Director and ocean explorer James Cameron on Challenging the Deep

Film director James Cameron talks to Noelle McCarthy about his passion for exploring the natural world and its connection to his career in cinema.

This discussion was recorded at Otago Museum in association with its exhibition James Cameron – Challenging the Deep.

Edited highlights

Noelle McCarthy:

Welcome to our event here at Otago Museum. What a pleasure it is to introduce our guest. As a writer and a filmmaker, it’s no hyperbole to say he has redefined the medium of cinema, from The Abyss to Avatar and The Terminator, to Titanic. These are stories designed with wonder and awe in mind. Stories created while their maker was sometimes developing the technology to tell these stories, even as the cameras were rolling. Talk about building the plane while you’re flying it!

But the films are only part of the story. That same visionary design sensibility and that genius for innovation has also been applied to his passion for exploring our oceans. As you know, if you’ve been around the James Cameron – Challenging the Deep exhibition upstairs, it is a testament to a remarkable career as an underwater explorer and an expedition leader. with an extraordinary commitment to curiosity and problem solving: to pushing the boundaries of design technology, to leadership and teamwork. He’s an artist, an environmentalist and consistent innovator. Someone who doesn’t seem to have ever heard the phrase “no can do,” and his fields of endeavour are all the richer for it.

James Cameron:

That was very kind. Now I know you’re gonna get rough on me with a lot of hard questions.

Noelle McCarthy:

Well, when I was visiting the James Cameron exhibition upstairs and I came to the Mariana Trench, I thought about the mountaineer George Mallory. And what he said when they asked him “Why Everest?” He replied, “Because it’s there.” Same for you?

James Cameron:

I think I think there are mysteries out there. I mean, the universe is filled with mysteries and we’re going to be exploring them for the next million years or whatever because human beings are curious. We have to know what’s over the hill. Exploration is just curiosity acted upon. That’s the enabler that gets you there. But it’s also just wanting to go I call it bearing witness. You go to bear witness, you go to see it and you act as a kind of conduit for that experience to the rest of the world. As a filmmaker you innately want to tell a story.

Noelle McCarthy:

You’re gathering information, but it’s not just about the data for you?

James Cameron:

No, it’s about the narrative. And I think that’s a good thing because scientists traditionally, and I know some very good communicators, you know, who are scientists, but traditionally, they either shun it because they don’t want the scrutiny or they’re just not good at it.

You know, they’re really good at their investigation and their and their work and they live a life of the mind, but they’re not good communicators. There are exceptions, and we need to have more of those exceptions because we really need people that can speak for science and for investigation, research, and exploration. I think metaphorically, you can be exploring a new microbe in a lab but to me, exploration is going someplace and going someplace new and seeing something new.

Noelle McCarthy:

I see this a lot of young people in the audience and you say, people ask you “Why go?” And you often say children would never ask that question.

James Cameron:

People ask, why did you want to build a sub and dive to the deepest spot in the ocean? And I’ve never gotten that question from a seven-year-old. Because a seven-year-old would say, Well, why wouldn’t you want to build a sub and go to the deepest part of the ocean? I want to go, right.

Noelle McCarthy:

Keeping that sense of wonder alive, though as time goes by.

James Cameron:

It’s hard.

Noelle McCarthy:

It’s a discipline. Isn’t it? .

James Cameron:

Yeah. Then reality sets in and it’s like, “How hard is that going to be? What materials do you need? How are you going to compose your team? What engineering hurdles are you going to have?” Fortunately, I find it therapeutic to solve hard engineering problems. You know, there’s a million things going on in a movie. It can be an enormous amount of pressure, my mind tends to go to an engineering problem to get away from it. Some people just have a Chardonnay and watch Netflix, you know. I’m not saying I don’t do that too, but I prefer to solve an engineering problem.

Noelle McCarthy:

Which explains so much about the trajectory of your art, doesn’t it? I mean, The film The Abyss is upstairs in the exhibition as part of that story. You were developing the technology that you needed to tell that story, as you were telling it.

