The scene is the National Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour. With a submarine and a small flotilla docked outside, legendary Hollywood filmmaker James Cameron is launching his latest movie.
But instead of making this one, the writer, director and producer of the two biggest hits in cinema history, Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), is starring in a documentary about a real-life adventure. In Deepsea Challenge 3D, he is the fiercely determined, sometimes emotional, sometimes just frustrated leader of an expedition to the deepest part of the world’s oceans two years ago.
After his team built a small submersible – in an anonymous engineering workshop in Sydney’s inner west – Cameron dived solo to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, almost 11 kilometres below the surface of the northern Pacific Ocean.
Only one other expedition had gone that deep – the US navy bathyscaphe Trieste in 1962. There was always a risk of disaster; the submersible could have imploded under the extreme pressure or a systems failure could have stranded Cameron too deep to be rescued.
All of which raises a big question: what drives James Cameron?
As he takes on a six-year project to make three Avatar sequels, the Canadian filmmaker’s career is already full of triumphs. Look at the movies he made even before rewriting box office records twice: The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and True Lies (1994). He has long had everything anyone could possibly want: a family (with fifth wife, Titanic actress Suzy Amis), fabulous wealth (he earned an estimated $US257 million in 2010), health, fame and three Oscars.
Yet he still risked his life exploring the ocean floor.
‘‘I guess it’s innate,’’ Cameron says. ‘‘It’s a DNA thing, probably. I’ve always been that way. I don’t think of it as driven. I think of it as active, curious, wanting to build things, wanting to understand things.
‘‘I don’t sit still. As much as I love movies, I don’t sit passively in front of a TV all day long. When I see something that intrigues me, I want to respond to it artistically, either by writing or drawing or making a film. I think it’s in the hard-wiring as it is with any artist or any filmmaker.’’
Lean, fit and direct, Cameron is not fazed – publicly anyway – about turning 60 on August 16. ‘‘I feel good about it,’’ he says. ‘‘If you’d asked me when I was 30, I would have thought, 'Your life’s over. Just get in the box, get on with it'. But I went 100 per cent plant-based – vegan – two-and-a-half years ago. I’ve got tons of energy. I’m fitter now. I’m running farther than I did when I was in my twenties. So I’m good to go.’’
Who could doubt him? Cameron, who quit his job driving trucks and writing on the side to make his own sci-fi short film after seeing Star Wars in 1977, was reputedly the first director to make a movie costing $US100 million with True Lies. Then he was the first to make one costing $US200 million with Titanic. He created the groundbreaking liquid metal special effects on Terminator 2 and a new 3D system on Avatar.
As well as his Hollywood blockbusters, he has made a series of undersea documentaries including Expedition: Bismarck (2002), Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) and Aliens of the Deep (2005).
Stories about how hard he drives himself and his filmmaking colleagues are legion. He once had three desks set up in his house so he could work on the scripts for The Terminator, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Aliens. His shoot for The Abyss was so gruelling that actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had a physical and emotional breakdown. And when there was controversy about Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, Golden Globes host Amy Poehler joked that ‘‘when it comes to torture, I trust the woman who spent three years married to James Cameron".
The man himself says he probably deserved the reputation for being ferociously demanding on set 25 years ago.
‘‘The deep ocean expeditions, of which this is the eighth, have taught me an awful lot about leadership and getting the best out of people,’’ he says. ‘‘People like to bandy around the term ‘perfectionist’. But there’s no such thing as perfection either in filmmaking or in an expedition. There’s only what can you do that’s the best you can do, with these people in this situation at this moment. That’s what you go for.’’
His interest in science and science-fiction dates back to his childhood in a small Canadian town of 1500 people. ‘‘I was always out in the woods, tromping around, collecting snakes and frogs and collecting pond water and putting it under my microscope,’’ he says. ‘‘My parents got me a little Tasco microscope when I was eight years old and I learned how to stain slides.
‘‘I was a science nerd from the get-go. I think it was this fundamental quest to understand the natural world.
"All kids are scientists when they’re a year old. They’re trying to figure out how the world works. I think it fades for some people. For others, it gets beaten out of them by societal peer pressure and by the educational system, which doesn’t reward curiosity and critical thinking. So I think it requires a little bit of a maverick gene to go against that.’’
