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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent