James Cameron Talks Expanded Avatar Universe

James Cameron Photo: Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images

We've known for a while that the world of James Cameron's Avatar was going to expand into four sequels in the next few years, but in advance of them, Cameron's world expanded in a curious medium: a new Cirque du Soleil show set in the distant past of the Avatar universe called Toruk (not to be confused with dinosaur hunter Turok). The production, which is touring around North America through the winter, follows a group of that world’s extremely tall aliens, the Na’vi, on their homeworld of Pandora and features all the high-flying Cirque du Soleil antics you know and love. We caught up with Cameron to talk about the show, the recent Native American protests in North Dakota, and his plans for a cross-platform Avatar expanded universe.

This show is clear evidence that Cirque du Soleil felt inspired by Avatar, but do you see its influence anywhere else? I mean beyond the film's technical achievements.
That's a good question because I think it has spawned a lot of imitators. I see bits of Avatar DNA in other films, in terms of design motifs and so on. It definitely showed people what's possible in terms of using CG. I think it's consistent to itself. Right now I think the legacy is that people just want to see more of it.

Are you nervous about the fact that you set yourself up for four more sequels?
It's a big challenge. It's not like a suddenly wake up and I'm like, Oh my god, why did I do that? It's knowing going in. On the other hand, if you look at it another way, people go to college for years, and then they try to get a job, and they hope they're going to be in that job for a while, if it's something they really enjoy doing. As a filmmaker, you tend to go from project to project to project in a very gypsy way, and I'm happy that I'm going to get to work in the Avatar world for the next seven years at least. I'm pretty excited about the fact that I get to dig in and live in that world for a long time.

What have you discovered about the Avatar mythos since the first movie came out? What have you learned about the world you created?
It's always a reflection of our world. It wouldn't have any relevance if it wasn't a refraction through a lens of fantasy or science fiction of the things that are going on in our world, whether it's the struggle if you look at this Standing Rock confrontation between Native Americans and the authorities that's going on right now, that's just an example of the kind of things that Avatar is about, metaphorically. It's going on throughout Central and South America. Indigenous people confronting big hydroelectric dam projects or confront oil companies, that sort of thing. It's the world we live in. It's also about our relationship with technology and how we're a much more urbanized society then we used to be. We're far, far down through the looking glass of our own technology now, and I think part of us is yearning for that reconnection to nature, and that's what the Avatar films will remind us of.

How’d Toruk come to be?
It's a prequel, which wasn't necessarily obvious when we started. I had been friends with Daniel Lamarre at Cirque [du Soleil], and I had shown him what I was doing with [Avatar] in terms of 3-D before we released the film, and was sort of lobbying to shoot some of the Cirque shows using our 3-D camera system, which we eventually wound up doing. We made a film called Worlds Away, but in the process of that, Daniel came back and said that Guy Laliberte, who founded the company, said, “Well, why don't we do a live show on an Avatar theme?” They had never done anything that was based on a movie. They had done music; they'd done the Beatles and Michael Jackson and Elvis, but they hadn't done anything based on a movie, and this was their first foray into that, but I think they were waiting for the right thing that was kind of consonant with the look and feel of their shows, and Avatar sort of fit that. I was inspired by the Cirque du Soleil shows when I was writing and imagining Avatar, so there was kind of a feedback loop there.

What shook out was the idea of a prequel, because we were wrestling with the scale issue. The Na'vi are ten feet tall, so if you're going to do a post-human-contact story then if everybody is human-scaled and all the Na'vi are human-scaled, then your human characters are three feet tall! So we talked a lot about projections and various kind of optical illusion things, and eventually they came back with the idea of, Well let's just set it in the deep past. Let's go back to the very first Toruk Makto, the first rider of the Toruk. Zoe Saldana's character talked about that, that it's only happened a few times there and in Na'vi history.

