SPOILER ALERT: This story discusses major plot points for “Avatar: The Way of Water,” currently playing in theaters.
When James Cameron first approached Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver about writing a sequel to “Avatar,” Barack Obama was president, TikTok didn’t exist and Marvel Studios had released only one “Avengers” movie.
It was 2013. Jaffa and Silver had carved out a knack for breathing new life into well-established sci-fi franchises: The married screenwriters had just triumphed with their soulful script for 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and their screenplay for “Jurassic World” had finally got the dinosaur series back on its feet for an eventual release in 2015.
But what Cameron proposed to Silver and Jaffa was much more than a for-hire gig. While the filmmaker has directed two of the best regarded sequels of all time — 1986’s “Aliens” and 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” — he’d never crafted a multi-film cinematic saga from the ground up. His initial vision was to expand the world of “Avatar” over three more movies. So Cameron assembled a team of screenwriters to help: Jaffa and Silver, Josh Friedman (“War of the Worlds”) and Shane Salerno (“Savages”).
“We would go to ‘Avatar’ boot camp for a while — master’s degree in all things Pandora,” Jaffa tells Variety over a Zoom interview with Silver.
“We met for six months,” adds Silver. “It was so big and so exciting. But it was going to take the room to wrangle all this amazing material into three movies that would each be individual yet follow the saga of all these different characters in these expanding worlds.”
In their first interview since the film’s release, Jaffa and Silver spoke with Variety about some of the biggest and boldest creative decisions they made with Cameron for what eventually became “The Way of Water,” including bringing back Sigourney Weaver as the Na’vi daughter of her deceased human character from “Avatar,” creating the profound emotional bond between one Na’vi and a tulkun, e.g. a Pandoran whale — and why the team ended up writing four movies instead of three.
“We were invited into his mind.”
Jaffa, Silver, Friedman and Salerno had their first meeting with Cameron in July 2013 in the “Avatar” production offices in Manhattan Beach.
“We were late the first day, by the way,” Jaffa says.
Silver immediately jumps in. “Oh, we’re not going to talk about that are we?” she says. “That was horrible!”
The exchange is as turbulent as the couple gets during the hour-long conversation. Otherwise, Jaffa and Silver each exude an unruffled, almost serene appreciation for the highly unusual experience of working with Cameron on his sweeping vision of Pandora and the epic story of how Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and their family oppose the brutal colonization efforts of Earth’s Resources Development Administration, or RDA.
That started from practically the moment their deal closed to join Cameron’s screenwriting team. Jaffa emailed the director asking if there was any material he wanted them to review before their first official meeting; within an hour, Cameron replied with a lengthy email and an attachment that Jaffa calls the “Pandora-pedia.”
“It talked about everything from flora and fauna to the way the RDA’s space shuttles worked,” he says.
The first two weeks were spent talking about 2009’s “Avatar” and breaking down why audiences had made it the highest grossing movie of all time. Then Cameron handed everyone “three or four binders” of notes on his ideas for the next movies — roughly 800 pages in all.
“We went through it with him, very slowly and carefully,” Jaffa says. “We were invited into his mind, his left brain and his right brain, and to just kind of dive in and immerse ourselves in the world that he’d created in the first movie.”
Adds Silver, “He had let himself just kind of jot down all his dreams and thoughts about different Na’vi worlds and possibilities of all these characters and creatures. So he hadn’t made himself organize it yet. The writers room was the time to organize.”
The team met every day starting at 9 a.m. “Sometimes he’d call it at 4:30 and sometimes 6:30, you know, depending on his schedule and how tired we all got,” says Jaffa. “Once we kind of got a baseline of education, then the whiteboards were brought into the room and we started mapping out characters, members of the family, story arcs and so forth. There was so much material that a handful of really large whiteboards suddenly became this room full of whiteboards. I mean, whiteboards were everywhere, and then whiteboards that flipped over and you could write on the other side.”
“His fear was that if we were assigned a certain film, we would just kind of check out on the other two films.”
In “Avatar,” Jake joins the Omaticaya clan and learns the ways of living in the verdant Pandoran jungle; “The Way of Water” transplants the Sully family to the oceans, where they all learn from the Metkayina clan on how to live in harmony with the marine life there.
