Director James Cameron is currently in front of the camera, not behind it, posing for some publicity shots for his new movie, “True Lies,” and for a change, his assistants are directing him.
“Smile,” suggests a young woman who worked on makeup for his latest action epic. “You have a nice smile.”
“How would you know?” Cameron good-naturedly demands. “You’ve never seen it.”
“Every picture of you makes you look so mean,” frets another assistant.
“The camera never lies,” Cameron says--and smiles.
Cameron, who turns 40 next month, is clearly enjoying goofing on his reputation as a hard-nosed task master; as a self-described “total, obsessive-compulsive filmmaker”; as a guy who, well, might be advised to switch to decaf. On this day, though, the week before “True Lies’ ” July 14 opening, he’s positively relaxed, quick with a quip as well as that otherwise reticent smile.
And this, despite the fact that the night before, at a crucial screening of his film before influential media, a projection glitch showed the film in what he decries as “slow-motion,” dragged out the 2-hour-and-17-minute opus almost an extra 10 minutes. “It was driving me nuts; everybody was talllkiinnng . . . liiiike . . . thiiissss, " Cameron laments. “You work on a movie for a year, and then it gets shown in slow motion.”
Funny thing was, practically nobody outside of Cameron noticed. Even at a protracted length on a faulty projector, “True Lies” largely operates at full throttle, particularly its final act, which easily boasts the most deliriously over-the-top action sequences of the year. Put it this way: This is a movie in which an island in the Florida Keys is blown up by a nuclear device--and that’s not even the finale.
In addition to the spectacle, “True Lies” is also a larky homage to the early James Bond movies and such spy vehicles as “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Arnold Schwarzenegger--whom Cameron elevated to superstardom a decade back with the first “Terminator” movie--stars as Harry Tasker, ultra-cool super-agent battling international terrorism by day, monotonous family dreg by night. His wife, Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), who takes him for no more than a mossy computer geek, is a trifle stifled by his domesticity and longs for an existence as thrilling as his true life. Naturally, she gets her wish, and just about everything not named Tasker gets blown away in the bargain.
Both Cameron and Schwarzenegger were fans of the tongue-in-cheek spy thrillers that serve as their movie’s antecedents, but recent efforts in the genre had disappointed them both. “The past 10 or 15 years have not seen any of those great Bond movies,” says Schwarzenegger, who brought a French film, “La Totale!,” with a similar theme to Cameron’s attention. “We wanted to bring that idea--the gadgets, the ballsy way Bond would do things--into the ‘90s.”
Cameron is more blunt: “Bond’s an aging, alcoholic Brit. C’mon! Let’s pump some new blood into him!”
“Last Action Hero,” last summer’s mega-disappointment, loomed heavily over the two men. Schwarzenegger, says Cameron, spent a day or so balking at the idea of leaping in a single bound from one action-comedy to another.
“We talked about why it didn’t work, and I felt that it was because the film was laughing at Arnold and the genre and his fans from the outside, instead of laughing with them from the inside, which is what we would be doing,” Cameron says. “Besides I wanted to do a comedy, since I hadn’t done one before, so I wasn’t about to change that.”
Of “Last Action Hero,” Cameron drolly observes, “not being funny is kind of a deficit for a movie that’s supposed to be a comedy.” He admits, however, that an action-comedy is “a lethal combination, a tricky souffle. I don’t know if we pulled it off here 100%, but I know people laugh.”
Schwarzenegger says simply, “I never liked the phrase, ‘action-comedy.’ I prefer to let the people discover the comedy in the movie, like they do in the James Bond movies. They don’t go to the movie for the comedy, but it’s there. That’s what accounted for my hesitation.” Still, Schwarzenegger believes the humor in “True Lies,” sewn into the fabric of the story, easily bests the gags tossed helter-skelter throughout his earlier effort.
And Cameron, Schwarzenegger maintains, is a director who inspires both trust and courage in him--whether it regards trying comedy again or executing the stunts the movie required. Among the activities that compose just another day at Harry Tasker’s office are swimming under water with a spreading wall of flames fanning out on the surface, trying to coax a horse to jump from one building to another and, in the film’s most outrageous sequence, bouncing around the Miami skyline in a Harrier--a military jet with helicopter-style capabilities.
“You trust him not to lead you to the path of death,” Schwarzenegger deadpans.
Cameron maps things out carefully, he says, but “if you screw up, no one can provide you with safety. If I say I can dive for 100 yards, without breathing, under water, and I screw up and can only go for 50 yards, I’ll be burned to shreds.”
That didn’t happen, but, Schwarzenegger says, “In a scene on the rooftop of the hotel, the horse freaked out and almost stepped literally over the rooftop. If he had taken one more step, we would’ve fallen 30 feet to the ground.” Instead, Schwarzenegger emerged from the movie with only the usual amount of scratches and scrapes.
Schwarzenegger was hardly the only performer placed in seeming danger. In one sequence, Curtis is rescued from a careening limousine seconds before it plummets into the water around a bombed-out segment of the Seven-Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys. Cameron says, “The trick to that is she was never in the car. She was attached to the helicopter and the helicopter flew up and matched the speed of the car and dropped her in there. So there was never a way that she could go off with the car.”
