you this, but when I was in college in California, I went to a revival of two 3D movies. One was the Creature from Black Lagoon. I had remembered it from tv and the monster costume was a total piece of crap. But it was the underwater scenes that really stood out- the part where the creatures comes out and touches the girl’s foot- it was just beautiful. It was like Beauty and the Beast. It was just beautiful and in 3D, I mean my eyes fell out of my head. And the other film was Andy Warhol’s Dracula, which is a really gimmicky film, with all kinds of really overt 3D gags. But, it had a scene right at the beginning where there was a horse drawn carriage moving through a grove and hundreds of trees and it was absolutely gorgeous.

I just remember that, and I had this opportunity to do this theme park attraction called T2-3D in 95, and we just barely got enough time to shoot Titanic in 96. And it was a thinking movie, so I remember we did Terminator 2 in 3D. We shot it in 70 mm and I didn’t know much about shooting for 3D so we had to learn how to do that. So we started going to every theme park 3D attraction and learning what do, and what we learned from them is that are some rules that follow with the 3D movies but you can break them easily if you do it right.

They told us we couldn’t have anything coming out of the frame or too many cuts, but it was Terminator- we were cutting every second. So what we tried was to film a 3D movie in a the same format as a high paced action movie. It was quite successful, and I started thinking that we could continue making movies in 3D format-but then I quickly forgot about it.

I made this little known film called Titanic and then I brought back the 3D idea when I wanted to make a Mars movie. The problem was that the IMAX camera weighed 300 pounds and was large in size, and the rocket had to be small to fit. We couldn’t even get the camera inside the set. So we started looking at HD cameras, and HD was a fairly new idea at the time; it was even analog HD. I started out with two HD cameras side by side and blew it up. And what we found was that it wasn’t IMAX, but pretty damn great looking.

So I started going further and started making a 3D camera for motion pictures in late 1998. By around early 2000, and this camera was working with Sony and Panivision, and we set up this company called the Cameron Pace Group and we’ve since been forming the technology to make the 3D cameras in stuff like Hugo and Transformers and some big concert films and sporting events. But at the time, there was no theaters or market, but we had faith in it and we continued working on the cameras and we made this documentary called Ghosts of the Abyss in 2001, which is a return to the Titanic wreck site.

Then they made a major advancement in projectment- a company called RealD was formed and they came up with a single projector, 3D solutions. So all of a sudden, we had the cameras, they had the projectors and almost overnight the label went on. Vince Pace, Sal, and some people from ReadD all decided we should be making movies in 3D. How do we get the exhibiters this projection technology? And that became this crusade in the next few years, and making Titanic in 3D was one of those crusades, but we had to do it quickly because I knew we had to convince the exhibiters that there was going to be a big market for movies in 3D, so a partial solution was to go back and convert stuff.

Peter Jackson was talking about converting King Kong and The Lord of the Rings and we did a test of Titanic and it became very propelling. So that’s how the idea of 3D movies begane converging. In the meantime, Disney made Chicken Little, and they just had us put in 85 RealD theaters, and all of a sudden, we’re seeing digital 3D like no other. And there’s no going back, and we’re up to 25000 digital 3D screens worldwide, and now it’s just established, a way of life. And it hasn’t been that long, it’s only been 5 or 6 years I guess.

Jon Landau: Jim was telling about the 300 pound camera that we using, and when we were filming Avatar, our camera was wider than a film camera with a thousand foot magazine on it, so you can hand hold it, so it gave the ability for 3D filming that had always existed in 2D films.

Question: In the comic book universe, now that we have the technology to make it better, what would be a movie character you would like to tackle?

Watch the answer: