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“It Was Going to Bomb”: Inside the Making of James Cameron’s ‘Aquaman’ (on the TV Show ‘Entourage’)

Before ‘Avatar’ and before Jason Momoa joined the DC Extended Universe, there was another Arthur Curry, played by the young hot shot Vincent Chase and shepherded by the king of the blockbuster

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“What a fucking stupid movie—the only way it could be good is if James Cameron directed it.”

And with that thought, film history was born. Three years before James Cameron debuted Avatar and more than a decade before Jason Momoa’s Aquaman swam to over $1 billion, Cameron teamed with an up-and-coming movie star for his own Aquaman and set the record for highest-grossing opening weekend. Or at least that’s what happened on seasons 2 and 3 of HBO’s seminal bro-comedy series Entourage.

After a successful first season that seized on a culture’s obsession with celebrity and entertainment and featured cameos from the likes of Jessica Alba and Larry David, creator Doug Ellin was looking for both the show and its protagonist, Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), to jump to the next level. “It’s Spider-Man underwater—boom,” Vince’s boisterous agent Ari (Jeremy Piven) declares in his first pitch of Aquaman, citing the recent success of Tobey Maguire’s webslinger. With no director attached and not wanting to be locked into the “same role for the rest of my life,” Vince had no interest—a move that, three years before the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, made a lot of sense. “I didn’t see any way you could make that movie,” Ellin told me in 2018. “I’m not a big comic book or superhero person, but it just seemed very silly.” But two words would change the minds of everyone involved: James Cameron.

“It was a really accurate depiction of what an actor goes through when they take on a tentpole franchise,” Jerry Ferrara says. “I remember thinking, ‘What would I do if I got offered a ton of money to do a movie that I didn’t fully believe in?’ Because, in the beginning, Aquaman was a bad movie. If you remember the costume that was wheeled out, it was a joke. My favorite line in that story line was E calling Ari, and Ari’s like, ‘There better be a scud missile heading toward Beverly Hills,’ and E goes, ‘No, there’s a fucking iceberg: James Cameron’s directing Aquaman.’ … It goes from being, ‘Man, I’m just doing this movie because I want the paycheck,’ to, ‘Holy shit, this could be Terminator.’”

As he’s proved time and time again, Cameron has the power—and confidence—to defy expectations and turn even the most troubled or ridiculous-sounding project into a certified blockbuster classic. And that’s exactly what he did with the fictional Aquaman, all while helping a well-liked industry comedy catapult toward being one of HBO’s most popular series of all time.

When Entourage debuted in 2004, Vince was far from being the kind of superstar that the series’ inspiration, Mark Wahlberg, who also executive-produced the show, was. Vince’s rise coincided with the emergence of the show’s core cast, which lacked established stars. Vince’s career kicks off in the pilot with the release of his first shot at leading man status, the modestly budgeted thriller Head On, which costarred Alba and opened as the no. 1 live-action film at the box office. Then, following the filming of his passion project, the independent feature Queens Boulevard, Vince turns his attention to the Pablo Escobar biopic Medellin. But Ari pushes Aquaman, saying Vince can’t get on the list for a movie like Medellin yet. “Before he did Born on the Fourth of July, Tom Cruise did Top Gun,” he points out. “We need a commercially viable popcorn flick.”

“We were always thinking, ‘What would be a cool movie that none of us could get made?’” Entourage writer-producer Rob Weiss says. “Aquaman, I have memories of being, like, ‘What the fuck does that movie even look like? Do they shoot the whole thing underwater?’”

“I thought it was a joke, frankly,” director Dan Attias adds. “I didn’t realize it was a real thing.”

Vince eventually agrees to a meeting with Warner Bros. after being intrigued by the script from Se7en’s Andrew Kevin Walker, and the executives promise that they’re pursuing a darker, grittier film, citing Tim Burton’s Batman. “Andrew Kevin Walker actually sent us a card with a couple bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue and cigars,” says Weiss, “and he was like, ‘Thank you so much for making my career better on your show than it is in real life.’” But then the suits at WB wheel out a rhinestone-covered costume that’s more “underwater Elton John” than the Dark Knight. “Just before I started on Entourage, my brother, Ed Burns, had been approached about a superhero movie,” shares producer Brian Burns, referencing his filmmaker-actor sibling. “I remember his reaction being one of enormous hesitation, just because of the discomfort he felt about getting into a superhero costume—like, would he look goofy? So that was what I was pitching initially with Aquaman, that Vince’s hesitation would be, ‘I came here to be a real actor and now I’m going to get into a Halloween costume?’”

