Interview: Joel David Moore on Avatar & Working With James Cameron

By | February 2, 2023

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke to Avatar: The Way of Water star Joel David Moore about the Avatar sequel. Moore discussed James Cameron’s directing style and the cult-classic 2006 comedy movie Grandma’s Boy.

“Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, Avatar: The Way of Water begins to tell the story of the Sully family (Jake, Neytiri, and their kids), the trouble that follows them, the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight to stay alive, and the tragedies they endure,” says the sequel’s synopsis.

Tyler Treese: What is it like doing the filming process and then finally seeing the finished product for the first time? It has to be almost overwhelming.

Joel David Moore: Yeah. You know, we’re a big family, so we see iterations of it along the way. The first iteration you’re seeing is when you’re shooting, right? So when we’re in the performance capture world … this is kind of weird to explain, but there are cameras outside of the performance capture stage to which you can look and see your own Na’vi or Avatar — in my case, Avatar — on that screen. And Jim Cameron has a virtual camera with a big ball in front of it, and the tech side is telling it that that’s a camera. So if he points that at me, he sees my Avatar, or if he points it at Zoe [Saldaña], he sees Zoe’s Na’vi, and he sees the entire world around us. So we experienced this … in the first one, it was a bit different, you know? But this one … there were better graphics, but it’s almost like you’re looking at the Xbox version, and then it iterates from there and as it’s getting rendered, you’re seeing the 1920×1080 version, and then you’re seeing the 2K, and then you’re seeing the 4k.

So when the render process happens — the render process is obviously one of the longest processes on the post-production side of it — but we get the feeling from early stages, and then it almost comes into focus as it renders out. So I was able to see about 45 minutes of rendered footage before the premieres. I was as blown away as anyone was. You don’t notice it as much, but if you looked at the first Avatar and the second Avatar side-by-side, the richness and texture, the ability to differentiate every single pixel on the screen, and the background and every Avatar, the movement of every Avatar, even in the far, far, far background, is visually so perfect.

You’ve never seen anything like the amount of information that is in every frame of Avatar. Some of this goes … not unnoticed, but it’s hard for an audience to take it all in since it’s such a visual masterpiece. It’s a thrill ride. But if you go back and watch it … you go back and watch the first one and look at the deep, deep background, it’s awesome. It’s the best at that time. But if you watch the deep, deep background, every leaf, every tiny little Avatar in frame, it’s just perfect. It’s really spectacular.

I think that’s why we’re seeing so many repeat viewings as well. Since you are a director yourself, it has to be such a great learning experience, seeing how James Cameron operates. Obviously you’re not filming at the same scale — nobody is — as James Cameron with his huge blockbusters, but how has getting to see him work and his style firsthand helped yourself with your movies?

Well, as big as these movies are, when you’re on set, it’s almost like you’re back to black box theater on the performance capture side. There’s a big gray stage. You have to imagine what’s around you. You have cameras that are virtually showing you what is around you. Of course, Jim carries a virtual camera that’s speaking to the infrared cameras above you and the technology side. So he can see us, he can see our Avatars or in Zoe’s case or Sam [Worthington]’s case, their Na’vis. He can see every tree and where the sun is. So he can essentially film the entire thing and capture what he wants to see through it all. We’re seeing different iterations of that as it’s advancing into the render side.

So I think that what we gain from it is all of the experience of shooting in that space, but what we’re actually in is kind of like a little theater group. It’s like a little theater troupe that’s coming and having to imagine everything around them as they’re performing. So I’m not saying that it’s the same as a small budget film, but I’m saying that Jim approaches the directing side of it very intimately, as you would see on a smaller budget film as well.

There’s a timeskip in Avatar 2 and Norm’s not as directly involved this time, but you still see that he has this very deep connection with Jake Sully. When things go wrong, you’re the first person he calls. What do you like most about seeing that friendship and how it’s morphed but still stayed strong over the years?

Well, that’s exactly right. Of course, there’s a lot of story in front of us so that friendship stays strong through it. But I think that you’re right. The relationship that Sam and I … when we started, it was our contentious. We grew into knowing through survival and understanding our passion and our dedication to the planet of Pandora … I think that we really realize that there’s just a deep bond. The sacrifice that we both made, obviously his was a physical sacrifice, moving from literally from body to body [and] becoming a Na’vi. Mine is the sacrifice of not leaving with everyone at the end of the first one, deciding to stay on the planet, deciding to continue the Avatar program.

