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Boundless: The Scientist, Explorer, & Filmmaker James Cameron

By Kevin Nelson · April 4, 2022

“Being an explorer is to be a storyteller…” — James Cameron

James Cameron has always been drawn toward the unknown. His spirit can be found in the great beyond — an endless search in the boundlessness of nature’s deepest recesses. 

Cameron is a visionary in his exploration of the future of filmmaking, discovering new ways to not only tell cinematic stories but capture moving images as well. As long as there is time, there are places left undiscovered. Cameron approaches his craft like the explorers of old who set off on grand expeditions to expand human knowledge. Perhaps by getting lost, he will find pieces of himself — and of his characters.

As a kid, James Cameron was always drawn to science. He grew up in the 1960s, an exciting time for exploration and technological advancement with the space race and Jacques Cousteau television specials fueling his childhood imagination. 

It wasn’t until he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 that he realized film combined his two main interests, as he told Syd Field in an interview:

“I love the idea of being in another world, and anything that could transport me to another world is what I became interested in. Gradually, I saw that the medium of film could accommodate both my interests in science and art.”

He made films on his 8mm camera but didn’t think he could make a living doing it, so he turned to physics. Becoming disillusioned with his future, he walked out of community college in 1973 because he wanted to experience the world, but ended up living a blue-collar life working as a machinist, janitor, and truck driver — putting in late-night hours writing when he could muster it. 

Instead of taking the classes offered to him, he’d travel down to the USC library and read. He’d seek out books on screenwriting like Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundation of Screenwriting, film technology, and special effects. He’d photocopy pages and take notes, giving himself his own graduate-level education. 

He eventually quit his job as a truck driver and pursued filmmaking full time, landing work with the legendary Roger Corman building projection systems, painting backdrops, photographing model ships. He got his first taste of directing after the director of Piranha II: The Spawning was fired and Cameron was given a chance to helm. 

Cameron’s films completely immerse the viewer in the world of his imagination, and it’s from deep within his subconscious during one of his darkest, most desperate hours that perhaps his greatest idea was forged in the fire.

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The Terminator

It was in this state of despair that Cameron had a fever dream that would change his life forever. It all came to him so vividly. He was being chased. Not by a boogie man, but by a machine.

As Cameron told BFI’s James French:

“The Terminator came from a dream that I had while I was sick with a fever in a cheap pensione in Rome in 1981. It was the image of a chrome skeleton emerging from a fire. When I woke up, I began sketching on the hotel stationery.”

Cameron was determined to sell the script attached as the director, but most studios didn’t want to take such a big gamble on an unproven filmmaker. He teamed up with producer Gale Anne Hurd, who bought the script from Cameron on a dollar option on the condition that he would also direct. 

Cameron fit science fiction and time travel into the narrative structure of a slasher film with a love story at the center. It really hits all the genre bases. Learning from peers like John Carpenter, who was making waves with low-budget horror films (Halloween), he knew if he wanted to direct a feature he’d need to control the budget. His idea worked his strengths in high concept sci-fi within the framework of a doable genre that sells.

He wanted to make a gritty and realistic slasher film with the science fiction film rooted in a mechanical and hardware-based truism, sans any magical or fantastical elements. The horror lies in how real the existential crisis at the crux of the conflict actually is. With time and the advancement of technology and AI, that horror only roots its way deeper. 

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Rambo: First Blood Part II

The Terminator was passed around town while it was still in development and Cameron couldn’t turn down a good offer. In fact, he ended up accepting two sequels of iconic franchises in one day. 

Cameron explained his process for writing two scripts at once in the special features of the 30th Anniversary Blu Ray release of Aliens:

“So I wound up getting two writing gigs the same day. One was Rambo: First Blood Part II and the other one was Alien 2. Like I’d gone in on the meetings and I wound up getting the phone calls the same morning. So I took both jobs and I had a three-month period to write Rambo and what became Aliens. So what I did was I got a desk for each script. I put one in the bedroom and one in the living room. That way when I moved from one desk to the other, all the notes and papers and everything were right where they were supposed to be.”

