James Cameron: Lasting Impact

Director James Cameron's films have all been big, complex, special effects-propelled dramas--and nearly all have been blockbusters. Here Cameron talks about working with Arnold Schwarzenegger, about whether actresses should reconsider their objections to screen violence, and about why his new action-comedy True Lies is unlikely to meet the fate of Arnold's last action-comedy.

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Watching a James Cameron film is like getting an adrenaline spike in the heart -- the action is nonstop, the violence over-the-top, the visual effects mesmerizing. Cameron began his career as a model builder for low-budget king Roger Gorman's New World Pictures, but his status as an instant A-list director was assured, and the action genre forever altered, with the release of The Terminator in 1984, when Cameron was 29. Cameron followed The Terminator with Aliens, a pumped-up, breakneck sequel to the 1979 Ridley Scott sci-fi classic Alien. The director's next film, The Abyss, an undersea adventure, was his first and only box-office bomb. But instead of presaging an ego run amok on out-of-proportion films, The Abyss merely set the stage for the triumph of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which reteamed Cameron with the former bodybuilder and B-movie grunt he had elevated to superstardom with the original Terminator. Cameron gambled by relying on new computer technology called digital compositing, or "morphing," for the film's mind-blowing visual effects, and the risk paid off, confirming Cameron as an F/X pioneer and T2 as a technological landmark along with films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars.

But Cameron is out to do more than just stun with his pyrotechnics. He injects his films with warnings about the dangers of technology, computers and nuclear weapons (although critics have labeled his messages ambiguous). And he's unique among action directors in that his films are constructed around heroic female characters. Strong women play a role in his own life as well. His first marriage was to Terminator producer Gale Ann Hurd (they still work together). His second was to Kathryn Bigelow, an accomplished action director in her own right (Point Break), and he's currently involved with Terminator heroine Linda Hamilton. He doesn't discuss his personal life in interviews.

Cameron is tall (6' 2") and rangy, with longish red-blond hair. He exudes quiet confidence, and he's affable and soft-spoken. Except for sturdy opinions and the occasional zinger about Hollywood, there isn't much to suggest a filmmaker who habitually marshals vast armies of people and resources to realize his grand cinematic visions. Certainly, for a director who has allegedly fallen dangerously behind in postproduction on True Lies, he looks remarkably placid as he sits down for a couple hours of conversation.

True Lies, an "action-comedy," is the first release under Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment Company's unprecedented half-billion-dollar deal with 20th Century Fox. It's also Arnold Schwarzenegger's unofficial comeback after the disaster of his 1993 "action-comedy" Last Action Hero. The implacable Cameron begins by dismissing talk that Lies is over budget and behind schedule: "It's not like it's a runaway locomotive. You set out to make a film on a certain scale because you believe the film is marketable on that scale." But he has plenty more to say.

JOSHUA MOONEY: Nice chairs.

JAMES CAMERON: This guy designed furniture with David Hockney. Hockney had this theory where he wanted to force you to relax. You can't really sit properly without leaning back. I thought the idea of forced relaxation was funny.

Q: But convenient if you're working under the gun.

A: [Laughs] Not that I would ever work like that. That would be too artistically limiting.

Q: I take it editing is a hectic time around here.

A: That would be an understatement.

Q: I heard from someone who played against them that your company Softball team wears shirts that say, "You can't scare me. I work with Jim Cameron."

A: I did not actually sanction this. I found out about it after they'd been wearing them and I thought, Well, I don't want to draw attention to it by pulling them off the field.

Q: How scary is it to work for you?

A: People know that I demand a tremendous amount from myself and everyone else. My feeling is that when I put a film crew together we're a football team and we're going to the Super Bowl. I use a lot of sports imagery-- and I'm not even a big sports fan. For some reason in other areas of endeavor, it's frowned upon to be aggressive. In sports everybody takes it for granted-- you do your best or you're cut from the team. Why shouldn't it be the same when you're making a movie?

Q: There can't be much room for error on productions as large and complicated as yours.

A: Right. And I pay people like they're the best. I say, "You'll make a lot of money on this movie, but you'd better do the job." It doesn't make me the most popular person in the world. What I find is that when I get to the end of a film, there's about 50 percent of the crew that thinks I'm a complete asshole, and the other 50 percent have gone through that phase and have come to the understanding that yeah, I'm a complete asshole but I'm going for something.

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