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6 Filmmaking Tips From James Cameron

The King of the World on how to reign in Hollywood.
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By  · Published on July 6th, 2016

It’s been a while since we saw a new movie directed by James Cameron, but we never stop thinking about the guy. Not just because he pops up in the news to slam other people’s movies, but because he can, because he’s still the “King of the World.” Two of his movies, Avatar and Titanic, are the top-grossing of all time, globally, and even with adjustments for inflation, they’re second and fourth. And who cares if that recently slammed sequel bested them domestically? He still rules. He’s worth $700m. He has three Oscars.

He’s also regularly in the news to remind us that his many Avatar sequels will really actually truly come out one day (at the moment they’re set for 2018, 2020, 2022, and 2023). And as much as everyone knocks the idea of this series continuing, they’ll all go see it. In the most advanced movie format of the day, which by the time they come out will likely be 3D VR with a wearable sensory suit that has us believing we’re underwater with the characters we’re watching just barely outside of our own brains.

As a filmmaker, he’s a master technician, but he’s also just a regular storyteller at heart. The following six pieces of advice we’ve gleaned from interviews with Cameron reveal that he’s not much different from any other director when it comes to the keys to success (he recently shared in a 2014 Reddit AMA the advice he got from Corman to “sit down,” which was also one of Mel Brooks’s tips just last week). Maybe you won’t beat him in the game of Hollywood thrones, but follow his tips and you might come close.

Don’t Wait To Make a Baby

Cameron may take a while between movies now. And he likes to wait for technology to catch up to his ideas. He can afford to. But in the beginning he was much quicker. He decided to make movies after seeing Star Wars in 1977. A year later he’d directed his short debut, Xenogenesis. Another year later he was working for Roger Corman in various jobs and got to make his first feature for the legendary B-movie producer in 1981, with Piranha II: The Spawning. His most consistent advice today is to similarly just get in there. Here’s what he told “Mr. Showbiz” in 1997:

The main thing is just picking up a camera and making a film. That’s the most important thing. People say, “How do you get to be a filmmaker?” I say, “Go home, pick up your video camera, and make a film.” Well, it’s on video, it doesn’t matter. But it’s an image; you’re deciding what goes into that image. People say, “Well, where am I gonna get the money?” Fuck the money. Get some people and just make a film. Because if you make a film and you put your name on it that says “Directed by,” even if it’s the worst piece of crap in the world and cost no money, everything after that, you’re a director. You’re just haggling over your price, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] And the budget. It scales up from there, but you’ve defined yourself in that role. If you can’t define yourself in that role to yourself, then you’re just chippin’ away at it, not really doing it.

He reiterates this in a 2013 video interview with Corporate Valley, in which he also compares the idea of waiting for the right moment to make a movie to waiting for the right moment to have a child.

Of course, Cameron has occasionally seemed to contradict himself on the idea of not waiting. Here’s a quote from a 2013 list of his lessons in creativity told to Fast Company:

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.”

Fortunately, he no longer has to wait on technology, because as of 2011 it has apparently reached its peak:

James Cameron no longer waiting for movie tech to catch up

It’s All in the Pitch

Sure, there’s craft and whatever involved in making movies, but one of the most important elements of working in Hollywood (and another he probably learned from Corman) is knowing how to pitch your idea fast and to the point. While he’s never directly given a tip regarding the extremely easy spiel, below are two stories behind pitches that got Cameron the money to direct huge movies he wanted to direct.

The first is told by Aliens executive producer Gordon Carroll in Linda Obst’s book “Hello He Lied.”

“Cameron was young. He had just directed Terminator. Cameron had called a meeting to discuss his “next project.” Everyone knew Cameron had written a treatment for Alien 2 that nobody would touch because Alien was not a massive financial success. Alien 2 was not on the table. We expected a professional pitch from Cameron, an outline and a treatment of what he had in mind with a cursory budget; perhaps a couple assistants to run a slide show. Instead Cameron walked in the room without so much as a piece of paper. He went to the chalk board in the room and simply wrote the word ALIEN. Then he added an ‘S’ to make ALIENS. Dramatically, he drew two vertical lines through the ‘S’, ALIEN$. He turned around and grinned. We greenlit the project that day for $18 million.”

