James Cameron: ‘I didn’t understand what impossible meant’

The physics student turned blockbuster director is releasing four Avatar sequels

The sun has just risen in Ireland. On the other side of the world, James Cameron, hard at work on a raft of Avatar sequels, is doing whatever people do in New Zealand at seven-thirty in the evening. Never short of energy, he barks cheerily across the hemispheres.

"I know very little about Ireland, but I do know Dublin because Linda Hamilton and I honeymooned there."

News to me. That would have been 1997. A lot happened to Jim in that year. He married Hamilton, star of his Terminator films, and he released what quickly became – and remained until another Cameron film passed it out – the highest-grossing film of all time.

“I know that and Belfast because of the Titanic museum. That’s pretty much it.”


You know what they say about that vessel in Belfast: well, it was fine when it left here.

“Yeah, she was good when she left – pretty good,” he says. “But they also built 1,000 ships that didn’t sink. Never forget that.”

James Cameron is, of course, the director of Titanic. The film that passed it out for all-time box office champ was his blue-tinged space epic Avatar. In his four-and-a-bit decades behind the camera, he has also directed such behemoths as Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Aliens and True Lies. He has explored the deep for National Geographic. As we speak, he is working on four further episodes of Avatar. Thinking small is not in the Canadian’s lexicon.

Somehow or other he has found time to speak at the AIB Sustainability Conference 2021, which takes place virtually on October 11th. The theme of the event is Beating the Climate Deadline. Cameron, a physics student in the early 1970s, is keen on getting people to “believe the science”.

“Science was not always trusted,” he says. “People didn’t trust scientists in the 1950s because they gave us the atom bomb. But they believed. Scientists were believed. Even though you had this risk of nuclear annihilation there was this belief in progress.”

He goes on to suggest that you can “drive a stake” into a point in the last decade to mark where “people went backwards, where they went towards a dark age”. Science didn’t tell us what we wanted to hear. The science got politicised.

“It’s now between what I call the takers and the caretakers,” he says. “You can call it red states and blue states. Democrats, Republicans, whatever it is. The left takes care of each other – other human beings – and takes care of the environment. And the right takes care of themselves and their pals.”

Fervent advocate

Cameron is a man of contradictions. He makes massive, industrial-scale films, but he is a fervent advocate for conservation and environmental caution. He has insisted that his current film set be fed with only plants. “I actually talked 300 employees into being vegan during the day,” he says.

His movies have cost a fortune, but, like other Hollywood deans such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Ron Howard, he learnt everything he knew working for the thrifty independent producer Roger Corman. He engineered special effects. He made models. He was art director on Corman's Battle Beyond the Stars. It has been suggested that acting is just about the only job on set he couldn't confidently attempt.

“I had prepared myself for years to be an epic filmmaker,” he says of the Corman years. “We were trying to do the impossible. But I happened to be someone who didn’t understand what impossible meant. And I found myself thrust among a group of people who thought as I did. We had no track record. It didn’t matter. There was a rush off this sense of the impossible being made possible.”

That attitude served him well a few decades down the line. It is worth remembering that almost everyone predicted that Titanic and Avatar would be massive flops. Both were astronomically expensive. The former had a troubled shoot in Mexico. The latter survived a largely ridiculed trailer. I wonder if, when the press were writing premature obituaries, he remained confident that he would triumph.

"Not at all. But I think you know what you've got," he says. "You get to a certain stage in the film, when you're mixing it, and you believe in that film. There may have been previous versions you didn't believe in. But you better damn well get the version you believe in. But there is still a huge gulf between believing in the movie and whether people will show up. They won't show up based on the merits of your film. They will show up based on what they believe it to be."

Titanic has fascinated people because of its tragic nature and also because of how it defines us as humans

They certainly showed up to Titanic. And they came back. And they came back again. I remember attending a public screening at the Savoy Cinema in Dublin. When Leonardo DiCaprio arrived in his dinner jacket, large parts of the audience literally screamed. They screamed like their parents screamed at The Beatles. Do we yet understand why it was such a hit?

