James Cameron's 'Avatar' Literally Made Me Poop My Pants
At the 2016 "CinemaCon," a typical work convention for Hollywood executives, director James Cameron announced he'd be making four sequels (four!) to the highly profitable, technologically resonant Avatar. Some quipped, others questioned: is there even an audience for these movies? Sure, it made over $2 billion worldwide and remains the highest-grossing movie of all time, but do people still remember it? Give a damn?
I sure as hell do. Avatar is a terrific blend of action and science fiction, still looks pristine, and, even though it isn't that old, brings me back to a special time in my life. Hype reached maximum levels in the weeks leading up to the movie's release, but my excitement shared an even closer bond than most. To speak plainly: James Cameron's Avatar once made me shit myself.
The year was 2009 -- a lifetime ago in internet years. I was making my bones, working as editor for a geek-facing website that doesn't exist anymore, run militantly by the greatest editor-in-chief, a fella we'll call Ed. His management style involved pummeling the staff with Hulk Hands, shooting us with Nerf darts, and occasionally screaming, "Just get it done!" It was fantastic, serious work. The pressure was always on for us to get the big story, and the big story at that time was Avatar, James Cameron's decades-in-the-making epic.
If you can remember, there was concern back then about Cameron even delivering the damn movie in time. He was reinventing the language of cinema, we were told, with his allegedly photo-real, computerized landscapes, motion-capture innovations, and new 3-D system. He was working around the clock, barking orders like General Patton, and the idea that I could land 10 minutes of his time, one-on-one, was absurd. But if I wanted to keep my job, I needed to talk nerdy with the King of the World. And I needed to get to him before our competition.
The clock was ticking, and Avatar mania was at a fever pitch. It was a Wizard of Oz-like moment, a milestone for moviemaking. Under Ed's watch, I obsessed over "unobtanium" and the living planet Pandora. I spoke to anyone involved with the movie, from the creator of the Na'vi language to the dude who says "your REAL legs." People read it. I wrote more. The window for landing my big interview narrowed. And then I got the call.
On a Saturday, a few weeks before Avatar's release, my advocate at the studio would put Cameron on the phone with me after a day of meetings. And I'd be prepared to take the call from home. Easy.
This is where it becomes important to remember it's 2009. For me to record a phone call for eventual transcription, I had to pull a Linda Tripp and attach a little doohickey from Radio Shack onto my (cough) land line telephone. Or I would have if I had a modern phone -- mine was vintage. For whatever reason, I couldn't record off of it. Not a problem. In times of special need, I would drag out an enormous late-'80s fax machine that fit my recorder. Because the fax machine has a short, specific phone jack, I could only plug it in on the very far end of my sizable railroad apartment. Keep this image in mind.
Avatar Saturday comes. I've got a stack of insightful questions ready to go. James Cameron would call at noon, then my seven or eight minutes would begin. Every second counted. I waited and ran through my questions. I waited some more. Then noon passed. No Cameron.
At 12:30pm, I send an email. At 12:45, his handler responds. "He's tied up, we're calling soon, hang in there."
Now it's 1pm. Now it's 1:30pm. Another email: "Any minute." Now it's 2pm. Now it's, ugh, it's 2:26.
I'm pacing, I'm sweaty, I'm frantic. Ed e-mails, asking about the call. He promised his boss that we would drop a huge bomb this weekend. I'm pacing more. More time passes, and I feel something in my stomach. A few more minutes, and I can no longer ignore my digestive system. I need to void my bowels.
I can't do this now, that's ridiculous, James Cameron is about to take time away from transforming cinema to call me -- ME -- right here at home, on my antiquated fax machine with my Linda Tripp recorder attachment.
It's 2:51. It's 3:06. Any minute, any minute. It's 3:29. Oh God, I'm gonna blow. I gotta go. I'm gonna run to the bathroom, respond to the call of nature as quickly as humanly possible, and run back across the apartment to give the greatest interview in the history of entertainment journalism.
I race to the bathroom, drop my trousers around my ankles, sit on the bowl, and just as I am about to commence the act: BRRRRRRRRRNNNNNGGGGGGGGG!
Say what you will about Cameron -- he's got a knack with timing.
A sane man would not get up for the phone, but you need to understand the mind-set. You need to understand what working for a genius motivator who hurls rubber axes branded with the latest Scorpion King logo can do to a person. You need to understand the madness that was Avatar in December of 2009. This was either going to make or end my career.
My brain sent the signal to whichever muscles in my lower region could retract the waste exiting my body, and I raced toward the phone. There's no time to pull up my pants. I shuffle like a 4-year-old through my kitchen, shouting, "WAIT! WAIT!"
It's at this point where, as if cued by a thousand hack horror directors, my cat decides to dart out in front of me. Goober, my beloved feline, has always been very playful, and loves to bounce around at my feet. But with Cameron calling, I'm racing at full speed with my pants at my ankles. Goober runs in front of me and I stop short, topple over, collapse to the linoleum, and, to add to the indignity, loosen my muscles and spray the apartment like the fountains at the Bellagio. It's the lowest I've ever been.
After a lightning round session with every cleaning product in the house, I return to the fax machine. It predates caller ID, and *69 doesn't work. I check my email. "Looks like we missed you! We'll try during the week."
I eventually do speak to Cameron, calmly, from the office. I get a juicy quote out of him, a hostile diss toward tie-in novelist Alan Dean Foster, which interests about 16 people, including my boss. I do not break the internet. The woman who went to bat for me leaves the studio and disappears off the face of the Earth. And in time, people stop talking about Avatar, start complaining about 3-D, and eventually start mocking the dumb Smurfs in Space movie.
But there was that one weekend, though. One weekend when Avatar really was the shit. I'm ready for four more.
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Jordan Hoffman is a film critic and writer whose work appears in The Guardian, Vanity Fair, and Mashable. Follow him on Twitter: @jhoffman.