US: James Cameron Interview
Date: August, 1991
By: Kenneth Turan (Film critic for 'Los Angeles Times')
The Terminator. Aliens. Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Not for nothing do they call them 'Motion Pictures'. These films contain action so adrenalized they just about dare the heart to keep beating. Each generation of filmmakers has had at least one director who knew how to leave them gasping. Sam Peckinpah with The Wild Bunch. Don Siegel with Dirty Harry and Coogan's Bluff: The young Walter Hill (The Driver, The Warriors) and George Miller (Mad Max, The Road Warrior). Now it's James Cameron's turn.
A lean, sandy-haired, full-bearded native of Canada, the 36-year-old Cameron got his start as a jack-of-all-trades at the legendary Roger Corman movie factory, where films with a zany pulp sensibility were made fast but with enviable elan. The first film Cameron worked on as a director, Piranha II: The Spawning, was in fact a sequel to a piece of vintage Corman lunacy. It is Cameron's later films, however, that have made his reputation. Featuring state-of-the-art effects and a dark, brooding tone, they've been dubbed Tech Noir after a similarly named bar in The Terminator, the explosive 1984 vehicle which Esquire called "the most important film of the 1980's." Not only did the movie earn exceptional reviews, it took in serious sums of money worldwide. As Cameron himself notes, "Humor dies at the cultural barrier. What's attractive in a woman oftterties there, too. But there's something universal about the kind of lone warrior that keeps counsel and is stronger than everybody."
Terminator 2: Judgment Day has been the most eagerly anticipated film of the summer, and its budget, rumored up to $100 million, makes it one of the most expensive of all time. Despite the obvious pressure of helming a work of this scale, Cameron is relaxed, almost expansive in conversation. Even though he has gone nonstop for a year to finish the film on time (he joked with the makeup artist who prepped him for a TV appearance, "I hope you worked at Forest Lawn for your last gig, because you've got a challenge here"), he does not look at all the worse for wear.
A forceful, forthright man, Cameron doesn't hesitate to tell you what he feels. With equal candor he addresses the commercial disappointment of his big-budget The Abyss; refuses to mince words about industry executives; discusses his working relationship with former wife and producer Gale Anne Hurd; and gives justifiable praise to his current wife, Kathryn Bigelow, whose own summer film, Point Break, proves her to be one of the few action directors in his league. Intelligent and articulate, he never ducks an issue or leaves you less than clear about what's on his mind. And he tempers it all with the kind of shoot-from-the-hip humor that characterizes his films.
Despite his proficiency within the action genre, Cameron is far from tied to it. For his next film he has optioned a nonfiction book about a man with multiple personalities, called The Minds of Billy Milligan. And there's not a cyborg in sight.
US: Let's start with life before 'The Terminator.'
James Cameron: I don't remember anything before this movie. So this will be a short interview.
I understand that Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' was a big film for you.
Absolutely. I still think it's an amazing film. I learned so much about what the power of a movie could be from that. The cut from the bone sailing through the air to the space ship - I got it, you know? It's also the only film that I've ever gotten physically sick from watching. The film made me dizzy. But what it did for me as a filmmaker was get me interested in technique. I was fascinated by the effects, because I had no idea how they were done. I just couldn't believe my eyes. It was dazzling.
Did you start to think, I want to get into this?
Oh, absolutely. When you're a kid, you don't have enough of a dose of the real world to know that you can't just go out and be a filmmaker. So I picked up a camera and started making little films. I was fascinated by special effects and I wanted to know how it was done. I'd build models and shoot them - that sort of thing. By the time my family moved to California, I had given up on film and was studying physics at Fullerton, a junior college. One day, I just walked out. I wanted to experience the world a little bit. I didn't really end up experiencing the world. I experienced Brea, California. I led a kind of blue-collar life for about three years, working as a machinist and driving trucks. But there were always those late-night hours where I was writing or painting or doing something.
One day I got a call from a friend who said, "I have some dentists who want to put up some money to make a movie and I have to submit ideas." I said, "Let's do a science-fiction film," because that's what I really wanted to do. So I immediately came in and took over his whole project, met with the dentists and made this film. As it turns out, it wasn't a feature film, it was maybe 12 minutes long, a show reel we could use to raise more dough. It never went anywhere, but I learned a lot.
When you were starting, which action directors did you admire?
I didn't study film. I never took classes on film aesthetics and so on, so I never saw the evolution of action direction from [John] Ford through Peckinpah, or whatever the evolutionary spectrum would be. For me, it was just what I happened to see that I liked. And I have to tell you, I probably learned more from Roger Corman car-chase films than I did from the auteurs of action. I didn't relate to it as a filmmaker, I came to it from a very naive and unsophisticated view.
