The ocean is to James Cameron as tacky gold fixtures are to Donald Trump: an obsession.
But luck wasn’t always on his side. After quitting his job as a truck driver to pursue filmmaking following a screening of Star Wars, Cameron fell under the wing of The Pope of Pop Cinema, Roger Corman. His first big film gig, as special effects director of the B-movie Piranha II: The Spawning, a film about killer piranhas, turned into his directorial debut when the original helmer, Miller Drake, was let go. But that film’s producer, Ovidio Assonitis, scrutinized his every decision before kicking Cameron out of the editing room, hijacking the film. As the story goes, while Assonitis was editing the film in Rome, Cameron came down with an awful bout of food poisoning, and during his delirium, had a nightmare about a cyborg assassin called a Terminator.
But it wasn’t until 1989’s The Abyss, about an underwater drilling team that encounters “non-terrestrial intelligence” deep underwater, that Cameron’s ocean infatuation was truly born. Since then, he’s stewarded 1997’s Titanic, which received a record 14 Oscar nominations—winning 11, including Best Picture and Best Director—and has filmed a number of deep-sea exploration documentaries, such as Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep, and once took a deep-diving submersible to the lowest point of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, where he discovered several new underwater species.
Cameron’s latest documentary project is Atlantis Rising, which follows filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and a team of archeologists and scientists in their search for the lost city of Atlantis. During their journey, they make a series of eye-opening discoveries.
The Daily Beast spoke to Cameron about the new film, how the environment will fare under President Trump, and much more.
Let’s talk about Atlantis Rising. What compelled you to take on this task? I understand deep-sea exploration is a major passion of yours.
There was the ocean-exploration component, my love of ancient archaeology, and I’ve worked with Simcha Jacobovici previously on two Biblical archeology projects over the years, and he and I were looking for something else to do. We actually proposed to National Geographic an investigative series across a number of archaeological subjects. They focused in on Atlantis and said, “Let’s lead off with that.” I’ve always been fascinated by Atlantis. So look, I’m a science fiction writer, I love fantasy, I love real ocean exploration, and I love ancient civilizations, so I don’t get any happier than that. I also don’t want to get labeled an Atlantis crank, so I told Simcha if we’re doing this we’re going to do real archaeology and we’re not going to confabulate or do wild hypotheses.
Where did this love of the ocean begin? Were you a big Cousteau fan as a youngster?
Yeah. It’s really that simple. There’s a whole generation—my generation—coming to their childhood awareness in the early ‘60s seeing the ocean through Cousteau’s eyes, certainly the eyes of his camera, and saying, “Wow. There’s a whole other world here within our world that is unexplored.” I grew up with that excitement, and I never lost it. Even when I went into filmmaking it was always in the back of my mind. I was only three films into my feature oeuvre when I did The Abyss, and The Abyss was actually a springboard into the real world of ocean exploration, because I met the people who did the subdives, the ROV [remote operated vehicle] designs, and so on. I got so engaged by that I started doing it for real. The appeal of making the movie Titanic was, yes, to tell a tragic love story, but also to explore the real wreck. That sent me down a decade-long path of legitimate technological development and deep-ocean exploration.
You mentioned Titanic, so I’ve got to ask: the age-old question is whether or not there was plenty of room on that plank-raft for Leo. I say yes, there was.
[Laughs] We’re gonna go there? Look, it’s very, very simple: you read page 147 of the script and it says, “Jack gets off the board and gives his place to her so that she can survive.” It’s that simple. You can do all the post-analysis you want. So you’re talking about the Mythbusters episode, right? Where they sort of pop the myth? OK, so let’s really play that out: you’re Jack, you’re in water that’s 28 degrees, your brain is starting to get hypothermia. Mythbusters asks you to now go take off your life vest, take hers off, swim underneath this thing, attach it in some way that it won’t just wash out two minutes later—which means you’re underwater tying this thing on in 28-degree water, and that’s going to take you five to ten minutes, so by the time you come back up you’re already dead. So that wouldn’t work. His best choice was to keep his upper body out of the water and hope to get pulled out by a boat or something before he died. They’re fun guys and I loved doing that show with them, but they’re full of shit. The Oscars has had a hard time ratings-wise since your Titanic year, which set ratings records. Why do you think the telecast has been in a ratings slump since?
There have been a few times throughout the history of the Oscars where a wildly popular film was well-received, but your typical year the Academy takes the position of: “It is our patrician duty to tell the great unwashed what they should be watching,” and they don’t reward the films that people really want to see—that they’re paying money to go see—and they’re telling them, “Yeah, you think you like that, but what you should be liking is this.” And as long as the Academy sees that as their duty, don’t expect high ratings. Expect a good show, and do that duty, but don’t whine about your ratings. Titanic was a very unusual case. I’m not saying it’s a better film than films before or after, or it was necessarily a better year in general, but it was a film that made a boatload of money and got a lot of nominations. The next time we see that, we’ll see ratings go up. It’s that simple.
