Really excellent James Cameron interview. The word ‘genius’ is thrown around all too easily in Hollywood, but Cameron deserves to have that title tattooed on ever inch of his body. Both as an action screenwriter and as a director, there are very, very few who deserve to dine at the same table as him.

Enjoy!

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What was your childhood like?

James Cameron: It was not remarkable from the standpoint of outside influences.

I lived in a small town. It was 2,000 people in Canada. A little river that went through it and we swam in the — you know, there was a lot of water around. Niagara Falls was about four or five miles away. The Niagara Falls. And so, you know, I’ve always sort of loved the water — possibly as a result of that, and that has manifested itself obviously in my work.

It’s also a big part of my private time. I do an awful lot of scuba diving. I love to be on the ocean, under the ocean. I live next to the ocean. My mother was a housewife but she was also an artist. My father was an electrical engineer. So right there you have a collision of left and right hemisphere thinking and I think I got equal parts of both.

My mother was definitely an influence in giving me a respect for art and the arts and especially the visual arts. I used to go with her to museums, and when I was learning to draw I would sketch things in the museum, whether it was an Etruscan helmet, or a mummy, or whatever. I was fascinated by all that.

I was always fascinated by engineering. Maybe it was an attempt maybe to get my father’s respect or interest, or maybe it was just a genetic love of technology, but I was always trying to build things. And sometimes being a builder can put you in a leadership position when you’re a kid. “Hey, let’s build a go-kart. You go get the wheels and you get this,” and pretty soon you’re at the center of a project.

I look back at, you know, I was at ten years old or nine years old, and I’m the same person now, you know, and in essence–in wanting to build things and wanting to get a lot of people together and do some grandiose thing, whether it was build a fort or a tree house, or an airplane. Once we built an airplane. Not intending it to fly, just hang from a tree but, you know, that sort of thing. And I realize I’m just doing the same thing now. I’m just getting a bunch of kids to help me build a fort, except that now it takes $100 million, and the kids are all my age.

Were you a good student?

James Cameron: Yes, good student. Mostly because of a real natural curiosity. I wasn’t trying to please anybody. It wasn’t competitive against the other kids. It wasn’t about trying to please my parents so much as I just wanted to know things, the sciences, history, even math to an extent. I was just switched on somehow. That’s the most important thing when I look back to that formative period, junior high through high school. It was a six year period.

I spent all my free time in the town library and I read an awful lot of science fiction and the line between reality and fantasy blurred. I was as interested in the reality of biology as I was in reading science fiction stories about genetic mutations and post-nuclear war environments and inter-stellar traveling, meeting alien races, and all that sort of thing.

I read so voraciously. It was tonnage. I rode a school bus for an hour each way in high school because they put me in an academic program that could only be serviced by this high school much further away. So I had two hours a day on the bus and I tried to read a book a day. I averaged a book every other day, but if I got really interested in something it was propped up behind my math book or my science book all during the day in class.

Was there a book that influenced or inspired you in some way?

James Cameron: I remember it more by authors. Arthur Clark and A.E. Van Vogt, all of the mainstream old guard of science fiction at that time. In the latter years of high school I got into the newer guys of that time, Harlan Ellison, Larry Niven, people like that. It was a steady diet of science fiction.

Were there any teachers who had a big influence on you?

James Cameron: There was. The critical moment for me was in the 11th grade.

My biology teacher, Mr. McKenzie, decided that what our school needed was a theater arts program and we didn’t have it. There was wrestling, basketball, football, it was a very jock oriented school and there was no theater program whatsoever. So we started a theater program from scratch. We bootstrapped it. He taught it, and I think he might have done it for nothing. We had to build the props and the scenery and the costumes and do everything ourselves. We had to turn the stage into a proper working stage. It took a year, but we started putting on our own productions. I think that was really a pivotal moment.

My biology teacher was our muse at that time. And I think the fact that we were having to do everything, that it wasn’t handed to us, may have created a kind of a work ethic that paid off then in independent film production because it’s the same thing. You know, you’re finding scraps and bits and pieces, and putting it all together and putting on a show. And it’s that sense of being able to create some moment of glory, some showmanship — out of nothing, out of baling wire — that is maybe a lesson that was learned there as a result of this man who just decided to have a theater arts program.

Otherwise I would have been marginalized by the fact that it was a very athletically oriented school. I’ve gone back to the school recently and found out that the theater program is the thing that the school is most proud of. Their teams are doing terribly but their theater program is doing great and they’re winning all these dramatic awards around the province. So that’s Mr. McKenzie’s legacy. The point is that teachers can be absolutely critical at the right moment in your life and they can be mentors.

Sometimes it’s only just one comment that they can make. I was talking to this man, my biology teacher, and he said, ” I’ve seen your aptitude tests…” or whatever kind of testing they did 30 years ago in Canada, “…and we believe that you have unlimited potential.” Now I don’t know if he’d ever seen the tests and I don’t know if any of the data indicated that, but hearing that, and knowing that somebody somewhere believed that I could go accomplish something, was a big contributor to the self-confidence necessary to overcome all of these things later. Because you’re going to have 10,000 people telling you why you can’t do something, and sometimes it only takes one person to tell you that you can do something and you take it to heart. Otherwise I wouldn’t have remembered it all these years, and I remember where the conversation took place.

