Sigourney Weaver talks ‘Avatar’

With just days to go before the long-awaited release of director James Cameron’s sci-fi magnum opus, Avatar, actress Sigourney Weaver, who plays a botanist who is an ally of the alien Na’vi tribe, talks about reuniting with her Aliens director.

EW: James Cameron told me he initially didn’t want to cast you in Avatar because he was concerned people would think of Ripley in Aliens.
SIGOURNEY WEAVER: He never told me that. [laughs] I got a call from Jim in about September of 2006 and he said, “I’ve been working on this for quite a while and I’d really love for you to read it.” I said, “I’d love to read it. Are you kidding?” It was a hard script to read because it’s so detailed — everything you see onscreen is actually in the script. I thought, “This is glorious but I don’t see how you could ever actually do this.” It’s like something from your dreams. This movie is a Jim Cameron cornucopia: He created the cameras, he created the world, he created the creatures, he created the costumes, he created the Na’vi language. If you talk about playing God, he’s done it — except it took him 14 years instead of 7 days.

There’s so much CGI in this movie, you spent almost the entire shoot acting in an empty room and having to imagine it was an alien world. What was that like?
There were no sets, no costumes — you were just there in the world you were putting together. We were just playing: “This is a log.” “This is a giant leaf.” “You can drink from this plant.” “This is a giant six-legged creature.” It was a lot of fun.

What was it like seeing your character’s avatar onscreen for the first time?
It was amazing. He made Grace look so much more like me than I realized he would. I was like, “Oh! That looks like me!”

You mean, if you were an 11-foot-tall blue alien.
[laughs] Exactly.

How has Cameron changed since you worked together on Aliens 25 years ago?

He’s a different man. When we worked on Aliens we were in England and the crew was like, “Who’s this young upstart? Where’s Ridley Scott?” He kept setting up screenings of The Terminator for them, and they wouldn’t show up. Over the course of the shoot, they learned who they were dealing with. Jim’s actually a nice guy. He’s demanding — he’s going to make you bring your 200 percent game — but he’s never mean and he’s harder on himself than anyone else. All these years later, he’s more settled, he’s happily married, he does this because he loves it, and he can get what he wants and create what he wants.

There’s been so much build-up to the release of Avatar. What are you expecting?

We’re going to be on a publicity tour, going from country to country. It’s going to be fun to go to Moscow. I think Jim knows some Russian cosmonauts, so maybe we can go out drinking with cosmonauts.

How To Speak Na’vi

By Jordan Hoffman

We’ve made no secret of our love for Avatar and l’essence du Cameron these past few days. Much of this respect stems from his devotion to creating a completely one of a kind experience with this film.

“Have you heard he even hired some dude to create a fake language?”

Some dared scoff at James Cameron for this, but from the get go we said, “awesome.”

We had the good fortune to speak with the USC linguistics professor Paul Frommer about the Na’vi language, working with James Cameron and, of course, how to curse if you are a ten foot tall blue space creature.

Jordan Hoffman: Firstly, how do you say “good morning” in Na’vi?

Paul Frommer: They don’t actually say “good morning” on Pandora, but what they do say is “Kaltxi” which means “hello” or “Oel ngati kameie” which means “I see you.”

Jordan Hoffman: And “I see you” means much more than to regard visually, it means “to understand your soul,” right?

Paul Frommer: Exactly. And in the script the “s” in “See” is capitalized.

Jordan Hoffman: You said something interesting. I said “how do you say this in Na’vi” and you said, “on Pandora one says. . .” Does this mean Na’vi is the only language on Pandora?

Paul Frommer: It is. Now, that may be developed further, but you would have to speak to James Cameron about that. Still, there is one language, but there might be different dialects.

Jordan Hoffman: Well, yes, because we see different tribes.

Paul Frommer: That may be developed down the road, yes.

Jordan Hoffman: If you have a sharp ear for linguistics, will you hear different dialects in the current film?

Paul Frommer: Actually, you might.

Jordan Hoffman: Is this a language truly created out of whole cloth?

Paul Frommer: It is virtually impossible to say you’ve created something that is wholly unique, in the sense that no other language on Earth doesn’t do it this way. I mean, there are roughly 3000 languages in the world. What I can guarantee is that the particular combinations of elements in Na’vi is unique. It has a grammatical property here and you may say “that is reminiscent of Persian” or “this sounds Indonesian,” but the particular combination of elements, of sounds and of word-building rules, and rules of putting words into phrases, that is unique.