“I don’t think we were capturing anything that was in the zeitgeist,” he says. “Part of the strength was that it exists outside of time. It captured the hearts of people in 1912. It never went away. We captured the timeless energy of Romeo and Juliet 500 years ago. Titanic has fascinated people because of its tragic nature and also because of how it defines us as humans.”

Money earner

We cannot, however, escape the vulgar attractions of Mammon. Cameron’s record as a money earner still defies belief. In March of 1998, Titanic became the first film to pass $1 billion. On its re-release in 2012, it became the second film to ever pass $2 billion. The first to attain that record was Avatar in 2010. Many thought those two films were so ahead of the competition no title would ever pass either’s gross. They were wrong – for a while. Avengers: Endgame took the record in 2019, but Avatar regained it earlier this year thanks to a Chinese re-release. (Even after adjusting for inflation, Avatar and Titanic still manage second and third to perennial chart-topper Gone with the Wind).

Is it still possible to make that kind of money? I would love it if another film came out and made more money than Avatar

Does he care about those records? Is this just a concern for box-office nerds?

“Everybody is human. We all have our points of vanity,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh. “What is good for the industry is good for me and I celebrate it. So when a movie came along that took more money than Avatar I took out a full-colour ad in the movie trade papers and said ‘congratulations’. I celebrated the fact that a movie can still make that kind of money. Now, a year from now, Avatar 2 is going to come out. Is it still possible to make that kind of money? I don’t know. I would love it if another film came out and made more money than Avatar sometime between now and then. Then I’d know the business I invested 40 years of my life in is still there and still healthy.”

We'll return to that question in a moment, but it is worth considering Cameron's less-venal contribution to the art. There is a lot of talk now about placing women at the centre of commercial pictures. Cameron was way ahead of that arc. There are few tougher action heroes than Linda Hamilton in T2 or Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.

“I could go down a Freudian rabbit hole here – psychoanalysing it,” he says. “My mom was very strong-willed person. And I grew up with that. That’s what I witnessed. That’s what I admired. When I came to Hollywood it was with this idea that women are pretty cool. Women can do. I had to actually learn that there was this prejudice. I had to actually learn that there was a history of women not being seen that way.”

Soap opera

Speaking of strong women, in early 2010, a delightful little soap opera played out between Cameron and his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow. Avatar began awards season as favourite for the best picture Oscar, but, as the gong orgy progressed, Bigelow's The Hurt Locker gradually made up ground. Her film eventually won the prize and Bigelow became the first woman to take best director. The two seemed to be on good terms throughout, and Cameron looked genuinely happy when she beat him to the post.

“I would submit after the fact that she probably enjoyed the evening about 10 per cent more than I did. Ha ha!” he says. “But for me to begrudge not only someone that I’ve loved and believed in winning the best director, but also the first woman... F**k, man! Stand back. Let her have her night. We talked about it endlessly before and after. They wanted us to be co-presenters, but we looked at one another and said: ‘We’re not going to play that game.’”

He is not letting this go.

“If I was sitting here now, however many years later, looking at an Oscar that could have been hers, I would be feeling like s**t. I was very happy at how it worked out.”

Cameron and Bigelow, his third wife, divorced way back in 1991. His marriage to Hamilton ended in 1999. He and Suzy Amis, who appears in the contemporaneous bookends of Titanic, have been hitched for over 20 years. They spent much of their time at their house in New Zealand even before Cameron began shooting the Avatar sequels. That scheme always sounded ambitious – four episodes released between 2022 and 2028 – but, following the Covid-related shrinkage of the theatrical market, the plan now seems plucked from another century. And yet. Few had much faith in Titanic or the first Avatar. Do not count Cameron out.

“That will be determined by factors beyond my control, but let me leave you with one thought,” he says. “Since we all sat around campfires, until today when we sit around flat screens watching streaming, we have needed storytelling. If I can enjoy a film or a limited series as much as I have enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit or Mare of Easttown, then I can do it. I’ll always have a job. I will be able to pay the rent.”