The tiny village of Chippawa (now a part of Niagara Falls, Ont.) wasn't just where James Cameron grew up. It's where he set off on the road to becoming the film director of 1997 -- possibly even the film director of the decade.
That will happen when you make a film like "Titanic" -- a spectacular but emotionally intimate film that has reminded everyone why Hollywood captured the imagination of the entire world in the first place, a film that is likely to turn into one of the all-time Oscar bellringers in the spring.
To understand instantly why film is the major art form of the 20th century, all you have to do is see "Titanic."
It is already the most expensive film ever made, so costly ($200 million), that it required two studios -- Paramount and Fox -- to defray the cost. Most feel that not a single penny was wasted.
"I can almost draw a direct line to what I do now from what I did then (back in Niagara Falls' Stamford Collegiate high school)," says Cameron in a phone interview.
"We started the theater arts program, myself and a few others students and our biology teacher. We wrote some plays, put them on and all that -- the full creative spectrum of all the stuff I'm doing now. I don't think there was any sense of reality -- that it could ever turn into a career in film. Hollywood was that golden, shiny Asgard and I just didn't know how you got there. It might as well have been another dimension."
Hollywood turned out to be vastly closer than Asgard. And Cameron didn't need to be Thor or Odin to get there. But then that biology teacher at Stamford Collegiate -- who's long gone -- may have known it all along.
"He came up to me and said, 'You know, I've looked at all your stuff and we're not normally supposed to say this. Our consensus is, though, that you're somebody with unlimited potential.' That meant a lot. It meant a lot to have somebody believe in you. My grades weren't even that good. All the sort of classic indicators didn't work. I was pretty rebellious in high school. It meant something to have somebody believe in you. So I said 'Ian McKenzie said I have unlimited potential. I guess I'd better get busy.'
"The thing is, he may have just made that up. If I really wanted to motivate somebody I'd tell them that whether it was true or not."
"You have to remember, I literally went from being a truck driver to being a film director. I was a machinist for a while, then I was a truck driver. Then I quit my job and made a little short film and went to work for (director and horror/sci-fi mini-mogul) Roger Corman as a miniature builder for a few months. Within a few months I was art directing for a film and then I had my first directing gig. In about a year after I quit driving a truck, I was directing."
"I'm not well-schooled. I'm not well-grounded. I haven't worked on a lot of sets. I haven't had a mentor relationship. So in a way, I feel very much like a poseur at times. But I also feel that I haven't had a lot of influences that caused my stuff to look like a lot of other people's stuff."
The director of "Aliens," "The Terminator," "Terminator 2" and "True Lies" doesn't sound like "a lot of other people" when you talk to him on the phone for 45 minutes either. He's like his movie -- funny, engaging, enormously capacious and compellingly human at the same time.
He's also a filmmaker through and through. His wives -- he is divorced from both -- were successful in the business: producer Gale Anne Hurd and director Kathryn Bigelow (who directed Cameron's script for "Strange Days".)
Some words, then, from James Cameron, who grew up 25 minutes away from us and turned into the major filmmaker of 1997.
On the immense cost of "The Titanic": "I'm still answering questions about the cost of T2 ('Terminator 2'). Somebody else will come along and they'll spend more money on a movie. Some people have acted as if spending that kind of money on a film was either A) sort of taking away from some human program some place, like air-dropping dried milk into Ethiopia, or B) taking away from some worthy young independent film-making, neither of which is the case. The money that is spent on mainstream Hollywood features is budgeted by the studios for that purpose. If it wasn't made on one film, it's made on another that's a big mainstream film. So in the case of 'Titanic,' instead of losing one big mainstream film (to the $200 million budget), you're probably losing two or three.
"I believe in going back to one's underlying intention, not the result. The end result was that we'd spent $200 million. The intention was to spend $125 million in the same way that our intention was to spend $90 million on 'T2' and we wound up spending $100 million. . . . Seven years ago, it was extraordinary. What is extraordinary today will be normal seven years from now."
On whether such immense financial backing makes him uniquely privileged in Hollywood: "My films have always made money. I'm one of the few people around that has always made money. 'The Abyss' even made money. It didn't make a lot of money, but it broke even. Spielberg has almost always made money. And when he's made money sometimes, he's made money so spectacularly that it more than makes up for the ones that haven't. There are few filmmakers around who are very consistent money makers. It looks like 'Titanic' now will not be an exception. Everyone had branded it my first major screw-up. It's really not a privilege. It's an earned thing. A privilege implies that you didn't earn it, that it was conveyed to you in some way by inheriting it or whatever."
