Producer Landau: Interpreter of Dreams

Getting an Academy Award nomination for best picture is something most filmmakers only dream about. For Jon Landau, producer of the sci-fi fantasy film “Avatar,” that dream has now come true twice.

“It’s one of those ‘pinch me’ moments,” Landau said during a phone interview the day after the Oscar nominations were announced. “The fact that it happened with ‘Titanic’ was more than a dream come true, because
I don’t know if that was something that I ever dreamed about. And now to have it happen twice is really beyond anything that I could have imagined.”

Landau served as producer alongside writer/director/producer James Cameron for both “Avatar” and the 1997 mega-hit “Titanic,” which won 11 Academy Awards including best picture, and went on to become the largest-grossing movie of all time. On the day of this year’s announcement, however — Feb. 3, 2010 — “Avatar” sank Titanic’s first-place position by soaring to the No. 1 box-office spot, hitting a total U.S. gross above $601 million in a record 47 days. (At the time of this writing the film has already crossed the $2 billion mark worldwide.) If “Avatar” wins the best picture prize, Landau and Cameron will make Oscar history by becoming the first two-time award-winning producers to also share the two top-grossing films of all time.

But Landau insists it’s not about money.

“We’re most proud about how the film has been received by people. That’s the key for us.”

Indeed, few films have captivated a worldwide audience like “Avatar,” which has achieved great success not only in America but also throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Landau had just returned from a trip to the Middle East when we spoke, telling me, “I went there to visit our troops and bring the film to them.” He is also planning a trip to Israel soon, where the film, according to Landau, “is doing very good business for an American film in Israel.”

Asked what he thinks it is about “Avatar” that gives the film such universal appeal, Landau points to what drew him to the project.

“I was attracted by the themes and that it was saying something about the environment, interpersonal relationships and military occupation. I think the central theme of the film is to look into [ourselves] and find the hero within.”

“Avatar” takes place on the planet Pandora, a mythical, rain-forest-on-steroids domain populated by a primitive tribe of peaceful and spiritual blue-skinned people called the Na’vi. The story follows a paraplegic Marine named Sully who is transformed into a Na’vi avatar in order to infiltrate the aborigines.

Some critics have charged that the film’s depiction of the mistreatment of the native Na’vi’s by American military-industrial invaders reflects Cameron’s “white liberal guilt.” Landau disagrees: “The real hero of the film is Neytiri [a Na’vi female]. She’s the one who opens Sully’s eyes in the film. If we had cast Jamie Fox as Sully, would people still call it white liberal guilt?”

During the interview, Landau spoke about his not-so-traditional Jewish upbringing. “I grew up Jewish, but without doing the traditional temple and bar mitzvah thing,” he said. “I had two brothers who were bar mitzvahed, but when it came to me, I think my parents and my sisters were more of the philosophy that being raised Jewish and living Jewish is more about how you live life on a day-to-day basis than going to temple itself.”

Landau’s parents, Ely and Edie Landau, were in the film business, as well. “My parents were producers, and they produced a bunch of artsy movies … some of which were Jewish movies,” he said. “And they instilled in me an ethic about other people. It’s about giving back and sharing.” 

One of the Jewish films produced by Landau’s parents is “The Pawnbroker.” The 1965 film, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Rod Steiger, is one of the first films to address the effects of concentration camps on survivors.

The couple also produced “The Man in the Glass Booth,” another tale of concentration-camp survival, based on the actual trial of war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Made in 1975 and directed by Arthur Hiller, it starred Maximilian Schell, who, like Steiger in “The Pawnbroker,” received an Oscar nomination for best actor.

“My parents also produced a film called ‘The Chosen,’said Landau of the 1982 film, based on the Chaim Potok novel, starring the young Robby Benson as a conflicted yeshiva student. “And this is what I mean about what you do and how you live your life,” he added. “When they did ‘The Chosen’ it was not enough for them just to produce the movie. They did it as a fundraising event for educational institutions in Israel. They got together a group of big-name stars and did something called Celebration 33, which marked the 33rd anniversary of the creation of Israel.”

Appropriately, “The Chosen” focuses on the revelations at the end of the war about the Holocaust and Israel’s struggle to become an independent Jewish state.
Following in his parent’s footsteps, Landau rose to become a studio executive at 20th Century Fox, and it was during that tenure he first met Cameron, who at the time was directing now-California Gov.  Arnold
Schwarzenegger in the 1994 film, “True Lies.” After Landau left Fox, Cameron asked him to come on board as a producer for his ambitious new project, ‘Titanic.”

“James comes up with the great dreams,” he said, reflecting on their relationship. “And it’s my job to make those dreams come true.” Landau said his own style is captured in a conversation he had with Warren Beatty when Landau was working as a producer in 1990 on Beatty’s film “Dick Tracy.” Beatty asked Landau if he knew what made Landau such a great producer.

“I gave him, like, four wrong answers. And he said, ‘I’ll tell you what it is. It’s that you dream about the movie every night. I know that because you come in with ideas every day.’”
Landau added, “It was so easy to go home and dream about Pandora.”

Landau and Cameron are now planning several new projects together, including “Battle Angel,” based on graphic novels by Yukito Kishiro, as well as, not surprisingly, today’s most highly anticipated sequel, “Avatar 2.”

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