James Cameron juggles Avatar sequels, Terminator reboot and TV

Director James Cameron speaking at a media briefing in Glendale, Calfornia, US, on Sept 20, 2011.
Director James Cameron speaking at a media briefing in Glendale, Calfornia, US, on Sept 20, 2011.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - "Time management hell and no personal life," is how James Cameron described his existence these days in a phone call from his studio in Manhattan Beach, California.

Who can blame him? In addition to working on four Avatar sequels, planning a reboot of the Terminator franchise and producing the big-ticket anime adaptation Alita: Battle Angel, due out in December, Cameron has a new documentary series debuting Monday on AMC.

James Cameron's Story Of Science Fiction explores how the genre went from niche to mainstream, tracking its evolution through deep dives into the backstories and themes of landmark stories and films like War Of The Worlds, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Alien and, naturally, Avatar.

Along the way Cameron interviews the creators and stars of those and other sci-fi films, with an emphasis on titans of the genre including Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro and Christopher Nolan.

While Cameron has seen enormous success outside of science fiction - see Titanic - a majority of his career has been dedicated to futuristic fantasies. It was pioneering films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Star Wars that pushed Cameron to become a film-maker - now he's credited with introducing his own game-changing technological innovations to the craft.

(He's also not above putting other blockbusters on blast, creating a ministir when he said he was rooting for "Avenger' fatigue". "Not that I don't love the movies," he told reporters recently. "It's just, come on guys, there are other stories to tell besides hyper-gonadal males without families doing death-defying things for two hours and wrecking cities in the process.")

In an interview with the New York Times, Cameron discussed the new series, 2001: A Space Odyssey and his updates of the Avatar and Terminator franchises. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: You are developing four Avatar sequels at the same time, which seems like an enormous undertaking. Why did you take that approach, and how has it gone so far?

A: It's been great. We basically went down and developed a pathway for the technology that would be amortised across four movies. And in parallel with that, I wrote the four scripts. And in parallel with that writing and pipeline development process, we also designed all four films.

We finitely designed movie two and three, meaning every single set, every object, every prop, every setting, every creature, every blade of grass. We've broadly designed movies four and five, meaning all the main characters and main settings. So we're actually in really good shape. The entire universe is well in focus for us, and now we're just grinding through the actual production process. (We just had) our 100th day of performance capture out of a 175-day schedule. That's two movies combined.

Q: I'm sure you've seen some of the early skepticism about another Terminator reboot. How challenging is it to make this material seem fresh?

A: It's not a question of making it seem fresh. It's a question of making it fresh. The thing that encourages me is that we are actually approaching an existential crisis as human beings about artificial intelligence and the threat of artificial intelligence. The trick is to make these movies while they're still science fiction.

On the other hand, the series has gotten kind of tired. I think it's by overuse of the same iconicity. So we're trying to break that mold. We're trying to make it also just, by the way, good storytelling with characters you care about, which I think has been missing for a while. So when (producer) David Ellison came to me and said: "Let's do another one," I said: "All right, but I don't want to have to deal with reconciling all this (stuff) that happened in between. Can we just go back to Terminator 2 and carry on that timeline?"

He said: "Yeah, that sounds great."

Q: What was the first science-fiction movie you ever saw?

A: That's a good question. That's been lost in the mists of time. I would say probably something like Earth vs. The Flying Saucers or 20 Million Miles To Earth. In terms of something memorable, it would be a black-and-white monster movie from the late '50s or early '60s.

Q: This year marks the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which you credit as the movie that made you a filmmaker. Why did it have such an impact?

A: What blew my mind was that a movie could be pure art, like a painting or a symphony. I was a movie fan, but to me they were stories, entertainment. I didn't think of them as art, and that was a big shift for me. It was the first time I ever thought to ask: "Who did this?" And not only did I want to know who did it, I wanted to know how it was done. I wanted to study how that movie was made, and that's what got me from being a fan to being a practitioner. I got a Super 8 camera. I started filming spaceship models. Then I started just filming anything - walking around town just shooting. Neon signs. Cars. Whatever.

Q: You played a major role in sci-fi becoming the blockbuster genre it is today. Did shaping the AMC series feel like a memoir, evaluating your own career and impact?

A: No, we try to keep it away from that. I saw it more as giving something back to a genre that I loved and that I had been successful in. And that was my pitch to the other filmmakers. It's like: "Guys, we've all made a lot of money doing science fiction. Let's take casual science-fiction fans who don't know the literary underpinnings of the source materials and let's draw those roots back." Whether it's going all the way back to Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, or the Golden Age classics of the '40s and '50s - you know, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon and writers like that. They all responded to that because they knew their own references. They said: "Yeah, we've got to do that."

Q: I found it interesting that you've said science fiction is still struggling to be legitimised artistically. Why do you think that is?

A: If you're talking about the Academy Awards or the awards in general and critics, there's always been this kind of dynamic that: "Well, it's fine to make money with these ideas of the visuals but it's not really an actor's film. It's not true drama. It's not really mature writing." But of course it is. That's a fallacy. There's also this idea, from an actors perspective, of: "Oh, when I'm standing in front of a green screen, it's not the real thing." But standing in front of a set on a sound stage is? You know, lit by artificial lighting? There's no such thing as the real thing in filmmaking. The only thing that's real is the emotion and the authenticity of the performance.

Q: Given your scientific feats outside of film - like diving to the deepest part of the ocean - does it ever feel like your life outside of movies is an effort to make science-fiction ideas reality?

A: No, it's an effort to put myself into a real science-fiction movie. (Laughs.) Or a real science-fiction situation, I should say. You know, when I'm sitting in a submarine 7 miles down, acting and thinking and feeling like an astronaut. Thinking: 'If I throw that switch, I'm (screwed).' You know then that's not fiction anymore. That's real.