TIME: You wouldn't think the guy with the highest-grossing film of all time would take 10 years to get his next green light.
Cameron: It's always a miracle when a film gets made. We started designing the creatures 18 months ago, creating the world, the plants, the animals; we started working on the performance capture technology. I couldn't make this when I wrote it, which was before Titanic. It wasn't technically possible. At a certain point I said, the technology may not be 100% mature, but it's time.
Avatar will be in 3-D. Why did you choose that format?
It's immersive. It wraps the movie around you. It's not necessarily just for kids' films either. It works in a dramatic sense because it gives you a heightened sense of reality. Whatever you're watching has a kind of a turbo-charged level of audience involvement. In a science fiction film like this one, you'll be able to inhabit that world, not just watch it but be in it. I think people want that. If people are going to get out of their homes and go to the cinema, the cinema better show them something it hasn't in the past.
Will audiences be able to watch this at a regular multiplex?
Yes, but people will have to seek out the theaters that have 3-D. Right now there are about 300 3-D theaters. By the time the film's out [summer of 2008], there are projected to be more than 1,000.
What is an avatar, anyway?
It's an incarnation of one of the Hindu gods taking a flesh form. In this film what that means is that the human technology in the future is capable of injecting a human's intelligence into a remotely located body, a biological body. It's not an avatar in the sense of just existing as ones and zeroes in cyberspace. It's actually a physical body. The lead character, Jake, who is played by Sam Worthington, has his human existence and his avatar existence. He'll be shown using live-action photography in 3-D and computer-generated imagery.
Are you happy to be returning to sci-fi?
I am. Science fiction's very good at taking something timely that maybe you can't look straight at. That's its true role, making us think about the consequences of our actions now. Avatar is an adventure about how we as humans deal with nature. I'll probably get a reputation as a tree-hugging hippie.
Do you feel pressure to duplicate Titanic's success?
I've been off doing documentaries, and now I'm back to play in the league I left years ago, so there's gonna be expectation can he still make a movie? I don't think I'll beat Titanic's record, and I don't think anyone else will for a while. I'll be happy if this film makes money relative to its budget.
How did you cast your lead?
In the age group I was looking for, early 20s, there weren't any obvious guys. The character is a former Marine who's a paraplegic and has just been kind of thrown away. The actor Sam is one of these young Australian guys who's gonna be the next Mel Gibson or Russell Crowe. They grow 'em different down there, you know? In Gladiator, you understood why those guys stood behind Crowe. I needed to find a guy in his 20s who had that quality. And it's not an easy thing. It was about being able to stand up and lead men in battle. A lot of these up-and-coming guys don't have that strength.
Is this a political film?
War and the consequences to the soldier is a theme in my movies. Terminator has a scarred soldier character. We have to face the consequences of setting our people off to do our bidding in a foreign land. But it's not a major undercurrent of the story. I'm not trying to make some anti-Bush statement.
Did you vote for the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger?
I'm Canadian, so I can't vote here, but I did support him. He's only a Republican in California. In Oklahoma, he'd be seen as a pinko.
Did you have fun playing yourself on Entourage?
It's fun watching another director sweat.
Do you still feel like King of the World?
I've got five kids. I feel like King of the World in my house.