Rebecca Keegan spent seven years covering breaking news stories like 9/11, Osama bin Laden, and sex-abuse within the Catholic Church for TIME Magazine before she built professional credibility with intimate profiles of entertainment A-listers Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Downey, Will Smith, and Penélope Cruz, and covered premiere events like the Oscars, Sundance, and Comic-Con. Today, she is a staff film writer for the LA Times and continues to keep abreast of popular trends.
She originally met James Cameron while visiting the Avatar set for an assignment. In the introduction of his comprehensive biography she states, “I knew Cameron to be an innovator, but this was clearly his magnum opus as a future-minded filmmaker. As I watched the director work, I became curious about a man who seemed interested only in doing things that were hard, and in doing them perfectly, and I determined to follow his intriguing film’s progress more closely.”
Keegan spent over 400 hours with Cameron and hundreds more via email, as well as many more hours with family and close friends, and gained important backstories with which she carefully crafted this outstanding James Cameron biography. SuperConsciousness spoke with the author and gained valuable insights into how this self-proclaimed atheist created such a profoundly inspired “spiritual” film. What is revealed may surprise you!
SC: You wrote that Cameron is exceptional at both dreaming up a vision, rallying people around it, massaging their fears, convincing them they are capable of impossible tasks, and ultimately creating the extraordinary all within time and budget constraints. What is it about Cameron that takes all of these elements and is able to create magnificent films?
RK: What is really interesting to me about James Cameron is that often during various stages in his career he had people telling him absolutely, “No, you cannot do that.” He repeatedly ignored them and then did exactly what he was supposedly never going to be able to do. In the most recent case of Avatar, everything about that movie was impossible when he first wanted to make it back in the mid-1990s. The technology simply didn’t exist. While waiting a few years for other people to move ahead, nothing really happened. People in the special effects world continued to say, “Jim, we are not just there yet.”
His perspective was, “Well, then, I will get us there.” The studio protested. The people in the special effects protested. Now, he has just made a movie that will dramatically impact the way filmmaking happens going forward. In fact, there was a story on a recent New York Times front page about how people are using the technology from Avatar in professional sports to help pitchers throw their balls better. He has had this wide reaching effect by ignoring all the people telling him, “You can’t do that.”
SC: Ignoring everyone probably didn’t endear him into the status quo.
RK: Nothing Cameron does endears him to the status quo, except, of course, for making them money. James Cameron is in every way a Hollywood outsider.
Historically, spirituality is a blind spot for studios. Last year, the movie Blindside, which had overtly Christian themes, was a surprise hit. Because of that, studios are trying to Christianize some of their movies now. Again, they’re kind of missing the point.
On paper he seems like a true insider. He has this huge compound in Malibu. He has made two of the highest grossing movies of all time. Not one, but two: Avatar and Titanic. He has a lot of academy awards now on his mantle. But his personality type and way of doing business are so dramatically opposed to the Hollywood status quo that he is essentially an outsider.
Also, he is Canadian. People tend to forget that he is not from the US and that alone does make him something of an outsider. His family moved to California when he was seventeen years old, and had a Canadian accent. He was kind of smart, weird, and skinny, and didn’t really fit into any particular social group.
Later, when he tried to break into Hollywood, he didn’t have some uncle at William Morris or at one of the studios. He really came in through the backdoor via Roger Corman’s studio. Once he got inside Hollywood, the way he conducted himself by being painfully honest and by treating the lowliest grip on his set the same way he treats the studio executives, was totally unheard of and didn’t make him a lot of friends among the executives.
He is just a very “what you see is what you get” kind of guy. Hollywood is not a “what you see is what you get” kind of town, but one where people are told to their face that they are a genius, and then their agent is told they are not getting the part. That is how Hollywood works. He doesn’t work that way which makes him even more unusual.
SC: How would you capture the essence of all the different components of Cameron in which you refer to him as “The Futurist?”
RK: Cameron is always utterly himself, and that is what is so unusual about him. He doesn’t second guess himself; he follows his gut. He happens to be real smart – not like people whose IQs are above average. When he talks about certain things it is difficult to follow him. He is very capable in engineering. He knows about all sorts of exoteric subjects that are interesting to him, having to do with biology, astrobiology, and many other facets of science, which is one of the reasons I called the book The Futurist.
After spending so much time with him he really did put [the concept of interconnectedness] in Avatar because he wanted people to respond to it, and not because he necessarily believed in metaphysical interconnection.
Also, he doesn’t do what people think he is supposed to do. He does what he is deeply interested in. With Titanic, he had made a lot of money, and won a lot of Oscars. The more common thing to do in Hollywood would be to get back out there, make another movie, and capitalize on that power. He didn’t do that because what he wanted to do was go explore the deep ocean and indulge a passion he’s had since childhood. He followed his heart because he could.
SC: What is it about Cameron that is “visionary?”
RK: One of the things that is incredibly unusual about Cameron’s movies is his portrayal of women. In every single one of his movies, his female characters are given as much, if not more, to do as the male characters, starting with the Terminator and going all the way through Avatar.
This really defies Hollywood’s conventional wisdom, which is that both male and female audiences can see themselves in a male character, but they cannot see themselves in a female character, especially in drama, action or science fiction films where, presumably, the audiences are mostly male: You are going to alienate them by having a very strong female character that gets most of the action.
Cameron, starting with Terminator, ignored that conventional wisdom probably because he wanted to do something different and he thought that would be how he would get noticed. He wasn’t necessarily trying to be some sort of feminist; he was just trying to tell a different story.
