The Impossible Reality of James Cameron
With his sci-fi epic ‘Avatar,’ the famously volatile director is trying to change the way movies are made
Forty years ago, the kind of kid Jim Cameron was, the jocks in high school just wouldn’t leave him alone. This was in Chippawa, Ontario, not far from the roar of Niagara Falls. He was a science geek who once fashioned a diving bell out of a mayo jar and sent a mouse down to the bottom of a local creek. He’d take the bus to museums in Toronto and spend his time sketching Etruscan helmets and dinosaur bones. He was lanky, and clumsy, and a terrible athlete, probably the worst wrestler in the entire school ”“ “useless,” a classmate recalls. So the jocks had it in for him. They’d wait for him at the top of stairs, bop the books out from under his arms, send them scattering. Or else they’d punch him in the gut, pow, just because. He didn’t stick up for himself. He stood and took it. He was precisely the kind of shy suburban kid who grows up to take his revenge bloodily, with guns and knives.
Only he didn’t go in that direction, not exactly. Instead, he became a major motion-picture director and earned a reputation as “the scariest man in Hollywood.” In 1989, during the making of The Abyss, he ran his production in such a way that star Ed Harris burst into tears. On one shoot, crew members wore T-shirts that said you either shoot it my way or you do another fucking movie. And so it’s been, ever since his first big movie, The Terminator, in 1984, led him to make some of the most expensive (and most profitable) movies of all time, including Aliens, Terminator 2 and, of course, Titanic.
The last time most people saw him was 11 years ago, on a bright 11-Oscar night for Titanic, when he ascended the stage to accept his Best Director award and, quoting his own movie, bellowed, “I’m the king of the world, whooooo!” He took a lot of heat for that remark, as it smacked of overweening hubris, and since then he’s laid pretty low. Right at this moment, however, he’s sitting in front of a giant monitor in a darkened room on the Fox Studios lot in LA, labouring over CG effects for Avatar, his first feature since Titanic. The pressure is on. The film has a budget of $230 million, and if it fails at the box office it’ll be a fiasco not only for Cameron and Fox but also for the entire movie industry. It’s the first suitable-for-adults movie to be shot in 3-D. The effects are gee-whiz stunning; when a character goes off a cliff, you can almost feel the air resistance in your eyeballs. True, you still have to wear 3-D glasses. Even so, Hollywood is counting on the movie to usher in a Golden Age of Cecil B DeMille proportions. All that is resting on Cameron’s shoulders.
Now, on the monitor, a helicopter gunship known as the dragon swings into view and begins blasting its cannons. Cameron replays the clip a few times, then circles an area of fire and smoke with a laser pointer and says to his CG crew, “What’s nice is the differential rise rate through the convection. The haze looks great. It’s also got the right amount of simming, hitting the leaves with the wind effect. But don’t forget to grad it off, have a radial drop away from the dragon. Then we have to have another grad where it’s active here, less active there, otherwise we’re opening up a can of whoop-ass on ourselves about how we interacted fire with the rotor wash.”
Everyone seems to know what he’s talking about, nodding and taking notes. But even if you don’t, it’s interesting to listen to him, both for the technical poetry of his words and for their delivery ”“ not angry, not full of frustration, none of what he has been so known for. Could it be that he’s changed and somehow moderated the distance between candy-ass kid and dukes-up adult?
“He’s a fucking pussycat ”“ don’t believe that other stuff,” says Avatar animation director Richie Baneham. But then he says, “You do have to ease people into his work flow, because his work flow is to react, like, ”˜This is not what we fuckin’ talked about! What the fuck is this!’ Jim has a very strong sense of vision.”