James Cameron:

The Abyss turned 30 in August. Making that film was a real turning point for me because a couple of things happened on that movie. I got to meet a lot of my heroes who were real explorers like Dr Robert Ballard and some of the robotics engineers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which is kind of the US equivalent to NIWA.

And so I went from making a science fiction movie where I was imagining subs and vehicles and so on to the people who actually do it. That was the first step down the path toward the possibility of actually doing it myself, working with these guys and really doing deep ocean exploration. The other thing that happened on The Abyss is there’s a little scene in the middle of the film that has a completely computer-generated character, soft surface character that makes faces and so on. It’s sort of living water. And it was a huge breakthrough in its time. I called it dreaming with your eyes wide open to see something like that, that seems so impossible, very surreal. And that was another big turning point for me, because I saw that you could actually entertain by showing people something that they had previously only seen in their own imagination or in their dreams.

Noelle McCarthy:

Where does it live in your mind if it hadn’t been seen in the world before? I wonder that about a lot of your films.

James Cameron:

In dream imagery. Our dreams are just the brain kind of mashing things up and putting ideas together and telling this story all night long. Some people don’t remember them, some people do. I get a lot of story ideas from dreams. Sometimes they’re very surreal. Sometimes they’re disturbing. But then I started to connect the dots and put characters into it and turn them into movies.

Noelle McCarthy:

The Terminator came from a dream. I think is that right?

James Cameron:

Yeah, absolutely. That image of a steel skeleton emerging from a fire that came straight out of a dream. And then I just built a story around that picture.

Noelle McCarthy:

And there’s a theme here isn’t there of the braiding of the real things from nature – organic shapes or anatomy – with technology, with things that hadn’t yet existed.

James Cameron:

I think braiding is a really interesting term. As I was flying down here looking at the braided rivers on the Canterbury Plains and just really thinking about how these are different streams that just constantly cross each other. And that’s kind of the effect I get when I walk through the exhibit here. I see how the art and the narrative storytelling interwove with tactical development to make either the movies or the documentaries of the deep expeditions possible. The two worked together beautifully but I don’t think that was the big plan. The big plan was “just go take a look.” It all boils down to curiosity. That’s what drives exploration.

Noelle McCarthy:

It’s lovely that we’re having this conversation in front of an audience in a museum because I believe it was on a visit to a museum in Toronto, where it all started. Can you tell us about that?

James Cameron:

Well, I’ve got a good friend. He’s in his 80s now: Dr Joe MacInnis. He was one of Canada’s leading oceanographers. And for fun, I used to go to museums and sketch. And when I was about 14, so that would have been 1969 or 1970 I was at the Royal Ontario Museum, and a big vehicle was on display out in front. And I walked around it and I sort of understood innately what it was. It had a big ballast weight at the bottom and a platform and it had domed windows and it was entered through the bottom.

And it was built by Dr Joseph MacIinnis. So I did some sketches of it – they’re actually in the exhibit – and then I thought, I’m gonna contact this guy. So I wrote him a letter.

Noelle McCarthy:

How old were you?

James Cameron:

14 or 15, something like that. I started thinking about how I ould build my own and I thought, I don’t know where you get the windows. So I wrote him a letter saying “Dr. MacInnis, I’m building my own Sublimnos, and I’m going to get in it. What do you use for windows?”

Noelle McCarthy:

Great question!

James Cameron:

And he actually sent me back the specifications for the particular type of acrylic that was used for the windows of the Sublimnos and how I could get them so I wrote to the acrylic company, and they sent me a sample about a foot and a half square, of one-inch acrylic.

And I thought, “Oh, I’m half done. I’ve got my window.”

So I contacted him years later, and he actually has come out with me on a couple of the expeditions and actually written books about them, but his fascination is leadership. I’m always struggling to be a better leader because I think it’s critical when you’re doing things with small teams.

