James Cameron is the king of the world again. Avatar, the director's first feature since 1997's Titanic, opens worldwide this weekend amid critical acclaim and expectations of boffo box office.
He recently spoke with the Hollywood Reporter about his early days, commercial success and his struggle to make Avatar.
WHEN YOUR CAREER BROKE BIG IN 1984 WITH THE TERMINATOR, YOU WENT FROM BEING A PART-TIME TRUCK DRIVER AND UNKNOWN FILMMAKER TO A HOT HOLLYWOOD WRITER-DIRECTOR.
Cameron: Well, I was actually a full-time truck driver and part-time scriptwriter! I remember pulling the truck over to the side of the road and hiding behind a billboard to write for 20 minutes, hoping that the other drivers wouldn't see me.
BUT AFTER THESE YEARS OF STRUGGLE, YOU BECAME A SORT OF QUINTESSENTIAL OVERNIGHT SUCCESS. DID YOUR PERCEPTION OF FAME CHANGE?
I never thought of the director as ever being famous. My fantasy of it was that you sort of work in the shadows, creating these things. The actors become famous. But when I really got to the point of being recognized, even away from a venue where one of my films was screening, that's when it really started getting strange. The peak of that was, of course, the couple of weeks after the Academy Awards in 1998. Every other person on the street here in L.A. was looking at me.
THE JAMES CAMERON BRAND IS ON THE LEVEL OF A GEORGE LUCAS OR STEVEN SPIELBERG. EVERY WRITER-DIRECTOR DREAMS OF HAVING THIS STATUS, BUT IS IT ALL IT'S CRACKED UP TO BE?
It's very helpful when you try to do something radical and new, like Avatar. When I pitched it at Fox, it was good to have a track record of successful films, to be able to say to them that I've never directed a film that has lost money, and I'm not about to start now. That was maybe the most compelling thing I said when I was asking them to fund a very expensive film in which the main characters were going to be completely CGI, with blue faces and big golden eyes and tails! Sometimes they'd ask, Do they need to have tails? Like it was about the tails. Well, it wasn't about the tails, it was about the fact that they were computer-generated characters and their unease with that. But I had this track record, which helped. I don't care how good the script was, I could not have gotten Avatar funded if I hadn't made Titanic.
HOW DID TITANIC ALLOW YOU TO PURSUE OTHER INTERESTS DURING THE PAST 10 YEARS?
The success of Titanic assured me of two things. First, I've got an income for a while. Second, I've got a career that's not going to evaporate. I've had enough hits that people can't say it was a fluke. So I could go do some other things. And my logic was that I can't lead a deep-ocean expedition, riding around on 50-foot seas in a Zodiac, when I'm 80 years old. But I can direct a movie when I'm 80. So if I want to go do this expedition stuff (chronicled in Cameron's 2003 documentary Ghosts of the Abyss), this is the time to do it. And I didn't want to dabble in it; I wanted to embrace it and be good at it and have the respect of the institutional oceanographic community -- at least to the point that I wasn't just some crackpot. And that took some time. And it also took some time to build the technology -- camera housings, and even some things that sound simple, like a pan-and-tilt camera head that operates outside a submersible vehicle at great depths. That didn't exist. We had to make it, and make it work at 12,000 or 16,000 feet down. We built a lot of stuff -- robotics, lighting systems -- and those designs subsequently found their way into the work of other oceanographic institutes. Hollywood doesn't know about that world or even recognize it, but that's fine. I don't mind that, but it's a little funny when people ask me, So, what have you been doing for the last 10 years? Well, I've been really, really busy.
WILL IT SURPRISE PEOPLE TO HEAR THAT ONE OF THE MOST SUCCESSFUL DIRECTORS ON THE PLANET STILL HAS TO STRUGGLE TO GET HIS VISION TO THE SCREEN?
Well, if it was just about ego for me, I'd get to this point and then make some small movie -- small-er movie -- maybe a $50 million or $60 million film and just tell them to show up at the premiere. I'd just handle the rest. And I could probably get that deal, but that's not the kind of movie I want to make. And so long as I want to make these big films that have so much at risk, then I have to be in a more collegial partnership.
YOU POKED FUN AT YOUR OWN PUBLIC IMAGE IN MOVIES AND AT THE OSCARS WHEN YOU SAID YOU WERE KING OF THE WORLD. HOW DOES HUMOR HELP ONE DEAL WITH FAME?
I don't think some people understood that I was having fun with that moment at the Academy Awards. I think they thought I was just being an egotistical jerk! I think humor is very important in my day-to-day world. As a director you're a leader, whether on set or in post working with visual effects crews. It can get very tense and you have to be focused. But you can't constantly be this disciplined and detail-oriented guy. You have to crack up the room once in a while.