James Cameron's rise, from driving trucks to directing some of Hollywood's biggest epics, parallels the epic journeys of his characters, from Sarah Connor to Jake Sully. And you won't believe how crazy the stories in his biography, The Futurist, are.
Here are some of the weirdest Cameron facts, from The Futurist by Rebecca Keegan, as well as Keegan's interviews about the book. We've also linked to some excerpts from the book that you can read online.
When Cameron was a young kid, his mom Shirley joined the Canadian Women's Army Corps and spent her weekends in fatigues and combat boots, learning to assemble a rifle while blindfolded. She's perplexed by the idea that she might be the inspiration for Cameron's female heroines. Cameron was a precocious kid who was speaking complete sentences at 18 months and reading science books when the other kids were reading See Spot Run. He won every academic award in ninth grade and became president of the Science Club, and not surprisingly got himself beat up by all the other kids in the process. He learned to do just well enough in school to get good grades, without getting any awards.
And he's an atheist, who decided agnosticism was "cowardly atheism." When the other kids read the Lord's Prayer in school, Cameron decided it was a "tribal chant" and decided not to do it.
If graphic novels had existed as an art form when Cameron started out, he might have done that instead of trying to direct movies.
As a teenager, Cameron worked six-hour shifts as a precision tool and die machinist while taking 14 units at Fullerton College. In his early 20s, he worked as a truck driver, janitor and gas-station attendant. And his girlfriend at the time worked at Bob's Big Boy Diner, just like Sarah Connor.
"You can't help but come away from spending time with Jim feeling that you're a little bit stupid," Peter Jackson warned Keegan. "He's got such a sharp mind."
His early writings included a post-nuclear science-fiction story called "Necropolis." His first real film project, made with friends, was a never-completed epic called Xenogenesis, for which they shot a complex sequence involving a guy being chased by a tank firing laser beams, causing explosions at his feet. This got him in the front door at Roger Corman studios.
After Cameron got promoted to director of Piranha II when the original director quit, he broke into the editing bay to create his own edit of the film against the producer's wishes. When Cameron first met Arnold Schwarzenegger, he didn't want to cast him in The Terminator — he figured Arnie would have the usual body-builder movie arc: make some movies wearing a toga, and then fall off the face of the Earth. (The two are now friends, and race motorcycles together on weekends.)
He only did Aliens because he called an agent's bluff. And during the making of that film, he had to deal with a British film crew who saw the 31-year-old director as a young upstart who hadn't earned his stripes by working his way up. The assistant director, Derek Cracknell, felt better able to direct the film than Cameron and would try to set up shots differently than Cameron wanted. The crew was used to two tea breaks, lunch at the pub, and work ending by 5 PM, and Cameron drove them to work longer hours, sparking a full-on walk-out. Finally, Cameron talked to the crew in a marathon gripe session, which ended with promises of more cooperation. Somehow, Cameron finished making the film, and then addressed the crew one last time:
This has been a long and difficult shoot, fraught by many problems. But the one thing that kept me going, through it all, was the certain knowledge that one day I would drive out the gate of Pinewood and never come back, and that you sorry bastards would still be here.
(You can read an excerpt from the book, detailing this incident, over at Slashfilm.)
After Terminator II came out, Guillermo Del Toro was staying at Cameron's guest house for long stretches of time. And after Del Toro's father got kidnapped in Mexico, Cameron helped Del Toro find the right hostage negotiators to get him out, and helped put up the money for his ransom.
Cameron stood up to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who did not want Jamie Lee Curtis to be his costar in True Lies, and won. And when Schwarzenegger and Tom Arnold took off on a tour of DC monuments, leaving the set, they returned to find Cameron standing in the middle of the road, arms crossed, like a Terminator ready to total their vehicle. Cameron lunged in the passenger door and got in Arnie's face, shouting "Do you want Paul Verhoeven to direct the rest of this [expletive]? You do that [expletive] again and that's what's gonna happen."
During the making of Titanic, the whole crew ate chowder laced with LSD, and freaked out so badly, an assistant director stabbed Cameron in the face with a pencil. He almost died during the making of that film, when his sub got trapped on the ocean floor by currents that thwarted every attempt to rise — and a similar predicament happened during the making of The Abyss, when he ran out of oxygen. (His underwater cinematographer was nearly deaf due to a diving-bell accident, and didn't hear Cameron saying he was out of oxygen, and then he had to punch out his own safety diver to reach the surface — the safety diver was trying to hold Cameron 15 feet below the surface, as he was trained to do, but Cameron had a faulty regulator that was just spewing water. Read an excerpt about the making of The Abyss at TechLand.)
Cameron addressed a 2000 Earth Day celebration by intoning, "I just want to say that we're all doomed," mocking his own penchant for apocalyptic scenarios. "But on the positive side, we created this impending doom ourselves, with our brains, with our technology, and we can damn well uncreate it."
When Cameron brought his 153-page screenplay for Avatar to Fox, the executives "acted like it was a complete shambles," Cameron tells Keegan. That's because Cameron was in the habit of changing all his dialogue around after watching the actors rehearse, and it had been so long between projects that the suits had forgotten that's how Cameron works. So Cameron had to revise the movie and take it back to Fox — and then the studio still decided to pass on it officially. But after Cameron took the film to Disney, Fox changed its mind in a hurry.