Was that a story you already had in your head before you started talking about the project?
Not at all. You allude to things when you're writing a script, but I had never really written out a backstory. This was something they came up with all on their own. I gave the creators of the Toruk show a very broad license. I'm not going to tell the Cirque du Soleil guys how to do a Cirque show. I was just there to keep it [on track] if it ever drifted off into something that wasn't consistent with the film and the upcoming sequels, but that didn't happen very often. It was usually pretty minor infractions. Misdemeanors, no felonies. 

Can you give me an example of that?
I can't remember the specifics. The thing is, when you get a bunch of artists in a room, they're going to start making up all kinds of stuff. That's what's wonderful about the culture of Cirque du Soleil as a company: that they encourage that. They encourage people to be as gestural as they want to be. If they have a dream image, if they have something very surreal, they'll figure out how to do it. There were a few places where I said, “I don't think the Na'vi would actually do that,” or “That's not how they think,” or “That's a technology they wouldn't have.” That sort of thing, but that was very, very rare. We had a lot of early discussions. They went off. They created several new clans, a whole bunch of new wardrobes and hairstyles, and all that sort of thing. I felt they really got inside the head of the whole Na'vi culture very quickly. I'd say 98 percent of what they came back with was gorgeous and fine, perfectly permissible in that world.

Did you give them a story bible on the Na'vi and their mythology?
We gave them whatever we had in terms of a lot of design stuff that had been developed for the first film and not used or seen only in deep background: musical instruments, bits of costume, wardrobe, things like that. But then they just riffed on that, and they also had to create things that could really be worn by performers who were doing crazy acrobatics. They had to be very lightweight and not something that would stab them in the eye or hurt somebody else or hurt themselves if they fell. It's a very physical show, as all Cirque du Soleil shows are. There's a tremendous amount of pressure on the cast to do so many things from gymnastics and high work to dance and puppetry and language. They don't normally —  most of the cast in a Cirque du Soleil show aren't usually speaking. There might be one or two, but here so many of them had to do the language, the chants, the dialogue in Na'vi. It's all in Na'vi except for the English-speaking narrator, who sort of takes you through it. 

If the show fits so well with the movie's mythology, might we see Toruk's story going connect to anything in the sequels?
No. It exists in parallel. It's sort of permissible within the same world. I would say, thematically, it maps very closely to the sequels, but in a very almost kind of subconscious way. In terms of a challenge, the people, it requires a quest, and spiritual aspects of it, and aspects of coming of age, and things like that. So I think that, inadvertently or because of some kind of vibration in the air, they managed to hit on a lot of the themes that I'm playing with in the sequels. But this is a little bit of a parallel universe, I would say.

Speaking of universes, has the excitement of doing this tempted you to create a whole expanded Avatar universe where you use other mediums to tell the story?
We'll use every possible medium we can. I mean, obviously, the films are the cornerstone of it, but we'll be in graphic novels, novels, everything. Every possible way we can give you a portal into the world of Pandora and that universe, we will.

Any plans for a TV show?
We could do animated, I suppose, but that's not that interesting to me to try to keep the quality levels. All the characters are done through CG, and so that's pretty expensive. You can't just put a bunch of actors in a room and blue makeup. I wouldn't be very interested in that. Now, it works very well in the live show. I would say far, far better than I thought it was going to. The Cirque du Soleil members have to do their own makeup every day, and the makeup designs are quite stunning. But to actually create for television, for a TV budget, what we do in the movie? That's not possible.

Who do you picture as the core audience for a Pandora story? Who do you think of as your typical fan?
I don't like to narrow-cast it. Avatar was made for everybody from 8 to 80. It doesn't really have a target audience, and I think that's what really made the better part of $3 billion, because it appeals very broadly. I'd say it's for anybody with an imagination. I think the same thing applies to the Toruk show, but if you've ever been to a Cirque du Soleil show, you know that 5-year-olds just stare at it with wonder, and then 50-year-olds stare at it in wonder like a 5-year-old.

This interview has been edited and condensed.