The Need for Speed, a James Cameron Interview
Date: March, 1995
By: Paula Parisi
The individualism of James Cameron is embodied in his Santa Monica-based Lightstorm Entertainment company. Unlike most directors and producers, he hasn't hung his shingle on a studio lot. His sleek low-rise building is well out of the shadow of Twentieth Century Fox, his hometown studio of choice.
Lightstorm is a sleek spill of oak floors, art and artifacts from Cameron's films, including a life-size chrome Terminator - a birthday gift from Stan Winston, with whom he shares another toy, Digital Domain.
Cameron's Santa Monica headquarters house editing suites and a screening room. The staff is spare but like everything else in his life seems finely calibrated for maximum performance. He seems uniquely able to keep these people enthusiastic enough to be genuinely attentive to his needs but skittish enough to remain on their toes - ready to scatter at even a hint of cirrus on the brow. A slender red tabby named Spencer glides mysteriously through the halls.
Cameron's own spacious office is lined with half-empty bookcases. For a meticulous man, there's a surprising breeziness about the place, as if he just moved in and might not expect to stay long. Though for a place where he spends so little time, it reflects a great deal of personality. On his expansive cherry-wood desk, an I-love-Daddy mug and a ceramic angel mingle capriciously with the totemic mechanical forearm of the Terminator.
Settling into an outsize chair in a sunny corner, Cameron candidly discussed the art of filmmaking and the art of the deal with The Hollywood Reporter's Paula Parisi.
The Hollywood Reporter: You have been at the forefront in embracing computers as a movie tool and seem to be leading the charge to a new type of filmmaking. What changes lie ahead?
James Cameron: It's going to be about the way we shoot films and take those images and manipulate them after the fact. It's going to start with the way we visualize what we shoot. The computer offers us a medium for visualization. Using ones and zeros it can create shapes, surfaces, images. The hip filmmakers of the next five years - 10 years - are going to be those who embrace this technology, aren't threatened by it, who make it part of their repertoire. Just as when a new lens is issued by Panavision that's faster, lighter and better you have to know what that lens is, so you know what your capabilities are when you go out to shoot.
Not everyone's so technically minded.
Film is a technical medium, and I think there's a tendency on the part of a lot of people to downplay the technical side of it, as if a pursuit of technical excellence in some way hurts you as a humanistic filmmaker. Nothing could be further from the truth. You want to manipulate or guide - there's maybe a less sort of button-pushing word - but you want to guide the audience's feelings and emotions. You do that using every trick and bit of craft you have, which includes music, lighting, style of photography - in addition to the writing and the performances of the actors, which to me is an inviolate separate subject. That always must be of the highest order, and all the things you do to protect that don't infringe in any way on the technical side and vice versa.
Specifically, how are things going to be different?
Cameron: I think what you'll find is that filmmakers are going to start treating the photography period of the film as the first step in creating the images. Then they're going to start using nonlinear digital editing, such as we did on the Avid system on "True Lies," or a system like Lightworks. And we'll be using digital techniques to reconfigure the images. Maybe we make them brighter. Maybe we make them darker. Maybe we enhance certain colors, change the contrast, move things around within the image. Maybe there's a take that's actually perfect for performance but that we can't use because somebody ran through the background who wasn't supposed to be there. We could take them out digitally. Or there could be a microphone boom in the shot or the shadow of a boom or something like this that you didn't notice until dailies, when you say, from an artistic standpoint as a director, "That's the take." That's the take where the actor nailed it, nailed that moment and didn't quite get it before that. Then after that we ran out of time. That's the take I've got to use, but there's something in it. Can we fix it? Answer is yes - for the first time. It's never been like this before. It becomes a more flexible game than it used to be. You used to have to slam the negative with the image that you wanted, and that was it. Now [image procurement] is only the first step in a process that can be as convoluted as you want it to be.
You've certainly done your share to advance the art and science of filmmaking.
Then everybody gets to use this stuff. Sometimes other people get rich off that innovation, and sometimes that innovation automatically goes to the bottom line of a production. Like in "Terminator 2," it'd be hard to imagine that movie without the impact of the computer-graphics character in that film. It's hard to say how much of the success of that film was based on the audience really being blown away by something they hadn't seen before. I think it's a real, if not measurable, amount.
How do you decide where to put the money?
