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An audacious visionary who developed new film technologies midstream in order to turn his creative visions into reality, director James Cameron was credited with single-handedly resurrecting a once-dead science fiction genre, thanks to the timeless success of "The Terminator" (1984) and "Aliens" (1986). Tales of his volcanic temper on the set of the groundbreaking deep sea adventure "The Abyss" (1989), combined with its astronomical budget and relatively disappointing box-office performance, earned Cameron a reputation as one of Hollywood's most ambitious, but problematic directors. Reteaming with Arnold Schwarzenegger, he proved himself worth the risk with the back-to-back blockbusters, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991) and "True Lies" (1994). Combining his passion for oceanic exploration and technology with his love of movies, he advanced underwater filmmaking to a remarkable degree. Despite his penchant for aliens of the deep and outer space, it was "Titanic" (1997) - a period romance based on the infamous ocean liner tragedy - that cemented Cameron as a director for the ages. "Titanic" was a seminal event in cinema in terms of size, scope and commercial success, quickly becoming the highest-grossing film of all time until it was bumped to No. 2 by Cameron's next film, the 3D sci-fi epic, "Avatar" (2009). In addition to his remarkable achievements outside of film, Cameron was inarguably one of the most proficient, admired and, above all, successful directors in Hollywood history.
James Francis Cameron was born on Aug. 16, 1954 in Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada to Philip, an electrical engineer, and Shirley, a painter. The family later crossed the border to live, first in Niagara Falls, NY, then later in Brea, CA. As a youngster, he was interested in astronomy and science fiction, even penning his own short stories. After boasting as a nine-year-old that he could make a better movie than "King Kong vs. Godzilla" (1962), Cameron began taking a deeper interest in film. Meanwhile, he developed an obsession for building rockets and airplanes from junk piles; skills that later translated into building models on set. A voracious reader, Cameron consumed books as a child, making him verbally and mentally precocious enough to skip a grade in school. But his most significant moment came when he saw Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). Cameron reportedly saw the movie 10 times and was inspired to experiment with his father's Super-8 camera. After high school, he enrolled at California State University-Fullerton, where he studied physics for a year, before dropping out to marry a waitress, drive trucks and smoke pot. Despite his slip into a mundane blue collar life, Cameron remained obsessed with movies.
It was following a viewing of George Lucas' "Star Wars" (1977) that Cameron decided he should be making his own epics. He left his job - and his waitress wife, Sharon Williams - to move to Los Angeles and start working in the entertainment industry. Cameron made his first foray into filmmaking with "Xenogenesis" (1978), a 12-minute sci-fi short that proved his competence with special effects, while demonstrating a need for him to develop other filmmaking skills, namely story, character and dialogue. Because of "Xenogenesis," however, Cameron landed a job in the model department of Roger Corman's production company, New World Pictures. Corman's low-budget film factory was the perfect place for Cameron to further develop his craft; he performed a variety of functions, rising from art director on "Battle Beyond the Stars" (1980) to production designer and second unit director on "Galaxy of Terror" (1981). He even directed his first film, "Piranha II: The Spawning" (1981). An unfortunate experience for Cameron, he suffered through working with a crew that spoke only Italian, as well as a slim-to-nothing budget.
If there was one positive result of the chaotic production, it was a nightmare Cameron had of a robot assassin from the future, which lead him to write his first screenplay, "The Terminator" (1984). He made friends with Corman's head of marketing, Gale Anne Hurd, whom Cameron later married and convinced to buy the script for one dollar - but on the sole condition that he direct the film. With a budget of around $6.5 million and boasting sleek compositions, expertly edited action sequences, and a career-making performance by heretofore bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, "The Terminator" was not just a critical and commercial triumph, but a seminal event in cinema that marked the dawn of a new era of action movies. Many storytelling devices that later became Cameron hallmarks were already present, including a strong plot, compelling characters - particularly the female lead - and a seriousness of purpose. His approach to the almost-mythical material was witty without being campy, while he never undermined the imagery and situations by trumpeting their allusions.
