During a press opportunity this morning for his new six-part TV series, AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story Of Science Fiction (4/30) director James Cameron let loose on the current “politicizing of science”, his commitment to four Avatar sequels and the effect of the Fox/Disney proposed merger on them, the need for rethinking the themes in his upcoming return to Terminator, and why Oscar may have a prejudice against sci-fi films.
Speaking to journalists at the Manhattan Beach Studios where he has taken over four sound stages and is 100 days into production on Avatar 2 and 3, he described the process of those highly-anticipated sequels while leading a post-tour of his “museum” (featuring models and artifacts from all his films) on an adjoining stage. He described the first two sequels as a “conjoined” effort, saying that he is working on both films simultaneously jumping from one to the other in no particular order. At this point, other than having completed scripts for all four planned sequels, he is focused on the first two only which are currently set for release respectively in December of 2020 and 2021.
As for the top secret details he winked that they are all laid out in another part of the building , “but unless you are Rupert Murdoch you can’t see them”, referring to the Fox kingpin whose studio released the first Avatar in 2009 and made the almost unprecedented deal for the next four (with parts 4 and 5 aimed for 2024 and 2025).
He did throw Disney’s Bob Iger’s name in there in reference to the upcoming sale of 20th Century Fox’s film division to Disney, but said he’s seen nothing since regulatory rules prevent any ultimate Disney involvement in the plans of Fox projects until the deal is approved and completed (at least a year away). Cameron told me his main concern is in getting the first two sequels in theatres and will deal more completely with numbers 4 and 5 after that, adding that he personally is still “fully committed” to the ambitious timetable no matter what happens between Fox and Disney. How this might all fit in with Disney’s Marvel and Star Wars dynasties is anyone’s guess but Cameron is forging ahead, business as usual.
In terms of his story approach to the sequels he is seeing it more in terms of something more familiar to moviegoers. “It’s a family drama, so it’s The Godfather. Obviously a very different genre [and] a very different story but I got intrigued by that idea, so that’s really what it is. It’s a generational family saga very different than the first film. Now, it’s the same type of settings and the same sort of respect for that shock of the new that we want to show you things that not only that you haven’t seen, but you haven’t imagined, ” he said adding the story is not what we might expect. “It’s a continuation of the same characters but what happens when warriors, willing to go on suicide charges and leap off cliffs on to the backs of big orange Toruks, grow up and have their own kids. Now the kids are the change makers. It’s interesting. Everyone is either a parent or they had parents at the very least. If you look at the big successful franchises now they are pretty much uninterested in it. So this could be the seeds of utter damnation and doom for the project or could be the thing that makes it stand apart and continue to be unique. Nobody knows until you make the movie and put it out. Anyone who thinks this is easy or they are just printing money over there at the Avatar studio, it doesn’t work that way.”
Regarding the next announced reboot of the Terminator franchise (for which Cameron directed the first two), he is returning to the fold as producer of the planned summer 2019 release that will be directed by Deadpool’s Tim Miller and will include the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton in the cast among others. It will basically ignore the other sequels and iterations and take up where those first two left off. Cameron noted the need to change directions and keep up with the times and changing attitudes. “We are looking at it differently than when I wrote the first story in 1982. That was just a classic sort of ‘technology bad, smart computers bad’ kind of thing. It’s got to be a much more nuanced perspective now I think, and hopefully we’ll show that ‘smart computers bad but…’ is the new motif,” he laughed.
In terms of the new six-part AMC series which debuts at 10pm (ET/PT) on April 30th, Cameron’s longtime fascination with science fiction and its evolving effects on the planet prompted him to take the time to get involved. He interviews numerous colleagues such as Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott , Guillermo del Toro, George Lucas (whom he noted was customarily reluctant at first and had to be convinced), Christopher Nolan, Schwarzenegger, Sigourney Weaver and others among the 100+ participants in the series described as an attempt to take us “on a journey of discovery and exploration, helping us understand where science fiction’s ideas came from — and where they’re taking us.” It is part of the AMC Visionaries series of documentaries that explore different genres like horror, hip-hop, and comics. In introducing the superstar director AMC/Sundance Channels EVP for unscripted programming Eliot Goldberg said they had a very short list of possibilities and Cameron was the first choice. Cameron said he was very pleased with the way they structured the series, as well as the whole idea of it, and thinks it will appeal even to those who aren’t sci-fi junkies like he and many of those interviewed are. He also thinks the series has real relevance for the times we now find ourselves in.