There does seem to be an Academy bias against big movies like that. When you had Dark Knight and Wall-E both get snubbed for Best Picture, many people cried foul, and the Academy expanded Best Picture to between 8-10 nominees. But it hasn’t made a difference.
There’s definitely a bias. The Academy still has a majority of its members that are actors. Look, I love actors, but that’s how they think—they’re generally skeptical of technology. So when they see a film that’s too dependent on visual effects, they say, oh, that’s not an acting movie. Well Titanic was a visual effects movie in sheep’s clothing, you know? Yes, it had visual effects, but it was about the people and about the story. The visual effects were eclipsed by that. But if you do a movie like Avatar, the effects are right out front, and even though I felt the acting was just as good, and the story we were telling was just as good, they’re not going to reward it the same way. That’s just a fact of life. I had made a decision way before Titanic that I wasn’t going to serve two masters: I was going to put my visual cinema first. Even though I’ve spent an awful lot of time on scripts and on performance, I still love doing big, visual cinema. I doubt I’ll even get nominated again, but if I did, I’m probably going to lose to a Woody Allen movie. That’s the nature of it. So you don’t try to serve two masters.
Would you ever direct a Star Wars or Marvel superhero film? I feel your fans would salivate over that possibility.
I’m not the slightest bit interested in laboring in someone else’s house.
[Laughs] I like that. So how is Avatar 2 coming along? Obviously the first one is the all-time box office champ, so the bar is set pretty high here.
The thing is, my focus isn’t on Avatar 2. My focus is on Avatar 2, 3, 4, and 5 equally. That’s exactly how I’m approaching it. They’ve all been developed equally. I’ve just finished the script to Avatar 5. I’m now starting the process of active prep. I’ll be working with the actors in the capture volume in August, so I’m booked in production every day between now and then. Our volume is up and running, and everything is designed, and so we’re going full-guns right now. I feel like I’ve been let out of jail, because I’ve been in the writing cave for the last two years. I’m actually enjoying life. I don’t enjoy writing. I wouldn’t wish writing on a dog.
The Avatar films have always been eco-conscious, but they’ll probably take on even greater meaning in the time of Trump. Trump is a climate change denier who’s a fan of big oil. Are you worried about the state of the environment over the next 4-8 years?
A lot of my work that’s not specifically on the Avatar films—my activism—is around climate, and sustainability, and sustainable land use, and sustainable agriculture, but climate is number one. Years ago, we sort of spotted the iceberg ahead of us and we called out the order to turn, and we’ve been slowly, slowly, slowly trying to turn this big-ass ship to not hit the iceberg, and then Trump grabbed the tiller and just plunged it right back at the center of the iceberg. So am I worried? Of course. I’m like anyone of good conscience and reasonable intelligence. I think we’re the biggest freakin’ idiot civilization in history right now, and they’ll probably be talking about us 4,000 years from now scratching their heads—like they talk about Atlantis. Who are those guys? What did they do to piss off the gods so much that they’re buried under a hundred feet of mud right now?
One of the first executive orders he signed was to green-light the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines.
Oh, I know. And by the way, he nominated a guy to run the EPA [Scott Pruitt] who has eight lawsuits against the EPA, and refuses to recuse himself from those lawsuits! It’s basically the upside-down world right now, and the kind of dialogue coming out of these guys sounds like George Orwell. Alternate facts? There’s no such thing as an alternate fact! These people are insane. But I’m keeping my head down, doing the stuff that I thought I would be doing if Hillary was elected. I’m making my Avatar films, I’m doing my climate work, I’m doing my sustainable agriculture work. You can only do what you can do.
I grew up loving the first two Terminator films. Are you upset by what’s happened to the franchise? It seems like it’s been hijacked, and they’re just getting worse and worse.
It hasn’t been hijacked. It’s really just stumbled along, trying to find its voice again. There’s probably some degree to where it’s lost relevance, you know? Maybe the things that made it good back then are kind of a yawn now. It’s easy to remember fondly the things that kick off a franchise. It’s hard to keep a franchise vigorous, and relevant. I haven’t had my hand on the tiller since Terminator 2, and that was 1991. So what’s that? Twenty-six years? But look, I think it’s possible to tell a great Terminator story now, and it’s relevant. We live in a digital age, and Terminator ultimately, if you can slow it down, is about our relationship with our own technology, and how our technology can reflect back to us—and in the movie, literally, in a human form that is a nemesis and a threat. But also in those movies, in the two that I did, it’s about how we dehumanize ourselves. In a time when people are being absorbed by their virtual-social world, I mean, just look around. I always say: if Terminator was about the war between the humans and the machines, look around any restaurant or airport lounge and tell me the machines haven’t won when every human you see is enslaved to their device. So could you make a relevant Terminator film now? Absolutely.