'Avatar' Director James Cameron Interviewed You might define the films of James Cameron by listing two characteristics: state-of-the-art special effects and huge box-office receipts. For starters,Titanic, The Terminator and Aliens all qualify on both counts. Now he adds Avatar to the list. He joins Fresh Air to discuss his complex special effects and innovative filming techniques.

James Cameron: Pushing The Limits Of Imagination

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, James Cameron, has directed the top two highest-grossing films of all time: the 1997 film "Titanic" and, of course, his latest, "Avatar." "Avatar" has made over $2.3 billion and has received nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Cameron first came up with the idea for "Avatar" 15 years ago, but he shelved the project after realizing that the technology didn't exist to make the film. In the intervening years, Cameron helped develop a new 3-D digital camera system, which he used to film many underwater documentaries, as well as "Avatar."

"Avatar" stars Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, an injured Marine who's now in a wheelchair. He takes a job with a military contractor to work on the planet Pandora, where the company is trying to extract a precious ore, but the natives on the planet, the Na'vi tribe, are getting in the way. Jake's job is to be an avatar, to take the form of one of the Na'vi and infiltrate them both for anthropological information and to try to get them out of the way. In this scene, he's reluctantly recording one of the first video logs about starting to learn the Na'vi ways.

(Soundbite of film, "Avatar")

Mr.�SAM WORTHINGTON (Actor): (As Jake Sully) This is a video log, 12 times 21, 32. Do I have to do this now? I really need to get some rest.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) No, now, when it's fresh.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr.�WORTHINGTON: (As Sully) Okay, location, shack, and the days are starting to blur together. The language is a pain, but you know, I figure it's like field-stripping the weapons. It's repetition, repetition. Na'vi.

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) Na'vi.

Mr.�WORTHINGTON: (As Sully) Na'vi.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) (Speaking foreign language).

Mr.�WORTHINGTON: (As Sully) Neytiri calls me scoun(ph). It means moron.

GROSS: Jim Cameron, welcome to FRESH AIR. Can I ask you to give us an example of a shot or two or a scene that epitomizes for you what you can do with 3-D that you couldn't do in a regular film?

Mr.�JAMES CAMERON (Filmmaker, "Avatar"): Well, I think it's sometimes as simple as, you know, a shot in a snowstorm would feel so much more tactile to the viewer. You'd actually feel like the snowflakes were falling on you and around you, you know, that sort of thing, any time that the medium of the air between you and the subject can be filled with something.

So we did a lot of stuff in "Avatar" with, you know, floating wood sprites and little bits of stuff floating in the sunlight and so on, and rain and foreground leaves and things like that. It's all a way of wrapping the audience in the experience of the movie.

GROSS: And there's even a shot - and I think this looked deeper because of the 3-D, but you tell me - there's a shot in which the spaceship that's transporting the people to Pandora, it's a shot of, like, a long, narrow bench, basically, of seats, like a row of seats that the guys are sitting on. And I think it looked particularly long because of the 3-D, or is that just me?

Mr.�CAMERON: No, I think you're right. I think it's an enhanced sense of depth. We get depth queuing in flat images all the time. We understand perspective, you know, linear perspective, aerial perspective. When we see a human figure, and that figure's very tiny, we don't our brain immediately says that's not a tiny guy, an inch tall, that's somebody very far away.

So all those depth queues are always there. When you add what 3-D does, 3-D gives you parallax information. It actually gives you the difference between what the left eye sees and what the right eye sees, and that creates even more depth information.

So now all these different depth queues have to be correlated in the brain in the space of a few microseconds when you first see the image. And I would submit, although I haven't seen data on this, that the brain is more active. The brain is more engaged in the processing of the images.

GROSS: So do you see in 3-D as you're shooting?

Mr.�CAMERON: Well, I mean, we all see in 3-D all the time.

GROSS: But not through a lens.

