James Cameron on How to Find Flight MH370, Climate Change, Leonardo DiCaprio, and More
James Cameron, the acclaimed filmmaker behind sci-fi classics like Terminator, Aliens, and Terminator 2, as well as the blockbuster behemoths Titanic and Avatar, participated in a surprisingly candid Reddit AMA on Saturday afternoon.
The self-proclaimed “king of the world” was online promoting Years of Living Dangerously, a 9-part documentary series about the filmmaking styles of top directors, which will premiere on Sunday, April 13 on Showtime.
And Redditors, as is their wont, didn’t let Cameron off easy, prodding him with questions ranging from how to find missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370—Cameron knows how, apparently!—to his thoughts on climate change, Leonardo DiCaprio, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and more.
Here’s the cream of the crop.
[Note: No changes were made to Mr. Cameron's answers, including grammatical errors]
On how best to combat climate change:
The single biggest thing that an individual can do to combat climate change is to stop eating animals. Because of the huge, huge carbon footprint of animal agriculture. I was shocked to find out that animal agriculture directly or indirectly accounts for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, compared to all transportation - every ship, car, truck, plane on the planet only accounts for 13%. Less than animal agriculture. So most people think that buying a Prius is the answer, and it's certainly not wrong, but it's not the biggest agent of climate change… The next best thing, I would say, is to vote responsibly. We really need better leaders, and we need to demand of our leaders the things that they need to be doing, like creating a tax on carbon.
On how to find Flight MH370:
Well, I know how it will be done. If these pings that they're receiving are confirmed as being from the flight recorders, then they'll triangulate the acoustic data that they have so far, and they'll generate what's called a search box. I don't know how big that will be, but it might be 25-30 miles on a side, it might be a very large piece of ocean. Then there are a suite of tools that can operate at the kind of depth we're talking about, I believe between 4000-5000 meters. My ultra-deep submersible would not be required at those levels, that's half of the level it's designed for. The next step would be to use an AUV, an autonomous underwater vehicle, and have it run at 400 or 500 feet above the bottom and do a sonar profile of the bottom, it does that by running a search pattern, kind of like mowing the lawn. That takes days or weeks to do. Then you analyze any signatures that are anomalous, that don't look like flat bottom, and you say are those rocks, is that geology or does that look like the piece of an aircraft? And then once you have those targets, you know where they are on the bottom, then you go back, either with that type of vehicle or an ROV (a remotely operated vehicle) that would be hanging down from a ship on a cable. And you'd take a look essentially with a videocamera. And then you'd be able to identify whether that target was in fact the aircraft you are looking for. So that's how it would be done. But it all hinges on whether or not those pings are actually from the black box, and not from something else, like a scientific instrument that's drifted off course or whatever.
On whether he still has nightmares about Terminators:
No, I've never had nightmares about Terminators after I made the film. I had nightmares that inspired the film. But I always feel that making the film is the catharsis that stops the nightmares, if you will. For example, I used to always have nightmares about giant waves, tsunamis essentially. And when I made the Abyss, which had a giant wave scene in it, those stopped. Filmmaking is therapy.
On his favorite film of 2014:
This year, 2014, I haven't seen that much that inspired me yet. My favorite film of last year, hands down, was Gravity, and I was hoping it would win best picture, but certainly happy that my friend Alfonso Cuaron won best director. I did think that this new Captain America was an interesting film for its genre, in that it tackled this idea of digital surveillance and the kind of dark side of our hyperconnected society.
On his planned Battle Angel adaptation:
I never tweeted casting Jessica Alba for Battle Angel. She was our star of Dark Angel, so there might be some confusion there since we've never gotten to the casting stage for Battle Angel. Currently the project is on hold until I finish the currently planned Avatar sequels, which will be a number of years.
