Finally, I had found the financing for my first feature, "Shriek." We started hiring a crew, casting the picture, and focused on creating the all-important creature/monster.
My search for the best (and most affordable) visual effects designer I could find led me to the Roger Corman Company. Corman is famous for making a lot of movies on very cheap budgets, employing first-timers who become big-timers -- from Scorsese to Coppola to Howard.
Everyone there was raving about a young hotshot who was the art director and visual-effects guru on Roger’s latest $3-dollar (as in extremely low budget) sci-fi epic "Battle Beyond the Stars." So I arranged to meet with him.
His name was James Cameron.
Jim showed me a very impressive 10-minute short he had made called "Xenogenesis." It was a futuristic sci-fi robot/laser battle done for about a nickel on his kitchen table using miniatures.
You just knew this young guy had one hell of a visionary mind and his tech genius would shine in the visual effects world. Jim reeked talent. Still, no one would have guessed he was going to become one of the greatest filmmakers of our time.
Jim has said that he had "Avatar" in mind for many years and was waiting till the visual effects world caught up to his vision so he could make the film. It’s true.
Pictured: Me and the creature Cameron built for my movie "Shriek."
The short film I saw had a walking robot machine driven by a human inside it. It was the initial primitive model which became the dazzling human-driven machine we all ogled in the final battle of his unforgettable, jaw-dropping "Avatar" wonder when it premiered around the world in December 2009.
Jim liked the "Shriek" project, and was willing to leave Corman and come on board as my production designer and visual-effects specialist. He designed and built a very scary, hairy creature, complete with an expressive facial apparatus that was remote controlled.
It was probably the most advanced and inventive creature ever built on the pennies we had. He even built the giant box to ship it to New Orleans. Cameron was incredibly resourceful and a very hard-working guy. His focused dedication to his work, even then, was mind-boggling.
Pictured left and below right: Conceptual design creature drawings by Cameron for "Shriek."
At the time, I was living in Laurel Canyon with roommates, and we had thrown a kick-off party the Saturday before we were scheduled to leave for New Orleans. James showed up at the party looking bummed out. He told me he had bad news. He explained Roger Corman had found out he was leaving to design my film.
Roger, known for his ability to spot talent, was not letting Jim go so easily. Roger promised to give Jim his first feature as a director if Jim continued working for him. Roger had correctly sensed Jim was a major talent. He fought to keep him.
Jim felt bad letting me down, especially a week before we started shooting, but Roger was dangling a dream apple. Cameron had no choice; he really wanted to direct a film.
Two days earlier, after months of working together, we had packed the Cameron monster in its custom case, and got it to the airport. Now, at our kickoff party, he was handing me the keys to the case. We hugged and wished each other well. I’m sure he later heard "Shriek" was never made. He obviously made the better choice by staying with Corman.
Had I unknowingly come close to ruining or delaying James Cameron’s career had he left Roger to do my film? Would his career path have been altered? Destiny can be a strange, unpredictable force in Hollywood -- ask anyone.
Within a year, Roger kept his promise and gave Jim his first feature, the very low-budget "Piranha II: The Spawning." I had heard it was a miserable film for Jim to make, and he was locked out of the editing room. I’m sure he had his own producer battles; most powerless, young directors do on their first films. But I am also sure the directing experience must have helped Cameron secure the directing reins on "Terminator."
As they say, the rest is history.
Jim was such a great talent, I’m sure he would have found a way to make his films with or without Roger. Nothing could have deterred him from his destiny to become one of our greatest filmmakers. As an old director friend who hired Jim early in his career, I am in awe of his amazing accomplishments and of the visual breath of his cinematic work.
"Avatar" is a mind-blowing wonder, a truly magical film experience in every sense. It is absolutely an industry game-changer, and has helped reignite the 3-D craze.
Jim made both the first and the second biggest box-office, record-grossing movies in the history of cinema. I doubt any other director will ever match that in the history of mankind.
Bravo, Jim. In my book, you are indeed the undisputed king of the film world!
From Guy Magar's memoir “Kiss Me Quick Before I Shoot: A Filmmaker’s Journey into the Lights of Hollywood and True Love”