Jon Landau Talks Project 880, The Movie That Became Avatar

By  · Published on April 21st, 2010

If you’ve read one of James Cameron’s earlier drafts of Avatar titled Project 880, then you more than likely noticed more than a few changes. If you have no idea what the hell Project 880 is or what was in those drafts then do yourself a favor and read Project 880: The Avatar Project That Almost Was, by Devin Faraci at CHUD. While every script does go through changes, Project 880 went through plenty of them for better or worse. Producer Jon Landau was game enough to discuss a few of these departures from the original drafts.

Firstly, what was the reasoning behind the script changes? As usual, it was just for tightening. “It’s interesting, what was changed wasn’t a whole lot. What was changed was that things were just tightened,” he explained to us while on the press rounds for the upcoming Avatar DVD release. “It became shrink wrapped. I think from the very first script Jim wrote and when that story fully got expanded it became too unwieldy of a movie for one film. There were characters that got combined. For example, Grace’s character used to be two characters. That got combined into one character. There were creatures that we even designed that we didn’t have time to put in the movie. We put those off to the side. It was really more of a shrink wrapping than a changing.”

Now, was all of this “tightening” Cameron’s idea? “It’s all Cameron. I mean, people helped. I contributed, the editors contributed, and our executive producers contributed. Jim is a collaborator, but he’s the funnel that all of this goes through.”

Of course it’s hinted at early on that Earth isn’t in the best of shape in the Avatar universe, but why not actually show it? In the trailers you clearly see Jake Sully back on his home planet, so did they cut all of this out? “I think that was something that not just changed in the script, but later in the edit process,” said Landau. “We cut down Earth to what we thought was its bare essentials. We thought that it was very important for Jake to go on a journey. To go on a journey you need for Jake to start somewhere like Dorothy starts in Kansas. When we started watching the movie ourselves we felt that we could create that journey in a small number of flashbacks rather than playing them out in linear scenes. We really get to know Jake when he gets to Pandora so everything else before that was just cursory set up. We wanted to just get through that as quickly and as efficiently as possible.”

This is the classic case of showing the goods early on. Almost every blockbuster with a key setting or character always wants to rush to show that. This year’s The Wolfman is a prime example, it doesn’t take its time to show you that first transformation and get to first reveal of the beast in its full form. The same goes for Avatar. It wanted to get us on Pandora as quickly as possible. It obviously did that far more effectively than The Wolfman, but this just goes to show how often set ups are done in a quick fashion to give the audience what they want as early as possible.

While the stakes in Avatar were pretty high as is, this one could’ve put the cherry on-the-top. What if the corporation wanted to enslave the Na’vi and make them a work force? It would cost an insane amount of money to keep flying workers and tools up there, so enslaving the Na’vi would make perfect sense. Landau explained, “Again, that’s just something about story time. Where do we put our focus? We had stories like that and we had characters like one Peter Mensah played who had a relationship. So, it just came down to lets boil down the story to its essentials.”

In Project 880 there was another minor, but cool idea not used in the final film: showing the birth of Jake Sully’s Avatar. “That was something we never shot,” explained the veteran producer. “That came out in the script process. We felt that the way we played it where he comes in to see his Avatar fully grown and in the tube was an easier thing for the audience to understand and to see Jake’s reaction to that.” When Landau said “an easier thing for the audience to understand” that could easily be interpreted as dumbing down. Is it? Perhaps, but showing Sully’s Avatar already fully grown definitely does move the film along.

These were just a few of the changes made, but this all begs the question: how much footage was actually cut out? “You know, a fair amount. Again, I think some of that will be made available when we do our second release on the DVD.” That doesn’t answer that question and Landau wouldn’t, he said they’re still sorting all of that out.

Whether or not aspects like this could have helped the final film is difficult to answer. If you unabashedly enjoyed or perhaps even loved Avatar on an unapologetic level such as myself, you probably think not really. But if you’re one of the many who believe the script for Avatar wasn’t as sharp as it should have been, then you’re probably in disagreement with me and plenty of other people out there.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.