Film: Whenever you get that sinking feeling, get busy

Director James Cameron has been haunted by death since he was a boy. His latest film, `Titanic', is about two-and-a-half hours in the life of people who know they face death. He tells Nick Hasted about his `metaphor for mortality'.

Champing at the bit to leave London for Madrid, the plane stays rooted to the ground. There's fog ahead, freezing the schedules. You want to take off anyway, to get where you're going. What are the chances of trouble, after all? Then you remember who you're jetting in to see, and the film he's just made. You sit back, and snap your seat-belt tight.

James Cameron's Titanic is about the inevitability of death. It shows a chunk of stray ice lurching out of nowhere, scraping the air from the lungs of 1,500, leaving their hair to turn to snapping icicles and their blood to stop as the boat they trusted sinks beneath them.

Most terribly, Titanic is about the living dead. It shows people strolling in perfect comfort for two-and-a-half hours after the ship they're on is holed, in the stifled knowledge that their lives are already over.

It's an appropriate story for a film-maker who, in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, had Linda Hamilton foretell the heat-flash of nuclear apocalypse blowing a child's happy playground to dust. "You're already dead," she told the people around her. "I know that." It's appropriate, too, for a director whose childhood was consumed by nuclear nightmares, thoughts of what he'd do with 10 minutes to live. These are thoughts he still has.

"I often run that simulation," he says. "Whether you just give up and say, `Well, that's that, I guess this whole thing was just a big cock- up. Human civilisation didn't work out.' Or whether you keep fighting and trying to struggle through somehow. I tend to think I'd probably keep fighting. Titanic at its simplest is a metaphor for mortality. We're all going to die and it's inevitable. The 1,500 people who were left on that ship when the last lifeboat went are what interested me, the fact that they had 15 minutes to really contemplate the fact that they were going to die. They were trying to make their peace with God or themselves. Or to not make their peace, to fight on."

Did Cameron consider what he would have done? "I have a life philosophy that embraces every sort of death. If I found myself on a sinking ship, I would not find it shocking. I would just get busy. I think that's what happens with most people when they're in a survival situation, they don't think about death, they think, `What am I going to do?' Fear is driving the intellectual process, there's a heightened awareness. I've been in a couple of survival situations in my life. I've had two scuba-diving accidents where I was on my last breath, and what I did in the next 30 seconds would determine whether I got to live. You get busy."

Cameron's films often seem to come close to such straits. It's hard to imagine such an averagely-sized man yanking the reins on the hundreds of millions of dollars each of his mammoth productions - True Lies, Aliens, The Abyss routinely costs. He's very civil, even solicitous. But simmering beneath the politeness is suspicion, a readiness to latch on to imagined slights. James Cameron knows that many see him as a monster, pushing on while collaborators crumble. Some former cast-members shudder at his name. The puzzling thing is that Titanic hangs on vibrant performances from Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio. In fact, the acting in his films is always fine. Mention this apparent contradiction, and Cameron can't contain himself.

"What can you infer from that?" he snaps. "That something might be wrong? There's this perception propagated by the popular media that I'm this Erich von Stroheim tyrant, which is absolutely not the case with actors. I'll pitch a fit on the set if the crew aren't ready, and I'm a strict disciplinarian, which I think is my right. But when I turn around to work with the cast, it's a completely different relationship. It has to be. I love their characters as much as they do. Usually, I created them. It's a bifurcation of personality."

Cameron's "bifurcation" goes deeper than on-set etiquette. When he first considered film-making as a teenager, he instinctively understood it as a technological process. His own films have required him to invent new ways to make them. His themes are technological, too, from the morphing half-machines of Terminator 2 to the clanking engines of Titanic. And yet, his best films are personal, pulsing with life. If, from The Abyss to Titanic, they show a fascination with water, that can be traced back to childhood day-dreams, watching Jacques Cousteau films and seeing the aliens of teenage science-fiction reading manifested in the sea. Titanic, too, is the product of a mind in love with history, of a man who may have rebuilt that ship so he could stand on its deck at night, and stare out at the water. Now, Cameron wants that human side to stand alone.

"Titanic might be the first time the technology of making the film has gotten uncoupled from seeing technology in the film," he suggests. "Now, we're using high technology to create visual elegance and lyricism - the glow of a sunset, the sense of another epoch. It's making people see that machinery and humanistic film-making aren't mutually exclusive." But the technological themes in his films go so deep - they're surely more than a distraction to him? "I think the art of directing is the art of staying very in touch with your emotional side," he replies, "at the same time as you understand engineering. I think that's a way to express the very best of what it is to be a human being. I've made it a goal to integrate the two different aspects inside of me."

It makes the cyborgs, the man-machines that march through the Terminator films and Aliens, seem like metaphors for Cameron's own soul. "Would I want to be a cyborg?" he interrupts. "I don't think so. The real question," he decides, "is can I imagine doing a film like Pulp Fiction, a non-technological piece of film-making? The answer is yes, I would love to do a film like that, if only because it would end this discussion. In Titanic, a great deal of my energy went towards the characters. Of course, Kate and Leonardo will get 100 per cent of the credit for that, as if it came fully formed from their foreheads."

No matter how hard he tries to be gracious, to hide his on-set manner from view, Cameron just can't smother his resentment. The target of scurrilous stories for so long, he can't believe that, with Titanic, the respect he craves from critics has already been granted. He tries a little more to deflect attention from his excesses. But finally, ask this morbid, spartan, driven man if he enjoys the risk of his monumental projects, the chance that any one could terminate his career, and he gives in. He says yes.

"I do get pleasure from pulling out of the dive," he says, "You've gotta be willing to throw down, you've gotta be willing to put it all on the line, or you're not playing the game. We're talking about highstakes poker, we're talking about making movies. You know, look, I was a truck-driver that became a film director. I was an outsider who was a fan, I didn't go to film school. I was just someone who loved movies who one day found himself making them. So for me it's like a sacred trust. I probably take it too seriously. It's not like we're finding the HIV vaccine or doing something really important for humanity. But, you know, I'm just not interested in doing things half-way."

It sounds like the way he tells his story to himself So what's the ending? In Titanic, the ship's architect says he never got it quite the way he wanted it. James Cameron isn't so meek. "I got it on this film," he says. "Some people may not like it. I do. I like everything in the movie. I think the people with money know I've proved my point now. They're going to have to let me do anything I want."