James Cameron, still king of the world, with no plans to ab­di­cate, thank you very much.

JAMES CAMERON IS THE MOST SUC­CESS­FUL di­rec­tor on Earth. This is not hy­per­bole. It’s fact. He has trans­formed the in­dus­try with al­most ev­ery film he’s made. He re­mains the only per­son to have solo-dived al­most 11km to the ocean’s deep­est point. His Ti­tanic won 11 Os­cars. And his most re­cent films oc­cupy both first and sec­ond place in the list of most prof­itable movies of all time, with com­bined tak­ings of nearly five bil­lion dol­lars. He also has a small Venezue­lan frog named af­ter him.

Yet suc­cess has been hard-earned. Three of Cameron’s films have also been the most ex­pen­sive ever made, any one of which would have been a ca­reer-killer had it failed. Mean­while, his pun­ish­ing shoots have be­come leg­end — sto­ries whis­pered to young grips around flick­er­ing camp­fires. Ed Har­ris was left sob­bing on The Abyss, the Ti­tanic crew tripped balls af­ter their soup was spiked with PCP, and Cameron tore the en­tire Pinewood crew of Aliens — and one un­for­tu­nate tea lady — a new one af­ter los­ing his shit at their reg­u­larly sched­uled breaks. “You can’t scare me,” read the crew T-shirts on The

Abyss, “I work for James Cameron.” But de­spite mu­tinies, naysay­ers and night­mare pro­duc­tions, Cameron has never fal­tered nor failed in his am­bi­tions. While he hasn’t re­leased a movie since 2009, he’s been qui­etly busy, look­ing both back­wards, with the brand-new 3D re­mas­ter of his 1991 mas­ter­piece Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and for­wards, be­gin­ning to shoot four other sequels: a quar­tet of mam­mothly scaled fol­low-ups to Avatar.

My first en­counter with ‘Iron Jim’ oc­curred ten years ago in New Zealand, over a plate of cheese­cake in the Avatar cater­ing tent. De­spite his fe­ro­cious rep­u­ta­tion, the di­rec­tor was con­ge­nial and sur­pris­ingly soft-spo­ken. When I catch up with him in June 2017, it’s among as­sorted mem­o­ra­bilia from his films, care­fully dis­played in his own pri­vate mu­seum space at Light­storm in LA. On this oc­ca­sion tak­ing time away from an Avatar 2 sound­stage in­stead of dessert, he speaks care­fully and pre­cisely — this is a man who says nei­ther “um” nor “ah” — as he pon­ders the highs and lows of his sto­ried ca­reer. You’re work­ing on four Avatar fol­low-ups and are about to re-re­lease Terminator 2. What is the key to a great se­quel? I think the se­cret is to sur­prise in a fa­mil­iar way. I think David Fincher went too far try­ing to sur­prise the au­di­ence by killing off ev­ery­thing you fought for [with Alien 3]. You have to sur­prise the au­di­ence in a way that they feel in­vig­o­rated, and yet you have to be fa­mil­iar enough that you’re still de­liv­er­ing on the prom­ise of the things they love. I’m fac­ing this through the Avatar films and even start­ing to look at Terminator again and say­ing, “What can be said? What would be mean­ing­ful now?” Terminator 2 is a rare se­quel that sur­passes the orig­i­nal. Were you al­ways con­fi­dent it would be a hit? We were de­liv­er­ing in a cou­ple of weeks, we screened the movie and peo­ple loved it but hated the end­ing. They just flat out fuck­ing hated it. So I said, “Let’s cut it off.” Then I thought, “Al­right, now what’s my end­ing?” I had them pull up this shot when [the he­roes] are go­ing to Cy­ber­dyne. We hadn’t even rolled into the lights yet — we’re