Mr.�CAMERON: Well, no, I mean, I can. I have a 3-D viewing station nearby, but I typically don't use it because I've done I've shot so much 3-D, I kind of know what it's going to look like. So I don't slow down to check it. But you know, I have somebody watching, and if there's something that I'm not aware of, they'll let me know.

GROSS: Didn't you help develop, like, a special, new virtual camera?

Mr.�CAMERON: Yeah, but that's a whole different deal. That has nothing...

GROSS: What is it?

Mr.�CAMERON: That has nothing to do with 3-D. The virtual camera was a way of interfacing with a CG world so that I could view my actors as their characters when we were doing performance capture. So imagine, here's Zoe Saldana or Sam Worthington in our capture space, which we called the volume, and when you look at them, they're wearing kind of a black outfit, which is their capture suit, but what I look at, and what I see in my virtual camera monitor is an image of them as a 10-foot-tall, blue, alien creature with a tail.

GROSS: Wow, that's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�CAMERON: And it's in real time.

GROSS: That's kind of amazing.

Mr.�CAMERON: Yeah, it's simultaneous.

GROSS: So there's, like, a computer, a CG computer in the camera that transforms the image?

Mr.�CAMERON: Yeah, more or less. The camera really is just a monitor and a set of tracking markers, and it connects to a couple of computers, actually. The first one takes in that tracking data and figures out where the camera is in space relative to the actors, and then the second computer takes that information about the characters and where they are and turns them or the actors and where they are and turns them into their characters and supplies the setting.

So I would see Zoe and Sam as Neytiri and Jake in the jungle of Pandora, for example, you know, fully lit image of the Pandoran rain forest. You know, it's not the same as the final image of the movie in the sense that it's a much lower resolution so it can render in real time.

GROSS: Let's talk about the characters a little bit.

Mr.�CAMERON: Sure.

GROSS: Let me tell you one of the first things that strikes me about the heroine. Now, in comics and in pulps, and I know you're big fans of those, the women were always curvaceous and buxom and, of course, scantily clad.

Mr.�CAMERON: Of course. That's a given.

GROSS: That's a given. Now, the heroine in "Avatar" is so skinny. I mean, all the characters are. All of the characters in this imaginary moon, they're all kind of elongated and very thin. So she's elongated and very thin with, like, little breasts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And scantily clad.

Mr.�CAMERON: Athletic breasts.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr.�CAMERON: Something that wouldn't be cumbersome when you're running through the forest rapidly in pursuit of your prey.

GROSS: So I'm wondering about that decision because I think that must say something. I'm not sure what it says, but I figure it must say something about people's expectations of sexuality or athleticism now and, like, you know, a female heroine and also what, I mean, a lot of action and fantasy films are directed at young males, and young males usually want to see that full-figured, buxom, you know.

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah, yeah. They don't...

GROSS: So talk to me a little bit about designing her and how that compares to, like the female sci-fi comic heroines you grew up with.

Mr.�CAMERON: Yeah, I mean, your typical comic heroine is, you know, is quite voluptuous. And, you know, I think, you know, we were just looking for something that was a little bit alien, you know, and so, you know, I use the example of, you know, Giocometti sculpture, you know, where you have these kind of vertically attenuated figures and then relating it back to some, you know, tribal cultures in Africa like the Masai, you know, herders who were very, very tall and lean and, you know, quite beautiful, and you could see they are muscular, very clearly defined.

And you know, it was a way of having them be human and slightly pushed at the same time. Because for me, the Na'vi always were about an expression of kind of the better part of ourselves in the sense of them being, you know, kind of the almost the Rousseau model of the noble savage, untainted by civilization, all that, which is a quite romantic idea, and not one I think is really true, by the way, in the real world. But it made sense to me that in this film, you've got this polarization where the humans actually represent an aspect of human nature that is, you know, venal and corrupt and aggressive and so on.

And the Na'vi represent an aspect of human nature that is more aspirational for us. They're more the way we would see ourselves or want to be. You know, they're athletic, they're graceful, they're, you know, connected to their environment and to each other and so on.