He wrote to different styles of music for each project to set the tone of his writing sessions. Writing two scripts at once is a great way to keep both projects fresh and moving. Cameron delivered his draft of Rambo: First Blood Part II and let Sylvester Stallone take over the rewrites while he focused on directing The Terminator and Aliens.

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Aliens

It took seven years for Brandywine Productions to produce the highly anticipated sequel to Alien. Co-founder David Giler never gave up hope. When leadership changed hands at Fox, studio head Joe Wizan gave the go-ahead. Development executive Larry Wilson began reading scripts in an effort to find the right writer and came across The Terminator, which was in development at the time. He convinced his producing partners at Brandywine to read it.

After their meeting, Cameron wrote a 42-page treatment in three days based on ideas provided by Giler and Brandywine co-founder Walter Hill. They felt it was too horror driven and the project stalled until leadership roles changed hands again at Fox when Lawrence Gordon replaced Wizan. He looked into existing intellectual properties and read Cameron’s treatment. 

This new development came with perfect timing. Production on The Terminator was delayed because Arnold Schwarzenegger was filming Conan the Destroyer. Cameron developed the treatment into a feature-length scriptment with concept art of “The Mother.” Gordon was receptive but still hesitant to give him the director’s chair.

It wasn’t until The Terminator proved to be a huge success that, as they say, Cameron was given the keys to the spaceship. He again developed the script with his producing partner and then-girlfriend Gale Ann Hurd. 

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The Abyss

Inspired by stories like H. G. Wells’s In the Abyss, James Cameron was inspired to write a short story after a science lecture in high school by a deep-sea diver by the name of Francis J. Falejczyk, who was the first man to breathe fluid this his lungs during experiments conducted at Duke University. 

During the production of Aliens, Cameron saw a documentary about remote vehicles that explore the deep ocean floors and he was reminded of his short story. He and Gale Anne Hurd got married and decided to make The Abyss their next film. They wrote up a treatment and were able to get a lot of interest. He again combined his love for deep-sea exploration with horror.

Perhaps The Abyss is aptly named because Cameron insisted on practical photography — which meant submerging actors for hours on end underwater. The slow pace of production caused a lot of frustrations on set and ultimately ended his marriage to longtime collaborator Hurd.

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day

After completing The Terminator, Schwarzenegger had been encouraging Cameron to make a sequel, but they both refused to work with John Daly from Hemdale Film Corporation, who owned the rights. Cameron and Daly nearly came to blows after Daly attempted to alter the ending of the original film without Cameron’s consent. 

Schwarzenegger convinced Carolco Pictures (Total Recall) to buy the rights, which cost them a hefty $17 million. With a collaborative production system and distribution deals in place, the film was fast-tracked for production, the only caveat being that Tristar wanted to release the film on Memorial Day, 1991.

With a six-week deadline, Cameron teamed up with co-writer William Wisher, who provided additional dialogue work on The Terminator. Cameron wanted to subvert the audience’s expectations. In the original, Arnold plays the bad guy. In the sequel, the T-800 acts as a surrogate father and protector of John and Sarah Connor. Wisher was given Cameron’s treatment and worked out of Cameron’s home to develop it further. Cameron would then build off of Wisher’s work. Various storylines were explored and then removed as they refined the classic action and suspense we’ve come to love today.

Horror is again infused into this script with the new villain’s ability to morph into different shapes and echo their personas. I know the T-1000 certainly visited me in nightmares as a kid. Just like Cameron’s approach with Aliens, he brought more action into this sequel thanks to a much larger budget and creative control but still maintained to keep the action grounded in the stories of everyday working-class people thrust into extraordinary circumstances — like saving the world.  

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True Lies

Arnold Schwarzenegger approached Cameron about adapting the French spy farce La Totale!. He wanted to make an American James Bond centered on the question, “What if James Bond had to go home to his wife and family?”