Early in his career, Cameron wrote films that others directed, including the script for "Rambo: First Blood II" (1985), a revisionist war fantasy that saw Vietnam vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) released from federal prison and sent back to Southeast Asia to rescue a group of forgotten POWs. But he returned to the director's chair for "Aliens" (1986), the sequel to the 1979 sci-fi/horror film directed by Ridley Scott. At the time Cameron was pushing to make the film, few people inside 20th Century Fox were interested in digging up those old bones, especially since it had been filmed to perfection the first time. But Cameron's passion for the project - he felt the original was the best science fiction/horror movie ever made - helped turn opinions inside the studio around. Once he received the green light, Cameron started by fashioning a story around the only character to survive the first movie, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), turning her into a one-woman vigilante who takes on the alien monsters instead of merely reacting and trying to survive. By giving Ripley a child to look after in Newt (Carrie Henn), he also played up the maternal instincts of both Ripley, and, surprisingly, the Alien Queen herself, who was just as protective of her own offspring. He also changed the overall tone of the film from suspense thriller to heart-pumping movie, giving fans of the genre the first believable female action hero. The end result was a box office smash that many considered superior to Scott's original and which spawned one of the most famous movie lines in history, with Ripley's snarling declaration to the Alien Queen: "Get away from her, you bitch!" The film also snared a Best Actress nod at the Academy Awards for Weaver, and took home two Oscars for Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Visual Effects.
With two great films that outperformed all box office expectations under his belt, Cameron seemed poised to ride his success into his fourth feature, "The Abyss" (1989), an aptly-named underwater thriller that saw the director throw good money after bad down a bottomless pit. "The Abyss" followed a team of civilian scuba divers, including Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, tasked by the U.S. Navy to rescue a nuclear submarine at the bottom of the Caribbean. But a series of strange encounters underwater lead to the discovery of an alien species living in the deep ocean. During the shoot, cost overruns and three canceled release dates had the suits at Fox Studios biting fingernails, though Cameron himself remained largely free of blame; he was, after all, trying to make a movie that no one else had really tried before. However, the shoot later gained a bit of infamy for the tense state of affairs between the cast and Cameron, due, in no small part to the stress-inducing, claustrophobic underwater shots, which were filmed in the containment building of an unfinished nuclear power plant in South Carolina. It took seven million gallons of water to fill the tank to a depth of 13 meters, making it the largest underwater set ever. The depth and length of time spent underwater meant that the cast and crew had to sometimes go through decompression - a process in which Cameron famously hung upside down, decompressing and watching dailies at the same time. Following such a brutal production - during which, Harris and Mastrantonio clashed with Cameron often - both actors refused to do press for the film, publicly stating that they would never work with Cameron again. Unfortunately, amidst middling reviews, "The Abyss" suffered poor box office returns as well, giving the director his first taste of failure. Meanwhile in his personal life, Cameron and Hurd divorced - a personal setback famously compared to the onscreen marital problems of Harris and Mastrantonio. But "The Abyss" was not a total loss. It was nominated for four technical Academy Awards and won for Best Visual Effects, in which some of the first CGI special effects in the form of a water tentacle were utilized.
In 1990, Cameron and former Vestron production executive Larry Kasanoff formed Lightstorm Entertainment, a production company where the director could have more freedom to make the movies he wanted. The first movie to come out of Lightstorm was "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991), the eagerly awaited sequel to "Terminator," which recast Arnold Schwarzenegger's robotic assassin as the protector of John Connor (Edward Furlong), a young boy who grows up to lead a human resistance against the rise of the machines in 2029. "T2" offered some of the most groundbreaking and eye-popping visual effects of its day, especially the computer-generated morphing that transformed actor Robert Patrick's T-1000 terminator into a liquefied and unstoppable destructive force. Described by Cameron as a "violent movie about world peace," the film earned over $200 million in domestic box office and won Oscar Awards for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Makeup and Best Sound Effects Editing. Meanwhile, the success of "T2" led to Lightstorm signing an exclusive five-year, 12-picture financing distribution deal with 20th-Century Fox worth over $500 million. On a both a personal and professional note, Cameron also found time to produce Katherine Bigelow's adrenaline-rushed feature "Point Break" in 1991. Married from 1989-1991, Bigelow had been Cameron's third wife. The tempestuous but loyal Cameron would move from behind-the-scenes match-making, to camera ready wives, marrying his films' stars Linda Hamilton of "Terminator 2" fame from 1997-99 and "Titanic" player Suzi Amos in 2000.
