Jon Landau Appreciation: He Gave James Cameron the Freedom to Be a Visionary

On the first day of production on the New Zealand location of “Avatar: The Way of Water,” actor Cliff Curtis asked if he could bring his family to the film’s home base to give a traditional blessing. Curtis showed up with 43 people and led an elaborate Maori blessing in front of the entire crew, then gave gifts to the crew members. Producer Jon Landau’s gift was a carved wooden oar — as Landau told TheWrap a couple of years later, “It was to help steer the ship as we were going into production. I still have it hanging on my wall.”

In the wild world of James Cameron’s films, steering the ship was the job of Jon Landau, who died on Friday at the age of 63. Cameron may have been the obsessive visionary — brilliant, driven and meticulous — but Landau was his absolutely vital right-hand man.

From dealing with studio misgivings during the arduous and expensive production of “Titanic” in 1996 to organizing four (!) “Avatar” sequels in the 2020s, Landau was the guy who gave Cameron the freedom to be his obsessive self, the producer serving as the one who knew how to handle the obsessions and make the visions achievable.

He ran interference for Cameron sometimes, acted as a shield at other times, but was mostly an indispensable colleague who found ways to support some of the boldest ambitions in mainstream cinema. Landau could be brash, but more often he was simply passionate about cinema — and passionate about what he and his friend Jim were achieving.

While Cameron received most of the attention, Landau was there when needed. The director got COVID-19 the day before the Los Angeles premiere of “Avatar: The Way of Water” in 2022, and Landau was an able master of ceremonies in his place — and a few weeks later, when Cameron cancelled his appearance the evening of a Wrap screening of the film, Landau not only picked up the slack, he turned himself into a de facto second moderator, ably directing his own questions to actors Stephen Lang and Sigourney Weaver, costume designer Deborah Lynn Scott and composer Simon Franglen.

Essentially, he always figured out the job he needed to fill, and he always knew why he was doing it. “We use the term transportive,” he told TheWrap in 2022. “Why do people turn to entertainment today? To transport themselves away from the world that we live in and the news stories and everything. You can’t do that as well at home, because the world is still there. In the theater, you go in, the image comes up, and you get to escape our world and go on a journey with these characters.”

Landau was also the one who spread the love, making sure that all of those who worked with him received credit. If you remember only one thing about all the “Titanic” acceptance speeches at the Oscars in 1998, it’s probably Cameron quoting his own screenplay and saying, “I’m the king of the world!” But when the film won Best Picture, Landau took the lead, starting out by saying, “I can’t act and I can’t compose and I can’t do visual effects, so I guess that’s why I’m producing,” before he pulled out a piece of paper and rattled off more than 50 names in a rapid-fire one-minute barrage.

Did all that reading of names offend the Academy? Probably not, but it’s baffling that Landau’s application for AMPAS membership was turned down after he won the Best Picture honor. He was finally admitted to the Academy in 2010, after “Avatar” gave him his second Oscar nomination and made him a producer of the two top-grossing films in history. (At TheWrap’s Oscar party that year, he told us, “If they don’t invite me this year, that’s it. I’m never going to join.” But they did invite him, and he accepted.)

At the time of Landau’s death, he and Cameron were in the thick of delivering three more “Avatar” sequels.

“Jim is never satisfied with what he’s done in the past,” Landau told TheWrap. “If I could pick one word to describe him, I would say he’s an explorer. He explores in the real world — he goes to the Mariana Trench, you know — but he explores in his movies and he challenges people around him to do better than they’ve done before. And that’s really exciting.”

At present, the “Avatar” sequels are scheduled to be released in 2025, 2029 and 2031. It’s a generous timetable that has already endured a few delays — but one that could become much harder without the contributions that Landau made.

If James Cameron is an explorer, it’s hard to imagine his cinematic exploration running as effectively without Jon Landau manning the oar — steering the ship, as Cliff Curtis (and lots of other people) figured out years ago.

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