A version of this article appeared in The Age, March 30, 2012.
“A movie needs to fuel a flame of passion,” says Jon Landau. Fortunately for him, his passions are shared by many. As the long-term producing partner of writer-director James Cameron, he was among the prime movers behind Titanic and Avatar, two of the biggest blockbusters in the history of the medium.
Landau is in town to promote the upcoming 3D re-release of Titanic, which he hopes will introduce the film to a whole new generation. In person, he's a forceful presence: stocky, casually dressed, with dark, arresting eyes. He's extremely affable, but something suggests you wouldn't want him for an enemy. In his spare time, interestingly, he plays poker, which apparently calls for many of the same skills as the movie business: “You're not playing the cards, you're playing the people.”
It would take some nerve to stand up to the famously wilful Cameron, who briefly tried to ban Landau from spending more than five minutes at a time on the Titanic set. “Jim is the auteur, Jim is the one who has the vision,” Landau says. “But again, there are times when Jim needs that other voice in his ear and I try to facilitate that.”
As a duo, Landau and Cameron have changed the face of cinema: even before the success of Avatar, they played a leading role in getting the 21st-century 3D renaissance off the ground. “Going back to 2000, when we approached Sony about creating cameras, no-one else was doing that. No-one else was thinking about that.”
In turn, the technical demands of 3D encouraged exhibitors around the world to abandon their old-school film projectors and invest in digital equipment. “All of a sudden, the consumer could tell the difference, and a lot of people rallied behind that and made it all happen.”
On the topic of 3D, Landau becomes evangelical. In the future, he maintains, every screen we look at will be 3D, from TV to computers to mobile phones. “We see our lives in 3D,” he argues. “It's only natural.” Still, he's against converting films to 3D in post-production, except for “library titles” made in the relatively distant past. He'd like to see a 3D edition of The Godfather, for instance – or any number of Spielberg films, from E.T. to Schindler's List.
The only stipulation is that the director be alive and keen to take part in the conversion process. To show me why, he starts shifting the pair of water bottles on the table between us. “If I shot this shot, I would remember where these bottles were,” he says. “People who don't know that start putting things in the wrong three-dimensional space and it doesn't look right.”
While working on the Titanic conversion, he and Cameron resisted the temptation to restore deleted scenes or tweak the special effects using current technology. “I don't think we could have improved,” Landau says. “I mean, movies don't need to be perfect. Movies just need to work.”
Moreover, he says, the reality of what they were shooting back in the 1990s – a forty-foot model of the doomed ship, hundreds of extras wading through freezing water – gave a “tactile” quality to the final product that could never be matched on a computer. “I would like to think that if we were making Titanic today we would be smart enough to know that we couldn't do it all digitally,” he says. “I would hope we would still build as much of it as we did.”