Most recently making headlines for an expedition that saw him plunge eleven kilometres to the deepest point on Earth, it seems that throughout his career, James Cameron has become defined by his resilience in the face of extreme pressure.
For ‘resilience’, read brass balls.
The type of steely cahones that – according to frequent collaborator Bill Paxton, get excited by declarations that something is ‘impossible’ or ‘can’t be done.’ There is something awe-inspiring about the lengths some directors are willing to go in realising their vision. The notion of suffering for one’s art is nothing new for many directors, but Cameron is one of very few filmmakers this side of Francis Ford Coppola where that expression seems downright modest.
Here are just 8 instances in which Cameron risked reputation, life and limb in order to bring his stories to life.
Though credited as the director of Pirahna II (1980), Cameron was fired from his first directing gig after only a week of filming by a puportedly shady producer by the name of Ovidio G. Assonitis – who took over all creative control on the project. During his time on the project, Cameron was denied access to any of his footage and was thus not involved in the editing – officially speaking, that is.
After the Italian producer removed him from the project, Cameron – in an act that would likely get anybody else blacklisted from all future films, broke into the editing room (with a credit card!), taught himself how to use the European ‘Cinemonta’ reel system and started cutting the film himself. He did this for many nights until he had cut the film the way he wanted it.
It was this experience in Rome that lit the fuse for the type of filmmaker Cameron would become. Cameron explains: ‘it made me mistrustful of other people who have creative power on a film.’ (James Cameron in James Cameron: Interviews, Brent Dunham, University Press of Mississipi, 2012, p.62)
2. Come With Me If You Want to Live
When Cameron was still relatively unknown, he wrote a script for the film that we now know as The Terminator (1984). The script went around many desks and garnered a lot of attention. Producers and studios were champing at the bit to give Cameron a nice big fat paycheck for the script.
Cameron, however, had one condition on which he would sell the script: he wanted to direct it. This was going to be his make or break moment. A lot of others broke and ran like mad from Cameron. Nobody was going to do this script with a first-time director. Then Cameron spoke to his partner in Gale Anne Hurd and sold the once money-magnet of a script for the grand total of one dollar. A smart gamble in hindsight, but a gamble nevertheless – of literally a million to one.
3. Another Glorious Day in the Corps
As soon as a print of The Terminator was seen by Fox execs, Cameron was offered the chance to direct the sequel to one of the most critically acclaimed Science Fiction films in history after a seven year gap. He steeled himself for the critical scepticism that would come from the legion of fans that accompanies Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic and prepared to go to war with Aliens (1986).
When Cameron found himself in foreign waters at Pinewood Studios in London, that is exactly how his crew (many of whom had worked on Ridley’s classic) saw him: a foreigner. A tourist. Inexperienced. He was just some greenhorn that the studio was entrusting the legacy of a sci fi masterpiece to. Cameron found himself despised from day one for the simple fact that he wasn’t Ridley Scott. The film’s tagline – ‘This time it’s war’, would ring more true every day he would show up to work.
Very early into the shoot, Cameron had to fire his own director of photography for refusing to take directions.
Then-wife Gale Anne Hurd recounted the argument that broke the last straw for Cameron when it came to the scene where the marines first enter the undulating catacombs that would house the missing colonists. Cameron wanted to intensify the sense of horrific claustrophobia the audience would feel upon being surrounded by the resin-coated walls and so asked for the scene to be lit solely by the marines’ head lamps. When he came back to the set, he found that his cinematographer had lit the set up like a Christmas tree. You could see everything. When Cameron confronted the DP, he was met with flat out refusal and told that it was this way or the highway. Cameron and Hurd told him to pack his bags.
An even worse case of Cameron’s crew undermining him came in the form of his assistant director Derek Cracknell – who often felt he was more qualified than Cameron to direct the film. In Rebecca Keegan’s Cameron biography ‘The Futurist’ (2009), Hurd recounts:
“Jim would ask him to set up a shot one way and Derek would say, “Oh no no no, I know what you want,” says Hurd. “Then he’d do it wrong and the whole set would have to be broken down.”
At one point, Cameron and Hurd had a mutiny on their hands – also at the behest of Cracknell. The Canadian filmmaker was unaccustomed to the crew’s work routine which involved taking a break from shooting every four hours and finishing in time for drinks at 5 o’clock. What particularly drew Cameron’s ire was the twice-daily ritual that saw a tea-trolley arrive on set that would cause his entire crew to vanish in the midst of shooting a scene. In the middle of a very tight 75 day shoot, Cameron could feel the pressure from the studio mounting, while pressure between him and the crew had reached boiling point.
In a summit meeting of sorts, Cameron laid all of his cards out on the table and asked those not interested in helping him to step forward so they could be replaced. After many grievances were aired, the crew continued on, despite the bad blood between them.
At the end of the shoot, Cameron addressed the crew one last time: ‘This has been a long and difficult shoot, fraught by many problems. But the one thing that kept me going, through it all, was the certain knowledge that one day I would drive out the gate of Pinewood and never come back, and that you sorry bastards would still be here.’
