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Avatar sequel celebrates diversity both on and off the screen

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It has been 13 years since the original Avatar film was released – now, its long-awaited sequel is set to hit theatres in less than a fortnight.

Shot in Wellington and Auckland, and with more than 90 percent of the crew coming from New Zealand, local audiences are gearing up for the release of Avatar: The Way of Water.

Avatar was the highest-grossing film of all time, so expectations are high for the sequel.

Forty-six New Zealanders were cast in The Way of Water, with more than 100 local stunt artists and almost 800 Kiwi extras also involved.

The film was directed by now-New Zealand resident James Cameron, known as ‘Jim’ to the cast.

Kiwi actors Cliff Curtis, who plays Tonowari, and Duane Evans Jr, who plays Rotxo, sat down with RNZ just hours after their first sneak preview.

“Jim is like the Pied Piper of film,” Evans Jr said.

“It’s crazy how emotionally effective and affecting it is,” Curtis added. “That’s really surprising. We’ve only seen clips – so in like, a three or five-minute clip, I’m going, ‘I’m feeling things. I’m getting teary-eyed.'”

It had been a wild ride for 19-year-old Evans Jr, who was 14 when he first started work on the film.

“There was a lot of nerves. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m about to work with all these actors – Zoe [Saldana], Sam [Worthington], Sigourney [Weaver], Kate [Winslet]… oh my gosh.'”

And there were even new skills for an old-hand like Curtis to pick up, with the actors taking a six-week free-diving course.

“It took me until I was 50 to get an opportunity as massive as this, and to see a 14-year-old just like, walk into this, it’s a beautiful example of possibility, of how these opportunities are available to our rangatahi.”

So why has it taken so long? During the creation of the first film, they had to wait for the technology to catch up with their vision. This time the delays were thanks to Covid-19, extending the storyline into a four-part saga and filming for Avatars 2, 3 and 4 in one go.

Cliff Curtis as Tonowari in Avatar: The Way of Water.

Cliff Curtis as Tonowari in Avatar: The Way of Water.
Photo: 20th Century Studios

But producer Jon Landau said there was still a big focus on pushing the limits of film technology, especially around facial expressions.

“Wētā FX, was able to create a pipeline that used deep learning technology to really find all of the fine points of a performance. If Zoe gave us something, if Cliff gave us something, if Kate Winslet gave us something, you see that come through.”

Two of the film’s significant themes were family and the value of indigenous cultures, represented both on and off the screen.

Landau recounted how a busload of Curtis’ family travelled eight hours to perform a karakia at Stone St Studios in Miramar.

He said the native Navi clans in the film were an amalgamation, representative of indigenous people across the world, and the aim was to expose general audiences to the impact of colonisation on the environment and on humans.

“There is not just one indigenous people, the Omaticaya – there’s another clan that we meet called the Metkayina. Their skin is different, their culture is different. It’s celebrating all of those things, but by getting people Cliff Curtis or Duane Evans Jr to play that, that was important. We look to also celebrate that diversity in our cast, and in our crew – and not just up on the screen.”

Avatar: The Way of Water opens in New Zealand cinemas on 15 December.

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