I think you were better off. A lot of directors get into trouble because they try to duplicate what they've seen.
Well, they go to film school; Film school screws you up. It takes years to recover. I think the basic requirement of directing is being able to anticipate what an audience wants to see. And having created something, what they want to see next. And the only way that you can do that is to have been an audience. If, at the age of 15, you immediately start becoming a filmmaker, you've lost that curative period where you're just a blank slate and you're reacting. I always remember in the back of my mind that if a movie plays at the drive-in, it's a good movie. And if the movie relies on the presentation being perfect, then it's a house of cards.
I've had a similar experience when I've gone to see films in rough cut. People don't really want to show critics stuff in rough cut, but if it's good, it works.
That's true. The only place where I think that theory breaks down is in an effects film. I think it's a really valid argument that the average studio suit can't look at an effects film when it's slugged out with uncompleted shots and know that they've got anything. They will immediately lose heart. [Chairman] John Daly at Hemdale [Films] didn't beg, he demanded that I remove the last reel of The Terminator. The entire last reel. He said, "When the truck blows up, the film has to end." I said, "No, fuck you, it's not done yet." Which is why Terminator 2 took so damn long to make. I didn't want to work with John Daly again.
Simply because of that?
He was highly, highly intrusive, or tried to be in postproduction. And it eventually came close to blows. In the end, I never changed a frame. But I had to sort of throw [the producers] out of the cutting room. Let me balance that by saying that John did make that picture. Just in the same way that he made Platoon and Salvador. However much you want to attack the guy and his methodology, he makes these movies.
How did you hook up with Roger Corman
I was hired by a guy named Chuck Comisky, who was working for Roger as the head of special effects on Battle Beyond the Stars. I just knocked on their door one day with this reel that I'd put together with the dentists' money. I was totally broke and needed a job. I thought, I've got to get my hands dirty in the real film world, even if it's totally down and dirty, Corman-style. So I presented myself as a special effects cameraman, because I had done some matte work and some miniature work. Well, they had that covered, so they hired me as a model builder. I built the model of the main character's ship. It was a very goofy design: a spaceship with tits. Hopefully the one and only spaceship with tits. I guess maybe that's why I got Piranha II. I guess the producers figured the guy who could come up with the spaceship with tits must be able to do something with flying piranha.
How long were you with Corman?
I think almost two years.
What did you get from your time there?
I got this gig as a director. That's the goal: You go in one end of the hopper and come out the other. I went in as a model builder and a few weeks later I had somehow promoted myself to the head of the process projection department. I was working around the clock on Battle Beyond the Stars, simultaneously building a projection system, painting backdrops, photographing model ships. I guess I was this creative whirlwind. They fired their art director and needed another at the eleventh hour, so they looked around for any bonehead who would put up their hand for the suicide mission. And I'm, like, "Sure."
'Piranha II,' your first directing credit, isn't on all your bios. Is there a reason?
I'm ambivalent about it. Technically, I have a credit as the director on that film. However, I was replaced after two-and-a-half weeks by the Italian producer. He just fired me and took over, which is what he wanted to do when he hired me. It wasn't until much later that I even figured out what had happened. It was like, "Oh, man, I thought I was doing a good job." But when I saw what they were cutting together, it was horrible. And then the producer wouldn't take my name off the picture because [contractually] they couldn't deliver it with an Italian name. So they left me on, no matter what I did. I had no legal power to influence him from Pomona, California, where I was sleeping on a friend's couch. I didn't even know an attorney. In actual fact, I did some directing on the film, but I don't feel it was my first movie. So I don't think I should have to take the lumps. I used it as a credit when it did me some good, which was to get Terminator. Subsequently, I dropped it. I think that makes sense. What the heck. There's no truth but what we make.
You met your producer and first wife, Gale Anne Hurd, around this time. What made you a good team?
She can see what has to be done and make it happen. She really crosses all the t's and dots all the i's. I would basically come up with the ideas about how to shoot it and she could go to the meetings and make it happen. I think we complemented each other's areas of expertise fairly well.
How did you conceive 'The Terminator'?
When I got back from Piranha II, I knew that I was never going to get offered another movie unless I came up with something myself. I had to write a film. That made sense for me as a director. I thought it had to have effects, which justified my existence on the project, but I had to not price myself out of the kind of budget that they were likely to trust me with. I wrote the script and it was very well received. Everybody wanted to buy it from me, but nobody wanted me to direct it. They tried to split the team by offering Gale a lot of money. They said, "We'll let you produce it, but you've got to get rid of him;" But I had actually sold her the rights to the movie for $1 with the promise that she'd never cut me loose. And she kept that promise. It took two years to get it going. Meanwhile, I was preparing Terminator like it was War and Peace.