Aliens was, and is still hailed by many fans and critics alike as one of the best sequels of all time.
The T-shirt slogan made up for the cast and crew of Cameron’s 1989 underwater sci fi adventure paints a pretty picture of what the experience of working on the film was like.
The production of The Abyss rivals every other film for the title of ‘Hardest Shoot in Cinematic History.’ This is the type of film hell that has cast and crew members experiencing breakdowns in the midst of shooting, and bursting into tears as they drive home from set after nearly drowning to death.
In order to accurately depict the deep-ocean environment for the film, Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd created the largest underwater set in cinematic history, by retrofitting an abandoned nuclear power plant with a total of ten million gallons of water. Since the water had to be clear enough to film in, the water was treated with so much chlorine that it caused cast and crew members’ hair to turn white and fall out - amidst the odd case of skin burn.
Ninety per cent of the film takes place underwater - caustic water. Cameron was said to average up to nineteen hours a day in the tank – hanging upside down in his dive suit while watching dailies as he re-pressurized. Script supervisors had to laminate their script pages in plastic while submerged.
The film had two near-fatal instances of drowning. The first saw Ed Harris almost drown when it came time to do his scene without his suit. When Harris gave the signal that he was out of oxygen and his dedicated safety diver (known as ‘angels’ on the set) failed to get to Harris fast enough, another of the safety crew swam over to the actor to give him oxygen. Unfortunately, he fed Harris the regulator upside down, which caused Harris to inhale water. A cameraman then swam over and correctly fed Harris oxygen.
Cameron himself almost drowned on the set when his assistant director failed to give hime his hourly reminder to refill his oxygen tank. It should also be noted that Cameron was the only one without an ‘angel’ on set. Cameron was at the bottom of the deep water tank, about thirty feet away from the nearest crew member, when he went for a breath and got no air, before looking down to his pressure gauge to find it reading zero. With his helmet still linked to the PA system, Cameron struggled a call out to cinematographer Al Giddings: ‘Al… Al… I’m in trouble.’
Unfortunately, there had been a long-running joke where all actors would block their ears while Cameron would yell orders at Al due to his previously burst ear drums. With nobody responding, Cameron motioned for the support divers to help, signalling that he was out of air. Once again, he got no response. Thirty-five feet down, Cameron realised that he had to lose the helmet or die. Unfortunately, the now heavy helmet was attached to his buoyancy vest – which he had to shrug off if he was going to be able to ditch the weight and swim to the top. Successfully finding the vest’s release, Cameron desperately made for the surface.
A safety diver saw Cameron making for the surface and arrived just in time to make things worse. Following the protocol of safely getting swimmers to the surface, the support diver stopped Cameron fifteen feet before he reached it and shoved his back-up regulator in Cameron’s mouth. The idea behind this form of protocol is to stop swimmers from blowing their lungs apart from the huge amount of pressure that results from a rapid ascent. However, the diver’s spare regulator was broken and Cameron sucked in not one, but two mouthful’s of water before he realised what was wrong. Of course, the safety diver – unaware of the danger, gripped Cameron even tighter and tried to force him to purge. It wasn’t until Cameron punched the diver as hard as he could that he was able to shake free and swim to the surface.
Cameron fired both his assistant director and the safety diver immediately after.
Cameron’s 1991 sequel to his groundbreaking cyborg thriller hit came seven years after the original. Though at the time, Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) was billed as (in typical Cameron fashion) the most expensive film ever made, the production was hiccup-free for the most part.
But what would a Cameron shoot be without a little bit of crazy bravado?
During the chase scene that sees the Robert Patrick’s T-1000 pursuing our heroes in a helicopter, that weaves under and over bridges on a long stretch of highway, the director’s camera operator expressed his concerns that the stunt was too dangerous to shoot and wished not to be involved. So it was that Cameron acted as his own camera operator – strapping himself to the side of the escaping SWAT van and urging the helicopter to come closer and closer as it barreled down the road.
With True Lies (1994) Cameron would once again make the headlines for making the most expensive film ever made until his ever-expanding budget on Titanic.
But what is money when you’re testing the safety of fire-arms by having them fired at your head? Schwarzenegger recalled the type of fanaticism that inspired everybody on the shoot to keep working those long hours for Cameron in one instance:
“There was one thing that blew me away about the guy – there was a particular action scene that required a weapon to be fired in a very tight area. I asked Jim about it, and he said, ‘Well, well find out if it’s safe.’ And he gets in this area and has the weapons guy fire it past his face a couple of times – the fact is, he has balls, man. He’ll do anything.” (John H. Richardson, Premiere Magazine, August 1994)
It is that same unflinching will that saw the crew famously make t-shirts that read ‘You Can’t Scare Me. I work for James Cameron.’
In the scene where the seven-mile long Florida bridge has been eviscerated by Harrier jets, Cameron had asked his leading lady if she would mind doing the part where she dangles from the speeding helicopter herself. When Curtis asked what he would be doing while she was screaming her lungs out over the thirty-foot drop, he told her ‘I’ll be shooting you.’ So Cameron once again acted as his own camera-man and, hanging out of the helicopter door, filmed a very brave Jamie Lee Curtis.
