James Cameron: Why movie directing's 'Terminator' claims he's mellowed
James Cameron's tyrannical streak is part of Hollywood folklore.
"There were times when I was genuinely frightened," Kate Winslet said of working with the uncompromising director on Titanic.
Ed Harris – not one of life's softies – was reduced to tears during the filming of The Abyss, after "almost drowning". Crew members were threatened with the sack for taking lavatory breaks during the making of True Lies and had their mobile phones nail-gunned to a wall if they rang too often on the set of Avatar.
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Composer James Horner was so traumatised after working on Aliens that the pair didn't speak for a decade. Such is the director's reputation, indeed, that surviving a Cameron shoot with sanity intact has become a badge of honour in the industry. The Abyss crew wore T-shirts reading: "You can't scare me, I work for Jim Cameron." His obsession with his work can tip into crazed infatuation. The director's fourth wife, Terminator star Linda Hamilton, famously described Titanic as the "mistress" he left her for.
Today, Cameron chuckles at the quote. "It's a bit of a caricature," he says down the phone from Los Angles. "That's what film-makers do. These movies don't direct themselves. Out of a planet of several billion, there are a couple of thousand film directors. It's a certain type of personality. And while the personalities vary wildly, they have in common the ability to focus."
But the barnstorming moviemaker does admit his focus on his work has exerted a heavy toll on his personal life. He separated from his second wife, producer Gale Ann Hurd, after shooting three features with her and, in 1991, likewise split from future Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow. His marriage to Hamilton, meanwhile, foundered within weeks of his receiving the 1998 Oscar for Titanic and delivering his notorious "King of the World" speech, regarded by many as proof of his out-of-control ego.
Yet, as he continues to toil over four planned follow-ups to Avatar, Cameron, 62, is of the opinion that he has mellowed and gained some perspective on the relative importance of career and family. His marriage to former model Suzy Amis has endured since 2000 and he has five children (including a daughter by Hamilton).
"It's hard on relationships," he says. "Suzy and I have been together 20 years. She's been through Avatar with me. She knows what's coming over the horizon. She is very supportive.
"And I've found a way to integrate my film-making into my life. Part of it is about not taking film-making that seriously. I probably have a healthier attitude than I had making The Terminator or Terminator 2."
Even so, Cameron remains a mass of contradictions. He's a director of swaggering militaristic films who is also a vegan eco-warrior, a Hollywood liberal with a love of firearms. Moreover, the jingoism that occasionally bubbles up on screen – most notedly on the all-American spy romp True Lies – is in contrast to his stridently Left-leaning views.
In 2004, the Canadian-born director very publicly declined to take US citizenship in protest at the 2004 re-election of George W Bush. Not surprisingly, then, he is aghast at the rise of Donald Trump. "If I hadn't spent the past several years building the ultimate digital studio in LA, I wouldn't be in this country right now. I'm happy to say that publicly. I'm so disgusted with what's going on.
"At what point did the home of the brave generate such fear and anxiety that Americans have to act against their fundamental founding principles? It's so appalling. I also think there's a free-floating anxiety in general in the world today about the things coming over the horizon."
Audiences will have a chance to remind themselves of Cameron's mastery with the release this month of a new 3D edition of arguably his most totemic movie, 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The movie was considered a risk at the time, because Cameron decided to turn Arnold Schwarzenegger's character into a "good" cyborg rather than the killing machine of the original, and pitch him against Robert Patrick's ground-breaking liquid-metal T-1000.
But the star was concerned.
"I gave Arnold the script as we boarded the plane [to the Cannes Film Festival]," says Cameron. "It was still warm from the printer as I'd been scrambling to get it done for the deadline. The next morning he said to me, 'Jim – I don't kill anybody'. I said, 'Yeah - it's the big surprise... they're never going to see it coming'. He responded: 'Jim – I'm the Terminator. I kick the door down, I shoot everybody. This is what I do'. He was really nervous about it."
Today, the film is considered a popcorn classic and, to the relief of its fans, the new version has not been changed artistically. "We didn't add scenes – we didn't upgrade the visual effects. If you take that revisionist approach, it's a slippery slope. Where do you stop?" says Cameron.
His decision-making has not always been so tempered. The director famously fought fierce battles with studio executives during the making of his biggest hits Titanic (1998) and Avatar (2009) – the top two grossing movies of all time (US$2.1 billion and US$2.7bn respectively).
"In both cases we were so far beyond the pale of any kind of rational film-making," recalls Cameron. "There was anxiety over the insanity of what we were doing. With Titanic, I was making a corseted chick-flick for more money than anyone had spent on an epic previously. On Avatar, I was three years into the movie and the studio was seeing a cut where it was people in black leotards [actors wore motion-capture suits]. You get to a point where you often don't trust yourself and you have to remind yourself to go with your instincts."
Outside film-making, Cameron's twin passions are underwater exploration and conservation. He is the first person to have descended unaccompanied to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world's oceans.
He has also made a record 33 dives to the wreck of the Titanic, shooting a number of documentaries about the sunken liner, beginning with 2003's Ghosts of the Abyss.
He says he agreed to a re-release of Terminator 2 not because he was dying to see Schwarzenegger in 3D but to remind audiences that the movie was conceived as a cinematic experience. T2 is 26 years old, meaning a generation has seen it only on a TV screen – or smaller. He agrees with Christopher Nolan's criticism of Netflix for its "mindless strategy" of simultaneously putting out features in cinemas and on streaming platforms.
"I'm not into it – I think it's a stupid idea," he says. "The sanctity of the theatre-going experience is something I never want to see go away. I actually don't think it will go away, but people shouldn't be denied the option of seeing a film on a big screen. It's also incumbent on us to make films that need to be seen in the cinema – there is something about leaving your home and dedicating two hours of your life to an experience you can't control. Everything in life today is about control and multi-tasking. When you go to a cinema you give all that up."
Cameron's blockbusters are a hard act to follow – as attested by the string of increasingly insipid Alien and Terminator sequels. Does he despair at seeing properties he was instrumental in popularising diminish in quality?
"The subsequent Alien films haven't been as good as Alien and Aliens. They set a standard the other movies were judged against. That's true of the Terminator films as well. But it doesn't diminish the original accomplishment in any way. If anything it makes the original seem better by comparison. That doesn't mean I bet against the new films – I go, 'all right guys, let's see the magic'. I've been disappointed. The problem is, I'm so damn analytical I can point out exactly what didn't work. If I had 20 minutes with the film-maker ahead of time, I might have been able to help. But that's just not how this business works."
Terminator 2: 3D (M) is out in New Zealand cinemas on August 24.
- The Telegraph, London