Jordan Hoffman: Are there quirks in Na’vi we need to know about to continue our studies? In Klingon, for example, it is well known that there is no exact translation of the verb “to be.”

Paul Frommer: Na’vi has “to be!” (chuckles) I am a huge admirer of Klingon. When I got this gig, though, I made a conscious decision not to look too much at other constructed languages.

Jordan Hoffman: Even Esperanto?

Paul Frommer: I haven’t looked to closely at that either. I have some experience with Esperanto, as a linguist you pick lots of things up over the years. I am not fluent in Esperanto though. But to get back to your question – quirks of Na’vi. All the verbs have in-fixes, not suffixes or prefixes. Also, there is a system that the order of major elements in a sentence doesn’t matter.

Jordan Hoffman: Gimme a f’rinstance.

Paul Frommer: Well, there’s a root called “taron” (pronounced “gad’on”) which means “hunt.” If you want to modify that to mean “hunting has been completed,” to add a past tense or future tense or imperfect aspect, rather than putting something at the beginning or end, you put something right after the “t” – so various forms appear: “tovaron, telaron, tusaron, tairon” – that is relatively rare in human language. And that was really fun to do.

Jordan Hoffman: Okay – what are some Na’vi cursewords? Let’s say you are carrying a big block of unobtainium and you drop it on your foot. You shout out “Oh ____”

Paul Frommer: Well, one word that had gotten some play is “skxawng” [the “x” is a click.] This means “moron.”

Jordan Hoffman: Sure, that’s in the movie.

Paul Frommer: Another way – and this is in the video game – which is “pxasik” [sounds like “puh –(lip smack) askik.]

Jordan Hoffman: Woah, say that again!

Paul Frommer: Pxasik!

Jordan Hoffman: And this means?

Paul Frommer: It means “screw that!” It’s pretty vulgar.

Jordan Hoffman: There’s a moment in the film where Princess Neytiri and Jake Sully share an “intimate” moment and, since it is a PG-13 film, the lights fade. Were the lights to stay on and if we were to describe that act in a lewd, vulgar term, what would we say?

Paul Frommer: I don’t have a word for that yet. Even at this point, this is an ongoing project. The vocabulary is roughly at 1000 words, not too big, but enough of a springboard.

Jordan Hoffman: I have a hunch there will be Avatar comics and expansion novels – I’m sure the Alan Dean Fosters of the world have some work ahead of them – is this something where you will consult with the expansion of the language?

Paul Frommer: I have not yet been approached about anything, and I don’t know what the plans are, but I would love to continue to be involved.

Jordan Hoffman: Is Mr. Cameron as fluent in the language as you?

Paul Frommer: Probably not – I think I’m the best versed out there right now?

Jordan Hoffman: With all his money he can’t get a private tutor?

Paul Frommer: I think he had other things on his mind.

Jordan Hoffman: Of all of the created languages, which one has Na’vi vanquished? Is it Elvish, Huttese, Klingon or what the Gelflings speak in Dark Crystal?

Paul Frommer: I don’t like to think of vanquishing. I like to think of living side by side.

Jordan Hoffman: That’s a very Na’vi way of thinking.

Paul Frommer: I like to think so. But, heck, if Na’vi can achieve even a percentage of what Klingon has achieved that would be fantastic.

Jordan Hoffman: Well, this leads to an actual question – the Na’vi philosophy is a very natural, holistic way of life. Those blue suckers are very green. Did this in any way inform the construction of the language?

Paul Frommer: No. Only with certain concepts that I knew needed to be in there like “Tree of Souls” or “Hometree” and some of the religious concepts of Eowah. Otherwise, no, I just wanted exotic sounds to the Western ear – the ejectives the [proceeds clicking and making beat box sounds] and something fun for the audience. There is really no connection between the grammatical structure or aural quality of a language with the culture of a people.

Jordan Hoffman: Can you translate the following phrase?

Paul Frommer: Wait, wait, wait!

Jordan Hoffman: “All of this imperialism has left me feeling blue.”

Paul Frommer: Okay, the answer is “no.” “Imperialism” is a word I’d have to come up with. But this was one of the challenges on the set. I would be approached with “we’re adding a line and we need to say XYZ.” Sometimes I had the words right there, but sometimes I needed to go and create them.

Jordan Hoffman: Is there a Na’vi word for Unobtainium?

Paul Frommer: Not yet. Hasn’t come up in the script yet. The vocabulary developed by looking at the script and translating from what was needed. If the word hasn’t been required yet, most of the time it hasn’t been created yet.

Jordan Hoffman: Were you on the set a lot?