Ari later shares that WB is willing to commit to Vince for at least two Aquaman films, and between that promise of mind-blowing money and the later revelation of Cameron’s involvement, Vince decides to dive in. Unfortunately for Entourage post-production supervisor Janace Tashjian, the realization of Cameron’s name being dropped in the story line was one of panic, not excitement. There was a pretty simple reason for that: No one had actually asked James Cameron if they could put him in their show. “I wrote it in the script, I never spoke to her about it,” says Ellin of Tashjian, who worked with Cameron on the Alba-led action series Dark Angel, the documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, and the still-to-come smash Avatar. “She read the script and was like, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Just get him!’ Honestly, it’s so ridiculous that I thought we could.” Still, in the mind of Ellin and the Entourage writers, there was no Aquaman without the big-budget, world-building maestro. “Titanic, The Abyss, that’s a guy who works with water, he gets it,” Weiss says. “You go, ‘Oh, I don’t know how the hell he is doing it, but I’m sure he’s going to come up with something.’”

The pressure was suddenly on Tashjian, who received the Cameron-themed scripts while spending her between-seasons hiatus collaborating with him on Aliens of the Deep. “I was terrified,” she told Ellin and Kevin Connolly last year on an episode of their Entourage podcast, Victory. “Like, I can’t ask him. We had a great relationship, but there was nothing in me that said that would be cool for me to do. … He did love the show, and he did know that Jessica had been on.” Stepping out to lunch (or maybe it was coffee) with the Oscar-winner, Tashjian decided that she had nothing to lose. “I was totally convinced that he would say no—but he didn’t, he said yes; he didn’t even hesitate. … He said, ‘Whatever I can get done in a day, I will do.’”

It was a game-changing domino for Entourage. While most of the Season 1 cameos were secured as favors to Wahlberg and executive producer–writer Larry Charles, Cameron opened the door for appearances by James Woods (as Aquaman’s villain) and Mandy Moore, who played a fictionalized version of herself—not to mention all of the A-list cameos that would litter Entourage after the Aquaman arc. “The minute he agreed, James Cameron elevated the world for us,” Ferrara says. “It’s a big reason why we had as much success as we did early on.”

Off screen, Tashjian had secured a major coup, but, onscreen, it turns out that the Terminator filmmaker doesn’t even know who Vince is. Cowritten by Weiss, the second-season episode “The Sundance Kids” features Cameron making his Entourage debut, attending the premiere of Queens Boulevard to get a look at his potential leading man. But Cameron’s not the first powerful industry figure the guys encounter at the Sundance Film Festival. Years before Harvey Weinstein was exposed as a serial sexual abuser, the late actor Maury Chaykin parodied him in “The Sundance Kids” by playing a hot-tempered producer named Harvey Weingard. Before the screening of Queens Boulevard, Turtle and Drama spot Cameron in line for snacks—Big Jim is a Sour Patch Kids guy!—as, just mere feet away, E is breaking the news to Weingard that Vince is passing on the producer’s surfing movie in favor of holding out for Aquaman. This prompts Weingard to verbally unload on E, a familiar trait of Weinstein. “Fucking Harvey,” Cameron chuckles to himself. “I think we all had beef with Harvey,” Weiss shares. “He published something I didn’t like and my agency was like, ‘You can’t sue because you’ll never work again.’ So when we had this opportunity, I was like, ‘Hell yeah, I’m in.’”

Coincidentally, Cameron had his own reasons to mock Weinstein. Ellin recalls talking to Cameron on the way over to film the scene and the director sharing a story from the 1998 Oscars, where Cameron won Best Film Editing, Best Director, and Best Picture for Titanic and nearly ended up hitting Weinstein with his trophy. “I was very nervous when I walked up to him and said, ‘Hey, are you OK saying something like “Fuck Harvey,” or “Fucking Harvey”?’” says Ellin. “And he was like, ‘Done!’”

