clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

“It’s Going to Be Epic”: The Oral History of James Cameron

From his early days as a special effects assistant to revolutionizing 3D filmmaking (again) with ‘Avatar: The Way of Water,’ one thing has always been clear: working with James Cameron is a singular experience

Carson McNamara

Sigourney Weaver didn’t want to star in a sequel to Alien. Then she read the screenplay. “Every single page was my character, expanded and with all kinds of different levels of drama,” she says. “Everything about the script was so good and powerful.”

Weaver wasn’t familiar with the young filmmaker who wrote it. But she could tell that his follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror classic was more than just a money grab. It was a war movie in space. To the actress, the idea of Ellen Ripley fighting aliens alongside a unit of colonial marines sounded great. There was only one problem: “First of all, I didn’t know there’d be machine guns in it,” she says. “And I had worked for gun control for a number of years. So I said, ‘I’m sorry, the gun thing, that’s not going to work for me.’”

Another director might’ve scoffed at Weaver. Or even thrown a tantrum to studio execs behind her back. But not James Cameron. He responded by taking her to a shooting range. After letting off a few bursts of ammunition, she began to see the world through Cameron’s eyes. “Unfortunately, or fortunately, that experience gives you so much adrenaline, and it’s a little bit transforming,” Weaver says. “And even though I still have very, very powerful reservations about guns, I had to embrace the fact that I was with an army unit and they were going to be using these guns. And at some point I would have to do that, too. But Jim really wants his actors to feel comfortable, to feel committed. So he always had me try everything first. And sometimes I’d say, ‘No, I don’t really want to do that.’ And he’d go, ‘Oh, come on.’”

Aliens was a typical Cameron blockbuster: exciting, moving, futuristic, propelled by a heroine, and full of things that audiences had never seen before. And, oh yeah: It was a box office smash that won two Oscars and earned seven nominations, including Weaver’s first.

This is the James Cameron way. He’s reinvented the popcorn flick every single time he’s made one, from The Terminator to Titanic to Avatar. Each of his movies is more ambitious, more expensive, and more imaginative than the last. He’s repeatedly outdone himself—and the rest of Hollywood. But while Cameron’s genius is unique, he hasn’t made magic alone. And if the last 40 years of moviemaking have convinced anyone of anything, it’s that collaborating with Cameron is a singular experience.

“When you work with Jim Cameron, it’s scary, but it’s also exhilarating,” Weaver says. “You have to bring it. You have to bring your top game.”

Part 1: “A Clear Vision.”

Technically, Cameron made his directorial debut in 1982 with Piranha II: The Spawning. But he actually got fired from that Jaws rip-off a week into filming. Not that it was a great loss to him. “It was,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2014, “a piece of garbage.” The first movie that was truly his was based on a fever dream that he had about a metal endoskeleton emerging from flames. The Terminator, which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, jump-started Cameron’s career. It was the first time the world saw the skills the Ontario, Canada, native had sharpened while working for legendary producer Roger Corman in the 1970s.

Roger Corman (filmmaker): I was making a science-fiction film. I think it was called Battle Beyond the Stars. And the shooting went very well. We were in postproduction. Everything was going along well, except our special effects department was falling behind schedule. So I sent my ace assistant, Gale Hurd, down to the studio to watch the special effects for a day and then tell me why they were falling behind schedule.

Gale Anne Hurd (producer, The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss; executive producer, Terminator 2: Judgment Day): I went down there, I walked in, and there was a tall blond gentleman, and he came right up to me and he said, “So are you here for a tour of the model shop?” And I said, “Yes,” assuming he was the head of the model shop. And not only did he show me around, but he explained the backstory for each of the ships and what it represented for the culture of that alien species. It was far beyond “Isn’t this cool? We just decided to do something that looks cool.” It all came from character.

James Cameron (director): It’s about storytelling.

Hurd: I left and went back to report to Roger. I said, “I met with Jim Cameron, the head of the model shop.” And he said, “No, he’s not.” Which was a big surprise to me. And I think I probably said, “Well, he should be.”