Paul Frommer: On the days when there was a lot of spoke Na’vi I was on set. I had a few 13 hour days on set in the Na’vi village, for example.
Jordan Hoffman: Had you been on a film set before?

Paul Frommer: Never. And I spoke to people saying, “don’t think this is a typical film set.” Walking onto the stage was like being at NASA. Banks of computers.

Jordan Hoffman: Did you witness classic Jim Cameron barking 25 orders at once?

Paul Frommer: He was definitely an intense presence on the set. It is clear this is an extremely creative individual who knows exactly what he wants and he gets exactly what he wants.

Jordan Hoffman: If I send you this transcript, will you translate it into Na’vi.

Paul Frommer: I would love to – but I can’t give you an ETA on that. . .may take a while.

Your Neighborhood Na’vi Xenoanthropologist

Our interview with Avatar’s Joel Moore
By Matt Patches

While I applaud Avatar for shrouding itself in secrecy for the past four years, it’s quickly moving into frustration territory. How am I supposed to nerd out over the flora and fauna of Pandora or study the intricate glottal stops of the Na’vi language if people won’t spill any details? They can’t expect me to wait until after the movie comes out, can they??

Luckily actor Joel Moore, who plays scientist Norm Spellman in Avatar, didn’t hesitate to answer a few of my fanboy questions while discussing his latest.

Matt Patches: So Joel, they tell me you have a little movie coming out soon.

Joel Moore: Yeah, tiny little indie. Hoping it makes a couple screens in New York and L.A.

MP: I heard at least one.

JM: [laughter] Laemmle’s I think.

MP: Is Avatar one of your bigger films, then?

JM: Recently? Yes, in my loooong career. [laughter] Yeah, it’s the biggest movie I’ve ever done and has the biggest chance at being one of the biggest movies.

MP: Exhausted?

JM: Yeah, but we’re having a blast because it’s so easy to be positive about, so easy to talk about. I should be clear, it hasn’t been easy to talk about it, because of the secrecy and mystery of it, but it’s so easy to discuss because you have a guy [James Cameron] behind the wheel of it who is a genius, who has so much passion, so much charisma, and creativity and knew exactly what he wanted since the day he wrote it.

The rest of my chat with Joel Moore after the jump!

MP: How long ago did you shoot Avatar?

JM: I booked it in December of ’06 and so we shot through 2007 and 2008.

MP: And how did you get involved?

JM: I just auditioned like anybody else would have. I’m sure there’s a lot of people who went out for it. I walked into a room, said some lines I didn’t have.

MP: Did they put you in spandex and ping pong balls for your audition?

JM: Not for the test, not for the test. But as soon as they could they put me in that spandex…

MP: How was that?

JM: We spent so much time in them…by day two, it’s pretty much an even playing field. We look like a bunch of drunk athletes. We were essentially in wet suits with a helmet. We looked like someone on a bad BMX tour or Jackass. Covered in balls.

MP: Was it harder to act on the blue screen stages, the motion capture environment or against Paris Hilton in The Hottie and the Nottie?

JM: [laughter] Let me touch on the first thing…there was no blue screen. Motion capture is a whole different way of doing it. You’re not using a real camera. They’re not shooting it the way one would assume it’s being shot. No we did do that on the live action side. We were on real sets, parts of spaceships, or trampling around the land of Pandora. But, all of that is live-action. 3D cameras, set your lighting, gotta get your make-up done…just like a normal movie but 3D. But motion capture is nice because you don’t have to worry about make-up.

MP: You just show up.

JM: You show up, put the stupid thing on, and start acting.

MP: There’s been so much secrecy around Avatar, I’m not sure I’ve heard much about your character.

JM: My character is Norm Spellman, he’s a xenoanthropologist which is essentially a scientist who is studying the land and the alien lifeforms on Pandora. It’s not actually a world, but a moon of another bigger planet, but it was able to give life. Now we can’t breathe in the area, but they have lungs…and we’ve found the humanoid life that we can communicate with and they have their own language, they walk on two feet. So we were able to create these avatars, remotely controlled beings, that I as Norm Spellman can control through my mind. Transfer my consciousness over to this clone. They’ve taken DNA from the Na’vi and DNA from me.

MP: So you’re plugged in to the avatars? We were wondering why the military doesn’t unplug you if all of a sudden the avatars become part of the rebellion.

JM: In a way…they wanted to shy away from any Matrix comparisons. It’s not a virtual world, they’re real beings that are walking around.

MP: I’ve been trying to figure out the timeline, how long have the humans been on Pandora?

