King of an alternate world

James Cameron invents a new universe—and a new kind of filmmaking

Talking to James Cameron is daunting. He speaks with quick, coherent, unhesitating precision, as if he has a brain with a faster hard drive than the rest of us. So it takes a while to get up the nerve to ask him about the YouTube video of Adolf Hitler trashing Avatar. A scene ripped from the much-spoofed 2004 film Downfall shows the Führer in his bunker during the last days of the Third Reich. The German dialogue is subtitled to turn Hitler into a James Cameron fan who’s crushed that the Avatar trailer sucks. “I wait 10 years for a f–king Captain Planet with cats!” he screams. “Cameron has spent too much time underwater. He should have left the remake of FernGully: The Last Rainforest to Lucas.”

The spoof is just one example of a fierce online backlash against Avatar that’s been raging ever since 15 minutes of Cameron’s 3-D opus were previewed last August. Next week, the highly anticipated blockbuster will be released worldwide—12 years after Cameron’s previous movie Titanic became the biggest hit of all time. So you’d expect its creator to be a bit jumpy. But when asked about the online jabs at Avatar, Cameron responds with affable good humour. “The Hitler one cracks me up,” he admits during a lengthy phone interview from Los Angeles. “It’s hysterical. I want to get a copy of it, but it’s on YouTube and I haven’t figured out how to download it—I’m not very technical.”

James Cameron is not very technical. Ha! That’s rich. These days, the 55-year-old Canadian, who studied physics at university, is as much a scientist as a filmmaker. When he makes a movie, he’s like a one-man nation going to war, inventing new weaponry to meet the task. To create the quicksilver villain in Terminator 2, he led a revolution in computer graphics. For Titanic, he built deep-ocean camera housings to explore the wreck at a depth of four kilometres. And for Avatar, he invented a 3-D camera rig and refined performance-capture technology—the digital voodoo that lets an actor, covered in electrodes, inhabit the body of a blue, 10-foot alien with a tail and cat ears on a distant moon called Pandora. But the question a lot of people are asking is, why?

Cameron treats moviemaking as an extreme sport. With every film, he says that at some point he feels he’s at the helm of a sinking ship, and for the third time in his career, he’s launching the most expensive movie ever made. Avatar’s budget is US$240 million, and with marketing and distribution costs, the final price tag is reported to be close to half a billion dollars. As with Titanic, there are dire predictions of doom. But Cameron seems unfazed: “Titanic was worse in the sense that it was all negative story out there. I was a little worried about Avatar early on because the buzz was all so positive and glowy when nobody had seen a frame of it. I thought there was no way the movie could be anything but a letdown because the fans were busy making the movie in their heads. We had a re-calibration of fan expectation in August, and now we have controversy, which is good. Controversy can be resolved only by seeing the movie.”

Much of the adverse reaction to early glimpses of Avatar came from fans who felt Hollywood’s most kick-ass action director had gone soft. Avatar is an eco-adventure about a disabled ex-marine named Jake (Sam Worthington) who’s recruited to infiltrate the blue-skinned Na’vi people of Pandora. While Jake lies inert, his consciousness drives an avatar, a remote-controlled body built from human and alien DNA that can breathe Pandora’s toxic air. The Na’vi are alien aboriginals who live in harmony with their environment—here’s the eco part—which the human imperialists want to rape for a rare mineral called unobtanium. Jake goes native, falls for a blue babe (Zoë Saldana), and leads the Na’vi in a war against the invaders. Think Dances With Wolves in space.

For such a technically sophisticated film— with actors wired to their own Na’vi avatars via performance-capture imaging, Cameron’s epic is remarkably old-fashioned—a colonial adventure yarn in the spirit of classics by Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and Edgar Rice Burroughs. “It’s the same thing as Titanic,” he says, “where we were telling a 500-year-old story, Romeo and Juliet, set in a 100-year-old environment but using cutting-edge CG [computer graphics].”

When I suggest that Titanic became a monster hit thanks to repeat viewings by girls smitten with Leonardo DiCaprio, it seems to strike a nerve. “I don’t buy that argument,” says Cameron, sounding like he’s heard it once too often. “You can account for maybe $200 million or $300 million in repeat 14-year-old girls. But you still have to account for $1.5 billion. With Titanic, we stumbled into the combination lock to a universal set of human truths that was utterly transcultural. It played as well in Afghanistan as it did in Japan, Thailand, Brazil, China. And by the way, it’s a male revision of history that men didn’t go see Titanic. There’s only one person I’ve witnessed who didn’t have an emotional reaction to the movie, and that was Céline Dion’s bodyguard, who was about four feet wide, seven feet tall and looked like he was carved out of stone. I said, ‘C’mon, admit, you teared up just a little bit.’ ”