“I still have my bad days, which anybody does,” Cameron himself says during a break in the action. “Before this movie, though, I felt very adversarial with my crew. But now, when I do have a bad moment, I’ll take that person aside and apologise, or do it publicly in front of the group.” He stops for a moment, cheeks pinking, looking a little put upon. He doesn’t really like having to defend his actions. “Look,” he continues. “Avatar is a big-budget picture. But it’s not some crazy runaway thing that’s out of control like Titanic was. We’re right on trajectory. So, that’s not a story. And me, I’ve learned an awful lot in the past decade. So, me being a wack job is, I don’t think, a new story anymore. So, what is the new story?”
He lets the question linger. To him, it’s obvious. It’s not about the filmmaker. It’s about all the zip-bang 3-D hot-fudge coolness of his new movie or about the emotional inner workings of its tale about a paralysed ex-Marine whose blue nine-foot-tall avatar falls in love with an alien girl and rescues an entire alien race. Both angles feature worthy talking points; all roads lead back to Cameron, however, and what he has made of himself and his impossible dreams, of which he has had so many.
“He realises how short our existence on this Earth really is, and he’s going to fill it to the brim,” says Bill Paxton, who has appeared in four Cameron movies and considers him a close friend. “He’s a guy who is trying to unlock the secrets of the universe with the strength of 10 men and the mind of 20. Yes, he is uncompromising and he can be tough. I’ve got the cat-o’-nine-tails from him a few times. But everybody needs a Jim Cameron in their lives! Everybody!”
Last night, the former punching-bag kid out of Chippawa left work around 10:30, repaired to the adjacent InterContinental Hotel, his home away from home, spent an hour calming down, watched a few minutes of a Chilean movie called In Bed (“kind of boring”), turned it off, thought about one of his various far-flung business ventures (in this case, building submersible vehicles in Australia) and finally drifted off to sleep. He is 55 years old. He has spent the past four years working on Avatar, based on a treatment he wrote in 1994, blending CG and live-action elements to make them indistinguishable. Along the way, his obsessive attention to detail required that he hire a linguistics professor to come up with a new language for his newly created alien culture. To facilitate filming, he spent $14 million to develop a digital 3-D camera that weighs 13 pounds, instead of the old-school 150. He works seven days a week, dawn until midnight, living on a studio-catered diet, munching vitamins he doesn’t know the names of (“because my wife is a health Nazi”). But no matter what, he says, “the last hour of every day is mine. It belongs to me. I’ve trained myself to be able to compartmentalise like that.”
Today, it’s 7:30 am when he opens his eyes again. Instead of getting up, he spends the next 10 minutes mulling goals. Reel eight is going to be mixed, so I’ve got to get the music ready for that. Try to lock picture on reel 10. At 10 am, discuss the kiss with the composer. Does the music come in before, during or after? Then he has 60 shots to go over with Weta, filmmaker Peter Jackson’s special-effects team in New Zealand, via the daily teleconference. And so on. Lots to think about.
A while later, he swings open the door of Building 29 on the Fox lot ”“ a tall guy, a few inches over six feet, with thinning hair, all salt, no pepper, wearing a regular shirt, regular pants, regular shoes; pretty regular-looking all around, for a guy who likes to do everything brim-filled and ballsy. He’s an avid scuba diver who loves his fast cars and big Harleys; once trained for a Soviet space mission; once took a first date hot-air ballooning, crashed the balloon, then took her AK-47-shooting in the desert (they later married, and divorced); has never shot a Hollywood movie that did not make money, spending more thanÂ $500 million in the process but returning a gross of $3 billion, which is one sweet risk-reward ratio but awful nerve-racking in the making.
At the breakfast buffet, he shovels down some eggs and chats with his producing partner, a jovial man named Jon Landau.
“Yesterday was definitely an underachieving day,” says Cameron. “Weta only gave us 31 shots to go over.”
“A lot more today,” Landau says. “Some of those shots take so long to render. I mean, Weta has the third- or fourth-largest computing power in the world”””
“Southern Hemisphere,” Cameron corrects.
“Southern Hemisphere,” Landau goes on. “Seventy-five hundred processors”””
“No. Ten thousand.”
