Posted on Friday, December 18th, 2009 by David Chen
The /Filmcast Interview is a series of conversations with actors, directors, and other key figures from the entertainment industry. In this episode, David Chen speaks with legendary director James Cameron about his attitude towards technology, the theme of environmentalism in his films, the acting benefits of performance-capture equipment, and the potential of movies to create social change. Cameron’s new film Avatar is out in theaters today. Listen to the interview below, or read a transcript after the jump.
Special thanks to Matt Singer from the IFC News Podcast and Dan Trachtenberg from the Totally Rad Show for helping me put together the interview questions. Have any questions, comments, or suggestions? Want to be interviewed on the /Filmcast? Feel free to e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call and leave a voicemail at (781) 583-1993.
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Update: /Film reader September typed up a transcript of the interview, which can be read below:
Over the past few decades, James Cameron has crafted some of the best action and science fiction movies of all time, including Aliens, Terminator 2, True Lies, and The Abyss. In 1997, James Cameron directed Titanic, which won the best picture Oscar, and best director Oscar. That film went on to gross more than 1.8 billion dollars worldwide, making it the highest grossing film of all time. His newest film, Avatar, follows the story of a marine who travels to a distant world, and is able to inhabit a new body to interact with the natives. You can find my review of Avatar here. Avatar is out in theaters today.
Mr. Cameron, thanks so much for speaking with us today at slashfilm.com
So, first of all – congratulations on the release of Avatar – it’s quite epic, and very well done sir.
Thank you. Yeah, we’re actually coming out as we speak in some of the international territories.
So, my first question is about technology.
There’s a shock
Well, not in a way that you would think… many of your movies are about how technology is evil or bad in some way.. In Avatar, we are meant to admire the simplicity of the navi’s way of life, and in the terminator films, you basically created one of the most evil computers ever.
Sure sure. And in Titanic, the technology lets us down
Exactly. But at the same time, you used cutting edge filmmaking technology that’s the best in the world, and you helped invent the camera technology you are using.
Right. So how do I cancel the paradox? To me its not paradoxical – its not even meant to be ironic. For me, film is a technical medium. And you can use a technical medium to celebrate something that is purely natural. I think you can use the most cutting edge technology available – which we did, to basically celebrate the inventiveness of nature – which we did. For me, technology in and of itself is not evil, but there is a great potential for evil in the human misapplication of technology. So, in my movies are thematically connected. Dehumanization with the terminators, which are basically a weapons system. Inappropriate use of military force, which uses advanced weaponry, and yet at the same time, you’ll see technology used to save people. Ripley’s character in alien saved herself with this power loader, this servo exoskeleton that is just sitting there that she happens to know how to use. So its really about people and the moral and ethical choices associated with the technology. So in avatar, they’re mining for unobtatnium. Why? Because they’re using unobtanium to solve an energy crisis on earth. Even though that’s not specifically spelled out in the movie.. But they need it for some technological thing. But they are getting it; they are making choices, which are unethical and amoral essentially, about how they are going to interact with the natural world and the indigenous culture on Pandora. So its really just asking people to be accountable. Accountable in their use of technology.
That makes sense. So I guess your use of technology in movie making is one of the good uses, you’d say.
I would look at it that way, yes. We’re the good guys.
You’ve written a couple of films that have had some pretty significant environmental themes. Thinking of The Abyss in 1989, and you wrote Avatar in the 1990’s. Can you talk about why that’s been an influence in your filmmaking, and whether or not that’s changed in the last 10 years?
Well its been a big influence in my life in general, you know, being a child in the 60s, and sort of coming to that point in the development of your cognitive processes, as a teenager in the late 60’s, early 70s – which was the birth of the environmental movement, and its always been a big deal to me – even though I haven’t been an activist until more recently. And then with my relationship with the ocean and seeing the devastation of the coral reefs and by all kinds of human activity. And now with climate change pretty much dooming the coral reef habitats over the world over the next 50 years, which not enough people are talking about, I do feel a sense of outrage, in the sense that as an artist, its kind of my responsibility to create a warning and remind people. People need to be reminded from every direction. Maybe people want to go see a film for pure entertainment, and not want to think about it and not have to feel guilty – I’m not trying to make people feel guilty.. I just want them to internalize a sense of respect and a sense of taking responsibility for the stewardship of the earth.. and I think this film can do that by creating an emotional reaction. Its stuff you already know, it’s not hard to teach, and its not here to preach. But it does give you an emotional context for the information you already have, and maybe that emotional response breaks through a little bit of the denial responses we’ve built up – “ohh, I cant make a difference.. It’s not my problem it doesn’t affect me.. What’s a few degrees of temperature rise etc..
So I guess that’s another question – which is another thing.. What do you want people to take away from this film, other than 3D is awesome, and action is cool?
Number one – I had a great time at a movie theater. That’s the thing they should take a way. I got my 15 bucks worth. That kicked ass. My mind is blown. That’s goal number one. Goal number two is that my emotions are still working. I cried because I felt something. And goal number three is ‘why was I crying again?’ oh yeah, because that tree fell.. A slight shift in perception. If that’s possible. But the thing is, you can’t move people from their belief system. So if you have someone who doesn’t believe the energy crisis, or wars are created unjustly because of our energy requirements.. If they don’t believe the world is the way it really is, than they’re not gonna change their mind. If somebody does believe that, or is looking for an answer, this may influence them because of the sense of outrage that is produced by moments into his film. . Maybe its optimistic, maybe it doesn’t work that way. But if a film is successful and becomes a part of the zeitgeist, and there’s a feeling its good to believe this way, and its good to have a sense of responsibility, than people will still rail against it, but maybe it does create a little bit of movement. Our culture evolves through all of its various influences. And major films, major TV shows, celebrities, whatever.. If you hear it enough times, it does start to generate an interest.
