“Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Shoot it on video if you have to. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee.” (James Cameron)
After moving to California from Canada, James Cameron worked as a truck driver for a few years before finally realising that the time had come for him to make a compelling bid on the film industry.
Via a series of circumstances he obtained the money to make a 12-minute short called Xenogenesis, which got him a job at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. James Cameron’s sheer talent and motivation saw to it that he quickly moved up in the low-budget and chaotic environment of Corman’s outfit, and he was soon running his own FX department.
Although Corman was justifiably impressed with the young James Cameron, making him an obvious choice as the director of a future film, the opportunity arose sooner then expected: an Italian producer saw James Cameron directing a second-unit scene involving maggots and hired him on the spot to direct Piranha 2.
By all accounts Piranha 2 was a disaster, through no fault of James Cameron’s. He was not allowed to watch the dailies and was unceremoniously fired when the film wrapped, after being told that his work was rubbish.
Undaunted, James Cameron flew to Rome, where the producer was editing the picture, and managed to break into the editing room by using a credit card — just like the movies. He worked nights, cutting the picture as he wanted, without the film editor ever noticing.
It was in Rome that James Cameron had a nightmare about a relentless robot from the future; he flew back to the States and wrote The Terminator based on that nightmare. He also teamed up with young producer Gale Anne Hurd and sold the script to her for one dollar, with the stipulation that he would be the one to direct it.
It took James Cameron a full two years to find a production company willing to let him direct it, during which he survived by producing posters for B-movies. Everyone wanted to buy the Terminator script and let a “real director” make the picture, but James Cameron stuck to his guns.
Eventually, a company called Hemdale agreed to finance The Terminator and let James Cameron direct it. The movie cost only $6 million and would have been consigned to the art house circuit, had it not been for Schwarzenegger’s intervention.
The Terminator was a major hit and made James Cameron a hot director. Which is not to say that his subsequent movies went smoothly; Aliens involved a nightmare shoot in England, and The Abyss was bedevilled by even greater problems during production.
But the most inspiring lesson to be learned from James Cameron’s story is just how rocky his beginnings were: he was fired off his first picture, which also turned out to be a mess; with most directors, that would have been pretty much the end of it. Not only did it not spell the end of James Cameron — he also went on to become one the world’s foremost film directors and innovators.