How did Arnold Schwarzenegger become involved?
Initially, I didn't really want him. Orion had proposed him to play the other guy, because he was the hero. I'll never forget walking out of my apartment and telling my roommate, "I've got to go have lunch with Conan and pick a fight with him." That was my agenda, because I didn't want him to do the movie. So I had to get in an argument and come back and say he was an asshole. But that's not what happened. I had lunch with Arnold and he was so charming and so into the script and so amusing and entertaining that I totally forgot my agenda. I had a great time, 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 there with this loser from Hemdale who didn't have any money. And I didn't have any money.
How did you see him as the Terminator?
Over lunch I started thinking, This guy has got the most amazing face. I almost wanted to say, "Arnold, just stop talking for a second and be real still," but I was petrified. I thought, This guy would make a great Terminator. But he doesn't want to play the Terminator. I went back to John Daly and said, "Forget it, it's not going to work. But, boy, he'd make a hell of a Terminator." Anyway, the upshot is that the deal was closed that afternoon and we were making the movie after a two-year hold.
How did you come to cast Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor?
Through a very straightforward casting process. She was among a number of actresses I saw. I think it narrowed dawn to her, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rosanna Arquette. At the time, Jennifer Jason Leigh had only done a couple of TV movies. She is an awesome actress, but Linda was great in the part.
I noticed in both Terminator films that you have black actors in major roles.
To me it falls into the same category as "Why do you do these strong women characters?" It's like, "Why not?" I wanted to do it because there was nothing specific in the character that made it necessary. Somehow that was important to me. Also, the first Terminator was very popular with black audiences. I didn't want to do just another kind of hip-talking black cop or detective. I thought, Hey, how about the smartest guy in the movie? How about the computer scientist? How about a role model? If it doesn't hurt the film and you can do something positive, it's got to be better.
Is there anything else to be said about the fact that the women in all your films are independent and strong?
It's a tough question for me to answer, because I don't really know where it comes from. It just something that feels right to me. Personally, I only feel comfortable with women that I can respect, that can hold their own, that have some kind of strength of character. And I think that translates into the women that I write for films. I don't necessarily consider things like strength of will, courage, etc., to be masculine attributes. Plus, it works. Plus, there's an audience for it. It's nice that women respond to these characters. A woman's movie doesn't have to be Steel Magnolias. It could be Linda Hamilton beating the snot out of an orderly with a mop handle.
Since you didn't direct it, it's easy to forget that you co-wrote 'Rambo: First Blood Part II.'
Yeah. For my sins, I did that for Carolco. I did that for the money. That film put them on the map. I admire the film's 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 - it was substantially rewritten by Sylvester Stallone. The script that I wrote was pretty violent, but not in such an amoral way. I wasn't really vocal about it at the time and, actually, it's even dumber for me to be vocal about it now, because I'm doing these movies with Carolco. I'm not going to turn around and bite the hand that feeds me.
Is there any valuable way to compare Stallone and Schwarzenegger?
I know very little about Stallone, because my work with him consisted of one lunch to discuss the script. He said, "I think you should put a girl in it." So I can't really compare the two. It's interesting that the two highest-paid stars in the world are these kind of ultramasculine characters. I guess that's the thing that translates cross-culturally. Which is depressing, if you analyze it.
I want to talk a little about 'The Abyss.' Are you happy with the film?
Yeah, I'm very happy. Frankly, I think my only miscalculation on that movie was that I thought that people would go with the energy of the film more than they did. They were constantly comparing it to the hypothetical movie that they came to see, which was more of an action-thriller - darker, leaner, meaner, maybe with a monster. In The Abyss, there was no monster. We were the monster. Audiences didn't like that. They wanted a critter, they wanted another duke-out between Sigourney Weaver and the Queen Alien. And that's not what that movie ever was.
People speculated that the tempestuous relationship between the film's two leads paralleled your relationship with Hurd.
It was an unfortunate coincidence. The Abyss was written before we separated. If it paralleled the situation, it may have only been a kind of sub-sub-sub-conscious anxiety about separation in general. Also, it was kind of a fallacy that we broke up on The Abyss. In fact, we were separated pending a divorce when I asked her to produce The Abyss. I went to her and said, "Look, this is going to be really hard on us. We're going to get dragged over a cheese grater when this film comes out. But I think you should produce it." She loved the picture anyway, so she went for it.
There were also articles at the time about how tough the conditions were for shooting underwater and how demanding you were with your cast and crew.