JM: : They’ve been there for a long enough time that they’ve built a base, and started to mine the energy source. That’s really the story…well, the story is really a love story and that’s what Jim does so well. He’s whittled it down to the simplest version. It’s a love story, and all the action-adventure, CG, special effects are added extras

MP: Does Norm have a goal, an arc in the story?

JM: Yeah, Norm comes with the full spectrum of understanding. He’s fluent in their dialect, their language. He’s spent hours and hours in his avatar, getting familiar with walking around. He goes there with a world of information. He immediately kisses up to Dr. Grace Augustine played by Sigourney Weaver, and they have a great relationship because I know my sh*t. So there’s a really fun juxtaposition between my character and Sam Worthington who plays Jake Sully.

MP: There have been a few interviews with Sam where he mentions being signed on for sequels. Are you signed up for more Avatar?

JM: On the business side you have the discussions, but it’s ultimately up to Jim if it will happen or not. It’s a story that stands alone, so it doesn’t need a sequel. But it’s good and powerful, so if he were to decide to make sequels, they’d be just as good.

MP: And you’d definitely come back, the world will need more Norm Spellman.

JM: Of course, man, of course. I’d love to.

MP: I hope so, I already have my Norm Spellman Halloween costume picked out for next year.

Am I the only Avatar fanboy in the room? Or are you already painting your face blue for the midnight showing? Let us know in the comments! Avatar hits theaters December 18th and you can find the down and dirty on the movie at our Avatar spoilers page!

An interview with Paul Frommer, Alien Language Creator for Avatar

by Matteo Milani, U.S.O. Project – Unidentified Sound Object, November 2009

U.S.O. Project meets Paul Frommer, linguist and developer for the long-awaited film Avatar with James Cameron of the whole language and culture for the fictional indigenous race of Pandora called Na’vi.

Fictional languages are by far the largest group of artistic languages. Fictional languages are intended to be the languages of a fictional world, and are often designd with the intent of giving more depth and an appearance of plausibility to the fictional worlds with which they are associated, and to have their characters communicate in a fashion which is both alien and dislocated.

[Paul R. Frommer –]
Matteo Milani: Can you describe your background activities and your previous experiences at USC before working with James Cameron?
Paul Frommer: My undergraduate degree, from the University of Rochester in New York, is in Mathematics. Soon after graduating, I spent two years in Terengganu, Malaysia as a United States Peace Corps volunteer, where I taught English as a Second Language and also mathematics, the latter in the Malay language. Although I had studied foreign languages prior to that (Hebrew, French, Latin, German), it was during my time in Malaysia that I really fell in love with languages. I decided to do my graduate work in linguistics and entered the doctoral program at USC.
While I was a graduate student, I had the opportunity to teach for a year in Iran, which was a wonderful experience. Returning to USC, I completed my dissertation on a topic in Persian grammar. Then, after several more years of teaching, I switched careers and entered the business world, becoming a strategic planner and business writer for a Los Angeles corporation.

My return to academia led me in a new direction: business communication. I joined USC’s Marshall School of Business as a full-time faculty member in 1996, teaching in the department now known as the Center for Management Communication. I became chair of that department in 2005 and served in that capacity until 2008.

MM: Traveling back to 2005, how and when did you meet the director?

PF: During the summer of 2005, Lightstorm Entertainment, James Cameron’s production company, sent an e-mail to the USC linguistics department inquiring about a linguist who might be able to develop an alien language for a new movie. That e-mail was forwarded to me, and I jumped on it. I expressed my strong interest in the project and sent Cameron a copy of the linguistics workbook I had co-authored — Looking at Languages: A Workbook in Elementary Linguistics. A week or two later I was called in for an interview. I spent a very stimulating 90 minutes with Cameron in his offices in Santa Monica, where we discussed his vision for the movie and the language. At the end, I was thrilled when he shook my hand and said, “Welcome aboard.”

MM: What were his initial requests?

PF: Well, he wanted a complete language, with a consistent sound system (phonology), word-building rules (morphology), rules for putting words together into phrases and sentences (syntax), and a vocabulary (lexicon) sufficient for the needs of the script. He also wanted the language to be pleasant sounding and appealing to the audience.
“We created the language of the Na’vi starting about the time that I was doing the shooting draft of the script […] Dr. Paul Frommer, who was with USC (University of Southern California) at the time, spent about a year creating the language. The trick was we had the language before we actually cast most of the parts. So the casting director, Margery Simkin, had to learn a bit of Na’vi so that she could get the auditioning actors to repeat the sounds of the language. If they couldn’t make the sounds, they couldn’t have the part.
The studio asked me the same question. They asked, “Do they have to have tails?” We’re very happy with the way the Na’vi worked out because what we found is the tail and the ears show the characters’ emotional state. A cat owner knows that you can tell a cat’s mood by what its tail is doing. Just as we created a verbal language, we created a vocabulary for the tail and the ears.”