Did you think of yourself as different from other kids? Were you a gifted child?

James Cameron: I certainly didn’t think of myself as gifted. The standards for being gifted in my environment were if you were good in Little League or if you were good in football.

I was more like the — kind of the misfit, the outsider. And of course, the misfits and the outsiders all collect together like this kind of pond scum around the sides. And that’s where all the good ideas come from. I certainly never thought of myself as, you know, superior or gifted in any way. Just different. Definitely different. And happy. Satisfied to be different. Maybe not always happy to be different, but satisfied to be different.

How do you think that affected your childhood?

James Cameron: It becomes a defense mechanism, to be contemptuous of people who don’t think outside of the box. I spent a ten year period being intellectually snobbish and saying, “You guys are just a bunch of jock idiots.” And then I’ve spent the last 25 years trying to reintegrate myself into being a normal person. With limited success probably.

Do you think you were destined to be an achiever? Is it destiny? Is it chance?

James Cameron: I think it’s, the old adage: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” I think chance is not a big factor in the long run. It can be a huge factor in the short run, being at the right place at the right time. But even with that chance, the critical factor is being able to recognize a true opportunity and seize it the moment it presents itself, and not wait and over think it, because it will pass.

There are many talented people who haven’t fulfilled their dreams because they over thought it, or they were too cautious, and were unwilling to make the leap of faith. There are also winos sleeping rolled up in a carpet remnant in an alley some place who also made that leap of faith and either made it at the wrong time or never had the skill to back it up.

If you don’t have the ability to make that leap of faith it’s going to be harder for you to accomplish something great, because there are going to be moments, there are going to be little windows of opportunity that open for a split second and you either squirt through or you don’t. But at the moment that you do that, you have to have prepared yourself. You have to have prepared yourself for that fight, because that’s going to be the fight of your life. Whatever that opportunity is, when you grab it, it’s going to be more energy than you can manage. It’s going to be grabbing the tiger by the tail and if you have not prepared yourself mentally for it through study, through knowing and hypothesizing what it will be like when you’re in that position, you won’t be able to deal with it. And half of what you’ve concluded before the fact in your theoretical projection is going to be wrong but half of it will be right and that’s the part you’re going to prevail with.

When did you first know what it was that you wanted to do with your life?

James Cameron: I didn’t know for a long time. I was always fascinated by the sciences. When I was a kid I used to spend all my time collecting pond water and looking at it through my microscope and trying to identify the various protozoa, or I’d be looking through a telescope trying to find the Great Nebula in Orion. My brain was going in all these different directions.

Art was always there. I was always drawing, but it wasn’t the main thing. All the way through high school, even into college, I majored in physics. I hit kind of a wall with math. I had a bad teacher who turned me off of calculus at a critical moment, and even though my grades were very high in astronomy and physics, I switched to English because I wanted to write.

I was sort of going in two different directions. I was 25 or 26 before I really settled in and said, “This is it. I’m going to work in film in some capacity.”

What finally attracted me to film in such a definitive way was… it was the only place I could reconcile the need to tell stories and to work in a visual art medium, and the desire to understand things at a technological level — and my fascination with engineering and technology.

It was a way to fuse those interests. I didn’t know where I’d wind up within film. I actually started as a model builder and quickly progressed into production design, which made sense because I could draw and paint. But I kept watching that guy over there who was moving the actors around and setting up the shots.

I had pictured myself as a filmmaker but I had never pictured myself as a director if that makes any sense at all. I wanted to make films, and I understood at some intellectual level that the director was the person who was most in charge creatively, but I had never pictured myself in that role, as the guy with the monocle and the megaphone. It had no meaning for me. But then…

I watched a couple of really bad directors work, and I saw how they completely botched it up and missed the visual opportunities of the scene when we had put things in front of them as opportunities. Set pieces, props and so on. They had these great actors to work with and they just blew it. And there was a moment where I said, “I may not be very good at this but I know I’m better than that guy.” And that was kind of a critical moment because when you realize that you can at least be better than somebody else who is already doing it, then you can visualize yourself doing the job.

Was there a moment when the light bulb went on and you said, “That’s what I want to do. I want to be a filmmaker. I want to be a director.”?

James Cameron: There were several light bulbs at several different times, and the first one was when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time. And the light bulb there was, “You know, a movie can be more than just telling a story. It can be a piece of art.” It can be something that has a profound impact on your imagination, on your appreciation of how music works with the images and so on. It sort of just blew the doors off the whole thing for me at the age of 14, and I started thinking about film in a completely different way and got fascinated by it.

It was such a fascinating film that they made a book about The Making of 2001. It was, to my knowledge, one of the first films that had a “making of” book. It’s the first one that I knew of, and I read it from cover-to-cover 18 times. I didn’t understand half of it until many years later, but it started a process of projecting myself into the idea of actually creating images using these high tech means.

Of course, I did all my low tech analogues of those means, buying models and gluing them on pieces of glass and moving them around. It was good training to think spatially and to think in terms of story boarding and so on. So I was already a filmmaker but I hadn’t realized it yet.

That was all happening in Canada, thousands of miles from Hollywood, and then ironically, at the age of 17 we moved from Canada to Los Angeles, which is very close to the black hole of Hollywood itself. At that point, I didn’t know if I could get there from here. “Who am I to say that I could be a filmmaker?” It didn’t make any sense so I abandoned it for grown-up things and I decided to be a scientist. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized this is where my heart really lay.

