When he was growing up in landlocked Niagara Falls, Ontario, James Cameron idolised the French ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. A science fiction buff who was fascinated by space travel, Cameron found something otherworldly about the dazzling underwater imagery of Cousteau’s television specials.
“Cousteau’s shows got me excited about the fact there was an alien world right here on Earth,” he said in a 2010 Ted Talk.
Cameron, 68, has been thinking about oceans and alien worlds ever since. In the 1980s, he directed Aliens and the deep sea epic The Abyss. Later came Titanic (1997), then the highest grossing film of all time — until Cameron beat his own box office record with the 3D sci-fi epic Avatar, which grossed $2.8bn after its release in December 2009.
His latest film, Avatar: The Way of Water, is Cameron’s ultimate exploration of an alien undersea world. Thirteen years in the making and costing an estimated $350mn, much of the sequel’s action takes place in the oceans of Pandora, the lush moon inhabited by blue, 10ft tall Na’vi humanoids.
The director is known for his elaborate, high-budget productions and The Way of Water is a classic Cameron undertaking. “In designing the oceans of Pandora, we knew we had a massive challenge,” says Dylan Cole, the film’s co-production designer. “For one, our director, James Cameron, knows more about the ocean than anyone.”
This is not much of an exaggeration. An avid diver and ocean explorer, Cameron has filmed the wrecked remains of the Titanic and the Bismarck. He has even navigated a submarine, which he designed himself, to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth.
No surprise, then, that he spared no expense in filming the underwater scenes for The Way of Water. Cameron could have opted to shoot them “dry for wet,” meaning that the actors would perform on stage and ocean effects would be added later. “But Jim wanted truth in their performance,” explains Jon Landau, the film producer who has worked with Cameron for decades. “So we decided to build a massive water tank where actors could go in and perform their scenes.”
The tanks were 30 feet deep and a giant wave machine was built to create two-metre high peaks. A free diving expert, Kirk Krack, was brought in to help the actors learn to hold their breath for long stretches; actress Kate Winslet was able to go for about seven minutes without breathing using a technique called static apnea.
It is this kind of attention to detail that defines Cameron’s filmmaking process. “I think it’s [a search for] perfection,” Landau says. “Jim does something until he gets it right.”
Rich Gelfond, the chief executive of Imax, has seen Cameron’s quest for perfection up close. The director spent three months in Gelfond’s offices studying every detail of how 3D cameras worked — lessons that he would later apply in the Avatar movies.
“For many people, having the number one movie of all time on [two] occasions would be enough, but Jim always sets the bar higher,” Gelfond says.
Yet despite his history of spending high and earning higher, some in Hollywood are asking whether his elaborate methods will pay off in the streaming era. The new movie, which clocks in at about three hours, opened last Friday and has grossed $550mn in the global box office — a healthy showing, but so far not enough for it to be profitable.
When he was a teenager, Cameron’s father moved the family from Canada to Brea, California, about 90 minutes south-east of Hollywood. Cameron left high school without earning a diploma and began an existence that appeared to reject the white-collar life his father, an engineer, had carved out.
He worked as a tool and die maker for a while, drove a truck and married a woman who was working as a waitress at Bob’s Big Boy — the first of his five marriages. “I just became this blue-collar guy,” he told The New Yorker in 2009. “But I was constantly thinking as an artist, so I’m painting, drawing, writing, thinking about visual effects and filmmaking.”
He eventually found his way to the legendary B-movie director Roger Corman, who helped launch the careers of future directors including Francis Ford Coppola. Cameron designed the spaceships for Battle Beyond the Stars, a Star Wars rip-off, which Corman admired.
Cameron had found his calling. “Filmmaking was the best way to reconcile my urge to tell stories and create images,” he said in 2010. He would make his mark on Hollywood in 1984 with The Terminator, the sci-fi classic starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton. Cameron made the movie on a shoestring budget of about $6mn, but it raked in $80mn at the box office.
Nearly 40 years later, he is still at it. Cameron has plans for a total of five Avatar films; the third one has already been shot and work is under way for the fourth picture. And even as the movie industry remains wobbly from the impact of Covid and the popularity of streaming, Cameron plans to deliver films that demand to be seen in the cinema.
“Why does Jim make movies? For an audience,” says Landau. “Every creative decision that Jim makes, shot by shot, is meant to be seen on the big screen. He has never lost that 16-year-old inside of him who loves going to the movies.”