Piranha Part II: The Spawning (1981)
“I was hired by a very unscrupulous producer. He put me with an Italian crew who spoke no English then fired me a couple of weeks into the shoot and took over directing. Turns out, he’d done that on his two previous films.
He wouldn’t show me a foot of film that I’d shot, so I went in and ran the film for myself. I made a few changes – I don’t know if the editor ever noticed – and it was fine.
So I thought, ‘I actually can do this. I just fell in with a pack of thieves and wackos.’ I also realised nobody would hire me after that experience. I’d have to create my own thing to direct again.”
Effect On Avatar: Cameron made a film. Every 3D visionary has to start somewhere.
The Terminator (1984)
“I had many, many people trying to buy that script, but I wouldn’t sell unless I went with it as the director. Initially, I didn’t really want Arnold. I’ll never forget telling my roommate, ‘I’ve got to go have lunch with Conan and pick a fight with him’.
That was my agenda: to get in an argument and come back and say he was an asshole. But he was so charming and so into the script. Even though he made me smoke a cigar that made me sick for six hours.
Funny thing was he even had to pay for lunch, because I was this loser who didn’t have any money. Casting him shouldn’t have worked. The guy is supposed to be an infiltration unit and there’s no way you wouldn’t spot a Terminator in a crowd if it looked like Arnold.
But that’s the beauty of movies. If there’s a visceral, cinematic thing happening that the audience likes, they don’t care if it goes against what’s likely.”
Effect On Avatar: Cameron enjoys sci-fi success on a relatively small budget, paving the way for carte blanche cheque-writing.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
“Yeah. For my sins, I wrote that for Carolco [indie prod house that went bust in 1995]. I did that for the money. That film put them on the map.
I admire its success and I’m happy for everybody involved, but I always have to distance myself from it because it’s not the film I wrote. I wasn’t really vocal about it at the time, but it was substantially rewritten by Sylvester Stallone.
The script that I wrote was pretty violent, but not in such an amoral way. My work with Stallone consisted of one lunch to discuss the script. He said, ‘I think you should put a girl in it.’”
Effect On Avatar: Assume total control. Strange Days for then missus Kathryn Bigelow aside, Cameron never wrote a screenplay he didn’t direct again.
“Our intention was to do a film that was not scary but more intense and exhilarating. It turned out everybody but us thought the film could be made without Sigourney Weaver, which completely blew my mind.
One of my biggest problems was coming up with a reason why she goes back. Soldiers from Vietnam re-enlisted because they had an inner demon to be exorcised – that was a good metaphor for her.
I wanted the final confrontation with the queen to be a hand-to-hand fight. A very intense, personal thing. I think of the queen as a character, rather than a thing or an animal. And there’s a lot of revelation going on there, how their whole social organisation works.”
Effect On Avatar: Cameron meets aliens and hones the art of massive ET beast vs man battles.
The Abyss (1989)
“I used to always dream about tidal waves. I don’t know if it’s a Jungian thing; I haven’t researched it. Waves are rather good metaphors, which is probably why I was attracted to rewriting Point Break, even though I don’t surf.
In The Abyss, there was no monster. We were the monster. Audiences didn’t like that. They wanted another duke-out between Sigourney Weaver and the queen Alien. And that’s not what that movie ever was.
I sat with the entire cast beforehand, one-by-one, as they were being considered for their parts and said, ‘Don’t take this if you’re not willing to learn how to be a helmet-rated deep diver, which will take you four weeks’. I told them this would be worse than a Kubrick movie.”
Effect On Avatar: Cameron allows a film to take over his life. Avatar? He hasn’t done anything but the space yarn for years.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
“In the first film, the Terminator’s not really a character, he’s the embodiment of the ultimate tidal wave. So the idea of this little guy who could kick Arnold’s ass was fun. I wanted the effect of the T-1000 to look like a spoon going into hot fudge.
The last 25 pages were written non-stop – we’d been up for 36 hours – and we shot the film in under 13 months. The first time I saw the film with an audience, the moment Arnold walks down the steps of the bar got the biggest reaction.
I thought, ‘Why are they reacting so strongly? Because they got it. He’s back. Now we can do anything.’”
Effect On Avatar: Big budget, earth-shattering special effects, jaw-dropped cinema audiences. Things changed with T2. They’re about to change again.
“I had dark hours on Titanic as dire as Piranha II. We missed the iceberg by that much. But I’m at my best when I’m neck-deep in ice water trying to work out how we’re going to keep the lights turned on when the water hits the bulbs.
Titanic was conceived as a love story. If I could have done it without one effect, I would’ve been happy. It was definitely a goal to integrate a very personal, emotional style with spectacle – and try to make that not be chocolate syrup on a cheeseburger, you know.
The cathartic experience is what made the film work.”
Effect On Avatar: It doesn’t matter how big the event, you need a story to hook in. Titanic had one. It did well. Avatar will need one to stop folk going, “Wow... Bored now”.
Ghosts Of The Abyss (2003)
“Whatever happened, happened. No second takes, no lighting, nothing. What we said was, if anything ever goes wrong on the expedition – people dying, blood on the deck – I don’t care what it is, you shoot it. It was pretty amazing.
Here we are shooting Imax off the shoulder, which had never been done before. We’d been so rigorous about not imposing ourselves creatively on the expedition that we wound up with 1,300 hours of footage. That was crazy. We had 300 hours just of 3D.
One of my favourite shots is when we’re getting slammed by the storm and we can’t get the sub out of the water. We’re just getting trashed!”
Effect On Avatar: Cameron’s 3D obsession begins in earnest...
“ Avatar takes place in another world and you’ll feel like you’ve been to that world. When you see a scene in 3D, that sense of reality is supercharged.
But I made it my mission to keep the 3D out of the actors’ consciousnesses completely. Most of them forgot we were shooting 3D. Then every once in a while one of them would watch some dailies and come back wide-eyed.
We’re making a $200m-plus movie and it’s all about the journey of one guy, Jake. Sam Worthington’s in every scene in the film, from beginning to end. It all hangs on that one piece of casting. And Sam is able to create a character that allows you to walk in his shoes. He’s a star.
There’s a couple of battle scenes towards the end, the last of which is the mother of all battles. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done, absolutely.
It’s got everything. Everything. It’s aerial, it’s ground, it’s cavalry, it’s infantry, it’s mech, it’s hand-to-hand, it’s gonzo.”
Avatar is released December 18th