Another example is in the movie Abyss. That was the first movie where computers were used to create a lifelike organic entity. He took a chance on this new thing called CGI(computergenerated imagery) and using it took a lot of technicians. It took a lot of trial and error. What he accomplished with that film completely changed the way movies were made. Afterwards, Spielberg used the technology when he made Jurassic Park. CGI was used all through the 1990s. Cameron took a chance on it. He didn’t wait for someone else to figure it out. He did what he wanted to do.
He feels that for a lot of people, the idea of aliens plays the same psychological role that religion plays for other people: The sense that there is some “other” out there; a benevolent being that is watching, that cares, that has vast powers.
SC: Cameron has achieved the heights of success, much like directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, some of the most successful filmmakers in the world. It’s amazing that with such a level of success, he would still be considered an “outsider.”
RK: Anybody who works in sci-fi, until very recently, was an outsider. It is a low respect genre: The “Rodney Dangerfield genre.” You can make billions and billions of dollars in science fiction, but you will not be considered a “serious filmmaker” as far as Hollywood is concerned.
Even though these guys drive the industry, traditionally, there is still the sense that they are not the “in crowd.” Having said that, these guys are in their own crowd. Because they are so powerful and wealthy, they are able to get movies green lit.
Cameron and Spielberg actually worked together quite recently when Spielberg visited the set of Avatar to learn the technology that Cameron used on that film. Spielberg will use that technology in Tintin, the film that both he and Peter Jackson are currently producing. He was on the set checking out Cameron’s camera and his motion capture set up and his 3-D, and they traded ideas and stories with each other.
Lucas is now converting the Star Wars movies into 3-D using much of the same process that Cameron used for Avatar. Cameron, of course, used technicians from Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic. These guys all crosspollinate. Each one of their films is like R&D for the next guy’s film.
SC: Science Fiction is such a visionary art form, and the source of inspiration for many scientists. Yet, after all the success of the genre, the filmmakers are only now finding their equilateral place in the industry?
RK: A lot of that has to do with the Academy Awards, which is mostly composed of actors who aren’t particularly fans of the sci-fi genre. Actors like movies about acting. Science fiction films are about ideas, and rarely about performances. There are some exceptions, but generally it is very unusual for an actor to be nominated for a performance in a science fiction movie. That is why you tend to see smaller movies like The Hurt Locker prevail over a movie like Avatar. There are different priorities actors have when watching a film.
Cameron took a chance on it. He didn’t wait for someone He doesn’t do what people else to figure it out. He did what he wanted to do.
SC: Regardless, it seems that human beings innately have a perpetual interest in off world reality. We want to be filled with stories about other worlds and stars as if looking for where we came from. And if we can’t get that kind of information from direct experience, then we will make something up or dream about the possibilities just the same.
RK: It is interesting that you said that. One of the things about Cameron that I found fascinating was that he told me he is not a religious person. He described himself as atheist or agnostic. He feels that for a lot of people, the idea of aliens plays the same psychological role that religion plays for other people: The sense that there is some “other” out there; a benevolent being that is watching, that cares, that has vast powers. He thinks that people really need to believe that.
I asked him, since he is not a religious person, why is there so much religious imagery in his movies. He replied because he really feels people have the need to believe in something greater than themselves. For some people it’s referred to as God, and for others, it is life on another planet in another galaxy. He perceives within the human brain, those two things are essentially the same thought.
SC: That’s interesting because for anyone involved in spiritual work, it is not about a deity outside themselves: It is about an inner journey or realization. Spirituality is very much a systematic pursuit of what is inside and how that experience deepens and matures into an understanding about nature and the connectedness of all things. If there is one, single concept that Cameron was able to convey accurately in Avatar, it was one of interconnectedness. It is hard to conceive that for him interconnectedness is nothing more than an intellectual idea that he hired others to develop and write into his script.
RK: I know, it was for me too. As far as I could tell, it really was just an idea, not something that he believed in. Yet, at the same time, the dire environmental problems we face are hugely important to him.
He doesn’t do what people else to figure it out. He did what he wanted to do. think he is supposed to do. He does what he is deeply interested in.
My sense, after spending so much time with him, he really did put [the concept of interconnectedness] in Avatarbecause he wanted people to respond to it, and not because he necessarily believed in metaphysical interconnection. I could not find any evidence for [a greater understanding] in his thinking. He is about hard science.
SC: Your observation was that he placed an “emotional beat” in Avatar because he knew his audience would respond. So, for him, it was purely emotional manipulation?
RK: Yes, it’s a theme he knows. One of the most brilliant qualities about Cameron is his understanding of what elements will resonate with his audiences. It’s the engineer in him: He really tries to deconstruct what people will respond to in a movie and then break that down to the most technical level, even though movies are artistic and there are emotions and feelings. He works with it all, and that is what is different about Cameron. He is the artist and the engineer. He breaks it all down to the mechanisms and thinks through what people will respond to, what makes you feel. At the same time there is something about him – the painter in him, the person in him that goes with his gut. I think part of the reason he is so successful is because he has these two very different sides to his personality, which he brings to every movie.
SC: It may be a purely mechanistic “be sure to add into the film” process for him, but the truth is that Avatarreached people at a deeply rooted level, much deeper than mere emotional beat. Avatar is not just a successful film: It is the highest grossing movie of all times, and almost double that of Titanic.