Friday, 14 December 2018

James Cameron: The Hero’s Journey

The Terminator (Directed by James Cameron)
Action is character; what a person does, not what he says, is what he is. Joseph Campbell declares, ‘A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself,’ like Oedipus and Hamlet. And ‘if a machine can learn the value of a human life,’ Sarah Connor (in ‘The Terminator 2’) states in the last line of the movie, ‘maybe we can, too.’ 

That line reverberated in my mind for days after I heard it. It’s a thoughtful, provocative way to end the film. If you think about it, it is the Terminator ‘character’ who embodies the classic values of Aristotelian tragedy and undertakes the hero’s journey. Was this intentional? I asked myself. Can this robot, this cyborg, played by an Austrian actor, be the prototype of the new American hero? 
                                                                                                                       – Syd Field

The well-known screenwriting teacher Syd Field interviewed writer-director James Cameron in 1992 shortly after the release of Terminator 2: Judgement Day the sequel to 1984’s The Terminator. The idea of being emotionally moved by the sacrifice of a machine or cyborg left a deep impression on Field. Approaching his response from a willingness to suspend his disbelief and ‘accept this robot as a real, living character’ whose ‘action transforms the future’ Field came to see the Terminator character (as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) as an embodiment of the classic hero as described by Aristotle in his discussion of tragedy.

Impressed by Cameron’s innovative skills as a filmmaker and his mastery of suspense, Syd Field sought out Cameron for a book he was preparing on the art of the American screenplay. He praised Cameron, in particular, for his ability to create spectacular action sequences along with believable characters. The subsequent interview with James Cameron was reprinted in James Cameron: Interviews (edited by Brent Dunham) from which the following is an extract:

Jim Cameron grew up in Kapuskasing, a little town just outside Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada. When he was fifteen, he saw Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. ‘As soon as I saw that,’ he recalls, ‘I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. It hit me on a lot of different levels. I just couldn’t figure out how he did all that stuff, and I just had to learn.’

‘So I borrowed my dad’s Super-8 camera and would try to shoot things with different frame rates just to see how it looked.’ This, of course, is much different from picking up a Super-8 in a high school in a large city like L.A. or New York. ‘If you pick up a Super-8 camera there, it’s because you’re going to film school,’ he said. ‘For me, it was completely innocent. I had a fascination with it, but I couldn’t see myself as a future film director. In fact, there was a definite feeling on my part that those people were somehow born into it, almost like a caste system. Little kids from a small town in Canada didn’t get to direct movies.’

When he was in his teens his family moved to Orange County in Southern California, and ‘from a pragmatic standpoint, I could have been in Montana. There is no film industry in Orange County, and since I didn’t have a driver’s license, it made Hollywood as far away as another state.

‘I liked science,’ he continued, ‘and thought I might want to be a marine biologist, or physicist. But I also liked to write, so I was pulled in a lot of different directions. I liked the idea of an ocean even though I’d never seen or been in one. But I had been certified as a scuba diver when I was sixteen in a swimming pool in Buffalo, and I dived in the local rivers and lakes.

‘I loved the idea of being in another world, and anything that could transport me to another world is what I was interested in. To me, scuba diving was a quick ticket to another land.’

He continued talking about his fascination with other worlds, and as he was speaking I could see the evolution of his films: The two TerminatorsAliensThe Abyss, all deal with other worlds.

‘I enrolled in junior college and studied physics,’ he continued, ‘along with all the math, calculus, chemistry, physics, astronomy, which I loved. And while I made good grades, I knew that’s not what I wanted to do with my life, so I switched to being an English major and studied literature for a while. Even so, I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to do, so I simply dropped out. I worked in a machine shop for a while, then as a truck driver, a school bus driver, and painted pictures and wrote stories at night.’

Gradually he began to see that the medium of film could accommodate his interests in both science and art, and with the help of a little book called Screenplay he ‘figured out how to write a screenplay, just like all the big guys, so a friend and I sat down and wrote a little ten-minute script. We raised the money to make it and shot it in 35mm; it was all effects and models and matte shots, all this wild kind of stuff.’