Like “Avatar,” “The Way of Water” draws significant inspiration from indigenous cultures on Earth, especially from Polynesian people like the Maori — which has in turn invited criticism that the film leans too far into outright appropriation.
Jaffa and Silver say the writers were aware of that risk as they built out the worlds of Pandora.
“We did a lot of research and a lot of talking about it,” Jaffa says. “You have to write, really, to character. We just kept falling back into character and emotion. As long as we had studied and really been sensitive to it, we felt like we were on solid ground.”
The common thread throughout the writing process, they say, was Cameron’s commitment, not just to the anthropological fidelity of the world of Pandora, but to the deeply felt human — er, Na’vi — story at its center.
“It was important to Jim that everything work technically, scientifically — that we understood the flora and fauna of Pandora, the atmosphere, the tides,” Jaffa says. “But what always led through all of it was emotion and character.”
Jaffa and Silver say that the entire process was highly collaborative, with everyone weighing in on every aspect of each of the three movies.
“When there was an outline or treatment for the first movie, we all contributed to it,” Jaffa says. “We did that on each film. By the time we got to the last one, I think we had a mind-meld. One of us would come up with an idea and someone else would be simultaneously coming up with that same idea.”
That kind of creative harmony was so important to Cameron that he refused to tell the writers which movies they would be handling until they’d reached the very end of their development process. “His fear was that if we were assigned a certain film, we would just kind of check out on the other two films, and just focus on what would be ours,” Jaffa says with a laugh. “Of course, we all said, ‘No, no, no, that’s not possible, it’s one for all and all for one.’”
Finally, around Christmas 2013, Cameron assigned the writers the individual movies that they would craft with him: Jaffa and Silver got “Avatar 2,” Friedman “Avatar 3” and Salerno “Avatar 4.”
They went their separate ways and each began to focus on their films, writing pages and sending them back to Cameron, who would make changes or give notes and then send it back to the writers.
“It was as if he was a showrunner,” Silver says, evoking the top job in TV writing. “We were all speaking the same language, certainly, by the time we were all writing.”
And that’s when they hit their first major hurdle.
“We’ve got too much material. We’re going to split it into two movies.”
“From the beginning, one of the challenges — I’ll say it was a delicious challenge — is that there was too much material,” Silver says.
The most vexing issue for Jaffa and Silver was that their movie not only had to reintroduce Jake and Neytiri, but bring audiences up to speed on 14 years that had passed since the first film, including introducing their four children — Neteyam (James Flatters), Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton) and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) — and the interpersonal dynamics between all of them. Then there was presenting the return of the RDA to Pandora, the resurrection (so-to-speak) of Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) as a Na’vi “recombinant,” and the introduction of Quaritch’s human son Spider (Jack Champion), who’s lived among the Na’vi since he was a baby. And that’s all before the story really kicks in, when the Sully family is forced to relocate to the Metkayina clan.
As parents themselves of an adopted daughter, Jaffa and Silver believe Cameron thought they were uniquely qualified to bring life to the Sully family. But doing so amid all the other major events in “Avatar 2” began to feel ungainly.
“Carrying this burden was always an issue in terms of getting the first act of that first movie moving, and there was just an enormous amount of material in there,” Silver says. “So somewhere after we had started writing, [Cameron] called us up and he said, ‘Look, we’ve got too much material. We’re going to split it into two movies.’”
At first, Jaffa and Silver offered to try cutting down their script, but Cameron wouldn’t hear of it. “He was like, ‘No, let’s just follow the trail that we created and keep writing,’” Jaffa says.
After a certain point, the storytelling burden was undeniable; Cameron officially split “Avatar 2” into two films. “Which has worked out great for us, you know,” Jaffa says with a chuckle. Friedman and Salerno’s movies were pushed into the future to be, respectively, “Avatar 4” and “Avatar 5,” and Jaffa and Silver added “Avatar 3” to their screenwriting mandate.
“I don’t think we ever spoke about her specifically as a Na’vi Jesus.”
Of all the creative ideas Cameron brought to the table in their first meeting, easily one of the most baffling was his decision to bring back Sigourney Weaver as Kiri, the teenage daughter of Dr. Grace Augustine, Weaver’s human character from “Avatar.” In the first movie, Grace dies from a gunshot wound, but only after Jake and Neytiri attempt to save her by using Eywa, the biological deity of Pandora, to transfer Grace’s mind and soul from her human body into her Na’vi avatar. The attempt doesn’t work, but for “Avatar 2,” Cameron thought, “What if Grace’s avatar then gave birth to a child?”
