CAMERON: Most of men’s problems with women probably have to do with realizing women are real and most of them don’t look or act like Vampirella. A big recalibration happens when we’re forced to deal with real women, and there’s a certain geek population that would much rather deal with fantasy women than real women. Let’s face it: Real women are complicated. You can try your whole life and not understand them.
PLAYBOY: How much did you get into calibrating your movie heroine’s hotness?
CAMERON: Right from the beginning I said, “She’s got to have tits,” even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals. I designed her costumes based on a taparrabo, a loincloth thing worn by Mayan Indians. We go to another planet in this movie, so it would be stupid if she ran around in a Brazilian thong or a fur bikini like Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.
PLAYBOY: Are her breasts on view?
CAMERON: I came up with this free—floating, lion’s-mane—like array of feathers, and we strategically lit and angled shots to not draw attention to her breasts, but they’re right there. The animation uses a physics-based sim that takes into consideration gravity, air movement and the momentum of her hair, her top. We had a shot in which Neytiri falls into a specific position, and because she is lit by orange firelight, it lights up the nipples. That was good, except we’re going for a PG-13 rating, so we wound up having to fix it. We’ll have to put it on the special edition DVD; it will be a collector’s item. A Neytiri Playboy Centerfold would have been a good idea.
PLAYBOY: So you’re okay with arousing PG-13 chubbies?
CAMERON: If such a thing should happen—and I’m not saying it will—that would be fine.
PLAYBOY: You reunited with Sigourney Weaver for the first time since Aliens, over 20 years ago. What took you so long?
CAMERON: She was my safest casting choice to play the botanist, which is why I didn’t want to cast her. I woke up one day and said, Don’t be a dumb shit; she’ll be perfect. Sig is worthy of awe, but she’s also goofy, funny, deeply committed to acting, wicked smart and really sweet. There’s no gun porn around her character in this film like there was for Ripley in Aliens, and she doesn’t have big clanging brass balls. Instead, she has a scholarly hippie dowdiness that makes her look as though she no longer fits civilization—a little like Dian Fossey, which is interesting because I had originally gotten Sig into the Fossey movie Gorillas in the Mist; I bailed, but she stuck with the project. I’m really happy with the cast. We went way out on a limb casting Sam Worthington, but he came through for us. So did Zoe. As for Sigourney, we get along great because I don’t have to be demanding with her; she is highly demanding of herself and me.
PLAYBOY: You have a rep for being demanding of everyone you work with. Ed Harris is rumored to have punched you on The Abyss and was quoted as saying the strain of making that 1989 movie had actors hurling couches out windows and smashing walls. Kate Winslet said making Titanic had her thinking, Please, God, let me die—and she nearly drowned.
CAMERON: I’ll cop to my faults, but I’ll also defend the situation in a rational way, and it goes like this: Isn’t the purpose of being attracted to something intense and challenging—such as, say, white-water rafting—to come out the other side and tell everybody how you almost died? It doesn’t mean you almost died. We simply let Kate think she was nearly drowning. A little sputtering and coughing does not count in my book, because I have almost drowned several times and know what it feels like. Asking God to please let you die? I was thinking the same thing at about the same point. Titanic was a catastrophic production financially and getting worse every day. Kate probably got some unnecessary stress from me, but I would say 99 percent of her stress was internally induced as part of her acting process.
PLAYBOY: You’re saying she was telling the press post-white-water-rafting stories?
CAMERON: The real question is “Would she work with me again?” I’m sure it would have to be the right material and all those things, but my guess is, absolutely. I’d certainly work with her again; she’s very talented. Whereas Leo DiCaprio switches his acting on and off like a faucet, Kate’s acting process is to internalize all this stuff and use it. She was carrying the whole burden of this enormous production on her back. I probably didn’t do enough to wrap the actors in cotton wool. The part of directing I wasn’t good at—and probably still am not the best at, although I’m better now—is the personal touch: letting people know you appreciate what they’re doing. Personally, I could not have operated under my direction back then; my pride wouldn’t have allowed it.
PLAYBOY: Have you ever thrown or taken a punch on a movie set?
CAMERON: Absolutely not. It would be an alien concept for me. But I won’t make a movie if I think I won’t be tested and it won’t be grueling for me, the crew, the actors. Anybody who signs on is going to be tested. So there are challenges, but it gets misconstrued that there was gross irresponsibility on the part of the production to put people into that situation, when in fact they wanted to be right there.
PLAYBOY: Some heard your “I’m king of the world” speech after winning the best director Oscar as a sure sign of a highly developed ego.
CAMERON: Titanic was wildly celebrated on every possible level, so sure, I knew how good that felt. It was almost like back in the 1980s when I got a taste of coke. That door opened a crack, and I saw a glimpse of what it was like to have something more powerful than you that you have to answer to. I put it down in, like, a week when most people—everybody around me—didn’t. Getting a glimpse through that door and seeing that accolades can be so capriciously withdrawn made me know I didn’t want to base my self-value on that.