just driv­ing down the street to the lo­ca­tion, es­sen­tially, and run­ning the cam­era. From the split sec­ond they pulled the slate out to the mo­ment where the cam­era tilted up to see Cy­ber­dyne, I had what­ever it was: nine sec­onds. So I thought, “Well, I bet­ter write some­thing that fits in nine sec­onds.” I came up with this bull­shit thing about the fu­ture is now a dark high­way at night and if a ma­chine can learn the value of hu­man life, maybe we can, too. Boom. I called Linda [Hamil­ton] up and had her record it, we dropped it in, did the fade-out and it was like, “Fuck me, that works.” It’s not like there’s this great ar­chi­tec­ture be­hind ev­ery­thing in the movies. Some­times, but not al­ways. You’ve re­sisted the urge to fid­dle with the film for this re-re­lease, as some di­rec­tors do. Though we did spot that the wind­shield on the T-1000’s truck no longer re­gen­er­ates be­tween shots. The wind­shield al­ways bothered me as a con­ti­nu­ity thing. If I could have done it at the time, I would have. You were pretty ju­di­cious when you re-re­leased Ti­tanic as well: just a few tweaks, in­clud­ing a dif­fer­ent con­stel­la­tion when Rose looks up at the night sky. We changed the con­stel­la­tion just to shut up [as­tro­physi­cist] Neil de­grasse Tyson bang­ing on about how it was the wrong stars. We also changed a sun­set [dur­ing the ‘fly­ing’ scene on the bow]. We had a stage sky that had been painted the night be­fore in ex­treme haste by the art depart­ment and it never quite matched the beau­ti­ful, nat­u­ral sky that we had got­ten. So I went in and tweaked the sky a lit­tle bit. The in­ter­est­ing thing about that scene is I prob­a­bly never would have cho­sen the sky that na­ture gave us. It was kind of moody and glow­er­ing, with a lit­tle bit of red at the hori­zon. Fate just dealt us this re­ally un­der­stated sun­set, which ul­ti­mately fit the film bet­ter than my bour­geois artis­tic taste would have. Now that would be a green­screen scene or we’d just shoot it and then re­place the sky. Of all your movies, The Abyss is the only one that hasn’t been a com­mer­cial hit. Yeah, it was quite mod­est. It wasn’t even num­ber one on its open­ing weekend. I think Un­cle Buck beat it. But it even­tu­ally broke even, I’ll give it that. It wasn’t a money-loser, but it came pretty close. Does that bother you? Not re­ally, be­cause I know what it took to make that film and I’m proud of it. But I also con­sider it a flawed film in that it wasn’t able to tightly in­te­grate the emo­tional jour­ney with the philo­soph­i­cal jour­ney. It was two films beat­ing against each other, es­pe­cially in the back half. But I like to think that I wouldn’t have done as well on Ti­tanic if I hadn’t made The Abyss and made those mis­takes. It be­came fore­front in my mind to in­te­grate the emo­tional jour­ney with the vis­ual ef­fects. I think that’s why Ti­tanic pulled to­gether into a more in­te­grated film, to the ex­tent that peo­ple don’t think of it as an ef­fects film, even though it was. It’s be­come fash­ion­able for peo­ple to claim they don’t like Ti­tanic. Does the back­lash ir­ri­tate you? It be­came fash­ion­able to say you didn’t like Star

Wars for a while. I think Fred­die Mer­cury said in his bi­cy­cle song, “I didn’t like Star Wars, but I just wanna ride my bi­cy­cle.” Sold three mil­lion on that one. So yeah, sure. But it’s a to­tal


re­vi­sion. And it’s mostly a re­vi­sion com­ing from men, by the way. Be­cause of the love story? Ab­so­lutely. I al­ways say that the re-re­lease of Ti­tanic in 3D was so that men could cry and not be seen ’cause the glasses cov­ered it up. Ev­ery film you make pushes the bound­aries of moviemak­ing in some way. Where do you think that ambition comes from? Oh, prob­a­bly lack of con­fi­dence in my ba­sic abil­ity to write, get ac­tors to say lines, that sort of thing. It’s like, “Al­right, we need some raz­zle-daz­zle here!” I think of the films that blew my mind when I was a teenager: Mys­te­ri­ous Is­land, The 7th Voy­age Of Sin­bad, Ja­son And The Arg­onauts. The skele­ton fight in Ja­son And The Arg­onauts — that just lit my brain up like a pin­ball ma­chine. Then a few years later it was 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I think the next was Star Wars. It was th­ese mile­stone pic­tures that ex­cited me and made me want to be a film­maker. I wanted to do that, which is quite hubris­tic if you think about it. You men­tioned lack of con­fi­dence, but it seems like that just isn’t part of your DNA. Are there ever points where your self-be­lief wa­vers? I sup­pose. I don’t re­mem­ber wring­ing my hands and equiv­o­cat­ing a great deal. I al­ways had such a clear sense of mis­sion. I think there are many kicks in the teeth along the way on ev­ery project, and you don’t get through with­out faith in your­self. Ray Brad­bury said that ev­ery artist has an ego, but it’s the sub­lime ego, which says, “I’ve got some­thing to say, moth­er­fuck­ers. Lis­ten up!” Which is what ev­ery artist is say­ing, no mat­ter how hum­ble they ap­pear to be. The sec­ond you put a paint­ing up on a wall, you’re say­ing, “Hey, look at this. Look at this thing I thought up.” Ob­vi­ously there are out-of-con­trol egos. I think there are also in-con­trol egos and, like Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger, I be­lieve I have an in-con­trol ego. His quote to me on Terminator 2 was, “My ego is so un­der con­trol, it im­presses even me.” At what point would you say you were you at your low­est ebb, pro­fes­sion­ally? I think prob­a­bly the post-pro­duc­tion on Ti­tanic. I lit­er­ally had a ra­zor blade taped to the mon­i­tor of my Avid with a lit­tle note that said, “Use in case film sucks.” Be­cause I’d painted my­self into the big­gest cor­ner, I think, in moviemak­ing his­tory. There was no ca­reer for me if that movie wasn’t great. It was ei­ther great or die. Be­cause it had the big­gest price tag in his­tory. It had all th­ese neg­a­tive pro­duc­tion sto­ries, most of which were com­pletely fab­ri­cated. It wasn’t about us be­ing colos­sally stupid, other than un­der­es­ti­mat­ing what it took to light a 700-foot­long set that was 60 feet in the air — es­sen­tially five apart­ment blocks in a row. The tallest lights in Hol­ly­wood wouldn’t reach over the deck! How we didn’t see that one com­ing, I’m not quite clear. But it’s not like we were id­iots. We just went over-bud­get and over-sched­ule by a lot on some­thing that no­body saw the com­mer­cial value in. Then we screened it for the first time — I think it was May-ish of ’97 — and the au­di­ence went berserk. I thought, “Could this ac­tu­ally work? Is that even re­motely pos­si­ble?” We got the high­est cards any­one had ever heard of. Some­where in there, hope started to rise again. [Paramount CEO] Sherry Lans­ing came over to my edit­ing room and watched the film and ev­ery­thing changed at that point. It was like, “We’re still gonna lose our ass, but at least we’re not gonna look stupid, ’cause we made a good movie.” And then it started to build mo­men­tum.

