James Cameron is an acclaimed filmmaker and explorer. As director, writer and producer he is responsible for some of the most memorable films of the past three decades: The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), True Lies (1994), Titanic (1997), and Avatar (2009).
James Cameron’s films have blazed new trails in visual effects and set numerous performance records both domestically and abroad; Avatar is the highest grossing film in history, and Titanic held that same record for 12 years. Cameron's films have also earned numerous nominations and awards. Most notably, Titanic received 14 Academy Award nominations and won 11 Oscars®, both records, including Cameron's three Oscars® for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing.
Cameron has been an avid scuba diver since 1969, logging more than 3,000 hours underwater, including 500 hours in helmets. Seeking to combine his two great passions – diving and filmmaking – he wrote, produced and directed The Abyss, which broke new ground in underwater cinematography and lighting. His attraction to the deep ultimately drew him to the Everest of shipwrecks: Titanic. In 1995, Cameron made 12 manned-submersible dives to the Titanic in preparation for his feature film. For that expedition Cameron developed unprecedented filming, lighting and robotic equipment for use in the extreme pressures of the deep. The technical success of that expedition fuelled his desire to bring the experience of deep ocean exploration to audiences around the world, which is expressed in his documentary filmmaking about ocean exploration and conservation.
What does perpetual excellence in filmmaking mean to you?
I’m perpetually seeking a way to make the film better, to increase the way in which it resonates with people. I’ve tried to push for an ethos amongst the entire crew and throughout the production, to take a film beyond, to go that little bit farther because frankly I’m terrified that the creative decisions we make will persist forever. That’s the perpetual part that in my mind drives you towards excellence. There’s no such thing as perfection. You can have perfection in mathematics but you can’t have perfection in art. But you want to be proud of what you put up there on the screen, because it will persist forever.
Being afraid of failure, makes you better. When you know that it’s going to last for years and if you’re lucky and it’s a successful film, people may be seeing it 50 years from now, that fear of putting something in there that you don’t like, that’s what makes you good or at least it keeps you striving and that’s where I want to be as a filmmaker. I want to constantly be striving. I don’t ever want to feel like I’ve arrived. The journey is the fun part, the best experience in filmmaking is when your own movie surprises you as you go along.
What would you like to say to young filmmakers?
To a filmmaker who is just getting established, I would give old school advice because the medium is constantly changing but there are certain things that don’t change. One: you’ve got to deal with the human heart, which is getting harder because there are so many tools, it’s virtually unlimited now with visual effects, and you could start to lose touch with the human heart. The other thing that I think is timeless is the basics of storytelling, how do you tell a story, how do you unfold it to the audience, how do you draw them in and make the audience care? These are the critical things.
It’s not about the tools, it’s not about the flashy shots, it’s not about the big special effects. You have to speak with an authentic voice and stay constantly in touch with your own emotional self because that, ultimately, is what you’re communicating to the audience.
Do you think that as a filmmaker, you have a responsibility?
I think it’s our responsibility to put forth messages between the lines. I think there are enough negative voices in the world right now, that as filmmakers we can do good, we can reacquaint ourselves or reinforce in movie theatres those things that are great about being a human being. Let’s see a character taken to an extreme place, that’s how we learn as human beings but let’s have some kind of undercurrent of responsibility; at least that’s how I approach it.
Know when lightning strikes and be quick to bottle it.
What makes a film endure?
It is possible to make a film that stands outside its time, but a lot of films don’t want to do that. I think they want to be very much of the moment and of the zeitgeist. First of all, a film has to speak universally to people. You have to find a balance of the fresh and the classic approach to filmmaking. There are certain human universals that lie underneath every culture. If you get back down to those elemental things, then you can entertain and absorb someone in any one of those cultures. I found, for example, with Avatar that people that lived an indigenous life in the rainforest who had an opportunity to see the film were as enthralled by it – because it dealt with their issues – as people who lived in a major metropolitan city. It worked on them in different ways but it was still dealing with that elemental thing within us, which is our love and our attraction to nature. If the goal is to make a film that lasts over time, you’ve got to deal with the human heart and the human condition at its most elemental level.