“Ten thousand,” Landau says. And on they go, just like that. Cameron is the guy with all the answers. The big surprise, though, is that he seems like such a nice fellow. He’s got these mild blue eyes and this soft speaking voice. It’s kind of disappointing, actually, when what you have been led to believe you might see is him going off on some underling ”“ perhaps like he did during the birth of his third child with wife Suzy Amis. Here’s how he says the delivery went: “We kindly asked the medical practitioners to step the fuck back. ”˜We’ll cry for our mommies if we need help, but meanwhile, step the fuck back and let us work!’ ” Cameron at his best.
”˜Reserved, quiet, not outspoken” is how one of his middle-school classmates remembers him. His father was an engineer at a paper mill, his mother a former nurse, and they had five children. Jim was the eldest. He liked building stuff that either went up in the air ”“ he once used heat from candles to send a dry-cleaning bag skyward, creating a local UFO scare ”“ or into the deep, as he did with that mouse in a jar. His artwork was often mentioned in the local newspaper. A schoolmate remembers an art project that consisted of a baby doll fastened to a frame and covered with a plastic bag, very advanced for his age.
“I didn’t think I was weird,” Cameron says. “Did other kids think I was weird? Probably.”
“He was considered by many as ”˜dozzie’ ”“ dull and boring,” recalls Brett Palmer, a high school classmate. “And he did not stand up for himself very well. He and his friends had big targets on their backs.”
“He was not the best in sports,” says Ken Armstrong, another classmate. “One time I heard a boy making fun of his ”˜spasticity.’ He was pretty uncoordinated.”
“I didn’t associate with the jocks, and they didn’t associate with me,” Cameron says. But, of course, the jocks did associate with him, with gut punches and the like. He fidgets. “It wasn’t too bad,” he says, like he’s either stoic or in denial.
Then, as now, his dreams were “full of horrific and fantastic phantasmagorical things, giant waves, levitation,” which couldn’t be matched for escapist excitement until the day he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, after which he started making home movies with an 8mm camera.
At the age of 17, he moved with his family to California, enrolled in and dropped out of college, married a local Bob’s Big Boy waitress, got into street racing (his ride: a 1969 Mustang Mach 1, with a souped-up, Cameron-rebuilt engine) and worked various blue-collar jobs, as a truck driver and a high school janitor (“I was the poor bastard who scraped the gum off from under the desks”). He liked his beer, he liked his pot and he liked his acid.
“Oh, hell yeah, are you kidding, in my college days, I absolutely enjoyed acid,” he says. “I was a trippy guy already, and roaming around the universe of your brain at light speed ”“ that’s a lot of fun. But ultimately I don’t think it’s very creative, because it’s not like you can create while you’re tripping. You can’t do shit.”
Then, after witnessing the miracle of Star Wars, he redoubled his efforts to join the movie industry and got a job in 1980 building models in Roger Corman’s B-movie New World Pictures shop. “The beauty of working for Corman is that you had no pretension,” he recalls. “If you got a chance to direct, it didn’t matter if it was Night Call Nurses or Eat My Dust, you jumped at it, because it was a directing gig. It’s what we were all there to do.”
A year later, Cameron jumped at the chance to direct his own first movie, Piranha II: The Spawning, and three years after that he did The Terminator, based on one of his horrible and fantastic dreams. “I’d see these images of a metallic death figure rising Phoenix-like out of fire,” he once said. “I woke up and started writing. I was in Rome, I had no way to get home and I could barely speak the language. I felt alienated, and so it was easy for me to imagine a machine with a gun.”