In April 1993, Cameron founded a second company, Digital Domain, with former Industrial Light and Magic staffer Scott Ross and creature-maker/special makeup effects artist, Stan Winston. Its mission was to handle the full spectrum of visual effects, with an über-emphasis on computer-generated imagery. Back in the director's chair, Cameron teamed up with Schwarzenegger again for "True Lies" (1994), a mock James Bondesque yarn about an apparently humdrum husband who is actually a secret agent, while his suspicious wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) remains convinced he leads a double life. Described by Cameron as a "domestic epic," the big-budget actioner was loosely based on the French comedy "La Totale!" (1991). Production costs on "True Lies" exceeded the $60 million budget, forcing Cameron to scramble for financing and to restructure Lightstorm's lucrative deal with Fox. Though reviewers and audiences were divided over the merits of several comedy sequences, most everyone was blown away by the over-the-top stunts and visual effects. Once again, Cameron helmed a solid hit that managed to turn a healthy profit, despite its Olympian budget.
After co-producing and co-writing Bigelow's futuristic noir "Strange Days" (1995), Cameron firmly cemented his legend with "Titanic" (1997), the biggest, costliest, and ultimately, most successful movie ever made. First inspired to make the project in 1987 after seeing a National Geographic documentary on the doomed ship, Cameron ultimately devoted almost two years of his life to making the film, driving himself and his cast and crew to near exhaustion along the way. He began by submerging to the actual wreck to shoot footage to be used in the film. Cameron's quest for authenticity led him to Rosarito, Baja, Mexico, where he built a large tank next to the ocean and a model of the Titanic that was built 90 percent to scale. Almost from the start, the media was on Cameron's case about whether or not the film would be a commercial success or sink like the ill-fated ocean liner itself. Naturally, many of the claims made in the press were exaggerations, though Cameron and company experienced a great deal of setbacks, including an incident where someone spiked the onset food with PCP, poisoning Cameron and other crew members. The culprit was never discovered. On the other hand, typical cost overruns exploded to the point where Fox reached out to Paramount Studios to help with the over $200 million budget. Pushing the release date from June to December 1997 only fueled speculation that Cameron's movie was doomed - a prospect that sent many a studio representative south of the border to find out what was going on down there. In typical Cameron style, he would more often than not scare the hell out of the messenger, sending them scurrying back to their respective studio heads with nothing new to report. In fact, Cameron became so obsessed with the authenticity of his film - down to the White Star Line dishware insignia being authentic - and his insistence on zero studio interference, that when the budget became a seemingly insurmountable object, the renegade director decided to forgo his own paycheck.
With more ink spilled on "Titanic" than blood at Gettysburg, it was no small wonder that there was enough interest left in the viewing public, which was already bombarded with tales of its inevitable demise. But instead of staying home, audiences turned out in droves, equally drawn by the spectacle of the sinking ship and the romance between Rose (Kate Winslet), a society woman dreading her impeding marriage to a rich blowhard (Billy Zane), and Jack, a struggling artist traveling third class after winning passage in a card game. Miserable to the point of suicide, Rose intends to throw herself over the railing into the ocean, only to be rescued by Jack. In short order, the two find themselves falling in love, but the affair comes to a tragic end when the ship hits an iceberg and plunges into the icy deep. Thanks to repeat theatergoers - particularly the teenage girls who were smitten with DiCaprio - "Titanic" became the most successful movie ever made, pulling in a ridiculous $600 million in domestic box office and over $1 billion worldwide - the first film to ever to hit the 10-figure mark. Meanwhile, the film received 14 Academy Award nominations, matching a record held only by "All About Eve" (1950), and went on to tie "Ben-Hur" (1959) with 11 wins, including Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. When accepting his win for Best Director, Cameron held his golden statue aloft, aping one of Jack's lines from the film: "I'm king of the world!" It would become an infamous moment he would never be able to live down.
