The Case For James Cameron, Screenwriter
Last month at Comic-Con, I overheard a journalist asking Jon Favreau whether the script for Iron Man 2 was even close to complete when they started shooting. "No," Favreau readily admitted. "But they never are on movies like this."
While that's true of most action tentpoles, which are hurriedly written and rewritten until the very end of shooting, I can think of at least one mega-director who wouldn't dream of going into production without a finished script: James Cameron. Aside from his directorial debut, Cameron's written every one of the film's he's directed (and even some he hasn't, like Strange Days). In the wake of Titanic, and as we kick off Avatar Day, I've seen people toss around the idea that Cameron's scripting is his biggest weakness. I'd argue quite the opposite: Cameron is one of the smartest screenwriters we've got.
Let's be honest: The notion that Cameron is a terrible writer is, to speak in terms of his career, a recent one. Prior to Titanic, Cameron had written and directed three of the best action films ever made -- the first two Terminator films and Aliens -- as well as two above-average tentpoles in The Abyss and True Lies.
If anything, the sub-par scripting of the last two Terminators should have cast into greater relief what a marvel Cameron accomplished when he was writing the franchise. The first Terminator is an absolute genre classic, a dark, down-and-dirty thriller suffused with romantic dread that's been stripped to its barest essentials. The second is no mere rehash: it's a successful attempt to take tropes that worked for a no-budget chase movie and adapt them for one of the biggest films that's ever been attempted. The fact that each film stands on its own as a sturdy example of its type is a testament to Cameron's storytelling acumen. McG's recent Terminator sequel had its plot utterly reconceived well into shooting, something that would have been unthinkable on either of Cameron's films. To rewrite and restitch a film's story on the fly is to end up with Frankenstein's monster, not Cameron's elegant, sturdily-built Terminator.
For me, Aliens is his finest work -- today, who would ever think about making a megabudget sci-fi film about being a mom? Sigourney Weaver's performance in that movie isn't iconic simply because she knows her way around a flamethrower, it's because Weaver and Cameron tapped into something emotionally primal and made their story about a woman who'd do anything to defend her surrogate child, then faces an alien mother who's just as vicious when her progeny is threatened. (When Ripley screams at the alien queen, "Get away from her, you bitch!" it's essentially throwing down the gauntlet for an epic battle of "My mom can beat up your mom.") In a world where every lazy tentpole is content to rewrite Joseph Campbell's hero journey via Star Wars, how refreshing to find a director who's interested in other themes to tap.
Along those lines, I'd argue that Cameron is an unusually feminist writer. For all of his female leads, not a one could be merely reduced to the "love interest," and we have him to thank for two of cinema's biggest female badasses, Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. The latter is a prime example of Cameron's striking interest in charting a woman's maturation in his films: Connor starts the Terminator franchise as a timid waitress in need of protection, but by the end of Terminator 2, she's as strong as any predator sent her way. (Cameron put Rose through similar paces in Titanic, turning her from a sheltered debutante into an axe-wielding rescuer in half the film's running time.)
Through that lens, Cameron's script for True Lies is his most complicated thematically; made during a rare span of years when the five-times-married director was single, it was derided by some critics as misogynistic. Still, it's unusually revealing: While Cameron has always put his heroines through the wringer in order to transform them into warriors, his influence had never before been so baldly channeled through an onscreen proxy. In True Lies, it wasn't fate that hammered Jamie Lee Curtis into shape, it was her punitive husband Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose barked interrogations and strip routine solicitations visibly shook her yet eventually molded her into an action heroine. Perhaps Cameron's guiding hand is more palatable when it's offscreen -- the director famously made life hell for Kate Winslet in Titanic, but at least we didn't have to watch DiCaprio berating her to shape up. Still, at least it was an action movie with something on its mind.
So when did Cameron develop a reputation as a screenwriter who doesn't know what he's doing? Around the time he released Titanic, which ironically features one of his best executed plots. It's no coincidence that upper-class Rose falls for a boy from steerage and that he pulls her from the upper reaches of the boat into its lower depths -- Cameron has elegantly used his love story to introduce us to the Titanic's geography so that when the boat starts flooding, it's immediately clear just how threatening the water level has become. One of Cameron's greatest strengths as an action director is the ability to convey spatial distance; in Titanic, he managed it before he'd shot even a frame.
Why has his script for Titanic given Cameron a bum rap, then? Part of it is just the result of an inevitable backlash against anything that's become too popular, and partly it's because the screenplay does include some clunky dialogue. (I maintain that if they'd cut that truly egregious line where Billy Zane dismisses the Picasso painting, people's impressions of the script would have increased tenfold.) Still, to say that Cameron can't write dialogue at all is absurd when he's scripted some of the most iconic lines in cinema history. Can any of our most recent action blockbusters boast the same?
I've seen people mock the Avatar trailer for its absence of any dialogue -- if you think the footage is troubling now, they say, just wait until we have to hear what Cameron wrote. I am waiting, but I've got faith. Some fans hope that Avatar can show them visuals that they've never seen before, something groundbreaking and game-changing. Me? I just want the guy to tell a good story.