And I definitely recommend small teams for engineering design and for building new vehicles and prototypes and things like that. Because you sit around in a room with, with a handful of really smart people, and it’s fun and it’s exciting and the ideas are flowing. When it turns into the big mega-projects. It just breaks down into bureaucracy and creativity kind of just dies.

Noelle McCarthy:

They’re really smart people, as you say, but they’re from a range of different disciplines. And that’s a really interesting aspect of the work you’ve been doing in the ocean.

James Cameron:

When we built the deep-sea challenge vehicle, the guy that designed the batteries had only worked on electric buses, and there was a young guy who had just gotten his PhD I think, in electronics and was doing robotics, but it was all dry land robotics. He had never worked on a sub, he had never been to sea, he had never been underwater. He wound up coming out on the expedition and holding onto the railing most of the time, but I wanted the people who actually built the vehicle to come out with us. I figured it was easier to teach these guys how to survive on a ship at sea than to try to explain to some seasoned seadog how to fix the electronics inside the brain of the vehicle.

Noelle McCarthy:

On that, incidentally, how long do you think it takes to get your sea legs? Did it take you a long time to get yours?

James Cameron:

Well, depends on what drugs you take. There’s some people that have an absolute cast-iron stomach and you could spin them around 100 times and it doesn’t even affect them and then other people throw up just watching the ocean. I’m about dead centre, which means that if above a Beaufort four or so I’m taking something. But I don’t let a little thing like puking over the railing keep me from being an ocean explorer. It’s like, that’s just a detail.

Noelle McCarthy:

There’s something that’s almost feels fated about this relationship between you and the ocean. I mean, upstairs in the exhibition, there’s a quote from you: “I was in love with the ocean before we ever met.” That’s very romantic.

James Cameron:

I think that’s true. Jacques Cousteau was the first of the great telegenic explorers that really know knew how to use this new medium of television and bring the deep ocean, the wonders of the ocean into the living rooms of the world. He did an enormous amount to get people excited about the oceans in the ’60s and ’70s.

At first, it was just, “Look at all the cool stuff.” And then it became about having to protect this because he was even then starting to see the degradation of the reefs and populations of animals that were at risk. So he was my example, as a teenager. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to live on that ship. But I lived landlocked, 400 miles from the ocean. I learned to scuba dive in a pool and my first open-water dive was in a river in Canada. It was a couple years after that, that I first did my first open-water dives in the actual ocean.

Noelle McCarthy:

That must have been a revelation to you.

James Cameron:

Oh, it was amazing.

Noelle McCarthy:

Do you remember it?

James Cameron:

Absolutely, clearly. I think your first dive remains burned in your memory because it’s such an overwhelming experience to suddenly be able to fly freely in a three-dimensional environment. And to see these animals that live there, even if you’ve been a free diver, your first scuba dives have that impact. But it’s now second nature.

Noelle McCarthy:

There are different emotions and different histories associated with the different parts of the ocean that you have been to. The Titanic is a monument to hubris.

James Cameron:

Well, even for you growing up, in Cork, I guess, which is near where the Titanic last saw land as it steamed away from the Irish coast. Yeah, the Titanic is the quintessential example of “Pride goeth before a fall.” I think we’re living in a very hubristic time right now where we think that the power of our mind and our technology is going to save us from anything that comes along, when in fact, it’s going to take a lot of hard decisions to get through the crises that are of our own making. And I think we all know what they are.

Noelle McCarthy:

I’ll come back to that because that’s an important strand in your work. But just to go back to Cousteau,  that narration of the experience, that bringing back of the idea. Tell me about that impulse as it related to Titanic. What was it like when you came up from that first dive?

James Cameron:

On my first dive at the Titanic, I was very cold and calculating, like an astronaut trying to accomplish the mission. I had things I had to do. And I didn’t allow myself to open emotionally while I was on the dive. I got back to my cabin on the Russian research ship after I’d spent 16 hours in the submersible and I sat down and it all flooded back and I realized I had been sitting in a sub on the deck of the ship right where the band played, right by the first-class entrance on the port side, and it just all flooded back and I was kind of overwhelmed by emotion at that point.

