The unsinkable James Cameron on life after Titanic, how films fuel exploration, and the next great adventure epic
Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
When you create the highest-grossing film in history and nab 11 Oscars, you get to do what you want, and what James Cameron wants is a life of adventure. Since releasing Titanic in 1997, Cameron, 50, hasn’t directed a single Hollywood feature. He has, however, spent hundreds of hours in deep-sea submersibles to make two cutting-edge 3-D Imax documentaries. He got hooked on sub exploration in 1995, when diving on the Titanic to gather shots for the film. In Aliens of the Deep, released in Imax theaters earlier this year, he hunts for life on the ocean floor, then theorizes about how the lessons of marine science can be applied to our investigation of other planets. The latter topic is of particular interest to Cameron, who for the past two years has trumpeted the virtues of bolder space missions while serving on the NASA Advisory Council.
This summer, the director will again be diving on the Titanic—armed with robotics that can explore previously unseen sections of the wreck—for a Discovery Channel special airing July 24. But the director isn’t done with big-screen epics. His next feature, due out in 2007, is the 3-D Battle Angel, a tale of post-apocalyptic cyborgs in the spirit of his 1984 blockbuster, The Terminator. Between takes, Cameron spoke with Michael Roberts about his passion for movies and exploration.
OUTSIDE: How much has filmmaking been a way for you to live out your own adventure dreams?
CAMERON: When I made The Abyss , I was bringing into existence things I had only fantasized about before. I got into submarines. I got to fly ROVs. I got to wear a diving helmet and work underwater for weeks on end. I was living out a science-fiction fantasy. After that, I only wanted to go further down that road. The desire to make a film like The Abyss, and the desire to see it, come from exactly the same place—the desire to explore the unknown and the mysterious.
So you credit movies with inspiring exploration?
Absolutely. I think 2001: A Space Odyssey was a seminal event in the lives of a lot of today’s space technologists and engineers and scientists. When you see a fictional narrative like that, you want to go make it real. You think, I want to do that!
Is that what happened to you?
When I was a teenager, in the late sixties, we were literally sending people to the moon. The line between fantasy and reality was starting to blur. I’ve always tried to stay in that blurry space, that nexus between the flights of fantasy and what you can really do at the extreme edge of human experience. Look at Titanic. We started production in ’95, and the first thing we did was dive the wreck, two and a half miles down in the North Atlantic. It was pretty astounding for a Hollywood filmmaker, funded by 20th Century Fox and Paramount, to do a deep-ocean expedition.
Is it possible to get an authentically thrilling experience from watching a film?
I know as a filmmaker and as a fan that movies do have a profound effect on you—mentally, emotionally, and physiologically. I’d love it if some doctors got together and wrote a paper on the physiological effect of motion pictures. Your respiration probably goes up, you get a shot of adrenaline, you jump out of your seat. If it’s a scary film, maybe your endocrine system is in high gear. Somebody should just wire people up and do blood tests to see what happens.
Beyond the adrenaline rush, what does a movie need if it’s going to spur real-world expeditions?
You’ll be inspired more by a film that has a sense of credibility or reality. There’s a feedback relationship between real exploration and fiction, if our fiction adheres closely to the way things might actually play out. But if our fiction is Star Trek, and we’re zipping around the galaxy at the speed of light, encountering all these cool aliens that look like us with a bunch of rubber on our faces, that doesn’t really stretch our imagination. It’s just refracting back our own international politics. It also creates unrealistic expectations for space exploration—that we’re supposed to be able to do these things now. We’ve gotten so accustomed to the idea that there’s alien life out there that we’re forgetting to actually go and look for it.
So where do you find the great new adventure stories?
All the low-hanging stuff has been picked. The things you could do with a good pair of boots and a backpack or some canoes and a good compass—it’s all been done. We have to look at the things that are in their infancy, that people are planning to do, like returning to the moon with a more sustained presence or going to Mars. Now that these things are starting to glimmer on the horizon, we can start to dream about them and show you what it might be like, so we can catch a little cultural buzz off it in advance. We need to tell near-future adventure stories so we get ourselves pumped up and go out and really do it.
But how do you make sure your audience will go along?
It’s very simple, and it’s the same for documentaries as it is for fiction: You have to give them someone to follow. They need somebody to be their avatar in that world and say, “Come through this door with me. Look over my shoulder. Go through this with me.”
I presume you think cameras should be along for the ride.
Ultimately, filmmakers need to be involved in all aspects of exploration. That means when human beings do go to Mars, there should be someone aboard who’s been properly trained to document—hopefully in stereo, in 3-D—everything they’re doing, so they can bring along the six billion people on Earth.
And NASA agrees?
My point to NASA is that they need to involve people directly in exploration. They’ve got this $50 billion space station circling around and nobody knows what’s going on up there. NASA’s not very good at telling that story. They need an interface with the media and with narrative filmmaking that they don’t have yet. And they understand that, which is why they let me go on about the importance of these things.
I have to ask: As an explorer, are you more Jacques Cousteau or Steve Zissou, the lovable but bumbling oceanographer played by Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic?
Hopefully not Zissou—he’s kind of a bonehead. But we got a lot of great ideas from that movie. From now on, everybody on our expeditions has to get coveralls and a Glock. We can’t imagine a need for the Glock, but I just think it’s cool.