CAMERON: Yes, and if you ever go to a 25th high school reunion, make sure that in the previous two months you’ve made the world’s highest-grossing movie, won 11 Academy Awards and become physically bigger than most of those guys who used to beat you up. I walked up to them one by one and said, “You know, I could take your ass right now, and I’m tempted, but I won’t.” Actually, they were all nice guys except for one who was still big and mean. I left him alone.
PLAYBOY: Did anything in your childhood predict you’d gravitate to the career you’re in today?
CAMERON: I could always get kids on my block to rally around some harebrained idea, such as, “Hey, let’s build an airplane.” It doesn’t occur to kids that you don’t build planes, but we built one that flew briefly until the ropes broke. A high school biology teacher encouraged us to do something interesting, so we started a theater arts program with a small group of kids craving something besides the football or basketball game. I did production design, lights and scenery and wrote and directed a little. Funny, but I didn’t immediately relate it to some kind of career path.
PLAYBOY: How did your life change when your father’s job relocated the Cameron family to Fullerton, California when you were 17?
CAMERON: In Canada there was a general resentment against America. We lived in a border town, and America was this huge culture generator that constantly bathed us in its radiation. To move to Los Angeles was to go into the belly of the beast. At first I thought the culture was all about cars. The kids seemed so shallow. I wanted to shake them and say, “Can’t you see how you’re destroying the earth with your materialistic values?” I started college six months after we moved, and of course I learned to drive. In the U.S., if you don’t have a car, or at least a license and your dad’s car, you’re not getting laid.
PLAYBOY: That’s pretty much in the fine print on most driver’s licenses. So you got laid?
CAMERON: Yeah, and I wound up marrying that girl seven years later. She was my girlfriend in college, on and off. We had a lot of fun. She was a waitress at Bob’s Big Boy, and I worked at a machine shop. We were just two blue-collar kids who’d go out to the desert and have a large time, drive cars fast and be hellions. I was shaking off all my practical conservatism—before that I hadn’t smoked dope, hadn’t driven fast. It’s a good thing I survived, is all I can say. And here I was living in the street-racing capital of southern California.
PLAYBOY: Did you do any street racing?
CAMERON: Hell yeah! All my new friends had hot rods and almost killed me a bunch of times on rides—accidentally spinning out or sliding backward down a freeway off-ramp because they thought they were such good drivers. After enduring these white-knuckle terror rides for about a year, I got a 1969 Mach 1 Mustang and made it really fast by tearing apart the engine, lowering it, putting in Coney shocks, putting the battery in the back to transfer the weight. I stripped everything off it and made my own kind of fiberglass hood and spoiler—all the stuff you now just buy aftermarket.
PLAYBOY: Were you good at street racing?
CAMERON: I got good by systematically taking my friends—the ones who white-knuckled me—for their karmic rides. After that they never rode with me again. I’d go out on my own at three or four a.m. and teach myself to drive really fast, then go out on wet nights and drive sideways for hours, putting myself into a drift to learn how to get out of it. There was no name for that then, but now we call it drifting.
PLAYBOY: Do you ever let loose behind the wheel now?
CAMERON: As a family man and father of five, especially two teenagers, I have to lead by example. For me to get in a dumb wreck racing would send the wrong signal. What’s also taken the fun out of it is that there’s no place you can drive fast anymore.
PLAYBOY: What were your earliest jobs?
CAMERON: My first job was at 15, working as an assistant to a crazy Viennese pastry chef in a giant restaurant that served 1,500 dinners a night in Niagara Falls, near where I grew up. A certain kind of showmanship gets in your blood when you grow up in a tourist town. In college in California I worked as a machinist, a bus mechanic, a precision tool and die maker, a high school janitor, whatever I could find. I’m pretty blue collar. I swear like a blue-collar guy when I’m on the set.
PLAYBOY: How did you make the transition to moviemaking?
CAMERON: I loved to write, draw and paint, but I also loved physics and astronomy. No career path seemed to reconcile those two directions except science fiction. Two of my closest friends in Fullerton were interested in filmmaking, but there was no film program. We formed a dumb-ass group of eventually four people, and every week one of us made his own little movie in which the other three would have to act, do stunts, set themselves on fire—whatever was necessary. Later we wrote a script and got it to a tax-sheltered group made up mostly of dentists and an investment guy who had dreams of doing Star Wars. We got $20,000 from them, rented a $200,000 camera that we completely disassembled because we had no idea how to operate it, and we made a movie even though we were monkeys and had no idea what we were doing.
PLAYBOY: What impact did Star Wars and George Lucas have on you?
CAMERON: My entrée into Hollywood came as a direct result of Star Wars because George Lucas suddenly made science fiction gold instead of a ghettoized B-movie genre. When most people saw Star Wars there was the shock of the new. For me there was the shock of recognition, as if somebody had taken my private dream and put it up on the screen. I had gone through the same evolution George had: writing, drawing and envisioning these hyperkinetic World War II dogfights in outer space. Good thing I’m not paranoid, the kind of schizo who thinks the CIA is spying on his thoughts and then has to wear tinfoil on his head. I took Star Wars as a sign that what I had to offer was something people wanted.