I was tearing up thinking of the tragedy and the people because. So then I thought, I have to always remind myself to be present. You know, just be present, just be there. Just bear witness. That’s where I came up with the idea. So I literally would write it into my instructions to myself for the dive, to stop and look, you know.

Noelle McCarthy:

I think Willie Nelson has a maxim. He says, wherever you are, “Be there.”

James Cameron:

You do I think, as a filmmaker or writer have a responsibility to come back and tell the story to others because we can’t all get in a sub and go down to the Titanic. I tend to be very aware of that responsibility in the moment. Which is why I’m running the 3D cameras, and I’m struggling to get the shot, and I’m talking the whole time and laying it down on tape so that it’s all there. I think you become a kind of a human conduit for the experience for everybody.

Noelle McCarthy 

Did you make the film as the quickest way of getting back to the boat?

James Cameron:

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Sure. I made Titanic so that I could go dive the Titanic. So then we just went and did it some more. And in the process we developed deep ocean stereoscopic camera systems and small robotic vehicles that would spool out fibre optics so that they could, they could go and explore in very complicated small spaces. We developed a whole bunch of new systems to do that.

Noelle McCarthy:

Is that why it’s a love story? I’m really interested in that tension between the emotional and the technological You know, this is the grand love story of Jack and Rose. But the first image in the film is an image of machines – those submersibles beeping in the darkness.

James Cameron:

I think, I had sort of a bit of a reputation at that point as a technical director, meaning innovation and technology, the CG stuff: Terminator 2, True Lies, things like that, that were big action films. There was this sense in Hollywood, and I think it still exists, that you can be a humanistic filmmaker or a technical filmmaker, but you can’t be both. One of the things that appealed to me about Titanic was to show that you can use the technology to tell a story and if you’ve done it right, it disappears. And all you care about is the people.

Noelle McCarthy:

Steven Spielberg didn’t buy that. I mean, he said you’re an emotional director, in the TV series James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, which I spent far too much time watching.

James Cameron:

They’re cool interviews. It was such a dream for me to get to talk to these guys. I knew most of them but to really get them to open up about their art and their thought process.

Noelle McCarthy:

Spielberg said ET wasn’t a story of an alien. It’s a story of a young boy whose parents are getting divorced.

James Cameron:

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So no matter what a story appears to be about – robots, or time travel or outer space or whatever – it’s really about us and some universality of human interaction. I always say all my movies are love stories. You know, Aliens is a love story between a woman who’s lost a daughter and the daughter that she takes on to protect. Titanic was the classic love story in the Romeo-and-Juliet-boy-meets-girl kind of way. That’s how I pitched it by the way.

I took this beautiful painting of the Titanic sinking, all lit up with the lifeboats going away, almost elegantly beautiful, and I set it on the coffee table at the head of 20th Century Fox’s office. And I said “Romeo and Juliet. There.” So what is it? “Romeo and Juliet. There.” Four words. I raised 130 million dollars with four words because they got it. They were like, “Wow, that’s great.” To their credit, they actually got it. They usually don’t, by the way.

Noelle McCarthy:

Something else defines your films though. You and George Lucas had a conversation about this. You know, the joy of creating worlds, and  George Lucas saying to you, “Isn’t it great, you can do whatever you want.” But in your films laws apply. The laws of thermodynamics, the laws of gravity and motion. They all apply.

James Cameron:

I think it’s important when you’re building a world that people want to invest in, whether it’s Game of Thrones or Avatar’s world of Pandora, it has to be internally consistent. Even if it’s got floating mountains, there has to be a rule set. And I think that’s fundamental to creating a great work of fantasy that it’s not just a lot of sporadic, kind of surreal, imagery. So for Avatar, for example, we created the Na’vi culture with a language and with a set of behaviours that were consistent with the belief system and so on. Not all of it made it into the film. In fact, only a small fraction did but we knew it. And so what surfaced in the film even though it was just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, all looked like it belonged there.

