James Cameron biographer says the ‘Avatar’ director is half scientist, half artist [Updated]

Dec. 11, 2009 | 4:00 a.m.

“AVATAR” COUNTDOWN: 9 DAYS

Rebecca-kegan

All eyes are on James Cameron with the imminent release of the most expensive movie of all time. “Avatar” may very well be the 55-year-old director’s masterwork in an already astounding film career. Yet most people know very little about him.

If Cameron, the man, is known for anything besides his reservedness, it’s his penchant for being very critical — explicitly when necessary — and doing so in a painfully truthful way.

Providing some insight into the man behind the high-tech, 3-D camera gizmo, Rebecca Keegan‘s “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron” is an honest, fascinating glimpse into the mind and history of Cameron.

Hero Complex’s Mark Milian got on the phone today with Keegan, a Los Angeles resident and a Time magazine contributor, to discuss her first book, as she was getting ready to attend a screening of “Avatar” in Hollywood.

MM: Cameron has a reputation for being pretty reserved. How did you get him to talk to you?

RK: He’s been sort of in this quiet phase of his life since “Titanic.” Not so much by design but just from factors in his life … working in these documentaries and on the technology for “Avatar.” … He wasn’t trying to go all J. D. Salinger [reclusive author of "The Catcher in the Rye"], but he did a little bit.

I was on the set in early 2008. I was so amazed by how the set looked. After the first time that I visited, I just kept calling his offices every two weeks trying to talk him into doing the book. … I have no idea why he eventually said yes, but it may have been that he just wanted me to go away after a year of me calling.

MM: What about the man or his movies drew you to this project?

RK: I had heard a lot about Cameron’s sets. Certainly “Titanic” had been this amazing, huge scale model of opulence that he built down in Mexico. So I was kind of surprised to walk onto the “Avatar” set [in Playa del Rey] to see it was just a dude — the dude being Cameron — holding a camera and a bunch of guys on computers. … A bunch of geeks hunched over their keyboards. It was just a bizarre way of making a movie. But when I looked through his lens, it was the world of Pandora. I was also interested in this guy who only wanted to do things that were hard. Clearly, after “Titanic,” he could have come back and made any movie he wanted to.

Thefuturist

MM: In the book, you described an interesting dynamic in the meeting of Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger when deciding to cast him in “Terminator.”

RK: When Cameron first met Schwarzenegger, he had no interest in casting him in his movie. At the time, Schwarzenegger was better known as a body builder than an actor. His career looked like it was going to go the standard route of body builders — do some movies wearing a toga and then fall off the face of the earth. Schwarzenegger had all these ideas about how the Terminator should be played. … Both of them are alpha males. … I think they really found kindred spirits in each other.

MM: What do you think is the greatest discovery you made in the life of Cameron?

RK: The fact that he has this sort of equally developed two sides to his personality — the scientist and the artist. … [At Fullerton College] he was majoring in physics and at the point when he had to decide between the scientist and the artist. And he chose the artist. Usually people are a left brain or a right brain. … He’s as good a painter as he is a designer of cameras. … He worked with NASA. He could hold his own in a room full of scientists. This is a guy with a couple of junior college physics classics. … For him, science and art are equally necessary parts of what he does. In a town, Hollywood, where people get by being really good B.S.ers, he’s actually incapable of it — to a point of detriment, at times. … He really tells you what he thinks to your face.

MM: There’s something off-putting about his profile on the cover, as there is something equally creepy about many of his movies. Did the experience weird you out at all?

Jimcameron

RK: I think he’s an intense guy. There’s no question about it. If you talk to the people who work with him, they’ll talk about the multiple sides of Cameron. … He focuses like a laser beam. And everybody knows what happens with lasers. Somebody gets burned.

MM: You talk about how Cameron has a sort of catchphrase on the set — “I knew that would happen” — whether something bad or good happens. Can he see the future?

RK: Sort of the point of the “Terminator” movies is that we can change fate. Sarah Connor has the opportunity to go back in time and kill the scientist. … She has the opportunity to impact the future and fate. … I think Cameron sees life in that way. In the case of “Avatar,” it’s sort of an environmental parable. He often does know what’s going to happen. I think he’s kind of freakishly smart. Also in that same part of the book, I talk about how Peter Jackson warned me: “This guy is really smart. You might get lost.” I get lost all the time.

