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Cameron: The King James Version

The video launch of ‘Titanic’ sparks blunt talk of work, wealth, love and Leo

James Cameron

Director James Cameron on the set of the movie 'Titanic' which was nominated for a record-tying 14 Academy Awards 10 February in Hollywood. Cameron was nominated for Best Director the film, February 10th, 1998.

MERIE WALLACE/AFP/Getty

Forget that the September release of Titanic on video, buoyed by an unprecedented $50 million promotion budget, caps a year that is crawling with drama for James Cameron. And put aside that the forty-four-year-old director is still under media shelling for declaring himself the “king of the world” at the Oscars last March and splitting from wife Linda Hamilton – star of both of his Terminator films – for Titanic actress Suzy Amis. Right now, Cameron just wants his wheel back. When Titanic wrapped, in March 1997, furniture and wardrobe went to the J. Peterman catalog (star Kate Winslet’s evening gown fetched $11,500), and the massive captain’s wheel was loaned to Planet Hollywood. Now it’s crated downstairs in the Santa Monica headquarters of Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment, but Cameron has other plans for it. “I want the goddamn thing right here,” he says, indicating the vicinity of his desk. He laughs. “Because I know what it feels like to be at the helm of a sinking ship.”

Skepticism shadowed Titanic before the $200 million epic went on to gross a record $1.8 billion worldwide and tie Ben-Hur‘s record for Oscar wins (total: eleven). Now Cameron is experiencing the strange, light-in-the-stomach feeling of topping the charts (a sensation that had been limited to directors named Lucas and Spielberg). “It’s been such a bizarre ride,” he says. “I’m either vilified or put on a pedestal – sometimes both simultaneously. And yet I’m not either one of those. I’m just me; I’m the same schmuck I always was.”

Lightstorm Entertainment is decorated with souvenirs from Cameron’s movies – a full-size Alien Queen from Aliens, a forearm from The Terminator – so employees must have the bizarre daily experience of working inside someone else’s dreams. The diving helmet Cameron wore for the underwater sequences in The Abyss sits near the window. He picks up the helmet like a high school kid entertaining a guest (“Here, check this out – you gotta put it on, though. Now imagine wearing this for 560 hours, because that’s what I had to do”). I don’t see his three Titanic Oscars. “I just kind of brought them home and flung them on a counter,” he says. “I haven’t figured out what to do with them yet.” He laughs. “I thought of drilling a hole through the head of one and wearing it on a chain around my neck.”

Cameron was disappointed that Leonardo DiCaprio – the attraction that led teenage girls to examine Titanic as often and as carefully as marketing executives did – was a no-show at the ceremony. “I felt that it was kind of a snub, not of the film per se but of all the other people who did care and had sweated blood for the movie,” he says. “So I kept calling and saying, ‘You gotta go for the team – and, frankly, you have to go for yourself, because the consequences of not going will be that you’re gonna look like a spoiled punk.’ So he didn’t go, and he looked like a spoiled punk.” Cameron laughs again. “And Leo knows I feel that way, so I’m not saying anything out of school. He agonized over it – but there was something about it that wasn’t him. That was the message I got on my machine, like, the day before: ‘It just ain’t me, bro.’ Apparently, getting $4 million to do a juice ad that airs only in Japan is him; going to the Oscars is not.”

Cameron – who accepted his Golden Globe award with the words “Does this finally prove size does matter?” – is less disappointed than you might think about having to scale down his epic film for video. “It’s an acceptance of the difference between the two media,” says the director, who spent hundreds of hours on the video transfer. “Frankly, I think I fought it to a draw.” He clears his throat. “It’s like hearing a good song on your car radio with the windows down at sixty miles an hour; it’s still a good song.” Tech-heads, take note: A Titanic laserdisc will debut on October 13th, and a DVD – a digital format that Cameron has called “the platform of the future” – should appear around Christmas. A video containing excised footage – what Cameron refers to as an “alt-version” – is far off in the future. “I gotta get on to other things first,” he says, “get Titanic behind me.”

Cameron grew up in Chippawa, Ontario, a few miles from Niagara Falls. His father was an electrical engineer, his mother a painter. “Filmmaking is exactly the combination of the two,” he explains. “It’s a technical art form.” As a teenager, he and one of his brothers – Cameron has two brothers and two sisters – assembled a small diving bell from a mayonnaise jar and a bucket, and sent a mouse to the bottom of the Chippawa creek. “The mouse went down twenty-five feet, hung around for about fifteen minutes,” says Cameron. “We hauled him back up and he was fine.” At twenty, Cameron dropped out of college in California, married a waitress and spent two and a half years driving trucks. He found his first film job working special effects for B-movie producer Roger Corman. The Terminator grew out of Cameron’s childhood love of science fiction; he and producer Gale Anne Hurd – his second wife – arranged funding. Cameron’s breakup with Hurd partly inspired the scenes of marital discord in The Abyss.

