From Terminator 2 to Avatar, James Cameron has become known for pushing technological innovation in filmmaking. When taking time out from making the Avatar sequels, the Oscar-winning director can be found a long way below sea level in his guise as a deep-sea explorer (the latest diving expedition, 36,000 feet below the sea, is the subject of his upcoming documentary). The filmmaker, screenwriter, technology pioneer, and explorer is constantly looking for ways to galvanize his audience with the shock of the new. But is he man or machine when it comes to creativity? We asked Cameron for some insights into his creative process, from the inception of a script idea to keeping his objectivity, and sanity, on set.
Cameron is always on alert for that unpredictable time when inspiration will strike. “Inspiration can hit you in the head at any time in any context. It could happen in a conversation. Talking to someone at a party, you can get an idea. But you’ve got to remember those inspirations.”
The veteran director confides that at this stage in his career he’s “probably run through all the good ideas” he ever had. In order to come up with some new ones, he turns to art, photography, and especially music. “I feed on other people’s creativity, photographers, artists of every kind. Sometimes a feeling that you get listening to a song can be so powerful. I’ve wanted to write whole scripts around what I felt just listening to a piece of music. I think music is important, and surrounding your visual field with stimulating things.”
Bombarding yourself with stimuli is all very well, but screenwriting is a task best done alone, according to Cameron. It also requires a lot of balls apparently. “At some point you’ve got to sit down and write. So for that, I isolate. Day-to-day life can really intrude on that free-association process. Writing a screenplay for me is like juggling. It’s like, how many balls can you get in the air at once? All those ideas have to float out there to a certain point and then they’ll crystallize into a pattern. It sometimes takes me three or four days to get into a head space where I can do that and if I get interrupted at any point I have to start over. So I couldn’t be one of these staff writers who hangs out, does a long lunch, goes back, and writes six pages in the afternoon.”
Cameron has been ahead of his time so often in his career that he has learned to be patient. He feels it’s important to recognize that moment when you are on the verge of a breakthrough, or, in his words, at the “cusp of the possible.” “To convince people to back your idea, you’ve got to sell it to yourself and know when it’s the moment. Sometimes that means waiting,” he says. “It’s like surfing. You don’t create energy, you just harvest energy already out there.”
Keeping a sense of objectivity is one of the most crucial and difficult parts of the filmmaking process, according to Cameron. “Don’t get seduced by your own stuff. Don’t get high on your own supply,” he warns. “The hardest thing as a filmmaker is when you’re watching a film that you’ve worked on for several years. You know every frame so intimately that holding lots of the objectivity of a new viewer who has just seen it for the first time is the hardest thing. Every aesthetic decision you make–and you make thousands of them every day, have to–in theory, must be done from you being a blank slate. You almost have to run a program, like a mind wipe, every time you watch the movie.”
You’ve got to know how to fight for your project, especially when you’ve got a big studio on your back. For that particular battle, Cameron draws parallels with an Ernest Hemingway classic. “When you get it right, you’ve got to know and be able to defend it. It’s like the story of The Old Man and The Sea. He gets the fish of a lifetime, and it gets ripped apart by the sharks before he can get it back to land. That’s what it’s like when you’re making a movie. You get it the way you want it, and then the studio will want to tear it apart and ‘fix’ it.”