Best director nominee James Cameron (“Avatar”) added to his crowded mantelpiece and healthy ego on Saturday night when the Santa Barbara International Film Festival bestowed upon him its highest honor, the Modern Master Award. The part-time Santa Barbara resident has attended the festival before — once to receive an honor for his underwater documentaries, and another time to present former vice president Al Gore with an honor for “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006) — but this was the first time that the festival devoted an entire evening to celebrating his career, and he was clearly in his element.
Film critic/author Leonard Maltin was initially thrown for a loop when Cameron took the stage and immediately began delivering his acceptance speech, something that usually follows the Q&A portion of SBIFF tributes. Maltin eventually interrupted Cameron to clarify the situation, at which time Cameron insisted that he had only been following the instructions he had been given by someone backstage but apologized for the confusion and sat down for the Q&A. The Q&A inexplicably jumped all over the place until it arrived at “The Terminator” (1984), when it finally became clear why things seemed rushed: Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California and the man whom Cameron had turned from an Austrian bodybuilder into a major movie star, strode out onto the stage, presented his close friend with his award, told the audience his iconic line from the film (“I’ll be back”), and then departed for the airport to catch a plane back to Sacramento.
At this point, the Q&A portion resumed, and Cameron made the following comments (some of which were insightful and others of which came across as a bit arrogant, although I suppose that someone who has achieved as much as Cameron has is entitled to a little arrogance)…
- “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), he says, “was — and still is — my favorite movie,” in part because of its employment of cutting-edge technical wizardry (it morphs a black-and-white world into a world of Technicolor) and in aprt because it features “both beauty and terror,” both things that he strives to include in his films, too.
- As a youngster, he “couldn’t decide if I wanted to write or I wanted to draw,” and then, in his 20s, realized that he could do both by telling stories with pictures on film.
- Before becoming a filmmaker, he spent his weekdays driving a truck, and his off-hours photocopying hundreds of pages from film-related books, magazines, and even college theses, through which he taught himself a great deal about the technical terminology and techniques of filmmaking.
- Spent some time working as a “model builder” and “art director” for B-movie king/recent honorary Oscar recipient Roger Corman, during which he learned that “you need other people to accomplish anything.”
- On screenwriting, he candidly says, “I like having written. I don’t like writing.” He also adds, “If you can’t make yourself cry, how can you expect someone else to have an emotional reaction?”
- “I made ‘Titanic’ (1997) because I wanted to dive the shipwreck.”
- While making “Titanic,” “It was fun knowing that were doing something that hadn’t been done… that’s been true on really every one of the films… I don’t really think of how impossible these things are before the fact… I just take them on.”
- Reveals that in “Titanic,” 1 in 5 people in the scene in which the ship sinks were actually licensed lifeguards dressed in period costumes.
- Of the scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio shouts, “I’m the king of the world!,” says he initially asked the actor — via walkie-talkie, since DiCaprio was in a basket high above the ground — to try a variety of other ways to convey his excitement at the situation before suggesting “I’m the king of the world!” Cameron adds, “Of course, I got in a lot of trouble with that line later,” referring to his awkward acceptance speech after winning the best director Oscar for the film. “He sold it. I didn’t sell it.”
- Made several underwater documentaries between “Titanic” and “Avatar,” including “Aliens of the Deep” (2005), because “I wanted to make science aspirational for kids.”
- While going underwater to explore the “Titanic” shipwreck, “I made a vow to myself to shoot my next film in 3-D.”
- “Good films are always personal films, no matter what their scale… ‘Avatar’ was certainly a personal film for me.”
- Regarding “Avatar,” says he first thought of and wrote the story (about 100 pages) in two to three weeks in 1995; then left it for other projects; returned to it in May 2005, whereupon he spent two years working on the design of the CGI-created creatures and world and developing the technology to bring it to life (the simulcamera, eMotion capture, etc.); then started wroking with his actors in April 2007, spending one year on principal photography; and then spent 2 years working on post-production, which involved over 2600 tech shots
- To prepare for “Avatar,” he read extensively about the conquest of New Spain and the history of the American West (and especially the genocide and displacement of the horse clans of the plains)
- Somewhat surprisingly volunteers, “I don’t make movies for iPhones, but if you’re making a good film it should be scalable.”
- Of his film’s nine Oscar nominations he says, “Do I need another trophy? No, I don’t. But I’m proud for the team, which feels a sense of validation.”
- Besides, he says, when receiving awards, “I usually do something stupid like yell ‘I’m the King of the World’ and jump around.”
Photo: James Cameron accepts the SBIFF’s Modern Master Award from Arnold Schwarzenegger.