If James Cameron is nervous, he doesn’t show it.
Facing a roomful of reporters peppering him with questions about “Avatar,” his 3-D epic about a peaceful alien tribe ambushed by human interlopers, Cameron speaks with the confidence of a man for whom failure is neither an option nor even a passing concern.
With a conservatively estimated budget of $230 million, “Avatar” is the most expensive movie ever made. Yet for Cameron, 55, working with enormous budgets and still managing to make a few bucks is nothing new.
In 1991, the director was second-guessed for spending $102 million on “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Six years later, Cameron upped the ante, pouring $200 million into “Titanic,” which went on to become the highest-grossing film in history.
Now, he finds himself in a familiar position, justifying his spare-no-expenses approach to storytelling and explaining why it took him 15 years to make “Avatar,” his most ambitious project to date.
“I’ve been coming up with stories about space travel and alien civilizations ever since the mid-’70s,” he says. “I used some of those ideas when I found out I’d be writing the script for ‘Aliens.’ I just threw them together and made them fit. I felt more like a mercenary than a filmmaker.
“In 1995, working with the effects team at a company called Digital Domain, I wanted to take some of the ideas I didn’t use for ‘Aliens’ and develop a movie that would push the limits of what was possible. I wanted to create new worlds and breathe life into them. I wanted to push that company forward using the strength of my story.”
At the time, Cameron was told his vision was too ambitious, that the technology necessary to make “Avatar” didn’t exist. He moved on, but returned to the project after “Titanic,” this time with renewed determination.
“Because the motion-capture technology I needed wasn’t fully developed at the time, I decided to develop it myself,” he says. “That’s where the money comes in. With the money comes pressure, sure, but you have to eat pressure for breakfast if you’re going to do this job.”
With “Avatar” in theaters and earning rave reviews, does Cameron feel vindicated?
“I’m relieved,” he admits. “But the thing I’m happiest about isn’t the look of the film, but the story and the actors. You can have all the special effects in the world, but if you don’t have interesting characters and the right actors to play them — actors like Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana — you’ve got crap.”