The next light bulb was really just the one that says, “Just do it. Just pick up a camera and start shooting something.” Don’t wait to be asked because nobody is going to ask you and don’t wait for the perfect conditions because they’ll never be perfect. It’s a little bit like having a child. If you wait until the right time to have a child you’ll die childless, and I think film making is very much the same thing. You just have to take the plunge and just start shooting something even if it’s bad. You can always hide it but you will have learned something, you know.

What films influenced you most as a young person?

James Cameron: The films that influenced me were so disparate that there’s almost no pattern. Stanley Kubrick was an influence because I loved 2001: A Space Odyssey. and the more I learned about him and his methodology the more I realized what a rigorous intellectual exercise filmmaking was for him, and I was inspired by that. The word perfectionist has a fussy connotation of unnecessary work, of unnecessary complication of the process, but I think that everything he did in his process was necessary.

I have since come to learn that process doesn’t work as well for me. There has to be some chaos, some looseness, so the actors are given the opportunities to give you their best. If you have it preconceived in crystallinely perfect form, you don’t leave the door open for magic. The magic doesn’t come from within the director’s mind, it comes from within the hearts of the actors. You have to be there to seize it at the right moment. But Kubrick was definitely an important influence.

All the films that I saw in my last two years of high school and my first year of college are the films that still burn vividly for me. Woodstock, Catch-22, Easy Rider, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather. It was such an amazing time in film production, very eclectic and just breaking all the rules.

You’ve also said seeing the film Star Wars affected you.

James Cameron: That was probably the film that galvanized me to get off my butt and go be a film maker. I was fascinated by space, I was always painting space ships and living in this world of these whizzing, dynamic space battles.

In my senior year in high school, we used to play “Battleship” in class. We turned it into space battleships and we would draw these elaborate spaceships and send coordinates to each other by notes and try to blow each other up.

I was living in a Star Wars world in my mind, and all of a sudden I saw this film, and it was like somebody had reached into my hind brain and yanked out a lot of stuff that was in there, and I was seeing it on the screen realized. And not to take anything away from George’s creation, because it’s obviously a phenomenal milestone, but my reaction to it was not, “Oh, wow, that’s cool. I want to see more.” It was, “Oh, wow, I better get off my butt because somebody is doing this stuff, you know, and they’re beating me to it.” That was my reaction. So I — you know, I basically quit my job and started, you know, doing a little film with visual effects, and sucked my friends into that vortex, and we all quit our jobs and fortunately we’ve all managed to successfully transition into film making, of that little group of four people.

A lot of people ask me, you know, “What’s the best advice to someone who wants to be a director?” And the answer I give is very simple. “Be a director.” Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee. So it’s a state of mind is really the point, once you commit yourself to do it.

Then the hard part starts. You have to foreswear all other paths, because you can’t keep a foot in cabinet making and a foot in directing. You can’t keep one foot in another job. It’s a total and all-consuming thing. I suspect that’s true of many of the difficult and challenging things in the world, whether it’s research or whatever. Certainly the arts must be all consuming, because you’re in competition with people who have made that decision, who have committed themselves 100 percent. You’re competing for resources. It’s a big coral reef. It’s a big food chain, and you’re competing for resources and you’re competing against people who have made that commitment. If you don’t make the same commitment you’re not going to compete. It’s that simple.

How did you parents feel about what you’ve chosen professionally?

James Cameron: I would say that my father was completely unsupportive in any way, shape or form, and was really sort of just sharpening his knives waiting for me to fail so that he could say, “Ah-ha, I was right. You should have gone into engineering.” And it was always this sort of attitude of, “Well, you know, one of these days you’ll get a real job and this film thing, you know, will pass as a fad.” So there was zero support there. And I actually think that it made me angry enough that I had to succeed. I think if I had a soft, rosy, supportive kind of “It’s good if you do it, but if it doesn’t work out…” sort of thing that it would have been different. But it kind of made me mad, and I had to prove that I was right, that this was the right thing to be doing and I think it made me mad enough to get good, you know.

My mother, of course, at an earlier time, was very supportive of the arts, and the visual aspect of it. So there was an interesting dynamic there that probably served me in the long run although it was hard to see it at the time.

Was it difficult not having the support of your father?

James Cameron: It was certainly difficult financially, but you learn to survive. You learn to prioritize, and you learn that if you’re going to do something, you have to do it all the way and you just have to put it before all other things.

When you started out as a filmmaker, did you have something in mind you wanted to achieve?

James Cameron: I didn’t really have anything to say. I had a lot of images crowding into my mind visually. I had read tons of science fiction. I was fascinated by other worlds, other environments. For me, it was fantasy, but it was not fantasy in the sense of pure escapism. Isaac Asimov used to say, “Science fiction readers are people who escape from reality into worlds of pollution, nuclear war, overpopulation.” It’s a way of modeling the present through the future.