You know, so I didn't want to make them these fat waddlers, kind of crashing through the bush. I wanted them to suggest a kind of antelope-like grace. And so, you know, a big part of our creation of these characters was working with movement people. We had a movement coach who was an ex-Cirque de Soleil choreographer. We worked with our stunt team to create this very graceful and powerful and athletic kind of, you know, complete body performance for the characters, for the actors and for the stunt doubles.

GROSS: Now, you had to make up a language, also, I think with the help of a linguist.

Mr.�CAMERON: Yeah.

GROSS: What were you looking for in the language, and how do you put together a kind of grammatically coherent language?

Mr.�CAMERON: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, that's where the linguist, Dr.�Paul Frommer, came in. And he was the head of the linguistics department at USC at the time, and he did more than help. He actually created the language. Or more properly, he created the translations of the lines that we needed for the script. I don't think he didn't create, like, a full language with a vocabulary of 20,000 words, but I think we now have a vocabulary of about 1,200 or 1,300 words.

And I actually had him on set with me so that if the actors wanted to improvise, they could go over to him, and say how would I saw this, how would I say that? Sometimes he had to create words right on the spot, but they had to be words that were consistent with the kind of sound system that we were using for the language.

And I guess I sort of set it in motion when I created character names and place names and based them on some, you know, kind of Polynesian sounds and some Indonesian sounds. And he riffed on that, and he brought in some African sounds that were ejective consonants and things like that, kind of clicks and pops, and he sprinkled those in. And he came up with a syntax and a typical sentence structure, which I think has the verb at the end, kind of in the German sentence structure, you know, I to the store go. It's noun, object, verb. So I think that's how Na'vi is structured.

So it follows linguistic rules, and that's why it sounds correct. And all the actors had to adhere to a standard of pronunciation so that it didn't sound like everybody was making up their own gobbledygook, which I think over and a two-and-a-half-hour movie you would have felt you were being had if we had done it that way.

GROSS: So can you speak to me in the Na'vi language?

Mr.�CAMERON: You know, I mean, I can only say lines that are in the film.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, that's fine.

Mr.�CAMERON: I can say, well: (Speaking foreign language). That means I see you, my sister. No, I see you my brother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMERON: (Speaking foreign language) is I see you, my sister. Or (Speaking foreign language) means I was going to kill him, but there was a sign from Awha(ph).

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Cameron, and we'll talk more about how he made "Avatar" after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is James Cameron, and he wrote and directed "Avatar." He also made "Titanic," "Terminator" and "True Lies," oh, and "Aliens," too. You know, in one of your documentaries, one of your deep sea documentaries, you describe underwater life as the most insane life forms ever discovered. So have you seen any creatures, like real creatures, under the sea that helped inspire any of the creatures in "Avatar"?

Mr.�CAMERON: Well, absolutely. I mean, I think first of all, there's the sort of generic answer, which is there's such an inspiration to be had from the, you know, what I call nature's imagination because, you know, I surrounded myself on "Avatar" with these really, really great creature-design artists. And every time we thought we had come we had come up with a brand new idea, somebody would come in with a photograph or a reference, and we realized that nature beat us to it, you know, by probably 300 million years.

I mean, a specific if you want a specific example...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CAMERON: ...if you recall when Jake goes into this kind of glade of these kind of orange, flower-like structures, and he begins to touch them, and they retract down into the ground, that's actually based on a small tubeworm, which is kind of colloquially called the Christmas tree worm.

And, you know, divers can see them any time they dive in a coral reef environment. They just look like these little parasols, and when you try to touch one, it will retract into its tube.

So we just took that idea, took it out of scale to, you know, several hundred times its real size and took it above water and put it in a forest glade. So it's you know, a lot of our so-called alien ideas in "Avatar" were really just taking examples from nature and taking them out of context, out of scale and, you know, out of where we would normally see them.

