THE EMPIRE INTERVIEW
WHETHER CREATING A LOVEABLE CYBORG IN TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY OR PLANNING FOUR AVATAR SEQUELS, JAMES CAMERON HAS ALWAYS PURSUED THE IMPOSSIBLE. JAMES DYER JOINS HIM AT HIS LA BASE TO FIND THE DIRECTOR NUKING THE RULEBOOK ONCE MORE
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
“THERE WAS NO CAREER FOR ME IF TITANIC WASN’T GREAT. IT WAS EITHER GREAT OR DIE.”
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
“OBVIOUSLY THERE ARE OUT OF CONTROL EGOS. I BELIEVE I HAVE AN IN CONTROL EGO .”
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.
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY 3D IS IN CINEMAS FROM 29 AUGUST