James Cameron: Another planet

He's the Hollywood director who dreams big and spends even bigger. And the results – as his sci-fi epic 'Avatar' proves – are staggering

In late August, thousands of eager film fans flocked to cinemas across the globe to watch 15 minutes of a film that wouldn't be released for another four months.

James Cameron's Avatar was supposed to be a great leap forward for Hollywood film-making but, at the time, "Avatar Day" seemed groundbreaking only as a new tool for the Hollywood hype factory. Disappointed bloggers compared the footage from Pandora, an alien planet of Cameron's imagining, to the 1992 eco-cartoon Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. They thought Pandora's gangly, blue-skinned inhabitants, the Na'vi, looked like Smurfs – or, worse, Jar Jar Binks. An early review from the snark-peddling gossip site Gawker, meanwhile, derided the film as "vomit inducing".

Cameron has been here before. When Titanic was launched in 1997, it rode a wave of bad press about its spiralling budget, its perilous set and its tyrannical director. It went on to gross a still-unrivalled $1.8bn and win a record 11 Oscars. The film retains its detractors, but compare it to the folly of an imitator like Pearl Harbor and it looks as impressive as it did on its release.

Cameron had already prepared a treatment for Avatar – which opens in the UK next week – by the time he completed Titanic, but the technology required to immerse an audience in his imagined sci-fi world didn't yet exist. Instead of moving on to other projects, Cameron – meticulous as well as megalomaniacal – set about creating that technology himself. "The words 'No' and 'That's impossible' and phrases like 'That can't be done' – that's the stuff that gives [Cameron] an erection," the actor and frequent Cameron collaborator Bill Paxton recently told The New Yorker.

Cameron and his team developed the "Fusion Camera System" to shoot Avatar, which allowed him to direct actors on a green screen, and see them rendered in all their 3D glory, on Pandora, in his viewfinder. He created an entire planetary ecosystem to rival that of George Lucas's Star Wars universe. Paul Frommer, a professor of linguistics at USC, invented a new language for the Na'vi that Cameron claims will outdo Klingon.

Cameron's reputation rests as heavily on his obsessive, despotic personal style as it has on his film-making prowess. During Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the crew had T-shirts emblazoned with the words "You Can't Scare Me – I Work For Jim Cameron". Kate Winslet, recalling the troubled set of Titanic and a director who "has a temper like you wouldn't believe", said she'd never work with him again unless it was "for a lot of money".

Cameron isn't afraid of spending money. At least two of his films were the most expensive ever made at the time of production. Terminator 2's budget was the first to surpass $100m and Titanic's the first to go over $200m. Avatar has an official budget of just over $230m, but estimates of the film's true numbers suggest it may have cost almost $500m overall. And yet Cameron began his film career working on a shoestring with the celebrated B-movie maestro Roger Corman, who also mentored the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. "Roger wrote a book called How I Made 100 Films and Never Lost a Dime, and the reason was because he never spent the dime in the first place," said Cameron. "We'd make a film in 21 days and the budget was $200,000."

Cameron was born in August 1954 in Kapuskasing, a small town in Ontario, Canada, the eldest of five siblings. When he was 17, his father Phillip, an engineer, moved the family to California, where James started work as a machinist. After taking a string of blue-collar jobs, he finally quit his last – as a truck driver for the local school district – after seeing Star Wars in 1977. He and some friends made a no-budget short sci-fi film, Xenogenesis, which earned him his role as a model-sculptor at Corman's studio.

In 1981, he was hired to oversee special effects on Piranha II: The Spawning. When the director walked out, Cameron was given the job. During the stressful shoot in Italy, he had a dream about a robot sent from the future to kill him. That dream became a script, and then his first hit film, The Terminator (1984), which made stars of Cameron and the man who played the mechanical assassin, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In 1985 Cameron married his producer and second wife, Gale Ann Hurd. He had divorced his first, waitress Sharon Williams, the previous year. He has since been married three more times – to fellow director Kathryn Bigelow, to Terminator star Linda Hamilton and, since 2000, to the actress Suzy Amis. His relationships with professional collaborators have been longer lasting. Bigelow, for example, may have spent just two years as his wife, but she still seeks his advice as a film-maker – Cameron was the first person to whom she showed the script for her recent critical hit The Hurt Locker. Bill Paxton has appeared in four of his movies, Schwarzenegger in three. Sigourney Weaver, star of Cameron's 1986 sci-fi action sequel Aliens, also appears in Avatar and has said of the director's gruelling shoots: "He really does want us to risk our lives and limbs for the shot, but he doesn't mind risking his own."