Corman: I talked with him for a little while, and I said, “Jim, this is something I’ve never done. I’m giving you a raise, and you’re going to be the new head of special effects.”

In addition, there’s always a little second-unit shooting that you do so that they can take care of some shots that your main crew doesn’t do. So I said, “Jim, I’d like to have you shoot some shots for me.” And he showed me the footage, and I thought, “This is better than the director of the picture.” I moved a lot of shooting over to the second unit, and Jim directed all of it. And every time, he was a better director than the director on the film.

Cameron: I mean, if you really just distill down what Roger was doing, he was cheap. He’d try to make a movie as cheaply as he could. He didn’t care about excellence. What he cared about was pushing buttons and being intriguing, just always being interesting. When I wrote The Terminator, I thought, “Be outrageous.”

(Arnold Schwarzenegger, actor, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies; from his memoir Total Recall): Mike Medavoy, the head of Orion Pictures, arranged for me to have lunch with the director of The Terminator, as well as the producers, John Daly and Gale Anne Hurd.

Hurd: Our financing hinged on getting Arnold Schwarzenegger to say yes to star in the film. Jim and I took him to lunch at a very swanky restaurant on Sunset Boulevard called Scandia. And it turned out that Jim didn’t have any credit cards, and I didn’t bring my purse. We figured, well, we’d worry about that later. So we had a wonderful lunch during which Arnold seemed most compelled by the character of the Terminator, even though we were told that the part he was going to be offered was Kyle Reese. And we were very excited because we knew he’d make a better Terminator. You could see the poster: Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator. And so the lunch went on. It was fantastic. I remember him saying that the Terminator should be like a shark—that he goes through any environment, but he has a mission and he has a goal and he will let nothing deter him.

Then the bill came, and we realized we couldn’t afford it. We just sat there and assumed Arnold would leave and then we’d figure out what to do. But he didn’t leave. And finally, the manager came over and said, “I’m sorry, we’re closing now.” And what I remember is Arnold saying, “You can’t afford the tab, right?” And Jim and I both looked at each other and thought, “Well, there goes the movie.” I mean, what star would work for two people who can’t even pick up a lunch tab?

Schwarzenegger: Gale didn’t have the money, Jim didn’t have any money. I mean, it’s funny that we were in a fancy restaurant.

Hurd: Arnold said, “You know what? That happened to me once at Mr. Chow’s in New York.”

Schwarzenegger: I had to pay for lunch, and it was OK.

Hurd: That was such a bonding experience because we were relating to each other as humans. And rather than cratering the entire project, I think it was the best possible way to kick things off. We were all going to share this adventure together on equal terms.

Michael Biehn (actor, The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss): I’d be lying if I told you I read the script for Terminator and thought, “Oh, my God. This is an incredible script. This is just going to be wonderful. It’s going to be epic.” Until I spent time with Jim himself and saw the passion that he had for it. You don’t have to be around him very long to realize that he’s very special.

Schwarzenegger: When he sits down and really thinks about things, he develops a clear vision. I can relate to that because I think this is the very thing that I was always good at in my career. I visualized becoming Mr. Universe. I visualized becoming a movie star. I visualized becoming governor.

Biehn: Being in Stan Winston’s special effects house and watching him and Jim creating the Terminator in front of my eyes, it was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

Corman: Needless to say, the special effects were extremely good because that’s where he started.

Mike Medavoy (cofounder, Orion Pictures): When [the Terminator] arrives and he’s naked and looking around, you go to that question: “Hey, what’s next?”

Biehn: [Jim] did things while we were shooting that you just don’t see other people do.

Schwarzenegger: He happens to also be an expert in military history, and military hardware, and weaponry, and all that stuff. He’s just such an expert with action.

Biehn: We did a scene in The Terminator where the car is screeching backward, Arnold is on fire, and he’s smashing his hands in the window of the car and grabbing Linda by her shirt. It’s all done in one take.

Hurd: That’s hard enough as it is. You can control it if the car is stationary. It’s dangerous if the car is moving. So Jim said, “We’re going to put a faux-brick wall on the grip truck and drive that past.” And that’s how we solved that problem. I defy anyone to look at that shot, given that it’s 1984 technology, and think it was anything but a moving car.