From my standpoint, that got blown out of proportion. There is a certain aspect of truth to it, because I am very, very tough on people. I believed - and I still believe and I'll continue to believe - that to do a movie you can't be good, you have to be great. And when people are presented to me as the highest paid, the best, I expect the best. On The Abyss, 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. That's part of your preparation." I told them this would be worse than a Kubrick movie. They ended up being stoked about the movie. They were really excited, then on the press junket they said, "James Cameron had us diving every day and we almost died." It's like if you go on a raft ride down the Amazon. It's perfectly safe and they've done it a thousand times and you're with a guy who knows the rapids and it's really exciting. But what do you say to you friends when you get back? "We almost died."
Populist genre films like yours don't get much respect.
No, they don't. Science fiction is the Rodney Dangerfield of movie genres. As a filmmaker, it's a question of what you want out of life: Do you want to create the greatest amount of impact on the greatest number of people? Or do you want a claim as an intellectual, auteur filmmaker. I don't think you can have it both ways. If I could make people laugh the way I can make them grip their chair arms, I would do that. I'd rather make people laugh. But I can't. I can't be Eddie Murphy or Woody Allen - that's not my talent.
The key special effect in 'Terminator 2' resembles the one in 'The Abyss' where water forms into a human face. What is it?
It's an application of computer graphics. There's a quantum leap between The Abyss and this film, not in the technology as much as in the application. In The Abyss it was one contained scene. If it didn't work, if we threw the dice and it came up snake eyes, we could take the scene out and the film would survive. This film would not survive if these shots didn't work.
You've said that you thought of the effects before you knew they would work.
I had an instinct that they would work based on The Abyss. It was always a matter of urging [the effects specialists] to go further; urging them with a few extra bucks, too, I might add. It was kind of a windfall for ILM [Industrial Light and Magic], because we basically underwrote the creation of new software. Steven Spielberg will now go do "Plastic Man" or something and use all of my bought-and-paid-for software.
I've got to ask you about the budget, which has been reported at 88 million.
Look, it's very simple. If Carolco could have had this movie for $8, they would have loved to have had it for $8. They would have loved to have had it for 8 million. They would have loved to have had it for 20 million. But that's not reality. To do this film, with these players in one year costs that amount. That's reality.
It's not that the cost wasn't a burden. It was. But it was a known burden, and that's different then when you get into a film and it starts to grow and become this malignant monster. This was a known evil. Look, if I could have done the movie for half this price, I'd have been a hero. I wouldn't have to answer this question. But the question is, Does that dissuade you from making the movie of your dreams? Does that dissuade you from making a movie like the movie that inspired you when you were a kid, that nobody else seems to be making? No. For me, no. You sit down, you sweat about it, but when you've made the decision, you don't go back and second-guess it.
I want to ask about your relationship with your second wife, Kathryn Bigelow, a very good action director in her own right.
Not very good, excellent.
She is one of your few peers. Is it a good thing to be married to someone in the same line of work?
It's a very good thing. I had to look at every foot of her dailies on Point Break, and she had to look at every foot of mine on Terminator 2. It was interesting. We see things the same way a lot, and differently a lot, which is nice, Because you can learn from that. There was a time when she felt that she was the student and I was the mentor, which was totally wrong. She was always a great director. That was just in her psychology. Now, fortunately, she's gotten past that and realizes she's as good as I am. Probably better. I think she's better because she really knows how to make it come from the characters, and that's what she fights for above all. And she's a nicer person.
Many criticize the violence in the type of films you make. Does that resonate for you?
It resonated right up until we bombed the shit out of Iraq. Then everybody went, "Hey, that's pretty cool." It's a double standard. I may have shot out a few kneecaps, but I didn't kill anybody. I didn't drop more bombs then were dropped in World War II - and approve of it. People should look to themselves before they criticize violence in my movies.
In watching your films, one can almost sense the "hands on" excitement you bring to your work. As your films get bigger, is that still available to you?
Yeah, sure. I mean, my hands were black at the end of every shooting day. To me, that's the process. I never want to sit back and watch. I get in there, I take the spray can out of the scenic artist's hand and do it myself. I put on Arnold's blood. For me, it never stops being a tactile process. If it weren't, I don't think I'd be able to get up in the morning and have the same energy.
You've been described as a perfectionist. Do you think perfectionists have a bad rap?
Thanks for the compliment. I'll tell you the difference between people who make good movies and people that make mediocre movies: The people who make good movies are perfectionists. What do you think Martin Scorsese is if not a perfectionist? I'm not saying I'm Martin Scorsese - I would strive maybe 20 years down the road to be able to make a movie like he makes a movie. But what separates the men from the boys is an attention to detail and a passion about the work. That's not a negative thing.