GROSS: "Avatar" combines a lot of different movie genres in its own way. There's aspects of the Vietnam War movie, aspects of the Iraq War movie because a lot of people think Iraq War is about oil, and...

Mr. CAMERON: Sure.

GROSS: ...the battle in your movie is about some kind of ore, some kind of mineral that's very valuable.

This parallels to the Westerns, where, you know, like the white people come and conquer the indigenous people, and there's parallels to, like, creature films like "King Kong" where he battles other prehistoric creatures and, you know, "Rodan vs. Godzilla" kind of film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Were you thinking of all those genres?

Mr.�CAMERON: Now you're getting out on you're getting out on a limb now.

GROSS: No, I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�CAMERON: Well, you know, look, the Vietnam stuff and the Iraq stuff is there by design, and the references to the colonial period are there by design, the way in which, you know, European civilization flowed outward and sort of, you know, took over and displaced the indigenous people in North America, South America, Australia - pretty much everywhere they went, you know.

And, you know, so I think it's at a very, very high level, at a general, at a very generalized level, it's saying our attitude about indigenous people and our sort of entitlement to what is rightfully theirs but our sense of entitlement is the same sense of entitlement that causes us to bulldoze a forest and not blink an eye.

You know, it's a it's just human nature that if we can take it, we will, and sometimes we do it in a very, you know, just naked and imperialistic way, and other times we do it in, you know, very sophisticated ways with lots of rationalization, but it's basically the same thing. It's a sense of entitlement. And we can't just go on in this kind of unsustainable way, just taking what we want and not giving back.

GROSS: The main character, the main male character in your movie, is a Marine who lost the use of his legs in war, but by becoming an avatar, he gets to live a parallel life...

Mr.�CAMERON: Right.

GROSS: ...through his avatar. And his avatar has these incredible physical adventures, beautiful physical adventures.

Mr.�CAMERON: Right.

GROSS: And I read that your brother is, or was, a Marine.

Mr.�CAMERON: Yeah, well, you're never an ex-Marine. You know, once you're a Marine...

GROSS: Right, right.

Mr. CAMERON: ...you're always a Marine, even if you're out of the Marine Corps. You know, he was in he fought in Desert Storm in '91, and you know, he's regaled me with tales of the Marine Corps, and you know, I have a number of guys that work for me that were, you know, his squad mates or other Marines that he met, you know, in his travels.

And I have a great deal of respect for these guys. I really personally believe in their world view, which is one of a sense of being able to overcome any obstacle. They have a great sense of duty. They want to have a mission.

And I thought: How cool would it be to have a main character in a science fiction movie who was a Marine? And so I just played that idea out. You know, that was on my mind. You know, Desert Storm was in '91. I was writing this in '95.

And I think that's and one thing that has struck me recently because there's been so much chat, kind of, around this movie, is that there's been almost zero dialogue about the fact that you have a major action movie where the main character is disabled, which I think is actually unprecedented. And yet nobody's said anything about that. I think it's kind of strange, to tell you the truth.

GROSS: Well, the main character's, like, 50 percent disabled because he's disabled as himself. As his avatar, he does things that no human could even do. But that leads me to something I think is pretty interesting about the film, which is that he's literally disabled, but we're all limited by the things we can do and the things we can't do. And we all, in our lives, have dreamed about flying and have dreamed about doing things that we can't do, either because of the laws of nature or because of our own physical limitations.

Mr.�CAMERON: That's great. You're on to something here.

GROSS: Yeah, so you have given him this kind of dream-like life that is very real for him in which he can do all the things that he's limited from doing in the real world.

Mr. CAMERON: Right, right, right.

GROSS: And it seems like you might feel similar things yourself, you know, like, have that kind of dream life.

Mr.�CAMERON: Well, yeah. Your imagination, you know, is you know, there's always that huge gap or shortfall between what you could imagine and what you can actually do. And I think that we go from a state as children where we don't know what we can't do, and we don't know what's not possible, and kids actually probably sort of think they can fly.

