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James Cameron Says Writing 'Avatar' Required 1,500 Pages of Notes

June 4, 2014

At a recent panel discussion at the L.A. Times’ Hero Complex Film Festival, James Cameron explained the lengthy process that went into writing the scripts for the projected trilogy of films that take place after the events of Avatar

Expectations, as one would assume with any Cameron project, especially one that follows the biggest-grossing film of all time, are, well, titanic. But the writer-director has a proven track record handling sequels — anyone remember T2 and Aliens? And an understanding that success usually starts with a solid script. 

For the Avatar sequels, it began with him spending a year writing “1500 pages of notes of the world and the cultures and the different clans and different animals and different biomes and so on.” This gave him “a lot of loose thematic stuff” but nothing resembling a “concrete story.” 

Satisfied with his vast outline, he signed four veteran screenwriters — Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds), Shane Salerno (Armageddon), and the writing team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) — to turn his vision into three strong and interrelated stories. Their approach, Cameron says, would be akin to “adapt[ing] a novel or series of novels.”

He explains:

"We tried an experiment. We set ourselves a challenge of writing three films at the same time. And I could certainly write any one of them but to write three in some reasonable amount of time – we wanted to shoot them together so we couldn’t start one until all three scripts were done and approved. So I knew I was going to have to “parallel process” which meant I would have to work with other writers. And the best experience I had working with other writers was in television when I did Dark Angel. The television room is a highly collaborative, fun experience. 

So we put together three teams, one for each script. The teams consist of me and another writer on each one of the three [films]. So I’m across all the films and then each one of them would have their own individual script they were responsible for. But what we did that was unique was we sat in the writing room for five months, eight hours a day, and we worked out every beat of the story across all three films so it all connects as one, sort of, three film saga. And I didn’t tell them which one was going to be there’s individually to write until the last day. So everyone was equally invested, story wise, in all three films. 

So, for example, the guy that got movie three, which is middle one of this new trilogy, he now knows exactly what preceded and what follows out of what he’s writing at any given moment. We all consider that to be a really exciting, creative and groundbreaking experiment in screenwriting. I don’t know if that necessarily yields great scripts but it certainly worked for us as a process to get our minds around this kind of epic with all these new creatures, environments and characters and all that.” 

Shooting on the trilogy — which re-unites stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Stephen Lang — begins this October. 

The first installment of the three movies — written by Cameron and Friedman — will be in theaters December 2016*.

*This post has been corrected since its original publication.

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox