James Cameron says he doesn't have much interest in making low-budget films
Last updated August 21 2010 12:01AM, The Times
Avatar sequels, shooting on Mars: the most powerful man in Hollywood still has plenty of unfinished business
A day before my interview with James Cameron, 20th Century Fox phone to check that I’ve seen Avatar. An amusing suggestion: is there anyone left who hasn’t? “I think actually quite a few,” Cameron shrugs, gazing out across the Pacific from a beachside hotel on a cloudy Santa Monica morning. A statement of fact or regret? It’s not quite clear. The numbers remain staggering. Add together the estimated cinema, DVD and TV audiences and the best part of a billion earthlings have viewed his galactic epic — the rest, presumably, were still frolicking in the rainforest. Having mopped up globally with his previous outing, Titanic (1997), the erstwhile Biggest Film Of All Time (Avatar has bagged $2.7bn at the box office), it’s all ho-hum for a man whose ambition is rarely measured in terms less than planetary. He’s been working with Nasa, he explains, designing the stereoscopic imaging of the rover they’re launching to the Red Planet next year: “We’ll literally be shooting a 3-D movie on Mars.”
You can argue Avatar’s merits until you’re blue in the face. Cameron’s tale of a quasi-neocon mission to Halliburton-ise the blissful Planet Pandora is either the most wondrous spectacle this side of the Lumière brothers, or a coldly synthetic exercise in shock and awe, whose only Oscars were technical ones. Given that it took Cameron 15 years to realise the film (half as long again as the most enduring of his five marriages), you have every sympathy when he blurts: “I am so sick of looking at blue people.” He is joking. He’s currently finishing Avatar’s novelisation, rather than “hiring some hack writer to come in and turn the script into a fluffed- out piece of garbage”. After that, it’s on with the screenplays for Avatars 2 and 3. “Both follow- on stories. The second and third act of a larger story arc.”
More immediately, on August 27, comes Avatar: Special Edition, to be screened in 3-D and IMAX theatres, featuring eight minutes and 50 seconds of extra footage. “Five per cent longer,” as he puts it. There will be mildly bluer shenanigans between Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). “It’s not like them ripping their gear off and getting to it. It would more accurately be described as alien foreplay.” There are inserted CGI sequences portraying the hunting of a Sturmbeest, plus the resolved demise of the Na’vi warrior Tsu’tey. “A very powerful and very emotional scene, the best CG work in the film,” Cameron says. “Everyone said; ‘You’re mad’ when I said I was taking it out.” So why did he? “I might have been a little conservative in terms of the playability of the film for a global audience. We didn’t know if this movie was gonna work.” Yep, not 12 months ago, Avatar was being vaunted as a turkey, the product of a man who’d spent the past 12 years in a diving submersible. “We knew that we had something good, but there’s a difference between having something good and having something that’s a hit.” This is Avatar in all its glory, he declares, “an opportunity, at the end of the summer, to have one last hurrah as a family outing”.
One suspects that the ker-ching of cash registers had something to do with it, too. Indeed, Cameron is disappointed that Avatar was yanked from its theatrical run to make way for Alice in Wonderland. “We lost all of our IMAX screens in one night. We were still selling out on most of those. There was an arbitrary cut-off.” In other words, unfinished business.
These days, the 56-year-old Canadian is just about the most powerful man in Hollywood, more so even than Spielberg — from his Terminator films to Aliens, through The Abyss, True Lies and that one about the boat. His reputation goes before him — technical genius, deep-sea diving pioneer, a self-styled “king of the world” only one “I do” shy of Henry VIII — and something of an on-set tyrant (Kate Winslet vowed she’d never work with him again after nearly “drowning” on Titanic). On Avatar, he routinely nail-gunned to the wall any un-silenced mobile phone. A fearsome reputation? “Oh, I hope so,” he quips. “Especially with my kids. I don’t want them to love me, just fear me.” Given his recourse to banter, you suspect he hams it up a bit — not difficult in an industry where a fractured fingernail has an actor screaming to their analyst. With so much at stake (Avatar cost about $300m) it is not, perhaps, unreasonable for a general to seek total command of his troops. His crew were “striving for excellence,” he insists. “We pushed each other every day, but not to the extent you’re doing anything that’s gonna require years of therapy to correct.”
His most immediate legacy is a physical one — you can’t go to the pictures any more without sporting a clunking pair of specs. He has turned 3-D, a forgotten Fifties bug, into a contagion, something, he predicts, that will be a pandemic within a few years. He is retro-fitting Titanic for a 3-D release in 2012. “2.9,” he corrects. “Still .9 better than it looked originally.” One day, he thinks, “there may be a time when you wear a pair of glasses that write an image on to the retina of your eye with a laser. They have stuff like that now in development stages.”
Other Cameron projects include a diving drama, Sanctum; a Japanese comic-book fantasy, Battle Angel; remakes of the sci-fi classics Forbidden Planet and Fantastic Voyage; producing Guillermo Del Toro’s H. P. Lovecraft adaptation The Mountains of Madness; and a 3-D concert film for Black-Eyed Peas. There is also his “Schindler’s List”, a pet project about the atom-bombing of Japan (he recently optioned Last Train from Hiroshima, about a man who survived that A-bomb and the one dropped on Nagasaki). “How much can people really stand to see the truth?” he wonders. “How do you find an artistic way to deal unflinchingly with what happened?” But the Avatar series will garner most attention. “Pandora is a big world,” he says, “with a lot of different rich environments. One that I personally lean toward is the ocean. I’m looking forward to getting back in with the designers and coming up with some amazing new flora and fauna.”
Does he ever fancy making a low-budget road movie with just a couple of characters? “I do, but it passes,” he says. “Like a bad gas pain.”
Avatar: Special Edition is on general release from Friday