PLAYBOY: Your experience with amateur films helped you get a foot in the door of low-budget filmmaking with Roger Corman’s company, where you made miniature models and designed sets for Rock’n’ Roll High School and Battle Beyond the Stars.
CAMERON: On a Corman film everybody just rose to his or her own level—the opposite of the Peter Principle, in a way. You didn’t think of a career; you thought, What’s my next opportunity? If you got an opportunity to direct, you didn’t question it. Ron Howard didn’t question it when he got Grand Theft Auto; Francis Ford Coppola didn’t question it when he got to do Dementia 13. These are kind of junk movies, but we were interested in the process, in learning. That’s where I met writer-producer Gale Hurd, and the recognition that we would make a great team was pretty instantaneous. It took only a year or two for us to make a movie together.
PLAYBOY: The movie you made together in 1984, The Terminator, got you your first big directing job and made a star of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Did Schwarzenegger’s ascendancy in Hollywood and politics surprise you?
CAMERON: If you’ve known him for even a short time, you’re not surprised by anything he accomplishes. He used to say, “You don’t program yourself for failure; you program yourself for success.” At first I thought it was just macho bullshit. But I’ve subsequently made many decisions using that principle, especially in recent years. The decision to show 16 minutes of Avatar to the public during a special Avatar Day was based on the principle of programming myself for success.
PLAYBOY: Niagara Falls, near where you spent your childhood, is a favorite wedding spot. Did growing up there make you hyperaware of marriage?
CAMERON: I don’t know, but I have been married five times. I’m a perfectionist, so I kept trying until I got it right, which I have, I’m happy to report. Suzy Amis is a keeper. They were all great women, but there are people you can love and later not like, or it can be your rhythms and energies are too disparate to function together as partners. I found—and this was the big one—you have to work at it. Before that I had this attitude, Well, I’ll do this until it doesn’t work, and then I’ll bail. You’ll never stay married if you have that attitude.
PLAYBOY: What caused the attitude shift?
CAMERON: It was something a therapist said. I don’t believe in shrinks, and they’re not part of my life, but in this particular case I had agreed to go because it might help, and he gave me something that has stuck with me as a philosophy. He said, “You don’t do this for her; you do this for you, so things make sense to you.” You get into a relationship and make certain promises, and you have to live by a code, a set of values, for your own reasons, not to please the other person. Your word is your bond. It doesn’t matter what kind of money is involved or how the situation subsequently changes. You have to be smart enough to go into a situation knowing the dangers, and you have to live by the agreements you make going in.
PLAYBOY: Three of your four ex-wives—Gale Hurd, Linda Hamilton and Kathryn Bigelow—are prominent in the movie business. If director Bigelow asked for your opinion of her film The Hurt Locker, could you be honest without the discussion reopening old wounds?
CAMERON: Kathryn and I are still close, and we’d work together on a film tomorrow. The key is to be honest but diplomatic, constructive, not destructive. She was interested in my input on The Hurt Locker, and I basically said, “You did a great job, and I wouldn’t change a frame,” and it was true in that case. She has seen Avatar at different stages and given good input. Her current partner, Mark Boal, who wrote The Hurt Locker, gave me notes as well. It’s very collegial. I don’t have a lot of those relationships, but I value the ones I do have.
PLAYBOY: When director McG’s Terminator Salvation was up against Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen at the box office last summer, McG said, “Michael Bay has a big cock, but I’d like to believe mine is bigger. If he’s up for it, we can reveal ourselves on the Spartacus steps at Universal and put the question to rest.” As co-writer and director of two Terminator movies, would you have been willing to drop trou with them to settle the matter?
CAMERON: No, I prefer we keep work and play separate. Being a good director probably doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the size of one’s penis, big toe, thumb size or anything else. That’s about the dumbest fucking thing you could ever say. I’m surprised he didn’t call me out.
PLAYBOY: As someone who has been accused of going off on the set, what do you make of those leaked tapes of Christian Bale berating a crew member on Terminator Salvation?
CAMERON: The Avatar crew all thought that was a hoot, and for the next few days we were all quoting what I thought was an inspired rant. The joke is I’m a tyrannical guy, but I said, “Man, I have to take my hat off to this guy. I could not pull a rant like that if I had to.” I mean, I can get on a roll but not like that. I just had to bow down.
PLAYBOY: How old do you consider yourself to be emotionally?
CAMERON: Probably 14, and I’m happy about that. In some ways I’m even younger than that because I never want to lose the intellectual curiosity—of always wanting to know how stuff works and wanting to put things together with my hands. I can relate very well to my six-year-old, who’s always building something. If I let him go he’d just take off into the woods and not come back until the end of the day, just like I used to do as a kid.
PLAYBOY: Are you already plotting how you might top Avatar?
CAMERON: I haven’t decided. I always say that when a woman is in the midst of childbirth, don’t ask her if she wants another child. I’m crowning right now.