James Cameron on spinning sci-fi cheese into gold

Here’s a surprise — James Cameron hosts the new AMC documentary series Visionairies: James Cameron’s story of Science Fiction.

They could have asked my Grade 12 Science teacher to host it, or Larry King, but no, they got Cameron. Smart movie, AMC. The six-part series premieres Monday night at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.

The Canadian-born writer-director is a very good host. He’s extremely knowledgeable on the subject and has many cool friends in the business, with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Will Smith, Paul W. Anderson, Keanu Reeves, Christopher Nolan and many, many others sharing sci-fi stories.

Born in in Northern Ontario in Kapuskasing and raised near Niagara Fall, Ont., Cameron grew up a fan of the cheaply-made sci-fi films of the ’50s and ’60s. He talked about his affection for films such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Forbidden Planet” back in January in Pasadena during the winter TCA press tour.

“If you think about the B movies of the ’50s, the production values were pretty cheesy,” said Cameron. “It’s only in recent years that science fiction technique and technology has really caught up to, I think, the visions of the filmmakers.”

Cameron is finishing up two sequels to his 2009 blockbuster “Avatar” and has two more after that on the drawing board

Cameron started out building sci-fi models for indie filmmaker Roger Corman, where cheese was spun into gold.

“Working for Roger Corman, you learn how to do a lot with a little,” said Cameron. “I kind of famously populated the walls of a spaceship interior with McDonald’s foldout styrofoam breakfast trays. If you line them all up kind of with a chalk line, they actually made a really nice ‑‑ kind of Vacuformed wall section. So you learn to improvise, and I’m sure that was true back in the ’50s and through the early ’60s for the science fiction shows that were on television.”

No kidding. There were episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea that looked like the crew were battling people wearing large. green garbage bags.

Many sci-fi films made in the ’60s and ’70s were also, as Cameron put it, “triumphs of style over budget.” He singled out George Lucas’s first film, “THX 1138,” and the 1975 Don Johnson film “A Boy and His Dog” as two other films that “forced people to be innovative.”

Cameron faced the same challenge on his first major release, “The Terminator.” The feature was made for $4.5 below the line, not a lot of money even in 1984 dollars. “So we had to shoot kind of guerilla style,” Cameron told reporters. “We used available light. I would go out with the director of photography with a light meter, and we’d drive around town until we found streetlights that were brighter.  We found the brightest streetlights, and we’d shoot on those streets because we couldn’t afford lights.”

Later, when he was shooting last-minute inserts, Cameron needed a shot of the Terminator standing outside a door and opening it. “And I didn’t have Arnold, and I didn’t have a set, and I didn’t have anything,” said Cameron, who also had to take the camera he had rented back the next day. [Said the camera to the rental equipment store — “I’ll be baack.”] He also did not have the black boots Schwarzenegger wore in the movie in order to match the shot. “So I put black tape on my office PA’s penny loafer shoes and took the 85A filter out that turned the sunlight blue so it made it look like night, stopped way the hell down, focused in on a hundred‑millimeter lens on the tip of his shoe and just opened the sliding door to my office, and that shot is in the movie.”

Hey, you do what you’ve got to do. For more on Cameron and AMC’s Visionairies: Science Fiction series, follow this link to a feature I wrote for The Canadian Press.

Leave a Reply