“The irony is we now live in a science fiction world. We live in a world that would have been very, very hard to predict even twenty or thirty years ago, and we are co-evolving with our own technology. So we are sort of on the cutting edge of a big experiment and consciousness and engineering and technology , and science fiction is kind of our headlights. It helps us see what’s down the road,” he said while adding that his own initial attraction to the genre came very early in the 60s when he was introduced to the films of Ray Harryhausen, Star Trek on TV and others but really made no distinction between sci-fi, horror or fantasy until his interest shifted to sci-fi in particular when he got a telescope at age 9 or 10 which gave him the “sense of wonder”. He notes those colleagues he interviewed shared many of the same influences including, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a theatrical re-release.
Among today’s films in the genre, he singled out the likes of more cerebral entries like Arrival and Ex Machina. He also notes that the big turning point for sci fi’s emergence into the big time was the box office behemoth Star Wars in 1977, elevating the genre into a stratosphere where he said twelve of the top twenty movies of all time are in the sci-fi zone, including of course Avatar. This led me to ask him why the industry itself hasn’t lauded sci-fi in a more specific way other than as a reliable cash cow. Science Fiction still remains one of the few genres not to receive a Best Picture Oscar. Even fantasy has broken through with the likes of Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, and this year’s winner from del Toro, The Shape Of Water which despite an element of sci-fi is described as a fantasy romance and adult fairy tale by its director. The fact is for a director who has worked mostly in sci-fi, his one Best Picture came with the historical epic love story, Titanic (the number two box office success of all time right behind Cameron’s own Avatar which lost the 2009 Best Pic Oscar to The Hurt Locker).
“There is definitely an industry perspective and it is kind of aging-out, and I predict that sometime in the next five to ten years you will have a pure science fiction film win Best Picture. They are getting nominated all the time, Arrival being a recent example. I think it’s shifting as the (Academy) membership that has that prejudice just ages out,” he said. “Science Fiction is kind of a commercial genre. It’s not really an elevated dramatic genre. In fact, it’s a genre as opposed to humanistic storytelling. But I would argue until I am blue in the face that science fiction is the quintessence of being human in a sense. We are technological beings. We are the only truly conscious species that we know of. We are struggling with ourselves over the issue of our own quest for understanding, our own ability to manipulate the fabric of reality, our own technologies blowing back on us and changing the way we behave amongst ourselves and as a civilization. We are living a science fiction reality. So I would say there is nothing more quintessentially human than dealing with these themes, but I agree Hollywood tends to pull short from that. They will reward science fiction films for their accomplishment visually, but they are definitely a kind of red-headed stepchild when it comes to the acting, producing, directing categories.”
As for what Cameron says he is most fearful of in the coming years, the great unknown that science fiction can predict, he didn’t mince words without ever naming names of those in charge currently in Washington D.C. “In a general sense, I am most fearful of the human proclivity for denial. The challenges that face us are really scientific challenges. Climate change is a scientific challenge. We have to credit the science and we have to do something about it. The thing that scares me the most is that we are turning our back on inconvenient science,” he said. “We need to really understand that science is our way through what’s coming at us. It’s too late to go back to the garden. We have to science the shit out of this. We have to think our way out of this. I see people politicizing science and not respecting it as a way to truth. In my universe, it is the only way to truth. The dialogue today is ‘my made — up bullshit versus your made -up bullshit’. To me, the biggest existential challenge is crediting the scientific process — or not — at our peril. And I think the science fiction literature and the pop culture science fiction plays into that. You see negative and positive examples like ‘science gone awry’ or the occasional ‘the scientist is the hero’… But for every hero scientist in a movie, there are always ten mad scientists that are screwing things up with that hubristic thing of ‘I can create new life and control it’. Wrong.”
In addition to the series, there is a companion book available which Cameron says has complete transcripts of all the interviews he personally conducted.