We picked our battles very carefully on "Terminator 2." We spent $6 million for, I think, three and a half minutes or four minutes of computer animation and sprinkled that throughout a two-hour-and-15-minute film and augmented it with Stan Winston practical makeup and prosthetic gags. Eighty percent of the time when you're seeing the T-1000 doing something, it's not computer graphics. It's some kind of Stan Winston physical effect. But then only the hero-transformation gags were computer graphics.
It's not so much a question of what is possible as it is what you can afford. It's like the old hot-rodder expression: "Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?" It's really that. It's not "You can't go that fast." It's "Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?" Or more importantly, "How fast do you need to go to accomplish your goal?" I see scripts come in that are just loaded with stuff willy-nilly. That doesn't work either, because you're going to break the bank. You have to use the stuff, but you have to be smart about it. You have to use the stuff smart.
Basically there are sort of high-end expensive shots, and then there are bread-and-butter digital shots. I think the biggest boom over the next few years is going to be in the bread-and-butter digital shots.
You drew your own storyboards for "The Terminator," but now you don't storyboard your films.
Here's my internal rule for myself as a filmmaker, and everybody draws the line in a different place: Anything that's visual- effects oriented or that is likely to require some sort of enhancement after the fact should be storyboarded. Anything for second unit, where a second-unit director will be actually creating entire shots for the film, where I have to communicate to another filmmaker what I need - I draw that out. But if it's something I'm shooting for myself - no matter how complex it is - generally speaking I don't storyboard it.
Do you see it in your head?
Yeah, pretty much. Every now and then I'll do some kind of a blocking diagram and just draw out all my angles, which is a good way to communicate with the camera crew what we're doing.
So it's not just a question of wanting to be improvisational. You just see it in your head, and that's pretty much all you need?
No, it's a bit of both. Because often I find that story-boarding something - unless you're actually standing right at the location and are able to factor in everything that you can't change in front of a lens - is more or less useless. You wind up throwing it away. Sometimes I still do it, but I don't rely on it as much as I used to.
What I used to do is get up a couple of hours before call, and while I was eating my cereal and drinking coffee in the morning I would storyboard the scene I was going to shoot that day - in a rough thumbnail form, right in the script. I always waited until the day I was going to shoot it, because I wanted the full advantage of everything I had shot up till that moment to inform what I was doing in that scene.
If I tried to lock in three months in advance, a lot of ideas and themes would have changed. So I always leave it kind of up in the air. It's like juggling the balls and waiting for the very last second and then Wham! That's what the scene should be.
Nine times out of 10 I already know what I'm going to do, but then there's that 10th time when I don't have a clue. Or the idea that I had previously I will completely throw out, and I come in with something brand-new, which, of course, drives the director of photography and the actors crazy.
Although actors tend to thrive on that sort of thing. They don't like to overprepare, I've found. I mean, they'll prepare in their character, but I don't feel that they generally like to overprepare for a scene.
Whom do you bring on first in a production?
Design. I start with design. Once I have the story, once I have the narrative clear in my mind - I know who the characters are, I know what the story is about - the next thing is to start giving it some visual life. So I usually start with storyboard artists and a designer to come up with the look of the film. From that you lead inevitably to breaking up your visual-effects shots - if there are any - and that's usually a big factor in preproduction because until you have a storyboard you can't get your bid. Until you get your bids you can't really finalize your budget.
You'll find that on a simple, straightforward film you can do your budget directly from the script, but on the kinds of films that I've been doing you're generally two to three months in before you have a meaningful budget. You can put in an "allow" figure: "Let's allow $6 million for visual effects." But you may find that in the two years since the last time you did visual effects the costs have gone up 25% and you're off substantially.
Maybe the effects part won't impact your budget as much now that you own your own effects house, Digital Domain.
No, it impacts me as much as it ever did. Having my own effects house doesn't necessarily save me money. The benefits to me are really more intangible, secondary benefits. Like the requirement as CEO of the company, of being involved in the day-to-day business of a visual-effects house, this puts me in contact with new techniques, new software and gives me the opportunity to sort of guide development of software and technique a lot more than if I'm an occasional, preferred client of a major effects house. I get to be that too, but for me the benefit is really keeping up with what's going on and helping to shape a little bit what's going on.
So it's like a big R&D center for you.