Biehn: That’s the type of thing that he did that you just went, “Wow.” I certainly never would’ve done it. I would never think of doing anything like that.

Getty Images

Part 2: “The Match That Lit the Whole Thing Up.”

The Terminator was a surprise hit in 1984. It was that script, which Cameron cowrote with Hurd, that landed the director the gig writing Aliensbefore The Terminator even came out.

Hurd: I don’t think people would immediately think, “Oh, the person who’s only directed Piranha II: The Spawning is going to be in the director’s chair for the sequel to Alien.”

Jenette Goldstein (actor, Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Titanic): The first time I met him was for Aliens. I’d met Gale Anne Hurd a couple times. She was in the initial interviews. I went down to Pinewood Studios, and I wasn’t sure who he was. I mean, I was figuring I was meeting the director, but then he was also crawling around on the floor with a camera and improvising with me.

Stephen Lang (actor, Avatar, Avatar: The Way of Water): My very first meeting with Jim was an audition for Aliens many, many years ago, and he recently reminded me of it. I knew that I had done the audition, and I kind of put it in the past because I didn’t get the part. What I found out years later was I came pretty close to getting the part, but I didn’t get it. And he always remembered my audition, which is very Cameron-like, you know what I mean? That’s like total Jim. He chapter and versed me my audition years later.

Sigourney Weaver (actor, Aliens, Avatar, Avatar: The Way of Water): I’d been sent this script for Aliens when I was working in France with Gérard Depardieu. And what I remember is that Jim was very—because we didn’t know each other—very concerned that I tell him how I felt about it.

Hurd: We didn’t have sequel mania like we do now, and the perception was that sequels would make maybe 60 percent of the box office revenue that the first film did. There was a lot of pressure on the budget for the film.

Sigourney, in her absolute self-confidence, said, “No, I think you’re paying me a million dollars for this,” or whatever her fee was. That’s when the sexism of the studio and the times reared its ugly head, and the administration came to Jim and said, “Write a new script without her.” And he wouldn’t do it.

Weaver: I think we had a brief phone conversation from France where I said, “Wow, what a script.” We agreed to meet in California when I came back—and he talks about this—but he decided that if I was going to wear high heels, I would try to dominate the relationship. I think because I probably showed up in sneakers, he thought, “OK, it’s going to be all right.”

Hurd: The seminal element of the script is her—the Joseph Campbell reluctant hero or, in this case, heroine. Sadly, the scene that we had to trim because of the running length [is] when she promises her own daughter that she’ll be back for her birthday and she isn’t. That was really the moment and the scene that created the drive that Ripley’s character has toward not betraying another child, her essentially surrogate daughter, Newt.

Biehn: I don’t think that there’s any chance that it’s just happenstance. Oh, it just turns out that he’s had these strong women characters. I think that that’s been part of his design, something that he’s wanted to bring to the forefront with every single film he’s ever made.

Goldstein: You know them in your life. I mean, that’s the crazy thing. It’s like my aunts, my grandma—you just don’t see them up there on the screen. I never understood why not.

Schwarzenegger: He always makes women the hero in all his movies.

Weaver: When I think about the power loader and the Queen, it had to have that kind of huge set in order for you to be able to appreciate both those characters. And so he’s done a lot of this work as a vision. But what was fascinating was as I was practicing my work in the power loader, this big dude would help me lift the machine. Because the machine was quite real. We also had guys who were hidden in the Queen making the arms move. So there was so much preparation that went into it. So much thought. Nothing was really left to chance. And then I was allowed to just bring the acting to it, the passion to it, the desire to survive. And that was the match that lit the whole thing up.

Biehn: Aliens, to me, is a perfect movie. If you look at Terminator, there’s a stop-motion shot of the Terminator, Arnold carving out his eye. It’s dated now, those visual effects. But you could release Aliens in theaters this Friday, and nobody would bitch and moan about the visual effects of that movie. To me, they still stand up 30 or 40 years later. Just incredible.