PLAYBOY: How has working with underwater exploration crews instead of film crews in the past decade changed you?
CAMERON: People who have worked with me before think I’m just as crazy, but I think I’ve come back to moviemaking with a different perspective. On all my films prior to Avatar, the film was the one god you had to serve. Getting involved with NASA and various space projects and doing underwater exploration, I got to meet not only a diversity of people but also a diversity of cultures of thought. It was sobering and necessary to see that what we do in Hollywood means almost nothing to them. I look around the Hollywood landscape and see people who can’t or don’t want to exist outside that bubble. I don’t want to be one of them. Now I see moviemaking as officially a job.
PLAYBOY: What aspects of Hollywood mega success made you want to climb into submersibles and film documentaries starring sunken ships, instead of movies starring Leonardo DiCaprio?
CAMERON: I made Titanic because I wanted to dive to the shipwreck, not because I particularly wanted to make the movie. The Titanic was the Mount Everest of shipwrecks, and as a diver I wanted to do it right. When I learned some other guys had dived to the Titanic to make an IMAX movie, I said, “I’ll make a Hollywood movie to pay for an expedition and do the same thing.” I loved that first taste, and I wanted more.
PLAYBOY: So Titanic was a means to an end.
CAMERON: Titanic was about “fuck you” money. It came along at a point in my life when I said, “I can make movies until I’m 80, but I can’t do expedition stuff when I’m 80.” My father was an engineer. I had studied to be an engineer and had a mental restlessness to live the life I had turned my back on when I switched from the sciences to the arts in college.
PLAYBOY: You’ve been a diver for years. When you make so many potentially dangerous exploration dives, how much are your wife and kids on your mind?
CAMERON: Whenever we tout one of our documentary films we sort of emphasize the risk or that we’re going into unexplored territory, doing things few have done. The reality is it’s pretty darn safe. Having said that, it can be quite white-knuckle when something unexpected happens. I’ve spoken at NASAseminars and symposia about the nature of risk because I make action movies and have managed to lead seven deep-ocean expeditions with no fatalities or significant injuries. And my films have been relatively injury-free—well below the industry average—because we have a pretty rigorous approach to safety.
PLAYBOY: Do you observe any rituals when you’re about to climb into a submersible?
CAMERON: You don’t want to put a big emphasis on it because you’re there to do a job and stay focused. But every time I close the hatch of a submersible I say to whoever is gathered to see us off, “I’ll see you in the sunshine.” Of course there’s no sunshine down there, so to say that means you’re coming back to the surface. On most of our dives we come back at night because we stay way too long, and the only people waiting are a couple of bored deckhands. By that time the people who were waving and wishing you luck 16 hours earlier are asleep somewhere or drunk in their cabin.
PLAYBOY: As you mentioned, your father was an electrical engineer. Your mother was an artist and a nurse. How are you most like and most unlike them?
CAMERON: I’m a pretty representative fusion of their DNA, a Mendelian genetics experiment gone well. That created a lot of tension, though, because my father was very authoritarian and pragmatic, but my mom had a romantic sense of wanting to head for the hills, to explore. My mom used to nurture what I was about by taking me to the Royal Ontario Museum to draw. My idea of a great weekend was to spend it drawing, going hiking or building something, like a medieval siege engine.
PLAYBOY: You came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. How did your parents view the sexual revolution, drugs and the antiwar movement?
CAMERON: They were pretty much against everything. I can’t think of anything my dad was for except hockey. He used to throw my comics and science-fiction books in the trash because he considered them mental junk. I’d go out, wipe off the coffee grounds and spaghetti and read them under the covers at night. He treated science fiction as if it was porn. I actually don’t think I had any porn, but I had the occasional playboy I kept well hidden.
PLAYBOY: You spent your first 17 years in Canada. Do you ever feel Canadian?
CAMERON: I went back to get an honorary degree at a Canadian university. When everybody stood and sang the national anthem, I stood onstage in front of a thousand Canadians just moving my lips because I had forgotten the words. I was never into the national anthem and never even went to a football game in high school, so I never had occasion to sing it.
PLAYBOY: You weren’t a high school jock?
CAMERON: In a small, very jocky school I was president of the science club, which consisted of me, some other lab rats and a Czechoslovakian girl who could barely speak English. I had been accelerated twice in elementary school, so I was two years younger than everybody and small. I hung out with the smart, wide-bell-bottomed, paisley-shirt, hair-down-the-middle-of-your-back counterculture rejects. I didn’t do drugs and looked like an accountant. Jocks would come up to me in the hall and punch me for no reason.