When I stepped out to the third floor terrace of the Wolfson building Monday afternoon, I hardly knew what to expect from the man I was about to meet and interview, other than what I’d just looked up on his IMDB page. Someone had arranged a table with chips, salsa, three different kinds of guacamole, and drinks. UMTV students were setting up the cameras and audio equipment, facing a lone podium that addressed a gathering of then-empty chairs. Random students were milling about, probably debating whether or not to go in for some free food. The few reporters there scrambled to get seats in the shade, as the unrelenting heat bore down on us all.
In walks Jon Landau, producer of Academy Award-winning Titanic and Avatar, in cargo pants and a grey cotton shirt. He paid no attention to the food. Rather, he came up to each student individually and introduced himself, seeming generally interested in our majors and hometowns. I noticed he had pet hair on his pants, and wondered to myself if he had a cat.
“So I should probably answer a few questions now,” joked Landau. The students nodded eagerly and settled at attention as he perched at the podium. His eyes scanned the group for the first brave hand to go up.
Roll Cameras. The man transforms.
He suddenly became the world renowned producer of two of the highest grossing films in history, answering each question as poetically and metaphorically as one would expect. Watching him was like watching one of his movies- you walked away having gained something and better off for it too.
Q: “How did you originally get into the area of film production?”
A: “My parents were producers of what I call ‘artsy fartsy’ films (he did air quotes as he said this, to the amusement of the students). Growing up, they tried to convince me to be everything but a producer. Now they joke that all 30 of their films don’t add up to the budget of one of my films.”
Q: “As a producer for Titanic, what did you actually do?”
A: “With the production of Titanic, all the bad was up front. It just got better from there. But as a producer you have to see a movie like it’s a company, and the business plan is the script. We basically had to build a city for the set. The studio was on 40 acres of land, it had it’s own school, police department, and fire department. And I was like the mayor. It was hard to juggle all of that stuff without losing sight of the movie. But the greatest success was in bringing to Jim (director James Cameron) people who were better at their jobs than we ever could be.”
Q: “What experiences did you gain from producing Avatar, especially because it used so much new technology and visual effects?”
A: Making avatar was surreal because we were in breaking new ground. Often times, we would do something for the first time in history, and we’d have to stop and name what we just did so we could refer to it by a name later. The most surreal moment was on the Tintin set later, when I heard Spielberg use a word we’d made up earlier that day.”
Q: “What made Cameron decide to move forward with the making of Avatar?”
A: “Jim wrote the script for Avatar long before the technology actually existed to bring the film to life. We had to wait for the technology to catch up before we could do anything, but the impetus for Avatar began in 2005. Jim was torn between using the Avatar script or the script for a different movie he’d written. Ultimately he asked himself, ‘If a movie was a pebble dropped in a small pond, which one would make wider reaching ripples?’ He knew the answer was Avatar.
Q: “How did you convert Titanic to 3-D?”
A: “Converting a movie to 3-D is a lot like making a movie for the first time. It’s a creative process that utilizes technology to make it happen. The conversion of Titanic took 60 weeks. We did it frame-by-frame. There are 274, 000 frames. It cost 18 million dollars. But the thing with 3-D films is really that you’re showing a window into a world- not cramming a world into a window. Converting Titanic enhanced the dramatic scenes more so than the action scenes. It gave you almost a voyeur feeling with Jack and Rose.”
Someone then threw the ball into left field, asking about James Cameron’s dive into the ocean’s deepest point.
Q: “What do you think about Jim’s dive to the Challenger Deep?”
A: “Jim’s an adventurer. He had the idea to build a bullet-like submersible to rapidly descent through the water into the deep, minimizing the time it takes to descend miles undersea. He did it to inspire people to look into the unknown- the ocean depths are untouched; we know next to nothing about them. Jim is convinced that there are some answers down there in the ocean depth.”
Q: “How do you choose the projects you work on?”
A: “I try to look for movies with a theme that’s bigger than their genres.”
Q: “What’s a piece of advice you’d give to budding producers?”
A: “The script is the most important part of making a movie. People get lost in the gimmicks of trying to sell a film, and the theme suffers. Stop caring about plots, no one ever remembers the plot. That gets left behind in the movie theater. You remember the theme.”
Q: “What’s your favorite part of moviemaking?”
A: “Sitting in the audience the first time the movie is played in theatres, and just watching their reactions. I’m not watching the movie I just spent a year working on, I’m watching their faces. I want to know what they think!”
Q: “What experiences did you gain working at 21st Century Fox studios?”
A: “I thought to use Fox as a learning tool. I tried to understand at least a little about every aspect of the business, from scripting to marketing. I was collaborating on 22 movies a year, instead of just one. That’s actually where I met Jim; he was having financing problems doing True Lies and they handed him over to me. As Barbara Boyle used to say, ‘No one remembers a bad movie that came in under budget.’ Jim got the financing.”
Q: “What other actors were considered for the lead roles in Titanic?”
A: “I won’t get in to the other actors. But I will say that we casted Leo on the basis of first love. There had been pressure from the studio to cast a “big name” Tom-Cruise like actor. But we needed someone less known, so it felt more real. It took a lot of convincing to get Leo to do it. Back then, he wanted his roles to have a crutch to lean on, like a lisp or autism. Something to work with. But in the end we convinced him that it’s harder to play a more well-rounded character.”
Q: “So what’s next?”
A: “Avatar 2 and 3. We’re in early production. It’s going to be one of the greenest, most eco-friendly productions ever. No plastic bottles, less paper. We’re really bringing Pandora to life. Oh, and there’ll be Disney parks. Avatar land is going to be added to the Animal Kingdom- it should have 3 attractions, food courts, the real deal.”
Avatar Land? Well, look out Harry Potter World. Fans are going to chuck their cup of Butterbeer in exchange for a glimpse of Pandora.
words_christine keeler. photo_mark berry.