[James Cameron – via]

“I’ve discovered over the years that a voice needs to sync with body movements as precisely as it does with lip movement, in order for the sound to most effectively bond with the character.
[Ben Burtt – an excerpt from Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide: Beeps, Bleats, Boskas, and Other Common Intergalactic Verbiage]

MM: Can you reveal the process of creating the Na’vi language? What are the major difficulties in creating a phonetic system with its own style, consistency, and unique character?
PF: I didn’t quite start from zero, since Cameron had devised 30 or 40 words of his own for the original script—some character names, place names, names of animals, etc. That gave me a bit of a sense of what kinds of sounds he had in mind.
The next step was to develop the phonetics and phonology—the sounds that would and would not appear in the language, along with the rules for combining sounds into syllables and words and the pronunciation rules that might in certain circumstances change one sound into another. The major constraint, of course, was that although Na’vi is an alien language, it has to be spoken by human actors, and so the sounds it included had to be ones that the actors would be able to reproduce.
To create some interest, I included a group of sounds not often found in western languages—“ejectives,” which are popping-like sounds that I notated as kx, px, and tx. I also needed to determine what other elements in the language would be “distinctive”—that is, would be able to differentiate words: for example, stress (the eventual answer was yes), vowel length (no) and tone (no). I presented Cameron with three different “sound palettes” or possibilities for the overall sonic impression of the language—he chose one, and we were off!
The next step was to decide on the morphology and syntax. For those, I was on my own. Since this was an alien language spoken on another world, I wanted to include structures and processes that were relatively rare in human languages but that could be acquired by humans, since according to the plot of the movie, a number of humans had learned to speak the language. The verbal morphology, for example, is achieved exclusively through infixes, which are less common than prefixes and suffixes. And the nouns have a system of case marking, known as a tripartite system, that’s possible but quite rare in human languages.

“Overall, the creation of alien languages has been the hardest task. A language, or more accurately, the sensation of language, has to satisfy the audience’s most critical faculties. We are all experts at identifying the nuances of intonation. Whether we understand a given language or not, we certainly process the sound fully and attribute meaning–perhaps inaccurate–to the emotional and informational content of the speech. Our minds are trained to recognize and process dialogue. The task, therefore, of creating a language is all the more difficult because of the strength of the audience’s perception.”
[Ben Burtt – an excerpt from Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide: Beeps, Bleats, Boskas, and Other Common Intergalactic Verbiage]

MM: How did you make the Na’vi dialogue sound “real”? How difficult was it to make the dialogue believable?
PF: Well, that was really more a matter for the actors—and it was quite a challenge. They had to learn their lines in a language no one had ever heard before, including learning to make unusual sounds and sound combinations, and then they had to act convincingly in that language! That involved not only memorizing the sentences but mastering the stress and intonation, so that they could place emphasis in the right place. It wasn’t easy, but they did a remarkable job.

I met with all seven of the Na’vi-speaking actors off-set before their scenes were shot to help them with the pronunciation, and I also supplied recordings in the form of mp3 files so that they could listen to and absorb the dialog.

MM: Is there a “gold standard” for constructed language that served as an inspiration to you?

PF: In terms of “alien” languages, that would have to be Klingon, the language developed by linguist Marc Okrand for the Star Trek series. It’s a very impressive piece of work—a rough-sounding language with a complex and difficult phonology and grammar that now has a devoted base of followers. There are Klingon clubs all over the world where people meet to speak the language, and there’s even a translation of Hamlet into Klingon! If Na’vi ever came close to that kind of following, I’d be delighted.

MM: Do the Na’vi have their own alien writing system?

PF: No, the Na’vi don’t have a writing system, so that was one thing I didn’t have to bother with. But of course I needed to devise a consistent orthography, based on the Roman alphabet, to write down the language for descriptive purposes and transcribe the words and sentences for the actors.

MM: Did you develop a vocabulary?

PF: Yes, I developed it on an as-needed basis. That is, the words I came up with first were those that appeared in the script. This past May, when I translated dialog for the Avatar video game, I faced new situations that required words I didn’t yet have, so that was an opportunity to expand the lexicon further.

