Cameron and his wife Suzy Amis Cameron executive-produced the Sundance Film Festival entry The Game Changers, a documentary that builds a strong case for going vegan by showing how a plant-based diet has benefited elite athletes, weightlifters, and bodybuilders, including Cameron’s friend Arnold Schwarzenegger. In an exclusive interview with Deadline, Cameron says cutting out animal-based protein also changed his life, positively impacting his work on the Avatar franchise.
“The fact that I’ve been eating plant-based for six years, I haven’t been sick one day, I haven’t been sick at all in six years. I haven’t had a sniffle, I haven’t had a flu, a sore throat or anything in six years and that was certainly not the case before that,” he tells Deadline. “I’m now at the age of 63 on this enormous mission to do these [Avatar] films. It’s going to take me another seven or eight years to complete the entire cycle of this project and I feel strong…I started my work sort of full-tilt on the soundstage in the middle of last summer and I’ve got tons of energy and I don’t think I could be doing this if I wasn’t plant-based, not at this age. I think that’s a big factor.”
Oscar-winning filmmaker Louie Psihoyos (The Cove) directed The Game Changers, an acquisition title that debuted in the Sundance Doc Premieres section. The film was produced by Joseph Pace, a nutrition researcher, and James Wilks, a retired mixed martial arts champion and victor of The Ultimate Fighter season 9, who also appears in the documentary.
“I don’t usually dump my own money into movies but we wrote a pretty fat check to get this film going,” Cameron explains. “James Wilks and Joseph Pace brought it to Suzy and myself. We jumped on board. They had a sizzle reel, I showed Arnold [Schwarzenegger] the sizzle reel, got him involved and so on. It built momentum…My creative involvement was only in the earliest stages of this. When Louie Psihoyos — speaking as a director who doesn’t like to be micro-managed by a producer — when you get one of the best documentary directors in the world you turn him loose and you stand way the hell back, which is exactly what I did.”
The film draws on extensive scientific research and the testimony of experts, including cardiologist Dr. Dean Ornish, to demonstrate that a plant-based diet reduces inflammation and the risk of heart disease. In addition, several NFL athletes, among them free agent wide receiver Griff Whalen, participate in an experiment that indicates eating vegan meals can have an immediate effect on blood flow to the male sex organ.
“Suzy and I both encouraged the [filmmakers] to talk about sex because erectile dysfunction — a lot of it is basically a symptom of heart disease,” Cameron reveals. “This is a place where you get men where they live. What’s the point of being a big, strong masculine guy if you can’t do anything [in bed]…Everything else looks big and strong but that muscle’s not working. I thought, all right, if you really want to get people to change you got to tackle this subject.”
The film includes snippets of multiple TV ads aimed at males promoting the idea that real men eat meat.
“The greatest single barrier to entry for men contemplating [a vegan diet]—even for their own health, even if their lives depended on it, if they were facing a quadruple bypass—is this idea that to be a big strong man you have to eat animal flesh. That’s just wrong,” Cameron asserts. “The science shows completely the opposite, that it’s actually really bad for you in almost every way, reduces your performance and that you can achieve the same kind of strength and performance levels and go beyond with plant fuel.”
The Game Changers also makes the point that raising livestock to satisfy the meat diet contributes substantially to greenhouse gas emissions, which most scientists believe are responsible for causing global climate change.
“It’s not only killing us, it’s killing the planet,” Cameron says of meat eating. “The environmental impacts are enormous.”
The director feels strongly enough about the issue that it has influenced the production of the Avatar series (the first sequel is expected to be released in 2020).
“Between the lines, these movies are about our relationship with nature. I always say that the films are about the war between the takers and the caretakers. And the Na’vi are caretakers and those nasty humans are the takers,” Cameron tells Deadline. “If we’re really going to be caretakers of this planet we have to eat like we give a damn. And most of us don’t.”
To change that scenario, Cameron says he made the Avatar set meat-free.
“I sat down with the entire crew — it’s like 130 people — and I said, ‘These films, we’re not just doing them to make money or to make cool, imaginative images and doing amazing animation. We’re doing them for a higher purpose because they mean something. And we have to walk the walk. We have to live our lives, as the people working on this film, consistent with the message of the films. So we’re all going to eat vegan on this production. You could have heard a pin drop in a room with 130 people.”
Cameron says crew members have the option of going to a nearby cafe if they want meat. But the catered meals are vegan.
“I said, ‘Guys, it’s only one meal a day,’” Cameron recalls. “‘We’ll provide good food that’s tasty, that’s stimulating visually and in terms of your taste buds and it’s satisfying and it’s comfort food in the sense that it’s things you recognize—it’s pizza, it’s Italian, it’s Thai, Mexican, it’s all the things you like. It’s just going to be 100-percent plant-based.’ And they basically said, ‘We’ll give it a try.’”
The Game Changers executive producer says minds are changing on the Avatar set.
“I got 130 converts,” he states. “Now they’re not necessarily 100-percent converts but many of them—I’d say the majority of them—have said to me, ‘If this is what eating vegan tastes like, I can do this. I may not do this all the time, but I can do it.’”