It’s either 1987 or 1988. In any case, I’m very young. My parents, older sister, and one of my sister’s friends are watching a movie on TV. The music is urgent and tense. Marines pan flashlights down burned, darkened corridors. A girl about my age scurries through the debris. The marines rescue her. “It won’t make any difference,” she says. Before I know what’s happening, the marines are in a boiler room. Human eyes open from within a sticky cocoon. Her chest lurches and she pleads for death.
“Go to bed!” I’m ushered out of the room so rapidly that I know the movie is on the edge of something great. As I pass the recliner on the way to the hall, I sneak a peek around it, just in time to see a bloody, screaming creature explode from the woman’s rib cage.
I outrace Mom to my bedroom.
The next morning, I quizzed my sister over breakfast. “What happened to that robot guy?”
“Cut in half.”
“What about that lady soldier with the bandana?”
“She blew herself up.”
Cut in half? She blew herself up? WHOA.
I’d discovered James Cameron years before I knew his name.
James Cameron owned action films in the ‘80s and ‘90s, then reached his peak with the love story Titanic, a film he conceived, researched, wrote, directed, and even hand-modeled for. The film, once expected to be a surefire bomb, reaped almost two billion dollars in worldwide box office, and dominated at the Academy Awards where Cameron proclaimed himself – with good reason – the king of the world. Film nerds waited to see what he’d do next.
A decade later, we’re still waiting. As the countdown to his new film, Avatar, stretches ever longer, questions surround it – has James Cameron been gone too long? Does he still have it? Can any new film, no matter how cool and experimental, possibly live up to this wait?
To guess the man’s future, however, we must look into his past. James Cameron is the next Hollywood Project.
Name: James Francis Cameron
Birth: 8/16/1954 in Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada.
Parents: Phillip Cameron (electrical engineer) and Shirley Cameron (artist/nurse)
Life: Cameron grew up in Ontario and showed early skill in painting, building, and photography. His parents were supportive of his talents, arranging art exhibits and supplying him with a 16mm camera and film. In his late teens, the family moved to Fullerton, California, where Cameron, torn between his passions in science and art, chose to study physics. Sensing a mistake, Cameron dropped out of courses and spent time driving trucks for the local school system while developing his skills in screenwriting and supporting his waitress wife, Sharon. The release of a new science-fiction epic, Star Wars, had a profound effect on Cameron. He became a regular at the library for the University of Southern California, devouring any and all theory on filmmaking and the sciences involved in it. He created a short film as a calling card and presented it to legendary B-picture director Roger Corman, who immediately put him to work.
Cameron is currently in his fifth marriage, and is the father of four children.
Career: Cameron apprenticed in Roger Corman’s infamous factory, working the special effects departments for such films as Battle Beyond the Stars and Galaxy of Terror. His intelligence and enthusiasm pushed him quickly up the ladder. One legend has Cameron rigging a power line into a fake, maggoty arm so the bugs would writhe on his cue, just as important producers wandered by to see it. He finally received his directing break with Piranha II: The Spawning, then followed with The Terminator, Aliens, and the screenplay for Rambo II. Each became a monster success (minus the Piranha one), and Cameron was suddenly Hollywood’s go-to action/sci-fi prodigy. Cameron went on to direct some of the biggest action hits of the next 15 years, culminating in the legendary success of Titanic, which netted him a Best Director Oscar. Since then, Cameron’s career has gone low-key, focused on documentaries and TV specials. Cameron is finally returning to narrative film in 2009 with the 3D alien saga, Avatar.
Trademarks: Cameron’s films have a recurring theme — acknowledged by the director — of technology (particularly nuclear tech), and the benefits and dangers inherent in it. His films tend to feature strong female characters in lead roles. He often uses the ocean as a setting, and likes to use dream sequences to reveal a character’s fears.
Behind the camera, Cameron is known for his sometimes volatile temperament and has a reputation as a perfectionist. His films often feature an innovation or new technology in a prominent role.
Number of Eligible Films: 8
Remarks: I don’t want to turn these articles into Psych 101, but sometimes it can’t be helped. If there’s a theme that jumps out from the life and career of James Cameron, it’s that bit about him being a perfectionist. As we’ll see throughout the countdown, Cameron is often the subject of his crew’s horror stories. He drives his employees to insane lengths, sometimes, in the pursuit of a shot or a schedule. He almost always writes his own scripts. For the love of– he’s been married five times. I’m not going to dwell on his private life, but come on. It’s as if he’s been waging a quest for the perfect woman, perhaps the same strong woman that drives so many of his films.
And how perfect are his parents? If yellow and red make orange, then an engineer and an artist make a filmmaker. In his work, Cameron straddles the line between the science of what he’s doing and the art of it. His balance in both is the reason for his tremendous success.
(Note: The James Cameron Project is complete. To check out the Project, please enjoy the links below.)
5. True Lies
7. The Abyss