“Part of my research was to identify interesting real languages to use as a basis for alien ones. The advantage of using a real language is that it possesses built-in credibility. A real language has all the style, consistency, and unique character that only centuries of cultural evolution can bring. I found that if I relied on my familiarity with English, my imagined “alien” language would just be a reworking of the all-too-familiar phonemes of everyday general American speech. I had to break those boundaries, to search for language sounds that were uncommon and even unpronounceable by most of the general audience.”
[Ben Burtt – an excerpt from Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide: Beeps, Bleats, Boskas, and Other Common Intergalactic Verbiage]

MM: An “a posteriori” language is any constructed language whose vocabulary is based on existing languages, either as a variation of one language or as a mixture of various languages, unlike “a priori” constructed languages (e.g. Klingon). How did you first search for some exotic languages that would act as inspiration?
PF: I didn’t base Na’vi on any particular human language. In terms of its sound, I thought that the original words Jim Cameron had come up with had a bit of a Polynesian flavor, and I included those sounds in the language. But I added a lot beyond that, so that I don’t believe that Na’vi sounds like any specific existing language.
As I mentioned, there’s nothing in Na’vi that couldn’t be found in some human language—and that’s important, since humans have learned to speak it. However, the particular combination of elements in Na’vi—its sound system, morphology, and syntax—is unique.

Avatar producer Jon Landau to discuss making James Cameron’s vision a reality.

And a linguist invented the Na’vi language—did you pick up any?
I have enough trouble with English! I could say a few words in Na’vi, but not much. Na’vi is a hard language. When I knew we had to create a language for the movie, I thought, okay, you go hire someone and say, ‘This is the word we have to say.’ And they’d come up with the word. I was wrong. Paul Frommer, our linguist, took six months just to define the structure of language, which I thought was fascinating. And after that, he’d start coming up with the sentences that we needed.
Does it have parallels to any language on earth?
I think it’s relatively unique. We didn’t want someone to hear it and go, ‘Wow, that’s Watusi!” Or Maori, or French.

MM: The upcoming score by James Horner will feature vocals in the Na’vi language. Would you like to describe your experience with the singers during those recordings?

PF: That was a lot of fun! James Cameron had written the lyrics for six songs, four of which I translated into Na’vi. (It was interesting to try to write poetry in the language!) Then at various times I met with music director James Horner, his associates, and the singers who had to sing in Na’vi to help them pronounce the words of the songs. For some of the recording sessions, the music was fluid and developed on the spot, which I found a wonderfully creative process. For one session, though, there was already pre-composed music written out on a musical staff. I’m a pianist and I have a musical background, so I was able to read the music with the singer and help him fit the words to the melody.

Great Expectations,,20007998,00.html

James Cameron is finally following up that movie about the boat accident. His new project, Avatar, is an epic, 3-D sci-fi film about an ex-Marine on an inhospitable planet where humans can only survive by projecting their consciousness into genetically engineered bodies (a.k.a. ”avatars”). The people of earth want to exploit the planet’s natural resources, of course, causing the inhabitants to revolt and a war to break out. The rub for the protagonist, named Jake (played by newcomer Sam Worthington), is that he’s fallen in love with a native (Zoe Saldana), forcing him to choose a side in the battle. Fox has gone out on a limb, granting Cameron a whopping $195 million to tell the tale — but hey, what’s a couple hundred mil for a guy who racked up 11 Oscars with his last full-length feature?

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: For a while now, you’ve been debating between two different projects: Avatar, which is an original screenplay that you wrote, and Battle Angel, adapted from a series of Japanese comics. So why pick Avatar?
Well, Battle Angel and Avatar were being developed at the same time. The thinking was that we’d be using similar technology to create either one or both of those films. It was little bit of a horse race there for a while to see which one was going to be done first. The way I pitched it to Fox was, ”We’re doing both these films.” The order is relatively arbitrary, because we’re making an investment in a methodology and a technical infrastructure that could produce both. But I ultimately had to choose which one was going to be first, and I began to run into a bunch of script problems with Battle Angel, because I was synthesizing down these graphic novels. There are 10 of them. It was the kid in the candy store problem — too many good ideas and no story. So we went through five drafts and didn’t solve them. So I switched to Avatar and we started developing that. Then, of course, a great script came in on Battle Angel! Which is a good problem to have, because I had two great projects, either one of which the studio would be happy to go ahead with. I would say it was August or September of 2005 we decided to push ahead with Avatar. Believe it or not, it was that long ago.