You fly in your dreams as a child, and you tend not to fly in your dreams as an adult, and this is an almost universal experience. So, you know, in the avatar state, when Jake is in his avatar state, he's getting to return to that almost childlike dream state of doing amazing things.

And so it's speaking, in a sense, to this the way people, you know, are going into various types of avatar states, living vicariously, whether it's through video games or through movies and so on.

So in a funny way, it's actually kind of a comment on the way we find expression for our imagination and, by the way, a little bit even of a cautionary comment because Jake allows his body to physically degrade throughout the movie as he invests more and more of his time and energy and his soul in the, you know, in the avatar world, you know, almost to the point where, you know, he loses all strength and all interest in his true human form.

GROSS: Do you have an active dream life?

Mr.�CAMERON: Very much so, and that's probably really the heart of your first question. A lot of the imagery in "Avatar" comes from dreams that I've had over time. I can remember distinctly having a dream in college of a glowing, bioluminescent forest and getting up and very quickly sketching it with oil pastels, trying to get the colors down, trying to get, you know, what I had imagined in the dream down on paper and feeling this great sense that I hadn't succeeded. It just was this ugly thing. It wasn't what I had seen in the dream.

So, you know, part of I think that's part of what drives a lot of artists is dream imagery and the kind of subconscious associations that happen in dreams.

I know the surrealist artists strongly believed that their mission was to translate to the canvas images they'd had in dreams without any attempt to analyze or mediate them and that that was kind of their ethos, and I kind of adopted a little bit of that when I was making "Avatar." I thought, you know, if I like an image, I'm going to put it in the movie, and Im not going to try to justify it.

So, you know, you see floating mountains in the film. They're never explained. Now, I happened to have, you know, sort of reverse-engineered a scientific explanation of how those mountains float, but every time I tried to shoehorn it into the movie, I just found that it was unnecessary explanation. People would accept that they had been transported to this amazing place where the rules were different, and it was okay for mountains to float. And it turned out that that technical explanation was completely unnecessary.

GROSS: James Cameron will be back in the second half of the show. He wrote and directed "Avatar" and "Titanic." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross back with James Cameron. He wrote and directed "Avatar," which is nominated for nine Oscars. He also made the films "Titanic," "Alien," "True Lies," and "Terminator."

So you are now probably most famous for your biggest films, "Titanic" and "Avatar," both of which have a lot of special effects and feats in them. But you started off helping to make Roger Corman's films.

Mr. CAMERON: Mm-hmm. Right.

GROSS: Movies like "Battle Beyond the Stars," "Galaxy of Terror." And Corman is famous for, in his early career, making these like, real low budget, quickie...

Mr. CAMERON: Cheap.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah, you know, action films and...

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah. He's famous for being cheap.

GROSS: Yeah. So, what did you learn from the real cheap side of special effects...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...that you later applied to the real expensive side of special effects?

Mr. CAMERON: It's a funny question, because I was just talking to Roger last night and I haven't seen him in years, but we ran into each other and we were joking about the fact that he's made probably all of his movies combined would not have cost as much as "Avatar" and he's made, you know, 100 films. But, you know, we were having a good laugh about that. But yeah, there are lessons that one learns in those early kind of guerrilla filmmaking days that stay with you the whole time.

And, you know, and what you learn in those early films, is just that your will is the only thing that makes the difference in getting the job done - one's will. And it teaches you to improvise and in a funny way to never lose hope, because youre making a movie and the movie can be what you want it to be. It's not in control of you. Youre in control of it, you know, so theyre a lot of lessons that are more really character lessons.

GROSS: So can you share your favorite cheap special effect that you were involved with from a Corman film?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMERON: Well, they were all cheap. You know, I mean we used to love - we actually were fairly sophisticated even for that time. We were doing motion control and fairly complicated optical special effects and so on for Roger. But, of course, the ones we liked the best were the biggest cheats, where we'd glue a model to a piece of glass and stick it in the foreground and pretend it was far, you know, far away and really big and have all the actors turn away from the camera and point at it even though it was sitting right in front of the camera, and it actually created a compelling illusion, you know, foreground miniature. It's a lot of fun. And it's the ones where you really think youre get, you know, youre pulling something over on the audience that were the most fun.