Right. You see, the reason it doesn't necessarily save me money is because when we founded Digital Domain, we said that the one rule is that we would always do the very best work. We would always do world-class work. Everybody's standards are so high there that it's not necessarily going to be the low bidder.
Well, the effects can be dazzling but if the story isn't there...
The way I look at it, it all starts with the writing. If you can grab people on the written page, you've got 'em. If it's not on the page, it's not on the stage.
And you write your own scripts, working mainly at night, I've heard.
I get cranked up on coffee and circle my computer for about three days before I write anything. But as far as creating the material, I don't have to be dialed in to the agency game. Let everybody else overpay for spec scripts that are ready to shoot. On the other hand, I don't mind finding a good script and making it a great idea.
Let's talk about "Strange Days," which you wrote, and then scripted with Jay Cocks, and which Kathryn Bigelow directed.
It was a story idea that I'd been kicking around for about nine years. I wrote a 90 page treatment, which was a kind of first draft, if you will. Then Jay Cocks generated a true script-form draft from the 90 page treatment.
And that 90-page treatment marked the invention of a new writing form, the "scriptment."
It was invented spontaneously because that's just the groove that I got into when I was writing that piece. I had done a lot of treatments. I'd never done one that came out that elaborate. Since it was a treatment that was as long as a script, we jokingly called it a scriptment. I don't think it's something I would necessarily strive for, but I think the novelistic form tends to give a little more textural detail and sort of gives you a sketch of what the film will be.
Do you think you will ever do it again?
I don't know. Sometimes I work in the treatment form, sometimes I go directly to the script form. It just depends on the material. I considered it valid to this project because really I was trying to create a whole world. We actually wound up with this mix of three Academy Award nominees all working on the film: Jay Cocks, who was nominated for the script on 'The Age of Innocence", Ralph Fiennes for "Schindler's List"; and Angela Bassett for "What's Love Got to Do With It." We just woke up one day, and this little movie all of a sudden had this very prestigious group. (He chuckles.)
Of course, we thought they were prestigious before they got their nominations.
You have a knack for spotting talent early on. With Arnold Schwarzenegger you were ahead of the pack. "Terminator" put him on the map in a way that "Conan the Barbarian" didn't.
"Conan" was actually a successful film. Most people don't remember. I think it made $60 million or $70 million - back when that was pretty serious money.
But it didn't make an impact on the culture the way The Terminator" did.
It probably didn't because Arnold was doing exactly what you would expect him to do in that film. He was basically showing his muscles. It wasn't intuitive to anybody at that time that Arnold could carry a movie sort of with his clothes on. He was a muscle guy, a body. He was the greatest body on the planet, according to all the awards. As Conan he spent the entire movie in a loin cloth swinging a sword around. So there was no great intuitive leap to cast him there. In "Terminator" there was actually a nude scene in the beginning, and some people probably said we did that to show Arnold, but it was always in the script. I cast him because of his face and his presence, and it didn't seem odd to me to do that at the time. The same thing with Tom Arnold in "True Lies." It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It didn't seem like some calculated casting coup.
Casting is usually the director's choice, but I'm sure you have input as producer. So what makes a great producer?
I think there are certain philosophical rules of engagement for a producer. Obviously the first rule is identifying the story or the piece of material that will make a great film project. The second step is finding the right cast and/or the right filmmaker, depending on whether the project is going to be more filmmaker driven or more cast driven. I think any project, ultimately, is filmmaker driven. Having very carefully selected the filmmaker you want to work with - and by filmmaker I mean primarily the director - you then have to, I believe, embrace that director's vision and support it, even if it goes against what you think it should be. And this is especially critical for me as a filmmaker, because obviously I would not make the same film as anybody else. So the moment you say you're going to support someone else's vision, you have to do that 100% of the time and not second-guess them. I think you should be allowed to render an opinion, but it should never carry the weight of edict.
And then I think you use all your skill and craft to provide the resources to make the Movie - resources being money, personnel, ideas. You create a force field that the director can work within, and that force field consists of supportive people, the best available crew, enough money to do the film properly - though not so much that it necessarily becomes self-indulgent. (Waits a beat) I reserve that right for myself. (Laughs heartily)
You must also work with the filmmaker to identify the battles that have to be won and the battles that aren't important. Because that's true on any film. And focus the resources on the battles that have to be won, whatever they are. Because any film will sink or swim based on some internal moments that have to be right.