Getty Images

Part 3: “There Is Nothing That He Won’t Do. And It Inspires You.”

Working with Cameron is a collaborative but extremely intense experience. Like a good coach, he tailors his approach to each individual performer, regardless of their star power.

Weaver: He thinks that actors are so special.

Tom Arnold (actor, True Lies): He had to go to Fox Studios, who was financing the most expensive movie he ever made, and give them the great news. And so he went in there and he said, “Hey, good news. We found the third guy after Jamie Lee and Arnold, and we can start filming True Lies.” And they’re like, “That is fantastic news, Jim. Who is it?” He said, “It’s Tom Arnold.” And they’re like, “That’s horrible news, Jim Cameron. That’s horrible.” And he said, “Why?” And they said, “Well, don’t you read the tabloids? I don’t think he’s done much. He’s crazy. You read it.” And Jim Cameron, to his credit—this is the best thing anybody’s ever done for me—he said, “No, I don’t read the tabloids. And I wrote this, and he is the guy.” And they’re like, “Well, we’re sorry, Jim, but we cannot approve Tom Arnold for this movie.”

And Jim said, “Oh, no, no. I’m sorry, because I wanted to make the movie here at Fox. Now I’m going to go down the street to Paramount.” They’re like, “OK. We’ll give him a chance.” So every day on the set, I was hugging him, saying, “Thanks for loving me,” basically.

Schwarzenegger: He’s a really, really fun guy to work with because you can count on him that he will get 100 percent of your performance.

Lang: I used to always make this joke, and I made it many times: The two on-set jobs that Jim Cameron respects the most are acting and catering because those are the two jobs that he knows he can’t do better than everybody else.

Weaver: He’s so good at every job except acting.

Danny Nucci (actor, Titanic): I mean, I’ve seen him take the makeup palette and really do something with the blood and the scar. Literally everything stops, and Jim does it because that’s the way he wanted. That’s the vision that he had.

Goldstein: It’s just somebody demanding the best of you.

Lang: I remember that very first day that I worked on the first Avatar back in 2007. I was lifting weights with him, and I remember that they had some weight on there. And I said to the prop man, “You’ve got to put more weight on there. That doesn’t look like it’s enough to me.” He said, “You want more weight on there?” And I said, “Yeah, put more.” If you look at it, there’s some good stacks on there—it looks like it’s probably around 280 or 300 pounds or something. But I remember Jim saying, “You’re going to have to lift that all day.” And I was like, “I’m good. It’s cool. Go work.” So he was like, “OK.”

Biehn: We do a take on The Terminator, and Jim says, “Michael, that’s exactly what I don’t want.” I said, “OK, Jim.” I said, “Everybody here knows you can do their job better than they can. Everybody knows that. I know that. But I know another thing, and that is, you can’t play Kyle Reese, so give me a line reading and let’s move on.” He did and I did, and that was that.

Lang: Jim’s real genius is how adept he is at dealing with actors in the way that they need to be dealt with. We thrash our stuff out. We wrangle a lot, we spar a lot, which is not all that unusual when you consider the fact that he and I have been kickboxing and quarterstaff fighting together for a number of years. And when we are working, the crew tends to pay attention. I’m not saying they don’t pay attention at other times, but they kind of prick up their ears to see what’s going to happen. This is our experience. I believe that we both derive energy off of that.

Biehn: I’ve played all these rugged characters, all these future fighters. If there’s anybody that I have ever met—including all the SEALs I’ve worked with, all the Special Forces guys I’ve worked with—who I would want in a foxhole with me, it would be Jim Cameron.

Nucci: If the world was ending, I want to be with Jim Cameron. Wherever he is, I trust that he will figure it out.

Arnold: Jim Cameron, he’s a rawboned, 6-foot-3 fucking Canadian dude, man. He’s ready to go. And part of the reason for his success is because he is that guy. If he tells Arnold, “I want you to go down this escalator, jump over, do that,” and Arnold looks at it and goes, “Boy, I don’t know if I could do it,” he goes, “OK. I’ll do it.” He’ll do it. There is nothing that he won’t do. And it inspires you.

