Lights! Cameron! Action!
Date: March, 1995
By: Paula Parisi
The millennium is coming early for James Cameron. For the past few months the director-screen-writer-producer has been busy posting "Strange Days," a noirish action thriller he is producing for director Kathyrn Bigelow. It is lensed from his own story and script. Set on New Year's Eve 1999, the film, like most others Cameron has been inolved with, will put a little piece of future within grasp of mere mortals.
Cameron has been blazing trails on the contemporary cinema scene since he wrote "the Terminator" at 28 years old. Realizing that vision on the screen two years later, he cemented in the world consciousness a gun- toting technocowboy, personified by Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose star was knocked into orbit by the role. Since then, Cameron has delighted audiences around the globe with indelible images: a horse galloping through a hotel lobby and up an elevator in "True Lies" on the darker side, a metal endoskeleton emerging from an inferno, the hissing, mantis-like Alien Queen and a battery of Amazons and supermen to slay them.
He revolutionized filmmaking, rolling the dice on computer-generated imagery - with the slinky water tentacle in 'The Abyss" and the liquid chrome antagonist of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" - all before it was fashionable to try. Cameron's effects paved the way for a later CGI smash known as "Jurassic Park" Today, wire removals may be a way of life, but Cameron was forging the frontier back when digital imaging was still exotic. Say what you will about 'The Abyss" cost-versus-profit equation, the film was a pivotal moment in cinema history, pushing the medium into realms unknown. It took the imagination of a James Cameron to dream those visions to life, and it required an explorer's daring to bring them to the screen.
Cameron plans to help other filmmakers realize their filmic fantasias with his special-effects house, Digital Domain, in which he is a partner and serves as CEO.
Clearly a man ahead of the curve, it is fitting that the National Association of Theatre Owners/ShoWest is honoring Cameron with its coveted Producer of the Year award as he prepares to release "Strange Days." The film, which is scheduled for domestic release this fall from Twentieth Century Fox, is the first Lightstorm production Cameron has not directed.
Formed five years ago, his company has operated since 1992 under a precedent-setting arrangement that sees Cameron secure financing for his projects through presales to a worldwide network of distributors. The move put him in company of a rarefied group of filmmakers who have the power to green light projects, though not even Steven Spielberg owns his own negative, as does Cameron, who also retains final cut.
As a creative talent who has the technical expertise to realize his most fantastic visions - and the wherewithal to call the shots on a grand scale - Cameron's emergence has prompted comparisons with George Lucas' rise in the '80s. As a minimogul who can do it all - write, direct, produce and oversee not one but two companies at the cutting edge of filmmaking - he represents the whole package.
"It's always nice when you know where the buck stops," says his friend and longtime collaborator Arnold Schwarzenegger. He doesn't just write the script and let the studio take over. You know with Jim that he is responsible for the whole thing, not like some directors do: 'Talk to my producer,' or 'Talk to the studio, not me,' or 'I didn't do this,' 'I'm not responsible for that.' He is responsible for everything. He's willing to take that load on, and I think he's unique in this area being capable and intelligent and having the guts to do it all."
The executive suite isn't the only place where Cameron's abilities are so taxed. His on-set derring-do is infamous. The man will shovel hot ash, hang out of a speeding helicopter and slide down snowy hills, guns blazing - all for the sake of getting a shot.
"His dedication to get the perfect shot in the most difficult circumstances is admirable says director Paul Verhoven, who calls Cameron "a source of inspiration to me and many other filmmakers." Among those other filmmakers is Martin Scorsese, who says he's seen all Cameron's films on the big screen. "I enjoy seeing how the work is put together," he notes. Also tipping his hat is Francis Ford Coppola, who says of Cameron: "He's a bright guy. Aside from the technology there are some beautiful moments in his films."
Cameron can do just about any job on a movie set, agree friends, co-workers and acquaintances - which is why he's so demanding of those around him.
Despite his big-screen bravura, Cameron seems almost shy about being thrust into into the awards spotlight. "My take on it is they wanted someone who directs and also produces," he says, as if he's spent some time trying figure out why the heck he's getting this honor. Not that he shouldn't be used to it. The five films he has directed have received a total of 18 Oscar nominations and 7 statuettes, a NATO recognized Cameron's helmsman talents with its 1986 Director of the Year award for "Aliens." He's written six films (including "Rambo: First Blood Part II"), and in addition to "Strange Days" has produced two of the five films he's directed ("T2" and "True Lies") as well as executive producing Bigelow's "Point Break" for Largo Entertainment in 1991.
Summing up his producer's chops, former Largo CEO Larry Gordon - who also ran Twentieth Century Fox from 1984 to 1986 when the studio first linked with Cameron for "Aliens" - says, "He's a great producer, period. It would be very hard for an individual who's that good a writer and director not to be a pretty good producer. And he's a tough guy to boot." With credits like "Die Hard" and "48HRS.," Gordon ought to know.