Growing up in the ’60s, coming to my kind of intellectual awakening in high school at a time when the world was in complete chaos, between the war in Vietnam and Civil Rights and all of the upheavals, all the social upheavals, you know, free love, you know, everything that was happening in the late ’60s. It gave one an interesting perspective being a science fiction fan and looking at a world that was coming apart and thinking in very apocalyptic terms about that world. And I’ve never lost that sort of — almost a fascination with apocalyptic themes. Titanic is just another manifestation of that, because for me that film was just a microcosm for the way the world ends. However it ends we don’t know, but if it ends by the human hand it’ll end in the way the Titanic ended, which is through some casual simple carelessness. So you know, being a child of the ’60s in that way, I think, very much influenced the way I looked at what could be done with film.

It was also a very interesting time in film making, in the history of film making, because it was the time when the paradigm of studio film production was completely deconstructed and the independent films emerged.

All of a sudden the filmmaking world was turned on its head. A film called Easy Rider came out that was made for $40,000 and made more money than any other film of that year, including all of the big studio films. So the big smokestack industry of Hollywood was suddenly threatened from within by these auteurs, these punks, the young George Lucases and Martin Scorseses.

It was a fascinating time, and that’s when I came into my awareness of what film could be. So I was definitely informed by that but I didn’t really have anything to say yet. I had a lot of images and ideas but I hadn’t found my themes. It took another few years for that to happen.

How did you get from the realization that this is what you wanted to do, to actually getting the opportunity to do it as a professional?

James Cameron: You never really “get” an opportunity. You take an opportunity. You know, in the film making business no one ever gives you anything. Nobody ever taps you on the shoulder and say, “You know, I’ve really admired the way you talk and the way you draw, and I think you’d make a good director.” It doesn’t happen that way. You have to constantly be pulling on somebody’s sleeve saying, “Hey, I want to direct. I want to direct. I want to direct.” And you have to be willing to make sacrifices to do that. The mistake a lot of people, I think, make in Hollywood is that they think, “Well, I’ll get to the top of my field as a whatever, editor, production designer, writer, and then I’ll just move laterally into directing and I’ll be more respected and I’ll have more power.” It doesn’t work that way, because you drop right to the bottom of the pack as a director.

You have to work your way up again.

The way I did it was I came in through production design, which is good because you’re thinking visually and you’re very aware of the director’s problems in trying to tell a story and how the environment is, you know, a manifestation of the narrative in some way. And you know, I sort of proved myself as a production designer in the scrappy, stay-all-night-for-15-days-in-a-row kind of independent film making that was done at Roger Corman’s place. This was in the early ’80s. And when they see that you have the creativity and the stamina, and that you basically understand film making, it’s not a ridiculous leap in that environment to say, “I now want to try my hand. I want to direct.”

I just basically went up to Roger one day and said, “I’d like to direct second unit on this.” The film that we were making at the time, which was a low budget science fiction horror picture. And he gave me a camera and a couple, two or three people, and we started a little second unit, and the second unit basically became this steam roller that wound up shooting about a third of the picture because they were falling way behind on first unit. So they’d give me the actors and say, “Well, do scene 28 and scene 42.” And all of a sudden I was working with actors, and that was terrifying because I hadn’t really thought that part through yet. You know, that in order to direct, you have to work with actors. It’s not just about sets and visual effects. So it was simultaneously a shock and a joyful discovery because I found that all actors really want is some sense of what a writer can bring to the moment, some sense of a narrative purpose. “What am I doing? What am I trying to do here? What’s the scene about?” And it’s really pretty much that simple. So that was the next epiphany if you will, which is: this part of it is fun too.

The part I didn’t expect to be fun, the part I didn’t expect to be good at, turned out to be in a way the most fascinating part. I wouldn’t say I was good at it right away.

It took me a long time to realize that you have to have a bit of an interlanguage with actors. You have to give them something that they can act with. You can’t tell them a lot of abstract information about how their character is going to pay off in this big narrative ellipse that happens in scene 89. That doesn’t help them. You know, they’re in a room. They have to create an emotional truth in a moment and, you know, they have to be able to create that very quickly. So they need real tangible stuff and that’s a learned art, I think. But coming from writing, and understanding what they’re feeling and what they’re thinking, what the character is feeling and thinking, and having thought about it a lot for months in advance is the way that I get enough respect from the actors that they trust what I’m saying. They trust what I’m giving them to do.

What were some other lessons you learned working on that Corman film?

James Cameron: Well, the critical lesson is basically…

Never give up because it’s going to be unbelievably hard. It’s going to be a ridiculously brutal, uphill fight all the time, and you just have to have tremendous stamina and self-confidence to power through it. You have to not listen to the nay sayers because there will be many and often they’ll be much more qualified than you and cause you to sort of doubt yourself. But, you know, what I learned from those early days was to trust my instincts and to not back off, because when the hour gets dark, you’re instinct is to — or your tendency might be to say, “Well, this is just too hard and no, you know, nobody should have to go through this in order to accomplish X,” whether it’s a movie or whatever. But to — in the pursuit of excellence — and… I think you can be in the pursuit of excellence when you’re working on a low budget science fiction horror film, if it’s how you define it. You have to go all the way. It’s that simple. Now I don’t mean trample over people. I don’t mean turn into a screaming maniac. I mean, you have to be able — you have to have made the commitment within yourself to do whatever it takes to get the job done and to try to inspire other people to do it, because obviously the first rule is you can’t do it by yourself.

