James Cameron: No Actor’s Director

The TerminatorI have had various connections to Hollywood in my life. And I’ve come to see it as an awful place. It is offensive that “normal” (non-Hollywood) people get so excited about celebrities. I was once a minor celebrity, so I saw it from the inside. And it was pathetic. These people thought I was super cool, but I was just the same loner nerd I had always been.

So I thought that people in Hollywood would be lackadaisical about stars and directors and such. No. It’s the opposite. They are even worse than people outside that dysfunctional environment. If David Foster Wallace can be believed, the porn industry is much more mature. And most successful stars and directors (and studio heads and on and on) are very much in agreement. They’re great!

Normal People vs Hollywood “People”

But I never got that from Herschell Gordon Lewis or David F Friedman, men who actually changed the way films were made. They have a humility that’s, well, human. Maybe those people who believe in alien lizards living inside human “suits” are right. If they are, all those alien lizards live in Hollywood.

There are so many examples I could use, but today I want to talk about James Cameron because it really shows off not just his horribleness but also his conviction that he is never at fault. He’s like God, if it’s good, he gets credit. If it’s bad, it’s on someone else — maybe all of us.

It Came From a Commentary Track

I am something on a connoisseur of commentaries on films. Of course, most are quite awful because they are done by directors who are surprisingly ignorant of how movies are made (at least big-budget Hollywood directors). Generally, I would rather listen to a writer or a historian discuss an film. But when it is a director, you often get to see what jerks they are.

(I recently listened to John Carpenter do a commentary on the great In the Mouth of Madness with cinematographer Gary B Kibbe, and Carpenter was so nice about including Kibbe, it was charming. But then, Carpenter isn’t a Hollywood kind of guy. I also listened to Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F Friedman comment on Blood Feast and they were such regular guys, you would never know they invented the splatter film. Again: not Hollywood. 100 percent pure human!)

Enter James Cameron

Many years ago, I listened to the commentary for Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It includes Cameron and screenwriter William Wisher. And during it, Cameron really shows the dick of Hollywood legend that he is. It is amazing to listen to Wisher play omega to Cameron’s alpha. I know they are friends. But that makes it even more sad, because Wisher is as much a professional in his field as Cameron.

I felt sorry for Wisher but mostly it just made me think that James Cameron was an awful person.

Cameron Blames Bad Actors

I think the problem is that James Cameron didn’t care about the scene and didn’t really try. So he blames the actors.

One moment in the commentary really stood out.

Cameron mentioned that there was a deleted scene at the end of The Terminator where two guys from Cyberdyne Systems pick up a chip from the remains of the terminator.

He said (more or less) that the scene was deleted, “Frankly, because the acting was terrible.” My first reaction was (and I’ve had this with many directors), “Doesn’t he fear that the actors he’s talking about will hear about this and feel bad?” In Cameron’s case, of course not! Who in the world matters but James Cameron?

My second reaction was: I’ve got to see that deleted scene. I had to see what God James Cameron thought of as terrible acting.

The Bad Acting Cameron Had No Control Over

Well, here it is, all 33 seconds worth:

He’s right: the acting is weak. But it isn’t bad. And I certainly don’t present it as, “Hey: look at the bad acting!”

Acting on film depends upon a whole lot more than just the actors. And most actors get it wrong a lot more than they get it right.

How the Acting Could Be Improved

This scene strikes me as awkward more than anything else. Certainly a few more takes and, you know, some direction, and a perfectly acceptable performance could have been squeezed out of these actors.

Notice something else about the scene: the blocking is terrible. The whole scene, in addition to everything else, is boring.

I think the problem is that James Cameron didn’t care about the scene and didn’t really try. The fact that he wants to blame the actors makes him a terrible person and it really makes me question him as a director. I get the idea he depends a lot on other professionals (especially editors) to make his films work (when they do).

Afterword

A similar dynamic is going on in a deleted scene from Remains of the Day. But James Ivory is enough of a man to place the blame on himself. He admits that he didn’t want to shoot the scene and only did it because Anthony Hopkins insisted. As I recall, he said, “I didn’t really try.”

2 replies on “James Cameron: No Actor’s Director”

  1. Lawrence says:

    I’ve read he’s a real asshole to work for. There’s a funny bit in a long piece on the making of Aliens where one of the crew explains how the unionized (British) workers drove him crazy because they knew they didn’t have to take his abuse and schedule demands. Good for them. The Terminator and Alien franchises are interesting to me as being two stories I really enjoyed that I lost interest in. I haven’t seen the latest film offerings from either and I don’t really care to. And I didn’t hate Prometheus. It was the first film I ever saw in 3D, and it was just beautifully filmed. Story had problems, but I’ve given a pass on worse. Maybe knowing that the David android does murder / mass murder in the next one cooled me on it. And I did like Terminator Salvation. But putting old Arnold back in the saddle? Just no. Find something else to show me.
    I’m sure you know the story about Harlan Ellison suing Cameron for ripping off an old Outer Limits episode for the plot of Terminator. What I recently learned from Driftglass is that it was introduced as evidence that Cameron admitted it in a talk show appearance. Big mouth strikes again. And Cameron’s need to have sex with his female leads has cost him two marriages. But I generally like his films. Even Strange Days was interesting, if a bit slow. You’re probably going to tell me that is one of your favorites now.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      Cameron is known for being a dick. I don’t mean as a director; I mean just in general. As I think I mentioned in the article, you really should listen to the commentary he does with William Wisher, the co-writer of T2 and a close friend of Cameron. And Cameron — in public and so on his best behavior — is still a dick to his friend. Directors tend to be dicks on shoots because they are under enormous pressure. But you don’t hear stories like that about George Roy Hill or Howard Hawks or Alan Parker — all better, more inventive directors. Not that they didn’t have their moods. Hill in particular was kind of crotchety in his later years and had absolutely no tolerance for the supposed glamour of Hollywood. Parker retired when he reached 60. I think the big thing about a lot of people in Hollywood is that they buy their own bullshit. I’ve seen that first-hand. Cameron thinks he’s great because he’s been financially successful. But actually, it’s just that he makes films designed to make money. I’ve never seen him take a risk. And I’ll never forgive him for True Lies (although I really like Art Malik and it’s sad he’s had to take horrible roles like that. The man was trained as a Shakespearean actor. And he’s great in everything he does. But Cameron’s script doesn’t even allow him to be a decent villain. He has to be this evil buffoon. I assume he got well paid, but for someone who really should spend his life on the stage, it doesn’t take that much. I figure he got maybe $100K for the film.) Anyway: Cameron is a total dick.

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