On the tidal wave of negative advance stories about the film, including some that reported wholesale mistreatment of extras: "That's all a crock. We employed probably 10,000 people on this film. On a single shooting day, in certain cases, we had over 1,500, including 1,000 to 1,100 extras. It's not hard for a journalist with a negative agenda to find somebody in that group who's disgruntled. Our extras were treated very well. They were fed very, very well. The safety standards were very high. No extra was injured on my set in a way that required going to the hospital. We had medics who would stitch a cut when somebody fell down the stairs going back to the extra's trailer or something like that. There were no injuries requiring hospital treatment in six months of shooting, with a thousand people a day playing around on a six-story set that was 750 feet long.
"That's amazing. But it's also not an accident. It's because of very rigorous safety methodology. . . The safety issues were blown way out of proportion. We had Time Magazine sticking me on the same page with this poor grip who got killed driving home from another movie set in another country! And yet they lumped us together. Which was ridiculous. We had a big target painted on us and no matter what anybody said -- no matter how outrageous -- people accepted it."
"There are certain times when you have to fight back. When they attacked our safety standards on the set, then I came out swinging. When the L.A. Times had some really stupid article, I wrote them a rebuttal letter that was a full page. They actually printed it because I had the facts. They didn't have the facts. I had the facts. They were wrong and they ate crow."
On self doubt: "You always have self-doubts. Let me give you an example. I wrote this spitting scene where Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) shows her (Kate Winslet) how to spit. The president of my company (Paramount) begged me to take it out. She hated it. My co-producer didn't like it. The people at Fox didn't like the scene. Leonardo DiCaprio didn't like it. Kate Winslet didn't like the spitting scene when we all sat around reading it the first time. I finally got them to fall in love with it. It's probably the second or third highest-rated scene in the film.
"The way I do it is if I have a nagging shadow of a doubt about something and if I hear the same thing from other people, I'll act on it. But if I believe strongly in something, I don't care how many people tell me it's wrong. It's got to be a personal issue. If you start to try to make a film by committee, it doesn't work. I'm not saying I'm always right. I was right in that particular case. There've been other times when I've stuck to my guns and I've been wrong -- although right or wrong is only determined by whether the audience accepts it or not."
On his reputation as being "obsessive": "What does that mean, really? Obsession implies unhealthy degree of fixation on a subject or an activity or a person. What's unhealthy when you're spending hundreds of millions of dollars of somebody else's money to create a piece of entertainment that's going to be offered to the five billion population of the earth? What's too much? I think nothing is too much, as long as it's within your capability to do. And as long as you don't physically injure anybody or psychologically injure anybody.
"I even try to take care of business as a family man as well. Every day my assistant brings me a phone at exactly 7:15 so I can call my daughter (who's five) and talk to her before she goes to bed, even though I'm on location. As long as you don't step over that line, I'm there 100 percent. I will work as much as I can do and focus all my mental energy on the thing. To do less, I think, is wrong."
On life at the top and his reputation as the master of large-scale technodazzle: "I love making films. I would make films even if I wasn't being successful at it. Fortunately, knock on wood, I've been successful at it. I just love the process. I love the tactile process. I love thinking up characters, getting some actors, getting a room and doing a scene with them. That's fun. It's probably the only fun in some of these technical moments of film-making, where you've got thousands of extras and so forth. That part is not the fun part. The fun part is working with the actors -- and the writing. Although I shouldn't say writing is fun. Having written is fun.
"One reviewer actually called me 'the king of the squares' as a result of this film, and I actually think it's true. It's old-style filmmaking. There's a certain reverence for the material so I couldn't really get cynical and hard-core. I think it's interesting that the films that I've written in the last few years have been 'Titanic,' 'Strange Days' and 'True Lies' -- three more different pictures I don't think you could find.
"(Working on a large scale) is probably a personal fixation. I like something that uses the full scope and breadth of what cinema is all about or can be about. Not every film has to be about that, though. I can conceive of myself doing a pure writing or acting experiment. But it would have to have no set, no visual effects, no attempt to compete with my other films in that regard -- sort of an 'Ice Storm' sort of thing. Or a Cassavetes film. That's enormously appealing right now, especially after making such a big picture."
On what the director of the water movie of all time is doing next: "I'm going to chill out for a while. Go skin-diving."
He's not kidding, either.