‘It was a bit like a doctor doing his first appendectomy after having only read about it. We spent the first half day of the shoot just trying to figure out how to get the camera running. We rented all this equipment – the lenses, the camera, the film stocks, everything – then took all the gear back to this little studio we had rented in Orange County.

‘Now, I knew in theory how the threading path worked, but we couldn’t get the camera to run to save our lives. There were three of us, and one of the guys was an engineer, so we simply took the camera apart, figured out how it worked, traced the circuitry, and then realized there was something in the camera that shut the camera off in case the film buckled. Later, when we returned the equipment, we were talking to the rental guys and they said something about ‘a buckle trip,’ and I said, yeah, yeah, I know about that, not telling them that we had disassembled their camera and spread it out on the table and figured it all out. It was like the Japanese doing reverse engineering.’

I asked him about his background in special effects and he told me he ‘was completely self-taught in special effects. I’d go down to the USC library and pull any theses that graduate students had written about optical printing, or front screen projection, or dye transfers, anything that related to film technology. That way I could sit down and read it, and if they’d let me photocopy it, I would. If not, I’d make notes. I literally put myself into a graduate course on film technology – for free. I didn’t have to enroll in school, it was all there in the library. I’d set it up to go in like I was on a tactical mission, find out what I needed to know, take it all back. I just had files and files stacked on my desk of how all this stuff was done.’

It is this kind of analytical approach to film projects that separates Jim Cameron from other filmmakers. ‘I’ve always felt that people seek out the information and knowledge they need,’ he said. ‘They seek it out and find it. It’s like a divining rod to water; nobody will give you the pathway. It’s something you have to find yourself.’

It’s so true. In seminar after seminar, workshop after workshop, people all over the world tell me that success in Hollywood is based on ‘who you know,’ not what you do. I tell them that’s not true at all.

‘People ask me how do you get to be a film director,’ Cameron continued, ‘and I tell them that no two people will ever do it the same way, and there is nothing I can say that will help you. Whatever your talents are, whatever your strengths and weaknesses, you have to find the path that’s going to work for you. The film industry is about saying ‘no’ to people, and inherently you cannot take ‘no’ for an answer.

‘If you have to ask somebody how to be a film director, you’ll probably never do it. I say, probably. If that pisses you off, and then you go out and say, ‘I’m going to show that Jim Cameron; I am going to be a director,’ that gives you the kind of true grit you need to have in order to go through with it. And if you do become a film director, then you should send me a bottle of champagne and thank me.’

There is no ‘one’ way to find your true path in Hollywood. Whether you’re a screenwriter, director, actor, producer, whatever, each person has to find his or her way. Success in Hollywood is not measured on talent alone. Persistence and determination are the keys to success; then comes talent.

Cameron got a job working for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, building miniatures. He was the art director and special effects cameraman on Battle Beyond the Stars, and was production designer and second-unit director on Galaxy of Terror (1981).

Corman’s ‘frantic, frenzied,’ high-energy school of filmmaking was ‘like being air-dropped into a battle zone,’ Cameron recalls. ‘It was the best, fastest, strongest injection into filmmaking I could have gotten.’

He became special effects supervisor on John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), then directed Piranha II: The Spawning, filmed in 1981, though not released until 1983.

After that he wrote and directed The Terminator. When I asked how it came into being, Cameron paused for a moment, looked at the pinball machine against the far wall, and smiled slightly. ‘If you want to know the truth, the evolution of The Terminator is somewhat dishonest. I had just directed my first movie, Piranha II, but the truth is that I’d actually gotten fired from the shoot after a couple of weeks. Officially my friends knew I was a film director, but that really wasn’t true within the industry because I couldn’t get my phone calls returned, even from the people at Warner Bros., and they were the ones who put up the negative costs of Piranha II. I couldn’t get a call back from anybody. I was absolutely dead in the water. I knew that if I was ever going to direct a movie again, I was going to have to create something for myself. So writing a screenplay became a means to an end, a way of visualizing what the movie would be.

