“Avatar: The Way of Water” is currently breaking box office records and is nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture.
One aspect of the movie that is easy to overlook but is a huge part of its powerful hold over people is the screenplay. Written by James Cameron and the husband-and-wife writing duo of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Jurassic World,” the live-action “Mulan”), from a story cooked up by Cameron, Jaffa, Silver, Josh Friedman and Shane Salerno, “Avatar: The Way of Water” deftly balances oversized thrills with deep emotion. It’s a miraculous combination, flawlessly executed.
TheWrap spoke with Jaffa and Silver about what it was like putting the movie together (they’re also behind the third, as-yet-untitled film, due out in 2024) and realizing that their one giant script would become the script for two movies, what the writers room was like and about the response to both Neytiri’s treatment of spider and the Internet’s favorite space whale Payakan.
What was the writing process like and how did you discover that the first sequel would be split into two movies?
Rick Jaffa: Gosh, I know it’s such a kind of an epic answer in a way. We were invited into the room and when our deal closed, I sent Jim an email saying, “Hey, our deals closed. We’re super excited to get started. Is there anything you want us to take a look at before the room officially gets going?” And within, I don’t know, an hour or so, I got a very long single-spaced response with an attachment and I hit that attachment and I thought, Well, I’ll just print it. And then once I realized, the numbers started scrolling up to how many pages it was and that was kind of the first exposure to, Oh my gosh, there’s going to be an enormous amount of material to download.
Amanda Silver: But just to be clear, there’s like two separate things. One is Pandorapedia. And that’s like everything – it’s everything on Pandora from the tides to the botany and then the human RDA stuff.
Rick Jaffa: And that was, by the way, available online before we ever got started. At least I think it was. But then once we got into the room, we kind of went to “Avatar” bootcamp, meaning we watched the original film. We talked a lot about what made it connect to such a huge audience, what worked, what could work better.
And then at some point, Jim, he kind of shared with us his personal notes and thoughts that he had jotted down and played around with over the span of many, many years.
Amanda Silver: These were the notes about where he thought the story could go.
Rick Jaffa: The story, the characters…
Amanda Silver: … Characters, clans, worlds, different parts of Pandora we hadn’t seen yet. And also character arcs, don’t you think?
Rick Jaffa: To some degree.
Amanda Silver: And it was so much. I think it was over 800 pages of his thoughts. Then the job of the room was really to wrangle those thoughts and ideas into three movies. And these three movies each would be distinct, but also part of one bigger saga. And there’s an art to that too, in terms of figuring out how these stories play out over the course of the three movies.
Cameron has said that nobody knew what movie they were ultimately going to work on. How did that work exactly?
Amanda Silver: Well, the thing is that the room was by Jim’s design. He’s great at managing people. Not surprisingly, right? He wanted all of us to be very invested in all the movies, in all the beats in the entire saga, which we were. We became a really tight group. And over six months, we figured out three movies.
There’s a long story about this, but he ended up assigning us each movies at the very end. We started in July, and now it was Christmastime and we were about to break. And he gave us each our movies and then we went off to write. Each team would write with him, sending pages and stuff. But the thing about the second movie, “Avatar 2,” is that it had too much stuff in it. It was just way too much.
It was this very good problem of having too much kind of delicious material in there. And so at one point, he just called us and said, “I’m making it two movies.” This was after Christmas, this was when we’d all started writing.
Rick Jaffa: Just to back up. When Jim presented all these ideas and thoughts, we brought in whiteboards, and then those whiteboards just started multiplying. We had so many boards and it was a really big conference room that we were working in. Just row upon row of whiteboards and then they would flip over and you’d have the backs of the whiteboards covered with material. At one point we decided, “Okay, so let’s start putting these movies into shape,” meaning let’s write a treatment for what would be the first movie, and then a treatment for the second, and then a treatment for the third.
Amanda Silver: For two, I think we wrote part of the second act, and Josh [Friedman] wrote the first act, and Shane [Salerno] wrote part of the third act.
Rick Jaffa: We all wrote in each other’s treatments and wrote on each one. And then he assigned us the material. We turned in first maybe 40 something pages to Jim, and he was very excited about it and very positive about it. The only caveat is that we’re going to be way long. And we all knew we were going to be long because it was such an ambitious story. The first script had a lot to cover, a lot of different things to accomplish. And I said, “Well, should we start cutting now. Should you start cutting? Should we try to cut together? What do you think?” And he said, “No, let’s go for it. Let’s just keep writing until we run out of road.”
There was just enormous bits of material. Then we were faced with the challenge of, Well, the script can’t be that long. And so there was a lot of kind of push me, pull you, trying to figure out what would have to go if it was in one script. And then that’s when he eventually called and said, “Look, no, we’re just going to make it into two movies.”