Goldstein: I really remember the little boy in the scene [in Titanic] where we’re caught down behind the gate. All he had done was, like, a McDonald’s commercial. The little girl had been on a couple TV shows, so she was a pro. And he was tiny. He was a little worried and scared. And we did the master. We did one take of it. And then Jim goes, “All right. Cut. We’re going again.” The little boy goes, “Did I not do it right?” And then everybody started laughing.

And Jim goes, “Quiet. Please, quiet.” Because it was very cute. Everybody stopped. He knows all of those people. And he just sort of went and talked to the little boy. And he spent a minute there explaining to the little boy how it works. “We’re going to do this, and then you’re going to do it again. You think you can do it, like, three times? And then we’re going to move the camera. Is that OK?” It was so, so sweet. And he said, “So, is that OK? You think you can do it?” And then he started again. And it was really amazing. And everyone was just like, “Wow.” In this huge, stressful moment, he was able to get this performance out of this little boy and calm his fears.

Twentieth Century Fox

Part 4: “Whatever the Story Is, He’s Going to Max It Out”

Outdoing yourself is hard. Shooting a Cameron film is a challenge. The stars of The Abyss were pushed to their mental and physical limits during grueling underwater scenes. On the set of Titanic, some presumably aggrieved person spiked the chowder with PCP. Cameron’s uncompromising drive might bristle, but it’s helped him break both new ground and box office records.

Hurd: The technology, at least ILM’s technology, to create the CGI pseudopod or water snake did not exist at the time we embarked in preproduction for The Abyss. It didn’t exist. No one in the world could have created that. And we had to go into Fox and tell them we could pull it off. And Dennis Muren, our visual effects supervisor, took I don’t know how many months off to become a coder, to actually learn how to create a 3D CGI effect.

That was the film when Jim took on so many things that didn’t exist before that were essential to making the film. The first is there was no place to film it, so he and the underwater cinematographer, Al Giddings, went to try to find a location, and they found the uncompleted nuclear power plant in Gaffney, South Carolina, and decided it could be made into a filming tank. I mean, imagine that?

Jon Landau (producer, Titanic, Avatar, Avatar: The Way of Water): I think what he has is the skill as a writer to write stories without regard to what’s possible technologically but to then say, “OK, this is the story I want to tell because I think it’s going to move people. Now, how can I be the impetus for that technology?” He understands the technology side and how to push people. He doesn’t always necessarily have the answer himself, but he can say, “I think you could figure this out.” And he throws out a germ of an idea that they then run with. And he did that going back to The Abyss.

Weaver: I love The Abyss. It combined his fascination with the deep and all of his skills in diving with this incredible love story and kind of scary story. That movie will always be ahead of its time because it was so daring.

Biehn: I don’t know when they used CGI first, but it was the first time that I was aware of CGI. Jim doesn’t set out to make easy movies ever.

Hurd: We also, for budgetary purposes, had to shoot a six-day week.

Biehn: Jim was putting in 18-hour days. Gale was probably putting in 18-hour days.

Hurd: Life’s Abyss, then you dive.

Biehn: In the third act of that movie, when Ed Harris is bringing [Mary] Elizabeth Mastrantonio back to life [screaming], “Wake up, you bitch!” and slapping her, it’s emotionally draining. It’s an emotional high not only for the characters in the movie, but for the audience.

Weaver: It’s so many levels of experience that the audience gets to participate in. And I think it’s irresistible because it’s like an out-of-body experience in a way, to participate in and watch a Cameron movie.

Arnold: We’re on the street on Constitution Avenue, which is a big, busy street in Washington, D.C. And we’re sitting there, I’m in the front seat with Arnold, and Bill Paxton is sitting between us. We’re shooting the shit. And all of a sudden, there’s 500 people watching, and we’re ready to shoot the scene, and the light over here goes out. And so Arnold’s like, “That’ll take 20 minutes. I’m going to take you guys on a tour of the fucking monuments.”

Schwarzenegger: I said, “Tom. You’ve never seen the Capitol, yeah?”