The versatile Cameron plans to keep mining that vein. "I will never not have producer credit from this point forward, because even as a director all the decisions that I make are cost versus aesthetic, which is really what a producer does. I found out that on the scale of films I was making - with the complexity of the visual effects and so on - where I was taking a tremendous amount of responsibility for solving how the film should be made, I was in effect producing anyway," says the sandy-haired auteur, who at 40 is one of the youngest princes of the trade.
"I believe that a film is made from a producer's side based on key strategic decisions that are made early on in preproduction. Where are you going to shoot it? What country? What location? How much set construction? How much studio? All of these major decisions. There's always a production strategy for every film, and I think those key decisions are made between the producer and the director. And it's cost versus creative. In my mind I've never been able to separate those two things. There's always a price tag for everything, and every decision I make is weighed against a price tag," says a guy who appears to be doing his math right. He is one of the world's top-five money-making lensers, with films collectively grossing more than $1 billion at the global boxoffice (excluding ancillaries).
Cameron's films don't get that big by accident. He is a careful strategist who is not only the creative catalyst but the organizational force behind his every project, from prepping and storyboarding to overseeing legal, distribution and marketing. "I was stunned because normally people are left brained or right brained. Jim's creative in the visual sense. He's a smart businessman, an incredible artist. He can write too - and really interesting characters," producer Gale Anne Hurd moans in mock agony.
In addition to being an excellent writer, Cameron is imaginative enough to have invented a new form, the "scriptment," a sort of novelized cross between a treatment and a script that evolved while writing "Strange Days." Penguin Books will publish his scriptment for that film this fall.
Hurd, who produced Cameron's first three films (and, like Kathryn Bigelow, was previously married to him), paints a portrait of the artist as a young man.
Though legend has it she discovered James Cameron, Hurd demurs. "Actually, he discovered me," she says, describing their first encounter when he was laboring as a model builder at Roger Corman's New World Pictures in the early '70s.
"Jim figured out very quickly that the people who had power in Roger Corman's scheme of things were Roger Corman's assistants," says Hurd, who was exactly that. "I remember coming to the model shop when they were doing pickups on a film called 'Humanoids From the Deep.' That was the first time I'de visited the model shop, in 1973. They were in preproduction on 'Battle Beyond the Stars.' Jim came up and introduced himself to me, and I was pretty impressed. I asked him if he was running the model shop. He didn't deny it. It turns out he wasn't. But I left with the impression he was. He was not only excellent at creating models, he could draw and he designed spaceships - the exteriors as well as the interiors."
When the art director on the film - a studio expatriate uncomfortable with the down and dirty indie work ethic - parted ways with the production, "we needed somebody to design spaceships, and Jim raised his hand and said, 'I can do that!' On spec he designed a couple of things and got the nod right there. So he really did go overnight from being a model builder to an art director, and that can only happen in the world of low-budget, independent filmmaking."
Corman remembers that Cameron had tireless enthusiasm for filmmaking even then: "When things were being moved around a set or on the location, I would look to see who was running, and I would always make a note of that guy, because almost invariably that would turn out to be your best man. Some guys will run to get something for the shot, and others will walk. Jim ran."
The veteran producer recalls one instance dressing a spaceship set. "I always like to have what I call kluge, all kinds of dials and things on the walls, to make it seem more efficient and more technical, and I could see from the camera angle that there was one spot on the wall - and they were getting ready to shoot the first shot of the picture - that was blank. And I said, 'Jim, quick! Run and get something, anything, and put it on that wall right away. Don't bother anybody on the crew, just stick it up there.' And he went and got some dial thing with stuff connected to it, he grabbed it and glued it and put in one nail and put some wires around here and dragged it down there. And I said, 'It looks great Jim! You know, a spaceship really wouldn't fly without one of those things.' And he laughed and said: 'I knew that. I was just testing your knowledge of physics.'"
Then, as now, he had his playful side, but underneath it was the steely will of a four-star general. "It's probably safe to say that if Jim had chosen the military profession instead of the movie profession, he'd be a below-the-zone general - our term for somebody promoted early on, ahead of their peers, to a position of great responsibility," says United States Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Tom Worsdale, and he's in a good position to say: He has done informal field maneuvers with the hyperactive cineaste, been bested by him at target practice and watched him expertly pilot a T-38 jet fighter.
"In order to be successful in a supervisory role, you have to have a certain personality. You can't be shy and retiring, even if you have talent. And it was obvious even then that Jim had the right personality to be in charge," says Hurd. Part of that leadership ability seemed to be a strong conviction that no job was too small, or trivial for personal attention. a qualitv the two of them shared. "I was out there with the art department with a Hudson sprayer painting sets that would be shot the next morning. I was covered in green paint quite a bit," chuckles Hurd, who characterizes the phenomenon as "the school of 'I don't care who's doing what and what their title is, get the job done!'filmmaking."
"We would work 18 hours a day and be glad it wasn't 24," she says. It was an edict that had a lasting effect on the young filmmaker, informing his work ethic to this day.
In 1980, the two made a pact to work together later, after Hurd had her first producing gig under her belt and he nailed his first job as director for hire on "Piranha II: The Spawning." Writing the script for 'The Terminator" was part of his recovery from that disastrous first experience, and Cameron sold the rights to Hurd for $1 and the promise that she would never let anyone else direct it.
