TORONTO – As a teenager growing up in a small town near Niagara Falls, Ont., James Cameron felt he had a better chance of going to the moon than becoming a Hollywood filmmaker.
“It just seemed so impossible that a kid growing up in a little rural village in Canada of 1,200 people could go to Hollywood and actually make movies,” says Cameron, who was born in the northern Ontario town of Kapuskasing. “I hadn’t made that cognitive leap yet.”
The Oscar-winning writer/director eventually made that leap in a spectacular way. His string of money-making sci-fi hits started with “The Terminator” in 1984 and includes “Aliens,” “The Abyss” and the biggest box office success of them all, “Avatar” (2009). Along the way came the multiple Oscar-winning hit “Titanic” (1997).
Known also for his underwater explorations, he’s an apt host for the six-part documentary series “Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction,” premiering Monday, April 30 on AMC. The entertaining series is packed with clips from such sci-fi classics as “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Arrival” and several others.
The 63-year-old told reporters gathered earlier this year in Pasadena, Calif., that he first picked up a movie camera at 16 to complete a high school geography project.
“I went out and made a Super 8 film about the city that I lived in,” he says of Niagara Falls. It was the first time he ever put his name on anything as a director. “After that,” he says, “everything was just negotiating price.”
Cameron took the bold step to move to Los Angeles when he was 17. It was a dozen years before he made his Hollywood breakthrough with “The Terminator.”
The star of that film, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is one of the 100 science fiction industry players featured in AMC’s tribute to the genre, which also includes Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Paul W. Anderson and Christopher Nolan. Actors Keanu Reeves, Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith and Sigourney Weaver also weigh in.
Cameron credits Spielberg with sparking “an alternate religion” by bringing sci-fi to the masses. Spielberg is more modest about the motives behind his early directorial efforts. In Episode 1 of the series, he explains that his 1977 blockbuster “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was simply “a story about my mom and dad getting a divorce.”
Science fiction films and TV shows aren’t all about robots and aliens, says Cameron. He cites “The Handmaid’s Tale” as “pure science fiction” in its depiction of women’s role in society “through the lens of a kind of totalitarian, fascist state.”
On the other end of the scale, says Cameron, are, “the big, fun, epic kind of spectacles like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.'” Even those thrill ride films make some comment of society’s values, he contends.
The low-budget, sci-fi films of the ’50s were a great inspiration to Cameron. In his twenties, as a model maker for indie trailblazer Roger Corman, the future director proved his own resourcefulness by fashioning several dozen McDonald’s foldout Styrofoam breakfast trays into a spaceship interior. “If you lined them all up with a chalk line,” he says, “they kind of looked like a Vacuformed wall section.”
He was 30 by the time “The Terminator” was released, a film that looked expensive but was really low budget. Cameron and his director of photography searched Los Angeles at night for brightly lit streets. “We’d shoot on those streets because we couldn’t afford lights.”
Things were much different by time he made “Avatar” — the movie’s budget soared well past the US$300 million mark when it was released in 2009. The fact it remains the highest-grossing film of all time, earning an estimated US$2.74 billion worldwide, is a big reason why the director is busy completing two sequels.
Cameron admits that, given the size of these new budgets, “We can’t afford for it not to work.” Still, he’s convinced that “you always have to give yourself permission as an artist to fail no matter what the stakes are. You’ve got to try stuff. The least safe thing you can do is try to be safe.”
-Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.