Arnold: Nobody has ever been happier to be an American than Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is so fucking proud of this. So we’re driving, he’s like, “Oh, look, the fucking Lincoln Memorial there. You know what it is?” And on and on. I’m looking at Bill Paxton. Anyway, we come back around the block, and in the middle of the block is James Cameron, standing there as Arnold pulls the car up. And bam, he hits the hood of the car and he comes around—because it didn’t take 20 minutes to change that light. It took two.

Schwarzenegger: He went berserk. He was screaming his head off and accusing us of being guilty and at fault of, after one week of shooting, already [being] two weeks behind.

Arnold: He’s like, “Hey, motherfucker, you do that shit again …” I get back in the car, and I’m sitting next to Arnold, and I’m like, “Are you going to take shit from that asshole?” And he’s like, “I have to. I fucked up.” Which is such a good lesson.

Lang: He’s got a very dry, very sharp, very ironic sense of humor, and he can level it at me pretty good and doesn’t mind at all if I level it right back at him.

Arnold: Stan Winston told me that once a movie goes over time or over budget, Jim has a different personality. They call it Mij, m-i-j.

Weaver: When I first met him on Aliens, he was still trying to make a name for himself. And so it wasn’t really until we were on the world tour with Aliens that, sitting with him at dinner, I went, “You’re funny? Where was this guy all those months?”

Biehn: I’ve heard Jim use the phrase to people working on those movies often: “Don’t help, don’t help.” Which I’ve always thought was kind of a funny way of saying, “You’re kind of fucking this up. Let me do it myself.”

Goldstein: You need someone who has your back, and they trust you, even though you’re scared to death. He was like, “I trust you, what you’re going to try. And if I don’t like something, I will tell you.” It seems to me that he casts for the story. He’s not influenced by other things.

Weaver: Whatever the story is, he’s going to max it out. He’s going to make it the most powerful, the most suspenseful, the most terrifying. That’s just so natural to him, to push the envelope so that it’s not just the ship hitting the iceberg.

Landau: Jim walked into a big marketing meeting in the executive room. And everybody was there, and Jim comes in, he walks right around, nods to everybody. Comes right around to me, and he goes, “So I understand we’re going to get to be pretty good friends or bitter enemies.” And I looked up to him, and I said, “Pretty good friends, I hope.” I was the studio exec, he was the director. But it was out of that dynamic and that relationship that we started talking about doing Titanic together.

Lang: If you look at the number of characters in Titanic, the way they’re developed, it’s extraordinary. Some of them only have one scene, some of them have 20 seconds, but you know all you need to know about them.

Schwarzenegger: I can tell you that my two favorite movies of all time are Titanic and Avatar. They happen to be two Cameron movies.

Lang: Avatar aside, I would pick Titanic as my favorite. And that’s not because I don’t think Aliens is amazing. Really, all his films are wonderful. The love story just gets me big time.

Goldstein: I got there, down to Rosarito [Beach], and you see the ship in the distance. That was something.

Nucci: We were all convinced that this was an unbelievable undertaking. That the scope of what we were doing was just unprecedented. And we were all, to a certain degree, in awe of it.

Goldstein: And then you go into the soundstages. I remember the producer took me. She said, “Oh, you want to see the soundstages?” And the ballroom. It was incredible. And then I always remember the wardrobe, with the wigs and the beaded dresses. Incredible. And then, getting down onto the Titanic, I mean, the interior, there was the gangplank you had to go down. You were just on the ship. It was stunning.

Nucci: We’re shooting this really sort of complex scene, and I’m in the middle of the boat and I’m supposed to be swimming, and he’s got eight cameras. And it was just the two of us in this boat in the middle of Rosarito Beach and the tank on the set. And I don’t think I’d ever been alone in a room with Jim ever before, so it was just this awkward moment. Now, at this point I’ve been yelled at 15 times. It’s no longer personal. It’s not about me. So I’m a little trepidatious. So I sit there and I think, “What’s the first thing I’m going to say to Jimmy?” “Hey, Jim, this is kind of cool, all this stuff, all these cameras.”