The pair shopped the project energetically, getting a mixed response. The script was much in demand, but they weren't.
"There were a lot of people who were hoping we'd take the money and run, but the more we heard 'This is a great project, but we want to get real producers and a real director to do it.' the more convinced we were that we had something good," Hurd recalls., Finally, Hemdale and HBO co-financed "The Terminator" with Orion Pictures, which had foreign rights and first right of refusal on domestic distribution.
Once Schwarzenegger signed aboard, it was all systems go, with a summer '83 start date in Toronto. But they were preempted by Dino de Laurentiis who had; first crack at the actor for the sequel "Conan The Destroyer." .' The start date of principal photography was postponed to March '84 and rescheduled for Los Angeles. Cameron had months to kill and in that intervening period wrote "Rambo: First Blood Part II" for Carolco's Mario Kassar, and Andy Vajna, as well as "Aliens," which he also got to direct, for Walter Hill and company. He'd met both parties while pitching "The Terminator," which he continued prepping, literally dividing his time between three different desks - each with its own mood music.
Once "Terminator" was released in the fall of '84, Cameron's calling card was gold plated. Not only was the film critically well received, it went on to earn nearly $40 million in North America alone, a veritable gusher back then, especially for a film that only cost $6.4 million. From that humble beginning has come a man who can mount a $100million production with a finger snap. In fact, if you believe certain accounts, Cameron has done so not once but twice - with "T2" and "True Lies" - leading to charges of self-indulgence. The filmmaker begs to differ. "I don't ever think that I'm being self-indulgent. I always think that I'm weighing the production values that I'm trying to create at a given moment against the upside potential of the film. So I feel that as the producer of the film - before I ever get on the set as a director - I did my job correctly, creating a marketable film project that had a sufficient upside to allow myself to do these sort of ambitious and aggressive things during the shoot."
"In other words," Cameron continues, "I set it up. I created that right or that privilege for myself in advance by paying the money to Arnold Schwarzenegger, by working for six months on a script that I believed in, by raising the money. It's not like I raised some money, then went on the set, spent all that and then went begging for more. I raised the money and I could go spend it. So basically I was just shopping on a budget - a big budget, and it wasn't big by accident, it was big by design. I felt that the upside potential of the film justified the expenditure."
In keeping with that spirit of independence, Lightstorm in 1992 entered into a five-year global-distribution agreement. Under the arrangement, Twentieth Century Fox handles the company's product in North America, Puerto Rico and France; Nippon Herald in Japan; Artisti Associati in Italy; Jugendfilm in Germany; and Universal in the rest of the world (though Universal's foreign theatrical and home-video distributors, UIP and CIC, respectively, handle the properties in most of those territories, including such major territories as the United Kingdom, Australia and Spain).
The company also has agreements with Acclaim and Kenner for software-based games and toys, areas in which previous Cameron films have generated tremendous revenue, according to Lightstorm president Rae Sanchini, who runs Cameron's company. Other key personnel include CFO Carol Henry. In a further diversification, Lightstorm Music Inc. (LMI) was established in January 1993. Headed by Randy Gerston, it is joint ventured with Sony's music affiliates. The unit handles music supervision for Lightstorm and other films ("Renaissance Man," "Tombstone"). Says Gerston, "That's an area we want to expand."
LMI handles music publishing rights for Lightstorm's films and is creating a label for soundtrack albums and new-artist signings. The first act signed is 23-year-old Beaver Nelson, whom Gerston describes as "what Elvis Costello would sound like if he was born in Texas."
Sanchini notes that the company's primary goal in establishing such a solid base of operation is to ensure "a structure that fully supports James Cameron's creative vision while protecting our autonomy." To that end, it was established that no minimum delivery requirement be imposed, though a generous maximum of 12 films was set. Cameron, however, says that he realistically plans to produce two or three films a year, one of which he will likely direct.
Though Cameron hasn't zeroed in on his next film, 1 says he's "leaning toward one of three projects" he's been developing over the past few years "Basically, the wheels turn pretty slowly for me. I don't try catch waves. I try to make waves." And he remains commited to bringing the Marvel Comics superhero "Spiderman" to the screen for Carolco at some point in the future.
Another area that he's seriously exploring is low-budget film production "where we act as a conduit for resources and work with promising young filmmakers, which is something that I specifically said I would not when I started this company. But I've decided it's something that could actually be fun."
Flexibility, Sanchini points out, is the key to survival in the rapidly changing world of independent production. Lightstorm's proven flexibility, she says, is testament to "our resolve to make a select number of quality films produced, written and/or directed by Jim, with the autonomy enjoyed by independents."
Cameron's colleagues clearly view Lightstorm as a fitting extension of the director-producer-writer's larger-than-life persona in the community.
"I have an enormous amount of respect for him and his ability to concentrate and work hard, his willingness to put everything into something. He's an all-or-nothing guy. It shows in his work, and it shows in the way he's built his company," says Schwarzenegger.
The truth is, for James Cameron it already is the turn of the century, start of a new millennium, and he's just waiting for rest of the world to catch up.