GROSS: Now, you know, in "Titanic" there were so many like, water-rushing-in kind of effects when the ship was sinking.

Mr. CAMERON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I know you grew up not far from Niagara Falls. Is that right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMERON: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: So is it stretching too much to think that the power of the water of Niagara Falls had some kind of influence on you?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, you know, I mean I grew up within the sound of Niagara Falls. I lived, you know, with that constant rumble in the background, so I certainly always had a respect for the power and the force of water. And then in the filmmaking, starting with "The Abyss," I saw how, you know, you can dump a dump tank with 10,000 gallons in it and have it destroy your set. I mean literally rip it apart. And so, overtime, I've learned to really, really respect that force of water from an engineering standpoint. And I'm very rigorous when I work with water, that my, that, you know, my special effects guys and my set construction people, someone really understand what they're dealing with. Because generally speaking, they underestimate the force and energy of water by a factor of 10.

GROSS: When you say that this thing of water ripped apart your set, you mean accidentally, right?

Mr. CAMERON: Accidentally, yeah. The...

GROSS: What happened?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, it blew the wall right out. You know, we were doing a flooding scene and it hadn't been properly strong-backed. And, you know, no one was hurt but, you know, it really makes you realize what youre dealing with. So on "Titanic" we had a lot of water stunts and, you know, I would, you know, constantly, you know, walk the set, look at how it was rigged and so on, and I'd want to see the engineering. I'd want to see the numbers. I want to see how they had calculated everything to make sure that there was a safety margin.

GROSS: Okay. James Cameron, years before Governor Schwarzenegger was governor, he was...

Mr. CAMERON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...your cyborg in "Terminator."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So I'm sure youve told this many times but...

Mr. CAMERON: I'm not sure who was working for who that time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'm sure youve told the story many times but tell us how and why you cast him.

Mr. CAMERON: Well, you know, I actually had this kind of flash, that Arnold had this amazing face. I wasnt, I mean his physique was fine, made sense that we could hide this kind of infernal machine inside that, you know, inside his size of his physique, but it was really his face that was interesting to me. And, you know, someone suggested that he play the character played by Michael Biehn and that didnt make much sense to me. But I wound up going to lunch with him and we had this great time talking about the movie and just life in general. I found him to be incredibly charming and intelligent, and that was really the beginning of a friendship. And so I went back to the executive producer of the film and said, you know, he's not going to work as Reese, but he'd make a great terminator and we offered him the part that day and that's how the movie got made.

GROSS: So what was your reaction when years later he ran for governor?

Mr. CAMERON: Oh, it didnt surprise me at all. Arnold...

GROSS: Why didnt it surprise you?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, he'd always been very politically aware and, you know, he's a natural leader. He just, he exudes the charisma and the intelligence and the focus and the discipline of a leader, and he's always been that way. And in a way, you know, he was kind of working under his weight classes as a Hollywood movie star because it didnt use all his talents. And so when he decided to run for office, there was zero surprise in that. And there was zero surprise when he won.

GROSS: This is nobody's business but yours, but I'll ask it anyways and you could tell me you dont want to answer it; did you vote for him?

Mr. CAMERON: I'm Canadian. I can't vote.

GROSS: Oh, off the hook.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMERON: Off the hook. But I would have. Even though my, you know, my party affiliation would be Democrat if I could vote here, I would've voted for Arnold because I believe in the man.

GROSS: Now, Charlton Heston was in one of your movies "True Lies," which...

Mr. CAMERON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...starred a more charming version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's like a...

Mr. CAMERON: Oh sure.

GROSS: ...a secret spy in it and even his wife doesnt know he's a spy and he's very charming and elegant in that side of his life.