My character is kind of the last stand of the Avatar program. Everyone else has moved on over into the Na’vi side, including Sigourney Weaver’s character coming back as Kiri, which, I think, is the most phenomenal story path in the sequel and then ahead of us in the franchise. It’s really amazing, just the ability for her to come back as this character, as a teen you know? To be able to just act that is really phenomenal. So, yeah, I agree.

Her youthful energy is just incredible.

I know, it was so fun to see on set, you know? Her turn into a kid. But I would say that Kiri also is a wise teen. She’s a wise child, right? She’s not really your average child. There is obviously something about her that was discovered in the sequel and then will continue to be discovered in the future of this franchise, that is so profound. So connected to the resource of Eywa and the identity of Eywa and the intercommunication of the plants and animals on Pandora that I think it just gives such a phenomenal look to the character development that she has had from the first two to the rest of this franchise.

Going back to the original film, I was curious because I was looking into some deleted scenes. I saw there was a whole romance subplot between Norm and Trudy that had some scenes filmed and were cut. What were your thoughts when you saw that didn’t make the the final cut?

I was very happy because that … every movie that you make, you cut, right? So as a director, I’ve learned this. I directed my first feature at 25-26. So I think it was a really good lesson on not being offended when things were cut on the acting side of things. But you have to approach and edit story first. Of course, you want to make sure that the action sequences are correct and the characters are well-evaluated. But you have to take a holistic view of your entire 30,000-foot view and say, “What drives my story the best so an audience is satiated at the end of this movie?” And every moment that Michelle and I worked together, we became good friends.

And every moment that we had, from hanging out and partying in New Zealand all the way to our on set work, was so wonderful and so precious, but unnecessary for that story. The story was about our relationship with the Na’vi and how we were going to assimilate into their society, into their culture, and learn from them and adapt to the behaviors that the Na’vi had and learn how to survive and to then fend off the traditional bad guys who were then going to attack their way of life. I think that, again, you’re seeing this sort of cyclical storyline in the sequel as well. Why is that important? Because I think that what Jim is trying to do is teach a lesson about what we are dealing with here on planet Earth.

And it’s not about bad guys and good guys. It’s about how do we protect the most fundamental and the most precious parts of our society, and that is the earth that we stand on. It’s funny, my head of production at my company has a saying on the wall. It says, “You can’t make movies on a dead planet.” And I always think about that. Every time that we’re frustrated or whatever we’re doing in life, I’m like, “This is the most important thing.” I’m going to a climate summit for a couple weeks in Antarctica, and it’s all about how to figure out [and] how to promote more action on this planet. And Jim is doing that by allowing for us to see repercussions on another planet and how that’s a mirror to what we’re dealing with on a daily basis in the on planet Earth.

Before we wrap, one of my favorite films of yours is Grandma’s Boy. You as J.P. is just so hilarious. How was it fully committing to that character, and has it really surprised you that almost 20 years later, people are still loving that movie?

Nick Swardson is a legend. He is brilliant. He’s one of my favorite guys that I’ve met in Los Angeles. He created something, I think, that could stand the test of time just because it’s a fun, iconic classic comedy. We don’t even really make comedies like that anymore. Goofball or whatever you would call Grandma’s Boy, whatever that kind of hybrid comedy is. You don’t see a lot of them. It failed in the theater. It made maybe $2.5 million in the theater, went out on 2,500 screens or something — massive failure. And then it killed it on DVD. It was like the perfect momentum, coming from a failed theatrical release into everybody just wanting to see this weird movie. I think it hit the college campuses in a really big way. But because of that, on a daily basis, I hear from people about Grandma’s Boy, this movie that we never knew was going to have this kind of life.

So I think it’s counted as one of our cult classics in the comedy space. We’re all proud of it. It’s fun, you know? Nick Goossen did an incredible job directing it, he’s another good friend of mine. It gives us giggles that almost 17 years later, I’ll be walking around at a mall and somebody will come up and talk to me about Grandma’s Boy. That’s crazy.