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James Cameron: “All my movies are love stories”

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James Cameron
Photo by Alex de Brabant
Short Profile

Name: James Francis Cameron
DOB: 16 August 1954
Place of birth: Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada
Occupation: Director

Mr. Cameron, what drives you to constantly push the limits of innovation in film?

I think it comes from my desire as a kid to do something artistic that would amaze people, you know? I would go to movies that would amaze me, whether that was a Ray Harryhausen film or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I wanted to do nothing less than that. Those are the projects that I love: figuring out what might just be possible but hasn't been done yet. I have always wanted to create new things, new hardware.

Even as a kid?

Of course, I used to build robots out of cardboard boxes. I always had some crazy project. When I was 10, I wanted to build an airplane. We found a bunch of plywood in a field and I got the kids in the neighborhood to help me saw it up and we built an airplane. It never flew, of course, but we did hang it from a tree! I was always fascinated by technology, robotics, optics, all of those sorts of things, so you know, in high school I wasn’t on the football team but I became the president of the science club — even though the science club really only consisted of me, a girl from Czechoslovakia who didn’t speak English, and some lab rats. (Laughs)

“My love of filmmaking came along later in life, and while I find it deeply satisfying, my heart is as an explorer.”

Decades later, each and every project of yours still has that fascination with technology and robotics at its core. Would you agree that you're living that boy’s dream as an adult?

For sure, I’m still that little science geek kid! My love of filmmaking came along later in life, and while I find it deeply satisfying, my heart is as an explorer. When I’m on an expedition and I’m driving a robot through the water exploring the Titanic, or I’m in a sub that’s going to the deepest places on the planet — whether I go personally or whether I’m sending a robotic vehicle there as my surrogate eyes — either way, it’s a technical challenge, and I love the technical challenge. I love solving hard problems; I love making machines to go into extreme environments and having them work, having them do what they’re supposed to do and not fail. That’s exciting to me.

Is it perhaps the most fulfilling thing when those two worlds, filmmaking and exploration, meet?

It’s very fulfilling when everything comes together like that. I always feel like I’m a blend of my mother and my father, as we all are — but in a very literal sense. My father was an engineer, very rational and logical, while my mother was an artist. I’ve always felt that cinema is not a pure art form; it is a technical art form. It involves complex equipment, and there’s a mastery of a technical side of it that you have to have in order to express your emotions and your feelings. I love the engineering and I love the storytelling. In my mind, those two things go hand in hand. So, when you start doing things like deep-sea expeditions—building new equipment to go there, new equipment to light it and new equipment to film it so you can bring back pictures—that comes naturally.

It almost becomes your own science fiction movie.

Exactly. And the funny thing is, I’m actually paying for everything by making a film about that expedition. I absolutely make Hollywood movies to pay for exploration. It’s important that we actually have a goal that is greater than just the making of that film, that we shine a light into the unknown and bring back the data. It’s about actually operating under the discipline of doing good science. I’m not just there to bring back a film, although I do think it’s important.

“It’s important to not get too absorbed in the tech and to remember to actually tell a good story.”

Would you say your experiences as an explorer have made you a better filmmaker?

Well, I think working as an explorer in the real world has given me a great deal of respect for the team and the crew. Sometimes the most satisfying thing about a deep-sea expedition is that by the end of it, I’ve done my job as part of the team. I’ve lead the team, I’ve worked on the technology, I’ve piloted the vehicle… I’ve done my part of it, and I’ve earned the team’s respect in return. And that’s all I want out of it. I think that’s made me a better filmmaker because of how collaborative it is. You need a big crew to make a movie and you need a lot of new technology. I’m not assuming that just because I’m the director of a movie, everyone must respect me and do exactly what I say. I think that when you go into filmmaking, you think of it as very hierarchical. But it’s really not like that. You can certainly run a set that way… but I don’t find it satisfying anymore.

From a storytelling perspective, has that advancement in technology resulted in better movies?

It has made them much better in terms of the finished product than they were when I was a kid. But are they better stories? Arguably not. I think a good story is a good story. And I think it could have been shot in black and white in 1940, you know? Look at Casablanca. You can’t beat that story today. We still have to stay connected to the human heart; you want to make the audience feel something, maybe even cry. It’s important to not get too absorbed in the tech and to remember to actually tell a good story. You have to do both.

What’s the mark of a good story for you?

I think a good story sets up a character or a small group of characters that you can somehow relate to, even if they’re in a very strange setting, maybe they’re in very strange jobs, but the relationships between the people are recognizable to us in some way. Maybe it’s boy meets girl, maybe it’s father-son, maybe it’s husband and wife undergoing a divorce. Where the story is set we can relate to these universal kinds of relationships. Then that relationship must be tested. I always say, “All my movies are love stories.”

“If I was living to be 200, I could still be working on things that I already have in my mind right now.”

Really? Even Aliens?

In Aliens, you’ve got the mother-daughter love story! But the key is that that love must be tested and then they must come back together. That must feel satisfying for the audience, even if it’s a bittersweet ending, like with Titanic where they were completely and utterly pledged to each other but they were torn apart by events.

You seem to be very careful in how you choose your stories, though. In your more than 30 years as a filmmaker, you have only made seven feature films.

Well, it’s interesting. I play with a lot of different things; themes, images, settings… But it’s the ones that I keep coming back to over and over and over that I feel like I’ve got to get something worked out. I have to work it out of my system by telling that story. But you never know how long that will take — I mean, I wrote The Abyss in high school in 1968 and I made it as a movie in 1988. It was a similar process with Avatar. If I was living to be 200, I could still be working on things that I already have in my mind right now.