Quint saw the SBIFF Tribute to James Cameron! He talks AVATAR, TERMINATOR, ALIENS, Roger Corman, sneaking into USC & much more!
Published at: Feb. 7, 2010, 4:24 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a rundown of tonight’s big James Cameron event at the 25th Santa Barbara International Film Festival. He received the Modern Master award from the festival tonight, presented by the Governor himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Cameron get an award at SBIFF. He was given one for his documentary work in the heyday of his underwater exploration films and it was at that time that I sat down with him and did one of my favorite chats with one of my favorite directors. You can read that now 4 year old interview here. Ah, the old Dirty Joke final question days…
I’m hoping that Copernicus gets some sit down time with Cameron this time out. If you read his Science of Avatar story you’ll know why he’s much more up to the task at quizzing the man than I am.
Anyway, it’s late and I don’t want to bore you with all this crap. Let’s get into the event, which I’ll hit in bullet points as I feature Kraken’s photography.
Leonard Maltin hosted the Q&A and when Cameron was called up on stage he immediately went into his speech because of a miscommunication about when he was actually getting the award. They paused the speech after about 5 minutes and started the Q&A only to stop it again when Arnold showed up to present the award. You’ll see that represented below, but I wanted to give an idea of how loose the night was.
-When asked about filmic influences, Cameron went back to the Harryhausen films… specifically name-checking Jason and the Argonauts, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Mysterious Island and 20 Million Miles to Earth. He said it was dreamlike to him because he had no idea what Stop Motion was. He also had a steady diet of Science-Fiction and comic books.
-Wizard of Oz is his favorite movie and he loves it because of the combination of beauty and terror that exist in that world. He told his design team on Avatar that he wanted to “scare the crap out of people, but I also want it to be beautiful.”
-As a kid Cameron didn’t know if was going to draw or write. He drew a lot of his own comics as a kid. He had a “narrative impulse” and a “visual impulse” that he didn’t realize he could actually combine by becoming a filmmaker until he was in his 20s.
-His first paying job was on Roger Corman’s (great) Battle Beyond the Stars. He was hired originally as a model builder, but he became the art director almost immediately. It was a trial by fire. “We knew just enough to be dangerous, but not enough to know we shouldn’t even be trying what we were doing.”
-Said he was a better artist and a better filmmaker than a leader at the start.
-“You have to create your own luck” is a lesson he learned on the Corman films. Not in a nefarious way, but that you have to be persistent and prepared for when opportunity comes. “No fate but what we make” from the Terminator films comes from this philosophy.
-When he was a truck driver, he’d drive all week, but on Saturdays he’d go down to USC (he was not a student there, mind you) and go into the stacks and Xeroxed copies of American Cinematographer to thesis done on optical printing or break downs of film stocks and he brought all that back home and organized it binders, studying them.
-First break was when he was allowed to do 2nd unit directing on another Roger Corman film (he didn’t mention the title, but it’s probably the extremely twisted Galaxy of Terror). As an effects guy and production designer he convinced Corman that the director wasn’t getting enough coverage of the effects, so he got the 2nd Unit director job at the expense of his production designer gig.
-The production was so over schedule that he got to direct a lot with the actors. The production essentially had two 1st Units running simultaneously. Even though he was petrified at working with actors they all started requesting to be put into his unit because they liked him better.
-Piranha 2: The Spawning. Cameron was hired to direct, flew to Rome, completed a couple of weeks of preproduction, flew to Jamaica and shot for 4 days before being replaced by the Italian producer, notorious for taking over his films. “It ended up being good for me because the film turned out to be a stinker.”
-They then showed the Power Suit vs. Alien Queen scene from ALIENS… it was really kinda cool to watch Cameron watching his own movies, especially for one of his best. He said afterwards that this is probably what “Hell for directors is… watching your movies on an endless loop at 180db.”
-Cameron commented on the fight, that pre-CG the executed it with a Bunraku Japanese puppet style miniature effects and real life-sized puppets created by Stan Winston. There were two guys, sitting side by side inside the life-sized puppet, each one operating one big arm and one small arm. The Alien Queen was designed around the two-man rig. He then demonstrated the arm-waving.
-Cameron pointed out the shot where you can see Lance Henriksen’s body as he reaches for Newt, the half-body lifting up off the ground revealing his torso. “It’s an interesting lesson in how we perceive film. Nobody is looking there, they’re looking at where his hand is. ‘Will he be able to catch her?’” Cameron himself didn’t notice it until the premiere.
-T2 was kicking around for a while. Schwarzenegger wanted to do one and when Cameron talked to Linda Hamilton, who he refused to do the movie without, she gave him the idea that Sarah Connor would be crazy, mentally torn apart with the foreknowledge of the murder of 6 billion people. He wrote from there.
-After the clip from T2 (the drainage canal chase), the T-800 himself, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger came out to present Cameron the award.
-Schwarzenegger came out like a stand-up comic, saying he’s there to celebrate a great immigrant story, a man who came to Hollywood and made billions of dollars, became admired by millions of people… but “that’s enough talking about myself. I got carried away! Sorry about that!”