And, of course, the filmmakers never actually blew up the bridge, although, Cameron says with a laugh, “We did ask. We always ask first. On ‘T2,’ we blew up a building that was a rental. But we asked: ‘We’re gonna rent your building--and by the way, we’re gonna blow it up.’ ”
Of course, not getting permission to blow up the real thing just means Cameron and his team of effects technicians have to get creative. All of Cameron’s prior major-studio directing efforts--"Aliens,” “The Abyss” and “Terminator 2"--have won Oscars for their special effects, and “True Lies” just might continue the trend. It’s virtually impossible to tell where the reality ends and the computer imaging begins.
“The beauty of this film, the way this film advances the state of the art is that--I want to say this in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m bragging--our goal was to combine techniques seamlessly,” Cameron brags, but only a little. “We didn’t want to create something flashy, like the T-1000 coming out of the floor. What we tried to do was spend hours and months at computer work stations doing things that are totally invisible in the final film--where you don’t know whether you’re seeing something that happened full-size or miniature, or a composite. There are over 35 composite shots in the final sequence cut into the real rooftop in Miami, and you can’t tell the difference. We could composite the shots six or more different ways. Jet pointing this way, jet pointing that way. Jet closer, jet further away. We could put in different backgrounds. Every single trick I ever learned in visual effects was called into play in that sequence, and some new stuff that hadn’t been created. It’s probably the most complicated single effects sequence I’ve ever done.”
All that effort, and Cameron was actually most concerned about other elements in the movie. He requested an extra two weeks of post-production--not to complete the effects, but to find the perfect pitch for the film’s comic moments. “The most important thing was that the tone be right and that the comedy worked,” he says. “I know how to do the action stuff, I knew the effects stuff would work. I wanted a chance to get it in front of an audience and fine-tune it a little bit. For comedy, that’s absolutely vital to put the film in front of an audience. That’s something I didn’t have to do on ‘T2.’ ”
And, as usually happens when the names James Cameron or Arnold Schwarzenegger are associated with a movie, the budget was pumped up, widely reported to be somewhere between $100 million and $120 million.
“We spent a lot of money,” Cameron says unapologetically. “It’s like a really good value for a $7.50 ticket. That’s the way anybody should look at it.”
According to Cameron, the reason studios are sheepish about announcing exact budget figures is because “everybody in this business is afraid of failure. And the more afraid you are of failure, the more you program yourself for defeat. They’re afraid of the consequences--if the film fails, it fails relative to how much it cost.
“But to me, if the film fails, I’ve failed. So I don’t care how much the movie cost. It’s a different mind-set for the filmmaker than it is for the studio. It’s always gonna be that way.”
Nonetheless, Cameron vows he will bring down costs on his next project for 20th Century Fox, the comic-book adventure “Spider-Man,” and will do so by avoiding working with American unions.
“They really stuck it to us,” he says of the unions. “But I’m not gonna be stuck twice. We tried to negotiate with them and I told them that if we were not able to come to terms that I would shoot out of the country next time. So I will shoot out of the country next time.”
Cameron’s movies have come at a price beyond budgets that stretch to the ozone layer: He has watched his career help splinter three marriages. “It’s really one of the problems with this business, and with a lot of high-pressure businesses, where in order to be competitive, you have to invest all of yourself into it,” he maintains. “And sometimes there’s not a lot left over to give to someone else. That’s a classic problem, and I don’t know that there’s a solution to it.”
That two of his former wives are also in the film industry--producer Gale Ann Hurd and director Katherine Bigelow--didn’t seem to help. “I think the thinking there was, if I get someone as driven as myself, then they can’t criticize me,” he says, then laughs.
One aspect of that drive that sets him apart from other action filmmakers is his meticulous attention to the composition of shots, even in stunt scenes. Where many directors are happy just to get the stunt committed to celluloid, Cameron looks both for a spectacular thrill and a carefully sculpted image, which means demanding, nearly impossible camera work.
“The crew accuses me of intentionally making the shots hard,” Cameron says with a laugh. “The key grip will come up to me and say, ‘There’s probably a way to make this harder, but you just haven’t found it yet.’ But I try to keep it challenging every single day.”
It’s this desire to “keep it challenging” that contributes to Cameron’s legendary on-set demeanor, a take-no-prisoners management style that inspired crew T-shirts that read, “You can’t scare me--I work for Jim Cameron.”
Schwarzenegger says that Cameron’s ends justifies his means. “He’s a fanatic about realism. He doesn’t shy away from any scene; he can do anything. He’s totally focused--nothing else exists for him during a movie--and he expects that of others. I have the ultimate respect for him.”
“I wouldn’t call my style relaxed,” Cameron says with something approaching understatement. “I walked down to Katherine Bigelow’s set, ‘Strange Days,’ recently, and it’s like New Age filmmaking, everybody’s so calm.” He laughs at the very idea, then defends himself. “I never grew up in a film culture of any kind: I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t set foot on any other director’s set--I just sort of started doing it. So I’ve kind of evolved my own method, for good or bad.”