By Laura Myers
Filmmaker Jon Landau — known best for his movies "Avatar" and "Titanic" and often described as the movie industry's most successful producer as measured by box office figures — could live anywhere in the world.
Yet home is the Florida Keys, which first captivated the down-to-earth Landau in 1986 when he and wife Julie worked on the film "Making Mr. Right" in Miami.
Landau got scuba certified through Ocean Divers in Key Largo. Shortly afterward the couple stayed overnight at Key Largo's Jules' Undersea Lodge, the only underwater hotel in the United States.
The hook was set.
"I love the Keys, the whole feel, the whole vibe," Landau said. "If I could be here every day, I would. It's unlike anywhere else in the United States."
The producer returned frequently to the Keys, including while working on the 1994 action comedy "True Lies." Partially set in the Middle Keys, it stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Arnold. Heart-thumping scenes involving a sequence of helicopter stunts and an explosion supposedly on the iconic Seven Mile Bridge are seared into the memories of Keys residents and moviegoers.
New York City-born Landau dreamed then of living in the Keys, but with two young sons, felt "It wasn't yet the right time in my life. We looked for homes, but we didn't pull the trigger."
During the 1990s Landau was executive vice president of feature film production at Twentieth Century Fox. He won an Academy Award for "Titanic" in 1997.
When he turned 50, both of his sons had graduated from high school. A friend told him, "Now is the time to live that dream."
The Landaus decided to house hunt during a brief getaway. An extensive search throughout the island chain involved looking at 28 homes in two days. On Plantation Key in Islamorada, the couple found the four-acre, 6,000-square-foot oceanfront estate, Bali Hai, a Balinese-style retreat draped with orchids and subtropical flowers.
"We fell in love with the next-to-last home we looked at," Landau said. "The house really picked the location for us."
Originally envisioned as a second home to visit twice a year, Bali Hai became the couple's full-time residence. The Landaus frequently host fundraisers and community gatherings there. Bali Hai is also home during December holidays for the Landaus' large extended family, which includes sons Jamie, 29, and Jodie, 25, as well as parents and friends. Celebrities frequently visit and Julie's father, niece and goddaughter have moved nearby.
"For us, Islamorada has turned out to be the perfect location," Landau said. "We love it here. We love the lifestyle — from the ocean to the art galleries. But best of all, we love the sense of community."
In the future Landau, who celebrated his 57th birthday in late July, plans to retire in the Keys. But retirement is not likely to come anytime soon.
With director and co-producer James Cameron, Landau is producing four sequels to "Avatar." "Avatar 2" is to be released in December 2020, with additional films slated for release in December 2021, 2024 and 2025.
To get home to Islamorada, Landau frequently takes red-eye flights into Miami from Los Angeles, New Zealand and other shooting locations across the globe.
"Since we purchased our home, I have been able to spend at least 200 days in the Keys each year," he said.
Landau recently invested in pocket.watch, a new digital startup that is to produce, acquire and distribute content for children ages 2-11 on multiple platforms. He also recently led the "Avatar" cast and crew through "Flight of Passage," a flying simulator ride at Walt Disney World's newest Animal Kingdom attraction, "Pandora: The World of Avatar." Central Florida's "Avatar"-themed attraction transports visitors to a surreal world of vividly colored bioluminescent plants and mountains.
In the Keys the Landaus — both Dive Alert Network members — are passionate about diving, fishing and community involvement. Julie also enjoys tennis and paddleboarding.
"We love anything on, under or above the water," Landau said.
The couple has sponsored Islamorada's Fourth of July festivities for six years. They also sponsor snow for the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce's holiday festival at Founders Park each year. They're active supporters of Mariners Hospital, Habitat for Humanity, the Upper Keys Humane Society and enjoy donating scholarships to graduating high school seniors.
They've even participated in the rescue of stranded pilot whales.
"The more you're involved, the more you're a part of the community. We want to be involved in the Keys," Landau said.
Though his world includes locales as far-flung as New Zealand and the mythical Pandora, for Jon Landau the Keys truly are home.
Landau with wife Julie enjoying a Keys sunset.
Diving the Aquarius habitat off Key Largo.
Landau said he and his family love anything on, under or above the water.
Home in the Keys is Bali Hai, a Balinese-style retreat draped with orchids and subtropical flowers, where the Landau's enjoy gathering with family and friends.
Jon and Julie are just as passionate about community involvement as they are diving, fishing and other Keys sports like tennis and paddleboarding.