5 Behind-The-Scenes Stories That Prove James Cameron Is A Maniac
In the coming years, we’ll either be treated to the most epic line-up of science fiction sequels of all-time or discover that, thanks to some creative bookkeeping, James Cameron’s new fleet of luxury yachts are named Avatars 2 through 5. And though he’s certainly made some of the most successful, imaginative movies of the past several decades, James Cameron is also a goddamn maniac.
And perhaps it takes a certain madness to create masterpieces like The Terminator, Aliens, and that erotic Smurf slash fiction remake of FernGully. So let’s take a moment to celebrate Cameron -- not for his actual filmmaking, but for his unrivalled behind the scenes lunacy, such as how ...
He Only Made Titanic So Someone Else Would Pay For His Diving Hobby
As we’ve mentioned previously, the production of the Oscar-winning Titanic was about as smooth as sandpaper-flavored moonshine brewed by Tom Waits. What gave James Cameron the idea to make a movie about the ill-fated cruise? Well, it turns out that Cameron’s inspiration wasn’t purely out of a desire to honor those who tragically died/boned in the back of a stranger’s car during the historic accident -- he mainly wanted a studio to fund his dive to the real-life disaster site. Cameron, a diving obsessive, later claimed: “I made Titanic because I wanted to dive to the shipwreck, not because I particularly wanted to make the movie.”
So for the modern-day scenes exploring the sunken boat, Cameron convinced the studio not to use “elaborate models” or CGI and let him do it for real, siphoning off the difference in cost from the marketing budget because Cameron thought it would be such a “publicity coup.” So 20th Century Fox funded Cameron’s dive before he’d even figured out what the hell Titanic would be about.
And shooting the real-life ship was a truly insane undertaking that necessitated the invention of an entirely new type of camera rig that could withstand the pressures of undersea filming. Cameron, aboard a Mir submarine, made repeated dives to the bottom of the Ocean where Titanic lay -- and it didn’t always go well. According to Cameron, the first time was “a cluster f*ck.” One dive almost ended in tragedy when Cameron’s Mir was caught in a storm and lost power. Thankfully, they were able to make it to the surface, and Cameron was able to successfully pull off filming the section of the movie nobody really cares about or remembers.
He Insisted on Some Truly Insane Practical Effects in the ‘90s
Before he pivoted to making movies about CGI cat-people who live on screensaver planets, Cameron often made some obsessively weird calls for the sake of realism. For example in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, there’s a scene in which the T-1000 flies a helicopter under an overpass. How did they pull it off? By actually flying a helicopter under an overpass.
Despite the fact that computer technology allowed them to fake a liquid metal assassin with knife-arms, Cameron thought that, for the helicopter scene, it would be “so much more fun to do the real thing.” Of course, the “fun” was also super-dangerous -- so much so that the camera crew refused to shoot it, forcing Cameron to film the scene himself. Similarly, for True Lies, during the scene in which Arnold Schwarzenegger flies a jet next an office building in order to save his daughter from a gang of cringey Arab stereotypes --
Instead of filming in front of a green screen on a soundstage like a normal, well-adjusted individual, Cameron built a fiberglass replica of a Harrier jet on top of a real-life skyscraper. The production used a building that was undergoing construction so they could hang the camera from a nearby crane.
The only problem was that Cameron forgot that lightning was a thing; their rig was struck but, thankfully, it was during a lunch break. Then when the faux jet was being removed, Cameron had the bright idea to “dangle it off the side of the building and spin it with tag lines” all while the stunt guy crawled on the wing “thirty stories above the street.”
These shots were filmed by a camera in a helicopter piloted by, you guessed it, that same guy who risked his life in T2. Once the cables were digitally removed, it bestowed a sense of realism not seen in any other movie that features Tom Arnold.
He Secretly Broke Into The Editing Room to Re-Cut His First Movie
Cameron’s first film as director was the schlocky horror sequel Piranha II: The Spawning. Reportedly, he got the gig after the film’s producers dropped by the set of Roger Corman’s Galaxy of Terror, where Cameron was working as second-unit director. Cameron was filming a scene where “a severed arm is consumed by maggots” but couldn’t get the live grubs to move. So he “motivated” them by “running an exposed electrical cable under the fake arm and telling his electrician to put in the plug when he called, ‘Action.’” It worked; the maggots started “squirming” for the camera. While cementing Cameron’s approach to working with actors, the tactic also impressed the visiting producers who hired him to helm their killer fish movie.