Even though you may know how to do many of these different tasks, you physically can’t do it. You need a team, and you need the respect and the trust of that team. That was a lesson that took me a while to figure out, because at first I just wanted to do it all myself. “Ah, you’re doing it wrong!” That doesn’t work. That doesn’t ultimately achieve the vision.

I had to learn to inspire people to give me their best work and I also had to learn to accept what they brought even if it was: Either (a) not as good or (b) good but just different from what I had imagined. And so that the end result of our collected efforts will be exactly that. It’ll be all of our efforts together. It won’t won’t ever be exactly the way I imagined it. And that is, I think, an important lesson as well, is that in any group enterprise it’s going to be the sum total of the group. So choose your group well, and go in with that little voice in the back of your mind that says, “Be Zen about it. Be philosophical. It’s ultimately going to be the best that these people can do.”

That flies in the face of the auteur theory. And I was sort of raised aesthetically on that auteur theory, looking at the much vaunted Hitchcock films that were planned down to every frame and every molecule through storyboarding. It all flowed from the forehead of Zeus, but it’s not that way. When you’re doing your job best you’re a band leader.

How hard was it for you to learn those lessons?

James Cameron: It’s tough, and I’m still learning it, but I’ve learned it well enough to do some of my best work as a result of that lesson, by inspiring the actors on Titanic, the production designers, and everyone on that film. There were several thousand people working on that film. By somehow inspiring them to do their very, very best, they brought me all of the elements, all of the moments that eventually became that film. I couldn’t have done it all myself. I couldn’t have done a fraction of it.

I’ve read that you once had to break into an editing room in order to realize your vision of what a film should be.

James Cameron: I suppose I should clarify that. Here was a critical juncture for me. I was hired to direct a film called Piranha II. I was hired by a very unscrupulous producer who worked out of Italy. He put me with an Italian crew who spoke no English, even though I was assured that they would all speak English. I actually had to learn some Italian very quickly, I’m talking about in two week. That’s all the prep time I had, because I was actually replacing someone else. I was put into an untenable situation and then fired a couple of weeks into the shoot, and the producer took over directing. It turns out that he had actually done that twice before on his two previous films. That was his modus operand, in order to get the financing and then axe the director.

In the course of throwing me off the movie, he never showed me a foot of the film that I had shot. He held on to the dailies. We were shooting in Jamaica and the dailies would go to New York and be processed. He’d fly to New York and look at them and not send them back for me to see so I wasn’t even seeing my own film. He came in and said, “Your stuff doesn’t work, doesn’t cut together. It’s a pile of junk and you’re off the movie,” and then he took over the film. And I thought, “Maybe I’m just bad. Maybe I’m just not good.”

A couple of months later I went to Rome to find out what really happened, and he wouldn’t show me any of the film. I had been in Rome prepping the film for a couple of weeks before we went to Jamaica, and I remembered the code to get in. So I went in and ran the film for myself. It wasn’t that bad. All I wanted to know was one simple fact. Could I or could I not do this job? So I made a few changes before I flew back. I don’t know if the editor ever noticed that I actually fixed a couple of things, but, I had to know whether what they had said was true.

Everyone around me had basically said, “You stink. You suck. You don’t know what you’re doing.” And I just — and I accepted it but then a little voice kept saying, “I don’t think so. I don’t think it can be that bad. I remember doing some pretty cool stuff with the actors in this moment and that moment.” And I looked at it and it was fine. So then I thought, “You know what, I actually can do this and I just fell in with a pack of, you know, thieves and whackos here.” But I also realized that I was going to have to get busy and create my own thing, and that nobody would hire me after that experience. Nobody would hire me and just put me on a film. I’d have to create my own thing and hang on tenaciously to that in order to be able to direct again, and that’s why I wrote The Terminator

I had many, many people trying to buy that script, but I wouldn’t sell the script to them unless I went with it as the director. Of course that was a turn-off for almost everybody, but we did find one low-budget producer who was willing to make the film. That was John Daly at Hemdale, and that’s how I got my real start.

In the face of all of that, how do you pick yourself up and persevere? What does it take?

James Cameron: I had dark hours on Titanic that were just as dire if not more dire than on Piranha II when I got fired, or on Terminator when we had all these problems. You have to find some kind of inner strength that says, “What I’m doing is right. It may not seem right to other people and I may not be able to please them right now, but I’m going to have to proceed on this path until I can demonstrate to them that what we’re doing is probably the right thing, at least the best that I know how to do.”

Ultimately you reach a point where people will hire you because you have the strength. Or some people call it vision, I don’t. That’s a bit of a lofty word because I don’t think it’s something that comes to you necessarily in the night. I think it’s something that’s the process of a very rigorous mental processing of the data on a day-by-day basis and the possibilities — what you can do and what you can’t do — and over time people will realize that you have what it takes to be in that situation where nobody really knows the answer. Although a lot of them think they do or say they do, and you’ve come up with the right formula. And to have come out of these battle situations a number of times with the right formula on a consistent basis, they tend to trust you more as you go along. They’ll never trust you completely.

The “they,” whoever the “they” is. In my business it’s the studio that’s putting up the money, the completion bond company, the bankers. The people that don’t really understand the day-to-day sweat, blood and tears of the creative process. That’s another lofty term, “the creative process!”