Cameron allowed himself the room to go for all the big action set pieces on the page and was able to pull it off on the screen with his knowledge of practical and digital special effects. He combined a myriad of techniques that he’d learned over the years and wasn’t afraid to put himself on the line to get a shot. 

When Jamie Lee Curtis was hanging out of the car, James Cameron was right there with her holding the camera. 

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Strange Days

James Cameron first had the idea for Strange Days in 1986 and eventually told director and ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow about the idea. Through a series of dialogues between the two, Cameron wrote a 90-page scriptment that blends novel and screenwriting formatting. They presented the scriptment to screenwriter Jay Cocks, who gave the story more structure and adapted it into script form.

Funding for the production came in tandem with True Lies as part of a multi-picture deal with Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment and 20th Century Fox. Although True Lies got the majority of the financing. The film was a commercial flop but the filmmakers weren’t afraid to take big swings. Maybe their ideas about memories being recorded on MiniDisks were just ahead of their time. People already have chips on them.

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Titanic

For James Cameron, the RMS Titanic was the Mount Everest of his exploration bucket list. He was reaching the point in his life when an underwater ocean expedition seemed out of the question. When he saw the 1992 documentary Titanica in IMAX, he decided to seek funding for his own underwater endeavors. He wrote a scriptment for a movie about the Titanic and pitched it to 20th Century Fox as a sort of, “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic.”

The opening scenes were filmed at the real wreck over the course of twelve dives in 1995 before the screenplay was even written. Spending so much time at the real shipwreck site made the filmmakers involved want to get it right. After returning from the dives, Cameron set about to write the screenplay, doing meticulous research to prepare.

As he told a London audience:

“I read everything I could. I created an extremely detailed timeline of the ship’s few days… I felt that when we started the production we really had a very clear picture of what happened on the ship that night. I had a library that filled one whole wall of my writing office with Titanic stuff, because I wanted it to be right… We wanted this to be a definitive visualization of this moment in history as if you’d gone back in a time machine and shot it.”

Cameron was influenced by A Night to Remember, a 1958 film about the sinking he had seen as a child. He used historical records to inform him of the narrative timeline and fit the love story as the driving force. 

As he told Mr. Showbiz for The Director’s Interviews, “I was trying to find a way to tell a fictional story within the very confines of known history.”

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Avatar

Avatar has become Cameron’s own personal Magnus Opus and Moby Dick. The idea first came to Cameron in 1994 when he wrote an 80-page treatment. It became his obsession after Titanic. He referenced everything he’d ever created in order to tackle the tale of imperialism, a life force connecting all living organisms, and self-discovery.

Cameron has said that the inspiration for Avatar was, “every single science fiction book I read as a kid.”

In order to bring his imagination to life, he knew he needed to be patient. Digital technology had not yet caught up to his vision. While he developed his own Reality Camera System to film Avatar in 3D, he worked with a linguist to create the Na’vi’s language. As with all James Cameron endeavors, the goal for Avatar is complete immersion. He had no problem spending years on the film’s development, despite the concerns of the studio.

In the end, Cameron achieved his goal. The first Avatar was another blockbuster hit for the filmmaker. Viewers reported having experienced what has become known as Avatar Syndrome, a state of depression caused by the reality that our world is nowhere near as cool as Pandora. Yet, Pandora is just one world beyond our own. With its rich floral and floating jellyfish that hopefully don’t sting.

Imagine the places Cameron has yet to take us. Perhaps the future is closer than we think.

James Cameron is prepared to stay in the Avatar Universe for the foreseeable future, with an entire series of five feature films planned. Producer Jon Landau told Total Film:

“… a large portion of our time was writing… with the challenge that each of those four scripts had to individually resolve itself in a story that concludes with a big emotional resolution – but when you look at them as a whole, the connected story arc of all four movies creates an even larger epic saga.”

Avatar is set in the Alpha Centauri system, which is a real system of three stars. If life flourishes on Pandora, there’s no telling where James Cameron’s mind will take us next. He will forever be known for pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and exploration in screenwriting and film special effects.

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