Right. I spend a lot of my time writing and thinking about movies, so I feel the same way. Speaking about having a good time at the movie theater, a lot of science fiction movies have come out in the last decade, since you’ve made Titanic. And we at slashfilm, we love movies. And I’d love to hear what you think of these movies. Obviously there are a lot of movies…
Well, The Matrix was fucking brilliant. Absolutely fucking brilliant. I wasn’t so crazy about the sequels, though there are some great visuals in the follow-up films. But I thought The Matrix was very seminal work, and it was brilliant because it inverted the whole paradigm of the virtual world concept.
Did you have a chance to see District 9 or Transformers?
District 9, yeah. Well you know, I did this film called Alien Nation. I sort of ghost wrote it. It was produced by my wife at the time, Gail Hurd. And District 9 obviously borrowed pretty heavily from the ideas of Alien Nation.. but then goes much farther – and almost in the way Avatar does.. You come into the film with one perspective of the aliens.. They’re hostile, and they’re kind of in our way, and we gotta deal with them and get them out of the way. And then you end up very sympathetic towards them at the end. And in a way, it’s a real triumph, because the aliens are so unsympathetic looking. They really did go pretty far in making them alien. Truly alien to us. Where the emotional affect is missing completely.. It’s almost the opposite choice that I made on Avatar.. I didn’t feel I was doing truly a science fiction film, I think of it more as a fantasy, science fiction fantasy, kind of located halfway between fantasy and science fiction. And for me, it was important that my so-called alien people be completely relatable, because they’re my main characters. Your not having a continues human viewpoint to interpret them through. You go live with them and you essentially become one of them, and they have to make sense to you emotionally. So that was a choice that was made very early on. Notice how I keep relating this back to avatar.
Speaking of the performances in your movie, they’re captured very well, and obviously you’ve broken a lot of ground with your performance capture. I’ve read people had to wear special headgear to act in the film. And I’m wondering how, as a director, you kept the technology from getting in the way of the performances.
Well, interestingly you know, my intuitive sense before the fact. Well, we tried to make the head rig as absolutely lightweight as possible, and as comfortable for the actors as possible, because we anticipated some annoyance on the part of the actors, even though they sign up.. They know they are doing this, but after a while they feel it intrudes on their process. But in fact, what I found was, they never really had a problem with it at all, because they were enjoying themselves so much. So I had to think, why are they enjoying themselves, why are they loving this process? And then I realized it was because it was pure acting. And most of film work for actors is sitting around waiting, and then rehearsing the scene, and getting the marks down so the camera operator can operate the shot, and not miss it, not miss the action, and get it in focus. So the DP can light it. And the actors are constantly these flesh puppets that are moving around so everybody else, all the other trades and crafts can do their jobs. And there’s all this waiting and fussing with wardrobe and hair, and makeup, and wind machines, and rain, and cleaning up after the last take, and all that bullshit. All of that was gone. There was none of it. So they were there to act. Period. And I was there to work with them, and none of the other stuff. You see what I mean? So all the distractions were removed. And it was reduced to acting. Of course there were negatives associated with that – if they were physically interacting with something, plants or vines or doorways, we had to create all that and create a plausible sense of interaction. People have said, well the actors didn’t really have a set or an environment around them. But, when if you’ve ever been on a movie set, you know that the actors are usually surrounded by cameras, dollies, bounce cards, flags, c stands, and lights. And somewhere out there is a set. But they can’t really see it, you know. So it really doesn’t matter to them. They act to each other. They get their fuel for a giving moment from the eyes of the person in front of them. That’s how it works. So in a funny way, it boils down the process to its essence. And you can ask any of them.. They love the process. I’m not sure they could articulate exactly why, but they did love it and they’re all looking forward to doing it again, you know, if we make another picture, which we will, if we make some money.
You’ve shot in some of the most difficult environments imaginable. I read in The Futurist – the book about you, that you almost drowned while shooting The Abyss. Obviously Titanic was no walk in the park either. How did shooting avatar compare to those experiences, what were some parts that were easier, what were some parts that were more difficult.
I think the difficulty factor was just the length of the project, the complexity of the project. I don’t think there was a danger factor we had on the Abyss of the documentaries. I wasn’t flying around on helicopters or risking my life or that sort of thing. It was really just maintaining a focus on the story, the narrative, and the characters, while all these technical processes are going on over such a long period of time. I didn’t have to keep the actors enthusiasm up; they were gung ho from beginning to end. Zoë went off and did Star Trek and then came back. Sam went off and did Terminator Salvation, and he came back and we worked with them some more. So it was almost like this kind of haven they got to come back to after they were off working on something else.
In general, it obviously took a long time to complete this project. Now that you’ve finished it, how do you feel about directing in the studio system? Does this mean we’ll be seeing a new Cameron movie every few years now? Or will it be a long wait…
No it’s not going to be a long wait. I’ll probably take a little down time, and then I’ve got an expedition project but we wont be ready to do that for another 9 to 10 months. And I’ll probably get into pre-production on whatever the next film is, get that going then run off and do the expedition project. This is sort of my rough game plan, then come back and shoot that film we’ve been prepping.
Are you talking about Battle Angel Alita?
That’s one of the ones that’s in contention, but I haven’t made a decision yet.
And any hints about this expedition you’re taking?
Yeah. We’re building a vehicle for ultra deep exploration down in Australia. So we’ll be exploring some of the deepest recesses of the ocean. Going deeper than people have gone previously.
Very cool. Well, you have a lot of fans at slashfilm.com, and we wish you the best of luck with your movie, and thanks so much for speaking with me today.
No problem. Good talking to you Dave!