To appreciate Cameron’s success is to understand how personal his films are. In Titanic, Kate Winslet’s character, Rose, is named after Cameron’s grandmother. Like Cameron’s own mother, Rose, struggles to avoid disappearing into a life she doesn’t want. “She’s afraid of being trapped and not being fulfilled,” he says. “My mother was an artist, but she was chained to being a mother of five kids, so she didn’t get to really be an artist.” Like the director, DiCaprio’s character, Jack Dawson, hails from a town called Chippawa; like the young Cameron, he is an obsessive sketcher. “There’s a lot of me in Jack, definitely,” Cameron says with a smile. “Actually, I shouldn’t say that. Jack is the guy I wished I had could have been. I wished I had the courage and the openness. And, also, I wouldn’t have minded looking even half as good as Leo does, you know.”

So when Cameron accepted his Best Director Oscar, it made sense to quote from Titanic.”I was having the highest moment of my life,” he says. “And Jack’s expression of his sense of exaltation was when he said, ‘I’m the king of the world!’ Now he’s the poorest guy on the ship – he doesn’t have ten cents. He’s not the king of anything. But he felt like he was, at that moment. So I just blurted it out, which was probably kinda stupid.” To his surprise, the speech was taken by many as another flash of Cameron’s Titanic-size ego. “There’s this self-fulfilling-prophecy aspect to media coverage – a portrait is created of me as this kind of curmudgeonly, dictatorial hard-ass. And sometimes it’s true. But most of the time I’m just really kind of open and enthusiastic about the whole deal, about making a movie. I mean, I still feel like somebody’s going to come in and tell me to go back to my truck-driving job.”

Cameron is aware that the media move in cycles: “I learned that from Arnold Schwarzenegger – it’s a big sine wave. Now we’re back in the negative. What’s left to attack? There’s always the money [Cameron stands to make a reported $75 million from Titanic, not bad for a filmmaker who initially gave back his directing fee to defray the film’s cost], but that’s an old story; that’s boring. ‘Well, let’s attack Cameron because of his, you know, objectionable personality.'” The most shocking thing about spending an afternoon with James Cameron is that he’s good company. He laughs often and can’t seem to get comfortable in his chair – sometimes dangling his long legs over the armrest like a student in a library – as if away from a film set he isn’t quite sure what to do with his body. He acknowledges that he can be rough on-set (“I am pretty unrelenting in the search for the best possible way of doing a scene”) but denies reports that he “tortures” actors – that for him actors are basically mice in a diving bell. “Everybody seems to forget that I wrote these fucking characters,” he says. “I have a great creative investment in the acting process.”

Cameron didn’t do his media reputation any favors by attacking Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan for following a negative Titanic review with three more Titanic slams. “Forget about Clinton,” Cameron wrote in a 1,200-word letter to the Times, “how do we impeach Kenneth Turan?” The story was picked up across the country, but Cameron is unrepentant: “I read his review and shrugged it off. Those are the breaks.” His face gets stony. “But what bothered me was that somehow he decided to vilify Titanic as an example of everything wrong in Hollywood. Excuse me, you can’t take the one film that had the hair on its balls to go out and be three hours long, and be a mainstream picture that didn’t kowtow to every so-called piece of mainstream knowledge of what you have to do to survive, that involved itself in things that every studio executive in town would have run from screaming, and say that it’s emblematic of everything that’s wrong in Hollywood. And do it over and over. You just can’t fucking do that. There’s one newspaper in this city that sits on the breakfast table of everyone I work with. You’re attacking me in my house.”

Cameron has served in Hollywood for two decades, and he still isn’t used to it. “I’ve been to the bottom of the ocean, and I think Hollywood is stranger,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s like an animistic religion, where there are like, spirits in the trees and rocks. It’s like there are spirits in big grosses, you know? And we must bow down before the spirit of the big gross – regardless of how it ignores things we’re all supposed to know.”

Fame is another downside. When Cameron and fourth wife Hamilton (the two have a five-year-old daughter) separated this spring, he was surprised to discover that his love life was news. “It’s just an odd, creepy feeling – that all of a sudden my personal life is in some way significant,” he says. Cameron won’t go into details, saying only that he’s amazed at the inaccuracy of most reports. And don’t get him started on Internet cyberchat about whether his next film will be Spider-Man, a space-shuttle movie or a Planet of the Apes remake. “I have nothing to announce,” he says with a grin. “I can say this: Everything that’s been posted on the Internet is wrong.” Clearly, Cameron is someone you cross at your peril. “I’m going to fight back,” he declares. “It’s that simple. If you did it tomorrow, I’d do the same thing. I’m a crusty Canadian farmer at heart. You come onto our land, we put some buckshot in your ass.”

In This Article: Coverwall, James Cameron

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