‘It’s a hell of a yarn’

‘It’s a hell of a yarn’

Stephen Lang, who plays the villain in Avatar, says he doesn’t watch all his movies, but this one is too ‘extraordinary’ to miss

Avatar is director James Cameron’s first fiction film since Titanic – the biggest moneymaker in movie history – which along with blockbuster hits The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) made him a virtual deity to sci-fi fans the world over.

Those fans are expecting something big from Avatar, and big it definitely will be. The film stars Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington, and it’s an epic undertaking, a 3-D sci-fi adventure that has taken nearly four years to produce, boasts cutting-edge digital effects and, including marketing expenses, will ultimately have cost nearly $500 million.

“That’s just there as the elephant in the room, the expectations,” co-star Stephen Lang says. “And then you’ve got the sense of anticipation, the confidentiality surrounding the film this whole time. You’ve got the sheer duration of the process, its gestation, the making of it and the giving birth. And that’s for Jim and everyone concerned. It’s helped to create some sense of an aura, of mystique around the picture, which has its good side and bad side.

“But whatever, it is what it is,” Lang says. “Then, on a whole other plane, it’s a hell of a yarn. It’s a terrific picture. It’s a classic story, and it’s told in a really – I hope – intriguing and unique way.

“People can talk about this with greater expertise and authority,” he adds, “but the technology is groundbreaking. Jim makes use of 3-D in ways that have never been done before. CGI has come to a point where the standard is photo-real. Just in so many ways, on so many levels, people will be able to enjoy this film. It’ll be an experience.”

The central character is Sully (Worthington), a paralysed ex-Marine picked for a programme that involves downloading one’s consciousness into an “avatar,” in this instance an oversized blue creature that resembles the Na’vi. Sully’s interactions with the Na’vi, particularly Neytiri (Saldana), prompt him to doubt his task and strain his relationship with his superior officer, Col. Miles Quaritch (Lang).

Speaking on the phone while walking through a New York park, Lang acknowledges that, technically anyway, the colonel is the villain of the piece.

“He’s very unambiguous,” the actor says. “His mission is clear. He’s written to be the villain, let me put it that way. That’s not a playable thing. I didn’t set out to play him as a villain. I just performed what I needed to perform, and his function is very clear.

“His experience, his sense of duty, is at odds with some of the truths, some of the righteousness of the planet,” Lang says. “But, having said that, he’s a really interesting character. He’s smart and committed, and so many of his qualities are admirable. He’s got dignity, he’s got wit. He’s got tremendous strength and power, and he’s got a heavy sense of duty.”

Much the same can be said about Cameron. He’s a filmmaker with a reputation for being tough, to an extreme, on everyone, and on no one more than on himself. Lang, who shot Avatar on and off for two and a half years, calls the experience “ferocious and focused fun,” adding that he found Cameron more open to improvisation than he had ever imagined.

“Jim is absolutely wed to something until he sees something that works better for him,” the actor says. “That’s a process of communication between him and the actors.

“It’s interesting that Jim operates the camera a lot,” Lang continues. ‘He operates it more than he doesn’t. He has the camera up on his shoulder. One of the first things he said, when we met to talk about this movie, is, ‘I think through the camera. I think through the lens.’ It’s very revealing about Jim that that’s how he sees it. It creates an extremely intimate relationship between the actor and director, so there’s a tremendous amount of conferencing going on, a lot of bouncing around of ideas on the day.

“That’s very focused and, as I say, it’s serious fun,” he says. “And it was very good-humoured as well.”

Cameron reportedly has enough footage for a four-hour-plus version of Avatar, but will likely edit it down to less than three hours in recognition of marketplace realities. Lang says that he’s “as eager as the next guy” to view the film and, in particular, to see how the story unfolds and how Quaritch emerges, what’s there and what’s not in the final cut.

“I have such faith in the project, and in Jim, that I have no doubt it’ll be tremendous,” he says, “and that it’ll be an exciting film for me to watch as well, that it’ll be a lot of fun. I have seen a cut, and that was extraordinary, but some of the effects were not finished, it was not complete. James Horner’s music was not in there, and there were still a lot of tweaks that were going to happen.

“So I have not seen anything that I’d consider completely finished at all,” Lang concludes, “which makes me very excited to see it in its final form. I’m looking forward to it, but not without some trepidation, which I always feel when I’m in something.

“I don’t see all of my movies, but this one, I wouldn’t miss it.”

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