Since then, there have been many broken budgets, many failed marriages (he’s on his fifth, with Amis, who follows Terminator actress Linda Hamilton, director Kathryn Bigelow and producer Gale Anne Hurd; moviemaking Cameron style does take its toll), along with many enemies made; and many unflattering allusions tossed his way, to Colonel Kurtz, Captain Bligh and Napoleon. It all culminated at the Oscar winners’ podium, him quoting his own movie and taking all that guff ”“ unfairly, in his estimation. “I didn’t understand the backlash until I saw Ang Lee quote Brokeback Mountain when he won his Oscar, and I thought, ”˜Oh, I get it now. Don’t quote your own movie. It’s a little bit of a cringe.’ But for me it was a moment of feeling good, but how they took it was ”˜OK, I’m the king of the world, fuck y’all. Fuck all of y’all.’ But I don’t regret things I do that are misunderstood. I don’t think that way.”
As it develops, in any discussion of Cameron, it’s hard not to want to rehash the past ad nauseam. How could it be otherwise?
“Well, you know, I find talking about the wrathful side of Jim a bore,” says his old friend Paxton. But then Paxton can’t help it. “He’s wrapped pretty tight, and he can be brilliant in his wrath. But he also loves to do things for effect. Like, even when he’s hammered, he’ll take a swig of 151 and spit it on the floor while he lights it with a lighter. He’s always up to something.”
That something has resulted in a true revenge-of-the-nerds saga that continues unabated, with another watershed moment in film history about to be breached, despite a certain reticence on Cameron’s part. “You’ve got to have boundaries,” he says one afternoon, stonily, shortly after talking about the high school bullying incidents, such talk he calls “uncomfortable stuff, like therapy sessions” and makes him twist in his chair. “Look. I’m focused on end results,” he goes on. “I’m not that interested in myself, the artist. I don’t chase the Hollywood fame or money dragon. I’ll play the Hollywood game to an extent. But I don’t play for its own sake.”
“He is full of contradictions,” says Aliens and Avatar star Sigourney Weaver. “Certainly, he is a Renaissance man, one of the few in the film business. He has a brilliant mind and is never happier than when he’s talking about science and the future.”
It’s that man who is in evidence now, sitting in his editing room, explaining in great detail some of the technical wonders that have led to Avatar, which in many ways is a kind of crowning achievement for Cameron, drawing as it does on so many of his obsessions, with sky and water, with the effects of technology and human greed.
“See that grid? It’s 35 by 80 feet, and above it are 120 cameras used for the motion capture. The facial capture is done with a head rig. Here’s Sigourney. The rig photographs her face. It sees right into the mouth. It sees the interaction of the tongue with the teeth, the teeth with the lips, and so on. It gets the eye movement.” His eyes glitter. “It’s complicated shit. At one point, it was beyond all of us. We were in unknown territory. I’d never worked on a movie where I didn’t have a fucking clue what we were doing.” He looks happy; thrilled, in fact, maybe just like he did as a kid sending that mouse in a jar to the bottom of a creek, far away from the bullying jocks who would grow up to be the studio execs that he so loves to stick it to.
(“If you ever go to a 25th high school reunion,” he recently said, “make sure that in the previous two months you’ve made the world’s highest-grossing movie, won 11 Academy Awards and become physically bigger than most of those guys who used to beat you up. I walked up to them one by one and said, ”˜You know, I could take your ass right now, and I’m tempted, but I won’t.’ ”)
A bit later, he starts talking about the future ”“ and his interest in the colonisation of Mars. “You know what?” he says. “If I were the guys that owned Google, I’d be building a rocket ship right now. I could claim Mars. I could own a fucking planet!”
Would he go? “I’d have to think about it,” he says, taking the question seriously. “The only way to do it cheaply is to go one way. That sounds crazy. But it’s not. Most people waste their lives with mundane bullshit. How many people get the chance to do something extraordinary? To bear witness to something no human’s ever witnessed before? To me, that’s a religious experience.” But would he go? “I wouldn’t now, just because of my wife and kids,” he says. Then you can see his mind start to drift. He’s done a lot of bearing witness to the extraordinary in his time. “I don’t know,” he says finally. “I’d have to think about it.” But the way he says it, you know his mind is already made up.