And he’s like, “Ah, this is just annoying.” He goes, “All I can see is what can go wrong.” I go, “Well, what’s your favorite part?” He goes, “It’s the acting.” I go, “So what? You want to do a movie with four people in a room?” He goes, “Yes.” And so we chatted about that for a while till it was time to go. And then it was like, “OK, off you go in the water.” And we shot the scene. So when I saw Avatar, I was like, of course. Of course this is what he’s done. Makes all the sense in the world.

Getty Images

Part 5: “He’ll Probably Live to Be 105.”

Released 25 years ago this month, Titanic went on to become the highest-grossing movie of all time. At the 1998 Oscars, the epic drama won Best Picture, and Cameron also took home the award for Best Director. In his acceptance speech, he borrowed Jack Dawson’s signature line, shouting, “I’m the king of the world!”

In 2003, the director literally returned to the Titanic while making the documentary Ghosts of the Abyss. He followed that two years later with another doc: Aliens of the Deep. By then, Cameron was busy creating a whole new world.

Biehn: I had a meeting with him on the Fox lot the year that he won the Academy Award. I was in his office talking to him, and I said, “Jim, you just won the Academy Award. You’re at the top of your game here. What do you do next? Where do you go from here?”

If my memory is correct, he was sitting at a desk, and he opened his desk drawer. He reached in, and he pulled out two scripts. They weren’t treatments. They were full scripts. I knew what they looked like by that time in my life, and one was called Avatar, and the other one was called Alita: Battle Angel. I didn’t know anything about Alita: Battle Angel. I’m like, “Wow, which one are you going to do, Jim?” Jim said, “Michael, I have to wait for the technology to catch up to my vision of what these movies should look like.”

Landau: I first read his first draft of Avatar before we did Titanic. And we knew that the technology did not exist to do it at that time. And I give Jim credit for not saying, “OK, let’s make this movie the bad way.” But “Let’s put it to the side.” And then in 2005, that’s when I went to him and I said, “Jim, I think we can now be the impetus to finally make this movie.” And then it was a toss-up between Alita and Avatar, and we really went a whole year before ultimately committing to Avatar.

Weaver: He said he was working on this thing, Avatar, that he’d written a part for a guy, a sort of professor or doctor creature. And he decided that I should play the part. And what I remember is that he really wanted me to do it. I’m like, “Why wouldn’t I? It sounds fantastic.” So he sends me this script. Honestly, I’m a very fast reader. I try not to read scripts too fast. This script, every page was so filled with details about the world of Pandora, details about the action, the character.

It took me so long to read each page, let alone put together how on earth he was going to get any of this to actually work—direhorses, banshees, and ikrans, all these other things. I thought, “I can’t imagine a movie that’s this ambitious.” And he was just hoping I’d say yes. And I was like, “Well, how can I say no to something that has never been done before?”

Goldstein: I don’t know anything about 3D and all of that. I figured if anybody can do it and make me not feel nauseous while watching the film, he could.

Lang: I do remember having heated arguments about where a “bansheet”—we called them “bansheet” back then—was. I’d have to track them and shoot them, and there’d be like three Xs on the wall. And he’d say, “It’s there.” And then I’d just fuck around and say, “No, it’s not, it’s over there.” “No, goddamn it, it’s not.” I said, “It’s over there, can’t you see?”

Weaver: We had to make these very sophisticated props that weren’t even going to be seen in the movie for us to use just in the scenes that we were shooting with performance capture.

Lang: Performance capture puts some fairly rigorous and stringent kind of demands on you. It’s very, very important to turn that into an advantage, to turn that into a challenge that is a good challenge rather than an obstacle. It’s always going to be difficult. And Jim is very adept at removing the problem for you.

Weaver: I would say that what’s nice about Jim, working with him on the Avatar movies, is he’s very, very relaxed. These are his babies. He’s written such powerful stories that in a sense we all relax and realize that we’re here to serve the story, and if we serve the story, everything’s going to be fine because he’s done the heavy lifting for us. All we have to do is embody these characters, and the story’s going to work for the audience in a tremendously satisfying way.