“We were all like, well, how is that going to work exactly,” Jaffa says. “Sigourney playing a teenager who is her offspring?”
Adds Silver, “And how do we explain it in the first act? That was a lot of exposition to get across, to get the audience to understand, to understand her struggles with her identity and her place in the world.”
Meanwhile, as the “Avatar” writers room was hashing out the story, Cameron was funneling all of their ideas to the “Avatar” art department on the second floor of the production office.
“There was a very quick turnaround — I don’t know how those guys did it — of what those images would look like, whether it was a character’s face or a setting,” Jaffa says. “Once we had the image of Kiri on the wall in the in the writers room, suddenly: ‘OK, there she is.’”
The mystery of who fathered Kiri motivates her story in “The Way of Water.” While the movie never answers the question outright, the character’s profound connection to Eywa and her ability to communicate with the animal life of Pandora strongly suggests the character was immaculately conceived by Eywa into Grace’s Na’vi avatar.
When asked directly if audiences should see Kiri as a kind of Pandoran messiah, Jaffa says, “I don’t think we ever spoke about her specifically as a Na’vi Jesus” — but then Silver jumps in.
“But it’s a mystery,” she says. “We can’t really talk about it.”
“We set up these questions,” adds Jaffa. “We want people talking and thinking about these things.”
Still, the screenwriters suggest that anyone keying into Kiri’s connection to Pandora is looking in the right direction.
“There definitely is that feeling that Kiri is undeniably, deeply connected to Eywa in the way that Grace was,” Silver says.
“I think it’s fine that the audience is like, ‘Don’t rescue him!’”
Another big swing Cameron introduced to the writers from the start was the return of Quaritch — who was killed by Neytiri in “Avatar” — in a Na’vi body, an idea that Jaffa says once again provoked the question, “How is that going to work? Will audiences buy it?”
In the same breath, Jaffa adds that Quaritch’s presence in the movie also speaks to the rigorous creative process the writers room developed together.
“Almost every idea that came up in the room was vetted and thought about and talked about and worked on and reworked on and thrown out and brought back,” Jaffa says. “When we were working in the room, Jim set the tone: There was a kind of tirelessness and fearlessness to just keep going. If someone has an idea, we would go down that road, sometimes for two or three days — just exploring one idea. By the time it gets through that kind of vetting system, then you’re totally locked in. I think that translates.”
That includes the character of Miles, a.k.a. Spider, Quaritch’s human son and a kind of adopted cousin to Sully’s family. “The Way of Water” never reveals anything about Spider’s mother, but her identity was very much known to the writing team.
“There’s an entire backstory of that character,” Jaffa says. “We talked a lot about his mother. She didn’t need to be a character in the script or in the movie, but we did have to understand her relationship with Quaritch and how Spider ended up left behind on Pandora.” (A tie-in comic book that bridges the story between the two movies reveals her name is Paz Socorro, who died during the assault on the Tree of Souls in the first movie.)
Instead, “The Way of Water” explores the relationship between Quaritch and Spider, after Quaritch’s unit captures Spider and starts using him as a guide and translator. The process winds up complicating both Quaritch’s antagonistic feelings for the Na’vi and, especially, Spider’s hatred for his father and everything he stands for.
The dynamic results in what may be the most controversial moment in “The Way of Water,” when Spider chooses to save Quaritch from drowning — a decision that has caused some audiences vocally express their displeasure. Jaffa and Silver understand that reaction — and welcome it.
“The movie allows Spider to explore these ambivalent feelings he’s having, and, I mean, I think it’s fine that the audience is like, ‘Don’t rescue him!’” Silver says. “But the idea that Spider is compelled to rescue Quaritch is interesting from a character point of view.”
Adds Jaffa, “It’s this father-son theme that we dive so deeply into — no pun intended.”
“It is a high wire act. If it doesn’t play, then the movie becomes silly.”
The most profound emotional bond in “The Way of Water” is not between a father and son, however — it’s between Jake’s youngest son, Lo’ak, and Payakan, a giant tulkun. Highly intelligent and deeply emotional, the tulkun are an integral part of the lives of the Metkayina clan. Lo’ak’s connection to Payakan drives the story for the second half of the film. Writing it was a major high for Jaffa and Silver.