In your estimation do movies 2 and 3 form their own little arc?
Amanda Silver: It’s interesting. There’s one way that I can’t see. The problem is I’ve thought about talking about this and we have to be so careful what we don’t reveal about the third movie. There are certain things, certain themes that recur, but on the other hand, it keeps escalating. And in ways that are really delicious and also unpredictable.
On the subject of escalation, the second movie is so much more emotionally intimate. Was that an edict from Cameron? And was he delivering what he wanted, philosophically, from these movies along with the major story beats?
Rick Jaffa: Well, to answer the first part of that, the thing about Jim is that he is just a genius with the technological aspects of filmmaking and directing. But the mandate in the room was we, as members of the team, all had to understand scientifically what worked and all the things that Jim is known for like always lead from heart and character. And that was kind of the mantra over and over, Let’s dig into these characters, let’s breathe life into them. Let’s set up relationships and connections and disconnections between those characters.” And when I say characters, I’m including Payakan. Jim understands where the audience is emotionally at all times. And it was really important that we land on those moments.
Amanda Silver: Some of them we discovered in the room, some of them he had planned for, but he was always an incredible collaborator and very open. And you think about someone, a titanic filmmaker like Jim Cameron, but he was very, very collaborative, very emotionally accessible and very generous and easy to work with in that writers room.
Rick Jaffa: The room was this very safe room. We’ve talked to him quite a bit in the last few weeks in this kind of situation. And we’re all proud of the fact that we were really safe to bring our own personal experiences into the development of these characters. Meaning our experiences as parents, our experiences as siblings, our experience as teenagers, feeling as an outsider… I mean, anyone who’s ever been a teenager can kind relate to that. Then themes of the outsider started to filter into the work, meaning that the Sullys are outsiders on the reef and Lo’ak considers himself an outsider. And he makes friends with Payakan, who’s an outsider.
Speaking of Payakan, have you been delighted by the response to this character?
Rick Jaffa: Oh yeah.
Amanda Silver: You know what? It’s so funny because after the fact, it’s so gratifying to see audiences respond to this creature, this specific character. But beforehand, before you’re going to get this response, it does take courage on Jim’s part. He’s a talking animal, he’s a talking creature. And that wasn’t in “Avatar.” That’s not something that’s been set up so far in the franchise. It was a new concept, a new idea. And Jim is just fearless. He saw it. He wanted a complex character in Payakan with a backstory. In hindsight you’re cheering that it worked but it was a big swing.
Rick Jaffa: It is a big swing. And the Tulkun, they have their own culture, and that’s just kind of woven beautifully into the story.
Amanda Silver: We were sort of into it as we were writing, but then you think, Well, if Jim’s confident about it, then we’re in.
Rick Jaffa: We have to believe in it for the audience to believe in it, so we did.
Besides Payakan, you also are dealing with the return of Quaritch. What was it like figuring that out?
Rick Jaffa: Well, the first big hurdle really was when Jim came in and said, “So we’re bringing Quaritch back.” And I’m like, “What do you mean?”
Amanda Silver: “How’s that going to work?”
Rick Jaffa: Exactly. And he had that the whole Soul Drive thing figured out, and that there would have to be … although this might’ve come up in the room, I don’t remember … there would have to be the explanation of that through the scene where his former self is downloading his present self, the human part is downloading the avatar part. Once we all kind of committed to that, and it is science fiction, then it was just a question of how to get all that exposition across without it feeling burdensome.
Amanda Silver: But also to make it fun.
The other thing people are discussing online is how mean Neytiri is to Spider.
Rick Jaffa: Well, it’s based in character, meaning Neytiri’s backstory. Its roots are firmly planted far before the first movie ever came into … before the first movie starts, that Neytiri’s feeling about, and rightfully so, about the human race, is pretty well planted. There’s that. And I think all that’s a very natural thing.
Amanda Silver: When you say it’s firmly planted, it’s also totally relatable. You understand how much the forest and the Omatikaya and the planet means to Neytiri. The fact that it’s been so threatened and thwarted in such a heartless way by the RDA, you understand where she’s coming from, why she’s so angry, and that’s part of the fun when she gets together with Jake.
But then they have their own kids who are mixed race, if you will, or mixed species. And then they’re Spider, they call him Pink, meaning human. It’s a way of exploring… I mean, Neytiri is a fully fleshed-out character. She’s got flaws. So it’s okay to let her have flaws, we think. And that’s where Jim was coming from.
Rick Jaffa: Not to be coy or anything, but we’re also setting up where the story’s going.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” is in theaters now.