What was the deciding factor?
We did a test of the performance-capture techniques we wanted and needed to use to make this film — a live action, real-time, director-centric performance-capture process. In other words, as the actors perform, I’m able to see in the monitor not only what they might look like as their CG character, but in the CG environment we’ve created, and direct them accordingly. When we did the test, we chose Avatar, just because it seemed like the easiest one to get going for a test, for a lot of reasons.

This is an original screenplay, correct?
That’s correct.

How did you come up with this story?
Well, my inspiration is every single science fiction book I read as a kid. And a few that weren’t science fiction. The Edgar Rice Burroughs books, H. Rider Haggard — the manly, jungle adventure writers. I wanted to do an old fashioned jungle adventure, just set it on another planet, and play by those rules.

Your premise reminded me a lot of the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter, Warlord of Mars series.
It’s definitely got that feeling, and I wanted to capture that feeling, but updated. To be certain, I wanted a film that could encompass all my interests, from biology, technology, the environment — a whole host of passions. But I’ve always had a fondness for those kind of science fiction/adventure stories, the male warrior in an exotic, alien land, overcoming physical challenges and confronting the fears of difference. Do we conquer? Exploit? Integrate? Avatar explores those issues.

How long has this been in your head?
I wrote an 80-page treatment 11 years ago. We were working from the treatment in designing the world and the creatures and so on. I wrote the script the first four months of 2006.

Is it true you have developed a whole culture and even a whole language for the aliens in this movie?
Absolutely. We have this indigenous population of humanoid beings who are living at a relatively Neolithic level; they hunt with bows and arrows. They live very closely and harmoniously with their environment, but they are also quite threatening to the humans who are trying to colonize and mine and exploit this planet.

Sounds like you’ve crafted a story with a lot of political resonance.
Only in the very broadest sense of how we as a Western technological civilization deal with indigenous cultures; we basically supplant them. If not in an active, genocidal way, then in a passive manner. They just kind of wither away. Our impact on the natural environment, wherever we go — strip mining and putting up shopping malls. Now, we’re extending that to another planet.

How long did it take to brainstorm the language? Did you work with people on that?
There’s a guy named Paul Froemer who I was lucky enough to encounter a year ago. He’s the head of the linguistics department at USC. I talked with a number of linguistics experts, but he was the one who kind of got the challenge. He said, ”We’re going to beat Klingon! We’re going to out-Klingon Klingon! We’re going to have a more detailed and well thought out language than Klingon!” He’s been working on this for a year. It began by riffing off things in the treatment, but from there, it went to how sentences would be constructed, and what the sound system would be. It would have to be something that was pronounceable by the actors but sounded exotic and not specific to human languages. So he’s mixing bits of Polynesian and some African languages, and all this together. It sounds great.

What was the tipping point in terms of realizing that this movie was technically possible?
Looking at what Peter Jackson was able to do with Gollum, and then King Kong. And Davy Jones [from Pirates of the Caribbean] — all these examples of compelling photo-realistic, fully CG characters, in a photo-realistic world. I don’t think many people are aware that a lot of the jungle scenes in King Kong were actually CG. They did a lot with miniatures, but toward the end they were doing a lot of the jungles in CG.

Was the number of theaters that could exhibit a 3-D movie also on your mind in terms of when to go forward with this?
Absolutely. There’s been a sense for me over the past two or three years of, ”Well, if not this year, then it’s okay next year for me to start a movie, because the longer I wait, the more theaters there will be,” and I want to be able to land in 1,000, 1,500 theaters — as many theaters as I can — in digital 3-D. Because I’ve been working with our 3-D cameras over the past six years. We’ve refined them. They work great. They work perfectly. I love working with them. I don’t want to go back to shooting on film. I don’t want to go back to shooting in 2-D, so for me it was just a question of waiting for the right moment. In fact, I think I’ve actually waited too long. Everybody else is out there making animated films and putting them in 3-D and this is such a big picture. We’re not going to land in theaters until summer of ’09. But I think we can be sure that we will have a lot of 3-D screens by ’09 at the rate they’ve been increasing.

How did you convince Fox to do this movie?
Walking them through the process. It’s a good thing we actually had built a functional stage environment that was producing usable footage. When they came down and saw it they went, ”Wow, maybe this is the way to make one of these movies, where you have so much more of a sense of control and confidence as you’re making the pictures.” Because I’ll be able to literally turn over cut sequences as we go, right from the get-go. Right from the time we start with the actors, the studio will be able to see it. So instead of spending an enormous amount of money, and then after the money is all spent, still not having scenes with a rough sense of what they really like because the special effects process hasn’t really even begun yet, they’ll be able to see what it looks like as we go along.