When you’re on a set the creative process consists of… “Oh, my God. How are we going to do that? You’re going to have to move the wall back three feet and then you’re going to have to pile up some boxes over here and put the camera on it.” It’s all nuts and bolts things. And then you have to be able to switch that off in a heartbeat and think about what’s the actor feeling. You know, what’s the character feeling at that moment, and it might be some really important, very pivotal scene for them.

There’s a certain tenacity that’s required, and that tenacity manifests itself sometimes in unpleasant ways. Other times it can manifest itself in very noble ways when you can get other people to go with you that extra mile.

I think a lot about what is misunderstood about my particular film making process, is that I get people to go that extra mile that they’ve never done before and they go into new territory. They go beyond what they previously thought were their limits, and then afterwards they talk about it like it was a big adventure. “Oh, man, we worked around the clock and you know, we all almost died.” And it sounds like an indictment of the production as a bunch of whackos but when, in fact, they’re actually — they want to share the fact that they did this, that they did go beyond. They went beyond in their creative capacity as well, and that’s why they always all come back and want to do it again. Maybe just not right away.

I don’t make films back-to-back anyway. I usually give them a year to go out and see what it’s like on all those other boring movies and then they all want to come back.

You mean a year of to recover.

James Cameron: Oh no. That only takes a couple of weeks. A week in Hawaii usually takes care of it.

Clearly the road to success is not a straight line. It’s a winding road.

James Cameron: The road to success is like Harold and the Purple Crayon. You draw it for yourself. You have to imagine it first, and then you have to draw it, and then you have to walk it. Some people fall into good luck. Some people have it handed to them, but I think the great majority map it out for themselves.

What about the setbacks and the frustrations and the self-doubts? How do you deal with them?

James Cameron: When you’re working in a public art form like film making you don’t really need self-doubt, because if it’s bad you’re going to hear exactly what’s wrong with it, and if it’s good you’ll hear what’s good about it. There are plenty of other people who will inform you, so self-doubt is not really necessary. You can set that one aside. Just drop it out the door. What you need is a lot of confidence to stand up to the slings and arrows, the barrage of negativity.

We exist in a peer environment and when we’re on the outside and we’re trying to get in, all our peers are like us and just a bunch of friends or people with similar interests. And none of them think you’re special. They think they’re special. So very few people will give you encouragement.

It’s like that old adage “It’s not enough to succeed, your friends must also fail.” You’re not going to get a lot of tremendous encouragement from your peer group and you can’t feed on that energy. You can actually support each other in very tangible ways, but that thing of “Dude, you’ve got it, you’re going all the way,” you’re not going to hear that. And you’re certainly going to face rejection after rejection. You’re going to knock on a lot of doors and you’re going to have to prove yourself.

I think you know that going in if you’re going into the film making process. You have to go in with your eyes open. That’s what it’s going to be like.

There’s a tremendous temptation to do a work-around, or to do a moral or ethical work-around or a short cut in a lot of situations, because it’s easier and it’s just — you’re so needy to get those little breaks and so on. And I think a lot of people get sort of ethically short-circuited at that stage and they never recover, you know? Because I think a lot of people would say, “Well, you know, I’ll do what I have to do now, but then later I’ll be good.” It doesn’t work that way. You are who you are. Fortunately, I’ve managed to get where I am without — the occasional burglary aside — without having to really hurt anybody or go against my word. I think ultimately your word becomes the most important thing that you have. It’s the most important currency that you have. Having a successful film is a very important currency as well, but in the long run your word is the most important thing, and if you say you’re going to do something you have to do it.

I think that’s what saw me through on Titanic.

Titanic was in some ways the roughest project that I’ve ever been involved with. And what saw me through on that was that I had a relationship with the people who were quite rightly panicking, but they never completely panicked because they knew who I was, and we always treated each other with a kind of respect. I always did what I think was the right or ethical thing throughout that. Even though it was costing me millions of dollars personally right out of my pocket to do it, I felt I had to do it or they would never trust me again on another film, and I think that that’s ultimately the most important currency that you reap from any situation.

Were there any moments of panic for you during the making of Titanic?

James Cameron: Pretty much every day, but when you’re in a leadership position you can never ever manifest that. You can never manifest the panic that you feel inside.

Titanic was a situation where I felt, I think, pretty much like the officer felt on the bridge of the ship. I could see the iceberg coming far away, but as hard as I turned that wheel there was just too much mass, too much inertia, and there was nothing I could do, but I still had to play it through. There was no way to get off. And so then, you know, you’re in this kind of situation where you feel quite doomed, and yet you still have to play by your own ethical standards, you know, no matter where it takes you. And ultimately that was the salvation, because I think if I hadn’t done that they might have panicked. They might have pulled the plug. Things would have been very different, the whole thing might have crashed and burned but it didn’t, you know. We held on. We missed the iceberg by that much.

You first established a reputation as a master of special effects, and yet this blockbuster film, Titanic, you call a love story. It certainly has special effects, but that’s not how you talk about it.

James Cameron: Right. Titanic was conceived as a love story, and if I could have done it without one visual effect I would have been more than happy to do that. The fact is that the ship hasn’t existed since 1912, at least not at the surface, so we had to create it somehow.

Obviously it was a big visual effect show when all was said and done, but that wasn’t my motivation to make the film. I don’t think that should ever be the motivation to make a film; it should be a means to an end.