Titanic’s tragedy provided a universal touchstone. But will audiences be moved by Smurf-blue aliens in a synthetic world invented from scratch? Avatar has no superstars, no comic-book superheroes, no Tolkien pedigree. And performance-capture has had mixed success. The realism of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings convinced Cameron it could work, but Gollum is ghoul. In films like The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, ordinary human emotion tends to get lost in translation. “We felt that if we could conquer this zombie-eyed quality we can legitimize the process,” says Cameron. The problem is that you can’t stick CG sensors onto an actor’s eyeball or tongue. So with a head-rig camera that he invented, “you can see the eyes, you can see how the tongue is interacting with the teeth to form syllables. It gets very anatomical, but it gave us beautiful data.”

What surprised Cameron is how the actors warmed to the process. He expected them to feel the tech was intrusive. “We dress them in these black suits with body markers all over them and slap a helmet on their head,” he says. “But the beauty of it is that it’s a pure director-actor interaction, without me being distracted by setting up the shot, choosing the lens, worrying about how a thousand extras are dressed. The actors have my full attention. We’re just there to make an acting moment.”

It’s as if Cameron is performing a vast Frankenstein experiment on the art of filmmaking. Which invites skepticism. “It’s funny,” he says. “Oliver Stone came down to see what we were doing. A lot of directors came through and they were all wildly positive. But Oliver, he’s looking around trying to figure out what we’re doing and I said, ‘We’ve uncoupled the performance from the photography.’ And he said, ‘Why the f–k would you want to do that?’ He didn’t get it at all.”

Instead of working out of vast industrial sets, Cameron spent four years making Avatar in a hermetic digital studio. He says “this weird, family-like bond” formed among his cast and crew. And it’s hard to reconcile that cosy camaraderie with the Capt. Bligh image that the director earned on the set of Titanic, where a mutinous soul in Halifax spiked the crew’s seafood chowder with a massive dose of PCP, sending 80 of them to hospital with psychotic hallucinations.

Rebecca Keegan, author of a new book called The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron, hung out on the Avatar set and was struck by the loyalty around him. “I thought, that’s odd,” she told me. “His public image is the artistic tyrant dropping f-bombs and throwing temper tantrums. If the guy’s as much of a jerk as he’s supposed to be, why are people protecting him like a family member? How can he talk people into creating something impossible?”

Could Cameron have mellowed since Titanic? “I don’t think anybody who worked with me on Avatar would think of me as mellow,” he says. But after Titanic, Cameron led six deep-ocean diving expeditions. That, he explains, “gave me a perspective as to where entertainment film ranks in global importance. It’s not life or death. And it taught me some lessons about leadership, that you have to treat people with an innate respect to get their best work.”

But Cameron still thrives on crisis. “I make my best creative decisions when I’m pushed to the edge of a cliff,” he says. “Do I create a crisis to be at my best? Not consciously. But I like to make sure the film is as challenging as it can be—to be doing something no one else is doing.” Although Cameron works with vast budgets and a major studio, he’s always behaved like an outsider in Hollywood, defying convention and remaining unimpressed by celebrity. Sam Worthington, the Australian star of Avatar, is not a marquee name. Neither were Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton when he cast them in The Terminator. Before hiring Schwarzenegger, the studio had been pushing for O.J. Simpson. “In 1983, Cameron didn’t see O.J. as a believable killing machine,” writes Keegan. “He’s a futurist, not an oracle.”

Cameron, who was born in Kapuskasing, Ont., and raised near Niagara Falls, first imagined other worlds by reading science fiction. Seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars made him want to bring them to life on screen: “I realized there was a market for all those things that had been knocking around in my head.” With Avatar, he has stocked an entire world with sci-fi fantasies that go back to his childhood—and has also drawn on his recent diving expeditions. “A night dive can show you all the aliens you ever want to see,” he says. “And the life forms at the deep-ocean hyper-thermal vents, these guys are basically living on another planet.”

With 10 movies, five marriages and five children to his credit, Hollywood’s Magellan seems as intent on exploring the world as on entertaining it. Cameron has become the Richard Branson of film: he is building a submersible vehicle to lead a Jules Verne-like expedition to the deepest point on the planet—36,000 feet down. “That,” he says, “is 16,000 feet deeper than any submersible that currently exists has gone and 20,000 feet deeper than I’ve ever been before .”

I wish him luck. “Luck’s not a factor,” he replies, without missing a beat. “And hope is not a strategy.” If Avatar’s success fails to match its hype, the unhumble Canadian who once crowned himself “king of the world” at the Oscars may finally see hubris catch up to him. But when James Cameron is sitting under 11 km of water, he can always remind himself: it was only a movie.

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