DAN Member Profile: Jon Landau

Hometown: Islamorada, Fla.
Years Diving: 28
Favorite Diving Destination: My favorite exotic destination is Chuuk Lagoon, but the closest to my heart is the Florida Keys.
Why I’m a DAN Member: Responsibility is a crucial aspect of dive safety, and that’s a large part of what DAN is about.

Even some of the earliest films on which Jon Landau worked (such as Dick Tracy and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, both of which he co-produced) are memorable and well loved. As executive vice president of feature film production at 20th Century Fox in the early 1990s, Landau supervised such films as Die Hard 2Mrs. DoubtfireThe Last of the Mohicans and True Lies. But this Academy Award-winning producer is best known for the distinction of having produced the two highest-grossing movies of all time: Titanic and Avatar. Taking a break from preproduction on the three Avatar sequels, Landau spoke with Alert Diver about how he came to this point in his career and what scuba diving means to him.

AD: I couldn’t help but notice all the fantasy creatures in Avatar that seemed to be distant relatives of creatures that live in Earth’s oceans. Has the sea always been a source of inspiration for you?

Jon Landau holds up a newspaper headline and his Oscar trophy
Landau holds the Academy Award for Best Picture, one of 11 Academy Awards won by Titanic.

Landau: Both Jim Cameron and I are avid divers. For Jim, even as a kid growing up in Canada, the ocean was rarely far from his mind. That has remained true for him as an adult, whether as a DEEPSEA explorer to the depths of the Mariana Trench or as a writer envisioning the strange and wonderful world of Pandora. I, on the other hand, as a kid growing up in New York City did not gain the affinity for the ocean until I was an adult. The scuba bug hit me in 1986 when my wife, Julie, and I were working on a movie called Making Mr. Right in Miami. While there I took a scuba certification course from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) and went down to Ocean Divers in Key Largo one weekend for my certification dives. Wow! It was incredible — the beauty, the serenity. It was magical.

Not long thereafter, Julie and I returned to the Keys to spend a night underwater at Jules’ Undersea Lodge. Actually living underwater for a night probably set the hook for life. After that moment, I would look to dive wherever in the world my work travels took me — the Great Barrier Reef, Baja and even back to the Keys for the first project I worked on with Jim Cameron, True Lies. I loved the laid-back and ocean-centric lifestyle I was discovering, and I dreamed of living in the Keys some day. That dream became a reality after my two sons graduated from high school in Los Angeles. Julie and I looked at numerous properties in the Keys before finding the home we fell in love with in Islamorada. Of course, I still have to travel to LA for work, and much of the next Avatar films are being done in New Zealand, but when my schedule allows time at home I’m on my boat, diving or fishing off Key Largo and Islamorada.

AD: The ocean was certainly a significant element in the making of Titanic. How did that come about?

Landau: Jim always had a fascination with the RMS Titanic and looked to find a way to weave a compelling cinematic story through the tragic events of its voyage. The film was the result. When I read what Jim wrote, it seemed like an obvious winner, but not everyone saw it that way. It was a hard film to get the studio to make. I remember executives looking at it and thinking: “A period chick-flick where 1,500 people die?” They ultimately agreed to make the movie — and they were certainly glad they did. The film became the highest-grossing motion picture of all time, making $1.8 billion in box office. The production was hard, and as soon as the movie was in theaters I took my family to the Caribbean to — no pun intended — decompress with some diving.

AD: But then Avatar did even better than that, with $2.8 billion in box-office revenue. That’s really quite amazing.

Landau: Jim actually wrote the first treatment in 1995, but the technology to make the film did not exist at the time. In 2005 we looked at the landscape of visual effects technology and felt that we could be the impetus to advance things to the point at which we could finally make Avatar. Finally in 2009 the movie was released, and thanks to the Herculean efforts of our cast and crew it became a box-office sensation, surpassing Titanic as the highest-grossing film of all time. To me what made the movie a success was not the visuals but rather the themes of the story: themes of love, sacrifice and the environment.

Cast of Avatar pose for a group photo at the film premier
Landau with James Cameron and the cast of Avatar at the film’s premier in London

People have to start taking responsibility for the world we live in. We need to protect it before we lose all of our natural resources, including the oceans and coral reefs around the world.

I hope the themes in Avatar will resonate with people both through the sequels and through the other partnerships we are forging. For example, a new Cirque du Soleil Avatar-themed show will debut in late 2015, and construction has now begun on an Avatar-inspired theme park at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I am confident it will set the standard for immersive theme-park experiences.

AD: Sorry for getting off on a tangent; let’s get back to what Alert Diver is all about: scuba diving.

Landau and woman shoot a picture of a sea turtle
Jon and Julie Landau diving in Dominica

Landau: Diving is one of my true passions. Whenever I get a chance to dive, I seize it. My wife and kids are avid scuba divers, too. Julie and I visited Dominica for sperm whales last year, and Julie also found her way onto a liveaboard in the Solomon Islands. My schedule wasn’t so forgiving in terms of booking an exotic dive holiday, but that’s one good thing about producing the next three Avatar sequels all at once. When they’re done I can become a dive bum!

© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2015