When Avatar was released in 2009, it, naturally, beat Titanic’s all-time box office record. Over the last 13 years, it’s continued to float around the top of that list, trading the top spot with behemoths like Avengers: Endgame. (Avatar’s 2021 rerelease in China put it back into first place.) During that time, Cameron has produced television and movies, including Alita: Battle Angel, eventually directed by Robert Rodriguez. Cameron also took his love of the ocean to a new level in 2012, becoming the first person to make a solo expedition to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. All the while, the now 68-year-old director was looking to the future. Avatar: The Way of Water, out on December 16, and its sequels are more than a decade in the making.

Corman: Somebody asked me in some interview what I thought of the Marvel films, and I said, “They’re brilliantly made technically, but there’s no story,” and I said, “They should do what Jim does.”

Hurd: It’s not like he’s been sitting around doing nothing. He was creating the technology that allowed him to do things that no other human being has ever done.

Landau: We didn’t want to have the hubris to go, “Let’s go make a sequel,” until we knew how the movie played out. When we saw the success of the movie, we said, “Yes, we want to do that.” But there were other things in our lives that we wanted to get back to and do. Jim built a submersible and went to the Mariana Trench. We converted Titanic, and we rereleased it. Then in 2012 we said, “OK, now let’s focus on the Avatar sequels.” And Jim went out and he created 1,500 pages of story notes—and we realized, OK, we’re now talking not one sequel, but multiple sequels.

Lang: The Avatar factor was always there in my life. Now and again there’d be a call from Jim or there’d be a call from Landau saying, “OK, we’re going to send a courier with a script, and he’ll sit there while you read it and then give it back to him.” Finally, sometime around 2015 or ’16, we actually started getting together and preparing, schooling ourselves and rehearsing and underwater training.

Weaver: I look at Avatar and I look at the new one and how ambitious it is, and [how Cameron helped] all of us actors to be comfortable underwater, to be able to do all these very challenging things in a confident way, a professional way. Of course we know that we’re going to be safe. You’re going to be taken care of. He has the best people around him, people he really trusts to make sure that there’s safety. And so the rest of it is, you just give it your heart and soul.

Lang: If I said we didn’t have expectations and high hopes, I would be probably lying to you because the precedent that was set was pretty extraordinary. Nobody is as aware of that as Jim Cameron, and nobody is as dead set on surpassing that as Jim Cameron. That’s just who he is.

Weaver: We really are kind of a family, all of us together. On Friday nights, which would usually be about 9 o’clock at night, he would bring out this very good tequila. Whoever wanted to could have a little shot of tequila, including the people who were also doing all the technical stuff behind us at the computers. So everyone would have this little party. And of course I’m terrible with liquor, so he would usually try to make me have some. I cannot drink anything that tastes that much like alcohol. So I’m always good for a laugh: “Weaver, try to chug down this thing.” I think he always appreciated how hard everybody worked, and we appreciated how much faith he had in us. It was quite a voyage.

Arnold: He has this amazing life. He’s been married five times. I’ve only married four times. And I talked to him three or four years ago, and I said, “Yeah, I’m not going to do that again.” And he said, “Hey, nobody writes your fucking life story tomorrow. You write it. You write the end. You write it all. Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do something.”

Schwarzenegger: He became a mentor in many ways. And to have him as my friend? I need any help, I need anything from him, he’s there.

Biehn: Jim Cameron, I believe, is going to be making movies for another 30 years. Suzy, his wife, has written a [plant-based nutrition] book, and he has eaten the best diet you can possibly have for your health. He doesn’t have any vices. His vice is his work.

Look at Clint Eastwood. Look at Ridley Scott. Look at people like that. Jim will have access to the best medical health care in the world and he’ll probably live to be 105, and he’ll be making content that entire time.

Schwarzenegger: I mean, he is such a great storyteller, so I don’t think that Jim will really retire from that. I mean, why would you?

Tea Time

Adam Levine’s Third Baby, Olivia Culpo’s Reality Show, and Beyoncé‘s Dubai Adventure

The Big Picture

‘Knock at the Cabin’ and Shyamalan Double Features, With M. Night Shyamalan!

The Town

DC Is Going Big, but Can It Catch Marvel?

View all stories in Movies