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James Cameron biographer says the ‘Avatar’ director is half scientist, half artist

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‘AVATAR’ COUNTDOWN: 9 DAYS

All eyes are on James Cameron with the imminent release of the most expensive movie of all time. ‘Avatar’ may very well be the 55-year-old director’s masterwork in an already astounding film career. Yet most people know very little about him.

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If Cameron, the man, is known for anything besides his reservedness, it’s his penchant for being very critical -- explicitly when necessary -- and doing so in a painfully truthful way.

Providing some insight into the man behind the high-tech, 3-D camera gizmo, Rebecca Keegan‘s ‘The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron’ is an honest, fascinating glimpse into the mind and history of Cameron.

Hero Complex’s Mark Milian got on the phone today with Keegan, a Los Angeles resident and a Time magazine contributor, to discuss her first book, as she was getting ready to attend a screening of ‘Avatar’ in Hollywood.

MM: Cameron has a reputation for being pretty reserved. How did you get him to talk to you?

RK: He’s been sort of in this quiet phase of his life since ‘Titanic.’ Not so much by design but just from factors in his life ... working in these documentaries and on the technology for ‘Avatar.’ ... He wasn’t trying to go all J. D. Salinger [reclusive author of ‘The Catcher in the Rye'], but he did a little bit.

I was on the set in early 2008. I was so amazed by how the set looked. After the first time that I visited, I just kept calling his offices every two weeks trying to talk him into doing the book. ... I have no idea why he eventually said yes, but it may have been that he just wanted me to go away after a year of me calling.

MM: What about the man or his movies drew you to this project?

RK: I had heard a lot about Cameron’s sets. Certainly ‘Titanic’ had been this amazing, huge scale model of opulence that he built down in Mexico. So I was kind of surprised to walk onto the ‘Avatar’ set [in Playa del Rey] to see it was just a dude -- the dude being Cameron -- holding a camera and a bunch of guys on computers. ... A bunch of geeks hunched over their keyboards. It was just a bizarre way of making a movie. But when I looked through his lens, it was the world of Pandora. I was also interested in this guy who only wanted to do things that were hard. Clearly, after ‘Titanic,’ he could have come back and made any movie he wanted to.

MM: In the book, you described an interesting dynamic in the meeting of Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger when deciding to cast him in ‘Terminator.’

RK: When Cameron first met Schwarzenegger, he had no interest in casting him in his movie. At the time, Schwarzenegger was better known as a body builder than an actor. His career looked like it was going to go the standard route of body builders -- do some movies wearing a toga and then fall off the face of the earth. Schwarzenegger had all these ideas about how the Terminator should be played. ... Both of them are alpha males. ... I think they really found kindred spirits in each other.

MM: What do you think is the greatest discovery you made in the life of Cameron?

RK: The fact that he has this sort of equally developed two sides to his personality -- the scientist and the artist. ... [At Fullerton College] he was majoring in physics and at the point when he had to decide between the scientist and the artist. And he chose the artist. Usually people are a left brain or a right brain. ... He’s as good a painter as he is a designer of cameras. ... He worked with NASA. He could hold his own in a room full of scientists. This is a guy with a couple of junior college physics classics. ... For him, science and art are equally necessary parts of what he does. In a town, Hollywood, where people get by being really good B.S.ers, he’s actually incapable of it -- to a point of detriment, at times. ... He really tells you what he thinks to your face.

MM: There’s something off-putting about his profile on the cover, as there is something equally creepy about many of his movies. Did the experience weird you out at all?

RK: I think he’s an intense guy. There’s no question about it. If you talk to the people who work with him, they’ll talk about the multiple sides of Cameron. ... He focuses like a laser beam. And everybody knows what happens with lasers. Somebody gets burned.

MM: You talk about how Cameron has a sort of catchphrase on the set -- ‘I knew that would happen’ -- whether something bad or good happens. Can he see the future?

RK: Sort of the point of the ‘Terminator’ movies is that we can change fate. Sarah Connor has the opportunity to go back in time and kill the scientist. ... She has the opportunity to impact the future and fate. ... I think Cameron sees life in that way. In the case of ‘Avatar,’ it’s sort of an environmental parable. He often does know what’s going to happen. I think he’s kind of freakishly smart. Also in that same part of the book, I talk about how Peter Jackson warned me: ‘This guy is really smart. You might get lost.’ I get lost all the time.

MM: In Twitter fashion, how would you describe James Cameron in 140 characters or less?

RK: Intense, smart, forward-thinking and just the right amount of crazy. [Tweet this!]

[Updated, Dec. 12, 12:30 a.m.: An earlier version of the post said Cameron had attended the University of Toronto. He was actually a student at Fullerton College.]

-- Mark Milian

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