Ohio State University often has brought in some killer names in film, from Richard Linklater in 2000, to Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, and Gus Van Zant, to last night’s epic James Cameron speaking engagement. This is supposedly James Cameron’s first college lecture. I was early, but I didn’t sit in the long line per se. I sat in a comfy chair at the brand new Ohio Union. I still managed initially to get in the 2nd row of the auditorium, but saw an opening for a single seat in the front row, 3rd chair, so I snagged it, one of the benefits of being there alone. Phil teaches at OSU, but couldn’t go so I adopted his ticket to the event that was for OSU students and faculty only. Aside from a crazy lady who shouted out compliments, I was the only person over 25 in the entire room of over 1,000 students.
Because I am an Über fan of James Cameron the filmmaker, this was significant for me. Because I am an avid reader, I have read or seen most of his interviews before. Sadly, this made nothing he said remotely new information for me, but it was still stirring to hear them live, a mere 18 feet away.
For those not in the know, James Cameron was a geeky kid from rural Canada. He graduated college and worked as a truck driver in Orange County, near LA. Because he could not afford grad school in filmmaking, he would spend his Saturday’s in the library at the University of Southern California’s film department, reading and copying all the chapters and books that the students had in their curriculum. Once he had amassed a great deal of knowledge for basically free, he formed a group of friends that made short films.
He was bitten by the filmmaking bug and couldn’t look back. James Cameron quit driving the truck and took a job doing FX work for Roger Corman. He started on DARK BETWEEN THE STARS doing rear projection, which is projecting the model FX work while the actors are standing in front of it. It’s a great way to integrate actors and FX in that old school technique. In a twist (that he did not mention last night) he was the main FX guy on ESCAPE FORM NEW YORK (1981) and did several of their trick shots including the fake computer graphics of Manhattan in the glider and the World Trade Center skyline painted on a sheet of glass in front of the camera for a shot or two.
Also not mentioned last night was how he got his first directing gig. When doing FX on another low budget Roger Corman production, James Cameron was doing 2nd unit directing of some close ups of these worms. They weren’t moving the way he wanted, so he got a large battery and some wires, wet the worms down, and then connected some wires to them until they wriggled for the camera. Someone watching was so impressed; they hired him to direct his first feature film, PIRANNA II THE SPAWNING. For some reason, last night James Cameron lied to the audience and said that the first film he directed was THE TERMINATOR.
Now I understand PIRANNA II THE SPAWNING is not exactly a movie he wants to remember, but it made a few important impressions that would affect his career. Number one, it introduced him to actor Lance Henrickson, who was originally cast to play THE TERMINATOR before Arnold lobbied for the part. Number two, he was locked out of the editing room and the movie was released without his edit and James Cameron vowed, and never did ever lose his final cut ever again. A certain control and tenacity was born from his experience making this horrid movie. Cameron should not pretend it doesn’t exist, even if he hates it.
A lot of this, except where noted, James Cameron covered in his prepared speech to the students. He was enthusiastic and passionate. His history of pushing CGI to the limits in THE ABYSS and TERMINATOR 2 lead to his explaining his desire to work on AVATAR in 1995 but the CGI just wasn’t ready.
Two things stood out to me last night. First was how James Cameron explained that on the documentary projects he worked on after TITANIC, he learned better social skills. This is shocking to me because he is notoriously brutal on actors and crew. The mythology speaks of him throwing a chair at a camera operator on TITANIC. In the 60+ minute documentary on making THE ABYSS, James Cameron is pretty abrasive, and that’s when he knew a camera was on him. I can’t fathom the thought of what he was like when the behind the scenes camera WASN’T running. He said he experienced the camaraderie on AVATAR that he always heard about from other people’s movies.
From there JC was getting surprisingly tree huggy in explaining his motives and interests in global warming and the rain forests. Considering how this guy once reveled in getting an extreme liberal like Sigorny Weaver to fire an automatic weapon for ALIENS, he sounded more like Al Gore than his buddy Governor Arnold.
So in the end, I didn’t find out much new, but it was still a great experience. I think it’s truly amazing the way the Ohio State University does things like bring in world class filmmakers to talk to the students. People think you have to be an NYU or USC to get to hear people like James Cameron speak. Those people are idiots.
And lastly, expect AVATAR 2 in 3.5 years or so.