Certainly there’s an aspect of me that likes big challenges, whether it’s big physical construction or visual effects or whatever. I think that’s what I do best. Other people work at a much more intimate level; they do that solely and are better at that.

I think that it was definitely a goal of Titanic to integrate a very personal, very emotional, and very intimate film making style with spectacle. And try to make that not be kind of chocolate syrup on a cheeseburger, you know. Make it somehow work together.

Is that what made Titanic such a worldwide success?

James Cameron: I think the spectacle got people’s attention, got them to the theaters, and then the emotional, cathartic experience of watching the film is what made the film work. I think the spectacle served it but was not the defining factor in its success. Once again I think it’s a question of balance. It’s sort of like looking at a painting and saying what part of the painting is the part that makes you like it. It’s all of it working together that makes you like the painting.

How would you explain to somebody who knows nothing about what you do, what is it that’s so exciting to you about doing it?

James Cameron: The thing that is exciting about film making is to think back to the moment in time right before you had the idea, and think about that at the moment that you’re sitting or standing on the set and there are thousands of people around and they’ve built this huge set, and there are all these actors, and there’s all this energy and all this focus, and realize that it’s all in the service of something that was made up out of whole cloth, you know? And that’s fun. I mean, that’s what an architect must feel like when they drive down the street and they look up and see a building that they designed. It’s something that you imagined made tangible.

I get that rush much more on the set than I do when the film is done. When the film is done you’ve lived with it for so long that it’s not new anymore, and it almost seems like it’s just destiny. That’s just what it is. But there’s a time on the set when it’s new, and you can walk into it and you can see it, and it’s this physical tangible manifestation of pure imagination.

Now as much fun as that is, it becomes a curse. The next time you sit down and face the blank CRT you know you have to come up with something, because there’s going to be a time when everybody is standing around, having gathered and built this huge human enterprise, and you better think of something good. So that’s the rush you get out of it, but it’s also the thing that haunts you before you start.

How would you characterize your contribution, your achievement in the field of film making?

James Cameron: I think that’s probably best left to others.

I know what I’ve tried to do, which is tell stories that excite the imagination and maybe say something at a thematic level, and maybe something about the human condition with respect to our human relationship with technology, because ultimately I think all my stories have been about that to one degree or another. And to allow people to step through that screen into that world, whatever it is. You know, whether it’s the world of The Abyss, or the world of The Terminator, or Titanic, to let people live in that — create that space for them and let them live in the shoes of those characters for a while. That’s what I set out to do, so I think it’s really up to others to sort of sort it out, what it ultimately means.

I see things that I have done that I know were inspired by other things. I see other filmmakers picking up on my leads and taking it further, and I realize that it is part of an ongoing creative process that is self-perpetuating. I think of myself as a link in a chain of cinematic ideas. It’s fun to have that place.

What do you see as the next great challenge, the next great frontier in film making?

James Cameron: Ultimately the frontiers of film making have never changed. They change in the specifics of the technology and the technique, but ultimately it’s somebody sitting in a room writing. It’s actors saying the lines in front of a lens, and that image being captured, and that little slice of life for those characters, those relationships, being made alive in the mind’s of other people all around the world. I don’t think that is fundamentally going to change indefinitely.

The specifics are probably going to change a lot. We’ll have electronic digital projection of the films. That’s going to inform the entire post-production process. Ultimately we won’t be working on film any more. We’ll call it film but there won’t be any film involved. It may be shot electronically. Film itself as a substance, as a thing, may be obsolete within 10 to 20 years other than atavistic artists who choose to shoot on film because of some real or perceived artistic need, in the same way that people still make pots by hand even though there are machines that make them beautifully.

Visual effects are happening now. It’s not even the next frontier. Visual effects are just becoming integrated into the basic fabric of film making, they are not outside of the normal film making process. Now all directors are working with visual effects and it has just become as basic to the technique as a light or a dolly or whatever. I think it’s empowering to the imagination to let people create whatever it is they want to create and do it in a very easy and straightforward manner, which visual effects are now capable of doing because of the ease of digital compositing. I think computer graphics and animation are going to have an increasing role. I think very real characters will come out of that. I don’t think we’re going to replace actors. They’re going to have to be nonhuman characters.

There has to be a reason to do a CG character, and the reason is it can’t be you or I. The traditional techniques of putting rubber on people’s faces and making rubber puppets and running them with hydraulics and so on are going to fall by the wayside. Actors will still be empowered within that process because it will still be a performance created by an actor in some way. They just won’t have five pounds of make-up stuck on their face.

Titanic has got to be a tough act to follow. Is there something you haven’t you done that you would like to do?

James Cameron: There are many things I’d love to do. There are still a lot of stories that I want to tell. I get very excited by all kinds of different stories. I’d love to do a film with a scientist as a main character and really try to communicate to people the passion of science, because our culture thinks science is kind of unhip. Scientists get it, but I think the greater community doesn’t understand how scientists think, what drives them, and how their passion can be as great as the passion of an artist or the passion of a great athlete, which our culture respects much more, unfortunately.

I’d love to be able to crack that nut because I don’t think Hollywood has served the science community well. They are usually stereotypes: geeks, bad guys, or distant, unemotional people and, of course, none of that is true. It can certainly be true of individuals but it’s not generally true.

What do you understand about achievement now that you did not when you were younger?

