Neytiri’s Avatar

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A perennial student, Laeta Kalogridis ’87 has learned
about flexibility and persistence on the course to Hollywood success.
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by Cynthia Lewis

Listening to Laeta Kalogridis talk, you’d think she hasn’t changed much since the mid-1980s, when she voiced her opinions about Jacobean drama and American women writers in English classes at Davidson. She still speaks rapid-fire; she still says exactly what’s on her nimble mind. “I don’t want to find myself in a creative rut,” she might have said as a senior, applying successfully for a Watson Fellowship. “I’ve never wanted to repeat myself.”

In fact, this is Kalogridis speaking now, not more than 20 years ago, and she’s referring to her career as a screenwriter for film and television.

That trajectory has landed her most recently as an executive producer of James Cameron’s movie Avatar and as the sole screenwriter for Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Her first credited screenplay dates to 2004, for Oliver Stone’s Alexander, the story of the Macedonian king starring Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, and Anthony Hopkins. The path to such an accomplishment involved 10 years of relentless writing, pitching, uncredited screenplay work, and rejections.

The time she spent priming her rising star by learning and refining her craft savors of Davidson’s familiar work ethic. To this day, she maintains that no amount of networking can replace skill learned through tireless practice. “People always fixate on access,” she says of getting a screenplay produced. “Access isn’t the issue. It’s important, but having a good script is essential.”

Kalogridis began cultivating both when, as an MFA candidate in screenwriting at UCLA’s famed film school, she lucked into an independent study with professional Daniel Pyne, whose work on television (Miami Vice) and film (Pacific Heights and the forthcoming Zeitoun) is well known. In an earlier class with Pyne, she’d written a script she describes as “not very good.” Then she showed him another in progress that she feared she wasn’t up to—a screenplay about Joan of Arc. Pyne was impressed enough to take her on, urging her to “write what you love,” a principle she still follows today.

Every screenplay since has offered a new lesson. First came a batch of uncredited contributions to films including X Men, Scream 3, and Tomb Raider. Even when she could claim credit for a project like Alexander, she kept learning. “I saw my work rewritten and taken in a new direction,” she says of that script. “The process was painful, but very instructive.” From her acclaimed contribution to the Russian horror-fantasy Night Watch, she says, “I learned a lot about postproduction.” The original movie, released in 2004, became Russia’s highest-grossing film to date, but was deemed too culturally specific for a U.S. audience. Charged with reshaping the original for American audiences without the luxury of reshooting almost any scenes, Kalogridis learned “how you can change a story from an existing version.”

Failure to move from a television pilot to a series also has instructive value. “I don’t think I would have become as confident in my creative judgment if I hadn’t had the good luck of that kind of failure,” she says of two pilots, for Birds of Prey and a latter- day Bionic Woman, which both failed as series after she was dismissed as writer. A “stillborn” project causes “heartbreak,” she admits, but also growth.

Keep listening to Kalogridis and you’ll hear not only a perennial student, but also echoes of Neytiri, the competent and fearless princess from Avatar. Working with Cameron on the film enriched her appreciation for this heroine, who represents that rarity of Hollywood rarities—a woman combining athletic prowess, feisty independence, and feminine vulnerability so as to attract, rather than scare off, men. Her penchant for thrilling action has wound its way through films like Pathfinder—a 2007 movie, directed Marcus Nispel, about a war between Native American and Norse worlds—and, more recently, Shutter Island. “To me, part of what makes Shutter Island so wonderful is that theaction takes place in the character’s mind,”she says of Leonardo DiCaprio’s role. “I hope it’s as emotionally moving as the spectacle of sword-play or gun-fighting.”

If the action features a woman, so much the better. Currently, she’s at work on The Ghost in the Shell, a live-action story, derived from a manga (a Japanese comic book), in which “the Major”—whose only human part is her brain—hunts a terrorist called “the Puppet Master.” Writing this heroine, “a seminal figure from a seminal work of cyberpunk,” is a dream, says Kalogridis. “She’s a total replacement cyborg who’s a hard-core, kick-ass babe.”

Laeta Kalogridis with son Miles in Hawaii.

Laeta Kalogridis with son Miles in Hawaii.

In the end, Kalogridis’s truest avatar may prove to be Neytiri, whose tenderness sits comfortably close to her self-confidence and sense of humor. Kalogridis describes her husband, Allen Clark, as her editor, a teacher of the martial arts, and the very involved father of their two sons, Logan, 11, and Miles, 7. He is also, she says, “only my husband by accident.” Despite their 20-year marriage, she objects to an institution that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation. “I disapprove of myself, is what I’m trying to say.” Her familiar self-deprecation is remarkably  sharp, even for her, at 5:40 a.m. Pacific Time. It’s rolling off her tongue as she works out in the gym. “I’ve changed very little,” she laughs. “It’s still exercise, sex, and writing.”

Cynthia Lewis, Dana Professor of English, regularly publishes both scholarship and creative nonfiction. She taught Laeta Kalogridis in several classes at Davidson and served as her academic adviser.

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