Even in Los Angeles, it’s not every day that most of us get to sit down and watch a film with the guy who created it. Rarer still would be to do so with the writer/director who now lays claim to the two highest-grossing films (in terms of total dollars) of all time. So when the opportunity arose a couple nights ago to catch a special WGA screening of Avatar with James Cameron himself, I thought, “This ought to be worth the drive down to Beverly Hills.”
Thankfully, it was. The film itself was no less awesome a spectacle on this, my third viewing, than it was upon my first. In fact, it’s one of those films that has so much going on, I’m still discovering fresh nuances that add to its richness. But the real highlight was Cameron’s Q&A session immediately following the presentation. Some of you might be thinking, “Well, duh.” But I’ve been to such events before, only to find myself in some huge auditorium, 100 rows away from a speaker who drones on about the most politically correct, uninteresting aspects of a production before being whisked away by security like some king needing to be defended from the rabble.
Cameron, however, sat just four rows away. (Why didn’t I take the front row, you might ask? For a three-hour film? No thanks.) His conversation with the audience and moderator was both candid and engaging. Three things impressed me the most. (1) His humility. I saw no sign of the ego or self-importance that certain media rumors have accused him of possessing. For those still irked by his “King of the world” claim at the Oscars twelve years ago, for crying out loud, watch Titanic again and see if you can’t make 2+2=4. If anyone has earned the right to take pride in his work, it’s James Cameron. Yet the guy I met was quiet, unassuming. Many of you wouldn’t recognize him if you bumped into him at Starbucks. And if you did, he’d probably apologize as quickly as you could. (2) His knowledge. The very first audience question had to do with why he used the same technology for the scorpion ships in Avatar as he did the hunter-killer ships in The Terminator. After admitting to being an engineering enthusiast, Cameron promptly gave an overview of the differences between jet engine propulsion and twin-rotor something-or-other. He even built a working prototype of the latter to make sure it functioned properly. Point being, everything on that screen had a basis in engineering or physics. He knows how the machines work, how mountains can float, and what sort of air density would allow for some of the alien plant life seen in the film. This isn’t a man slapping visuals up there purely for their “wow” factor. This is a guy marrying science and imagination to make fantasy believable. (3) His passion. You can tell by his research and the care and precision he takes that Cameron loves what he does. He didn’t set out to out-gross Titanic with Avatar. He just wanted to make a story that was true to itself and, like a child set loose in the world, would go forth and reach its own full potential. Even a creator with his track record has to weather critics, detractors, and endless revision requests from studio executives, some of who throw out comments that would suggest they have little knowledge of — and even less care for — the story they’re critiquing. All writers get frustrated with this to some degree. But Cameron just laughs and says that if filmmaking were easy, everyone would be doing it. Despite the many obstacles and challenges, he’s following his dreams, not allowing anyone to dissuade him, and the results thus far have been spectacular.
Rather than vanish out the back door following the general session, Cameron hung around for quite some time, taking pictures, signing autographs, and answering personal questions… despite having done so for 3200 U.S. soldiers on an aircraft carrier just days earlier. I’m not often awestruck by celebrities, but I must confess at this point to a certain “we’re not in Kansas anymore” feeling at conversing with him face to face, at the opportunity to shake the hand of such a visionary creator and to express in person how much I admire his work. I’m much more starstruck now than I was going in, because, based on this one evening at least, I can now say that I admire the man every bit as much as the movies he has given us.