After he finished the film, Cameron invited himself over to the house of the notoriously reclusive Stanley Kubrick house to show him a cut of the film.
The case of the two-hundred million dollar ($270m USD when adjusted for inflation) period piece where everybody dies at the end has been documented to hell and back. Cameron fighting against the studio execs breathing down his neck while critics were sharpening their pitchforks is the stuff of filmmaking legend by now, with Cameron coming out on top.
Titanic (1997) was the film that saw the mettle Cameron built through every other film see him through to making the most successful film of all time (at the time) out of the most unlikely subject matter of all time.
While Cameron and crew were scouting the wreck of the real ship, the Russian submersible which Cameron was in failed and left them stranded on the ocean floor with no power, with each attempt to rise being rebuffed by the strong currents.
During filming one day, the cast and crew started becoming violently ill from a serving of chowder which had been spiked with PCP by what many assumed to be a disgruntled crew member. Whilst everybody else was rushed to the hospital, Cameron forced his fingers down his throat, threw up and continued filming – looking reminiscent of his own relentless Terminator as his eyes bulged a blood-shot red, according to one crew member.
Much like Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies, Kate Winslet seemed to have a little bit of trouble believing the audacity of the director when she saw the gimble-rigged model of the Titanic (which she would soon be stuck at the top of) tilted vertically in preparation for its final descent. Not exactly thrilled at the prospect of being suspended fifty feet in the air, the actress stormed up to Cameron and said ‘Well where the hell are you going to be while I’m stuck up there?’, to which Cameron responded ‘About fifty feet above you, hanging over the edge of that plank with a camera.’ Kate started getting ready to go up.
At one-hundred million dollars over budget and straying way over schedule, Cameron sacrificed his director’s fee and a large stake of his own money into finishing Titanic. As the production kept going and going, Fox attempted to keep Cameron on a leash. Long-schooled in the consequences of “creative interference”, Cameron would remain steadfast. Titanic was his baby and nobody was going to mess with it. When a producer paid Cameron another visit, Cameron would say ‘Tell your friend he’s getting fucked in the ass, and if he would stop squirming it wouldn’t hurt so much.’
As a show of good-will, Cameron offered Fox his back-end points for the film. The execs believing the offer to be worthless in the wake of what they were sure was going to be a huge bomb, and politely declined – leaving Cameron with quite a chunk of spare change once the film grossed 1.8 billion dollars at the worldwide box office, during its initial theatre run.
Twelve years is a long time in the film business. After Titanic‘s success, Cameron had enough coin to go and do whatever he wanted and he made the most of it by spending the better part of a decade involved with a number of deep sea expeditions. When Cameron decided to come back to making feature films, there was a big question of whether he had lost his edge.
If you were to ask most audiences now whether Avatar (2009) was a risky film, most would probably try to tell you it was a film playing it as safe as possible. Between the 3D tickets and a storyline based on a familiar trope, of course Avatar was safe, right? As the saying goes, hindsight is 20-20.
Avatar was the last thing from a safe bet and 3D was a huge part of the film’s enormous risk. Up until Cameron’s film, 3D had absolutely no place in mainstream cinema. Sure, it could be used for IMAX documentaries (as Cameron had done with his own) and one or two scenes in other mainstream fair like Superman Returns (2006) or Ratatouille (2007), but the tech was largely viewed as a novelty that was reserved for specialty cinemas and films.
So when Cameron announced in 2007 that he was going to shoot the film entirely in 3D and that the plan was to roll the release out for the format in a 75/25 3D/2D split, once again there was the talk of Fox having a bomb on their hands.
Firstly, did Cameron really expect theatre owners to pay to upgrade their systems just so they could show his movie in 3D? Of course he did. Cameron and his partner Vincent Pace went around like a travelling circus, showing theatre owners exactly what they would be missing unless they got themselves ready for his next big movie. The cinematic landscape would have to adapt to what was required for his film, not the other way around.
Now add to that the fact that Avatar was coming in at a budget that exceeded $230m dollars, and that it was being delayed again. Needless to say, the naysayers showed that they didn’t learn a thing from Titanic.
Trying to start your own 3D New Wave with with a film that needed to sell audiences on 9ft tall blue aliens and a cast of relatively unknown actors (outside of Sigourney Weaver) was bold – and it worked in spades. Avatar was an event movie the likes of which the world hadn’t seen since Titanic. Week after week, record after record, Cameron proved himself once again. The film grossed almost one billion dollars more than his own Titanic – which, since its re-release, has become the only other film to join Cameron’s Avatar in the Two Billion Dollar club.
It might be a while till we get Cameron’s Avatar sequels, but that doesn’t mean the man has stopped testing himself.
Outside of his filmmaking adventures, Cameron has trained with Russian astronauts to spend time at the international space station and dived to the deepest part of the Earth by himself in his spare time.
Iron Jim indeed.
- By Adam Bustin