Avatar had its doubters, too, of course. But it was a gi­gan­tic hit and you’re now surg­ing ahead with sequels. How’s that go­ing? We started pro­duc­tion two years ago — three years ago, if you count the ear­li­est phase of de­sign. I’m cur­rently on stage all day shoot­ing. I start with the prin­ci­pal ac­tors at the end of Septem­ber, then I go into a pe­riod of re­fin­ing the cam­eras, and then I start live ac­tion in 19 months. But the live ac­tion is a rel­a­tively small part of the over­all pie.

You’re shoot­ing four films back-to-back, the first time that’s ever been done. Surely even Peter Jack­son must be look­ing at you as if you’re in­sane. Yeah. He’s a friend. I said, “It’s your fault I’m do­ing this, moth­er­fucker!” It’s one big story. But I would say a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent from The Lord Of

The Rings, which you knew was a tril­ogy and that al­lowed you to ac­cept a sort of trun­cated end­ing for movies one and two and then a ful­fil­ment. This is a greater nar­ra­tive bro­ken up into four com­plete sto­ries. The in­ter­est­ing con­ceit of the Avatar sequels is it’s pretty much the


same char­ac­ters. There are new char­ac­ters and a lot of new set­tings and crea­tures, so I’m tak­ing char­ac­ters you know and putting them in un­fa­mil­iar places and mov­ing them on this greater jour­ney. But it’s not a whole bunch of new char­ac­ters ev­ery time. There’s not a new vil­lain ev­ery time, which is in­ter­est­ing. Same guy. Same moth­er­fucker through all four movies. He is so good and he just gets bet­ter. I know Stephen Lang is gonna knock this out of the park. Does it make you at all ner­vous that

Avatar 2 won’t hit cin­e­mas un­til 2020, 11 years af­ter the orig­i­nal? It doesn’t bother me at all, be­cause this fits my over­all game plan. I’ve got a nice syn­chronic­ity be­tween my pri­vate, phil­an­thropic, en­vi­ron­men­tal pas­sion and where I’m in­vest­ing. I in­vest in things that I think are go­ing to help us as a species, which is mostly around sus­tain­able, or­ganic agri­cul­ture. Avatar fits into that in the sense that th­ese are films where I can pre­sum­ably do well by do­ing good. I think the films have some pos­i­tive ben­e­fits aside from just pure en­ter­tain­ment and good, clean fun in a movie the­atre. To me it all adds up to the right an­swer to what to do with the stub end of my ex­is­tence. You’re now an out­spo­ken en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist and a ve­gan. Have you soft­ened as a film­maker? Has ‘Iron Jim’ re­tired? You don’t get soft in the head as a ve­gan. If any­thing, you get more mil­i­tant! I would say that the thing that changed my pos­ture and my de­meanour on set more than any­thing was the ex­pe­di­tion films: the doc­u­men­taries. I took an eight-year hia­tus af­ter Ti­tanic and wound up get­ting re­ally in­ter­ested in deep-ocean exploration. I learned that when you go into a project with a small, hand­picked group — and it must al­ways be a small, hand­picked group on a ship, be­cause there just aren’t enough bunks — then if you’re yelling at any­body, you should be yelling at your­self for mak­ing a bad choice. For the first 20 years of my ca­reer, I thought, “If I yell at some­body now, they will be less likely to make that mis­take again.” Or the other peo­ple around will be less likely to make that mis­take. Now I know that it’s point­less to try to im­prove the process af­ter the fact. Once some­body has shown up and the stuff is wrong, they didn’t fail — I failed. Be­cause I failed to over­see their work. And once you have that epiphany, it’s point­less to throw a tantrum. Un­less you just need a tantrum. I think I’m due one on ev­ery film. Just one, for old times’ sake. Right? So it’s safe for the Pinewood tea lady to come out of hid­ing? Bless her soul. It wasn’t her fault, but she did take an ar­row for the team.


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