By episode’s end, Vince becoming Cameron’s Aquaman was also a done deal. And while Cameron filmed just two scenes on the Paramount lot in that one day, he left a mark on the Entourage crew. Weiss remembers having lunch with him and being impressed by how much of a “real cat” he was, which might be demonstrated by the prank he played on Ellin. “I get to set, and the golf cart comes running over, like, ‘Mr. Cameron’s going nuts, he says these aren’t the pages he read,’” Ellin recalls. “I’m like, ‘What? The pages didn’t change at all.’ I had heard that he’s a tough guy to deal with, so now I’m in a complete panic. I get there, and he’s like, ‘I’m not reading this crap!’ And everyone starts laughing. I almost had a heart attack.”

Ferrara says it seemed like Cameron was thrilled to be free from all of his normal on-set responsibilities. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t putting in some important labor. “In his trailer, he was doing early work on Avatar,” Ferrara says. “He showed us a storyboard and there were all these blue people; this is before everyone even knew what Avatar was going to be.” And, in ultimate Johnny Drama fashion, Kevin Dillon shot his shot. Laughing his way through the recollection, Ferrara remembers, “In one of our first interactions with James Cameron, Dillon says, ‘I always knew we’d be working together, Jim. Maybe not as fellow actors; I thought maybe you’d be directing me in one of your movies.’”

What a happy ending: Vince gets Aquaman, Ellin gets Cameron, and Entourage gets some street cred. That should have been more than satisfactory, right? Not for Ellin. “We did our one day, and that was it,” Tashjian recalled. “A little time goes by, and Jim’s in [another] script, and I’m like, ‘Doug, what the fuck are you doing? This isn’t going to happen.’” To appease Ellin, she asked yet again, but was told that Cameron would be unavailable on the filming date. Still, even as the day of shooting fast approached, Ellin hadn’t rewritten the Cameron scenes. Then, suddenly, Tashjian got a call that Cameron’s schedule has changed, and he was wondering whether they still needed him. Yes, obviously: Ellin went on to include Cameron in three more episodes.

The director makes his second Entourage appearance in “The Bat Mitzvah,” and then returns in the Season 2 finale, “The Abyss,” a reference to Cameron’s 1989 film. Left heartbroken by Moore’s character, Vince insists that he can’t do Aquaman with her and heads to Cameron’s office prepared to quit the film—only for his director’s infectious enthusiasm to rub off on him. “I haven’t had this kind of connection between actor and role since Arnold [Schwarzenegger] and Terminator,” says a pumped Cameron. Eventually, the season ends with the squad driving past a giant poster for “James Cameron’s Aquaman.”

There was only one point of contention between Ellin and Cameron during his short stint on Entourage. It centered on the hypothetical success of this fake blockbuster. “It was 100 percent going to be a bomb,” Ellin says. “But then he got wind of it, and he wrote me a very serious, articulate, and funny letter on why it couldn’t bomb, and I respected it and went with it. … There was zero percent chance it was going to bomb after he wrote that letter.”

“Fuck, no way James Cameron would want [Aquaman to bomb],” Weiss adds.

A reminder: James Cameron doesn’t bomb. Not even on HBO sitcoms.

Cameron guest-starred on Entourage for the fourth and final time in the Season 3 premiere, “Aquamom,” which revolved around the Aquaman premiere. The subsequent episode, “One Day in the Valley,” widely considered a high point of the series, follows Vince and his team on the day of Aquaman’s release. The boys head to a theater to watch the film with an audience, and it’s there when we get our one and only glimpse at footage from “James Cameron’s Aquaman.” Chaos is engulfing the Santa Monica Pier, and while citizens scramble for safety, Vince’s Arthur Curry, donning a black suit and tie, heads toward what everyone else is running from. We then see a giant tsunami approaching, and he jumps off the pier—and then the screen cuts out due to rolling blackouts. “I still say that movie looks dope,” Ferrara declares. Ellin, meanwhile, gives credit to director Julian Farino for rising to the daunting challenge of trying to replicate what Cameron might do. “The guy builds cameras, creates underwater worlds, how are you going to possibly compete?” Ellin says. “So we tried to make something that had some action, excitement, visuals, but it’s never going to match up to what Cameron’s genius is and the amount of money he gets.”

Just like Cameron wanted, Aquaman turns into a box office force, breaking the opening-weekend record set in 2002 by Spider-Man. The irony is that Ellin based “One Day in the Valley” on Spider-Man star Tobey Maguire and what Ellin was told about the circumstances when Maguire got word of his film’s massive success—or at least what he thought he was told. “He says that I made this up,” Ellin says of Connolly, one of Maguire’s closest friends. “I swear on my life, I remember him telling me they were on the way to Vegas and pulled over on the side of the road. He says that never fucking happened. So, either I dreamt it, [or] I literally may have just said, ‘What would it have been like for Tobey, and where could he have been?’”

