Geek Interview – ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Producer Jon Landau Talks Philosophy, Inspiration & Reuniting With Kate Winslet

It has been 13 years since the first Avatar movie came out and for fans of James Cameron and what was and is again the world’s biggest movie, it feels like a long time coming. But for producer Jon Landau, it’s just the right time. 

The award-winning sci-fi movie, starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver, was the first film to gross more than US$2 billion globally, and took home a slew of accolades, both critically and industry recognition, including for cinematography, visual effects, best director, best actress, best actor, production design – the list goes on. 

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And given the success, there was no doubt that the film would have a sequel, even if it has taken a very long time and for impatient fans, Landau has the answer to that because the team is not making one, but four sequels. 

“The film is taking so long because we didn’t set out to make one movie. We set out to make four. And to do that, to making any movie, it starts with the script. You would never build a house before you had a blueprint. The script is the blueprint for the movie. And we made four blueprints that Jim Cameron could be passionate about wanting to make, so that took time,” explained Landau in a roundtable interview with Geek Culture. 

“And then the breadth and scope of these movies is much greater than the first Avatar. Each movie is greater. We had to design those movies. Then we set out to film, not just one of them, not just two of them, but two of them and the first act of movie number four and combining those factors, this is how long it took to do it right. And I’m so thankful that it took this long, because we could not be presenting the quality of cinematic experience that we are able to present this December. We couldn’t have done it three years ago. We couldn’t have done it five years ago.”

The first movie brought viewers to Pandora, a vast forest that is home to the Na’vi, and what audiences thought would be a mere 162-minute journey, has been expanded to three more extended tours. The first sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water is currently in post-production and the untitled third movie is already filming. 

Without divulging too much of the “blueprint”, Landau reveals that the sequels will still revolve around main characters Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Ney’tiri (Zoe Saldana), as they get older and start a family, which the sequels will cover. While the upcoming films are sequels to the first, Landau says each movie will also be a standalone one accessible to all viewers, regardless if they’ve watched the previous films or not. 

“We saw four stories that we felt we were compelled to tell. Each of these movies has to stand alone. They have to come to their own story, conclusion, they have to come to their own emotional resolution, and they have to be able to have been seen without having seen anything prior in that space. They happen to be around Jake Sully and Neytiri and now their children that we’re meeting,” said Landau. 

“As we branch out in the sequels, we’re doing it in a way where we’re going not just to new locations, but we’re meeting new cultures, new clans that have evolved differently, that have different cultural traits.” 

As the title suggest, The Way of Water will depart the green of forests and follow Jake, Ney’tiri and their children into oceans so blue, bringing audiences to unexplored regions of Pandora. The film will focus on a different tribe that live by the water, with a culture of their own and a new philosophy of life that Landau hopes to impart to eager viewers too. 

avatar the way of water

“The first movie was very much about the rainforest but if we think about it, more of our world is covered by water. Our bodies are so much a part of water, so this idea of making a movie that exposes people to something that is so precious to us and we are so in need of for our daily life to sustain water, was the natural progression,” continued Landau. 

“And it offers this exotic world to transport people underwater to see things that they’ve never seen before. The Way of Water is a cultural philosophy that the people of Pandora who live at the reefs on the distant ethos of Pandora that they ascribe to. They live in harmony with the water. They exist based on the way of water, something that has the ability to give life to take life, all of these different things and to us that was something that we were very excited to present sort of as a philosophy for people, so that when we look at our oceans we look at them a little bit differently.” 

Even though Avatar is based on a fictional, fantasy world, much of the creator’s inspiration comes from real life and the world around us. In the first film, the Na’vi ride on large flying lizard-like creatures with wings. These animals are clearly inspired by flying dinosaurs, such as psteasaurs, as well as a number of living organisms like manta rays and Borneo frogs. As for the rainforest in Avatar, it featured recognisable trees, moss and ferns. So when approaching The Way of Water, the creators looked to the waters in, of all places, Indonesia. 

“Defining the whole ecosystem of Pandora is something that is one of the really exciting challenges that we all face. We look to take inspiration from our world and apply it out of context in a way where audiences can experience things on the big screen that they might not have an opportunity to truly experience,” shared the producer. 

avatar the way of water

“I’ve been lucky enough to scuba dive. and actually in parts of Indonesia where I’ve seen and experienced the undersea life. Now with our films, we get to give people an opportunity to go do that but to do that, we need to create that whole ecosystem of the flora and fauna and the corals and the whole sea life and bring it to them in photographic quality.” 

Providing photographic quality and a visual experience to viewers is one of Landau’s main goals when it comes to creating The Way of Water. Afterall, with the accolades attached to Avatar’s name and the advancements in technology in the past decade, there are expectations for The Way of Water to well, wow viewers out of the water. 

“We are bringing more wow. First of all, WoW – Way of Water but we’ve upped our stakes on everything we are delivering our visual content in  high dynamic range. The performance we’re able to get from our cast are much more nuanced, thanks to high definition technology instead of standard deck definition capture technology,” said Landau. 

“In first movie, I would say we needed to be photographic. Now we need to be photo-real so everything that you will see up on the screen is going to be even more real. And Pandora hasn’t presented itself in much more of a wow!” 

avatar the way of water

Whilst making all four films of Avatar is one big journey for Landau that could possibly span decades, there are certain joys he takes in making each film and for this, it meant reuniting with Kate Winslet. Landau, Cameron and Winslet first met on the set of the iconic 1997 film, Titanic, which Cameron directed, Winslet starred in, alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, and Landau produced. 

In the 22 years since, he has seen her grow as an actress, and a star. “When we worked with Kate on Titanic, I don’t even think she was 21 years old yet and she came into that movie never having done anything on that scale. She felt a lot of pressure on herself, to deliver for something that epic.”  

Titanic in turn launched the young actress into super stardom, as she gave some of her best performances in 2001’s Iris, 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and 2015’s Steve Jobs. Reuniting with Winslet after all this time, Landau only has good things to say, including the lengths Winslet had gone, to be able to play a Na’vi character in The Way of Water. 

avatar the way of water

“Post-Titanic, she’s gone on to have an illustrious career and when Kate came back to us, we were no longer working with someone who was 20, 21 years old. We were working with a mature woman who would become a mother, and our stories in the Avatar sequels are about family and Kate embraced that sense of family, and the importance of family,” said Landau. 

Winslet picked up free-diving to prepare for the role, even beating out Tom Cruise’s underwater record for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015). By the time she was done, Winslet was able to hold her breath underwater for seven minutes, breaking the six minutes Cruise held while filming an underwater sequence.

“On the first day, she showed up to work. She had already completed her free dive training, because she needed to breathe underwater and she could hold her breath static for seven minutes. She came in knowing the Navi language that she would need to say, and the accent and how she wanted to play it.” shared the producer. “She came in having studied the movement of the Na’vi people and you saw in that first moment have her on the set, why she is incredible actress Kate Winslet!” 

Avatar: The Way of Water premieres on 15 December 2022.