Could the James Cameron who executed – and, more importantly, survived – a trip in a cramped submersible to the deepest point in the ocean at the weekend be the same James Cameron who has actively terrorised and alienated some of Hollywood’s biggest stars?
Perhaps not. The Hollywood director, whose films include The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2010), certainly seems to have gone out of his way to not so much ruffle feathers as burn them off with a flamethrower in the course of his filmmaking career. Yet his Deepsea Challenger mission to the Mariana Trench to gather samples and footage from the lowest point on the Earth’s surface was conducted in the most harmonious managerial circumstances imaginable.
Abyss star Ed Harris hated Cameron by the end of that film’s arduous and budget-busting shoot. Seized by some rare, tyrannical fervour as he steered the cast and crew through a production fraught with the problems of underwater filming, Cameron decided to throw in a further complication: a swarm of tiny, rubber pellets designed to spread throughout the water and make it more responsive to light (Steven Spielberg used a dash of milk for the same effect in some scenes of Jaws). The pellets quickly ingratiated themselves with parts of the cast’s bodies that most filmmaking equipment can’t reach, and became vectors for a multitude of antisocial infections. But still Cameron drove on, badgering his submerged cast/captive audience through speakers in their diving helmets like the Voice of God and driving them absolutely nuts – for 11 hours a day. When time came round to rally the actors for the film’s promotional push, Harris was nowhere to be found.
English rose Kate Winslet also suffered at the hands of Cameron’s aquatic obsession. On the vast interior set of Titanic, the actress was almost drowned when a torrent of water rushed down a corridor to illustrate the famous ship’s structural predicament in the post-iceberg phase of its tenure as the least unsinkable vessel ever built. With barely a pause after it dawned on the crew that they’d overdone it with the wet stuff, Cameron ordered up another take and asked Winslet – who had just nearly died in front of him – to return to her mark. Cue one Earth-shaking bust-up and Winslet’s vow, solid to this day, to never work with Cameron again.
Even crewmen who repeatedly signed up to his productions advertised their gluttony for punishment on special-issue t-shirts. On the set of Terminator 2 – marred by another expensive and challenging shoot – their garb was emblazoned with the legend: “LIFE’S A-BYSS AND THEN YOU’RE TERMINATED.”
To boldly Cousteau
Contrast that with the current James Cameron. In an interview with the BBC prior to his dive, he waxed lyrical about a preparatory run in which he’d tested the capabilities of his self-designed sub – a streamlined, green torpedo outfitted with 3D cameras and lighting gear. “I was staring at vertical cliffs in the New Britain trench,” he said, “and [saw] hanging gardens of white, albino anemones along these cliff walls – it was just this absolutely magical place, and it had never been seen by human eyes.
“So, for me, that’s the excitement: every single dive I’m gonna see something nobody’s ever seen before. I’m gonna do my best to image it, to light it properly, to bring it back in 3D – grab samples if I can, get rocks if I can. We’re there to do science, but we’re also there to take the average person, who only imagines these things, and show them what it’s really like.”
His professorial words are more like those of famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau than the hyped-up and budget-conscious tyro of old who effed and blinded at top-flight actors in the stonewashed-jeans-and-tan-leather-jacket costume favoured by so many directors. Here is a sober and serious individual who is focusing on issues of somewhat wider impact than the anxious minutiae of filmmaking.
Appropriately enough, given the life-or-death stakes of his endeavour, Cameron drew to himself a team of trusted, high-performance individuals to help him make the dive work. His camera rigger, harness maker and chief developer of his life-support system all came from technical and performing backgrounds in film and theatre – not the most orthodox staff list for a dangerous sub mission last carried out by the Bathyscaphe Trieste in 1960. But that hasn’t stopped Cameron from beating teams sponsored by Google, Richard Branson and Scotland Oceanlab, who have all been racing him to the Mariana objective.
According to the BBC, Cameron described his team as an “extremely talented, rag-tag bunch” – yet more evidence of his burgeoning recognition that the hard work of others has underpinned his own achievements. Meanwhile, in his filmmaking life, actors such as Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Michelle Rodriguez – who all worked with him on Avatar – revere him as an inspiring mentor. Perhaps he has mapped out a journey that other, ego-driven managers might care to follow?