Tales of Cameron's machismo abound. When his fellow Malibu residents retreat to safety during the area's frequent brush fires, Cameron and his crew break out his firefighting armoury and sit back to watch the blaze. He free-dives, he races cars, he flies helicopters, he drives into the desert to fire machine guns. Many of his film's action heroes, however, have been women: Weaver's Ripley, Hamilton's Sarah Connor, Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies. He also co-produced and part-directed the TV series Dark Angel, which starred Jessica Alba as a genetically enhanced supersoldier. Strangely, given his affection for explosions, Cameron's films have been championed as feminist triumphs in an aggressively patriarchal film industry.

Cameron also displayed a modicum of self-awareness by appearing as himself in a recent series of HBO sitcom Entourage. The storyline required "James Cameron" to direct the show's protagonist, movie star Vincent Chase, in the megabudget superhero blockbuster, Aquaman. The fictional film did even better box office than Spider-Man – a project that the non-fictional Cameron was once keen to write and direct himself.

Aquaman did at least reflect Cameron's real-life obsession with the oceans, which first sprang from The Abyss (1989), the production of which forced cast and crew to spend 10-hour days in an eight-million-gallon tank of water, causing widespread infections and inadvertently bleached hairdos. In the 12 years since Titanic, the director's filmography consists of underwater documentaries such as Ghosts of the Abyss (his 2003 Imax 3D film about diving to the wreck of the Titanic) and 2002's Expedition: Bismarck. Cameron has also long been fascinated by space – it was Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey that first made him want to work in film – and is a member of the Mars Society, which advocates the exploration of Mars. A plan for him to travel to the International Space Station was thwarted by 9/11 and the Columbia shuttle disaster.

Cameron has "equally developed two sides to his personality – the scientist and the artist", says his biographer Rebecca Keegan. "He's as good a painter as he is a designer of cameras... For him, science and art are equally necessary parts of what he does." Thus his films have frequently been celebrated as much for their technical advances as for their scintillating plots. The molten metal T-1000 killer robot in Terminator 2 (1991), for example, set the stage for a flurry of CGI innovations in Hollywood.

The central innovation in Avatar, as far as audiences are concerned, will be its wide release in a 3D format. Unlike with other recent 3D films, Cameron's use of the technology does at least have a thematic function: the audience will be submerged in the new world of Pandora, just as its human central character is subsumed by the "avatar" body of one of the Na'vi. It's perhaps ironic that a film with such a strong ecological bent should be so reliant on technology.

Avatar has political themes, too; the human invasion of Pandora has loud echoes of Vietnam and Iraq. One character even says the words "shock and awe". Yet at the film's heart is a love story, just like the ones that humanised Cameron's other hits. He's a natural storyteller as much as a master of spectacle. And sure enough, the first reviews of Thursday's premiere are every bit as stellar as those that eventually greeted Titanic. Cameron, clutching the Oscar for Best Director in 1998, famously bellowed that he was "king of the world". Twelve years on, who'd bet against his restoration?

A life in brief

Born: 16 May 1954, Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada.

Early life: Left for the United States in 1971. Attended California State University to study English and physics, but regularly escaped to a nearby film archive. Studied philosophy at the University of Toronto, but dropped out and worked as a truck driver. Quit in favour of the film industry after watching Star Wars .

Career: Made first film, Xenogenesis, with two friends in 1978. Worked on low-budget films as miniature-set builder. In 1984 wrote and directed Terminator, a shock hit earning $78m worldwide. Later work included Aliens (1986) and True Lies (1994). In 1997 his Titanic became the most expensive film ever made ($200m) but grossed $1.8bn worldwide and won Cameron an Oscar for Best Director. Began Avatar in 1995 but delayed filming so technology could catch up.

He says: "People call me a perfectionist, but I'm not. I'm a rightist. I do something until it's right, and then I move on to the next thing."

They say: "He demands excellence. If you don't give it to him, you're going to get chewed out. And that's a good thing." Actor Sam Worthington on filming Avatar

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