Cameron says the idea of being a filmmaker never entered his head when he was growing up. ‘‘But I was painting, I was drawing, I was writing – I had the narrative drive. I was building my own robots out of cardboard boxes, so I had the engineering drive.
‘‘Eventually they had to converge and filmmaking is the technical artistic medium. You can write with a pen or a typewriter or a laptop. But if you want to make films, you’ve got to understand computers and lenses and light and all that sort of thing. So that’s where I really found my niche.’’
One of the surprises of Deepsea Challenge 3D is learning how much Cameron considers himself an explorer as well as a filmmaker.
He worked with Australian engineer Ron Allum for seven years to build a submersible capable of handling the extreme pressure almost 11 kilometres down. They tested it firstly in a metre of water in Sydney Harbour, then deeper in Jervis Bay and then on a succession of deeper dives.
Watching the documentary, directed by John Bruno, Andrew Wight and Ray Quint, you have to wonder why Cameron put his own life ahead of ensuring he was alive for his family. "Anybody who’s a father, a husband, has a family, is going to think that way,’’ he says, not missing a beat. ‘‘There are billions of people on this planet that think that way. So the question is: how do you weigh that kind of explorer impulse to do your own thing and go beyond the pale of normal experience with that?
‘‘I think there’s a very valid rationalisation, which is that you’ve got to not only provide for your children, you have to create an example for them to how to live their lives. I want my five kids to live boldly. Not recklessly but boldly, not limited. I want them to follow their dreams.
‘‘They don’t have to be ocean explorers – they probably won’t – but I want then to live without fear. Healthy caution, yes.
"When I’m with the kids, they’re wearing helmets when they ride their bikes. I don’t teach them recklessness. I teach them caution. But I also teach them to be bold. I think that that example is important.’’
But Cameron was badly shaken up when up when two of his team, Australian producer-director Andrew Wight and American cinematographer Mike deGruy, were killed in a helicopter crash near Berry while preparing to film a dive.
He vividly remembers hearing about the crash while on deck in Jervis Bay. ‘‘I’m a helicopter pilot myself and I’d flown with Andrew in that helicopter before. I said, 'All right, if it happened on take-off' – which is what we’d heard – 'they’re probably fine. They’re probably just standing there beside a broken helicopter kicking themselves for being dumb', because these are low-speed impacts. Helicopter crashes are very, very survivable compared to plane crashes. But that’s not what happened because it burst into flames on impact.
"As I was driving there, I started to get a fuller picture from people that were eyewitnesses. By the time I rolled up, I knew it was a fatality scene so my heart was just sinking farther and farther.’’
Cameron describes calling Wight’s wife as probably the hardest thing he has ever done in his life.
‘‘The next day it started to hit me: what if somebody had to call my wife and tell her something like that? Here we were, taking what a lot of people would consider to be a very reckless risk. I didn’t consider it that way because we’d been working on the project for seven years, mitigating through our engineering cleverness against every possible thing that could go wrong. But things can still go wrong. So we almost stopped the whole thing right there.’’
Nobody’s heart was in the expedition any more. But after much agonising, they decided to continue as a tribute to Wight and deGruy, who were both explorers in their own right.
When Cameron finally reached the bottom of the trench – 10,908 metres beneath the surface in the tiny cabin of a submersible just 7.3 metres tall – he found himself thinking philosophical thoughts as he took pictures and gathered scientific samples.
‘‘I realised where I was – arguably the most remote place on this planet, the farthest you could get from humanity and looking out at a world that was absolutely untouched by human presence in any way," he says.
‘‘That was simultaneously very exciting and very rewarding. I felt a great sense of pride that this little scrappy team had actually accomplished something extraordinary. But almost instantly you get this powerful sense of humility [about] the vastness of what we don’t know.
‘‘You’re looking out into this great darkness that’s been there from time immemorial and no human eyes have ever seen it before. I know I’m only going to see a little bit in my headlights. But fifty feet either side of me, there could be something amazing that I would miss completely.’’
Deepsea Challenge 3D opens on August 21.