James Cameron: King of all he surveys

World domination was within the reach of James Cameron after 'Titanic', but he chose to make documentaries instead. Now the director is returning to film with a long-awaited sci-fi project. He talks to James Rampton

"I'm the king of the world!" James Cameron cried at the 1998 Oscars, echoing his leading character in Titanic. When the director picked up 11 Academy Awards and his epic netted box-office receipts of $1.8bn, he defied critics who'd predicted that the film would be sunk by a fatal combination of hubris and testosterone.

At that moment, Cameron did seem to be master of all he surveyed. After a decade of hits - The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), Terminator 2 (1991) and True Lies (1994) - Titanic was merely the latest Cameron box-office behemoth to crush everything in its path.

And yet, in the following eight years, tumbleweed has blown through Cameron's movie CV. What happened to the king of the world? What has become of the director whose movies kept studio bosses in diamond-studded Jacuzzis? Is he just sitting at home counting his money?

The answer is that Cameron, who hails from a remote part of Ontario, has been living up to the other famous phrase he has used to describe himself - "a nerd from Kapuskasing" - and pursuing his passion for scientific documentaries, spending a large chunk of his reputed $50m fortune on educative factual films. His latest documentary, The Exodus Decoded, is screened on the Discovery Channel this Saturday.

The big news is that Cameron is gearing up for a grand return to movies. He has started work on Avatar, a special effects-led feature film about a human who's put in charge of an alien planet.

"I felt I'd exhausted the treasury and it was time to go back to work," Cameron says. "Avatar is a very ambitious sci-fi movie." The director's enthusiasm is evident in his voice. "It's a futuristic tale set on a planet 200 years hence. It's an old-fashioned jungle adventure with an environmental conscience. It aspires to a mythic level of storytelling."

Avatar is not entirely a new venture; Cameron wrote the screenplay 11 years ago, and it has featured on Empire magazine's list of the 12 greatest unproduced scripts in Hollywood.

"I was never bored of making features," the director says. "This has been a dream project of mine for more than a decade, but when I first wrote it, the technology was not advanced enough. So I stuck the script in the drawer until the technology caught up."

Now it has. "The film requires me to create an entirely new alien culture and language, and for that I want 'photo-real' CGI characters. Sophisticated enough 'performance-capture' animation technology is only coming on stream now. I've spent the last 14 months doing performance-capture work - the actor performs the character and then we animate it.

"We've set up a studio, and last week [Lord of the Rings director] Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg were here trying out the technology. I said to them, 'Take my tools and play with them for a week.' They were grinning from ear to ear. It's a really exciting time because so many new things are now possible."

For all that, Cameron stresses that movies should ultimately be about the story. "Film-making is not about sprockets. It's about ideas, it's about images, it's about imagination, and it's about storytelling."

Now 52, the director is a grizzled figure with more than a touch of the sea dog about him. Five times married, he possesses an effortless authority. Nicknamed "Iron Jim", he has been described as a harsh taskmaster by some colleagues. Others, however, argue that it is this very perfectionism that has helped the director to create some of the most memorable movies of the past two decades.

Cameron contends that "a director's job is to make something happen, and it doesn't happen by itself. So you wheedle, you cajole, you flatter people, you tell them what needs to be done. And if you don't bring a passion and an intensity to it, you shouldn't be doing it."

Cameron is fired up about going back to movie-making. But that does not mean he feels the last decade has been wasted - quite the contrary; he's devoted the same ardour to documentaries as he did to feature films.

The captivating factual programmes he has made include Ghosts of the Abyss and Last Mysteries of the Titanic, films that used state-of-the-art submersible technology to probe uncharted corners of the wreck of the great liner that went down after hitting an iceberg in 1912.

Cameron has also dived to the bottom of the Atlantic in the company of two German survivors to explore the remains of Hitler's flagship, the Bismarck. For the director and his two passengers, it was a moving, often tearful pilgrimage. The resulting documentary - Expedition: Bismarck - underscored the enduring impact of the past on the present.

The director says that these factual films have been voyages of discovery both for himself and for his audience. "The wrecks are interesting in and of themselves - as objects, as pieces of engineering - but ultimately they're a doorway into another time. I think of the submersible, when we're doing this wreck diving, as a time machine."

Above all, Cameron is keen to celebrate the work of scientific pioneers. He is, after all, the son of an engineer. "I just want to be a cheerleader for legitimate scientific exploration. I think there's a necessity as a film-maker to help get the message out, whether it's exploration, conservation, or respect for organisms and ecosystems.

"I'm driven by curiosity. I want to know how everything works, from the Big Bang onwards. There are still huge areas of curiosity to fulfil. When you've got a great story, whether it's a feature or a documentary, you've simply got to pursue it."

The latest fruit of his enthusiasm is The Exodus Decoded. Produced by Cameron, the programme follows the presenter Simcha Jacobovici, who, after six years of archaeological research, has concluded that the Exodus described in the Bible actually happened hundreds of years earlier than previously believed. The tale of the Exodus lies at the core of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Cameron reckons it still strikes a chord. "Exodus is a story we all know. We were all raised with a biblical view of the world, which still has a resounding influence on Western culture.

"Simcha is brilliant at finding new evidence and making cognitive leaps that so-called experts aren't allowed to. Connecting the dots, seeing a pattern in disparate pieces of evidence and lateral thinking are all more the province of the film-maker.

"Here, we've found evidence that may set the Exodus clock back 200 years. We can shove this film in the experts' faces and start a dialogue. History is often told by the victors. It is edited by subsequent rulers, who chisel away at it to show themselves in a better light. History is a moving target, and we should not be afraid to be provocative about it.

"The challenge for documentary-makers is: how can we illuminate history and paint a clearer picture? Look at the Titanic site - steel can't lie. It is what it is. Regardless of what the newspapers said in 1912, the wreck is lying at the bottom of the ocean telling us its own story."

Having not directed a feature film for so long, does the film-maker feel any added pressure? "No. There is always pressure to perform from one feature to the next. There are always high expectations.

"I remember going with a great sense of anticipation to each new Stanley Kubrick film and thinking, 'Can he pull it off and amaze me again?' And he always did. The lesson I learnt from Kubrick was, 'Never do the same thing twice.' Avatar is not like anything else I've done - nor were Titanic or Terminator or Aliens.

"I always want to find something mentally engaging. I'll spend many months completing the special effects on Avatar, and it will not be released until the summer of 2009. It's quite a challenge - and for that reason, I embrace it."

'The Exodus Decoded' is on Saturday at 9pm on Discovery Channel

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
books
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

    Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

    Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities