This past August 21, film writer, producer and director James Cameron rolled the dice in a big way. The date was widely advertised, and not modestly, as Avatar Day, and it marked free public previews in IMAX theaters worldwide of 16 minutes of Cameron’s latest movie—a $200 million-plus science-fiction epic about a battle royal between human invaders and inhabitants of a faraway planet—rendered in what is being touted as cutting-edge photorealistic computer-graphics–generated 3-D and an astonishing sense of audience immersion. The hype and curiosity surrounding Avatar led audiences to expect nothing less than the Second Coming. After all, directors Steven Spielberg and Steven Soderbergh had already raved about the excerpts in print (the latter saying it was “the craziest shit ever”), and director Jon Favreau called it “a game changer.” Sony’s boss claimed it would “change the way you consume entertainment.” Hyperbolic fans predicted on the web that the first film in 12 years from the director of such pop culture milestones as The Terminator, Aliens and Titanic would “fuck our eyeballs.”
So roughly four months before Avatar’s December 18 opening date, audiences got a chance to see—and weigh in—for themselves. And weigh in they did, instantly spattering and pontificating on Twitter, Facebook and scores of other Internet outposts. Some mentioned half-empty theaters. Many were dazzled and left panting for more. But others, in what can best be described as a mixed response, were left with their eyeballs intact and virginal.
Cameron, fit, focused and immeasurably wealthy at the age of 55, is accustomed to being second-guessed. Few, at least in Hollywood, had expected all that much from the Canadian-born former pastry apprentice whose father was an electrical engineer and mother a nurse and an artist. In 1971 the family moved to Fullerton, California, where Cameron majored in physics at nearby California State University, Fullerton. Torn between his love of films, sci-fi and science, he supported himself by working as a truck driver while making short amateur action and sci-fi movies with his friends. In 1980 he landed work in and around the thriving basement-budget moviemaking scene presided over by Roger Corman.
Things looked way up in 1984 when Cameron wrote and directed a futuristic action thriller for which few had great expectations—The Terminator. It became a huge success, made a bona fide star of the unlikely Arnold Schwarzenegger and cemented Cameron’s relationship with co-writer and producer Gale Anne Hurd, Corman’s former executive assistant, who in 1985 became Cameron’s second wife (they divorced in 1989). From there Cameron continued to exceed expectations by directing some of the biggest and most admired financial successes of the 1980s and 1990s, including Aliens, True Lies, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Abyss. Doom was predicted in 1997 for the crushingly expensive, troubled production of Titanic, yet it went on to become a phenomenon, made a movie idol out of Leonardo DiCaprio and won 11 Oscars, including a best director award for Cameron. His Oscar ceremony declaration “I’m the king of the world!” raised eyebrows, but that’s the kind of thing you can get away with when you’ve created Hollywood’s all-time biggest moneymaker.
Cameron earned a reputation for being a taskmaster, tough on his crews and actors, manic in his attention to detail and quest for perfection. Wild and woolly stories emerged from his sets of mutinous crews and actors vowing never to work with him again. But he seemed untouchable and unstoppable, co-founding a special-effects company, Digital Domain, and avoiding the ready-made projects Hollywood offered him. Instead, in 2002 Cameron, an avid diver, launched into a series of undersea documentaries such as Expedition Bismarck and Ghosts of the Abyss that explore legendary sunken ruins. Some speculated Titanic’s freak success had given him a permanent case of director’s block.
Now the five-time-married Cameron is about to resurface. Playboy sent Contributing Editor Stephen Rebello to Cameron’s Malibu mansion to investigate where the director has been and where he’s headed. Says Rebello, who last interviewed Benicio Del Toro, “This was the kind of interview that at first I thought the intense Cameron may bolt up and expect me to go deep-sea diving, arm wrestle or book passage on an interplanetary flight. But he relaxed and was gentlemanly, and although he’s known for playing it close to the vest, he loosened up and showed himself to be funnier, hipper and even smarter than you may imagine.”
CAMERON: The ones who were the most vocally negative will be there opening night, I promise you. The ones I worry about are those who haven’t heard of the movie. We know from the exit polling that the response was 95 percent ecstatic. Most of the five percent negative response is from the fanatic fans who imagined the movie in their minds but now have to deal with my movie.