Whether the Maguire story is real or not, the fake Aquaman victory was treated as fact, with HBO congratulating Cameron via a two-page ad in Variety and CNBC anchor Joe Kernen reporting on Aquaman’s financial splash. Meanwhile, on Entourage, WB looked to keep riding the wave by rushing a sequel into development without Cameron, much to Vince’s chagrin. Things get worse when Ari sheepishly reveals the new director is Michael Bay. “Jesus Christ,” E responds dejectedly. And when Ari continues, telling the guys that Kevin Smith has been tapped as the screenwriter, Vince pulls the plug entirely. “Fuck you, I want off this movie,” he says. (He’s ultimately replaced by Jake Gyllenhaal, a nod to rumors that he almost stepped in for Maguire on Spider-Man 2.)

“We took one or two cheap shots at Kevin Smith over the years, which, I don’t know why,” Ferrara says. “I love Kevin Smith.”

“I had a beef with Kevin Smith,” Weiss admits. “Being two immature guys, [we] probably put each other on blast multiple times. So I particularly enjoyed that one, and I’ll own that.”

And Ellin will happily take the credit, or blame, for Bay’s inclusion. “Michael Bay is one of the most successful directors in the history of the business, [but] I don’t like anything he’s done,” he bluntly says. “I never expected it to have the reaction it did, because Connolly responds like that’s the worst thing that could ever happen, and I didn’t know who would get that because most people think he’s a great filmmaker.”

“I would definitely go see it,” Ferrara says with a laugh of Bay and Smith’s Aquaman 2.

By the time Cameron’s arc on Entourage wrapped, the series was garnering widespread praise and recognition, from 26 Emmy nominations (Piven won Outstanding Supporting Actor three consecutive years) to those who dreamed of sniffing the Entourage life. “Monday morning, your phone would ring off the hook, from your agent, lawyer, everybody in town, to give you their favorite line, beg you to use their name in an episode,” says Burns, while Weiss references the fact that he’s met countless people over the years who point to Entourage as the reason they moved to L.A. “Entourage can make something popular just by including it in the show,” adds Attias. Even after concluding its memorable eight-year run in 2011, and then returning with a big-screen outing in 2015, its hold on the world of pop culture has endured. (Ellin alerted me that Vince and Aquaman popped up on Jeopardy! immediately after our conversation.) And not just with its fans, but in the many subsequent real-life projects that were first Vincent Chase vehicles, including Netflix’s Narcos (Vince’s Medellin) and Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Great Gatsby (Vince and Martin Scorsese’s The Great Gatsby). But the most substantial release to go from make-believe Entourage movie to actual movie is 2018’s Aquaman, directed by Furious 7 filmmaker James Wan and starring Game of Thrones alum Jason Momoa.

“I got a text from one of my best friends asking, ‘Are you getting any from this?’” Ellin previously told me. “I’m like, ‘No,’ and he literally writes, ‘Why not?’ … And I’m like, ‘Because I don’t have anything to do with it.’ I don’t think for a second that we inspired it.”

For his part, Ferrara couldn’t believe it, immediately wondering whether WB was planning to attempt “the full Entourage” with Cameron. “I just never actually thought it would happen,” he shares. “But then they got Momoa and Nicole Kidman, and the superhero part of Hollywood is obviously a big thing. I thought it would do well, I did not see this world where it would be sequels and blow up like it did. I thought they missed a fun Easter egg opportunity to slip Adrian in a cameo, even if he was Guy in the Bar who has one line.”

Most of those involved with the fictional version confess that they never sought out the real thing, despite Aquaman having earned Cameron-like cash and a highly anticipated sequel set for 2023. But they’ll always be the first. “At the time, everything felt like a pretty big swing,” Weiss says. “I definitely underestimated the appeal of it. I think it made sense for us to take on Aquaman, but we were doing all that before the Marvel universe exploded. It felt like we were on the precipice of it—the whole world didn’t feel like it revolved around the Avengers. … It’s fun to play in the sandbox that was the town that we live in. To be able to shout [people] out and use them was a pretty wild experience. They’re probably not getting the chance to do that on Quantum Leap.”

Derek Lawrence is a Los Angeles–based writer covering TV and film. His work has also appeared in Entertainment Weekly, People, and Vulture.

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