The first time James Cameron got his hands on a rented camera, he immediately took it to pieces, laying out the components bit by bit before reassembling it. He wasted a day of filming, but that didn’t matter; the important thing was to understand how it worked.
Cameron grew up in Ontario, Canada, before studying for a degree in physics. After two years, he dropped out, married a local waitress and drove a truck to earn cash while devouring everything there was to read about film effects in the local library. It fostered an obsession for the way science works in reality and how it works in the imagination.
His family moved to California, and Cameron, along with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, became a pupil of the Roger Corman school of low-budget genre filmmaking. He quickly made a name for himself as a set designer with ability, attitude and a willingness to work (he would often stay through the night), and Corman took him under his wing as a protégé.
Through Corman’s patronage, Cameron made his directorial debut with Piranha Part Two. It was the litmus test – the opportunity to prove that he was a bankable director. The movie grossed solidly, paving the way for the film Cameron really wanted to make – Terminator.
Although it opened to mixed reviews, Cameron’s second film is now preserved in the American Library of Congress. Film critic Lucia Bozzola wrote: ‘Terminator established James Cameron as the master of action, special effects and quasi-mythic narrative intrigue, while turning Arnold Schwarzenegger into the hard-body star of the 1980s.’
“If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success,” Cameron told The New Yorker magazine recently. This unabashed hubris doesn’t enamour him to the Hollywood establishment and has helped to foster an image of the lone gunslinger in the Wild West. When he won the Oscar for Titanic, he spread his arms before the Academy like Jack Dawson at the bow of his ship before declaring, ‘I’m king of the world.’ The applause was loud, but it was hardly adulatory.
And yet wherever Cameron goes, the industry follows because not only do his films deal with the advancement of technology, they are technological advancements in themselves. For Avatar, Cameron designed the cameras that allowed 3D technology to become de rigueur in tent-pole movies. The liquid-silver on Terminator 2 was the seed which grew digitalisation, while Titanic taught Hollywood how to use green screens to achieve a realist effect.
From the nest of the Alien Queen to the scuba-like fauna of Pandora, from Sarah Connor’s dreams of nuclear holocaust to the surging water columns in The Abyss, Cameron has turned the modern blockbuster into a vehicle for special effects. But at their best, Cameron’s films are more than mere spectacle cinema – he has elevated the special effect to the pedestal of art. As film critic Anthony Lane wrote in his original review of Titanic:
‘Cameron has repeatedly shown that in the right hands special effects are as fertile and provocative as any other artistic resource. At best, they answer to our hopes and terrors of transfiguration: the metallic morphing of the T-1000 in Terminator 2 offered the most succulent image of self-replenishing evil since Dracula and, at the other extreme, the way in which sunshine imperceptibly breaks upon the drowned corpse of the Titanic and in which passengers start to stroll again upon its gleaming decks, is as bracing a prospect of rebirth as you could hope to imagine.”
Cameron is more than just a technician. He has proved himself to be an emotional, dramatic storyteller adept at using images rather than dialogue to project and advance his themes. What’s more, from Kate Winslet’s Rose to Linda Hamilton’s Connor, from Zoe Saldaña’s Neytiri to Jamie Lee Curtis’ repressed housewife in True Lies, Cameron seems capable of challenging one of cinema’s greatest and most enduring failings; the female protagonist. His women not only compete with men; they generally win.
To work for Cameron is the benchmark of any Hollywood artisan. His sets are notorious. He retains a small and loyal crew who accompany him on every film, and only those in the inner-circle are permitted to call him Jim. But they also refer to ‘Mij’, the dark inverse to Cameron’s character.
Cameron will rage at an actor, will pull rank on the DP and man the camera himself, or climb the rigs to adjust the lighting. His temper is fearsome, his thrill-seeking compulsive, his demands unwavering and non-negotiable. If anything or anyone falls below standard, firings are regular. ‘Get this guy a van’ is the common jargon.
While filming a shoot-out scene in Terminator 2, Cameron was manning the wide-angled camera in a helicopter above a multi-storey building. The building was aflame, office papers were floating from the sky, there were gunshots, explosions, hundreds of extras, multiple camera units, countless crew. Cameron angrily cut the scene halfway through and directed the helicopter to land on the roof of the building. He ran up to a group of minor set workers in charge of throwing sheets of paper into a fan, barking: “No, no, you’re doing it all wrong, throw the paper like this…”
His penchant for micro-management extends to the suits in charge of the coffers. Fox, the studio responsible for bankrolling Titanic (at the time the most expensive movie ever made), had begun to get nervous, and Cameron was summoned to discuss the budget by an exec with a reputation for straight talking. “Tell your friend he’s getting fucked in the ass, and if he would stop squirming it won’t hurt so much,” came the response from the director.
Leonardo DiCaprio said: “Jim knows exactly what he wants. Needless to say, when somebody felt a different way on the set of Titanic, there was a confrontation. Jim had it out with them right there in front of everybody. He lets you know exactly how he feels. But he’s of the lineage of John Ford. He knows what he wants his film to be.”
Who could argue against him? Terminator 2, Aliens, True Lies, Titanic and, of course, Avatar – Cameron is content to make a behemoth every few years, and each is a juggernaut that dominates the horizon. They may occasionally lack subtlety, wit and refinement, but they win out through sheer brute force.
As Lane writes: ‘Cameron is pushing at cinema much as DW Griffith did at the start – raising the stakes of the spectacular, outwitting the intellect and heading straight for the guts.’