James Cameron: I used to think that the great films that I saw, the great works of art, were something that somebody imagined in every detail and then went and did. I didn’t realize that the creative process is the end result of a lot of different people bringing a lot of different things to the table and it’s impossible to predict. It’s a real time monitoring, shaping, molding process. The end result may be quite different than what you imagined when you started out, but that that’s how it works.

I’m at an interesting point right now. Just having done this film, it’s definitely a high water mark and I have to evaluate what that means. Do I let the success of that overpower my artistic instincts? There’s a lot of things I want to do and I know for certain some of them are going to be disappointments to people who think I’m going to come out and try to kick Titanic’s butt. It might be some little intimate thing or it might be something that’s a little off center.

Sometimes success brings with it a tremendous amount of scrutiny and anticipation of what’s going to happen next. That is not a good thing necessarily. You want to have the freedom to just react instinctively as an artist and not second guess yourself.

I’ve been speaking to young people a lot lately, who are right at the cusp of deciding their path. I relate where I am right now to where I was when I was 18 years old and thinking, “I’ve got to make this big decision what I’m going to be, and if I mess up I mess up my whole life,” and it’s just not like that.

It’s an evolving process, so I think the illumination I might be able to share is, “You’ve got time.” As long as you follow your heart, you’ll be going in the right direction for you. It may not be the direction that everybody around you thinks you should be going, but it’ll be what’s ultimately right for you.

I think the problem for a lot of people, especially when they show great potential, is that all of a sudden you’ve got 50 people in your hip pocket telling you what you should be and what you should do. Those voices can be deflecting you off your true course. I didn’t find my true course until I was 25, so you’ve got time. I don’t think you have until your 45, but I think you have at least until you’re in your mid 20’s. And, of course, there are stories of a legion of people who didn’t find their true calling until they are in their 40s or 50s.

I had the great opportunity to become friends briefly with a woman who died recently at the age of 105. She was an artist in California named Beatrice Wood. She was a little bit the inspiration for the character in Titanic. In fact, I called her up and asked her permission to use her a little bit, to interview her and use her as kind of a model for this character even though Beatrice had no connection to Titanic itself. She said, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that because I’m only 35.” She was 102 at the time.

She was an artist, and none of her significant work was done before she was 90. She switched on when she hit 90. I think that’s an interesting thing to remember.

One hears stories about Jim Cameron at work on the set, the madman, the crackpot visionary. Wherever these stories come from, is it an obsessiveness, a passion that is necessary to get where you want to go?

James Cameron: What people call obsession or passion, for me it’s just a work ethic. I think it comes from an insecurity that I’m not good enough. There are other people out there that I grew up admiring that are still making movies, and those movies are great. I’ve got to compete with these guys and these women. Have I thought of everything? Have I thought of every detail? Is this the best the scene can be? It comes from a healthy insecurity that makes you better as an artist. And just from a kind of gonzo intensity.

I just like to do it full bore. For me it’s not about being comfortable. I want to be in there. I want to help the guys move the dolly. I’m at my best when I’m neck deep in ice water trying to work out how we’re going to, you know, keep the lights turned on when the water hits the bulbs. You know? I mean, the more the challenge is, the more I enjoy it. And the more I can lead other people into these situations where they all think they’re going to die, the more fun I’m having. So needless to say we have a few washouts. We have a few people that don’t like my version of day camp, but I would say that 80 or 90 percent of them feel like they’ve been through something. They’ve done the best that they’ve done in their professional careers, and they’re usually pretty eager to re-up for another one.

What does the American Dream mean to you?

James Cameron: As a Canadian, the American dream had a very negative and pejorative connotation when I was growing up, because it was this kind of cultural imperialism. I grew up in a border town on the other side of the border in Niagara Falls, Canada. But since I moved to the United States at the age of 17, I actually feel very much like I’m probably, in my basic genetic nature, much more American than Canadian because I really believe strongly in a lot of the traditional values of this country in terms of respecting individuals’ rights. The rights to freedom of speech and a lot of the things that are in the basic fabric of this country.

Americans, and Canadians even to a large extent, are — they come from frontiersman stock, so they are people who, you know, hewed their civilization out of the wilderness. It wasn’t given to them. You know, it’s not like people growing up in Italy or France in the shadow of past glories from thousands of years before. You know, “We made what we have, and we don’t have a great cultural depth like they do but what we have is ours by God.” And, you know, I like that. I like that about it, you know. It sort of puts your hand on the tiller of destiny in a way and America definitely has its hand on the tiller of destiny for this planet. For good or bad. It doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing necessarily.

Americans are very happy to argue like crazy about everything and hold things up to ridicule that other countries just take for granted and I think that that’s a good thing.

Anybody can come here from anywhere, and if you’ve got the goods it’s a meritocracy. There are inequities just like anywhere, but we challenge the inequities. We’re trying to evolve. Certain other countries aren’t even trying to evolve. They’re not trying to challenge those inequities. There’s something that can happen here that’s unique.

Because America has imbedded within it this thing called Hollywood — this Mecca to which film makers from all over the world come and participate — it has become a kind of entertainment/pop culture leader for the world. There’s a grave responsibility in that as well. I’m not sure that that mantle is being worn well right now, but it’s the place to be. I could go on for hours about that.

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Cheers!
Brian M Logan
ThatActionGuy.com
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