To be clear, Fox was financing all this development, correct?
Correct. We were on a week-to-week funding scheme, where we continued to develop and do budgets and do the F/X breakdowns. But while we were doing that we were actually doing capture on a weekly basis. I would do a day, or two days, or three days of motion-capture work. We were actually working out the methodology. So I was able to bring them down and tour them through the facility and show them all the design work and really give them a sense of how much preparation this film had under its belt. I think they felt that yes, this is a very daunting project, but that it was also the most intricately planned project since… well, since ever. [Laughter]

When did you invite them down and give them that tour and show them what you had been doing?
l would say that was a couple months ago. And then the conversation evolved into casting. We were going to make this big expensive film — were we really going to do it with a cast of unknowns? Relative unknowns, not stars. Not Tom Cruise. So we had to get our minds around that. Or they had to. I was already pretty happy with our choices.

And you had already made those choices.
Well, we had already cast a few actors. What we were talking about was the lead, the male lead. I had found Sam Worthington fairly early in the process. He really hung in there and trooped with us for a long time. He came in for a couple screen tests, and kinda hung on, hoping. So I have to give him credit for that. It was a very exhaustive process. We looked at a lot of people. There were people who were championed by the studio and I even screen-tested them. Ultimately, when I showed them Sam against their champions, they was no comparison.

Was there any concern at the studio about the potential budget for this, given their experience with you on Titanic?
Absolutely… A lot of the last six months was about figuring how to make this a very, very finite process that’s not prey to all these pitfalls of these big effects movies. So a lot of scrutiny was spent on the contracts with Weta [the New Zealand-based F/X facility], a lot of scrutiny on the budget, the methodology, on testing and so on. As the process went on, the confidence level increased that the number was not going to change.

The reported figure is $200 million. Is that accurate?
The reported figure is supposed to be $195 million — that’s what our budget is. Is that figure going to drift by a couple percentage points up or down? Probably. I don’t think you can do any big project and land exactly on budget. But I’m hoping to come under. Really shock everyone.

That would shock everyone.
But the history of the last six years is that that’s all I’ve done. I did 44 hours of television — Dark Angel — that was done on budget and on schedule. I did four major documentary projects that were subject to Atlantic and Pacific storms and all these exegeses of major ocean expeditions, and they were all done on budget. I’ve spent really the past few years working on our methodology for this type of big, mainstream effects film, and doing it within parameters, which is something Hollywood typically isn’t very good at… A film like Titanic, we had a six-month shoot. At the end of those six months, because we had been working flat-out, six days a week, very little of the picture was cut, there was very little to be turned over to the F/X guys in terms of finite counts, and so all of the F/X got jammed into the last four months of making the movie. That’s why we didn’t make our release date and why we went over budget in effects, because we had to divide it up amongst 14 vendors to even attempt to make our date. In direct contrast to that, I have almost two and a half years on this film, and we’ve already been doing performance-capture for four months, and the F/X guys are already working… Our live action shoot is just 31 days — it’s a fifth of Titanic, all on stages, all interiors. We’ll do all that in New Zealand. All the sets are designed now. We don’t even begin site construction until May.

When will you start shooting those 31 days?
Late August. Might drift to September.

How excited are you to be back making movies like this?
Oh yeah! I always assumed I would come back and be that guy again. I didn’t think it would take this long. I was having too much damn fun doing expeditions. And frankly, I’ve already been working on this movie pretty exclusively for a year and a half. So I feel like I’ve already been doing it. We’re just announcing it now; it feels like I’ve been part of the Manhattan Project and we’re going public.

Will you still do Battle Angel?
Yeah. In fact, this film has a very long tail on it, about a year and half of post-production. Basically, after I finish my job as a director, after directing the actors and editing a film and turning over a cut, I think it’s very possible that I can slip a good six months of pre-production of Battle Angel into that period.

Will Fox be involved?
That’s a Fox project, as well.

When you go down to New Zealand, will you be bunking with Peter Jackson?
Peter and I have gotten to be friends over the past couple years. He’s a 3-D fanatic, like I am, and he loves the effects, and he loves the big show, and he loves fantasy filmmaking. I’m going to be relying on all the infrastructure he’s built down there, from the live action soundstages to the Weta workshop, where they’re going to make all the props and sets. It’s going to be, ”Thanks for building all this, Peter. Now can you move out for a year and let me use it?”

For more about Avatar, check out the upcoming issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Jan. 12.