In the wake of "Titanic," Cameron took over 10 years to make another film. In between that time, he made his first foray into television, serving as creator and executive producer of "Dark Angel" (Fox, 2000-02), a cyberpunk sci-fi series about Max (Jessica Alba), a genetically-altered human engineered to be a super-soldier, who has escaped her military handlers in order to fight the ruthless powerbrokers ruling futuristic society. Though well-received by critics and possessing a strong following, "Dark Angel" was canceled after only two seasons, due to an enormous budget and low ratings. The show did, however, generate spin-offs and video games, as well as introduce Jessica Alba to the world. After serving as executive producer on director Steven Soderbergh's remake of "Solaris" (2002), Cameron turned his passion for deep sea diving and exploring the world's most remote and inhospitable environments into films. As both producer and director, he mounted explorations that were later chronicled in several fascinating documentaries, including "James Cameron's Expedition: Bismark" (2002), a stunning adventure to the bottom of the Atlantic that provided the first-ever glimpse of The Bismark, the famed Nazi warship that cut a swath of destruction during World War II, until it was finally sunk by two British battleships after only nine days of operation. Plunging some 16,000 feet into the depths of the ocean, Cameron and his crew risked their own lives in obtaining the amazing footage.Their efforts were rewarded with five Emmy Awards nominations in 2003, including one for Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming.
Returning to the inspiration that made him one of the most celebrated directors of his era, Cameron directed his second documentary, "Ghosts of the Abyss" (2003), a 3-D IMAX journey to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to find the final resting place of the ill-fated Titanic. With a team of history experts and deep sea explorers, Cameron and friend (as well as "Titanic" star) Bill Paxton used equipment specially designed for the voyage to explore the ins and outs of wreckage in ways never before captured on film. In fact, Cameron's aeronautical engineer brother, Mike, had been integral in not only creating deep sea diving technology to shoot the famous wreck for his brother's feature film, but the documentary as well. Mixed in with the dramatic documentary footage, were staged reenactments of what transpired on the ship before it sank. Cameron next served as executive producer on another IMAX adventure, "Volcanoes of the Deep" (2005), a brief, but exciting look at the untold world of underwater volcanoes and the thriving ecosystem surrounding them. For "Aliens of the Deep" (2005), yet another deep sea exploration made for IMAX theaters, Cameron joined forces with marine biologists and NASA scientists to explore the Mid-Ocean Ridge, a submerged chain of mountains deep below the surface that were home to the planet's most bizarre life forms. Cameron used the biological makeup of these strange creatures as a jump-off point for a speculative look on what life might be like on other planets.
In a return to news-making form, the director made headlines in 2007 when he announced in February, that he, along with his director, Simcha Jacobovici, had documented the unearthing of the Talpiot Tomb, which was alleged to be the tomb of Jesus. Unearthed in 1980 by Israeli construction workers, the names on the tomb - at the insistence of Cameron - correlated with the names of Jesus and several individuals closely associated with him. Cameron further claimed to have DNA tests, archaeological evidence, and Biblical studies to back up his claim. The documentary, named "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," was broadcast on the Discovery Channel in March of that year. After making amusing appearances in episodes of "Entourage" in 2005-06 (HBO, 2005-11), in which he turns actor Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) into an action hero on the fictional feature film, "Aquaman," Cameron finally returned to feature filmmaking with "Avatar" (2009), a futuristic sci-fi adventure about a band of humans battling a distant planet's indigenous population, with his long-awaited return to helming a film being chronicled near religiously in the sci-fi blogs of the world. Once again, Cameron was at the forefront of filmmaking innovation by using an advanced form of performance capture for the 3-D alien world he created. With an estimated budget well over $300 million, "Avatar" became the most expensive movie ever made, leading critics to think - and some to hope - that his latest opus would flop at the box office.
But with the advance buzz indicating he had another hit on his hands, Cameron began earning critical kudos for another exemplary job well done. After it was confirmed that "Avatar" had become the second highest-grossing film of all time, right behind his own "Titanic," Cameron found himself nominated for numerous awards, including a Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Achievement in a Feature Film, putting him in direct competition with ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, who was nominated for "The Hurt Locker" (2009). He would win the Best Director Golden Globe over Bigelow in early 2010, graciously mentioning her in his acceptance speech, but he lost the DGA award to her. By the time Oscar nominations were being announced, "Avatar" had surpassed his own "Titanic" as the biggest moneymaker of all time. But it did fall short of the 14 Oscar nominations "Titanic" received in 1997, taking in a total of nine that included nods for Best Picture and Best Director for Cameron, who again lost to his ex-wife.