More famously, for Titanic, Cameron had another simple pitch, which he gave Fox executives in March of 1995. He’s mentioned it in many interviews, but here is part of an interview at a 2009 BAFTA event, transcribed in the book “James Cameron: Interviews”:

The presentation I made to Fox was very simple: I walked in with Ken Marschall’s beautiful book of paintings of the Titanic, whapped it open on Peter Chernin’s coffee table in his office and this double-page painting of the ship sinking with all the lifeboats and the distress flares going off and I said, “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic.” That was it, seriously.

Plan An Excruciating Journey

In a 2010 appearance on Charlie Rose, the host asks Cameron for the most important thing he knows about storytelling. You can watch the whole interview on Rose’s site, but here is the answer, from the official transcript:

James Cameron: You have to find a key into the heart of the audience, which means you have to find universals of human experience and then express them in exotic new ways. So you’ve got to find something that people recognize, simple as boy meets girl on a ship which is going to sink. But the knowledge that it’s going to sink was a critical part of that story telling, because otherwise you had two hours of women in corsets and funny hats before anything happened, before the ship even hit the iceberg. But if you know it’s sinking, you hang around for all that. You see what I mean? So that was a part of the story telling. But I think it’s always about the characters and about how those characters express something that the audience is feeling. So it has to have some universality to it having to do with relationships, where it’s parent/child, male/female, whatever it is. And then you have to take them on a journey. And then you have to make it excruciating somehow.

Charlie Rose: Excruciating?

James Cameron: Excruciating.

Charlie Rose: They have to be challenged. They have to be in danger. They have to be in pain.

James Cameron: That’s right. They have to be in fear.

Charlie Rose: And triumphant.

James Cameron: And triumphant, yes. Right, that’s an element of it, some form of triumph. Some form of triumph, exactly.

Charlie Rose: Whether it’s values, or a victory, something.

James Cameron: Yes. In the case of “Titanic” everybody died, including at the very end of the film the main character. But she lived a life that she had learned. There was an energy transfer from one character to another, which I also think is a fundamental of a love story, that there’s some flow of energy from one character to the other. And so I applied that rule set at a very abstract level to “Avatar,” because it’s a very different story, obviously ‐ different setting, different characters, different goals to the story and to the relationships. But there’s ‐ I think you can step back to a very abstract level of general principles, and if you apply those principles, it will work.

Fear Is Not An Option

In the Reddit AMA, Cameron acknowledges that he has nightmares. It’s bad dreams about killer robots and giant waves that inspired The Terminator and The Abyss, respectively. The movies wound up being catharsis for his fears. But other than that, he believes fear is not an option for filmmakers. “Failure is an option,” however, according to his advice given during a 2010 TED Talk. In the clip from the talk below, he stresses the importance in taking risks, even if failure is possible, because that’s the path to innovation.

Don’t Get High On Your Own Supply

In the list of lessons in creativity given to Fast Company, Cameron has a handful of tips, including one to look for inspiration everywhere and another to only write in isolation. Most unique, though, is this piece of advice titled “Be Merciless on Yourself”:

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.”

He gives the same tip around the same time in an interview with The Independent, and adds to it:

Cameron does not take future success for granted. “I always feel like I carry an audience around in my mind and I can hear them arguing with each other about whether it’s good or not.” He adds: “You’ve got to be merciless on yourself, and don’t get seduced by your own stuff. Don’t get high on your own supply … But on the other hand when you get it right you’ve got to know it, and you’ve got to defend it. You just get it the way that you want it and then the studio wants to tear it apart and ‘fix it’.”

Be An Inspiration

The job of a film director is a job of leadership. While that might be obvious, Cameron puts it best in the 2014 Globe and Mail video below while talking about inspiring his team, whether that team is a film crew or his collaborators in exploration or technology development.

What We Learned

Cameron might be a one-of-a-kind filmmaker, the epitome of craft over creative in many ways but not completely. He’s a scientist in mind and a storyteller at heart, and he’s a doer but also a patient innovator. To follow his lead it’s important to be proactive, gutsy, clear and concise, merciless about yourself, and inspiring to others. Fear is for film characters, not filmmakers. But really, Cameron isn’t that interested in more movie directors coming along anyway. His advice to young people is actually to look into tech careers. Hey, it could still get you a job working for him.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.