Then sit back and take the ride, because the director's going to be in charge. My feeling is that unless that director gets in trouble and feels that they are not achieving what they want, then the producer should basically stay out of it. I mean, make everything happen on a day-to-day basis. Make sure that the trucks are there and the location taken care of and the visual effects are being done and all that. But don't become creatively involved unless asked.
Do you show up on the set?
No. As producer I try to be on set as little as possible. I'm very active behind the scenes - going over the cost reports, looking at dailies. I've been blessed, especially with "Strange Days." Everything went so smoothly. I haven't been tested in a major crisis yet except on my own films, which tend to have a lot of crises.
In terms of directing, you exert a tremendous amount of control on your projects. In fact, some might characterize you as a control freak.
It is the director's responsibility to be in control. You hire somebody to be the contractor on your house. If they don't know what the hell is going on, you're going to fire them. That's kind of the director's job.
You've also taken some flack for rolling up your sleeves and getting involved.
That's because in my personal methodology, and every director is different, just like every painter is different in the way they work - some work in acrylics, some work in oils - in my personal methodology I don't feel that I know what's going on unless I'm involved in a tactile way with all the processes. I can't predict how long something's going to take unless I'm sort of involved with it.
The other thing is that I enjoy it. I enjoy the various physical acts of filmmaking. I enjoy editing. I enjoy moving an apple-box. I enjoy putting a light up. I enjoy putting a flag up in front of a light. I enjoy those things personally. Something has to keep me playing the game. It's not about how much money the movie makes. It's not about sitting in a dark theater and watching the film later, because frankly by that point I've seen it a million times. There's nothing that bores me more than my own movies once they're done. So what is it? The tactile act of making the shot or making a scene or working with the cast - I love that. If you take that away from me... That's what I tell the guys on the crew: "Go ahead. File a grievance. I don't care. I'm doing it because I like it." I'm not replacing anybody [by getting involved]. I still hire everybody that I'm supposed to have on the crew. Generally speaking most of our shots are so complicated they need the extra pair of hands. (Laughs)
You're not endangering anybody's job.
My crews are usually pretty big. I usually have lots of operators and camera assistants and electricians and grips. I'm spreading the wealth around, making lots of jobs.
That seemingly hasn't been enough to keep IATSE appeased. Your differences with them have been well documented.
Unions - by their nature, shall we say - have a kind of dialectic with management. And they perceive me as management, so one has to think of it as a friendly agreement to disagree.
Working at the budget levels you do, you've been accused by some of being self-indulgent.
In fact, the expenditure creates the production value, which is part of the product that we sell the market. If people felt that they were going to see some piece of cheese, they wouldn't be lining up with quite the same degree of excitement as [if they say]: "Well, we don't know what this is about. Arnold's in it. It's probably really epic, and it's probably got a lot of great stuff in it." If that's the mentality of the people standing in line, you'd better darn well be delivering. It doesn't hurt to create the sense of expectation that the film is going to be something special and above average in visual spectacle and quality. That's what we push for.
So to that extent your reputation for being somewhat flamboyant helps you with audiences. But what about among members of the Hollywood community?
Yeah. Well, I'm not really that interested in Hollywood, to tell you the truth. I want to deal directly with the audience. I don't care what all my buddies in the entertainment business think about my stuff, and I don't care what the critics think. I always feel they're writing for some politically correct version of Cahiers du Cinema, most of them.
If I'm flamboyant, it's because I am trying to give audiences something more. Do you see what I mean? Where do you draw that line? How can you have a sense of showmanship on the one hand and be a mathematical supercomputer that makes all decisions perfectly logically on the other hand? You can't. "True Lies" is a perfect example. That's a very illogical film. It's a romp. It's a goofy movie. You can't be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars shooting a scene that ultimately is goofy if you don't have some sense of ... I don't know ... flamboyance is a good term. You have to be willing to go with instinct. Because there are lots of logical people around who will tell you why you can't do anything. There are always 20 bean counters and 15 logicians standing around telling you why you can't do it. Doesn't mean you can't do it.
I think there's a certain necessity in the entertainment business to be flamboyant, or at least to appreciate flamboyance, because that's what people want. They want excitement. If they wanted everyday, ordinary, logical decisions - that's the world they live in. They want to escape. They want to escape into a world where there are no rules.