By now a respected innovator in the realm of deep sea technologies, Cameron met with members of the Environmental Protection Agency in the wake of British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon oil spill catastrophe in the summer of 2010. After making his recommendations on how to go about cleaning up the spill, Cameron, sensing his advice would go unheeded, raised eyebrows when he publicly referred to the EPA representatives as "morons," stating that they "don't know what they're doing." Later, the filmmaker also noted the irony in the fact that the government eventually - belatedly, in his opinion - did almost exactly what he had first suggested. Operating in an arena where his sage advice and experience was sure to be more appreciated, Cameron served as executive producer on the 3-D movie, "Sanctum" (2011), an adventure tale about a group of divers trapped in a massive underwater cave system.
The following year, Cameron's personal legend grew to even greater heights. In March 2012, after previously journeying to the bottom of the New Britain Trench in a solo dive aboard the submersible, Deepsea Challenger, Cameron became the first person ever to make a solo trip to the lowest depths of the fabled Mariana Trench, in an area referred to as Challenger Deep. At the same time he was diving seven miles down, the 100th anniversary of the great nautical tragedy was noted by the rerelease of "Titanic" in April 2012, with Cameron having overseen the film's transfer to eye-popping 3-D. For a 14-year-old film which had long occupied shelf space in the homes of millions, "Titanic: 3-D" opened in an impressive third place, up against current blockbusters like "The Hunger Games" (2012). The original historic event was also marked by the television documentary, "Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron" (National Geographic Channel, 2012), in which expert historians, architects, engineers and Cameron himself, provided the ultimate examination of the ship's sinking, aided by recent technological advancements.
By Shawn Dwyer
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At age 12, wrote a short story that was reportedly a precursor for "The Abyss"
Inspired to become a filmmaker after seeing "Star Wars"
Credited as set dresser assistant on "Happy Birthday, Gemini"
First film as art director, "Battle Beyond the Stars"
Feature debut as production designer and second unit director, "Galaxy of Terror"
Feature directing debut, "Piranha II: The Spawning/Piranha II: Flying Killers"
Gained recognition with feature screenwriting and directing debut, "The Terminator"; co-wrote with producer and future wife Gale Anne Hurd
Co-wrote (with Sylvester Stallone) the hugely successful "Rambo: First Blood II"
Co-wrote and directed the sequel to "Alien" titled "Aliens," again starring Sigourney Weaver
Wrote and directed "The Abyss," which used cutting-edge effects technology
Formed production company Lightstorm Entertainment Inc.
Produced, directed and scripted the blockbuster sequel "Terminator 2: Judgment Day"
Lightstorm signed an exclusive five-year, 12-picture distribution deal with 20th Century Fox
Founded the special effects company Digital Domain with Stan Winston and Scott Ross to further develop the field of digital FX
Released a "restored" print of "The Abyss" including approximately 27 minutes of scenes omitted from the original
Wrote, produced, and directed the action-comedy "True Lies"; the first film release under Lightstorm Entertainment
Provided the story and served as a producer on "Strange Days"; directed by ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow
Became the first feature film director to shoot underwater footage of the wreck of the Titanic; used a specially-designed, state-of-the-art camera encased in titanium; footage was incorporated into the feature "Titanic"
Co-edited, co-produced, wrote and directed the lavish spectacle "Titanic"; reported to be the most expensive film made to date (budgeted at $200 million), went on to become the top grossing film in history; film received 14 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing; awarded 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, tying the record set by 1959's "Ben-Hur"
With Stan Winston, resigned from board of Digital Domain
Executive produced and co-wrote the Fox drama series "Dark Angel"; helmed the finale of the 2001-02 season
Appeared as himself on several episodes of the hit HBO comedy "Entourage," directing a big screen version of the comic book hero Aquaman starring Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier)
Returned to directing features with the 3-D sci-fi epic film "Avatar"; earned a Directors Guild nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement and Oscar nominations for Directing, Film Editing and Producing
Completed the world's first solo dive to the deepest-known point on Earth, reaching the bottom of the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench southwest of Guam in a specially designed submarine.