James Cameron Says the ‘Avatar’ Ride at Walt Disney World Prepped Audiences for the Sequel: ‘We Snuck a Couple of Ilu In There’

Also, learn whether the series will move to more traditionally epic filmmaking

James Cameron Avatar

James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,” at the time of writing, is on track to cross the $2 billion mark this weekend. This is an incredible feat for any movie; it’s even more impressive given that the sequel to 2009’s “Avatar” just opened a month ago.

And what makes “Avatar: The Way of Water” such a memorable experience — beyond the eye-popping visuals — is the fact that the movie, which picks up several years after the events of the original, is so rooted in the emotional lives of the characters – primarily the family that Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) are raising on the wild planet of Pandora.

TheWrap spoke to Cameron about creating that emotional intimacy, how the writers’ rooms came together (and then broke apart), and how the “Avatar” attractions at Walt Disney World set the stage for “The Way of Water.”

The Walt Disney World attraction Flight of Passage features some creatures in this movie and the beach setting. Was that ride priming the pump for “Avatar: The Way of Water?”

We knew what we were doing on the movie and at Lightstorm, my company, a lot of the creative people that were about to move onto “The Way of Water” worked on the ride Disney’s group, Imagineering. We actually merged the two groups together, the Imagineering team with the robotics and the show ride staff, and our team for the film software and the design.

People that go to this movie who have been on the ride are going to say, “Oh yeah.”

“Oh yeah, I’ve seen some of this stuff.” Yeah. We even stuck a couple of Ilu in there, the long-neck creatures. If you look as you’re flying out over the ocean, before you go through the big wave, there’s a couple of Ilu jumping over on the left.

You’ve said that you could’ve just been an adventurer and not returned to make movies. What about these stories unlocked the desire to come back?

I think I looked at a couple of things – one, the continuation of our creative family that we had developed when we made the first film and there was a longing, yearning to come back together and do it all again and continue what we’d created. There was the potential that it might, in some small way, do some good toward our global guardianship of the oceans. There’s always that possibility. I do all these documentaries, but a fictional film, if it has a broad enough reach, can have an impact. There was that possibility. It felt good anyway to dream that a movie can have these themes and make an impact.

Plus just the fun factor, just seeing it happen, seeing it brought to life. I mean, it all pays off at the end. The end is now. I saw the film for the first time, end to end. I’ve seen every detail of it, minutely, millions of times. But to see it all in experience, it all end to end in one kind of ride in 3D, I hadn’t done that until about five or six days ago. It’s a bit of a blur now. I was back in New Zealand. I’ve been in five cities since then. But yeah, it’s very satisfying to see it all come to fruition and feel alive.

You convened a writers’ room for the sequels. How did you break up the story?

I didn’t.

Oh really?

The key to it was we were going to create three screenwriting teams – me a member of each team with another writer. And then it turned out that there was a writing team, the ampersand team that came in. There were actually four of them, one of me. The five of us sat in a room with a whiteboard and we broke the story across all the films to the end, which ultimately became [movies] two through five. And I didn’t tell them which one they were going to work on because the second I assigned a specific story, they would’ve tuned out every time we started talking about one of the other ones.

I said, “You’re all equally invested in the entire story arc until we break up and go to our separate corners to go to draft.” On the very last day, which was right before Christmas, I said, “Okay, you’re doing this one and you’re doing this one, and you guys are doing this one.” And then they promptly tuned out for most of the day. Whenever we talked about movie three. Movie two guys forgot all about it.

This movie is really interesting because it is bigger but it’s really a small, familial story.

It’s more intimate. It’s interesting. If you think about the first film, it plays by the Joseph Campbell Epic Journey rules much more so. The main character, Jake, goes on the epic quest and at the end he becomes a kind of semi-mythic hero. This film doesn’t play by those rules at all. It has the same imagery, it has the same vocabulary, but it’s a much more intimate story about a family and it’s much more proximal to their issues, which doesn’t, in a funny way, make it any less epic. It’s just not as epic in the standard vocabulary of massive armies being raised, good and evil fighting and giant battles. It doesn’t play that way. But I think it’s a good surprise. And it’s not that we won’t return to those motifs as the films go on, but I just didn’t want to do the same thing again right away.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” is in theaters now.