3DT2: James Cameron on tinkering with the Terminator
The ‘Avatar’ and ‘Titanic’ director seeks to make epic but intimate movies – so why does one of sci fi's finest really need a 3D reboot?
“Ah, you’re from Dublin,” says James Cameron. “I had a honeymoon there many years ago.”
I momentarily freeze. What is the correct etiquette here? Should I inquire which honeymoon? There are five possible contenders: Sharon Williams (1978–84), the producer Gale Anne Hurd (1985-89), the Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (1989-91), Terminator star Linda Hamilton (1997–1999) and vegan activist and actor Suzi Amis, his wife of 17 years – his “final cut” as he has it.
To be fair, things seem to be amicable between the director and several former Mrs Camerons. There is chatter that Linda Hamilton will soon return to the Terminator franchise when the American rights revert to Cameron in 2019. And he casually mentions that he recently attended a birthday party thrown by Gale Anne Hurd.
At any rate, I probably could have asked without fear of an A-list tantrum. The director, producer, screenwriter, inventor, engineer, philanthropist, environmentalist, deep-sea explorer and “King of the World” may have a fierce, no-nonsense, on-set reputation – Hollywood lore tells us that he once nail-gunned a runner’s mobile phone to a wall because it dared to go off on-set (disappointingly untrue, apparently) and that while shooting The Abyss, he suggested the actors could relieve themselves in their wetsuits to save time.
But in person, and away from the water, Cameron is a most avuncular fellow: “This is a fun interview,” he says, cheerily, as we mull over a particular Titanic plot point.
Today, he’s on promotional duty for T2:3D, a restored and re-upholstered edition of the 1991 blockbuster, in which the future real-world former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, comes to the aid of future fictional resistance hero John Connor (Edward Furlong) and his badass mom (Linda Hamilton). The director gave a similar 3D makeover to Titanic in 2012.
“I wouldn’t want to go down this path if it was going to be a compromise,” he says. “I have a very good technical team that works for me in-house at Lightstorm, my company, led by a fellow named Geoff Burdick, who has been with me for about 25 years. We use another company called Stereo D. We worked with them on Titanic so we have a real shorthand with them. You have to have people who can look at a 3D image and know what’s wrong with it. It’s one thing to know that something is wrong: it’s another thing to know what specifically is wrong and how to quickly fix it. The bar for me is that it has to look as if the film was shot in native stereo production. That’s our goal. And I think they’ve achieved that.”
Last April, the Italian marketplace chain Eataly’s announcement that it would sponsor the latest effort to preserve Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper sparked considerable debate about the ethics of restoration. Film, like that painting, requires constant upkeep. Is it tempting for a known perfectionist to tinker with the original text, while restoring and remodelling?
Lights, camel, action
“You have the same kinds of ethical issues,” says Cameron. “At what point are you adding something that the artist never intended? I’m a little ambivalent about converting classics when the filmmaker is no longer in the loop. As much as I’d love to see Lawrence of Arabia in 3D, I’m not sure that should be done because David Lean is not around to do it. Now if Francis Coppola wants to show The Godfather in 3D, I’ll be first in line, because it is a continuation of the artistic process.
“But you’re talking about a slippery slope. Every filmmaker will define it differently for themselves. There’s no right or wrong in art. George Lucas has made substantial changes to some of his early films. He re-watches them and adds new elements. So for him it’s an ongoing process. For me, personally, film is more valuable as a kind of document of its time. It shows what was possible in its time. And I think we should celebrate that aspect of film.”
He laughs: “I shouldn’t say I didn’t change anything. There was one shot that always bugged the shit out of me. When the big tow truck crashes down into the drainage canal, the two windshields pop right out and smash on the ground. And then in the very next shot, they’re back in. So I thought we have to fix this. If I had had the means to do so at the time I would have.”
Watching T2:3D, it’s striking just how little CG was involved in this landmark CG film. There were, however, many, many puppets of Robert Patrick’s T1000. “That’s right,” says Cameron. “Only 42 CG shots in the whole film. As compared to 1,500 or 1,800 CG shots in most big movies today. I have to say I loved all the technical challenges of flipping trucks off buildings or creating the T1000 in liquid metal. That was all fun.
“The thing that scared me most going into that film was finding the right kid to play young John. I think the film works today because of that mother-son relationship and that sort of father-son relationship. Storytelling prevails over the visuals. And I think nowadays people have been overwhelmed by CG. Especially when the CG doesn’t reflect reality and physics and what’s possible.”