Mr. CAMERON: Right. Right.

GROSS: And very tough and brutal on the other side of his life. Charlton Heston has a small part in it.

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah.

GROSS: And it must've been interesting to direct him. I mean he was among other things, Moses in the movies. I'm sure your politics are very different from him.

Mr. CAMERON: Oh yeah, very different. But I found him charming and really humble before the craft of acting in the old school way. He came in, he said, just call me Chuck. Dont let the fact that I'm an icon, you know, affect you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMERON: And...

GROSS: He said, modestly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMERON: He said modestly. And then he sat in a chair and he never left the set all day long. He came in for off camera, you know, to do his side of the scene for off camera, which, you know, certainly a star of his stature wouldnt need to do. And he never left the set. He just sat there and read. And you could just see that it was a life of, there were patterns formed by a life of dedication to the craft, and I really respected that. And, you know, I felt I had to really be on my game that day and be 100 percent professional as a director. Because, you know, he came from the studio system where, you know, you shot X number of pages a day, boom, boom, boom, and everybody knew their tasks and, you know, it was a lot of fun working with him.

GROSS: Now, you didnt expect to go into movies. So what was your break that led you through the door?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, I think you make your own luck, you know, and it wasnt really a break. I had started - I'd sort of quit my job. I was working as a truck driver. I quit my job. I started making little films, you know, used up all my savings and somehow a little effects film that I had made got the attention of somebody who was working for Corman on "Battle Beyond the Stars" and I wound up getting an interview and coming into the model department and sort of clawing my way up through the system, pretty rapidly, which you could do in that kind of environment because it was so kind of ad hoc and nobody really knew what they were doing anyway. So, you know, I mean you get the door open a crack, and then you, you know, you just keep wedging your way through the door. That's how you work it.

GROSS: So what movie have you seen more times than any other film?

Mr. CAMERON: Oh, I dont know. I mean I saw "2001: A Space Odyssey" 18 times in the first two years of its release, and that was before VHS or DVD, where you actually had to go to a movie theater. You know, I've seen, you know, "Wizard of Oz," which is my favorite film, many, many times.

GROSS: What kept you going back for "2001?"

Mr. CAMERON: Initially I was fascinated by the ideas and by the majesty of it. You know, I was a big science fiction fan and, you know, I was really trying to figure the movie out, and then later it was more about trying to figure out how it was done.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAMERON: And that was really the transition point for me from essentially being a fan to being a practitioner because then I'd get a small camera and I made some space models and I learned how to light them, and pretty soon I was, you know, I was making shots. So, you know, I didnt call myself a director at that point, but I had definitely made the transition to wanting to be a filmmaker.

GROSS: Well, one more question: a lot of people have noted that your film is up against "The Hurt Locker" for an Oscar.

Mr. CAMERON: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And "The Hurt Locker" was directed by Kathryn Bigelow who you were once married to. And I think she gave you a copy of the screenplay to look at even though you had long separated...

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...because she wanted your opinion on it. So this is like a big media story that, you know, ex-spouses up against each other at Oscar. So what does that mean to you?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, I think it completely trivializes our relationship to reduce us to exes. You know, we were married for almost two years 20 years ago and since then weve been colleagues and collaborators and close friends for 20 years. And I've produced two of her films and, you know, I've always sort of, you know, steadfastly promoted her career as a director, you know, when I was actually acting as her producer and subsequently, not that she in recent years has really needed any help. She's, you know, definitely been well-established and the accolades that she's getting now, you know, in this awards season and the critical recognition and so on is for one, way overdue. For two, its such a great celebration of her accomplishments as a filmmaker that, you know, I'm the first one to cheer when she wins an award. For me its a win-win situation.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us. Its really been fun and interesting. Thank you.

Mr. CAMERON: Thanks.

GROSS: James Cameron wrote and directed "Avatar" which is nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Director.

You can find links to FRESH AIR interviews with each of the five Best Director nominees on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

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