-Another Governator zinger: “His movies have made billions and billions of dollars world-wide. As a matter of fact, he made so much money that all of this money together could have wiped out the State’s budget deficit!”
-Schwarzenegger said “Avatar” a few times and every single time it came out like “Ahvadah.” He joked that Cameron intentionally chose that title because he knew it was impossible for Arnie to pronounce.
-Despite all the talk about Avatar 2 going forward, Cameron said he hasn’t decided what he’s going to do next.
-After sitting back down to continue the discussion, Cameron fawned over Schwarzenegger’s presence in the original Terminator saying he was known as being “the ultimate physical form” back then, but that in 90% of the movie he’s in biker leather, with the camera close on his face. What attracted Cameron to him for the part was Schwarzenegger’s ability to be as cold as ice, the opposite from his turn in Conan the Barbarian.
-Apparently Schwarzenegger loved going out to restaurants still in the Stan Winston make-up, with half of his face ripped off.
-There were 42 CG shots in Terminator 2, which forced a merge of computer effects and Stan Winston’s mechanical work. Compare that with Avatar, which was 2600 CG shots.
-The Abyss was Cameron’s most demanding shoot, physically. He’d literally go home and fall asleep with his fork still in his mouth.
-Originally the Water Tentacle was written as the aliens using water as a probe, but instead of a tentacle it was just “intelligent water” that spilled into the room on the floor. Although he had no idea how to pull it off, he changed it into a water tentacle and began the journey of figuring out how to do it “because it’d be cool.”
-Dennis Muren did the CG Water Tentacle stuff in The Abyss… it took them 9 months to do 16 shots.
-Although Cameron does rigorous storyboarding for action scenes (for safety reason first and foremost, he said), he doesn’t like to storyboard scenes for actors, preferring to block on the day with the actors giving their input. He said if you’re not willing, as a director, to look beyond the storyboards and seek out that spontaneity then you’ll miss the magic filmmaking can capture.
-Titanic originated because he wanted an excuse to dive the wreckage.
-Cameron went into Fox and pitched “Romeo & Juliet on the Titanic.” “That was it, I had a deal.”
-Was Titanic a bigger project than he thought it was going to be? “They always are. It’s like a woman thinking about having another child. If she really had a clear memory of exactly what happened last time she wouldn’t do it.”
-Regarding his famous temperament Cameron said he learned on Titanic that the studio looks to the director and the producer for clues on how screwed they are. “Leadership works in both directions, both down the chain and up.” He said particularly on Avatar the studio didn’t understand the process and he had to keep his cool to calm their nervousness.
-“I’m the King of World” line is something they came up with on the day. Cameron was in a crane basket on a long lens talking to Leo via walkie-talkie. The set was next to the Pacific, but locked down, so Cameron had to give the illusion of movement with the camera. He wanted this moment to be big, so he had DiCaprio do a few things… howl like a wolf, etc… Cameron suggested “I’m the King of the World!” and DiCaprio was like “What?” “But he sold it. I didn’t sell it.”
-Further talking about the illusion of filmmaking, Cameron commented that the actors are tasked with protecting that illusion. “Sigourney made the Alien Queen live because of the way she treated it as this thing that really seemed to be there, as her nemesis.”
-IMAX has pulled in $250 million in only 261 theaters on Avatar.
-Cameron’s Avatar research: animals, ecosystems, Colonial Period, the interactions between the natives and the first settlers, the American West and the Conquest of Spain. “But at a certain point you have to abandon the research and tell a story.”
-He first knocked out the story in 2-3 weeks in 1995, writing a 100 page template. Cameron did Titanic, but didn’t think the CG was there for Avatar, so he waited.
-It took 4 ½ years to do Avatar “soup to nuts.” The first 2 years were design and technical development, no actors. The facial performance capture was the toughest technical hurdle to cross. April ’07 began a year’s worth of production including performance capture in Playa Vista, then 4 months of live action photography in Wellington, NZ. Then 1 ½ of post production.
-Cameron joked that he wanted all the “hater bloggers” who kind of disappeared after Avatar became the highest grossing film of all time to come out and admit they were wrong.
-After the laughs from that he was asked “What does Avatar’s success mean to you?” Cameron said that ultimately the most satisfying part of it is to know that he’s communicating with an audience, that people are connecting emotionally with the movie.
-Cameron hopes the environmental message will help in places where it’s needed the most, pointing to its success in China. “I don’t delude myself that an entertainment film is going to change the world, but I do think what an entertainment film can do is associate an emotional response, a sense of outrage at the destruction of nature, with information you already have.”
-His favorite scene in Avatar is the Jake/Neytiri learning to fly/bonding montage. The one where Jake’s voiceover says “I may not be much of a horse guy, but I was born to do this.”
That was the chat. Hope you enjoyed reading along and scoping out some of those pics! Tomorrow’s my final day at SBIFF, but I should be hitting the director’s panel and watching Kirk Douglas’ 1975 film POSSE hosted by Quentin Tarantino and featuring a Q&A between Tarantino and Kirk Douglas himself. It’s gonna be a good day.
I’ll write it all up when I can!
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