Ah, yes. The uncanny valley. The uncanny valley is that discombobulating dip that occurs when we encounter something that is almost, but not quite, natural. First identified by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, the theory supposes that, as we approach humanlike in the inhuman, it becomes revolting. That revulsion may well account for the lacklustre box office performances for such costly, uncanny fare as The Adventures of Tintin ($373,993,951), Mars Needs Moms ($38,992,758) and Beowulf ($196,393,745). With three Avatar films in the pipeline, James Cameron is well-schooled in the relevant neuropsychological literature.
“The uncanny valley was the thing that scared me most about Avatar,” Cameron admits. “I think we managed to jump across the valley and to just about hold on to the other side by our fingernails. But only just.”
‘Spaceship with tits’
James Francis Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, Ontario in 1958, to Shirley, a nurse and visual artist, and Philip, an electrical engineer. The family relocated to California in 1971 where he began borrowing and photocopying books on special effects from the local library. His first viewing of Star Wars inspired him to make Xenogenesis, a 10-minute science fiction short in 1978. In order to figure out how the camera worked, he dismantled it, an act that has rather set the tone for his subsequent career. He soon found work making miniatures for Roger Corman; the B-movie legend was so impressed with Cameron’s design for a “spaceship with tits” that he asked him to direct Piranha II: The Spawning.
It’s odd to think of someone we’ve come to associate with colossal budgets working on, well, a “spaceship with tits”.
“I still have it,” he laughs. “It’s in a box somewhere. I saw Roger recently. He’s getting quite up there and he’s obviously retired. And I said: ‘You know, Roger, if you took the 100 or so movies that you made and combined their negative cost, it still wouldn’t cover Titanic or Avatar. But a lot of what I learned on Roger’s films still applies. Which is that you got to bring a good game to the set every day. So much is determined by my energy or the energy of the cast and crew.
“Roger always said when you direct make sure you sit down. It sounds stupid. But I force myself to do it. That doesn’t mean I spend all day sitting behind a monitor. I’m up running around the set when there’s fight choreography. But I’ve trained myself to sit down. Because making a movie is a marathon. Especially right now when I’m doing multiple Avatar films back to back. And I’m looking at another nine years before I’m done. So Roger is still with me.”
Cameron theorises that his mentor, who founded a movie studio in Baile na hAbhann, Connemara, during the 1990s, had a similar impact on the film industry in Ireland. “Whoever started those tax breaks back then has given rise to so much. Now you have a vigorous Irish film industry. You have the studios in Belfast. There are so many productions. You have parallel development in the animation industry. My head of animation on the Avatar films is [Dubliner] Richie Baneham. ”
In The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Zizek entertainingly argues that Titanic and Avatar are the biggest-grossing films of all time because they are the most ideological. “Cameron’s superficial Hollywood Marxism [his crude privileging of the lower classes and caricature depiction of the cruel egotism of the rich] should not deceive us,” suggests the Slovenian philosopher. Titanic, by Zizek’s account, is the reactionary tale of “a rich spoiled girl in a life crisis” wherein the function of Leonardo Di Caprio is to restore “her identity and purpose in life, her self-image; once his job is done, he can disappear”. Zizek is equally critical of the “brutal racist overtones” of Avatar, a film in which native, nature-loving alien blue folk “can choose either to be the victim of imperialist reality, or to play their allotted role in the white man’s fantasy”.
Zizek’s hypothesis is as good as any when it comes to a business where, famously, nobody knows anything. But having presided over the $3,020,000,000- grossing Avatar and the $2,516,000,000-grossing Titanic – a film that industry watchers once predicted might sink its home studio – James Cameron clearly knows something.
“Maybe I don’t know anything,” he laughs. “Maybe I’m just the luckiest filmmaker around. To have done what I’ve done with those films, I can look back on it objectively and try to deconstruct it. They’re wildly different films. But they do have things in common. They’re simultaneously epic but also very, very intimate.
“It’s very often the things that I’ve fought for, the things that have very often put me at odds with the studio, the things that I thought the audience needed to see, those are the things that they say transported them. They’re also the things that were special for me. So I guess I was right. Some of the time. That doesn’t mean I’ll be right next time. But on those two instances, it worked.”
T2:3D opens August 25th