“It’s a boy and his whale!” Silver says with a huge grin.
“Oh my god, we had so much fun,” Jaffa adds.
Silver puts her hands over her heart. “That shot where Payakan’s reaching out and Lo’ak’s like this big at the end of his fin — to me, there’s been a lot of incredibly exciting moments, but that was one of the biggest,” she says.
Payakan’s connection with Lo’ak becomes so powerful that the pair are able to talk with each other, which includes subtitles for Payakan’s humpback whale–like vocalizations. It’s the biggest make-or-break moment in the movie, asking the audience to believe utterly in the inner life of what is, essentially, a talking whale.
“There’s a certain buy-in that happens when all the characters believe something very deeply, then you’re being introduced to something that’s totally alien to you, and could be thought of as absurd or crazy,” Silver says. “The Metkayina believe so deeply in their tulkun brothers and sisters that I think the audience kind of goes with it. But it is a high-wire act. If it doesn’t play, then the movie becomes silly.”
It’s on this point that Jaffa and Silver single out Cameron for the most praise.
“‘Cameron is fearless,” Silver says. “He’s putting himself out there — his dreams and his ideas. Some of them are crazy, wonderful crazy.”
Jaffa sees a direct comparison between the Na’vi’s profound connection to nature and the filmmaker who created them. “Jim is the same way,” he says. “He’s all in.”
The other added benefit of helping to create the tulkun was learning so much more about their real life counterparts on Earth.
“I’ve got all these whale books now here in our office,” Silver says. “Whales are incredibly intelligent. I mean, whales, chimpanzees, dolphins and elephants are the only other animals besides humans that can recognize themselves in a mirror. They have a sense of who they are.”
Jaffa chuckles. “It would be an awfully big mirror, though, for a tulkun.”
“The story that happens to the Sullys — you couldn’t predict it.”
The couple estimate that they wrote for about a year, finishing up in 2015. Cameron didn’t start production until 2017, however. Since he shot “The Way of Water” and “Avatar 3” back-to-back, he only wrapped production in September 2020.
Still, Jaffa and Silver say they do not expect they’ll be doing any more writing for the franchise.
“Our job was pretty much finished once the final script was in,” Jaffa says. “We all gave notes on each other’s scripts. And then we really just disappeared for quite a while, until we started seeing early cuts of the movie.”
Each of the “Avatar” movies have been designed to stand on their own while also telling a larger story, but because “The Way of Water” and “Avatar 3” were initially intended to be a single movie, they are perhaps more intricately connected.
How those connections will play out is something the screenwriters are loathe to discuss, but they do offer a few clues for what may be in store. Jaffa points to the tense exchange between Jake and Neytiri and the leaders of the Metkayina clan, Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet), when the Sullys first arrive requesting sanctuary.
“There’s a lot going on between husbands and wives and between the two husbands and the two wives,” he says. “There are a lot of dynamics set up that continue to play out.”
Silver, meanwhile, takes a more macro approach.
“You have this kind of deeply relatable series of dynamics, inter-family, interpersonal, inter-clan, played out on these incredibly inflated scales of different worlds,” she says. “The clans that you’re going to meet and the worlds that you’re going to find on Pandora — you can’t even imagine what they are. Just like the tulkun were a revelation for this movie, there’s lots more of that stuff to come. It’s incredibly exciting, the story that happens to the Sullys. You couldn’t predict it.”
“I can’t imagine what could possibly match this experience.”
Both Jaffa and Silver remain close to Friedman and Salerno; the pair collaborated with Friedman on the screenplay for “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” which is scheduled to open in 2024. More fundamentally, while they’ve been working screenwriters since the 1990s, their experience working on “Avatar” has changed how they look at their job.
“I can’t imagine what could possibly match this experience, you know, in a literal way,” Silver says. “I can say that we learned so much, from Jim and from Shane and Josh as well.”
“It’s definitely had a very positive impact on the way we have written since we were in the room,” Jaffa adds. “We do find ourselves, if we’re working on a script and if an idea comes up, we’ll go down the road, just the way Jim would lead us back in the room.”
He pauses, and shoots his wife a knowing look. “I would do it again,” he says. “Maybe in a shorter time frame.”