On whether he feels he’s responsible for Leonardo DiCaprio’s stardom:
I think Leonardo, when I cast him in Titanic, he was well on his way. I think I helped him skip a rung or two on the ladder maybe, but he certainly would have gotten there on his own because he's one of the most talented actors of his generation. Do I still talk to him? Yes, occasionally. We're friendly but we're not close friends.
On whether he’ll ever work with Arnold Schwarzenegger again:
I think he still gets to be called Governor? I think he's still officially addressed as Governor? Well Arnold and I are good friends, and we look for opportunities to work together and to support each other's causes, and I think that's one of the reasons he got involved in Years of Living Dangerously. Because one, I asked him, and two, as a leader, he made huge strides in clean energy himself, so he's a believer. The title was a riff based off of a 1980's movie starring Sigourney Weaver, called The Year of Living Dangerously, which I believe was based on a novel.
On which of his films was the hardest to direct:
Well, that's an interesting question. The physically hardest was the Abyss, because there was a period of 10 weeks where I was literally underwater 10 hours a day, for 6 days a week. And anybody that's a scuba diver knows that that's the experience of 7 or 8 dives a day, and nobody does that. So that was the most physically taxing. I think the most emotionally difficult was Titanic, because the entire film industry was scorning us for our abject stupidity while we were in post-production on that film. Eventually, we prevailed, but it was a difficult time. In terms of craft, Avatar was the most challenging, because of the editorial process on the film.
On the Avatar sequels:
The second, third and fourth films all go into production simultaneously. They're essentially all in preproduction now, because we are designing creatures, settings, and characters that span all three films. And we should be finished with all three scripts within the next, I would say, six weeks. There's always pressure, whether it's a new film or whether it's a sequel, to entertain and amaze an audience. I've felt that pressure my entire career, so there's nothing new there. The biggest pressure I feel right now is cutting out things I love to get the film down to a length that is affordable. There hasn't been a problem finding new and wonderful things to include in the movie.
On acting in front of green screen:
Well, different actors have a different tolerance for green screen work. usually theater trained actors have the confidence to work alone, or work in the absence of props and scenery and so on, because they are used to sort of black box theater and/or one person shows, and they know that part of an actor's power and the magic is their ability to create when nothing's there. Other actors simply just don't like it. So it's always good, if you're making a green screen heavy film, to talk to the actors before you cast them about that issue. Because you don't want to have to be buying someone's talent, certainly actors are well-paid, but you also want them to want to be doing that.
On how he felt when Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out his sky was wrong in Titanic:
I wasn't particularly embarrassed because I think that's an unbelievably specific nitpick and if that caused him to not enjoy the film, he may need to reevaluate his priorities. That said, because I'm such a perfectionist, I challenged him to provide me with the correct star fields and incorporated them into the future rereleases of the film. So, if you watch the film now, the stars are correct.
On South Park’s parody of him:
It's funny. It's like they were actually on the expedition, except I didn't actually make the crew sing a song about me.
On whether there are any scenarios where Skynet (from the Terminator films) wins:
Well, if one believes in a multiverse of an infinite number of parallel universes, or even a large number of them, then there have to be a few where Skynet wins. But you know, I don't know how it's done exactly. And if I did I wouldn't say… One could argue that the machines have already won. All you have to do is look around at how many people are face-down texting 100% of the time, everywhere they are, and it's hard to imagine the machines haven't won.
On his favorite guilty pleasure film:
Oh, probably Resident Evil, the first one. I just like that film! You don't have to defend a guilty pleasure.
On whether he sings Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” (from Titanic) in the shower:
No, I can't hit those high notes like Celine.
On the best advice ever given to him when it comes to filmmaking:
As a film director, the best advice I ever got was from Roger Corman. He said “film directing is hard work, sit down as much as possible.” The funny thing is, I never followed it! I always come in on first day of production, and there's a producer chair with my name on it, and I say, “take it away! It won't be used.” And then about 3/4 of the way through a long shoot, I relent, I start following Roger’s advice towards the end of a production.