MM: In Twitter fashion, how would you describe James Cameron in 140 characters or less?

RK: Intense, smart, forward-thinking and just the right amount of crazy. [Tweet this!]

[Updated, Dec. 12, 12:30 a.m.: An earlier version of the post said Cameron had attended the University of Toronto. He was actually a student at Fullerton College.]

– Mark Milian

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Photos: Top – Rebecca Keegan. Credit: Kevin Sanlon. Middle – The cover of “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron.” Bottom – James Cameron. Credit: Chris Carlson / Associated Press

Comments


7 Responses to James Cameron biographer says the ‘Avatar’ director is half scientist, half artist [Updated]

  1. Bryan B. says:

    It will be interesting to see if, one day in the not-to-distant future, Cameron decides to abandon filmmaking altogether and return to that original decision of choosing between art and science—and he chooses science since Keegan states he can hold his own among the physicists.
    What might occur if a movie set of "geeks hunched over their keyboards" under his direction were to become a series of scientist-staffed labs? Would we see new scientific technologies emerge or would he find that it would have been better to remain behind the camera?

  2. The writer of the biography said, "At the University of Toronto, he was majoring in physics…"
    I'm writing my own (self-published) book about James Cameron (more really about the works than the man), and I've never once heard any reference to the University of Toronto whatsoever. His family moved to California immediately after he graduated from high school, so unless she's talking about some correspondence courses, I don't even see how this could be remotely possible.
    He was at an advanced high school and took some college classes as a part of his high school curriculum, but that college was near Buffalo (and I don't think that anybody would call advanced placement classes a college education, anyway).
    It's also funny that she's diagnosed Cameron as an "alpha male" when he actually says that he's a poor leader (he says he's worked hard to train to become a good one). "Alpha male" is one of those pseudoscience terms, anyway, but I think that leadership is considered a primary component of it.
    But whatever. I guess Americans aren't keen on facts and don't mind pop psychology declarations. Maybe this book talks about his astrological sign, too.

  3. ScottA says:

    JamesCameronBlogspot, I've read two other biographies of James Cameron and don't remember anything about him going to school in Toronot, either.
    Also, I find the quote from Rebecca Keegan interesting where she states, "Sarah Connor has the opportunity to go back in time and kill the scientist. " Did she even see the movie? Sarah Connor doesn't travel through time in the movies, her protectors and potential assassins do.
    Doesn't make me want to read her book if she can't even get such simple facts as these correct! Personally, I found the book "Titanic and the Making of James Cameron" by Paula Parisi to be a very well-written book… although it is ten years out of date now.

  4. Win it already... pl says:

    I'm surprised to see two of the above comments being so harsh on the writer. Every review I have read about this book has not only been glowing, but says it's the most balanced ever written about Cameron. It's like the know-it-alls who already hate Avatar based on the trailer. The trailer was a mistake because it wasn't in 3-D, so the spirit and uniqueness of the film was lost. As for your specific qualms with author Keegan, I would make sure the article was correct in its reporting before I bashed the book.

  5. Scott A:
    That's a good catch (in fact, I feel stupid for not spotting that myself!) I agree with you that Paula Parisi's book is the very best book about Cameron ever because (a) it so vividly details his work and (b) the flow of the prose is just very read-able. (The only real problem, of course, is that it's focused almost entirely on 'Titanic' – as its name tells us!)
    Win It Already:
    Nobody "bashed" the book. All we did was point out that, in this tiny interview, the woman managed to get two statements of material fact dead wrong and she also relied on a dubious pop psychology term in her description of him.
    I'm sure it will be "glowing" about Cameron….but that doesn't mean that you can, like, just not grasp basic plots of his movies or fundamental facts about his education.
    As far as the previews for 'Avatar'….I only saw them in 2D, and I loved them entirely in that format. I'm sorry that you don't like the movie's look in 2D. I love it in 2D and, in a few days, I'm sure I'll love it in 3D, as well.

  6. Eric R says:

    So this writer chick condescendingly refers to Digital Effects Animators as "a bunch of geeks hunched over their computers"? Maybe if she had taken the time to actually talk to some of them she would realize they are smart and interesting people.
    If one were to similarly judge her they could say she's an ambitious bimbo who used her looks to advance her career.
    But that would be wrong :)
    Ugh. I'm an FX guy and a fan of Cameron but I will never buy one of her books.

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