PLAYBOY: Does this prejudgment remind you of 1997, when people predicted big failure for Titanic because it took so long to make, busted its budget and had no big stars?
CAMERON: They know Avatar is expensive, but that story hasn’t gathered any traction because—what the fuck?—I always make expensive movies, people always like them, and people always want me to do it again.
PLAYBOY: How will you react if critics come gunning for you?
CAMERON: Avatar is made very consciously for movie fans. If critics like it, fine. I can’t say I won’t read the reviews, because I may not be able to resist. I spent a couple of decades in the capricious world of being judged by those not knowledgeable about the depth and history of film and with whom I would not want to have a conversation—with a few notable exceptions. Why would I want to be judged by them? For me, this past decade has been about retreating to the great fundamentals, things that aren’t passing fads or subject to the whims of some idiot critic. You can’t write a review of the laws of thermodynamics.
PLAYBOY: Moviegoers have already been wowed by lifelike CG and motion-capture characters such as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Will your blue-skinned aliens and gigantic monsters satisfy jaded audiences?
CAMERON: Ultimately audiences don’t give a rat’s ass how a movie is made. When people see the movie, the story will be about the world of the planet Pandora, the creatures on it, the characters—such as the former Marine and amputee played by Sam Worthington—and the huge conflict between the humans and the inhabitants of Pandora. How does it move you? How emotional is it? It’s pretty damn emotional and dramatic. That said, I think we certainly exceeded our expectations in making these characters feel real.
PLAYBOY: Audiences may not give a rat’s ass about how a movie is made, but didn’t you have to wait a decade before special effects technology could accommodate what you had in mind?
CAMERON: Here I was the CEO of a major digital effects company, Lightstorm, which was designed to create fantasy CG characters and was not doing that, so I said, “I’ll write a script that is beyond state of the art, we’ll make it, and it will force us to become a world leader in effects.” Everybody looked at what I had in mind and said I was crazy. In the wake of Titanic I saw how much a project can go off the rails, and I got a little more conservative about taking risks. So I put Avatar away because no one had yet accomplished the photo reality and human emotional expression we needed until Peter Jackson cracked the code with Gollum and King Kong. And Industrial Light & Magic was doing it in a completely different way in Pirates of the Caribbean. With Avatar it’s okay if the characters aren’t perfect. Who knows what aliens are supposed to look like?
PLAYBOY: How is film technology influencing how we process reality?
CAMERON: Human society and human consciousness are evolving before our eyes in an unprecedented, historic way as we adopt and integrate with our machines. Typically people don’t know when they’re making history, but we are definitely making history right now, for better or worse.
PLAYBOY: You’re a major techie, but does any current tech toy elude you?
CAMERON: On Twitter, a tweet has to be less than, what, 25 words? [Editor’s note: It’s 140 characters maximum.] There isn’t one concept I would be interested in discussing with anyone that could be summed up in 25 words or fewer. I’m totally not into Facebook or Twitter, so that makes me a dinosaur right there.
PLAYBOY: Sigourney Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley in your film Alien is a powerful sex icon, and you may have created another in Avatar with a barely dressed, blue-skinned, 10-foot-tall warrior who fiercely defends herself and the creatures of her planet. Even without state-of-the-art special effects, Zoe Saldana—who voices and models the character for CG morphing—is hot.
CAMERON: Let’s be clear. There is a classification above hot, which is “smoking hot.” She is smoking hot.
PLAYBOY: Did any of your teenage erotic icons inspire the character Saldana plays?
CAMERON: As a young kid, when I saw Raquel Welch in that skintight white latex suit in Fantastic Voyage—that’s all she wrote. Also, Vampirella was so hot I used to buy every comic I could get my hands on. The fact she didn’t exist didn’t bother me because we have these quintessential female images in our mind, and in the case of the male mind, they’re grossly distorted. When you see something that reflects your id, it works for you.
PLAYBOY: So Saldana’s character was specifically designed to appeal to guys’ ids?
CAMERON: And they won’t be able to control themselves. They will have actual lust for a character that consists of pixels of ones and zeros. You’re never going to meet her, and if you did, she’s 10 feet tall and would snap your spine. The point is, 99.9 percent of people aren’t going to meet any of the movie actresses they fall in love with, so it doesn’t matter if it’s Neytiri or Michelle Pfeiffer.