James Cameron, The Terminator and Me

James Cameron likes to be in control, but Arnold Schwarzenegger took him by surprise during Saturday night’s presentation of the Modern Master Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. I was onstage conducting an evening-long interview with Cameron, interspersed with clips from many of his films. Normally, a presenter appears at the end of the program to hand the physical award to our honoree, but when that person is the Governor of the state of California, things work a bit differently. As he was unable to stay past a certain hour, and hadn’t arrived by the time we started the program, we surprised Cameron and the audience by having Schwarzenegger appear immediately following a lengthy scene from Terminator II.

I don’t know who writes the Governor’s material, but it’s awfully good. He rattled off a list of Cameron’s milestones and accomplishments—including being the first man to cast a former Austrian bodybuilder as a cyborg from the future. He cited Cameron’s predilection for creating strong female characters, and added that all of them had been modeled after the Governor’s wife, Maria Shriver. In the parlance of standup comics, he killed.

After he departed, Cameron and I were able to relax on stage, since I’d had to skip around and juggle the running order of the program up until that point. As I explained to the sold-out audience at the historic Arlington Theater, we were simply replicating the way most films are shot: out of sequence!

Cameron is a fascinating man and we covered a lot of ground, from the films that influenced him as a boy (Ray Harryhausen movies like 20 Million Miles to Earth and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, plus his all-time favorite, The Wizard of Oz) to the development of the cutting-edge special effects in almost all of his films. He pointed out that most of the climactic fight scene in Aliens was done just as you see it, on a set with a giant puppet, and admitted that when he thought up the idea of a liquid form, first seen in Terminator II, then further developed in The Abyss, he had no idea how he would make it happen. (Many of the effects in Terminator II that people think are CG shots were, again, done with practical models and puppets devised by the late Stan Winston.)

He also recalled how once the eye-socket look was applied to Schwarzenegger’s face when they were making the original Terminator, the star loved to go to a diner after an all-night shoot and order breakfast in full makeup—hoping to freak out the people behind the counter.

Cameron’s longtime producer, Jon Landau, told me backstage that he and the filmmaker had recently traveled to the Middle East to present Avatar on an inflatable screen on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Eisenhower—just as its crew was about to go into battle. I asked Cameron about the experience, and he said he spent seven hours shaking hands, signing autographs, and posing for pictures with the three thousand sailors who watched his film. Instead of being tired from the experience he felt energized.

That, of course, is part of what makes Cameron tick. He has a brilliant mind and seemingly boundless energy, especially when he’s inspired—by doing a day’s work on a set or showing his latest movie on an aircraft carrier half a world away.

The previous night I enjoyed listening to another festival award winner, Sandra Bullock, who was most engaging in conversation with my friend Pete Hammond. I’ve never had a chance to interview her, and was quite taken with her intelligence, candor, and self-awareness. Any star who won’t duck the issue of a bad movie like All About Steve, and is even willing to attend the Razzie Awards, is OK with me.

Bullock’s award was presented by Forest Whitaker, who directed her in Hope Floats; his speech was exceptionally sensitive and moving, and revealed why they worked together so well.

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May 2024