Cameron clashed with the Italian producer of Piranha II who fired him and took control of the movie. Things were so bad, an angry Cameron eventually flew from Jamaica to Rome to confront the producer, who kept “a letter opener poised for action” in case things got physical. Cameron later broke into the editing room using a credit card like a TV detective and, horrified at the final cut, proceeded to spend the next several weeks repeatedly breaking into the editing room to secretly work on his own cut of the movie. Cameron winkingly denied these events in an interview adding that he will “admit to no such thing” since this was technically a “crime.”
Which is kind of an impressively crazy thing to do, but it also inadvertently paved the way for his future success. It was during this time that a broke Cameron, who couldn’t afford to pay for food, was forced to sustain himself on half-eaten scraps left on room service trays in the hallway of his hotel, which led to an inadvertent burst of inspiration. When the exhausted, underfed Cameron finally “succumbed to fever” he had a crazy nightmare about a “metal skeleton.”
He Isn’t a Fan of Bathroom Breaks or Cellphones
James Cameron’s greatest enemy, it seems, is the human body. If you’re working on a Cameron picture, chances are you are not allowed to go take a poop, or even a pee, because he doesn’t like pausing for the necessities of biology. During the making of True Lies, Cameron earned a reputation for “threatening to fire employees who took bathroom breaks.” Even Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t exempt from this irrational demand; when Arnie asked for a pee break during the filming of the jet scene, Cameron screamed: “No, you can’t, you’re a military man on a mission. What if you were a real pilot and had to go on an attack mission, are you going to land to go to the bathroom?”
And during the filming of Titanic there were similar stories of extras whizzing in the water tank because Cameron would can them if they asked for a break. Cameron even joked to a reporter about wanting to “tether the extras so they can’t go to the bathroom.” He also isn’t a fan of cellphones; while making Avatar, there was a persistent rumor that he nail-gunned any phone that rang to the wall -- which Cameron claims never actually happened, and was only a threat. But star Sam Worthington specifically recalled in a recent interview that Cameron, not only nail-guns phones to the wall, he “does it above the exit, so you always remember when you go out.”
Related: A Timeline Of The Cellphone
Filming The Abyss Was An Underwater Shitshow
Following the success of Aliens, Cameron’s next project, instead of a nice drawing room mystery, or costume drama or any friggin’ thing on dry land, was The Abyss, a sci-fi thriller based on a short story he wrote when he was sixteen -- thankfully it was about deep sea divers and not whatever hormonal grotesqueries populate the minds of most teenage boys.
Since Cameron wanted to film all the underwater scenes for real, that meant building a big-ass tank. Thankfully a B-movie producer friend had just gone full Bond villain and purchased an uncompleted South Carolina nuclear plant to turn into a studio. Cameron seized the opportunity to build two big-ass water tanks for The Abyss. And because they were behind schedule, Cameron actually had to start filling the larger tank while the set was still being constructed, forcing workers to do their jobs on skiffs “working day and night to finish the set before it became submerged.”
In addition to filling a mammoth concrete crater with millions of gallons of water, Cameron had to commission engineers with the feat of coming up with an entirely new type of underwater helmet that would allow the actors to be A) visible B) mic’d up, and C) able to breathe without a scuba regulator in their mouths Brando-fying all their lines. The aquatic sets also required inventing a new way to sync up the picture with the sound, since clapper boards didn’t work in the water. Which they did.
Not surprisingly, making a movie underwater was a complete nightmare. At first there was way too much chlorine in the water, so crewmembers without helmets lost their hair and suffered burns. According to Cameron, it was on the “borderline” of necessitating a trip to the hospital. Cameron’s “dictatorial” style was amplified by necessity; he spoke to the cast and crew through a PA system, and they couldn’t talk back. Famously he dealt with complaints by intoning: “I’m letting you breathe, what more than do you want?”
Even worse were all the near drownings. Star Ed Harris almost bought it when he needed air and his safety diver was “hung up on some cable.” Another diver rushed in, but put the emergency regulator into Harris’ mouth upside down, filling it with water instead of air. He lived, but spent the drive home weeping alone. Cameron, himself, similarly ran out of air when his AD didn’t give him proper warning. A diver came to his rescue, he too was given a faulty water-spewing regulator, forcing Cameron to punch the clueless aide in the face and swim to the surface. Both the AD and the diver were fired -- but since it was the ‘80s, they obviously had no cellphones to destroy.
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Top Image: AMC Networks