I was a complete science nerd as a kid, both in the sense of being a naturalist and going out and collecting bugs, snakes, butterflies and samples. My first dream was to be an explorer, not to be a filmmaker. The filmmaking came along after.
As a kid I would go to movies that would blow my mind, that would take me to another world. When I decided to be a filmmaker, I wanted to give other people that feeling that I had as a kid in those movie theaters.
I wrote Avatar in 1995 based on ideas that I had when I was in college at the age of 19, so that would have been 20 years earlier or more. And then it took another 10 years before we actually made the movie.
When I made Avatar, I did a lot of research on indigenous cultures and I found out that these struggles are still going on. People are still being displaced, their cultures are being destroyed. I realized that the success of Avatar created a big responsibility for me, I felt I needed to get involved and essentially become an activist on behalf of Indigenous rights.
I had become friends with Ropni, the chief of the Kayapo people, deep in the Amazon. He gave me some great gifts, things that had great meaning to him including making me one of the Kayapo people with a naming ceremony. In their culture, these are treasured things. And I thought, “What do I have that I can give him that’s like that, something that’s very personal to me, and has a value to me that’s equivalent to what his gifts to me meant to him.” So I gave him my Rolex Submariner.
I had bought that watch 20 years ago and it was with me every day: it was on my wrist when I was making Terminator 2, blowing things up and flipping over trucks riding on a motorcycle sidecar, hand holding a camera two feet from the turning wheels of an 18-wheeler truck. I was wearing it the first time I saw the Titanic for real through the porthole of a submersible, and I was wearing the same watch in my black tie when I went up on the stage to get the Oscar for directing Titanic.
The watch I am wearing today I bought as a replacement for the one that I gave to Ropni. When I look at it, I think of all the things my previous Submariner had been through. I see all the places it’s been, from the bottom of the ocean to playing with my kids to sitting writing a story. It’s the one constant companion. People come and go — the watch is always there.
This watch is just getting started.