This past August 21, film writer, producer and director James Cameron rolled the dice in a big way. The date was widely advertised, and not modestly, as Avatar Day, and it marked free public previews in IMAX theaters worldwide of 16 minutes of Cameron’s latest movie—a $200 million-plus science-fiction epic about a battle royal between human invaders and inhabitants of a faraway planet—rendered in what is being touted as cutting-edge photorealistic computer-graphics–generated 3-D and an astonishing sense of audience immersion. The hype and curiosity surrounding Avatar led audiences to expect nothing less than the Second Coming. After all, directors Steven Spielberg and Steven Soderbergh had already raved about the excerpts in print (the latter saying it was “the craziest shit ever”), and director Jon Favreau called it “a game changer.” Sony’s boss claimed it would “change the way you consume entertainment.” Hyperbolic fans predicted on the web that the first film in 12 years from the director of such pop culture milestones as The Terminator, Aliens and Titanic would “fuck our eyeballs.”
So roughly four months before Avatar’s December 18 opening date, audiences got a chance to see—and weigh in—for themselves. And weigh in they did, instantly spattering and pontificating on Twitter, Facebook and scores of other Internet outposts. Some mentioned half-empty theaters. Many were dazzled and left panting for more. But others, in what can best be described as a mixed response, were left with their eyeballs intact and virginal.
Cameron, fit, focused and immeasurably wealthy at the age of 55, is accustomed to being second-guessed. Few, at least in Hollywood, had expected all that much from the Canadian-born former pastry apprentice whose father was an electrical engineer and mother a nurse and an artist. In 1971 the family moved to Fullerton, California, where Cameron majored in physics at nearby California State University, Fullerton. Torn between his love of films, sci-fi and science, he supported himself by working as a truck driver while making short amateur action and sci-fi movies with his friends. In 1980 he landed work in and around the thriving basement-budget moviemaking scene presided over by Roger Corman.
Things looked way up in 1984 when Cameron wrote and directed a futuristic action thriller for which few had great expectations—The Terminator. It became a huge success, made a bona fide star of the unlikely Arnold Schwarzenegger and cemented Cameron’s relationship with co-writer and producer Gale Anne Hurd, Corman’s former executive assistant, who in 1985 became Cameron’s second wife (they divorced in 1989). From there Cameron continued to exceed expectations by directing some of the biggest and most admired financial successes of the 1980s and 1990s, including Aliens, True Lies, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Abyss. Doom was predicted in 1997 for the crushingly expensive, troubled production of Titanic, yet it went on to become a phenomenon, made a movie idol out of Leonardo DiCaprio and won 11 Oscars, including a best director award for Cameron. His Oscar ceremony declaration “I’m the king of the world!” raised eyebrows, but that’s the kind of thing you can get away with when you’ve created Hollywood’s all-time biggest moneymaker.
Cameron earned a reputation for being a taskmaster, tough on his crews and actors, manic in his attention to detail and quest for perfection. Wild and woolly stories emerged from his sets of mutinous crews and actors vowing never to work with him again. But he seemed untouchable and unstoppable, co-founding a special-effects company, Digital Domain, and avoiding the ready-made projects Hollywood offered him. Instead, in 2002 Cameron, an avid diver, launched into a series of undersea documentaries such as Expedition Bismarck and Ghosts of the Abyss that explore legendary sunken ruins. Some speculated Titanic’s freak success had given him a permanent case of director’s block.
Now the five-time-married Cameron is about to resurface. Playboy sent Contributing Editor Stephen Rebello to Cameron’s Malibu mansion to investigate where the director has been and where he’s headed. Says Rebello, who last interviewed Benicio Del Toro, “This was the kind of interview that at first I thought the intense Cameron may bolt up and expect me to go deep-sea diving, arm wrestle or book passage on an interplanetary flight. But he relaxed and was gentlemanly, and although he’s known for playing it close to the vest, he loosened up and showed himself to be funnier, hipper and even smarter than you may imagine.”