‘I had to contour whatever I wanted to do into how I could sell myself,’ he continued. ‘I have a strong background in special effects. So my natural inclination would be to go toward science fiction. But realistically, I knew the most money I could probably raise to make a picture would be $3 million or $4 million. So I knew it would have to be contemporary, had to have a contemporary location, and I would have to shoot it non-union. So I started putting things together. I’ve got effects, I want it to be science fiction, but I want it to be a contemporary story. So how do I inject the fantastic element into a contemporary story? I didn’t want to ‘make a fantasy, like a magic mirror communicating with another dimension. I wanted it to be gritty realistic, kind of hardware-based, true science fiction, as opposed to fantasy science fiction.

‘I’d always liked robots, so essentially I came up with the idea of time travel and catching glimpses of the future. From a budget standpoint that would be controllable. But if I thrust myself entirely into that world, then I was suddenly talking about a $15 million, $20 million, or $30 million picture. If I kept it limited in terms of what I saw through flashbacks or dream sequences or whatever, and I injected one element from that world into our own, I felt it was controllable.

‘Then I hit on the idea of the future being determined by something that’s happening now, someone who’s unaware of the results of their actions finds out they have to answer for those actions – in the future. So what’s the most extreme example of that I can think of? If the world has been devastated by nuclear war, if global events are predicated on one person, who is the least likely person you can imagine? A nineteen-year-old waitress who works at Bob’s Big Boy (a fast-food restaurant in Southern California).

‘That was the premise, and it started to unfold from that. The easiest way to undo what she had done would just be to kill her, just erase her existence, which is not the most subtle approach to the story. It’s true that the future could come back and tell her what was going to happen, but being they were machines, they were thinking in a very binary mode.

‘So I started creating some juxtapositions that seemed interesting to me. This incredible nightmare would be glimpsed through little windows of contemporary reality.

‘The story evolved from that.’

What about The Terminator? I asked.

He paused a moment, reflecting. ‘I first started thinking about the film in two stages,’ he continued. ‘In the first stage the future sends back a mechanical guy, essentially what The Terminator became, and the good guys send back their warrior. In the end, the mechanical guy is destroyed; but up in the future, they say, well; wait a minute, that didn’t work, what do we have left? And the answer is something terrible, something even they’re afraid of. Something they’ve created that they keep locked up, hidden away in a box, something they’re terrified to unleash because even they don’t know what the consequences will be – they being the machines, or computers, whoever’s in charge.

‘And that thing in the box becomes a total wild card; it could go anywhere, do anything, a polymorphic metal robot that is nothing more than a kind of blob. I saw it as this mercury blob that could form into anything. Its powers were almost unlimited, and they couldn’t control it.

‘That scared me. Just sitting there writing the story scared me.

‘That’s what The Terminator was going to be about. But already I could see that it was starting to slop over the boundaries I had set for myself. And I thought, no, I’ll get killed. If I try this now it’ll be too ambitious; I’ll get creamed. I’ve got to scale back, got to go for something tighter, simpler. So I took out the liquid metal robot.

‘Besides, there was no way I could accomplish something like that. In all my effects experience, nobody had really come up with a way of doing it. Maybe in a future film context you could advance that technology and get it looking better, but at that time, in 1983, the answer was a definite no. So I decided against it.’

That was the first major creative choice Cameron had to make before he could move forward with his idea. The next key decision he had to confront was that ‘I didn’t want the robot to look like a man in a suit. If this robot was something that was supposed to fit inside a human form, we could not accomplish that visual by putting it outside a human form, then trying to imagine that it was also inside. It just wouldn’t work. Nobody had ever created a robot that wasn’t a suit. Star Wars [George Lucas] had been done a few years earlier, and since then there had been a whole history of film robots that were basically guy-in-suit robots. So for me, the special effects challenge was getting something believable that could have existed inside a human form. That was the real challenge.’

The Terminator was filmed and released and became ‘a sleeper hit.’ It literally made Arnold Schwarzenegger a superstar and paved the way for the sequel, which took seven years to come to the screen.

It was a hero’s journey.

– Syd Field: The Hero’s Journey. Originally published in Four Screenplays (New York: Dell Publishing, 1994), 79–89.


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