With upcoming sci-fi epic Avatar set to end twelve years of cinema exile for James Cameron, Trevor Hogg profiles the career of the influential Hollywood filmmaker in the first of a three part feature...
Growing up in a small Ontario town located on the banks of the Chippawa Creek, James Cameron developed a fascination with water. Along with the natural landscape, the adolescent was greatly influenced by his parents. “My mother was a housewife but she was also an artist,” stated Cameron. “My father was an electrical engineer [at a paper mill]. So right there you have a collision of left and right hemisphere thinking and I think I got equal parts of both.”
Fueling the childhood imagination of the Canadian filmmaker were the works of Arthur C. Clarke, A.E. Van Vogt, Harlan Ellison, and Larry Niven. “I spent all my free time in the town library and I read an awful lot of science fiction and the line between reality and fantasy blurred. I was as interested in the reality of biology as I was in reading science fiction stories about genetic mutations and post-nuclear war environments and inter-stellar traveling, [and] meeting alien races.”
Attending Stamford Collegiate, the teenager found himself an outsider in an athletic oriented high school. “The critical moment for me was in 11th grade. My biology teacher, Mr. McKenzie, decided that what our school needed was a theatre arts program and we didn’t have it.” The newly established academic endeavor introduced Cameron to the rigors of creating a theatrical show. “We had to build the props and the scenery and the costumes and do everything ourselves. We had to turn the stage into a proper working stage. It took a year, but we started putting on our own productions.”
Even though the experience inspired him, James Cameron still remained a man of science. “All the way through high school, even into college, I majored in physics.” But the situation dramatically changed for the undergrad student who had moved to California along with his family in 1971. “I hit kind of a wall with math. I had a bad teacher who turned me off of calculus at a critical moment, and even though my grades were very high in astronomy and physics, I switched to English because I wanted to write.”
Shifting his academic focus allowed Cameron to bridge the gap between his artistic and scientific inclinations. “What finally attracted me to film in such a definitive way was…it was the only place I could reconcile the need to tell stories and to work in a visual art medium, and the desire to understand things at a technological level – and my fascination with engineering and technology.”
Dropping out of Fullerton College, James Cameron married his first wife Sharon Williams and drove a truck for the local school district. But not all was lost for the aspiring moviemaker. “I was in a small group of people who went to see every single science fiction film,” recollected Cameron. “When Star Wars (1977) came out, everybody wanted to catch that wave, but nobody knew how to do it. There was a group of guys who wanted to make a low-budget movie as a tax shelter. A friend of mine got involved with them pitching ideas like The Sorority Massacre type of stuff. He called me up and said, ‘Hey, have you got any ideas?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a couple.’’
Impressed with the story proposal, the investors wanted James Cameron to develop it further. “We shot some test shots in 16 m.m. and put together a little demo film. They liked that. Then they gave us another $20,000 to do a teaser that was meant to be part of a proposal to raise more money from a group of general partners. We shot a twelve-minute film with a lot of animation, visual effects, [and] matte paintings. We taught ourselves how to do it. For me, that was really the transition to being a filmmaker. To do that I had to quit my job driving a truck and work on that all the time.”
Xenogenesis (1978) is a science fiction short film in which a man (William Wisher Jr.) from the future battles with an armored robot. The plan to produce a feature length version never happened, however, the project did enable its originator to get a job sculpting models for a B-movie mogul, Roger Corman.
“I found I did pretty well in a chaotic environment,” stated Cameron of his time at New World Pictures during the early 1980s. “I could manipulate the situation to position myself to (a) learn what I needed to learn, (b) do what I wanted to do, and (c) advance to the next level. If they gave me the credits I should have gotten on that picture [Battle Beyond the Stars, 1980], I would have gotten five or six. I did matte paintings, was a visual effects cameraman, ran my own visual effects motion control unit, designed and built three-quarters of the sets as art director. I was a model builder and designed and built a front projection system. I operated it on the first day of shooting, then turned it over to some other people and went on to be art director. I was skipping from one job to another.”
Realizing that he had the stamina for the work and a basic understanding of filmmaking, James Cameron decided to take the next career leap. “I just basically went up to Roger one day and said, ‘I’d like to direct second unit on this.’ The film [Galaxy of Terror, 1981] that we were making at the time was a low budget-science fiction horror picture. And he game me a camera and a couple, two or three people, and we started a little second unit which basically became this steam roller that wound up shooting about a third of the picture because they were falling way behind on the first unit.”
Cameron fondly remembers the challenge of producing low-budget movies. “The funny thing was there was a real technical esprit de corps on the two Corman films I worked on. People didn’t like there to be obvious mistakes. But there was a limit to how good something could be, how good the acting was when you only get one or two takes and no rehearsal. The threadbare nature of the coverage and what we had to work with made it interesting.”
Hired to be the special effects director for Piranha II: The Spawning (1981), James Cameron found himself taking over when the original helmer left the project. Hampered by a non-English speaking Italian production crew, the experience became one of utter frustration for Cameron. “We were shooting in Jamaica and the dailies would go to New York and be processed. He [executive producer Ovidio G. Assonitis] would fly to New York and look at them and not send them back for me to see, so I wasn’t even seeing my own film. He came in and said, ‘Your stuff doesn’t work, doesn’t cut together. It’s a pile of junk and you’re off the movie,’ and then he took over the film.” After the unceremonious firing, James Cameron committed an act which has become a part of film folklore. “A couple of months later I went to Rome to find out what really happened, and he wouldn’t show me any of the film. I had been in Rome prepping the film for a couple of weeks before we went to Jamaica, and I remembered the code to get in. So I went in and ran the film for myself. It wasn’t that bad. All I wanted to know was one simple fact. Could I or could I not do this job?”
While in Italy, Cameron had a nightmare about a crippled robot from the future, hunting down its maimed female prey; the haunting image would provide him with the cinematic concept which would establish him as a Hollywood filmmaker.
Read part two and three.
Short Film Showcase - Xenogenesis (1978)
For more on James Cameron, visit JamesCameronOnline or James Cameron's Movies & Creations blog. For more on Avatar, visit the official site.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.