James Cameron and Peter Jackson on making films in the age of technology.

Dec. 21 2009 7:07 AM

"It's About Storytelling. It's About Humans Playing Humans."

James Cameron and Peter Jackson on making films in the age of technology.

This conversation appears in Newsweek's "Interview" issue. To read more of the magazine's interviews with the year's biggest newsmakers, go to Newsweek.com.

Peter Jackson and James Cameron
Peter Jackson and James Cameron

James Cameron and Peter Jackson are the kings of the CGI world. Cameron, of course, directed Titanic, the highest-grossing movie of all time—which he says he'd make with no ship if he were filming today. Jackson was the guy behind bringing Middle-earth to the big screen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Now they are back with Avatar and The Lovely Bones, two of the most-hyped films of the holiday season. Newsweek asked them about their new films and how technology is changing Hollywood. An excerpt of the transcript is printed below:

Cameron: So how's the road trip been on The Lovely Bones?

Jackson: It's all right. Not too bad. Having a harder job getting over the jet lag than I normally do, but never mind. Getting older, I guess. I'm in … Berlin.

Cameron: Ha, ha! You had to think about it for a minute!

Jackson: I did! I'm flying to Paris as soon as this phone call is over. So we're talking about technology and movies?

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Cameron: People often ask us about the future of filmmaking because we've both been innovators in the last few years, creating cutting-edge stuff that gets widely or narrowly adopted. I think the simple answer is that filmmaking is not going to ever fundamentally change. It's about storytelling. It's about humans playing humans. It's about close-ups of actors. It's about those actors somehow saying the words and playing the moment in a way that gets in contact with the audience's hearts. I don't think that changes. I don't think that's changed in the last century.

Jackson: There's no doubt that the industry is in a weird position. It's not just Hollywood—it's international. The loss of the independent distribution companies and the finance companies, and the lack of ability to get medium-budget films these days. The studios have found comfort in these enormous movies. The big-budget blockbuster is becoming one of the most dependable forms of filmmaking. It was only three or four years ago when there was a significant risk with that kind of film. Now, especially last summer, we saw blockbuster after blockbuster be released, and they all had significant budgets and they're all doing fine. It almost doesn't matter if the film is a good film or a bad film, they're all doing OK. They've lost the ability to have that happen with a low-budget movie and with midrange-budget movies.

Cameron: But they've also lost the courage to make, frankly, a movie like Avatar, which is a blockbuster-scaled movie not based on prior arc. All the blockbusters of the last four years, like Transformers, Harry Potter, Spider-Man—they're all films based on other films or part of a franchise. The idea of making a film of that scale that's a unique piece has been lost. In the meantime, we have all these increases in technology. And there's no clear way to pay for these blockbuster movies in the old traditional way. It's not clear that the technology will come down in price in the near future.

Jackson: People are holding on to the idea of lowering the price. The vast majority of the CGI budget is labor. Unless everything goes to China or Eastern Europe in the sweatshops, that sort of approach, labor is never going to go down. It's only going to go up.

Cameron: Because computers don't create beautiful images. People do. Down at your place in Wellington [New Zealand], we had 800 people working on Avatar for the past six months.

Jackson: The ones that are conscious anyway.

Cameron: I'm sure there was a big night at the Wellington pubs a few days ago when they turned over their last shot.

Jackson: I think there were a few pillows and sleeping bags under desks. A lot of media attention is switching to technology in the wrong way. They're saying the industry is in trouble; will 3-D save it? That really doesn't have anything to do with it. The industry is in trouble, but it has nothing to do with technology, nor is technology going to necessarily be the savior.

Cameron: No, it can't: 3-D may help define the idea of the big show at the cinema, the cinematic experience, but I think the heart of the cinematic experience is the group experience. It's the psychology of sitting in a dark room with a bunch of people and reacting to something, and feeling like your reaction is the same as the rest of the group, a way of proof-checking your emotions are normal.

Jackson: Or not.

Cameron: If you're the one guy laughing out of 400 people, you're obviously out of step. I don't think that's going to change. People have been downloading films, watching films on laptops, watching films on iPods for quite some time now. Ticket sales are not dropping at the same rate that those other methods of media are rising. I came to filmmaking in the early '80s, and it was a time of deep economic recession. It was a time when VHS home video was taking money from the theaters. The film industry was depressed. That's what I knew—a state of upheaval and change. It all sorted itself out. These things always sort themselves out. The fundamental question is: is cinema staying or is it going away? I think it shows no signs of going away. I feel quite confident you and I are going to make the kinds of films we love 10 and 20 years from now.

Jackson: I do too. In addition to the theatrical experience, we will be seeing a lot of other forms of distribution and delivery, which is going to be interesting. We have things like Xbox Live with all the subscribers. It's not going to be too much longer before Xbox Live produces programming. There are so many opportunities there. Everybody is playing a defensive game. Nobody is going on the attack and being brave and courageous, apart from you.

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