Noelle McCarthy:

And do you think an audience needs that and responds to that authenticity?

James Cameron:

I think if you look at the fantasy works – literary or film – that have endured, The Lord of the Rings would be a great example. There’s a degree of detail, of rightness to what you’re seeing that it all seems to be of that same fabric. Tolkien called it the distant mountains. You don’t go to the distant mountains, but they’re always there, you know, they kind of surround you. So the specific narrative is surrounded by a greater bit of storytelling. And that takes a lot of the work involved in writing the new Avatar films. (I know we’re getting off from the topic of exploration, but that’s cool.) I spent a year just making notes. And on day one with my writers’ group, I handed them 1400 pages of notes about the world, the cultures and the animals and all that sort of thing. And that’s where our blank page started.

Noelle McCarthy:

But it circles back to exploration doesn’t it, because it is that world that that exists in the oceans, for example.

James Cameron:

And it all makes sense and it all interconnects. And it’s up to human science to explore those connections and see why things are the way they are. Sometimes things are very enigmatic and puzzling, and sometimes you just have this bonanza of new information.

James Cameron:

When they discovered hydrothermal vents back in the late ’70s, they literally discovered an entirely new way for things to live. Everything that had ever been seen previously was essentially living on sunlight, or the things that were produced by sunlight, plant materials and so on which then decay and feed bacteria and fungi and all that sort of thing. But it was all powered by the sun.

Then they went down and found hydrothermal vents where there were entire animal communities that had nothing to do with the sun. The sun could go out and they wouldn’t know for quite a while. It was all driven by the heat energy of the earth, heating up water and bringing chemicals up into that environment. And then they learn to live off these chemicals that would kill us almost instantly. Hydrogen sulphide is extremely toxic, and these things are living on it. They have the same kind of DNA, the same kind of cell structure that we have, but nature just put the pieces together in a completely different way. And then that blew the doors off the possibilities for where you could find life on Earth, and in the solar system.

Noelle McCarthy:

Growing up, you were in the era of Cousteau, but you were also in the era of the space race. Could it have gone the other way for you?

James Cameron:

I was fascinated by the space. But it seemed like there wasn’t as much of an important story there. Going around the Earth really fast, and trying to think of excuses for science in microgravity, is of micro-importance versus the ocean from which life emerged. It’s the ocean that keeps us alive, moderates our temperature, our carbon and our hydrological cycles and so on. So much of our life on earth is dependent on the ocean and we know so little about it. I turned my spotlight on the ocean.

About the speaker

James Cameron (born August 16, 1954) is a Canadian filmmaker and environmentalist, who is best known for making science fiction and epic films for the Hollywood mainstream.

Cameron first gained recognition for directing The Terminator (1984). He found further critical and commercial success with Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and True Lies (1994). His greatest big-budget productions have been Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), the former earning him Academy Awards in Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing. Avatar, filmed in 3D technology, also garnered him nominations in the same categories.

He also co-founded Lightstorm Entertainment, Digital Domain and Earthship Productions. In addition to his filmmaking, he is a National Geographic explorer of the sea and has produced a number of documentaries on the subject. Cameron contributed to underwater filming and remote vehicle technologies and helped create the digital 3D Fusion Camera System. In 2012, Cameron became the first person to perform a solo descent to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the Earth’s ocean, in the Deepsea Challenger submersible.

In total, Cameron’s films have grossed approximately US$2 billion in North America and US$6 billion worldwide. Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic are the second and third highest-grossing films of all time, earning $2.78 billion and $2.19 billion, respectively. Cameron holds the achievement of having directed the first two of the five films in history to gross over $2 billion worldwide. In 2010,Time magazine named Cameron one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

– Wikipedia

In association with the Otago Museum, and the exhibition James Cameron Challenging the Deep which runs until 9 February 2020.

Director and ocean explorer James Cameron on Challenging the Deep
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